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The Handwriting on the Wall


ISSUE:  Winter 1994

This is how I came to first understand the love of a woman. It was 1961 and I was 16 and too skinny to be noticed by girls the way I wanted. I knew the janitor at Wabash Senior High was a drunk and he did his drinking early, passing out from about six to about nine. Then he’d miraculously revive and do his cleaning, but for those three hours the school was unlocked, unguarded, and uninhabited. I sat in a stall in the boys’ room one morning between class and I saw all the writing on the walls, and I think my idea started out much more simply than it ended up. I would write something witty and cool here and sign my name: Ira Holloway. But it was just boys talking in this place. Boys. It wasn’t boys I was interested in. What I really wanted to hear were the voices of girls. I wanted to know the words that girls spoke secretly, to each other. I had that faint trembling in me the rest of the day, the trembling you get when you’re about to overhear a secret, and that night, about seven, I came back to school and slipped in and I went to the main girls’ rest room by the front office.

I opened the door and stepped in and it was dark. There was no reason for that to surprise me, but it did. I had never been inside a girl and this felt suddenly like a dream of that, of moving through a door into unexpected darkness and you can’t see a thing, not even the hand in front of your face, though I raised both of them now and felt the air against my palms like the thick soft hair of the girl who sat in front of me in social studies class, who always lifted her face and shook her hair in pleasure whenever she answered a question correctly. She had a plain face, with tortoise-shell glasses and no chin, and she often answered correctly, so her lush hair would fall on my desk, and whenever she raised her hand to answer I would put my own hands, palms up, on the desk top ready for her soft touch. The more I touched her hair, I found, the prettier her face seemed to me. Her glasses magnified her eyes and I realized with a shock one day after touching her hair that they were the green of bluegrass and they seemed very beautiful.

But I stood there in the dark in the girls’ room and I could scarcely draw a breath. I found the light switch and turned it on. I flinched in disappointment. The place looked like the boys’ room. The same scab-red tiles, the same dim mirrors, the same mole-gray stalls, though I think I was a little grateful for all of this. If the place had been more personal, had reflected our differences, I would have been caught that first night, for I would never have left. I did take one quick peak in the trash can, but it, too, was bland and sexless, with crumpled paper towels and a Coke bottle.

So I went to the row of stalls and faced the first door and I was cracking my knuckles furiously, I realized. I clenched my fists to get hold of myself and I pushed open the door and stepped in. I looked first at the walls and nothing was there. No words at all. I looked closer and there weren’t even places where words had been scrubbed off. The girls had all been silent in this stall. Then I grew conscious of the bowl. As brutally similar as it was to ones we used on the other side, I felt a difference. I’ve felt it since, often, when a beautiful woman has just left a room. There’s some sense of her that remains, a residue. And you have to understand that I was 16 and I was downright balletic inside with desire for girls and yet I had never touched one, really, certainly nothing private on one, and so I extended my hand and ran my forefinger along the inner rim of the seat and I wondered whose pretty bare bottom had nuzzled into this spot today.

It was a nice little moment, but it drew too much on my own imagination, which I could use anywhere. I’d come here for them, for some word from the others. So after a few moments more I pulled my hand away and I backed out of the stall and entered the next one. Which had no words either, and I was getting worried, though there were a couple of smudges on this wall where things might have been erased. In the third stall, however, I found words: Mary T.loves Danny G.and he loves her. I was more disappointed by this than by the silence. This was public stuff, no more personal than a girl wearing a letterman’s jacket, and it made me a little angry, as if they knew I was listening and they deliberately held back.

There was one more stall and I stepped in and at first glance it was just a bland repetition. Mary T.had been in both stalls and she loved Danny G.enough to say it twice: Mary T.loves Danny G.and he loves her. But then I noticed three words in a tiny, precise hand written just beneath the declaration: big damn deal. This wasn’t the secret I was expecting. I guess what I somehow expected in this place was to hear the girls speaking of their bodies or drawing pictures, like the boys sometimes did, of their own secret parts, sure to be more accurate, or of our parts, full of the girls’ imaginings and yearnings.

