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American Wife(5)
Curtis Sittenfeld

Attending school with children who still used outhouses, or who didn’t eat food that wasn’t a product of their own land and animals, did not make me haughty. On the contrary, mindful of what I perceived as my advantages, I tried to be extra-polite to my classmates. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but far in the future, in a life I never could have anticipated for myself, this was an impulse that would serve me well.

FOR A FEW years, I hardly thought of that day at the grocery store with my grandmother, Andrew Imhof, and his mother. The two people who, in my opinion, ought to have been embarrassed by it—my grandmother, for making the error about Andrew’s gender, and Andrew, for having the error made about him (if any of our classmates had caught wind of it, they’d have mocked him relentlessly)—seemed unconcerned. I continued going to school with Andrew, but we rarely spoke. Once in fourth grade, before lunch, he was the person selected by our teacher to stand in front of the classroom and call up the other students to get in line; this was a ritual that occurred multiple times every day. First Andrew said, “If your name begins with B,” which meant his friend Bobby could line up right behind him, and the next thing Andrew said was “If you’re wearing a red ribbon in your hair.” I was the only girl that day who was. Also, I was facing forward when Andrew called this out, a single ponytail gathered behind my head, meaning he must have noticed the ribbon earlier. He hadn’t said anything, he hadn’t yanked on it as some of the other boys did, but he’d noticed.

And then in sixth grade, my friend Dena and I were walking one Saturday afternoon from downtown back to our houses, and we saw Andrew coming in the other direction, riding his bicycle south on Commerce Street. It was a cold day, Andrew wore a parka and a navy blue watch cap, and his cheeks were flushed. He was sailing past us when Dena yelled out, “Andrew Imhof has great balls of fire!”

I looked at her in horror.

To my surprise, and I think to Dena’s, Andrew braked. The expression on his face when he turned around was one of amusement. “What did you just say?” he asked. Andrew was wiry then, still shorter than both Dena and me.

“I meant like in the song!” Dena protested. “You know: ‘Goodness, gracious . . . ’ ” It was true that while her own mother was an Elvis fan, Dena’s favorite singer was Jerry Lee Lewis. The revelation the following spring that he’d married his thirteen-year-old cousin, while alarming to most people, would only intensify Dena’s crush, giving her hope; should things not work out between Jerry Lee and Myra Gale Brown, Dena told me, then she herself would realistically be eligible to date him by eighth grade.

“Did you come all the way here on your bike?” Dena said to Andrew. The Imhofs lived on a corn farm a few miles outside of town.

“Bobby’s cocker spaniel had puppies last night,” Andrew said. “They’re about the size of your two hands.” He was still on the bike, standing with it between his legs, and he held his own hands apart a few inches to show how small; he was wearing tan mittens. I had not paid much attention to Andrew lately, and he seemed definitively older to me—able, for the first time that I could remember, to have an actual conversation instead of merely smiling and sneaking glances. In fact, conscious of his presence in a way I’d never been before, I was the one who seemed to have nothing much to say.

“Can we see the puppies?” Dena asked.

Andrew shook his head. “Bobby’s mother says they shouldn’t be touched a lot until they’re older. Their feet and noses are real pink.”

“I want to see their pink noses!” Dena cried. This seemed a little suspect to me; the Janaszewskis had a boxer to whom Dena paid negligible attention.

“They hardly do anything now but eat and sleep,” Andrew said. “Their eyes aren’t even open.”

Aware that I had not contributed to the conversation so far, I extended a white paper bag in Andrew’s direction. “Want some licorice?” Dena and I had been downtown on a candy-buying expedition.

“Andrew,” Dena said as he removed his mittens and stuck one hand in the bag, “I heard your brother scored a touchdown last night.”

“You girls weren’t at the game?”

Dena and I shook our heads.

“The team’s real good this year. One of the offensive linemen, Earl Yager, weighs two hundred and eighty pounds.”

“That’s disgusting,” Dena said. She helped herself to a rope of my licorice though she’d bought some of her own. “When I’m in high school, I’m going to be a cheerleader, and I’m going to wear my uniform to school every Friday, no matter how cold it is.”

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