Mister Posterior and the Genius Child
Berkeley Trade, 2002
On line at the deli near my children's school. This other mother -- a mother holding a piece of empty Tupperware and wearing a parka made for hiking -- asks me to be treasurer of the PTA. To keep track of money. Make sure there's coffee, sugar and saccharine at meetings. Coordinate cookie-bakers at holiday time. She wants me to organize the annual rummage sale.
I tell her she would be sorry if I said Yes.
What People Say about Mister Posterior and the Genius Child:
"This funny, touching first novel captures the domestic anarchy of the 1970s…With dead-on dialogue, Jenkins deftly satirizes the narcissism of [that era] while maintaining compassion for those caught in the maelstrom...A charming debut that will have readers of Vanessa's generation chuckling with recognition."—Publishers Weekly
"A touching, genuinely funny debut. . .A moving and sensitive story, artfully enclosed in an engaging and deceptively lighthearted narrative."— Kirkus Reviews
"To an amazing degree, Jenkins has been able to scrub away all the obscuring layers of sentimentality and nostalgia and even irony that settle over childhood. What emerges is startling in its fresh primary colors and so true that it hurts. Mr. Posterior and the Genius Child returns readers to the lost world of their eight-year-old hearts -- scary, innocent, funny, honest, and strange."— M.A. Harper, author of The Worst Day of My Life, So Far
"Incredibly funny and wise -- don't miss out on this unexpected pleasure!"—Libby Schmais, author of The Perfect Elizabeth and Rescue Remedy
"With perfect details, wry humor, and just the right voice, Emily Jenkins shows us what it was really like back in the early 1970's, that era of free love and openness-where political correctness got its start, handed to us on a plate of hypocrisy. Who would have thought it could be so funny, and so sad? A wonderful debut!"—Sarah Willis, author of Some Things That Stay
"A gentle sorcerers spell. I was sorry to reach the end, to have to waken from the funny, bittersweet dream I'd been reading."— Maggie Estep, author of Soft Maniacs and Diary of an Emotional Idiot
On line at the deli near my children's school. This other mother — a mother holding a piece of empty Tupperware and wearing a parka made for hiking — asks me to be treasurer of the PTA. To keep track of money. Make sure there's coffee, sugar and saccharine at meetings. Coordinate cookie-bakers at holiday time. She wants me to organize the annual rummage sale.
I tell her she would be sorry if I said Yes.
"Sorry?" She wrinkles the space above her nose. "Why would I be sorry?"
"You don't want me on the PTA," I say — and I'm not lying. I couldn't do rummage and cookie-bakers and coffee and saccharine and still keep my mouth shut about things I think. If I said Yes, this other mother wouldn't like me for long.
Besides, there is a long, sordid, ridiculous history of me versus the PTA. Not this PTA. One from thirty years ago. It isn't a good idea, I tell her.
She doesn't believe me. I have daughters in the third and first grades. I can string sentences together. My kitchen floor is dotted with crushed Cheerios and cat hair. I return phone calls and my handwriting is neat. She is sure I'd be perfect. "We can make a difference, Vanessa," she says, as if Difference has a set meaning that everyone agrees upon.
We pay for our coffee, and I buy licorice, too. Out on the street, I turn to walk home. "The bell rings in four minutes," the other mother reminds me.
"I know," I say.
"Is your husband picking up the kids?"
"He's at work."
"Your nanny, then? I don't think I've met her."
Our nanny is a teenage boy with a safety pin through his ear. He comes over on weekends and takes the children to the playground. My older daughter thinks he's glamorous. I can tell by the way she hangs on his leg. He brings her gummy worms and unusual Japanese candies that he buys downtown.
No one else I know has a boy nanny. Especially not for girls.
I say, Our nanny doesn't pick the children up. The children walk home.
"Really? Are you sure that's safe?" We live in New York City.
"They want to," I answer. I have the urge to say it's only five blocks -- but I don't. And the older one always stays with the younger -- but I don't say that, either.
"They always want to do things alone." The other mother's voice sounds challenging. As if to say, That doesn't mean you should let them.
"Don't you love that?" I ask. My youngest wants to read so badly she won't let anyone read her anything. Not until she can do it herself.
"Did you hear about that girl stolen out of her own back yard and locked in a basement for nine days?" the mother wants to know. "The man lived only two doors down. He dressed as a big white rabbit for children's parties, even."
Yeah, I remember that. The trial is in the newspapers, now.
"And that was in Connecticut. Vanessa, really."
"What?" I am playing dumb.
"Just consider what could happen. That's all I'm saying."
"I have considered it."
She means well, this other mother. "Wouldn't it just break your heart?" she asks.
It would, I think. It probably would. But I am not sure she and I agree on what It is, at all — the It that would break my heart. And there is something severely wrong with my heart already. My mailbox overflows with unopened condolence notes; my refrigerator is stuffed with well-meaning tuna casseroles and spice cakes; long-forgotten photographs are strewn across my coffee table.
I cannot see this woman in her hiking jacket clearly. The street goes blurry as my eyes fill. But I know she is looking at me like I am an alien, a bad parent, an ignorant person. And ‹ not the right sort for her PTA, after all.
