Rollerblading with Kissy Boy
The worst person in my preschool class was Joshua R. I only remember one day with him then, besides a strong conviction of worstness. Once, we played airplane in class, sitting in our desks, all lined up in pairs, forced to pretend we were going somewhere. We had to find partners before we could see Spain in the cracked sidewalks and dead grass of our pseudo-playground, and Josh and I were the only two left. It was the first time I’d regretted playing alone whenever we had free time; some friends would have been nice then. We didn’t talk at all. I hardly even talked to people I did like, and there wasn’t much to say about “Spain,” anyway.
I thought I’d escaped him by moving up to kindergarten, but he was in my class there, too. And in kindergarten, he became very memorable. In kindergarten, he became Kissy Boy.
Cooties are a big deal when you’re five years old. Maybe no one really understands just how big a deal. Twenty girls running across a playground, screaming and almost crying, just to escape one boy, is something you have to see to believe. I never understood exactly what kind of fatal disease would be contracted if you touched a boy and got his cooties, but the possibility of illness, at least, seemed very real—breathing got harder when they came too close, although that might have been nerves. There were also some unconfirmed rumors of a nasty rash that could develop from physical contact. In kindergarten, touching a boy is the most potentially dangerous thing there is. And cooties don’t make much sense, but nothing can make you understand their significance like being the one those twenty girls are running to.
There are very few times in life that an incredible ability to repel boys makes you popular.
He liked to kiss the girls. All the girls, on the cheeks, on the lips, wherever. Don’t ask me why. Maybe he was advanced for his age.
The other boys, chivalrous at five like they’d never be at sixteen, did their best to protect us, but the twenty of them were no match for Josh.
Or maybe, I think now, when I am older and more cynical, they only moved slowly because they actually thought it was sort of funny.
I thought it was sort of gross. I was too young still to be jealous.
He never kissed me. Not once. Never even tried. I was the only one. My dad said he probably respected me. I thought, privately, that he probably thought I was ugly, but I didn’t really care. Not being kissed was all right. It made recess so much less stressful.
I was with my friend Brooke—small, blonde, bossy, and insecure, described by my grandpa as “a little livewire”—when we discovered the true power of my immunity to Kissy Boy. We were on the slides. He was coming across the playground, towards her, and she dived back into the tube slide too late. He’d seen her. I climbed down the ladder, ready for a fight, or at least a very interesting game of tag, and he stopped.
He saw me, and he turned around. Left Brooke alone. Found some other girl to kiss. He wasn’t just not kissing me; he wasn’t kissing anyone near me.
Maybe it was respect. Ugliness isn’t contagious, is it? He went after Brooke again later, when I wasn’t there.
By the end of the week, I was wading through a crowd of twenty girls whenever I set foot outside. Suddenly, everyone wanted to play with me. For an entire month, I was the most popular kid in school. Girls would come running to me from everywhere the minute they saw him, and stand triumphant, panting, at my side, as he slunk slowly away.
On one rare day when we had the space to move freely, Brooke had the absurd idea that we should confront Kissy Boy and show him the error of his ways.
We found him dangling from the jungle gym in a red shirt, his hair hanging down over his eyes, looking bored. There was a truce that day—the only reason we had space to move. I don’t remember why. It had been one of the other boys’ ideas, I think. Probably Kyle’s. He was desperately in love with Anastasia, who of course, being tall, dark, and far more like a supermodel than any six year old has the right to be, wouldn’t look twice at the short kid with glasses. Especially when she wasn’t even interested in boys yet. Cooties, still. Boys outgrow them faster. Kyle must have thought that getting Kissy Boy off her back would somehow win her favor. How he got Josh to agree to it will forever be a mystery.
“Hi, Josh,” Brooke started. She’d decided to go for a personal angle—no one had called him anything but Kissy Boy for months.
He sat up and quit looking bored. “Hi.” Maybe he’d forgotten he had a real name. I nearly had.
We both stared at him for a minute. Her plan had never really gotten any farther than Use Given Name. Finally she said, “You should stop kissing people.”
“We don’t like it when you kiss us. People would like you better if you didn’t kiss them.” He looked unconvinced. “If you stopped kissing people, we wouldn’t call you Kissy Boy anymore.”
He tilted his head, thinking it over. Lulled into a false sense of security by the truce, Brooke started climbing up the jungle gym, away from the safety of me.
“Josh…” He leaned forward; she jumped back. “You promised no kissing today!” Landing on the ground, she edged behind me, just to be sure.
“I won’t. Come back up so we can talk more.”
“You’ll try to kiss me again!”
