Friday, March 15, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: My Thoughts Exactly

My Thoughts Exactly
Jennifer Hanno

Adirondack's Rainbow Falls, Au Sable, NY PHOTO: Florin Chelaru

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Twelve. That was my year of living sarcastically. I had had my suspicions all along, but recent events had just proven beyond a doubt that it was not just wealth that had been distributed unevenly in this world. What follows is a list of the top ten reasons why being twelve was a less than fulfilling experience:
  1. I was turning out to be nothing like my sister. Beautiful and fun, she resembled a dark-haired Marcia Brady.
  2. I was one of those girls who “developed early.” Let’s just say my cup runneth over. I believe I may have passed right by the A and B cup stage and became the only C cup in the 7th grade. I remember sobbing to my mother, insisting that “boys don’t like girls with big breasts.” I was not comforted by her suggestion that I just wait and see about that.
  3. Beth Conandario loomed always before me, a stark reminder of all that I was not. Apparently, Beth never got the memo that stated no one should look good in 7th grade. Her perfect hair and athletic build mocked me daily. I was still harboring bitter resentment over the fact that she got the role of the Virgin Mary in our 3rd grade Christmas Pageant. I was a sheep with a bad attitude who sat there hating her. Yes, I hated the Virgin Mary.
  4. My baby sister, once so cute and angelic, was developing into quite a handful. Unfortunately, any trouble Maura got herself into was somehow blamed on what was considered my inadequate supervision. Remember those inflatable balls with a handle, designed for kids to bounce on? Well, she thought it would be a fine idea to ride it down the stairs. In her mind, I am sure it was going to happen very differently than it did. She was a testament to the belief that it was better to be cute than clever.
  5. My father was laid off again. His daytime presence did not concern me, although we could hear the tense arguments that took place behind their closed bedroom door. I was more concerned with lunch. School lunches cost only fifty cents, but my frugal mother packed our lunches every day. I stared with envy at my friends who bought the school lunch or brought lunches filled with processed food we could not afford. Grumbling, I would take out the sandwich and cookies homemade by my mother with loving care and yearn bitterly for a Ho Ho. 
  6. Humiliation awaited me around every corner. When a well-meaning neighbor brought over some hand-me down clothes, I discovered a pair of purple, wide wale corduroy bell-bottom hipsters. I don’t want to brag, but I looked pretty good in them. I swiveled around the house, then decided to go for a spin on my bike … you know, the banana seat bike with the high handlebars and flower-laden basket? … Unfortunately, bell bottoms and bikes are not a good combination. My pant leg got sucked so far into the bike chain that I had to limp home, the bike still attached to my leg, both my beloved pants and my dignity in shreds.
  7. I had recently realized that the man I loved was married. A few years before, my best friend and I had developed a pact. She would marry Starsky and I would marry Hutch in a double wedding ceremony to which we would invite Beth Conandario. Of course, Starsky was the more overtly sexy one of the crime fighting duo, but I seemed to sense even at that age the merits of the number two slot. I like to think I was drawn to his sensitivity; I was one of only about twenty people who bought his album, featuring his poignant song, “Don’t Give Up on Us.” I thought he was sending me a secret message. But alas, the twotimer was married. This was a pattern to repeat itself with others: Sean Cassidy, Bo Duke from the Dukes of Hazard … a bunch of users, all of them. 
  8. I decided to try sports. I am still convinced it might have been a success had it not been for Aunt Roberta. She was the embarrassing family member assigned to take me to my games. An over-protective woman, her fear of being mugged was exceeded only by her fear of melanoma. The temperature was 85 degrees, and she would arrive dressed head to toe in a white, long sleeve shirt buttoned to the cuffs and secured tightly around her neck. Then she would open up her trunk which was filled with sun hats, select the most obnoxious one for herself, and then insist that I, too, should choose a sombrero. Though she did concede that I could not wear one on the soccer field, she felt it was perfectly appropriate to wear one while I was waiting on the bench.
  9. I seemed to be on the verge of pretty, but could never quite get there. My features were coming into their own, but my hair was determined to overpower them. Even in an age when big hair was in, mine was too big. Contact lenses and anti-frizz serum and better bras were in my future, but I did not know that then. And finally, the last reason….
  10. We were moving. My father had been contacted by an old friend and was offered a job. As a result, our family was heading to a small town in the Adirondacks. I would leave behind my best friend, Kelly, the home where I had spent my childhood, my grandparents, and even sombrero-loving Aunt Roberta. It filled me with anxiety, but also, a little bit of excitement. I was excited for a new start. Because, you see, where we were going … no one knew of that embarrassing bike/bellbottom incident.

