My heart was bursting for Cindy, and I expressed my love for her in the manner of all smitten preteen boys mostly, that is, by treating her badly. I pulled out small locks of her hair and called her four-syllable nonsense words that almost always contained the word butt. I threw into the trash one of the oatmeal cookies she had baked at Brownies and made her cry, despite the fact that it was actually a pretty good cookie.
Of course, I also did my best to impress her: I performed astounding feats of strength at kickball and Red Rover. I demonstrated my intellect and grace under pressure by coming in fourth at the class spelling bee two weeks in a row. In short, I did everything in my power to make it obvious to her that I was the stuff of superior genetic material.
Cindy was keen on me, too, returning her love by spitting in the little pencil well in my desk and telling the rest of the class that I had lice. Things went pretty well, for a while; I was making Cindys life somewhat more miserable than she was making mine, and thus I was holding onto the lead in this little mating dance.
Then something changed over Christmas break. Cindy returned on a Monday morning as something more than the Cindy I had known. For one thing, she was more physically aggressive, smacking the back of my head while sitting behind me in social studies, for instance. This greatly upset the balance of power I thought we had firmly established and mutually accepted a balance I felt should not change until at least fifth grade, or when she grew taller than me, whichever came first.
The other kids noticed this situation, too, and it gradually worsened through that week. Cindy tried the old shoelaces trick at least five times, and she began pushing me around like an older brother. It seemed that she was infected with, well, confidence, and I didnt like it one bit.
The horrible truth of Cindys affliction became clear on Wednesday morning, when Matt Stevens took me aside in the hall after phonics. Next to the water fountain, Matt whispered to me that he had heard Cindys brothers best friends dad was her pediatrician as well as the Mantle Maulers Little League coach, and that he had let slip at practice she not only had a two-headed worm living behind her right eyeball which was pregnant with a hundred little worms, but that she was infected with the worst case of cooties ever seen at St. Josephs Medical Center. I knew Matt was telling the truth; he was the smartest and least athletic kid in the class, and he always won the goddamned spelling bee. Naturally, I was devastated.
Everyone in second grade knew there was nothing worse than getting cooties. An infection meant you were quarantined no escape from Cooty Island during recess.
This grim situation came to a head for me on Friday, just as recess began, when Cindy walked up and declared her intention to kiss me right on the cheek. I could tell by the disgusting smoochy faces she was making that she was not bluffing.
Recess at St. Josephs took place in an L-shaped concrete parking area that had been fenced in like a little Catholic detention camp. It looked a lot like one of those exercise pens you see in prison movies. The punishment for violating fence boundaries with so much as a single digit was flagellation by the enormous Sister Madeline, who in her nuns habit looked like a gigantic, inverted toadstool. Sister Madeline was extremely quick and short-tempered. I dont recall her ever actually laying a hand on anyone, but we always knew the potential for violence was there.
At this particular recess, though, Sister Madeline was the least of my worries. Cindy circled me for a few minutes, then pounced. A man of action, I ran away as fast as my short little legs could carry me. But you cant run very far in a holding pen. There were two hiding places, one on either side of the front steps. I lost her for a few seconds, but Cindy cleverly eliminated first one then the other hiding place and found me pretty quickly.
I then tried hiding behind John Seckinger, who had heard the rumor of Cindys cooty infection. Reversing the roles I had intended for us, John grabbed me and began to hold me in front of him as a human shield.
I disengaged by pulling his nose, made a break for it, tripped on some loose gravel and went down, face first, onto a nasty-edged rock. From a deep hole above my right eye, blood spurted out all over Cindy, who had leaned down to finish me off. She ran off when Sister Madeline came onto the scene. Some adult quickly scooped me up and took me into the nurses office.
I came out a changed man. And not just because of the concussion. After wiping away the tears, blood and dirt, I felt a strange euphoria. I found I was proud of my wound. It didnt really hurt all that badly, and it was profoundly gross a serious plus. It produced the best scab when the blood caked up in a deep-purple, bubbling pattern. It looked downright cool, in fact, and I knew that the stitches would look even cooler, and that eventually I would have this amazing scar in a highly visible location. And somehow I knew that a scar was a one-way ticket to love.
I also knew that, even without Cindys kiss, I was experiencing the first symptoms of cooty infection. Cooties make boys believe they should injure themselves to gain sympathy. Cooties affect girls by making them attracted to men who are accident-prone and/or do foolish things. Which in turn makes guys behave even more like imbeciles in an effort to attract more girls, creating a death spiral of idiocy.
Cooties attack the brain like mad cow disease, without actually killing the carrier. Things get much worse in adolescence, as the infection penetrates even deeper into the frontal lobe. Thats when some girls become attracted to guys who are not just stupid or insane but artistic. A guy can be completely out of touch with reality, but if he draws her a picture, or writes her a poem or sings her a song, hes home free.
But I digress. Everyone else knew I had cooties after that playground mishap, but I didnt care. When Greg Lohman called me a cooter as he caught me switching my white milk for his chocolate, I just laughed. So what, dookie-face mud butt, I said. You just wish you had a hole in your head, too, you butt-nose blabber mouth, and you dont, so you just shut up.
He did shut up, and I drank the rest of his chocolate milk in one gulp, as if I were Alan Ladd in the movie Shane. I was pretty much the tough guy until the end of fourth grade. Everyone wanted to touch my scar and, in my more benevolent moments, I let them. This, of course, infected everyone else.
Its the only explanation for why other guys began doing increasingly dangerous things in an effort to get similarly injured. Football became tackle on the pavement. The first genuine schoolyard rumbles broke out. Bike ramps were built for jumping younger siblings and pets, Evel Knieval-style. There was much teasing of Rottweilers on the way home from school.
Then, one sunny morning in late March, Ted McNally got run over by a car and my glory days were over. A young lady with a suspended license nailed Ted as he rode his bicycle out of an alley on the southern edge of St. Joes campus. She hit him broadside, crumpled his banana Schwinn into a piece of modern sculpture, and ground the front wheels of her Pinto to a halt just south of his temple. Ted had cheated death by an inch and a half, fortunate to be hit by one of the very few compact cars in America at the time. He was whisked off to St. Joes hospital, which by then probably had an entire wing devoted to our grade school. His jaw was wired shut and he became an instant hero.
Girls loved Ted after that. We boys feigned sympathy for him when he was in the hospital, eating blended pizza through a straw, but we all secretly hated him. Still, we hung around him like mosquitoes in hopes that maybe a car would drive over us, too.
I have never really come to terms with Ted McNallys injury. First of all, I wasnt there when it happened, which deprived me of any bragging rights. Second, the bastard got every girl he wanted, even Elizabeth Simeri, which hurt me more than anything since she was the girl I was pretending not to like in the fifth grade. I was never to regain my position as alpha male.
Thats okay, though. I might as well embrace the fact that Im still infected, and that Im no tough guy and never will be. In fact, Ive decided to go back to the struggling-artist model that worked so well in my teens. Now when a beautiful girl asks me what I do, I tell her Im a poet and a writer even though Ive written exactly 12 off-color limericks and have never come close to making a living at newspaper writing. I also tell them I play the piano, even though my best piece is the first page of the theme from Peanuts.
Some might consider this a tad dishonest. But heres the amazing thing, and it proves a lot of women never recover fully from cooties, either: Every once in a while my ploy actually works. And its a lot less painful than getting run over by a car.