In kindergarten, I didn’t know what a cootie was, but I never thought boys had them. As far as I could tell, a cootie was just an excuse for girls to avoid boys on the playground. This made no sense to me. Boys played better games at recess – tag, dodge ball, hide and go seek. Girls played pat-a-cake. I was terrible at pat-a-cake, but I had a mean peg for dodge ball.
“Eeeeew, no! Go away!” Lauren squealed when Michael Cagliatella asked if he could push us on the tire swing. “Boys have cooooooooties.”
I shot her an evil eye. Michael Cagliatella didn’t pull my pigtails like the other boys in class and he once offered to share his chocolate milk with me at snack time. Michael Cagliatella was different and I was smitten. The way I saw it, Lauren and her cootie problem were getting in the way of my childhood romance.
“Boys don’t have cooties,” I replied indignantly as I watched my first love skulk off to jungle gym. “Boys have penises.”
Lauren’s ears perked up. “What’s a pensises?”
The truth was I didn’t really know what a penis was or what boys did with them, but I’d been such a know-it-all — I had better follow through.
“They’re kinda like toys and fun to play with. You’re no fun.” I got off the swing and joined Michael on the monkey bars.
I can only imagine the dinner table conversation at Lauren’s house that night: “Kathleen and I had a fight. She said I was boring and that she rather play with Michael’s penis.” Lauren wasn’t allowed to have playdates at my house any more. I could tell by the sideways stares that her mother and father had painted me as a five-year old harlot that their daughter was to have nothing to do with.
The scarlet letter didn’t really bother me because Michael became my “boyfriend.” Our favorite games were doctor-nurse play-acting. Michael liked to dress-up as a doctor and I would be his nurse. He even gave me a white hat with a red cross to wear when I came over. Michael would call the shots as we performed emergency surgery on his favorite teddy bear with the arm that fell off at least once a week.
“What should I do, Doctor? I can’t stop the bleeding?”
“Pass me the masking tape! Stat!”
“Oh, Doctor! You’re so clever!”
“Now the paper towel and the string!”
“Doctor! You saved Mr. Fuzzywuzzy’s arm. My hero!”
Even though this was Michael’s favorite scenario, I made him agree to change things up every so often – I mean, sometimes, I liked to be in charge.
Our role play abruptly ended that summer when Michael’s parents moved the family to California. I can’t say I was heartbroken. I acknowledged that I was only 5 and that there would be plenty more boys who’d want to play doctor to my nurse in the future.
Every so often, I think about Michael Cagliatella. Does he still have those trouble-maker’s eyes? Does he still wear those striped shirts and a middle part in his hair? What would happen if we had a playdate today? Would his parents finally let me sleep over? And if they did, would he still like to see me in my nurse’s hat?