THE BIG BOYS
BY JULIA BAINBRIDGE
In the summer of 1990 I was seven, George, thirteen; Garrett, twelve; and Clayton, ten. They were all double-digits and I was just the little sister.
“Now Julia,” said George, “Clayton and I are going to hide in the playhouse, so when Garrett and his friends come along, don’t say a word. OK?” In our enormous back yard, with its steep sledding hill, majestic weeping willow trees that sprouted pink cherry blossoms in the spring, and my mother’s fragrant herb garden, the boys played games like tag and war, which “little girls can’t play.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said with a cool ease. I yearned to join their trio and endlessly tried to prove that I could play a part. The information that George gave me was to be yet another test.
I stood in the middle of the yard in my pink and white striped sundress, looking around and waiting for something or someone to involve me. Soon enough, my brother Garrett came along with his friend Jed from a few houses down Ridgewood Road. Garrett’s pale skin and head full of fluffy, golden curls, and Jed’s thick, wavy, dark hair and olive skin made them quite the pair. Their only similarities this afternoon were the black paint smeared underneath their eyes and the red bandanas tied around their puny pre-pubescent biceps.
Lightly treading upon the ground so as not to make their whereabouts obvious to their enemies, they sneaked up to me and pulled me underneath the steps of the back porch. “Hey, Jules,” whispered my middle brother, “you would happen to know where the blue team went, would you?”
“Oh, no. No for sure. What is the blue team?” Holding my blanket in one hand while sucking on that hand’s thumb, I caressed the fringes of the blanket with the other hand. I “worked my night-night,” my dad used to call it. Unlike my usual confident strokes, my right hand trembled as it moved from bottom to top and squeezed the pieces of soft worm fabric between my fingers.
“Julia-a-a-a, I think you know something. The blue team always wins; it’s not fair,” Garrett gave me a puppy look and crossed his arms over his chest. He knew just how to get me. If I told them a little something, then both teams would be happy with me. Garrett and Jed would have a bit more information, and George and Clayton would not lose their cover completely. Good plan.
“Well, they’re not in the playhouse,” I said, nodding with satisfaction. How clever of me. Now that the red team thought they knew something, they would never look in the playhouse, so the blue team was safe. My big baby-blue eyes bore right into them with my confidence. They looked at each other, smirked, and ran off in the direction of the playhouse. Why would they do that? I told them the blue team was not in there. I ran after then yelling, “No, guys! I said they are NOT in the playhouse!”
Garrett swung open the little wooden door with Jed behind him and me behind Jed. “Pow! Pow!” they made fake gun noises with their mouths. They ran away high-fiving each other for their success and giggling about their tricky war tactics. I was left to face the blue team. George and Clayton simply sat in the playhouse, glaring at me still in the doorway. They didn’t need to say anything; once again I proved myself unworthy of their games.
I ran away, up the back steps, and into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner. Inside, I was safe from my brothers’ ridicule. They began another game, and I sliced and diced while watching them zoom around the yard through the back kitchen window. The tears in my eyes were not triggered by the onion fumes only; my baby blues eventually turned red.
Two weeks later, Mom and Dad employed George to watch the rest of us while they enjoyed an evening out. Really, this meant that the big boys would have their fun together and I would play with Barbies and Mom’s endless assortment of Clinique products by myself.
As I smeared on the reddest lipstick I could find, George knocked on the door of Mom’s dressing room, startling me. “If you wanna watch a movie, we are going to put in Animal House. You just can’t tell Mom and Dad; this is R-rated,” he said. After those few nonchalant words he went back to the “green room” where the other boys waited anxiously for him to start the naughty movie. For three minutes I sat frozen on Mom’s dresser stool, with lipstick in hand and mouth one quarter painted, still staring at the spot where George has just stood. Coming to my senses, I vigorously rubbed the red off my lips and ran over to the “green room.”
