Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Challenge of Hygiene

I developed girlish hips suddenly. It was the middle of my eighth grade year and some freak of scheduling had resulted in me being the only male in my entire Health class. The other twenty-eight students were girls or females. And the teacher was a woman. Also a female.
At first they all ignored me as best they could, even the girls who knew me since Kindergarten wouldn’t look me in the eye when I was inside that classroom. I had to show up early on the day of our first test to tell the teacher that she had never checked me out a book. After that, she would lay still, solid sidelong glances at the desk that surrounded me whenever she said a word that she thought of as particularly male, like semen or anus. And it was fine and not horribly embarrassing until we got to a particularly intense section about the design of the penis. Then my expertise was needed. “Don’t speak,” Ms. Hill told me, as she stood four feet in front of me on some sort of wooden pedestal that at some point has some use in a classroom. “Only nod yes or shake no.” She quizzed me in her slightly worn-away German accent about the affects of circumcision. Yes, the head could slide back into the shaft if forced. I could and had done so, at least. No, I had no idea if my pleasure had been reduced by the operation. No, I had no idea what foreskin looked like because I had never seen my own or anyone else’s. This was before the Internet, when seeing something extremely human that you were curious about but might sicken you wasn’t one click away.
The females appreciated my silent contribution, but I think they were more thankful that I did everything possible to still myself and disappear when we discussed the important issues, like ovulation. “I have my own theory,” Ms. Hill said, her fist bracing her chin like the weight of her theory might bring it down. “When the woman is ovulating, she dresses more sexy and more seductive.” The girls in the class all bowed forward like they were about to receive some extremely sensitive piece of information. I did too. “Like last Tuesday, that green sweater I wore. I didn’t even choose it. It was like it’d chosen me. I had to burn it when I got home so that would never happen again.” I remembered the green sweater. Something about it had centered the entire world on her mug-like bosoms that day. It was especially distracting the way it clearly depicted her nipples, which kept popping out every few minutes, often over the head of a student the way a light bulb appears in cartoon whenever someone has a good idea. The bizarre logic of her breasts and the clarity her sweater gave to the inclinations of her body and the folds in the stomach were enough to keep me preoccupied for her entire lecture that day about “The Challenge of Hygiene.” I think I was entirely able to prevent every fact she stated from entering my mind. Except something about only using warm water.
Still her theory about ovulation stuck and treaded so much in my thoughts that it was the first thing that came to mind when after eight weeks of class I suddenly developed girlish hips.
Short shorts were not the style for boys in the late 80s, though revisionists and humorists might like you to think otherwise. Our shorts didn’t make it to our knees, but they definitely swung loosely around the majority of our thighs. The only true pair of short shorts I owned was from a soccer team that I quit briefly after my bar mitzvah, when within one month I quit every organized activity I was involved with except school. They were white with an elastic waist and had nothing to do with my thighs. Their design was neither unique nor appropriate for boy to wear to school. But somehow I woke up one Thursday showered, dressed and left my house wearing my short shorts.
That morning I walked with a sharp pace that was definitely shiftier than my normal gait; I felt graceful and charming in an entirely new way. But I wonder if I would have entirely noticed my girlish hips on my own if I hadn’t been whistled at as I hurried across Devonshire Blvd to get to homeroom before the bell rang. It was that trademarked leering whistle—you know that exaggerated, drooling whistle that men do that says, ‘Hey, baby!’— that shocked me. It was so loud and that it dove straight in my ear. I had to turn around to see its source, because I was the only person in sight. A man driving an ice cream truck made instant eye contact with me and began motioning his hands, suggesting some mix between an apology and an “it wasn’t me” kind of thing. But he’d definitely whistled and the shrapnel of the whistle was still floating in the air attaching itself to me. I pulled my shorts down a bit and hurried along. It was too late to change and, really, the air felt so smooth and pleasant on my legs.
I filed in and out of rooms in groups of other students, staying seated and quiet for most of the day. It made me mostly anonymous in my classes. I tried to not think about anything specific at all, hoping that would make it so no one would think about me too much. It seemed to work until I was leaving Health class and Ms. Hill stopped me. “Boy,” she said. I don’t think she ever learned my name. Or maybe she had and would never use it. “Would you vait a second please?” I had tried to blind myself to her prolonged, disenchanted stares at my desk for the entire class, but that had only angered her, apparently. So I waited, hips pressed against the to the top of a student desk, as the girls passed me. Almost all of them nodded pleasantly into my eyes for the first time inside that room. They were all in short skirts and tight tops. A couple of them were wearing the exact same shorts as me. They must have raided their brothers’ drawers. Something about their shy smiles told me that I was about to receive some new level of acceptance, some secret I’d never imagined. Maybe I would even be allowed to speak in class.
I realized that was just a fantasy when I looked into Ms. Hill’s face and noticed that her enraged eyebrows almost formed exclamation marks.
She sat down on her desk, crossing her legs snugly because that was the only way her tight green skirt allowed. A brown overcoat hid the rest of her body. “Boy,” she said and looked my legs and the way they splayed out from my girlish hips. “I’ve spoken to Coach Vanderswell and he has a Health class this exact period. Well, it’s not Health, it’s a PE class, but I’d like you just to attend his class for the remainder of the year. I’ll give you an A in this class if you would do this for me. No questions.”
I nodded affirmatively because I knew that is what she wanted. Then I hopped up on the desk and crossed my legs almost the exact same way she had hers. It might have hurt normally but my genitals were so cooled and diminished by the constant air the shorts allowed in that it felt as natural as the urges to shave most of my body that I’d been having. “Did I do anything wrong?” I asked, defying her order.
“No, of course not. But I do think it would be a good idea if you burned those shorts when you get home.” She nodded at me slowly until I joined in her nodding. Then one last time she let her eyes travel down my torso to my hips where she stopped and turned away. She braced her self by pressing her hands into her temples and trembled.
I didn’t burn those shorts, of course. I just kept them buried in a drawer and never really felt the urge to wear them out again. Still every few weeks—when I knew I was alone—I’d put them on and glide over to my mother’s full-length mirror. There I’d just stand and watch my girlish hips, noting just how sad I was as they slowly faded away.


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