A cop slammed me into the back seat of a police car. A greasy bullet-proof Plexiglas sheet divided the vehicle in two; my cuffed hands laid on my lap. I leaned back against the sticky seats which reeked of body odor. Are people arrested for not wearing deodorant?
My cousin Jen, the accomplice, crossed her arms over her Mickey Mouse t-shirt as I snickered, desperately trying to stop giggling, even pushing my wide-open mouth up against sleeve- a clown on the verge of drowning.
“Laugh all you want sweetheart,” the police officer barked into the rear-view mirror. “You think this is a game? Lifting make-up? And at your age! What are you twelve?”
“Fifteen,” I mumbled into my flat chest.
At the station, a woman with bright pink lips escorted us down a sky hued hallway that led to our designated holding room containing: Filing cabinets, wooden desks and broken swivel chairs and, of course, bars on the windows (apparently a dungeon for irresponsible accountants). She released us from our handcuffs. I rubbed the reddened and sore insides of my wrists. We sat there for four hours crying- they’re gonna kill us– until my Uncle Dan and Auntie Barbara came and rescued us, paid the 500-dollar bail, and then killed us. Jen was sent to her room-solitary confinement. I was kicked out of his house. Fortunately, my parents were away visiting my grandfather during my Cool Hand Luke moment, so my brother had to pick me up before nightfall. All the way home, I cried in the back seat of our 1980 Chevy Nova.
All this for blue eye shadow.
From that day on, Uncle Dan couldn’t look me in the eye, yet kept my delinquency a secret claiming my parents had enough on their plate with a feeble granddad who had a urinary tract dysfunction. However, “ever again” became temporary. Just days after my arrest, Uncle Dan died of a sudden heart attack. My impulsivity with lifting beauty products, grounded in the fact that my parents were poor, came with severity: a dead uncle who wore heavy sport coats in summer.
At the funeral, Auntie Barbara broke her silence prompting my mother’s need to take me on a long erratic drive to St. Francis of Assisi- the church near the Red Lobster by the mall.
Father Medeiros greeted me at the chapels’ entrance wearing simplicity: a long brown hooded rob held up at his waste by a thick white rope. He moved his heavy black eyebrows up and down, sighing hello-quickly leading me into the confessional chamber eerily resembling my previous cell sans bars on the windows. At the room’s threshold, stood a statue of Saint Francis feeding stone doves by his sandaled feet welcoming both fowl and sentient beings alike.
“Let’s begin,” the good Father nodded.
I told him how I shoplifted and gave my uncle an aortic aneurysm. He listened intently, humming a dissonant tune to the angels that lived inside his head. After crying for ten minutes, intermittently wiping snot on my naked forearms, I wanted to leave. But he was a serious Catholic; sins could not be softened by freshly scented tissues, but with head-on confrontation- starting right in with unintentional murder. Let the snot run!
“Sure, you didn’t kill Uncle Dan,” explained the priest. “But, the level of stress didn’t help his already weakened heart.” He cleared his throat. “You’re bored. You need something to do after school. Some meaning, you know the saying. Idle hands….”
“Is there anything you would like to do Margaret? Anything at all that you are passionate about… that you can channel your energy into the positive workings of our Lord Savior?”
“Cheerleading,” but then added- to give it a spiritual angle, “for Jeeeesus!”
But it was true! Despite wanting to impress a man of the cloth who had coffee with my mother on Tuesdays, I wanted to cheer. I held an evangelicalism, even holy reverence for cheerleading, and for years, envisioned my imaginary pep squad egged on fan mania to fill seats. I believed that screaming about football passes, the Hail Mary, would lift me up to the Lord and be forgiven of all dark thinking and manifestations brought about by my bad karmic activity at discount chain stores. Cheerleading would protect me from temptation, from the Devil, from myself and from stealing blue eyeshadow.
On a warm Cold War autumn day, forty girls had squeezed into the wrestling gym for cheerleading tryouts. I moved slowly into the room and felt the soft black mats under my feet. Ghastly bright orange curtains were pulled open to reveal a brilliantly sunny afternoon day. I found a space and sat down and dug my long fingernails into the floor padding temporarily alleviating anxiety about my ambivalence between the superiority of pom-poms and my inner piety.
She had arrived. Coach Linda. A queen in burlap. Bull horn in hand.
