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For Today I Am a Boy

We called the wooden bleachers the Big Steps. They overlooked a pit of dust and gravel, generously called the field. I sat on the Big Steps and watched as two boys in my grade rooted around the edge of the field as though searching for a lost ball.
They emerged, each holding a long strip of wild grass. Ollie, the smaller of the two, didn’t have all his permanent teeth yet, so he wouldn’t give more than an unnerving, close-mouthed smile. Roger Foher, tall, ugly, and hulking, had ruddy-brown hair and a crooked nose. 
I skipped down the Big Steps with some of the other boys. Half hidden around the corner, the playground teacher smoked and dropped ashes onto her gray dress, trying to set herself on fire. We formed a circle around Roger and Ollie. Another boy shoved me out of the way to get in close. He cheered with his fists balled.
Roger struck first, backhanding the grass in the circular sweep of a swordsman. I could still hear, over the shouting, the grass slicing through the air. It left a red welt on the milky skin of Ollie’s calf.
Ollie raised the grass over his head like a lion tamer with a whip. He cracked it on the shoulder of Roger’s T-shirt. The sound—the impact—was muffled by the fabric, and Roger laughed. Ollie stayed grim and silent; the first boy to cry out or bleed lost the game.
Roger struck the same spot again, crossing the welt into an X. Ollie’s grass wrapped limply around Roger’s side. Roger turned the X into an asterisk. Ollie got one solid hit, on the fleshy part of Roger’s upper arm. Roger continued to crisscross the same spot on Ollie’s leg.
I could smell the teacher’s cigarette, see its muted red dot against the gray sky. The boy beside me stamped his feet, stirring up the dust around us, throwing gravel against the back of my legs.
It was Roger’s turn. He paused, expectant, like an animal when it hears movement in the brush. Squinting his eyes, he pointed at Ollie’s leg. The jagged ladder of skin peaked in a spot too bright to be just a mark.
Roger raised his arms and spun around. Champion of the world. The other boys were quiet. The strong had beaten the weak; there was nothing exciting about that. The boy who had shoved me went to walk Ollie off the field. Ollie shoved him away.
The boys dispersed. I stuck around. Roger noticed me. “You played before?” he said, gesturing with his strand of grass, green and impotent now. I shook my head. “You should try it. It’ll make a man out of you.” 
Two years earlier, in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.
One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board: doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.
Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy. I thought of the mommies in magazine ads and picture books, always bending at the waist over their tied aprons with their breasts on display—serving pancakes, wrapping presents, patting the heads of puppies, vacuuming sparkling-clean floors. I drew myself with a stiff halo of hair, swaddled babies around my feet. A satisfied smile from ear to ear. “I want to be a Mommy.”
Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister, if she’d done it. The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront. 
The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman, my arms around the thick neck of my savior, a high-heeled shoe dangling from my raised foot. I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.
My father came into the room I shared with Bonnie after we were supposed to be asleep. I watched his shape swoop down like a bird to kiss Bonnie on the forehead. He stopped near my bed and saw the whites of my eyes. He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for a long time afterward, wiggling my warmed toes. 
Ollie and I waited at the base of the Big Steps for Roger. I asked Ollie about his leg and he gave me a withering look, like I had asked something overly intimate. I tried to think of a topic that would interest him. I was used to talking with my sisters. “How did Roger break his nose?”
Ollie pointed to the end of the field, where Roger was jogging toward us. “One time, he said it was in a fight with his cousin, who lives across town. Another time, he said he tried to skateboard off his roof. Some girl asked him yesterday and he said he got struck by lightning.”
The boy who’d shoved me the day before came to join us. “Hey, Lester,” said Ollie. They nodded to each other.
“Hi, Peter,” Lester said. I gave him the same knowing nod and crossed my arms over my chest the way they did.
We didn’t speak until Roger arrived. “New game,” he said.
No fear crossed Ollie’s and Lester’s faces.
“I put three big rocks at the other end of the field,” Roger went on. “Last guy there gets them all thrown at him.”
Ollie and Lester nodded. I looked back. Behind us, I could see the yard teacher chastising a girl for chewing gum. There was no reason to bother with us. This was what boys did.
“Okay. Go!”
Ollie shot off immediately. Lester and Roger were close on his heels, and I followed. We broke right through some kids who were kicking a ball back and forth. Their shouts fell behind us.
My lungs seized up. I ran as fast as I could. The distance between me and their backs grew, became unbridgeable. As I watched Ollie crash into the fence with his arms out, and Lester and Roger slow to a stop, I considered turning and running the other way.
By the time I reached the end of the field, each of the boys held a stone in his hands. Roger tossed his back and forth between his palms. I doubled over, my hands on my thighs, and stared through my knees. I could hear a jump-rope rhyme coming from somewhere—musical voices, an even meter.
“Straighten up,” Roger said.
I tried to stand tall, but the moment they drew their arms back, I instinctively crouched and threw my hands over my face. With my eyes closed, I heard the stones hit: Thump. Thump. Thump.
