A story about a girl, two boys, and Playboy…
I was five years old when I wandered across the street by my family’s house and along the next block. My mother had warned me never to cross the street, though the cat often went that way. I would see his grey shape sauntering atop a low stone wall before vanishing around the corner. Whenever I saw him slip away, I imagined he’d passed through a tunnel leading to another world. I wanted to go through the tunnel, too. My brother passed through it every morning on the way to school, and he always came back. Why shouldn’t I? My mother was napping and would never know.
There was no gate, no fence—no boundary other than my mother’s command. Her words rose in a fever in my mind as I approached the curb, then faded as I stepped off. We’d crossed the street together; why couldn’t I go there alone? There were no cars coming, no rumbling sounds. I paused. My mother’s warning had no sure meaning. I made my way to the foreign shore with no more glancing back.
I followed the low stone wall as it led around the corner, where the street began a descent. Soon the stone wall ended, replaced by bushes and tree roots and cars looming by the curb. Looking up, I saw houses on top of the slope. They seemed very far away.
Further along the block was a steep yard planted with ivy. A few weeks before, my mother had brought me by the yard. Pausing, she’d commented, “That’s very grand,” while her dreamy tone had made me look closely, feeling the lure of the ivy, the slope, and the stone house. It was her tone for things she wanted but—as I’d begun to grasp—would never have. She’d been speaking to herself as her glance moved up the slope to the far-off house.
Now the shady slope rose before me. I glanced around; seeing the empty street, I grabbed a handful of ivy and began climbing toward the house. The ivy tore loose from the ground, and for a moment I stumbled back, clods of fresh earth dangling from my fingers. I let go of the tangled strands and began scrambling up the slope on hands and knees.
The afternoon was warm, and I was wearing my brother’s old camper shorts. Dresses posed problems, even then—flying up on windy days, or when I ran. Running was fun, though what I wanted most was to swing through the trees, like a monkey. I dreamed of getting away from something, not knowing what there was to get away from.
With much struggle, I reached the top. Planting my feet in cool grass, I stood at the edge of the slope. The street lay far below; looking down, I suddenly knew why I’d climbed so far. Even if I couldn’t swing through the trees, I could run.
As though rehearsing my future, I plunged down the slope, my legs flailing with gathering speed—a moment of flying. Then, caught in the momentum, I landed headlong, dragging my knee through the ivy. I gasped and wobbled up; leaning over, I saw a raw and bloody scrape mingled with ivy stains, a loud red mess that must be concealed from my mother—but she was no longer napping. I could hear her shouting for me from the corner.
As though caught in a wave of warmth and danger, I moved toward the shouted sound of my name. My mother was eyeing the mess as I approached.
“Where were you?” she cried. I sensed her storm of feelings as she grasped my hand and pulled me toward the corner, then across the street and up the front steps of our house.
We entered the house, where she seated me on the couch. Through the window, we could see the stone wall and the corner. Her body was warm; her flashing dark eyes wounded me. For a long moment she held one palm over her heart as her breathing steadied. Then she brought a dampened cloth and cleaned my knee, pressing on the scrape to stop the bleeding. I let out a whimper, and her hand let go.
“I was so frightened!” she gasped. She leaned close, wanting to say more. Her face was all wrinkly from napping.
I knew I should be sorry for scaring my mother, but I felt strangely proud of my flight—my will. My mother touched my face; she’d forgiven me. She began making dinner, then my father came home. Later she would tell me a story, and I’d go to sleep.
The scrape was really bad, but soon there was a rough scab.
* * *
A few days later, I was playing on the front steps of our house with my brother and another boy. They were older—first graders sharing reading lessons and baseball cards. They would meet every morning in an unfathomable place away from the house, and every afternoon as my mother was napping, my brother would burst through the door with news of the other world beyond the stop sign on the corner.
Now I had been there, too. My scab was proof. I was glancing at it, remembering the thrill of crossing the street and climbing through ivy, the out-of-control momentum just before I fell, when my brother leaned closer, peering at my knee. For a moment I thought he must be admiring my wound. Stunned by a newfound knowledge of the world, I looked up, but he was smirking.
“You can’t be in Playboy when you grow up,” he remarked.
The other boy nodded.
“You have a scar,” my brother added, sagely.
“That means you’re not perfect. You can’t be in Playboy.”
Playboy was one of the many secrets the boys learned in school. Those secrets were not why they went to school, they were not lessons—they were more important than lessons. That was clear from my brother’s fierce determination to keep them from my mother. Not even my father had such closely guarded secrets, though he spent longer days away from the house, saying less about where he went. I had no thought of asking where he went, or why; that was for my mother to do. Her outings to the grocery store were more my concern: she brought home food and often dragged me along. Despite the trappings of importance that clung to my father’s absences, he brought home only himself.