She wore a dull gray dress (seemingly designed in Soviet factories of Stalingrad). The lifeless coarse fabric hung off her bony frame as she put her heavy terry cloth bag on the wrestling mat. From her sack, she pulled out a white pom-pom that had seen cleaner and cheerier days before the arrival of the Bolsheviks. It was 1984 and it would be accurate to say Linda was in fact less “Jesus” and more “Big Brother.” Because, at the end of tryouts, Linda would tell us who would live or who would be disgraced- much like Orwell’s O’Brien had done to the non-conformist Winston Smith in room 101 with face-eating rats.
“I can see you are wondering if this will be the year you join the ranks of our proud Brockton High Football Cheerleaders.” Linda’s amplified voice echoed against the high ceiling. She put down the horn and looked around the room as if waiting for some emotional response other than trembling knees against the floor.
“We have high expectations for our girls. You must maintain a C average and come to practice every day. Sure, the next couple of days will be challenging, but if you give it your all and demonstrate that you are worthy of a position on the team…then I welcome you.”
Linda divided candidates into six groups to make try-outs, “more digestible,” and had assigned me to team number two.
From the other side of the room was a squeal as if someone had stepped on the head of a squirrel. Two girls skipped towards our group. Frizzy hair bouncing.
Cheryl Pacotille and Adrienne Tarasevich.
Cheerleading would pave the way to moral perfection for wayward youth. But unfortunately, there were exceptions. Cheryl Pacotille and Adrienne Tarasevich. There were stories about these girls: going to parties with seniors, drinking, taking drugs…dating the business teachers. There weren’t enough Rosaries in the Vatican to purify their souls.
Once in our circle, Adrianne placed her hands on her hips as Cheryl immediately sat on the mat aggressively picking dirt out of her red long fingernails. The sunlight shimmered against her glittery purple blush, the chrome of Buicks.
Suddenly, an upperclassman briskly jumped in the center of our team; she was a contestant on a TV game show that involved bidding on luxurious luggage and a trip to Cancun.
“I’m Maggie,” she smiled filling out her bra like she meant it. “I am your own private cheerleading professional.”Maggie punctuated her sentences with a shake of her head- rattling her large and ceremonious hair fringe to the left and then right. “I am here to help you. It can be hard and scary. If you go home and practice every cheer each night, you will do great. Okay!” she shouted.
“Okay!” we mimicked.
But, apparently the response wasn’t good enough for Mags. “I didn’t hear you!”
“Okay! Okay! Okay!”
We yelled louder and stronger-irritated cab drivers cut off at every intersection around the world. Even, irreverent Cheryl stood up and joined our roar. Her dark red nails pointing to the sky in proletarian solidarity to our cheerleading cause.
Mags ordered us to go outside and wait for her on the “grassy knoll” near the cafeteria, which was really a dirt patch where Led Zeppelin fans smoked and hung out during lunch. I cleared a space for myself and kicked a discarded roach clip into a dead bush.
Our cheerleading expert told us to stretch to prevent any unwanted injuries because… “Many people didn’t realize how dangerous cheerleading could be.”
But regardless of my prior delusional achievements of owning “The Funky Chicken,” I soon found out (on the grassy knoll) that the cheers for football were more difficult than anticipated. The made for TV movie, The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, staring Jane Seymour hadn’t prepared me for this workout. At first, Mags started out easy, but as the day progressed, the cheers that she taught us were more intricate, almost epic.
One cheer was a wordy folk ballad about locally famed quarterback Ken McCoy, who was now a reliable dentist somewhere near Lake Winnipesaukee. Another one involved a series of stomps that felt more like a cruel hokey pokey for political prisoners of the gulag than a winning cheer to victory. Even the fierce Cheryl and Adrienne were huffing and puffing in rhythm. The drugs were getting to them. One girl, I think her name was Tammy, twisted her ankle doing the side split, thereby proving the theory that cheerleading was indeed precarious and dangerous. One mustn’t take this sport lightly.
I had to work hard for atonement.
“Remember,” Mags told our group, “that you need to be completely on the ground when you do your splits. None of this half- sissy stuff.” She jiggled her bangs glancing at Tammy maniacally. “You will never make the team if you can’t safely do THE SIDE SPLIT! I mean it!”
At the end of our practice session, Mags asked us to form a “smiley face” circle. Sore and tired, we hobbled around her with the exception of Tammy who was left alone by the brown bush to cry with an ice pack on her shin.
