I was six when we moved to Yuma from Santa Barbara.
Mother and Daddy Platts seemed to move around a lot in those days, but we stayed in Yuma almost a whole school year. We spent Christmas and Easter there, but I had started school in Santa Barbara. We were there through Halloween. So we must have moved to Yuma sometime around Thanksgiving.
Jackie lived down the street with his parents and older brother, and we attended O.C. Johnson Elementary School together, where I learned to read The Jungle Book in one day. We were both in first grade.
I’ll never forget the first time Jackie and I met. It was the day Daddy, Mother, Ruby, and I were moving into the neighborhood. My parents were busy lugging our furniture and clothes into the house.
I was unhappy–I had no friends yet–and mad; I hadn’t wanted to move in the first place. As I bounced a rubber ball off the tar paper shingles, I muttered, "Life’s so unfair."
Jackie showed up and stood on the sidewalk watching. Eventually, he sauntered into the yard and shyly offered his hand. No boy had ever offered his hand to me before; I stood there mute, hands by my side. He gently took my left hand and examined it. He said, "I’m Jackie." Then he held his palm against mine. "Your fingers are longer than mine."
He had no thumbs, just four fingers on each hand.
"So what happened to your thumbs?" I blurted out.
He shrugged, and said, "I was born this way. But it don’t really matter."
And we never spoke of it again. Still, when Jackie wasn’t around, I would fold and squeeze my thumbs into my palms so that I couldn’t see them and pretend I had no thumbs either.
Jackie seemed normal enough: he had straight black hair that fell over his ears. His bangs, uneven and in need of a trim, covered his left eye completely and nearly covered his right. He was always flipping his hair and running his fingers through it. He liked to play husband, wife, and baby.
He wanted to be the wife, dressing up in my mother’s silk slips, blouses, long skirts, and high heels. He loved sashaying in my mother’s outfits, just like a model, jutting his hipbone out, walking down a runway, Mother’s skirt swishing back and forth.
It was the only time during my childhood when all my dolls sported shiny, curly hair–combed just so–because Jackie was forever styling their hair. Even without thumbs, Jackie was good at fixing hair, always brushing mine with Mother’s black bristle brush. Once, to Mother’s horror, he styled my hair, piling it on top of my head in loose, frivolous curls. I felt funny in such a fancy hairdo and combed it out as soon as he went home.
I didn’t mind playing the husband because I could play construction worker on the real site across the street and stack bricks in the sand; in those days, everything in Yuma was about sand–maybe it’s different now. When I returned from work, Jackie would have straightened up my room and organized my dolls in a line against the wall, my hairpins stacked on the dresser.
Once, when I came home, Jackie had stuffed a towel under his blouse. "I’m pregnant, honey," he said in a sing-song voice.
"Well," I said in the deepest, gruff voice I could muster, "I’ll ask my boss for a raise."
He told me a secret and made me swear I wouldn’t tell a soul: "When I grow up, I’m going to let my hair grow and dye it red so it looks just like yours."
"But your hair’s straight."
"Then I’ll go to the beauty shop and get a permanent wave."
I had never heard of a boy getting a perm.
But I didn’t think too much of it. I just liked Jackie because we played together well–he let me boss him around like a real husband–and when we snuggled together on my bed, I got to get on top.
Another time, he told me he was going to have an operation to become a girl.
I just laughed. "Boys can’t be girls, dontcha know that?"
"Well, they can, and that’s a fact."
But Jackie never got the chance: one day, he was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis and never came back.
After the funeral, Mother said, "It’s just as well, honey. He was a junior drag queen."
"Oh, you’ll learn about that stuff soon enough."
I never told anyone about the girl operation.
Excerpt from "Hurry Up, Please, It’s Time," from Are You EVER Going to be Thin? (and other stories). Copyright 2004. 4-6.