Gonzalez Street was populated by an army of 7-year-olds.
Trekking through the battlefield of our suburban housing track wearing kneepads, rollerblades, and band tees for *NSYNC, Hanson, and the like, we occupied the club house, seized homemade cookies from unsuspecting countertops. We fought against faceless adversaries, like the incessant suburban predators that the news said were lurking around every corner–explaining why none of us were allowed to turn off of Gonzalez onto the intersecting Polk or Huston Street without adult supervision, conjured the soul-eating Bloody Mary in unlit bathrooms, spied on our parents as they tried desperately to tune us out by blaring Seinfeld, noting every misstep the characters took against the established Good Kid Code of Conduct—“Did you hear that? They just said SEX! Tehehehehe.”
I, of course, was the self-established General.
Because I had the tendency to be a rather demanding leader with occasionally drastic and unfair demands—“No, we can’t Parent Trap my parents, they are already married. We have to do it to your parents because they are the divorced ones.”—my troops would occasionally abandon me for a day, burning their friendship bracelets like the smoldering draft cards their grandparents may have thrown into the San Francisco bay. And while I have learned to contain this need to tell everyone how and what to do (usually because they’re doing it wrong), I would be lying if I told you that no boyfriend had ever pointed out what I like to refer to as my “leadership skills.”
One sunny summer afternoon, basking in the excruciating heat of California’s Central Valley, I decided that it was time for my troops and I to play.
“Alright guys,” I said, pacing up and down in front of my line-up, “We are going to play a game.” Caitlin sniffled, her index finger in her mouth. I paused pacing and shot her a glance. She had had a stuffy nose, but I began to worry that perhaps this was really a sign of insubordination.
“We are going to play Lifeguard. Everyone have their bathing suits?”
They nodded. We obviously all had our swimsuits on. It was 110 degrees in the middle of August. If our plans didn’t involve a pool, they definitely would have involved sprinklers.
“OK, in this game, we are going to make a whirlpool.” A few ears perked. Even my little brother, who was the most unruly of the battalion, enjoyed this game. Running in circles until the water could push you all on its own felt about as close to magic as we had managed to conjure, despite that a few of us had recently joined a crew of witches at our elementary school started by fourth graders who had seen The Craft. “We are going to make a whirlpool, and then you are all going to pretend to drown.”
Caitlin immediately started to cry.
“Caitlin, honey, what’s wrong?” I used my best mother voice to console her.
“I don’t want to d-d-d-d-drroowwwwnn,” she wailed.
I rolled my eyes. If my parents had only been smart enough to have me in New York City where I knew I belonged, I wouldn’t have to tolerate these weakling Suburban kids. But I had to make the best of what I got. I took a deep breath.
“Caitlin. You’re not going to drown. Keep listening,” I said, moving away from her and resuming my pacing. “You are all going to pretend to drown,” extra emphasis on the pretend this time, “and then I am going to save you.”
“Why do you get to save us?” Billy asked. He was the only one in the group who was also on the swim team, my usual reasoning to be the leader in all things water related.
“Because I’m the lifeguard. It’s my turn to be the lifeguard, when you’re the lifeguard you can save everyone.” I replied snidely.
“But why do you get to go first?” he retorted.
“Because it’s my house.”
This seemed logical enough. He quieted down.
“Alright you guys, is everyone ready?”
Silently, they all scuttled up the two-step plastic ladder, and scooted into the cold blue plastic-lined pool. I brought up the rear and assumed my position at the top of the plastic ladder.
“Everyone ready? GO!”
So they began spinning in a circle, walking with all their might along the bottom of the blue tub, some using just the tips of their toes to push themselves around, bobbing up and down in the water of the pool.
“Alright guys, now DROWN, DROWN!”
They all began fake coughing, spitting water into the air, screaming “help, help” with their arms flailing above their heads. I dove right in. First I grabbed Caitlin and dragged her to the safety of the plastic ladder. She seemed genuinely relieved which made me feel happy. I saved her, I told myself.
I got ready to dive for the next victim, but then, my mother opened the sliding glass door, “Honey, are you being Bessie?”
“Bessie” was the code word my Mom used when she wanted to tell me that I was being a diva dictator and needed to slow my roll without embarrassing me in front of my friends.
“MOM, THIS IS NO TIME TO BE POLITE. I’VE GOT LIVES TO SAVE!” I said, as I did a shallow dive and dragged my brother back to the ladder while he made fake drowning sounds. I had to admit he was a pretty good actor. I would have to consider him more seriously the next time I put on a play in the garage for my parents.
“Kids, are you alright?” she said, looking behind me at a pool full of limp child bodies.
They all popped up from their drowning positions and answered in unison, “Yes, Miss Youngblood.”
“Okay… Have fun,” she said as she slid the door shut.
“Guys, she’s gone. Drown again!” I demanded.
And I, of course, did save them all. And I did let the others have their turn at being the lifeguard, begrudgingly and with a lot of training and advice.
And while I do understand that you can’t make people do what you want, and I do try to say please and thank you, and I have learned to let people “do them” and not worry so much about being the star, sometimes you’ve just got to be a bossy bitch to get shit done.
And seven-year-old Megan, the General of the Gonzalez Street Battalion, could get some shit done.