“You must go home and learn three cheers,” our fearless leader commanded. “You have to be ready. On the day of our audition, Linda might ask you to do all three routines!” Mags breathed heavily holding her fists to her forehead pretending to have a cerebral aneurysm. “That’s her style,” she softened her clenched fingers letting her hands drop to her sides. “Linda likes to take you by surprise to see how ready you are.”
The day before the audition, I arrived early to fine tune my performance. Mags informed us that Linda would be late-something about traffic near the city and a gynecology exam. I decided to stretch by the open window. I wore my Michael Jackson’ Billie Jean t-shirt. The manufacturer strategically ripped the collar to create the “torn look” which was all the rage due to the movie Flashdance (post nuclear apocalyptic chic).
I heard shuffling feet outside the wrestling room.
I approached the large rectangular window. Several other girls followed.
“You lying whore!”
It was Vince Marciano. He stood over the remains of Cheryl’s gaping backpack- objects scattered across the pavement: A geometry book, a tattered copy of Macbeth, a purple notebook, a wrapped-up tampon (thankfully) and a huge can of magenta Aqua Net hairspray.
Cheryl stood next to the enormous hair product. She covered her face with her slim fingers and red nails. Adrienne began to robotically rub her friend’s back.
“How do I know anything you say is true? Skank!” he roared.
Vince Marciano was more than an assailant of school supplies. He was a legend. Kids claimed he ripped out his braces with his bare hands and told the orthodontist to go fuck himself. For Halloween he dressed in his birthday suit causing Dean Applebaum to pass out at 7:20 in the morning. Despite Vincent’s most harsh and concrete attributes, the majority of the female student body thought he was a great catch.
Also, Jesus couldn’t touch him. The Lord himself had nothing on Vince. I saw him at St. Francis of Assisi each Sunday. Vince had sex without a care or a condom and somehow managed to remain a seraph in a clean jock strap because contrary to Vince’s gigolo ways, at church, he looked like an apostle. Every Sunday, he would kiss his mother’s cheek just before the priest’s homily even though Vince hung out with strippers the night before. There was once a rumor that he caught crabs from his escapades in brothels in Boston’s Combat Zone.
“You gotta hear me out Vince!” Cheryl screamed through a stuffy nose while Adrienne tried to pull her away from the fierce Vincent. He stood by a scrawny maple tree with his thick hands over his ears.
With all her rage, Cheryl became a punter in the Rose Bowl and kicked the can of Aqua Net into the air hitting Vincent in the leg. At that moment, his eyes became narrow. He placed his hands in the position for a take-down.
Swiftly, Vince’s football buddies approached the scene. They were colossal full backs that blocked out the sun and cast shadows across the refuse- Wizard of Oz trees. But instead of bark they had crew cuts. One boy started to punch his fist into his palm, as though undernourished Cheryl could throw Vincent’s tight end to the ground.
“Vin- Listen!” she screamed. “It’s yours!” It was her last attempt to rouse the legend’s anemic compassion. Her black mascara dripped down her cheeks. Adrienne found a Kleenex in her purse trying desperately to wipe Cheryl’s dirty face clean.
At this point, many girls had arrived since the beginning of the fight. It became more and more difficult for me to hide behind the orange curtains as warm bodies pushed and elbowed me into the revelation of open space. I heard a girl whisper, she’s having his baby.
As Vince walked away into the sunset with his meathead cavalry, Cheryl turned towards the crowd.
“It’s all over bitches!” she hollered at us-gawkers by the curtains.
Cheryl picked up the discarded can of Aqua Net from the sidewalk and hurled the hairspray towards the window-shockingly close to me; Enola Gay on the horizon. I ducked under the pane’s ledge just in time and watched the can spin across the black floor until it banged up against the cinder block wall adding yet another scuff to its already marred public school surface.
That night I headed to bed early (wanting to be well rested before auditions) and even managed to drift off, but woke up to sounds in the night. A car. A midnight plane. The wind blew long branches against my window open to the semi-dark city sky. I heard the rattling of an Aqua Net Can inches away from my cheek.
First there was Vince. I was beginning to have an existential crisis; how could I cheer and honor such cruel boys on the sidelines? But cheering wasn’t for the players. It was for me. God. Jesus and some holy sheep. The Pope? Stain glass windows? The Easter Bunny? The memory of one relative by marriage. I was making excuses. But, I came this far. I could not turn back.
