the GENDER issue / NONFICTION
by J.E. Sills
Photo: Courtesy of J.E. Sills
I love Bosco it’s rich and chocolatey
Chocolate-flavored Bosco is mighty good for me
Mama puts it in my milk for extra energy
Bosco gives me iron and sunshine Vitamin D ...
-- 1960s Bosco jingle
The elementary schoolyard is buzzing but you stand by the fence looking on. They pick teams almost stepping on your toes but don’t see you. You tug on the knee socks migrating into your shoes and you try to look unconcerned in that plaid dress with the starched white collar. Play goes on without you, the best ball catcher in Queens.
Another time you’re in the gym watching classmates couple up for square dancing. The teacher pushes the chubby boy who picks his nose in your direction. He stumbles through the dos- si-does and swing your partner and you understand why nobody wants him. He wipes his hand each time you stop like your cocoa rubs off but you fear contamination too. Your best friend on the block interrogates: Why you talk like a white girl? And she also wants to know why you’re square dancing in the Age of Boogaloo. She turns up her transistor radio and slides her Chuck Taylor’s across the pavement, nodding her head and snapping her fingers at you.
Then there’s the day the arch villain of your elementary school years gets the third- grade class chanting at you. Bosco. Bosco. Bosco. You feel a certain way about them trying to shame you this time invoking the name of your favorite chocolate drink. You look at the teacher who continues to write on the board. Most of your classmates join in but not the girl with Patty Duke hair who will become your friend. You have an out-of-body experience otherwise you can’t explain how you sailed across the classroom and punched that boy in the head when the principal calls you down the next day. Are you super girl? You do remember running down the hallway of P.S. 26 for the front doors but divert into a bathroom because the only way you know how to get home is on the school bus. No one comes to check on you. It’s peaceful until your hand begins to throb. Later at home, big sis Coni will advise you on how to go for the body’s soft spots next time.
Your parents are angry the way they were after your first days at that school when ladies in nice dresses with baby strollers and men in suits and ties shout at you go back home. Teenage boys in cuffed dungarees and t-shirts snarl. You and the other black ducklings paddle through this hail of hate. Angry the way your father watches on television how sheriffs turn on fire hoses and blast away at well-dressed little black children just like you in the homeland. Down sidewalks and across streets they tumble and roll and scrape and slide. They gasp for air, splay fingers and try to grab hold of something in Georgia, the Old Country. That place your daddy love hates.
But child, wait.
Your mama takes the switch to the principal over the phone. She summons her flawless English, her superior vocabulary, her education and threatens to come to his office. It’s been three years, already. Don’t let me have to call the newspapers on you. You stand there with your mouth open. Then she declares a moratorium on Bosco syrup and pulls it from the refrigerator, roots it out of the pantry. Your older sisters protest then shoot the evil eye at you but you duck. That night your mama irons a dress and puts extra starch on the collar like it’s a badass hate shield. She winks. You think you just may be super girl.
Thirty years later you’re a newspaper editor with a family and a life and a haunting. You look up that girl with Patty Duke hair to see if she has a class picture. You’re writing about what happened to you in elementary school. She says: Oh, what happened? The picture arrives and there you are squinting in the glare of the sun and whiteness. Your expression is the unreadable mask you’ve learned to wear for these occasions. The sixth-grade teacher cheerfully sits in the middle. She writes in your graduation autograph book: Your creative writing is so exciting. I look forward to reading your stories. In the hurly-burly of the house you live in the book gets lost but the words don’t.
Forty-odd years later you’re at a city gym and it’s work with a partner time. You still dread this and prepare. A cheerful young woman surprises you though and asks if you’ll be her partner. As you bounce and pass the exercise ball the kid in knee socks and plaid dress flashes past you, sails up over the indoor track and dives down by the squash courts. Bosco girl. Your chocolate girl superhero and the best ball catcher in all of Queens.
J. E. Sills lives in New York City. She’s a former newspaper editor completing a novel-in-stories, This World Between Sky and Dirt. twitter.com/joannesills; instagram.com/jojosills