I was seven, I think, when a new acquaintance of my father came to visit us on the lane. It was summer, and I was out in the back yard on a blanket with my second cousin, Bruce, two years younger than me, who was teaching me to tie my shoes. The man came around back; I think there was another man with him. I knew he had been drinking, I knew my mother was afraid, and I knew somehow that her fright had to do with his being a man, something to do with sex, although I don’t think I knew the word. My father was away because at the time he was working two jobs, his day job teaching “bad boys” and his part-time night job being a commercial artist at the Boston Globe. My mother was exceptionally beautiful. I wish I could recall what she said to me, how I knew she was frightened. She was never very good at hiding her feelings.
That fall my cousin Gloria, seven years older, took it upon herself to make me beautiful. She did my hair up in metal curlers which I was to sleep on. My head hurt, and I couldn’t sleep. My mother usually did my thin mousy hair in pigtails. In the morning when I went to pick up Gloria on the way to school, she fixed my hair and applied deep red lipstick. I used the incident in my first published novel. I wonder what the second grade teacher, Miss McEnaney, thought.
I would walk the mile to school with Gloria and her friends. In the winter I was warned not to take the shortcut on the ice across Stony Brook. I was also supposed to stay with Gloria. She and her friends were going to go across the ice. I remember the crossing very well, the ethical dilemma, combined with the fright and the thrill of the forbidden.
One day on the way home, I got into a fight with the new girl, Ava. We were on the sidewalk, wrestling. She was pulling my hair, and I was about to give up. One of the older boys unloosed her grip on my hair. I won the fight, but I realized what an unfair victory it had been. Poor Ava, friendless, should have won. I gave up fighting after that except for once. In the school yard, someone came hollering to me, “Nancy, Robin is getting beat up.” I ran to the fight, waded in, so furious that I felt no pain from the blows. I was screaming, a wild woman. The poor boy retreated. I remember thinking afterwards of the strangeness of my not feeling my opponent’s blows.
Once when my children were little, a car and a motorcycle were racing up our short street. I looked up to see my daughter on the sidewalk, and I became terrified that she would step off it without looking. I took off running after the car and the motorcycle, and when they stopped, about seven houses away, the man was just getting off the cycle, the woman just opening the car door. I had run an impossible race, far beyond my physical ability. On the way back down the street, I remembered the time I had beat up the school yard bully.