Strawberry picking is a miserable means of earning money to supplement my meager allowance—but it gets me out of the house a good portion of the day. Bent over the rows like a hunchback, I suffer first from the cold (for though it’s summer, mornings take a while to warm up to the day), and then from the unrelenting sun focusing all its attention on my fair scalp, finding its way down my shirt and up my nostrils so that I feel faint, in danger of suffocation.
My hands ache and some days, in a fit of retaliation at wasting my summer in such a stupid, hard pastime, I eat as many berries as I pick.
The new radio I got for Christmas, a bigger version of the transistor I listen to in bed at night, helps me stave off boredom. My across-the-street best friend Bec and I, sing loudly (off key) to the top 40. When that gets old I amuse her with my bad imitation of Klinger from Hogan’s Heroes: call her dumbkoff! and goose step down the long row, turning about-face abruptly and clicking my heels together, while smartly tucking a ratty old walking stick under my armpit. When we are chastised for goofing off by Mrs. J, our bus driver, I whisper in broken German to her receding form, “I see nothink! Nothink!”
Normally too shy to stray beyond the shady trees surrounding the outskirts of the woods, one day during my 12th summer a spirit of boldness overtakes me, propelling me deep into the cool woods, where I know the older kids hang out during lunch break.
“Hey! Where’re you going?” Bec calls after me. I throw her a look over my shoulder, take note of her puzzled expression, and shrug.
“C’mon, man,” she cries. I don’t understand the pleading tone to her voice.
Off to my left, a boy yells, “Hey, better not come any closer unless you wanna get raped!”
This is followed by guffaws and much snickering all around me, and hearty agreement from the others lurking invisibly in the woods. I stop in my tracks, sensing danger.
“What’s ‘rape’ mean?” I holler out, much to their delight.
Suddenly I am propelled backwards by the neck of my T-shirt, and Bec is all but hissing at me to shut up.
I twirl around so fast to break free of her grasp that we stumble into one another, and nearly bump heads like 2 stooges.
“What!” I am so furious with her for embarrassing me like that in front of these kids that I want to smack her for the first time in our friendship.
“Don’t be stupid.” Her eyes, unaccountably, fill with tears.
“What,” I repeat. “Why did you drag me away like that?”
She averts her gaze, staring off into the distance. “Because of what those boys wanted to do to you,” she says in a quiet voice.
To a background of inane cat calls fueled by my aborted trek into the woods, Bec explains the definition of the word ‘rape.’
Oh. The one 4 letter word my step-dad never taught me.