They’d all missed.
Roger barked, “Peter! Stand still!”
They gathered up their stones again. Ollie caught my eye and quickly looked away. He was enjoying this—the victor at last, his fast, mousy frame good for something.
I couldn’t help myself. The stones left their hands and I dropped instantly down. The stones flew over my head. 
“This isn’t working,” Lester said.
Roger’s even gaze told me I should have stood still. What happened next was my own fault. “Lie down on your stomach.”
Gravel dug into my face, my palms, my knees. The boys stood over me. I stared at Ollie’s white shoelaces, the hole at the toe of his sneaker. The dust stung my eyes. I closed them. The girls were still jumping rope somewhere, under the watchful gaze of the gray dress and the whistle. Singsong patterns.
I sank down. All my weight toward the center of the earth.
The first stone fell from above, like rain. It struck me high up on my back, just left of my spine. The second landed on the flat of my tailbone. The last one landed on the ground by my ear, loud as thunder. Someone had aimed for my head.
“You’re a good man, Peter,” Roger said. 
One afternoon back when I was in first grade, my sisters and I came home from school and the house reeked of boiling sugar. My mother was making white-fungus soup. She said her mother used to make it.
Father lifted the pot from the stove, went outside without his shoes, and dumped it on the lawn. It wasn’t because of the smell. The sweet broth sank into the earth, leaving behind a heap of frilly white. 
On the first day, it looked like a girl had stripped off her nightgown and abandoned it there. On the second day, like a pile of bleached bones.
The next night, she made split-pea soup with ham. The six members of my family crowded around our table meant for four, and my sisters worked dutifully through the sludge. I put a spoonful in my mouth and retched. The soup ran out the sides of my mouth and back into the bowl.
My father stood up and came over to me. His head blocked the overhead light, like an eclipse. He took my hands in his. He shaped them into an upturned bowl, as though I were begging.
He looked at my sisters and my mother. I followed his gaze. Adele, Helen, and Bonnie: the same black eyes, so dark that the iris blended into the pupil. My father put my soup bowl in my hands. “Drink.”
My own saliva pooled clear on top of the dense slime.
“Drink, or eat nothing tomorrow,” he said. No anger in his voice.
Trying to make the soup skip my tongue, I inhaled it like air, straight into the back of my mouth. It left a slug’s trail down my throat. Fleshy, pink chunks remained at the bottom of my bowl. My father sat down again.
He turned to my mother, lifting his spoonful of ham. “It’s good.” 
We followed Roger farther and farther from the playground. We had to sprint back to class when the bell rang, while Roger just sauntered in tardy. I wasn’t in his class. He claimed to have flipped off his teacher when she called him out for being late.
Ollie had to explain the gesture to me. Lester, Ollie, Roger, and I sat in the grass ditch for the field’s rain runoff, below the sightline of the playground. A long drought had dried out the ground. The grass the boys used to whip each other was starting to yellow and sprout. “It’s like swearing.”
“But why?”
“Because it looks like a dick, I think.”
Lester and I stuck up our middle fingers to examine them.
“Not really,” I said.
Lester said, “It’s more like, ‘Stick this finger up your bum!’”
“That does sound rude,” I agreed.
“But why is that an insult?” Ollie said. “Isn’t that worse for the person who says it, since he has his finger up someone’s ass?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like a dick,” Lester said, defending his theory.
“Sure it does. Your other two fingers are the balls, see?” Ollie held out his fist with the finger sticking up.
“Don’t point that at me.”
Roger hadn’t spoken in a while. He lay on his back staring up at the sky, the wheels turning in his head. He batted the empty juice bottle from his lunch against his stomach. His mind was somewhere beyond us. It was like being caged with a sleeping lion.
“New game,” he said.
Ollie didn’t react. “Come on, man. Lunch is almost over.”
Roger stood up. “New. Game,” he repeated. He used the juice bottle to grind a hole in the dirt the size of the bottle’s base so the bottle stood upright on its own. “Stand three steps back and try to piss in the bottle. Whoever can’t do it has to drink from the bottle.”
I felt a wave of panic. I never peed standing up. When I had to, I thought of my body as a machine, a robot that did my bidding. A combination of arms and legs and heart and lungs. It had nothing to do with me. My real body was somewhere else, waiting for me. It looked like my sisters’ 
Lester and Ollie were still sitting down. “Come on,” Roger ordered. “You guys chicken?”
Ollie pushed himself up. Roger had said the magic word. “Not chicken,” Ollie said. He went over to the bottle and counted his steps backward. “One, two, three.” He unbuttoned his corduroys. Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn’t believe it. I didn’t have one of those things, that little-boy tab of flesh.
The bottle tipped in the dirt as it got struck. Ollie managed to get some inside, filling up about a finger’s worth of yellow. Roger went next. Lester nudged me. “Let me go last,” he said.
I shook my head. “No. I want to go last.” Maybe the bell would ring first. Would that be enough? Would Roger let us go? Probably not. His games trumped class. There’d be no leaving until it was over.
