She was a tall, bony girl with long dark hair, bright green eyes and a thick, wide nose bent so firmly over her upper lip that the flesh seemed to have melted together. Boys on the playground pressed their noses flat against their faces and honked her name. Other girls, unless they were fat or misshapen in some way, steered clear of her. Christine was, by consensus, the ugliest girl in our sixth-grade class.
When she smiled, which was rare, it broke upon her face as if to express a joy she had pulled from somewhere with great effort, despite her accident. This is how I thought of Christine. She had some kind of mild genetic failure – a birth defect that may have been, in a certain way, more punishing than some extreme deformity she would be locked away with, or need to have surgically repaired. Christine seemed to hope to be forgiven for her face.
Tuesday mornings in winter, Mr. Marasco wheeled the record player to the edge of the gymnasium floor and slid a shiny black album from its cardboard sleeve.
Soft-eyed, full-lipped Marasco, with his deep voice, olive skin and strong jaw, was much admired by women faculty members. As he strode the halls, volleyball under one arm, they scurried to catch up and ask him pointless questions, eyelids aflutter.
Thanks to Marasco, dance had become part of physical education during the indoor months. He favored waltzes. We dreaded Tuesdays.
The gymnasium was cooler than the rest of the building, dim. Marasco left the lights off. Muted gray sunlight from the high dusty windows sifted down on us as we moved in tiny circles across the floor. Christine, with her chin on my shoulder, shivered. My right hand sought a place on her back. Together we shuffled our feet, tilting sideways from the waist. We moved like branches in the breeze. Other couples, quietly repulsed by each other yet locked in, rotated around us to the tinny music. Marasco leaned against the wall, nodding.
I chose Christine as my partner every time.
One morning late in the season, I went so far as to squeeze her experimentally. Her flat chest was warm against mine. Her hair smelled like apples. The fronts of our legs met. It seemed to me that we stopped dancing at that moment, though of course we didn’t. If we had, the situation might have become one of those ghastly high romantic moments of which Christine and I were oblivious – the kind Marasco probably lived for. A moment when we pulled apart, gripped each other’s forearms, stared into each other’s eyes, and realized … something.
She did not respond at all. I didn’t know what response I wanted, but I squeezed her again, slightly harder. Nothing. Then, with one of her fingers, she twisted a curl of hair on the back of my head, so gently I was almost unaware of it.
I found an excuse to visit her house. The excuse was Stefan, her brother, a lively third-grader flattered that I would have anything to do with him. Christine stayed in her room. Reading, Stefan said.
Their father, in a tee shirt and khaki pants, threw the ball with us in the backyard. He shouted at Stefan in Polish and laughed. On his pale inside of his forearm was a faded, blurry mark, an ancient tattoo of a symbol or number.
I got myself invited to dinners. These were hushed affairs, with the soft clink of dishes and smiles from the mother who passed them. My eyes met Christine’s briefly across the table. She smiled and, after dinner, went straight to her room.
She seldom spoke to me at school – a few comments about homework, the occasional glance across the room. It began to seem that whatever bond we had, we had only when we danced. Then one night she called my house. Stefan must have given her my number.
“It’s Christine,” my uncle said, grinning, winking, and licking his lips like a moron as he passed the phone to me. But another girl was on the line, with more in the background. The group squeaked and giggled.
“Christine says you like her. Do you like her?”
To admit you liked a girl, of course, was to admit you didn’t dislike her, which was about as scandalous as confessing affection outright.
“Do you like her?”
It seemed to me that I had proven as much. All those Tuesdays, the teasing I endured from other boys for dancing with her, the disgrace of the last-picked, from which I saved her. I shouldn’t need to answer. Not say the words.
“Do you like Christine?”
I tried to imagine how near the phone she might be standing, the expression on her face and the faces around her.
I said: “No.”
Muffled sounds. Another girl got on and said, “OK,” and hung up.
I would like to say that I lied because allowing others to hear my honest answer about Christine would have been an intrusion into the private waltzing world she and I occupied. But the truth is that I was ashamed, suddenly, of liking – or not disliking – an ugly girl.
After the incident, I quit dancing with Christine. Someone else got stuck with her. At school, she ignored me completely. Stefan and I remained the half-friends we’d always been, but I never went back to their house.
Eventually, made bolder by distance from his family, I asked Stefan at noon recess about the mark on his father’s arm. He told me what he knew about the death camp, the midnight escape. Stefan walked away in a hurry, almost running, and we hardly spoke again.
Decades later, when I gave my daughter the middle name Christine, I still had the agility at self-deception that I’ve always lacked at dancing. I explained to myself that I chose the name not to soothe guilt over my behavior as a fumbling, treacherous schoolboy, but because it’s a pretty name – like the ring of a tiny bell, perfect for an infant girl due to become a work of womanly art, certain to be loved when the right man’s eyes fell upon her. That’s true, too, but not the whole story.
Why not the first name, then? If “Christine” was so fine to me, why not put it first? Because I wanted my daughter to have her own identity, an unspoiled sense of herself, and I believed that her way of feeling in the world could be influenced by the first name I tagged her with. Any historical significance her first name might have for me, even unspoken, might pollute this fresh new thing, and I wanted her clean of all associations. Or so I explained it to myself.
But here’s what I believe is the real reason, or another one: I didn’t want the name Christine out front, exposed. It could not be a public label, a well-worn road always open for traffic, the name that anyone would use for ridicule or insult. The name an angry person shouted. Her name had to be in the middle, securely lodged between the first and the last. I wanted it enclosed there, surrounded, held.