On a recent night drive along Highway 101 in San Francisco, the scent of skunk entered the car. I found myself actually breathing it in with some enjoyment, suddenly taken back in my mind to car rides with a childhood friend to the ski resort Wintergreen in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. That was probably the first time I learned about that phantom animal smell, weaving through unfamiliar woods in another family's car.
I had almost forgotten about Elizabeth Sharp. The brief tenure of our friendship, which began at Seven Locks Elementary School, ended when we went to different junior highs. But even though we never spoke after Seven Locks, she was one of my best friends when I was there.
We were 9 and then 10 years old. I don't remember a lot from this period, but here's what I do remember.
I remember using jars to catch fireflies in her yard. I remember stealing pennies from the wishing fountain at Wintergreen and thinking we were getting away with something big. I remember that she was a tomboy who wore a big watch and that her mom once said to me when Elizabeth wasn't around, "You're so graceful. I always wanted Elizabeth to be more graceful."
It turns out that am not graceful (even though I believed I was for many years because of that one comment), and Elizabeth wasn't either. She was gentle and loyal and had a broad, kind face. When my school friends decided that we each had to have a nickname that ended in the "ee" sound (Chrissie, Steffie, Bethie -- give me a break, it was fifth grade), we ended up calling her Lizard, because she just wasn't a Lizzie. She was Lizard, who always wore pants and never any makeup or girly things.
To address the obvious question: I have no idea whether she was inchoately gay. She could have been, but she could have just as easily been an inchoate nerd. Nobody's sexuality was in play here.
Here's the main thing: At one harrowing point around fifth grade, most of my friends turned on me. I forget why, and it doesn't matter, because you could find yourself the target of a "fight" as a girl in elementary school whether you were looking for one or not. In that milieu, any detail one collected about a classmate had a dual bonus: It could be counted toward intimacy, or toward a reserve of ammunition to be fired later.
For my friends at the time, Bloomingdale's was the only place to shop. Gloria Vanderbilt, Sassoon or Jordache jeans were all desirable, as were collared Polo tees and Izod. When I let slip that my mom bought my clothes at Marshalls, it was a critical error.
This error came back to haunt me one day at recess during The Walk. At some point my friends and I inaugurated the marginally rebellious practice of walking the perimeter of the sports field. This was a departure from the usual activities of playing on the jungle gym, kickball, jacks, clapsies, hopscotch, soccer, races, or any other sanctioned playground activity. We simply walked around the field, in groups of three to five, talking. In retrospect, it was haughty and exclusive. At the time, we thought it rather progressive.
When I ran afoul of my cool elementary friends, they decided the best way to torture me would be to shadow me on the playground walk with a chant: "LET'S go to MARSHALLS where THEY have gay CLOOOTHES," they sang in unison, skipping behind me. A good walk spoiled.
I tolerated this for a time (it felt like a week, but it was probably two days) before finally confronting my tormentors and telling them that if they only cared about what I wore, I didn't want them as my friends. That's what my mom had counselled me to say, and to my astonishment, it actually worked: the chanting stopped and my "friends" were restored, at least until we got into junior high.
Usually when I think of this story, the focus is on the chant and the unlikely triumph of my mom's wisdom. What gets short shrift is that there was someone walking with me on the playground while I was being tormented: Elizabeth. We pretended to walk as if it were a normal recess, as if there was not a group of girls skipping behind us singing derisively. "Just ignore them," Elizabeth said. She walked alongside me until it was over, and that mattered a lot. I wasn't alone.
I don't think the real force of that gesture hit me until some 27 years later in a San Francisco taxicab, when the random skunk scent brought back that memory of childhood loyalty. I don't see her on Google, so all I can do is send this shout-out. Thanks, Lizard.