It wasn’t until sixth grade that I started lying about my mittens. Bright blue and pink, I told my friends that they had been a Christmas gift from my mom.
“Nice mittens, man,” they’d say.
“I know right,” I’d say laughing, and tuck them into my pocket.
The truth was that I’d knit them myself; painstakingly. I’d put days into them; pretended I’d forgotten about soccer practice, and skipped dinners, for them. I’d spent an hour in the store, deliberating over electric-blue versus forget-me-not.
Once, I’d have shown them off. Knitting was pretty normal at the school I’d just left, Ashwood—which was named after a tree. Ashwood Waldorf had a different educational philosophy from most public schools, I think. Needlework was a required skill there, along with the ability to draw Celtic-knot borders, and play the pentatonic flute. As a result, kids usually ended up equally proficient in arithmetic and apple pie.
I ended up leaving, but I did take my love for needlework with me, to Lincolnville Central School. There, my new classmates informed me that embroidery was an unbefitting pursuit for a twelve-year-old boy. But I liked working with thread. Something about the creativity blended with precision appealed to me. It made me smile. Then again, I enjoyed having friends. I decided to forego one in favor of the other.
Cue Weezer album.
Growing up with a dance teacher for a mother, I had a fair amount of exposure to girls popping and locking, pirouetting, and kick-ball-changing. There had been a few boys in her classes, but only a few. Those few didn’t much make sense to me; dancing was for girls, not boys. Shaking my head, I’d smirk and continue on with my cross-stitch. However, some of my mother’s rhythm must have rubbed off on me, because I looked forward to my first dance at LCS with that mix of trepidation and exhilaration that accompanies all activities of which people feel obliged to not care about, but are secretly talented. I felt at a loss then when I spent the entire dance standing by the edge of the bleachers. I watched my new friends and enemies, lepers and heartthrobs, writhe ass to groin in a large, amorphous blob.
“We’re just grinding, dude,” assured my friend Devan, dripping sweat as I accompanied him to the water fountain. “No need to freak.”
I opened my mouth to assure him that I was far, far from freaking, but something resembling a bird twitter escaped.
Wide eyes and awkward groping—these are the dim photographs of middle school dances that hang framed in the halls of my memory. Each is identified by a bronze plaque, with inscriptions such as, “what am I even doing,” and “should have untucked my shirt,” to accompany them. I came from Ashwood. There, the term ‘orgasm’ is dealt with in a similar manner to how China addresses YouTube. I felt the sudden pressure to straddle sexuality almost overwhelming. Boys were expected to move through girlfriends like Pringles. Girls who gave blowjobs were awarded social dominance. And here I sat, knitting.
Our eighth grade graduation trip included a visit to the Québécois Quaker Museum, to see the butter churns and old dresses, I guess. That same night the school took us on a cruise around the harbor, where Dylan Schurper was immortalized for grinding with a drunk twenty-two year old. When Sarah offered me a lap dance next to the shrimp cocktail, I feigned confidence by quoting a James Blunt song.
I was torn between worlds: one was fuzzy; the walls were made of knit-and-purl, but the ceiling was a printout of my mother. The other was immediate, and wielded my dawning adolescence with a shovel. It was sleepovers, truth-or-dare, and celebrity ranking; it had behind it the weight of a country in which admitting virginity after sixteen is social suicide. I didn’t know what to do. My mother, whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music, advised me to “follow my gut.” In my life I’ve gone to the hospital twice for intestinal issues.
In 1965, Temple Grandin developed a machine to give herself hugs. She discovered that children who are often embraced gain a greater capacity for empathy and handling stress. These ‘squeeze boxes’ were adopted by the beef industry as a way to comfort cattle before slaughter, and thereby keep meat tender.
My little cousin Jay and his best friend Brian have been friends since second grade. They’ve now reached a stage in which hugging is socially acceptable, as long as they first don a social condom by assuring the world, “no homo.”
Girls frequently comfort each other by holding hands. This has often driven me to lean against a wall and smoke a cigarette.
The other day I asked my mother if she knew what had happened to those mittens that I knitted myself that one time.
“You tossed them in middle school.”
It is winter now. Sometimes my hands get cold, and I tell myself to man up.