The Meaning of Fuck
It was with care, but not care for the windowsill, that I inscribed the letters, ball-point tip grooving the layered enamel: F . U . C .K. I had no thought of trouble. I wanted to make the word take shape, to feel my hand follow the straight lines, angles and curves of the letters that had brought my eighth grade class out of its algebraic haze that afternoon.
The window’s brushed aluminum casement outlined three panes, a middle one fixed in place, and two on either side that cranked open, letting in the scent of persimmons ripening on the tree alongside the house. The sill’s curved edge pressed against my breasts through the cool white cotton of my St. Christopher’s uniform blouse. Six months before I wouldn’t have considered them “breasts,” might not have noticed the windowsill against them.
The window stretched along the back wall of my grandmother’s “blue room”–- my room for now, at the back of the house. Carpet, curtains, and walls: the lightest blue in the plaid of my pleated uniform skirt. The blue of the Virgin Mary. Placid. Blessed. Holy. A paler blue than the ink rolling out of my Bic pen.
Classroom 8A: past presidents to the left, the alphabet to the right, and Jesus in the center of a frieze going around the classroom. Mary Lee Spangler had almost solved a quadratic equation on the board for the class. “Solve for x,” I heard Sister Pauline say as I watched Mary Lee walk by my desk. I studied the specific curves contoured against the darts in her blouse. We all wore the same style, short-sleeved and boxy, with a wide band around the bottom that was not meant to be tucked in. So far, my darts expressed only possibility.
I was still wearing a “training bra,” one level up from the stretchy leopard-patterned stretch-knit top with matching bikini bottoms I had worn around the house all summer.
“I wish you would stop parading around in your underwear,” my grandmother told me as I stood with my back to her, in the light of the open refrigerator scanning the frosted glass shelves for a snack. “What if Monsignor Healy stops by?”
It was a risk I was willing to take and, mainly, it was hot and I couldn’t be bothered with more clothes. But now, in my training bra, with its articulated seams and the secrets of its clasps, I was developing a sense of what my grandmother called decency, and was usually adequately clothed to keep her quiet. I liked the idea that I was now in “training,” though I hadn’t figured out yet for what.
I’d been noticing my breasts brushing up against things more often. In the narrow quarters of my seat in class, I was startled at the pain when I bumped the left one on the edge of the desk as I bent over to get my geography book and pee-chee folder out of the compartment under the seat. For several weeks after that, I made close comparisons, my chin against my collarbone, certain I had stunted the growth in just that one, positive that I would be forever uneven.
“That’s not going to happen from bumping your desk,” my mom assured me, leaning into the mirror, smoothing Moon Drops over her cheekbones. Her bathing suit had a special pocket for the silicon prosthesis she left on the bathroom counter at night. Sometimes while she brushed her teeth, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and transferred its smooth weight between my hands.
Mary Lee had just reached the other side of the equal sign when Sister Dolores, the mother superior, walked into the classroom, her crepe rubber soles squeaking on the polished tiles. She lifted the chalk from Mary Lee’s fingers and instructed her to return to her desk. With arcing stokes, she erased the board.
Sister Dolores had a sense of timing.
An underlying policy guided her at all times and eventually she would make its content and its relevance to our moral composition explicit to us. Even in what might seem to be a small matter–potato chips on Wednesdays, which the school provided along with hot dogs–she wanted to teach a lesson. “No we can’t get barbecue potato chips,” she instructed me one morning after mass, standing in front of the racks stacked with pamphlets about preparing for marriage and child-rearing. “Your problem,” she told me, pulling the points of my collar through her fingers, “is that you get too many choices. Plain chips should be enough for you.”
She turned to the board, its surface the dusty black of her habit. The chalk clicked decisively at each juncture as the four letters filled the empty space.
By the time she rounded the curve of C, there was no mistaking what she was writing and everyone in the class was giggling and whispering across aisles. At K all movement ceased. She stared right at us, a stare intensified by the sharp upward curves of her black glasses.
“Not one of you in this classroom knows what this word means,” she said, her hair as white, her lips as dry as the chalk she pointed at Paul Beagle in the front row.
It could have been true in his case.
I crossed my legs, my pleated skirt fanning across my thighs, and sat forward in my left-handed desk, confident that at least as far as I was concerned, she was wrong. I knew what it meant.
I had been reading about what it meant for months now in letters from Lynn Nickerson, my best friend from New Jersey where we had both lived until the summer before seventh grade. Her family had bought a small farm in Tennessee and mine had moved to California to live with my grandmother while my dad flew small planes for the Alaska pipeline.
I looked for letters from her each day when I came home. My grandmother left them for me on the Mediterranean end table, right next to the candy dish, a dish that was never empty, and always promised a moment of suspension when I lifted its lid. Will it be jellied orange slices (her favorite), non-pareils (mine), or ribbon candy, with its edges that could catch my tongue and slice it clean, the taste of my own quick blood mixing with the sugar? I took whatever the bowl offered, picked up the day’s letter, assessing its heft, feeling the outline of the folded paper through the envelope and took it back to my room. Past the plaster fountain with its rubber grapes that hung outside the hall bathroom. I had recently started to close the door behind me.
When Lynn first moved away, we filled whole pages of our letters with horse drawings, often of two horse heads: muzzles together, huge eyes batting plush lashes, two quotation marks for nostrils, enclosed in a heart. In New Jersey, we each had a pony and spent all of our time at the stable together. We were convinced that our ponies, Ginger and Spirit, were in love.