“No, I won’t. Promise.”
She stepped forward, and I grabbed her arm. “Brooke, don’t listen to him.” She went anyway. They were at it all through recess, her trying to talk some sense into him, him trying to kiss her, her walking right into it, again and again. It would have been easy enough to explain the evils of kissing from the ground. What I didn’t understand, being the Unkissed One, was that they liked it, despite the cooties.
Not the actual kissing, of course. Not at five. But the excitement, the danger, the chance that you might not make it to Jenny’s group on the other side of the playground before he found you. As long as you escaped the actual kiss, the chase was good fun. I never had the chance to understand that part. They all wanted to be with me, but I was still cut off from them. When the boys started chasing me, in third grade, I was the only one, and it made me weird, not the boys. I thought it should at least have made us all weird, girl and boys, but elementary school was never known for being fair.
Kissy Boy outgrew his kissing phase a few months later, and I outgrew my popularity. After second grade, he got held back, and we forgot all about him, except for that persistent conviction that he was the worst.
Then my parents took me rollerblading. It was a community center thing. Every Thursday night they cleared out the big room where I had gymnastics class—it always looked so desolate without the balance beams and uneven bars and big blue mats—and rented out ancient pairs of rollerblades with loose wheels, to raise money for Girl Scouts or something. Like they needed money, with all those cookies they sold. We always brought our own rollerblades, which was perfectly fine, as long as we’d paid to get inside the gym in the first place.
My brother and I stuck to our parents like glue—I was supposed to be with Brooke, but she’d backed out at the last minute, and I didn’t know anyone else.
I was wobbling near the wall, my dad a few feet behind me, when he rode up. Kissy Boy, with shorter hair and cleaner clothes, looking somehow smaller. I hadn’t talked to him since he was held back two years ago.
“Jenny!” He remembered my name. It took me a second, as usual, to remember his—the real one, not what we called him.
“You wanna come play with us?”
I was a little worried about who “us” might be, but I didn’t know how to refuse, and my dad, skating behind, was giving me that look that said “Go or else.”
So I went. I followed him, and he helped me when I wobbled, because I’d never been good at rollerblades. We went behind the barriers, into the hidden, forbidden corner of the gym, the part no one was supposed to be in, ever (or at least on rollerblading night), where his friends were waiting. It was probably the naughtiest thing I’d ever done.
It was also a bit anticlimactic. There was no reason to block off that part of the gym—it was empty except for a blackboard—and none of his friends had fangs or anything. They were just the kids from his third grade class, kids I’d seen around the school for years, but never met, kids exactly like me, only slightly smaller and a whole lot braver. I never even learned their names.
We wrote with fragments of ancient chalk on the blackboard, and I didn’t wonder until later why it was there, when I’d been in that gym twice a week for three years and never seen it before. We rode around it, again and again, until we got dizzy and lost our balance. We went past the barrier and back a dozen times. We played tag, screaming and weaving around four year olds even more wobbly than me, then came back and collapsed behind the blackboard, laughing hysterically.
I learned to really rollerblade that day, and Kissy Boy caught me when I fell, more than once, and never tried anything funny. Of course he wouldn’t with me, but he was a perfect gentleman to all the girls in his little group of fangless friends, too.
I was dragged away, finally, from the forbidden corner with the blackboard, ten minutes after closing time.
“Bye, Josh. See you in school.”
Except that I didn’t, because I was in fourth grade, and he was only in third. And Brooke, whose new haircut showed us all why she’d bailed on rollerblading, asked me, on Friday, shocked, horrified, “You were playing with Kissy Boy?” So I decided it probably wasn’t worth the trouble to look for him during the recess all the grades had together.
And I never saw him again.
My dad was his camp counselor, years later, and told me all about it. They had this thing at their camp, where they celebrated all the kids’ birthdays, all at once. There was cake, and they all got a present they were supposed to open there in the cafeteria.
Except that Josh saved his. He waited until they were back in the cabin, so everyone’s attention would be on him as he opened it.
And then it was a pair of socks and some underwear, because someone had made a mistake. That brought him down a few pegs, but it would have taken something much bigger to make him follow the rules and stop showing off.
So Josh was still Josh, I guess. Josh will always be Josh. Always doing his own thing. Always a little bit naughty. But he was good, too. I miss that kid. The kissing wasn’t good, but he deserved better, maybe, than a class that held it against him for years, even when most of them had secretly enjoyed it. He deserved better, maybe, than me, who held it against him that he attacked my friends, and never forgave him for leaving me alone.
We had fun that day, rollerblading. Playing tag. Maybe he did respect me. And he was never the worst.