The destruction I've wreaked upon my fingernails and all surrounding skin began shortly after starting a new school in third grade. Second grade had been a dream. I reminisced about it so much that my older brother and sister mocked me at the dinner table groaning "in second grade" whenever I started to relate a school story. I had two loyal best friends and my most passionate yet unrequited crush to date -- with a boy whose name you can still make out when my parents bathroom mirror gets steamy. "I Love Tim" written in newly learned 1970's script with fanciful loops in the capitol I, T and L.
I'd pressed so hard with the nail of my forefinger, an unbridled yearning to see his name on my foggy mirror that it's still visible post-shower 41 years later. Back then, I'd suds up my belly with soap and write his name there, wipe it, write it again, over and over, reliving how much I loved him each time I wrote his name.
We moved to our new house halfway through second grade. Ten minutes but a world away. No spontaneous games of freeze tag, street hockey or Double Dutch on this block. No bikes left to rest on the perfectly uniform green lawns. Everything was well put away.
After we moved, my mom drove my sister and I back and forth to our old school each day to finish up the year. Coming home to my long and desolate street after spending the day with friends who felt more like sisters, mooning over the boy of my dreams, and an old-school teacher who lovingly called me "Toothless Joe," was profoundly lonely. I thought a bike ride after school might uncover some girls jumping rope somewhere. But when I saw my beloved purple Huffy with the glittery banana seat, it felt like a stack of bricks hit my chest. There was nowhere to ride and no one to ride with.
I wish I could remember what my mom said to me that day when she found my crying in the garage. I wiped the tears and set out knocking on doors of houses I thought looked most interesting -- a split level like the one on the Brady Bunch, one with a fake balcony, a pool in the back yard -- asking if any kids my age lived inside.
I came up empty but my mom came through again, setting me up with girls of varying ages at the other end of the street. We eventually formed our own posse, although this group preferred TV tag over freeze tag and dollhouses to street hockey.
One of my friends from the street was in my third grade class at the new school. On the first day, she sat with three other girls in a grouping of four desks facing each other. I was late to grab a seat. The only option was a large semi-circle filled with unfamiliar faces and a couple of empty seats. All other desk groupings were boys only. Overwhelmed at the thought of spending an entire year sitting with girls I didn't know, tears streamed down my face, and I let them run. I don't remember who, but one incredibly selfless eight-year-old gave up her seat at the square to me.
I had a place again, but everything was new: the modular school without walls, our house where I had my own room but a sister who no longer spoke to me, and friends I felt I needed to prove myself to.
I started to edit my speech and gnaw at my nails. Any multi-syllabic word was pared down before it came out my mouth, so as to not to seem like an eight year old vocabulary freak. The nail biting started later that year when I was the only one in my square of friends (and most of the class) that hadn't scored five consecutive perfect marks on our daily timed math quizzes, thus exempting us from future tests.
At a local pub last night, I sat surrounded by two of my friends from the third grade 'square,' my best friend from second grade, and most of our 'bucket brigade' gang of girls from high school. While I was discussing the merits of my copiously pocketed new purse, my friend Stacey interrupted, "You're a really special person, Rob. You gotta stop putting yourself down." (That second line is kind of a guess at what she said. I was so moved by the first part that I was mentally caught between taking it in and trying not to look like I felt superior in any way.)
Coming from Stacey, who's never minimized herself in any way to fit in, made the hair on my arms stand on end. When I visited her in college, she greeted me running through the quad wearing floppy goofy ears, oversized sunglasses and no bra. She played women's rugby. Let yourself out and cut the crap is what I'm finally allowing myself to hear.
The friends you grow up with can know you in a way that may look deeper and be more honest than you know yourself. I've contorted my heart. Stretched it and squeezed it 'til it scarcely resembles its former self, but it's still the one that beat within the seven-year-old with no front teeth who was quick to smile and quicker to cry. She's in there. And I firmly believe that she's inside all of us. She's been through a lot and may be a bit worn around the edges, but still she lives.
Thank you bucket brigade for helping me find her. You lift me up more than you know.