And there were pregnant girls like Cheryl who captivated me-crushed vehicles in downtown crashes. Sex before marriage was forbidden in the Catholic faith. When a boy even went up my shirt, my dead relatives were watching. The ghost of Uncle Dan was omnipotent and privy to my most terrible deeds here on Earth.
Also, my fascination and fear around pregnancy was fueled by Father Medeiros’ little abortion movie night. Popcorn anyone? Right before our Holy Confirmation, Father made the ninth graders watch clips on abortions gone wrong to challenge the notion that a squiggle in the uterus must have a social security number too. We watched movies about bloodied up and vacuumed out full grown fetuses as if they were big enough for christening outfits, binkies and Mozart concertos.
“I should have never slept with him,” one mother cried at the end of the film-remorseful about her decision to end her pregnancy.
But where were the boyfriends or lovers in these abortion action movies? Perhaps he was off winning football games, teaching class, or ruling a small nation as she wept in secret- alone.
Could cheerleading wash away Cheryl’s transgression like it would mine- the Eucharist after the fall? But, how could that really work? What if Cheryl decided to keep the baby? The cheerleading uniform didn’t come in maternity sizes for a large loving bump under the enormous “B” not for Brockton but Baby. What would Linda think if she knew one of her girls was not only shaking her booty but knitting one too?
In the morning I felt beat-numb. In literature class, Mr. Woodward recited the lines of Lady Macbeth, a woman who had washed blood spots off her murderous hands. I fell asleep waking up in a pool of my own saliva collected neatly under my chin. Hell is murky.
I ate my usual flavorless state issued food (a byproduct of Reaganomics) and a diet pill.
When the last bell rang: I ran to the lockers, changed into my pink sweatshirt and sweatpants and headed to the wrestling room for the audition. I walked slowly into the space- the arena of pom-pom-to-pom-pom combat.
Cheryl and Adrienne sat in the usual back row. These girls looked “innocently cute” as they had discarded their usual heavy metallic make-up and wore matching polka dot hair ribbons. Mags ran towards Cheryl and Adrienne and gave them hugs. Cheryl‘s disposition was a sharp contrast to her display of abhorrence the day before. Vince versus fetus. Adrienne and Cheryl joined in while Mags sang, “White Lines’ ‘ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Finally, Linda marched into the room-pom-poms in her hands
“Let’s begin!” she announced.
The great coach perched herself on a director’s chair in front of the girls. She had her bullhorn by her side. She threw the pom-poms to the floor like rejected cheerleaders of past tryouts.
Mags began handing out slips of paper to all the girls. She gave me a small white square with a number on it. Good God.
“What did you get,” Mags asked as she handed another square to the girl beside me.
“One,” I whimpered.
“Well, at least you’ll get it over and done with. I was number thirty-seven when I tried out. Waiting for my turn nearly killed me.”
“Okay, now that you have your numbers, please move back to create a small stage,” Linda commanded, “sit down and wait to be called.”
We obeyed. In perfect synchronicity, we all sat down. Cosmonauts before a sanctimonious mission. Silence.
“Okay, who’s first?!” Linda shouted through the bull horn.
I raised my hand and moved towards our “stage.” I turned around and looked into the audience, my competitors. I saw all of their shiny eyes staring indifferently my way.
“Okay, Margaret, are you ready?”
“Yes,” I blurted.
“Do a split,” Linda demanded.
I moved my legs down to the floor and did a perfect split; anxiety has a way of loosening up the joints.
“Good. Now perform Cheer Number 3.”
What was Number 3? I stood there staring at my toes as if my aerobics sneakers contained a leaked code.
“Young Lady, you know what 3 is, don’t you?” Linda interrogated.
I shook my head yes, but stood there paralyzed before Linda. It was the combination of being first for the audition, not getting any sleep-nightmares about fetuses riding motorcycles on interstates-and the sheer agony of merely forgetting one’s name before a firing squad.
“Maggie, please demonstrate,” the burlap queen summoned up her jester.
Mags ran to the center of the room.
“Oh Brockton, you’re so fine…you’re so fine…you blow my mind,” she chanted, bouncing up and down.
“Right,” I muttered.
At this point, Linda tilted her head to the side, and scrunched up her nose- a Siberian husky.
You can do this! I tried to convince myself. I thought of Uncle Dan, blue eye shadow and my promise to Father Medeiros and myself. Find holy meaning in holy activities. Help me Jesus!
