I can tell you where all the trouble started.
It’s not quite true that my troubles in life started on the school bus, which I took most days from where we lived when I was nine at the top of one of the hills right in the middle of San Francisco, but the story does start there, one day when I floated down the aisle, green lampshades and dark limbs brushing my arms, breathing water, aluminum portholes gushing sea air, the oarlocks creaking as the driver spun and roared towards the royal road that Father Junipero Serra first laid down, the old Mission way that leads down the peninsula, and then south, all the way to Loreto. San Francisco is and remains the city that it is precisely because of its situation. The city covers just the thumbnail, the right hand held open and gently curved, the negative space between thumb and fingers forming the bay, the left hand above, opposing, and enclosing the Golden Gate. The City is surrounded by water, almost an island, with the wide Pacific to the left.
The trouble started there, on the bus, with Amy Stone. Suddenly I was sitting next to her on the wide plastic seat running across the back row. The bus lurched around a corner, and our knees touched for a just moment. I felt warmth, a blue flash, a buzzing in my belly. She held her Walkman in her lap, the tiny wheels turning slowly inside her brown or red tights and the edge of her skirt on the seat next to a small red LeSportsac purse with two metal zipper pulls and I could smell her hair as it swayed, and as I watched in slow motion she reached up and pulled one side of the wire-and-foam headphones away just enough away so that I could lean in and listen.
That’s where the trouble started, with the first song from Foreigner’s Double Vision album: Hot Blooded. The heat of her breath, that was the trouble—it broke my bones. It left me trouble-snapped, chalk dust, fish scales, four frozen pizzas stuck together in a stack, the corner sewer grate dammed up and overflowing with the rain coming down and the water backed up in the gutter three houses from the corner, inches deep, but it seemed like feet.
The trouble started there, but not with her, not with Amy Stone, and not with her friend Tina, and not with Heather Duggan or her younger sister Melissa. The trouble didn’t start with my rocker friend Heidi who loved AC/DC and wore feathered earrings with her long hair and tight jeans, or Heidi’s little sister who I took on a date to a pizza place called The Sausage Factory down in the Castro. We sat and ordered pepperoni, and I paid, because that’s what men do on dates. I had just turned ten.
The trouble didn’t really start there. The trouble wasn’t with girls. The trouble was with me, and it really started after I skipped fifth grade, when I said goodbye a full year too soon to the California gold-mine mansion that was my elementary school, when I was forgotten by tetherball and marble stairs, racing paper boats in streams, and birthday parties at the Rolladium. The trouble wasn’t the past. The trouble wasn’t nine-year old Amy Stone whispering those lyrics: “Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?” That wasn’t the trouble.
When I started sixth grade a year early, I knew I’d missed out on something, but at first I didn’t know exactly what. I heard rumors. I heard stories and I dreamed, and the dreams may have already been colored by pages and pages of tits and much more from mags that we swiped and tore open and hid in stacks in drawers and collected and yearned for and referenced, for years.
I missed Amy. I missed riding the bus. I missed talking. I never learned how to talk. I never learned how to talk in the dark. I never learned what was real and what was not. I never learned what was ”hot.” I skipped fifth grade and I was proud. I thought I was smart, in my brown cords and my orange football jersey, my purple skateboard wheels and my roll of quarters for the video arcade. I was smart, but that didn’t help with that which I missed. Not fifth grade, but what happened after school in fifth grade.
People, in case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking about Spin the Bottle. Oh, it’s not a game. Not at all. It’s more of a…ceremony, a conjuring, a seance with a disco ball overhead and KISS on the 8 track. Six kids in a circle, watching an empty Coke bottle spinning on its side around a black hole—comforting, whirling, mesmerizing, marking the center, showing the way.
Whoever invented Spin the Bottle—well no, it wasn’t invented—Spin the Bottle sprung like Athena full-grown from the forehead of Zeus to fill a void in human nature that’s existed ever since the gods made the tragic mistake of giving us adolescence. This game is a solution to the crazy-making question of who and how do I kiss for the first time, a catharsis for desperate ten-year olds that makes sex real, and fun—and funny. As it is! As it should be!
I missed it, because I was too smart for fifth grade. Spin the Bottle—that’s where all the trouble started.