Nevertheless, the three words of Tiny-Hand made me sit down right there and read and reread the message. Jealousy and loss were also things you could see in public, but this girl was suddenly present in that narrow private place with me. I could hear her desire for Danny G.and her hatred for Mary T. and suddenly I could also hear Mary T.and her self-doubt. She did not simply draw a little heart with the initials in it. She did not simply declare her love for the boy. She used a lot of words with her pen running dry every few seconds because it was at the wrong angle. She sat there and jiggled the ink down over and over so that after her own declaration she could emphasize “and he loves her.” It was the emphasis of insecurity. She even wrote it as if it were in the voice of someone else, an objective observer, as if others could see what she was afraid only she could see. And Tiny-Hand missed this. She would’ve had a much more devastating rebuttal if she’d understood her rival, but she didn’t. Big damn deal, she said, as if it wasn’t a big damn deal, but you knew that it was a very big damn deal for Tiny-Hand.

I sat thinking about all of this for a time and I knew I could make both of them happy if only they could be made to understand who I was. And that’s when I got my idea. Occasionally the boys’ room would have a tempting note, like the one I’d seen that morning: Blossom McCoy loves to fuck. Everyone knew about Blossom, I guess. She had buck teeth and bad eyes that no one ever corrected so she squinted all the time, but she had the body of a fantasy truck-stop waitress and she wore very short skirts and we all figured we knew why her kneecaps were always dirty, and we all thought constantly about the rumor that she never wore underpants. Though every boy jockeyed for position lagging behind her going up the bleacher steps or the winding main staircase, nobody ever really confirmed that rumor, as far as I know, though many claimed they did.

But it was the little note about Blossom that connected to that moment and before I could even consider what I was doing, I had my pen in my hand. My only hesitation came as I lifted the pen to write and I realized that the handwriting was critical. It had to seem like a girl’s. Tiny-Hand gave me all the inspiration I needed. She printed in block letters and I did this, adding a backward lean to the words so that Tiny-Hand wouldn’t be implicated. I wrote: Ira Holloway is a great lover.

Maybe a week passed and I jumped at every ring of the phone, though I knew that only in my most overheated of just-before-falling-asleep fantasies was a girl going to call me up and say, “Listen, Ira, I’ve been hearing some good things about you. Let’s meet after school today; my parents are away on a business trip.” A walk-around-in-the-daylight fantasy was that at least Blossom McCoy would call, but I always figured that everybody was wrong about her, I figured there was more to Blossom than anyone realized, and so I never let that thought go too far.

What I mostly concentrated on was the search for the little sideways glances, the brief lifting of the eyebrows or widening of the eyes of the girls as I passed. And even looking for these things, even ready to imagine them based on the tiniest little hint of something, I couldn’t see the slightest change in anybody. Well, once. The high point of that search occurred right after homeroom about a week later. I was nudging my way through the clot of students at the foot of the main staircase and a pretty girl I’d been noticing since the first day of school was standing near the water fountain, and even though there were students eddying around her, I could clearly see her face turn to me and then her eyes widened, just as I expected, but frankly they widened even more than I expected and then her face jerked to the side and she cried to somebody in the crowd, “You stepped on my damn foot.”

It’s a measure of my yearning as a 16-year-old that what should have been a little epiphany for me, what should have caused me to plunge into the crowd goose-pimply with shame instead made me stop and stare at the girl and wonder if this was Tiny-Hand. It was a rare girl in 1961 who would use the word “damn” so readily. Big damn deal. You stepped on my damn foot. Could it be her? She had long, straight hair which I have always particularly liked and heavy eyebrows which I also found that I liked, but if this was her, then it was Danny G.she loved and that made me move off down the hall realizing what I needed was a second endorsement.

So that night I slipped back into the school and into the stall and only at the last moment did I fear some scathing rebuttal to my earlier claim on this wall. I feared this just in time, before I let myself look, and I almost backed out of the stall and walked away from the whole project. But after a moment I decided the risk was worth it. I looked at the wall and the words were the same as I’d left them. No one had taken issue with me and I was lifted by this. I think I even rose up on my tiptoes for a moment with the joy that this idea about Ira Holloway was at least not so outrageous that somebody had to take issue. And surely Tiny-Hand would’ve done so, if it was. So I bent to the wall and beneath the message that Ira Holloway was a great lover, I wrote in an impromptu imitation of a large, filigreed, girl’s hand: He sure is.

