Michele Morano is the author of the travel memoir, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Her essays have appeared in anthologies and literary journals such as Best American Essays, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, and Ninth Letter. She has received honors and awards for her writing from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, and the American Association of University Women, among others. She is associate professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago.
Cathy Waters is not to be fucked with. That’s what she tells the other fourth-graders gathered around her on the blacktop at recess: “I am not to be fucked with.” She says it fiercely, fists clenched beside her hips, eyes roaming. She is small, Cathy Waters, and the girl who has crossed her is not. This girl weighs ten pounds more and stands half a head taller, and she’s never fought anybody that we can remember. She’s a nice girl, quiet, but she’s had it with Cathy’s taunts. Every day on the four-square court, the hopscotch grid, the monkey bars, Cathy picks and picks. We’re used to it, most of us, and we walk away, taking the wind out of Cathy’s sails. But not this girl, not today.
We wonder if the girl knows that Cathy lives at the Children’s Home and that the reason she wears brand-new Levi’s and Converse All-Stars is because at the Children’s Home, in exchange for your parents dying or, worse, not wanting you anymore, you get cool clothes with your name printed on the tags, and when they stop fitting, you get new ones.
Or maybe the girl does know about the Children’s Home but doesn’t understand that when Cathy brags about the cute counselors and movie nights and trips to the mall on Saturday, she’s laying the groundwork. Those of us in her class know to be careful, because just when you think she’s let her guard down, just when you say, “That’s cool,” or “Good for you,” or whatever verbal pat on the back you can muster, Cathy will clench her fists, narrow her eyes, and let loose about your entire cocksucking family.
This is how it is on the north side of Poughkeepsie, New York in 1974. Before bullying and autism and dyslexia and ADD, when there are regular classes and retarded classes and a bus on Thursday afternoons to Catechism classes. Our parents work at factories, the printing factory or the ball-bearing factory, or else at the psychiatric hospital whose patients sometimes walk half a mile through the woods into the schoolyard and weather our taunts until a secretary calls the police.
Most of us live close to the school, so we see the patients on weekends, too, especially the old guy with baggy pants into which his right hand keeps digging. “Hey, crazy man!” we yell from a distance, poised to run toward home. At any time, we know, the playground can turn into a dangerous place.
Like today. It’s hard not to admire the girl standing before Cathy Waters. Cathy is petite and pretty, with dimpled cheeks and curls down to her shoulders, and the other girl isn’t so pretty, except for the blue eyes peering through her glasses. Still, we silently root for her. Most of us feel sorry for Cathy, and we even like her when she’s in a good mood. But we wouldn’t mind seeing her get her ass kicked.
The lunch monitors are standing together by the stairs, keeping an eye on a kickball game while here, on the basketball court, the air is starting to crackle. A crowd draws a crowd, and Cathy keeps it up: “I am not to be fucked with, you hear? Not by any of you pussies.”
Even the boys shift from foot to foot when Cathy gets like this, because she’ll turn on them, too, even the big ones. But today there’s a clear target for her anger, the girl with the blue eyes and glasses, the momentary heroine who won’t back down. Cathy steps forward, then forward again, her nose coming close to the girl’s until there’s a shove and another shove, and the girl takes a step back and cracks her right fist against Cathy’s flushed, round cheek.
We gasp. Isn’t this what she’s been asking for all year? Isn’t this what she deserves? But now that it’s happened, is it what we want? Because if Cathy goes down this easy, with one hard punch, then what about all of us who haven’t given the punch, all the girls and boys alike who appease her? As satisfying as it might be to see her humbled, we want our fears to be justified.
And they are. Because Cathy doesn’t fall back as we would have, doesn’t cry out or lift a hand to her face. She takes the punch as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, then springs forward like a lion, knocking the girl onto her back and straddling her waist, fingers gripping her wrists. The girl struggles, lifting her hips, twisting her legs to throw Cathy off, but Cathy is stronger than she looks—as strong as we’ve always suspected, and suddenly we feel less embarrassed by this situation. Someone calls out, “Whoa!” and someone else shouts, “Get her!”
The playground monitors catch the scent and come running, parting the crowd. Mrs. Marsh reaches in with her thick hands to grab Cathy’s shoulders and gets nowhere. Cathy is hunkered down, tightening her grip, bending the girl’s left arm back with slow-motion resolve until its hand meets the asphalt. Cathy presses and pulls, presses and pushes and it’s clear she knows exactly what she’s doing, grating away the skin of the girl’s knuckles.
Mrs. Marsh gets Cathy under the arms and lifts, and the other monitor helps the other girl to her feet. She is crying silently, cradling her left hand in her right. The monitor leads her toward the stairs, the side door, the long hall to the principal’s office. Meanwhile, Cathy rages, vowing to kill the fat cow Mrs. Marsh who, it’s true, is large with thick purple veins knotted across her calves, but who is also so dignified we’ve never heard anyone harass her. The rest of us look on, unable to speak. We thought we knew ugly. We thought we could imagine a bad course of events to its logical end. But a hand scraped deliberately against the pavement? We feel young and stupid, naïve. Cathy Waters has been right all along—we don’t know shit, and she does, and who, who on earth, we silently wonder, has taught it to her?
“ My elementary school was filled with misfits, wounded and pugnacious, enraged and desirous. We cursed and fought and schemed and bullied, in addition to standing up and sticking together and, sometimes, forgiving. This incident stays with me not because it was anywhere near the worst I saw or experienced, but because it revealed the limits of my own imagination. ”