Right before the door, I stopped, and walked in as if I had taken my time down the hallway. I spotted a chair, slowly walked over to it, and plopped down. Garrett and Clayton turned their heads around from the screen and looked at me as if there was something wrong with the situation, and that thing was my presence. I focused straight on the screen, although it displayed nothing but black and white fuzz.
“Remember, Jules, don’t tell Mom and Dad or it’s my ass.” George’s warning reinforced Garrett and Clayton’s glares, which bore into me even deeper than before. I shook my head in understanding, still staring at the fuzz.
George’s finger pressed play, and suddenly the screen was filled with images and sounds that I had never heard before. Bluto, Pinto, and the other frat guys from Animal House drank beer, swore, and played tricks on their dean. They stole girls’ underwear and crashed their university’s parade. When it was all over, the boys ran around the house playing hide-and-go-seek, and I went into my room and shut the door. I sat on my bed with a huge smile on my face, elated that my brothers let me in on this little secret.
I heard Mom and Dad walk in the front door and I ran down to them, almost tripping over the front steps because of my high speed. I jumped up into Dad’s arms and Mom asked, “So, how was your night? Where are the boys?”
“Well, I played with my Barbies and the boys let me watch Animal House.” As soon as I saw the look on my parents’ faces, I registered the words that had just come out of my mouth. My excitement let George’s secret slip out, and he would be grounded for my mistake. He didn’t talk to me for three weeks.
The painful silence was broken when one Saturday in September, my best friend, Meredith, came over to spend the night. Meredith and I were inseparable; we were either at the Forbes or the Bainbridge household every weekend.
Sunday morning, Mom cooked us bacon, eggs, and toast with marmalade. The smell awoke Clayton and lured him to the kitchen. We stuffed ourselves and then the three of us went up to the “green room” to lounge around (we couldn’t do much else with our full tummies). Meredith had a crush on my brother, and they flirted ever since I first brought her to our house. That Sunday morning she decided to put his hair in little pigtails all over his head. “Come on, Clayton, it will be fun. Let me play with your beautiful blond hair,” she begged with a wink.
“Oh, OK.” He acted as if it were a burden to have Meredith play with him. HE would have never let me do something like that alone, but since it was her idea, he conceded. I retrieved the assorted multi-colored pack of Goody sparkle hair ties from my bathroom, and Meredith and I went to work.
Clayton’s hair was so soft and thin, it took a long time to “style” his whole head. After about an hour, we completed our task. Meredith tied a big, pink bow around one of the pigtails in the middle of his head as the finishing touch. “And…there! Like the angel on a Christmas tree!” she exclaimed.
At that moment, George and Garrett walked by. They could not help making fun of Clayton’s porcupine-esque hairstyle. Garrett pointed his finger and yelled, “You look like a girl!” as George pulled on each tiny pigtail. Clayton didn’t really mind; he laughed along with everyone else.
“Jules, did you do this?” asked George. Meredith looked at me; her kind eyes told me that it was okay to take the credit.
“Yeah,” I said. “Meredith helped, too.”
“He looks like, I don’t know what! Just so ridiculous!” George could not stop laughing. For the first time in a month, not only did he talk to me, but he laughed at my joke.
The next weekend I was out in the back yard, in my pink and white striped sundress, playing tag with the boys.
Freshman year of college, I received a B on every paper for my core humanities class. Professor Eckel returned my papers to me with hardly any red marks on them, except for that big, fat B. I tried changing the way I set up my thesis, the kinds of quotes I used, my conclusions, and my overall style, but each effort ended in a B.
After many failed attempts at a better grade, I wrote my final essay a week in advance and worked on polishing it with one of the editors at the core writing center. A week later, Eckel returned the paper to me. I skipped over the comments throughout the paper, and flipped immediately to the fifth page. The white space between my conclusion and the list of works cited was marked with one red letter – an A.
When I got back to my dorm, I called George in Baltimore to brag about my accomplishment. “An A, Jules? Good work,” he said.