In one of Lynn’s drawings, two horses stood on either side of a tree, their heads obscured behind the trunk as if they were making out with hearts billowing up out of the branches. In another letter, written in thick black magic marker, an unmistakably uterine shape surrounds Neni + Lynn, with “I WUV you. (hee hee)” off to the side. Right underneath it, in red, a wide open heart fills half the page. Inside it are our names in all caps, mine on top of hers, a plus sign between them. Then, “Bye!! I gotta eat now!!!!”
Even before she started having sex herself, her letters were filled with it: “After Red has her foal, mom wants to breed her to a jack to get a mule;” “We found out that Suzie’s pups aren’t full-blooded Beagles, cause a dog that looks like Kingie fucked her before we had her bred.” Lately, her letters had started getting more personal though. My pulse quickened as she reported starting her period in class. She had to leave the room. I admired her bravery, could not imagine just going back to class as she had done.
The day before, I read her letter with rapt attention, lying on my stomach on the chenille spread, the only stretch of white in the blue room, leaning toward it on the pillow as if I could actually hear her whispering the details. As she did when we would lie in the dark and she would describe the ranch where we would someday live, the exact arch of the neck of Arabian stallion we would someday own, tracing its steep curve on my back. As if I could feel her breath as she told me about “how wild Mark was:” “Well, one day when I was waiting for my bus, Mark came down from the High School (he’s a sophomore) and started talking about how ‘if you were horny’”–she traced the h in horny twice–“you could make love in ten minutes. Well the next thing I knew we were wrapped up in the stage curtains (standing up) and he had my pants down trying to get his cock in me.”
Even now cock shocks me.
“I knew it was getting late,” she continues, “just as we were about to make it (it’s hard standing up) they called my damn bus. I thought we’d never get out of that fucked-up curtain.”
I rested my cheek on the pillow and stared up at the glass mosaic my aunt had made of a chalice with the Eucharist floating above it, gold cord rays pouring down on it. The sun came in through the west window illuminating the uneaten candied orange slices still lying next to my face. I studied the light reflecting off the sugar crystals and felt the afternoon heat soak into the back of my legs.
Apparently fuck had been showing up on the playground at school, with its foursquare guides and basketball grids crossing the slanted parking spaces for the adjoining church. That afternoon, when Sister Dolores suggested we didn’t know what it meant, I joined the other students in 8A in snickering our dissent. Our confidence in our knowledge only steeled her gaze on us, “you think you are so smart, but did you know that this word REALLY means ‘Fornication Under Consent of the King.?’”
I don’t remember anything else after that.
I know she had to explain fornication, but the rest is gone. I was transported by the fluidity of meaning as she presented it. She completely turned the word inside out. Suddenly there was a whole crowd of words where there had been one lean syllable. I believed her, believed that she had access to the REAL meanings of things and that the one of which I had felt so sure was now somehow counterfeit. Still, I wasn’t sure what to make of her meaning: was this bad? I mean, somehow it seemed as if it should be okay, since it was “under consent,” but “of the king?” What did that actually mean? How would someone get this consent? Who gets it?
I’m not sure what her lesson was. She wanted the word reined in maybe, wanted it off the playground. The immediate effect on me was to charge it so that for the rest of the day, I could think of little else.
As I walked the five blocks to my grandmother’s, I took off my school shoes. I felt the concrete sidewalk under my feet. Holding one black loafer in each hand, I stepped onto the low wall of redwood trunk sections that led up the path to her house, placing one foot in front of the other, occasionally wobbling, then correcting myself.
I turned the word over in my mind, spoke it softly to myself, feeling the airstream move through my lower lip and my front teeth, the blade of my tongue arching up toward my palate, exaggerating the final consonant.
The main door was open into the small vestibule lined with dolls my aunt was collecting from the gas station. Free with a fill-up.
No letter from Lynn that day. No jellied orange slices from the candy dish. I went directly back to my room, threw my book bag on the dresser and looked out the window onto the wide lanes of traffic of Curtner Avenue, a street that until that year, I wasn’t allowed to cross alone. Across the four lanes, my classmate Rona Parisi played Chinese jump rope with her little sisters on the driveway, obviously unaffected by today’s lesson. On another day I would have pulled on a pair of shorts and darted across to join them. I watched Rona’s intricate footwork inside the stretched elastic bands.
The silver casement of the window gleamed in the afternoon sun, drawing my gaze to the long blank space of the sill. I opened the window wide into the heavy air thick with the complex fragrance of my grandmother’s yard. The persimmons almost ready to drop, almost soft enough for the cookies she would soon make. The black walnuts on the grass. The fading blooms of calla lilies my grandfather had planted thirty years before in the narrow bed under the window.
The faint smell of the kerosene torches and wet stones in the shaded grotto to Mary in the back corner of the yard.
I turned back into to the room, glimpsing my face in the oval mirror, its frame crowded with holy cards, and slid my bookbag across the dresser. I angled my pen toward the sill, shaping each letter slowly, as if I were uncovering something with each stroke.
I leaned in hard.
Kings, puppies, stage curtains, horses, schoolbuses, Lynn’s breath:
I wanted that word.
(originally published in Southword: New Writing from Ireland, #15 February 2009)