**From 2001, originally appeared in a UK short story collection, now 11 years removed, sans ToughSkins, my name was finally called”
The Tao of ToughSkins
It looks like the bottom of a tied balloon, so round and soft and utterly mine.
I have recently learned to appreciate my bellybutton more, and try to spend some time with it, on a daily basis. So often, at times or moments, emotional pain inspires us to retreat into the world of the known: the comfortable. Perhaps, pondering where the umbilical cord attached us, is one of those exercises. Anything that occupies our mind, everyman’s great tormentor and our one solace, is that, and it allows us to trick ourselves.
I have also recently known true pain and have sought any way to divert my attention: to imagine that tortured thoughts are like a beachball. When occupied, the ball is submerged in water but the moment the concentration breaks, it zooms to the top and pops out, and the cycle perpetuates itself unabated and never ceasing, or so it seems, until the shirt rises and I see my old friend.
Life is a cyclical event and at these times I often go back to the beginning of the circle. For this purpose, I go back to the burgeoning of puberty, that most confusing time for all of our species. When all problems were of a grand proportion and would never be recovered from. Now they seem so small, but the seared memories prove the voracity of the emotions felt.
I was 12 years old, and enrolled in the 7th grade at Memorial Junior High School, home of the Wildcats. For me, the transition from the friendly confines of my Elementary school was not an easy one. It was, as now, a venture into the unknown, unfamiliar faces, new surroundings and new expectations.
All one wishes for, at such moments, is to blend in seamlessly, and do nothing to warrant the label of ‘different’. I arrived on my first day and immediately felt different. Let me qualify my comments first. I always went to school clean, neat, and prepared for anything I needed. I always had new and clean clothes, but it was the choice of clothes that made me different!
I wore Toughskin pants by Sears Roebuck, a since forgotten line that had a reinforced knee which could be seen from the outside. It looked as if you had a metal plate under your pants, attached at your knee. This was during 1979 at the height of the denim revolution; Sassoon, Jordache, Gitano et al and my peers were right in fashion, and most bore a name on their derriere. I bore my mark on my knees, an indelible one!
There were several other unfortunates, although we averted eye contact and did not have a group, we knew of each other. I think we consciously did not wish to be seen together. Why draw more attention to our condition? If it were today, we would have had a support group and counselors to assist us. Perhaps even our own alternative high school, to cater to our special needs, and a separate prom!
Discovering the opposite sex is difficult enough, without any added burdens, but my school had an especially cruel Valentine’s Day custom. It allowed students to purchase carnations with messages to their peers: white for friendship, pink was a secret admirer, red for love. A huge flower-laden cart would be wheeled down the hallway, into your homeroom and names would be called.
I knew the outcome, and dreaded that day, as you would wear the flowers pinned to your shirt for the remainder of the day. The beautiful people would look like a parade float, completely bedecked in flowers, from neck to waist. I was more fortunate as my movements were not in anyway restricted! However, I did listen to all the names, and hoped that there would be some superior female who could see my inner qualities, but my feeble attempts with the opposite sex were rebuffed initially. I was labeled ‘a weenie’, equal to those in the A. V. squad or the Dungeons and Dragons club.
I now find myself again in that very same position, recently separated after a 10-year relationship. I am far different from the young lad in Toughskins: outwardly I am fairly good-looking and possess advanced communication skills, honed, no doubt, from persuading louts not to pummel me in Junior High. However, the feelings are still the same, and I have yet to find the person who can see ‘the light within’.
I learned from my early experiences that outward appearances mean little, and it is that which lies under the reinforced knee that counts. Even now, 20 years removed, I can see that few have learned that lesson with me. In bars, or in personal ads, everyone desires the same thing, an ideal rather than reality.
However, I am an optimist, still listening to the names, and knowing that some day I will hear my mine called.