So, there was hope.
PHOTO: Allen MacGregor


You know hope can lead you down some pretty strange roads. Our journey to our new home in Northern New York occurred during the famous Blizzard of ’77. We crawled through winding roads, blinded by white, our fates in the hands of a pissed-off Mother Nature. My younger sister traveled with my mother and father while my older sister and I followed behind in our other car. I imagined my mother in the car ahead glancing nervously in the rearview mirror, searching through the whiteness for our headlights while my little sister continued a never ending chorus of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Chrissy seemed oblivious to the lack of visibility. Relaxed and beautiful as ever in her torn jeans, she kept one hand on the wheel while she switched through endless radio stations. Now, I am a planner, and since this was a new start for me, I felt it important to begin on the right step, so to speak. More than anything, I wanted to be popular. Boys were a mystery to me, but I wanted one. Or maybe I just wanted to be wanted by one. Of course, boys were always falling all over Chrissy, though she returned their attention with cool indifference. She was indifferent to me as well, but we were trapped in a car together and she was a captive audience. I really needed her advice.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, shoot.”

Now that she had agreed to enter into a conversation with me, I felt a little panic. I cleared my throat.

“Well, I was wondering how to get a boy to notice me.”

She blinked in surprise. “You’re only twelve.”

I huffed at the implication that twelve-year olds were only children. I wear a bigger bra size than you, I thought, and turned to stare angrily out the window.

“Look, Bobbi, I am just not sure I can be that much help. When you get a little older, I am sure the boys will be all over you.”

“I am almost a teenager!” I protested.

“Don’t worry about it!”

“Easy for you to say … Boys always like you.”

We rode in silence for a few miles, then I ventured into dangerous territory.

“Why didn’t you want to go out with Tommy Clark?” Tommy was the most popular boy at Lime Rock High and he was crazy about her. One time, he brought her flowers to school and she hid them in the trunk of her car.

She laughed a little and just said, “Not my type.”

I couldn’t understand her. If I looked like her, I’d be keeping a list of potential guys and just work my way through the alphabet.

“I wonder if things will be different there….” I wondered out loud.

“I hope so,” she whispered as we followed our parents’ headlights and our destiny into the unknowable sea of white.


Well, things were different in some ways, but the same in others. My enrollment into Lowville’s Junior High caused an initial stir in the social scene, but I was neither besieged by attention nor offers of friendship. Chrissy, on the other hand, was admired by the girls and sought after by the boys. No change there.

My dad was in a better mood now that he was back at work and was determined that our family should be friends with the family of the man who had saved us, Tony Mancuso. By spring, he had made some headway. They had three children, as well, and they were the same ages as us. They had a five-year-old little girl for Maura and a sixteen-year-old girl for Chrissy. Unfortunately, my counterpart was a skinny, bespectacled redhead named Andy. He quickly became someone I tried to avoid.

“Hey, baby,” he said one evening as we were getting ready for a barbeque.

“I’m not your baby,” I said.

“Not yet. But you will be.”

He gave me a wink that made me shudder.

PHOTO: Gillaume Paumier
When we sat down to eat, I tried to wedge myself between Chrissy and her new friend Lisa, but Chrissy would have none of it. Andy quickly filled the empty spot on my left and I feigned intense fascination with my potato salad.

“That’s just the problem,” Mr. Mancuso was saying. “I’m telling you, it’s unnatural.”

“I totally agree,” my dad said with more enthusiasm than I was used to seeing from him. “There is a reason why it takes a male and a female to reproduce.”

That got my attention and I tried to follow the conversation. Beside me, Chrissy’s face was red with embarrassment and I assumed our parents were humiliating her again. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I did not ask any questions, but tried to follow the conversation.

Mr. Mancuso sneered in disgust. “Right here in our very school. And a teacher, no less. Don’t they screen these teachers these days? Who knows what kind of things he might have taught our kids? I tell you, if one of my kids turns gay, I am suing that school….”

Gay? I was not familiar with that term, and I glanced with confusion at Chrissy, then at Alex. My mother was yelling at my dad with her eyes, telling him to be careful what he said in front of the children. This only fed the flame of my curiosity more.