Nothing changed. Not a word was spoken, not a glance or gesture was altered. And that should have been that. If it had, though, I wouldn’t have spent this much time talking about a teenage stunt. But I went back a third time and I sat for a while and stared at the wall. I’m not sure what was in my mind. I guess at first there were the things you might expect: wondering if anyone even read these words, imagining the images of me in the minds of those who did. But I don’t think that lasted long. For a time I just blanked out and stared. I wish I could recall the things that were in me when I took out my pen once more, but I can’t. I probably couldn’t have done that even moments later. All I know is that I had been thinking of girls just about all my recollectable life and I was inspired—like the inspiration of suddenly saying a thing that you don’t quite recognize even though it’s you saying it and it’s just the right thing that makes a woman’s eyes soften and her head angle slightly to the side and you realize that she has just fallen in love with you and you don’t even know where the words that let this happen came from. I was inspired, like that perhaps, and I wrote this:

What’s all this talk of Ira Holloway? I doubt if you really know him the way I do. I have been his secret girlfriend for a year. I saw him at the pavilion at the park swimming pool. I was floating on my back and my body was feeling real lazy. My breasts—which are very large, larger than the breasts of any of you who are claiming Ira for your own—my breasts had that loose sprawling feeling, you know how it is when you have large breasts and you lie on your back and you’re real relaxed and they seem to flatten out but of course not really, they’re like two cats fast asleep in a soft rug. And my nipples were hot like melted butter. And I was thinking about my body like this when I looked up and there was Ira Holloway looking down at me from that little second floor pavilion and I have to say I liked the look on his face. You can have the soft snarls oft/our Elvis or your Fabian or your cheap imitations all around you in the halls of this school.

Now, writing all this was taking a long, long time but I wasn’t really aware of that. It was like I was learning their secrets after all, writing in the voice of this girl. And so when the rest room door opened with a bang, I jerked up so hard I dropped my pen and it was all I could do to stop an audible gasp. At first I thought it was morning, that I’d been here all night and this was a bus load of girls rushing in to find me here. But I heard a hard slipping scuffle and a man’s voice cursing and I knew it was the janitor, which was bad enough. I quietly dropped the bolt on the lock and lifted my feet and pressed them against the door.

The janitor kept mumbling as he lurched about the room and it occurred to me that this man had access to this special place every night. I gagged with anger at that thought, in just the same way as I gagged whenever I learned that some really lovely girl I’d noticed was going steady with some really dumb guy. I wanted to leap out of the stall and pummel the janitor, but I just listened to him empty the trash and he was talking all the time, saying words too low for me to understand. It was clear that he wasn’t doing a thorough job, that he’d maybe had more to drink tonight than usual, and that was my hope to get away with this.

Finally I heard the slobber of his mop and after a few moments out in the center of the floor, he opened the stall at the far end and his march down the row began and my knees went so weak that I could hardly keep my legs up against the door. He mopped and then flushed and swished the toilet bowl with the mop and moved on. He did this twice more and then he was standing in front of my stall. He tried the door and it did not yield and he said, “You little cunts.”

I was breathing only from the lip up and my legs were beginning to quake. Surely the janitor had a trick for opening these doors from the outside, and there was a stillness now on the other side of the door that scared the hell out of me. No more cursing, no more mumbling, no motion now, just this silence, though I knew he was there. I waited and waited and my legs were shaking and I thought for sure he could hear it, I wondered why he would wait so long if he knew about me and if he didn’t, why he was suddenly silent. Then the door moved just a little, like a great weight had been brought to bear against it, and I thought it was over.

But instead he said, “My fucking head,” and the weight lifted and groaned and then his mop came in under the door and waved around at me from the floor, knocking my pen away, and my only thought now was that he’d find the pen and take it and I wouldn’t be able to finish. But the janitor had no more time for all this, and he jerked the mop out of the stall and I heard him stagger. He must have been bending over to mop under the locked door and this was a big mistake. He seemed to be struggling to stand up and he lurched out of the rest room and I heard the door close and I lowered my legs to the floor. It was a long few moments before I could stand, but I did and I went out and retrieved my pen and I returned and I wrote:

Ira was looking at me from the pavilion as I floated on the water and you’d think I was a bed with sheets that were dried in the yard in the sun and he was trying to just gently open me up and crawl in and rest inside me. He made me feel that way and that’s just how I want to feel. My thighs were bare all the way up to that tight clutch of my swimsuit and I wished I could open up for Ira Holloway right there, just part my sheets and let him crawl in. So don’t talk about Ira Holloway unless you can feel like that about him. And I do. I really do.

I never met the girl of this voice, of course. Not even in the more than 30 years that followed, certainly not among the several women in my life whom I’ve loved not only with ardor but with apparent maturity. But every bit as important as the first woman you touch is the first woman you clearly imagine, and I feel the same way about her that she does about me. I really do.

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