“You’re too young to see Playboy,” observed my brother’s friend, Anthony.
My brother shushed him.
“And you’re a girl,” Anthony went on, peering at me. “Girls don’t get to look at Playboy.”
“Because they’re in it. They put photos of themselves in it. Then the boys get to look.”
Although my brother regarded me as useless, apparently there was no general consensus. “Why can’t I be in Playboy?”
“I told you,” my brother replied. “You have a scar.”
“I can cover the scar. No one will know.”
My brother was shaking his head. “Nope. If you want to be in Playboy, you have to take your clothes off.”
“What for?” I was baffled. “Then I don’t want to be in Playboy.”
“Yes, you do. All girls do. But some of them can’t.”
“Same as you—they’re not perfect.”
“You should’ve thought of that before you scraped your knee,” my brother concluded.
The afternoon was growing late. My mother flung the screen door open. We must come in, and Anthony must go home. She was not fond of Anthony, but he was close by, an easy playmate for my brother. He could come and go at will from the house around the corner, keeping us company. It demanded no effort of my mother; from her bedroom, she could hear the boys in the yard, and she often had me play with them while she was napping. As long as we were not loud or squabbling, she was not bothered by whatever we were doing. She regarded Anthony as full of bad ideas, but bad ideas were seemingly everywhere. If my brother hadn’t learned them from Anthony, he would have learned them from another boy. Anthony represented a general flaw in the world that she’d been hoping to keep at bay—but that was now impossible.
Anthony ran around the corner and was gone. He’d brought something exciting and troublesome, something my mother wanted to keep out; I was sorry to see him go. My mother closed the door.
My mother had been angered by my ugly knee; she and my brother agreed it was bad. Now I knew why—because of Playboy, because I’d wrecked my chances.
“Does Anthony have Playboy at home?” she asked.
My brother made no response. Sprawled on the living-room rug, he was separating baseball cards, tossing some aside.
“Well?” my mother demanded.
“Then where did he hear of it?”
“From a boy at school.”
“A boy in your class?”
“Anthony knows him.”
“And he shows you Playboy?” My mother’s eyes flashed with anger, but my brother ignored her.
“We trade,” he responded, holding up a card.
“Why can’t you trade with boys from your class? Have you asked?”
My brother waved the card eagerly. “Look who I got today—Carl Yastrzemski!”
“Carl who?” My mother paused, scowling. Calming herself, she changed gears. “How do you spell it?”
“Y – A – S – T – R – Z – ”
“Z? Are you sure?”
“E – M – ”
We heard the front door close. My father was home.
“I got Carl Yastrzemski!” my brother shouted.
My father stepped into the room. He was wearing a dark coat and carrying a leather case under one arm.
“Let’s see.” He took the card and turned it over, examining the columns of numbers, then handed it back. “Who’d you trade for it?”
My mother brought home packages of cards from the supermarket. My brother’s real goal was trading bad players for good ones. He would group them according to a secret message concealed in numbers on the back of each card, or maybe by something in the player’s photograph on the front. He kept the good players in scrupulous order, refusing to let me touch those cards, though I could finger the bad ones as he tossed them in a messy heap. The following day he would take the bad players to school and trade them to other boys. Somehow there were always boys who would trade away Carl Yastrzemski or Mickey Mantle for one of the losers.
I could get my own cards, but who would I trade with? Not my brother; he would dump too many bad ones on me. Maybe I would trade with Anthony.
My father set the leather case on the couch and began loosening his tie. “Who traded you Yastrzemski?” he asked.
“Jimmy. He’s in another class.”
“No, Jimmy. Anthony’s not that dumb.”
“Anthony’s nowhere near as dumb as we thought,” my mother frowned. “He knows about Playboy.”
My father grunted.
“He was regaling your daughter today. Now she knows about it, too.”
My brother was examining the back of the card. “Point-two-nine-six. That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” My father paused. “Your mother doesn’t want you looking at Playboy,” he added. “And I don’t want you looking at it. Understand?”
“I wasn’t looking at it.”
“Then what were you doing?”
“Nothing. Anthony says—”
“No more going to Anthony’s house.” My father was not angry, but the tone was cold and unbending. Anthony was my brother’s closest neighborhood friend—even I had been to his house. I looked down at my injured knee, wondering how it had caused so much trouble.
“Leave that scab alone,” my mother commanded. I wasn’t even touching it.
“Can I be in Playboy?”
“Why in the world would you want to be?” my mother cried.
“Anthony says—” my brother began.
“No more Anthony! You heard your father!”