“Oh Brockton…,” I then finished the cheer with one perfectly aerodynamic cartwheel. I did it!
“Okay. Now do Cheer 2.” Linda demanded and lifted two fingers to make a peace sign or the Romanian hand jester banned on Broadway.
It was the wordy cheer about that famous quarterback. I knew it. Piece of cake. I started with two stomps and then… as I scanned the room, Cheryl lifted an imaginary Aqua Net can over her artificial curls. Attempted invisible assault.
I went brain dead.
“Well?” Linda cleared her throat, “are you ready?”
“Yes,” I squeaked- a mouse trapped in an engine.
But when I began my routine, THERE was Cheryl staring at me with her blood shot eyes. “I-D-I-O-T,” she mouthed emphatically.
In desperation, I retrieved a colloquialism from the dark underground of my id which seeped between my teeth.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii It!” I declared.
The audience gasped in horror. Linda gasped in horror. Mags gasped in horror. My dead uncle gasped in horror. Saint Francis of Assisi and his stone doves gasped in horror. Cheryl smiled.
Who are you?
Linda’s eyes widened.
“That’s enough! You need to stop.” The coach screamed and picked up her bull horn which was on full volume adding a Charlton Hesston (Planet of the Apes) quality to her voice. “We don’t want girls like you on our squad. Foul and disgusting with little respect for the precious ‘B’ that will be stitched on your sweater. YOU are not one of us, young lady.”
Linda asked for the next candidate, as I scurried off the mat defeated and dejected.
I turned around and looked at the girls one last time, and saw Cheryl leering at me-this “goodie-goodie” with coke rings under her nose. And I had actually felt bad for her once. But more importantly, I had lost my chance to be exalted. “Sorry, Uncle Dan.” I ran out of the room crying-feeling the fires of Hades under my leg warmers.
After my public humiliation, I replayed my horrible audition in my mind over and over again and imagined how I might plead with Linda. “Let me stay. Forgive my shit language. Cheryl made me do it!”
And, like a reformed Dostoyevsky character, I would proverbially be chained to that holding cell in St. Petersburg trying to understand what had happened to me.
For many days, I had often prayed.
“Dear God, I swear like a sailor. It’s fucking the truth. Help me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
And so, it was…
Cheryl and Adrienne made the squad. But within weeks, Cheryl was kicked off the team for her growing bump. Their once heroic coach took a short leave of absence after the school board threatened her with legal repercussions for a lack of moral guidance concerning pregnant cheerleaders. Months later, Cheryl dropped out of school to have her baby alone at 15. Vince won VIP for sending his team to the championships. Many claim the baby looked just like him: same stupid grin, same jet-black hair, same strong athletic legs, and same dull humorless eyes.
All year, I tried to live with my inferior status in school as a non-cheerleader as well as my seat in Hell. Yet, not making the squad was one thing and saving my soul was something else. I had to get in good with Jesus or God, Mother Mary, the Apostles-St. Francis of Assisi- the ghost of Uncle Dan. Or at least make Father Medeiros happy. So, I started babysitting and donated some of my money to the Spanish Leprosy Fund. The Catholic Church loves Leprosy for some reason, since it is all over the New Testament. They have a fondness for limbs falling off…colonies of the forbidden…lumps on skin.
My Auntie Barbara finally released Jen from her bedroom. Jen now fatherless. Auntie without a husband.
Reunited, Jen and I returned to the mall next to St. Francis of Assisi. My aunt warned us that she would personally saw-off our fingers and feed them to small woodland creatures if we stole as much as a speck of dust off of the K-Mart’s floor. Well at least she cared about animals.
Walking down the aisle of our original sin, Jen found the eyeshadow.
Approaching the cashier, I placed my money on the counter and there she was- Cheryl behind the register. Purple blush. Frosted Pink lips. Her name tag read “Cee-Cee.”
My cousin and I walked out the door into the Forget-Me-Knots day; the celestial color of Uncle Dan’s sport coat. The same coat he wore when he picked us up from the police precinct. The same coat he wore in his coffin. At the wake. At the funeral. Perhaps, in the ethereal. Without acknowledgement on both sides, we were just strangers. She rang me up, placed the item into a small brown bag, and stapled the receipt at the top to secure the purchase. I wanted to say…how is the baby? Did it hurt? Do you miss school? Are you glad you kept it? God will forgive? Are you glad to be a mother? Are you glad to be alive?