“What’s gay?” I whispered to Chrissy, but she shook her head tensely.

I turned to Alex. “Do you know what they are talking about?”

“Homos,” he said as he shoved almost an entire hamburger into his mouth.

“What’s that?”

He grinned the grin of a boy who knows more than a girl. His chest puffed out with the beginnings of testosterone. “It’s when a man and a man … you know.”

I didn’t. I sat there looking stupidly at him.

“Instead of a man and a woman … it’s a man and a man.”

My eyes grew wide in shock. We had only recently seen “the movie” and had the sex talk in 6th grade. They had not mentioned this little piece of news. I was still puzzling over the anatomy of conventional mating and now this.

“There was a teacher in the high school that was gay, but they found out about it and got rid of him,” Andy continued in explanation.

The mothers had succeeded in turning the conversation into a different direction, but I was lost in the knowledge that this type of thing existed. My fascination with this was temporary, though. It didn’t affect me; as far as I could tell, these people existed far from my world. I gathered I should avoid them, and I added them to the list. Right after Andy.

Later that night, Chrissy and I crossed paths in the bathroom. She was taking a bath and I had to brush my teeth, so she conceded I could enter. She had the curtain drawn and I could only see her tanned, slender leg hanging over the side, her perfect toe nails made even more perfect by baby pink nail polish.

“So, it looks like you have quite a fan in Andy,” she teased.

I groaned. “I can’t stand him.”

“Well, you said you wanted a boy to like you….”

“Not a boy like him.” No, I had my heart set on Jeremy Weaver, who sat next to me in math class. He reminded me of a young Bay City Roller and I would know, since I followed the progress of my favorite band through my faithful subscription to Tiger Beat magazine. Jeremy had long, sandy hair and doodled guitars on his unfinished math homework. Clearly, he was a musician, an artist who had no use for the trappings of the public school system. We’d never really spoken, but I felt a connection and I had a plan. By giving him all the answers, I could establish a relationship with him. Hey, it was a start. I just had to get up the nerve to say something to him. Until then, I spoke to him with my eyes.

“Well, Andy sure likes you.”

Chrissy had climbed out of the tub and emerged from behind the curtain with a towel wrapped around her. She was so perfectly beautiful, it made me sad. I would never be like that. I was pretty sure I could do better than Andy, though, and I told her this.

“Don’t be too hard on him, Bobbie. Sometimes you can’t help who you like.” She sat on the edge of the tub and inspected her fingernails. Something in the way she said it made me take notice.

“Do you like someone?” I asked her.

She gave me a shy smile and I knew she did.

Excited, I sat next to her.

“Who is it? Tell me!” I begged.

“Shhh,” she hissed, then she looked friendly again. “I don’t want anyone to know because it is no one mom and dad would approve of.”

Maybe he was a bad boy? A rebel without a cause? Of course he was. He probably smoked and wore a leather jacket. My jealousy of her surged, and I was desperate to learn more.

But though she seemed willing to talk about her feelings, she would not tell me a name. Regardless, I was encouraged by her confidence in me and went to bed dreaming of romantic entanglements and star-crossed lovers.

It was the first of many conversations we would have as we became less like strangers and more like friends. She was so happy; it made me yearn for what she had. But as she seemed to blossom with even more natural beauty, I was going the other way. Dominating my days was a desperate battle with acne, and I was not winning.

PHOTO: Wonderlane
Things were so much more complicated now that I was no longer a kid. I ruminated over the comforting simplicity of childhood as I watched Maura awkwardly climb the cherry tree in our backyard, encumbered by a large box. It took me a few minutes to understand what she was up to. When the neighborhood chihuahua sniffed his way to a spot underneath the tree, I saw her plan. Maura had set up a trap for him. Once he was in position, she deftly dropped the box on the poor dog and swung gleefully down from the tree.

I strolled over.

“I caught him!” she shouted with joy.

We lay down on the grass on our bellies and lifted the edge of the box slightly to examine her quarry. It took our eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dark interior of the box, but soon we were able to make out his trembling form. There he was, his huge chihuahua eyes wide with terror and all eight pounds of him shaking like Aunt Roberta when she was off her “medication.” My heart sunk; I had thought it would be funny.

“He looks scared,” Maura said softly.