Roger couldn’t do it. His stream arched downward before it reached the bottle. He kept trying until it petered out entirely. Ollie hooted. “Ha! You have to drink it!”
Roger zipped up his pants. His dead stare was frightening. Ollie kept pressing. “That’s what you said! Whoever can’t do it has to drink it!” He shoved Lester. “Come on. It’s your turn. Then Peter. Then Roger has to drink it!”
The bell rang. The distance made it sound low and benign. “Bell,” Roger said.
“Screw the bell,” Ollie said. “We’ll finish it.”
“Bell,” Roger repeated.
“You have to drink it! That’s what you said. Those are the rules! Don’t be such a chicken!”
Roger punched Ollie in the ear. Ollie toppled into the ditch next to me and Lester. “Fuck you!” he shouted.
Roger stood over us, casting a shadow into the grassy pit. I had a sudden vision of him pouring dirt over the ditch and burying us there. He probably had the same idea. “The bell means it’s over,” he said. 
“I make the rules, not you.” 
Bonnie and I, five and six years old, sat on the floor outside of Adele and Helen’s bedroom. I pressed my ear to the door. Whitney Houston came out muffled, more beat than melody. Bonnie tried to shove me out of the way. We both tumbled through their door. “Hi!” Bonnie said, flat on her back. “Can we do the hair thing?”
“I have to study,” Helen said. The corkboard above her desk threatened to crush her, overloaded with medals and awards.
Adele was reading a magazine, lying on top of her made bed. “Sure. Close the door.”
Even inside their room, the radio was barely audible. Bonnie sat cross-legged on the floor. Adele sat behind her and ran a comb through her hair. I sat behind Adele and combed her hair, handling it like bone china.
Helen shut her history textbook and sat down behind me, grabbing a brush from the basket on the table between their beds. She always tugged a little too hard, leaving my scalp raw.
We all looked alike then. The same eyes in our unmolded faces, the same blue-black hair, even though Adele’s fell straight and limp and Helen’s frizzed in a thick heap like an animal pelt. Bonnie and I had matching haircuts from our mother, two button mushrooms. Sitting in a line, connected by hairbrushes and raking fingers, the perfumed air of the room settling over all of us, nothing that split me apart.
A knock at the door.
We rolled to the side, out of position. I grabbed all the brushes and combs and stuffed them back into the basket. Adele threw some paper and pencils at me and Bonnie. Bonnie started writing out numbers. Helen sat down at her desk and tossed a textbook to Adele as she turned off the radio.
“Come in,” Adele said.
The door swung open. Half of my father was visible. An arm, a shoulder, a waning moon of face.
“Ba-ba.” Adele had memories I couldn’t imagine. “Father,” she corrected. “We were just studying.”
Father nodded. “This door stays open.” None of us were looking directly at our father, our necks curved forward like sickles. “Send Peter when you’re finished.”
He disappeared into the shadows of the hallway. I stopped holding my breath. “I don’t think Father likes you spending so much time with us,” Adele said.
“Why?” I asked. I wanted to hear it said out loud, in real words. I wanted to understand it, not just sense it in my gut.
“He wants to spend time with you,” Adele said. Her smile was so kind, it bordered on pity.
“Why?” I asked again. I focused on Adele’s gentle, reluctant face and avoided Helen’s shrewd eyes, her eyebrows that sloped to a point.
“Because he wants you to be like him,” Helen said.
Adele added, “Big and strong like him.”
“But I want to be like you,” I said, grabbing Adele’s knee. “I want to have hair like you. I want to be pretty like you.” Her sad, saintly expression frightened me.
“You can’t.” Helen had turned in her chair. Adele glared at her. “What?” Helen said. “He can’t. You can’t, Peter. You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” She pointed at a poster of theirs, one that Father disapproved of: dot-pixelated like a comic book, a shirtless Bruce Lee posed in fighting stance, his body warped wide with muscle. I stared at the poster in horror. I started to cry.
“You’re a boy.” Helen said it like she thought it would be comforting.
“I am not! I am not!”
Bonnie was always delighted when someone older than her cried. She started poking me in the side. “A boy! A boy! A boy!”
Adele knelt down. “Peter, there’s nothing wrong with being a boy. There’re a lot of great things about being a boy. Sometimes I wish I were one.”
I started to wail, a bland, continuous cry, not pausing to take a breath. I felt out of control. A boy! A boy! A boy!
Helen turned a page in her textbook. “Father’s going to hear him and we’re all going to catch shit.”
Adele nodded. She pulled me into the closet and shut the door behind us. The seam of the hinge let in the only light, and my heaving breaths seemed louder in the tight space. I felt Adele’s thin arms close around me.
Bonnie pounded on the door, angry at being excluded. The sound was distant and unimportant. Adele whispered close to my ear, “You can be pretty. You can be pretty.”

For Today I Am a Boy
by by Kim Fu

  • Genres: Fiction, Gay & Lesbian
  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0544034724
  • ISBN-13: 9780544034723