Boy Whips Girl
Everything she needed was in her own back yard
By Alice Sebold
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page W08
I grew up in a neighborhood where almost all the kids my age were boys, not girls, and where the two girls who were my age had formed an intense friendship that excluded me. I look back and think that perhaps this was a result of their early preoccupation with hair and makeup and trips to the mall and my mother's adamant refusal that any girl below the age of 20 should wear lipstick. Then I remember they were both beautiful and blond and I was a bit of a round, pale kid with nerdy braids sprouting out of either side of my round, pale face. Thus my early affinity for Charlie Brown.
When Halloween came around each year, these girls dressed up as nightclub singers or disco dancers or babies in pinafores with giant lollipops. I dressed as an angry witch or as a priest or Johnny Cash -- anything that allowed me to wear black and lots of it. I never wanted to dress as a baby.
I had a boy across the street from me with whom I did mock battle using sticks and broom handles, another boy next door every girl in school thought I was lucky to even have live near me, and a third boy who shared the back property line -- catty-cornered -- who, even though mocked for his weight at school, was one of the nicest people I knew.
After adolescence hit, the boys began to find their own friends, or at least the boys across the street and beside me did. They played sports or had active church groups or brothers they would rather play with. Plus, I had earned my stripes as weird by then. You could be a baby or a disco queen, but a female Johnny Cash was just plain strange.
This left me with my basset hounds and my sister, who always seemed to be in her bedroom reading a book or working avidly at her two solo hobbies -- houseplants and candle-making -- and didn't want me -- her messy, loud, and admittedly destructive, kid sister -- around.
My father, a Spanish scholar, was in Madrid most summers, and my mother frequently seemed to be in her room with a headache or, like my sister, sitting somewhere immersed in a book. Once or twice I slopped on baby oil and went into the one corner of our back yard -- four feet between garage and house -- that might be spied only by satellite dish. But bugs flew into the oil, and I would quickly leave the yard and find a cool seat inside the house where I could spin stories in my head about how the high school would burn to the ground and I would be seen saving the students (only those I deemed deserving) one by one. I would receive a cash award from a mysterious elderly patron but, most gloriously, an exemption from ever having to return to class.
I talked to my basset hounds, made them wear hats or draped them with towels as they turned into the courtly kings my Barbies married. But as I grew more bored, these games spiraled strangely into violent narratives where Barbie was hanging herself from my closet doorknob while I played "Miss Otis Regrets" on a Close 'n Play 45 rpm record player and Ken was being chewed on by my basset hounds (i.e. mauled to death by the lions of the tundra) while the other Barbies laughed haughtily and drank cocktails out of their multicolored pointy plastic pumps. I was, when all was said and done, a lonely kid.
BUT IN MY BACK YARD the summer I turned 15, I ran into one of the boys my age. "The fat kid" was how he was known by then. He must have been cutting through our yard to get to his, because my mother had very strict rules about me leaving the border of our yard. She and my sister were on one of their cultural outings that I begged out of with bogus stomachaches as frequently as I could.
One thing you need to know: My grandfather had whips. I'm not sure why -- if they were something he collected on his business and hunting trips out west -- but he had a series of beautiful hand-braided whips, some with carved handles and some with long loose leather lashes that were knotted at the end. It was one of those things you grow up with and never think is weird: Didn't every house in our suburban neighborhood have a few well-made whips hanging on the kitchen wall? Three of these beauties had migrated with us to Pennsylvania when we moved from our house in Rockville, where my whip-collecting grandfather lived nearby in Bethesda.
How did it start? Did I say to B., "Come see my whips?" or was I already out in the yard holding one? I had seen "Annie Get Your Gun" at the Valley Forge Music Fair. It starred Barbara Eden, and it was performed, as everything seemed to be back then, "in the round." I think there may have been a whip as a resounding musical demarcator between scenes, or rodeo scenes involving whips -- all I know is that my introduction to the concept of a mechanical bull was not watching John Travolta in "Urban Cowboy" but Barbara Eden in the round.
So I was in the small, fenced-in part of the yard directly behind our house when I saw B., or rather, I should say noticed him, as almost every one would in a month or so when we began our sophomore year. He had grown a beard. It was no joke beard either -- not peach fuzz combed together to create greater-than or lesser-than patches of hair. This was a full-out Freudian-therapist sort of beard. He had also begun to drop weight. These were the years when during the length of a summer a gawky girl could sprout voluptuous breasts or a girl with thick glasses and facial hair could get contacts and electrolysis as a gift from her great-aunt. Total transformation was every outcast's dream, and the dramatic weight loss before and after was always the most amazing one. On top of this, B. would have that sign of maleness that none of the other boys had -- the first full beard.
As sometimes happens between two misfit adolescents gone unobserved, we started talking and laughing together in my back yard. And, as our reason dictated, playing with my grandfather's whips. At first it was just making them crack in midair -- listening for the sound of leather snapping. Just the sound itself was a thrill to hear. And then the longer whoosh of a whip slicing the air horizontally also became exciting. But it was only a short time until we both thought of the prospects presented by reflecting on the exploits of that great forefather William Tell and the apocryphal story of shooting an arrow into an apple perched on someone's head. B. and I decreed that it would be an awesome thing to practice our whipping accuracy by putting pieces of fruit on our heads and removing them with the sharp tip of a whistling whip.
We were wildly excited by this idea. The bassets, however, had a different response to whip play. Wisely, they hid. In our own faulty attempt at intelligence, we decided that we would start by holding a stick or a pear in our outstretched hand so that the whipper could practice on something not quite as valuable as the head.
Neither he nor I was good at sports. Our bodies brought us shame in the form of weight or paleness or features thought to be too large or too small. This made us awkward when expressing anything approaching glee. But we were alone, protected by a curtain of midsummer humidity and the busy schedules of our peers, who were popular or at least normal. Lost inside the protective cocoon of my suburban back yard, I had one of the best times I can remember in what is generally a period of my life I long to forget.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
(Cover Photograph by Elliott Erwitt - Magnum Photos)