“What did you expect?” I asked. “He was walking along and a box dropped on his head. You’re lucky he didn’t have a heart attack.”

Maura looked remorseful as she raised the box further and we watched the dog streak across our lawn. It should have been a lesson for me about my own attempts at entrapment, but I could see no connection at the time. I would have dropped a box on Jeremy if I could have found one big enough.

Sometimes, Chrissy would help me tame my wild hair or pick out outfits for me, but I made no progress in my quest to get him to like me. After a few weeks, Chrissy gently suggested that maybe he wasn’t the one for me.

Oh, no, he was the one for me, alright. I redoubled my efforts.

The days ran into one another until summer vacation glimmered just around the corner. While I tried to explain to Maura why you do not put kittens in the Easy Bake oven, my mother was waging a campaign to get Chrissy to go to the prom, and was bitterly disappointed in her steadfast refusal. On prom night, I was on the verge of sleep when I sensed Chrissy moving around. She was getting dressed.

“Where are you going?” I murmured.

“Shh. Go back to sleep. I have to meet somebody.” She had arranged her bedding to look like she was buried under her covers. Through sleepy eyes, I watched her sneak stealthily out the door and cursed my dull existence. I fell asleep wondering if my life would ever start.

It seemed only moments later when I awoke to the sounds of my father’s anger. I sat upright and feared the worst. Chrissy had been discovered, her hidden love exposed. I was more excited than concerned. After all, books and movies had reinforced to me that star-crossed lovers always face opposition from the parents, but you can’t stop love.

PHOTO: Mike Baird,

Dad’s anger was excessive though. Words we were never supposed to hear were being tossed around without regard to my tender ears. Eventually, Chrissy came into our bedroom, sobs wracking her slender frame.


“Go back to sleep, Bobbie,” she whispered.

“I can’t. Did he find out?” She didn’t answer, so I continued. “It’s ok. He’ll understand, eventually. Remember, he told us that Grandpa didn’t like him for a long time….”

Chrissy let out a half sob, half laugh and sat down beside me on the bed.

“You don’t understand,” she told me.

“Well, then tell me. It can’t be that bad. If you love him, you will be together. He’s probably just some boy that…”

“Bobbie,” she interrupted.

I waited.

“It’s not a boy.”

I blinked in confusion, wondering if I was still asleep. What did she mean? All this time, she had been telling me she was in love and … I froze and looked at her.

“It’s Lisa.”

I felt my body tense in fear. This was not possible. Andy hadn’t said it happened with girls, too. And my sister? She was so beautiful, she could have any boy she wanted. No, it couldn’t be that.

“I love her,” Chrissy wiped more tears from her eyes. “How could you ever understand? It’s just … you can’t control where your heart goes.”

I thought of Jeremy and Andy. My twelve-year-old heart wanted Jeremy and Andy’s wanted me. There was no controlling that, and suddenly, I felt very sad about love.

“Does she love you back?” I asked.

“Yes,” Chrissy whispered. “She makes me feel like I belong.”

I knew then that our family would never be the same, that this fight would be the first of many, that it would eventually drive Chrissy from us. She had that haunting, terrified look of a chihuahua who had just found what he wanted when a dark trap descended on him. I felt tears forming in my eyes.

“Then that’s the important thing,” I told her.

She looked at me with such gratitude that I was glad I’d said it, even though the thought of it all frightened me, even repelled me. I didn’t know if I would ever understand. But this was Chrissy. She was my sister. And nothing could change that.

“You’ll find someone someday and you will understand,” she told me.

I doubted it. I was in way over my head in this world of romance. What other things existed that I didn’t even know about? One thing seemed certain–Jeremy would never love me. I was beginning to understand the way things worked. Why? Why did it have to be this way? Why couldn’t the ones we love just love us back?

Suddenly, I had a thought.

“Chrissy,” I said, sitting up in excitement. “Do you think Jeremy is gay?”

Chrissy’s eyes widened and her lips twitched. I could see her eyes twinkle beneath the tears. “You know,” she said slowly. “That would explain a lot.”

My thoughts exactly.

She lay down beside me and I felt the warmth of her grief begin to dissipate. We laid there for a long time, pretending we were asleep. Before me, the night stretched out with the same uncertainty I had come to associate with growing up. It was more than I had bargained for. I was going to need a better plan.

So, I started a list.

Adirondacks, NY
PHOTO: George Foster

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