She hopes I never learn my lesson the hard way, because that would be a cruel thing to hope, but a little part of her hopes I learn it just the same. She thinks a mother should know better. She thinks I am wrong.
But I am not wrong, because I remember how it was to be eight -- and my eldest turned eight just this June. I remember the playground rhymes, the fierce cliques, and the girls we called "The Fuckers." That year, 1970, was the year my mother adopted an unprecedented number of cats and dated an ardent nudist. The year I finally found out the truth about my father and his anti-vegetarianism; and my only close friend became a person I didn't know. It was also the first time I was conscious of myself as a person with secrets; as a free-thinking human being with something to say. Something not everyone wanted to hear.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts at the start of the seventies, being a free-thinking human being was very popular, especially with the adults of my mother's generation. Sesame Street was pretty much new and Woodstock was only last year. Even people with regular jobs and station wagons were getting in touch with their sexualities, investigating alternative spiritual paths, considering psychotherapy and passionately advocating liberation from the restrictive laws and social codes that inhibited self-expression and bummed everybody out. So nobody objected to my speaking out in principle. People didn't believe children should be seen and not heard -- not anymore. They objected because what I said made them deeply uncomfortable.
And because I made multiple dittos. The year I was eight was the year I became the most notorious child in the history of the Cambridge Harmony PTA.
CHAPTER ONE: First Flasher
My most vivid memory of third grade is when a child named Marie pushed me up against the wall in our classroom and showed me her ass.
"You with your cucumber sandwiches!" she screamed, fat round face flaming and hard fingers gripping my shoulders. She shoved me once more, stepped back a few paces, pulled her corduroys down. And mooned.
It wasn't the first bottom I'd seen, but it was the first to be forced upon me.
Why did she care about the sandwiches? Was there something wrong with them? They were cucumber, but in my defense, they weren't those delicate little tea things with the crusts cut off and the dark green rinds scraped into the garbage pail. They were made with whole wheat bread that had large sesame seeds in it, and my thick slices of cucumber were burdened with circles of waxy peel.
Marie was new at Cambridge Harmony K through Twelve. She had only been there a week. The kids in my class had been instructed to open our hearts to her, and we had all sung a special welcome song on the first day of her arrival. Cambridge Harmony was full of ideals. The walls were painted sunny colors, the teachers wore long braids and flat sandals, we studied the American Indian and sang songs like "This World is Ours to Share" at assemblies. Everyone believed that children were free spirits, really in touch with the essence of life -- so we shouldn't be restricted by too many rules and schedules.
When Marie flashed me, I assumed it was my fault. I hadn't opened my heart enough -- had done something to anger her. Something to do with the sandwiches, perhaps.
Had she asked me for one? I couldn't remember. I had definitely held her hand like I was supposed to when we had all crossed the street on the way to the library, even though I would have preferred to hold Luke Sherwin's. She couldn't be mad about that.
Maybe it was something to do with bottoms, and that was why she was showing me hers. Had I done something to her in the bathroom, when the girls trooped in there before recess? I wiped, I flushed, I washed my hands so long as a teacher was looking. But it could be I had broken some bathroom rule that no one had ever explained to me, and Marie was inflicting punishment. Or maybe there was something particularly horrible about my own bottom, and she was waving her legitimate one at me in triumph.
I did have an annoying delicacy about me that cried out for teasing and torture. It was pretty easy to make me cry by tying my shoelaces together or sticking a sign on my back. Snowball fights and games of "Keep Away" made me nervous. So did sports where you had to throw a ball, or those circle games where people have to stand in the center and be It. I was tiny, with frail bones and arms that seemed a trifle too long for my body. I was also an only child and used to a quiet house, so the jostling noise of roly poly boys often sent me shrinking into the corner of the classroom, where I'd commune with the family of mice that lived there in a habitrail.
I was a picky eater, too, and despaired of finishing my lunch most days -- packed as it was with earnest vegetarian goodies like yogurt swirled with honey. I did have one good friend I'd made back in Kindergarten, however: a fast-talking Indian girl named Anu Bhaduri. She gave me the sliced chicken from her lunch box and created a little haze of warmth around my nervous frame. With Anu I became gossipy and extremely verbal, dictating the ongoing adventures of a pair of soggy stuffed rabbits that lived in the "quiet area" of our orange-painted classroom, and raising my hand during Circle of Sharing to answer the teachers1 questions.
But Anu was absent the day Marie showed me her bottom. She had been absent four or five days in a row, and without her I was a tempting target. The shoulders were squeezed, the insult hissed, the ass displayed. I burst into tears.
"Vanessa, what's wrong?" My braided teacher kneeled down to my level. Marie had vanished and I was left sniffing and whimpering as a cluster of people gathered around me.
I couldn't answer. The whole thing was so unspeakable. Marie had enveloped me in a kind of intimacy I'd never asked for. Suddenly -- although the whole thing had happened right in the middle of the classroom -- there was something private between us. She had made it private by showing me her private little butt cheeks, and now that I had seen them, it was nobody's business but our own.
Plus, I knew too much about schoolyard dynamics to risk a public explanation. That's the thing about being a victim of persecution. Talking about it lets everyone know that someone out there finds you worthy of scorn. It gives them ideas.