“Trade” — BFA thesis version

In fourth grade Ann sold her boyfriend Chris to Jenny for two chocolate cream-filled cupcakes. Chris had refused to marry Ann and wouldn’t even kiss her on the playground behind the slide. As part of the deal, Ann had to take Jenny’s boyfriend Mark, and everyone knew that Mark picked his nose and ate it. Ann made Mark bring her a candy bar every time he kissed her on the cheek, and she told him he had to kiss her because that’s what girlfriends and boyfriends did. She didn’t breathe when his lips touched her skin so she wouldn’t sniff the boogers on his breath.

It wasn’t more than a couple of days before Tina and Lizzie selected boyfriends from among their classmates, followed by Amanda, Nicole, and Charlene. By the end of the week, almost every girl in the fourth grade had chosen a boyfriend except for poor Kate who had to take Doug since no one else wanted him. Doug lived with his grandparents who were from some country that no one could pronounce. He wore glasses and smelled funny, like the weird rice and vegetable mixtures that his grandmother packed in his lunch every day. The other kids said it was stuff that she picked out of the garbage disposal and threw into a bowl. They held their noses and hummed really loudly when Doug yelled at them and said it tasted good. Doug never even had cookies for dessert, only plastic containers of fruits bathed in thick liquid that everyone knew was really snot.

But then Doug brought Kate a bracelet on the Wednesday after he had been declared her boyfriend. It was the fake-gold-chain kind with shiny paint that wore off in a few weeks, the sort you could get at the drugstore for three dollars, but it was better than a candy bar. Kate let him fasten it around her wrist and at recess all of the fourth grade girls clustered around her to examine the present. On Friday Doug gave his girlfriend a little sampler box of chocolates, and Kate kissed him on the cheek without the boy even having to ask. Encouraged in this manner, on Tuesday Doug presented her with a little wooden pin shaped like an elephant, painted red with gold and blue curlicues. That afternoon, he and Kate held hands as they waited in the bus line to go home.

Doug’s value had skyrocketed in just under two weeks, and Kate was offered candy, dolls, one week of lunch desserts, even Eric, the most popular boy in class, in trade for Doug. She refused. Then Nicole started reciting that it didn’t really matter how many gifts your boyfriend brought you if he smelled bad, what really mattered was how cute he was and how fast he could run. Her boyfriend Brian always won the races in gym class and told everyone that his mother bought him shirts that cost forty dollars each.

By this time Ann had gotten sick of Mark, so she convinced Hillary that Mark was a great boyfriend because he brought you all the candy you wanted and he didn’t really smell that much like boogers. Hillary agreed to give Ann her boyfriend Nick if Ann threw in some gumdrops. Ann sighed but gave her the gumdrops anyway since Nick’s mother made the best chocolate chip cookies of any mother in the fourth grade.

In the few weeks since the boyfriend trade had begun, Doug had given Kate two rings, six bracelets, a pair of pink plastic sunglasses, and three boxes of chocolates in addition to the first presents. The unfairness of Kate’s luck upset half the girls in fourth grade who didn’t believe that someone who ate weird food should be allowed to be nice. Emma was the first to have a “little talk” with her boyfriend Matt by the slide at recess. She quietly explained to him that if he didn’t bring her at least three chocolate bars the next day, she would trade him to Mallory, and everyone knew Mallory still wet the bed.

Some of the boys in fourth grade didn’t really care whose boyfriend they were. They were assured of their value because they were cute or athletic and knew that the girls were just being stupid girls. They were in no danger of getting stuck with a bed-wetting Mallory in the near future, or even having to surrender half of their dessert to sticky female fingers. But other boys, those who hung their coats on the lower racks in the back of the classroom, realized that there was status to be gained in the eyes of their peers through being paired with the right girl, and status to be lost through being attached to Mallory.

Matt was in the second of those two groups, and was compelled to bring Emma five candy bars the next day which she displayed at recess, safely tucked away in her Barbie lunchbox. Emma told her best friend Nicole about what she had said to Matt, and soon Nicole was dragging her newest boyfriend Aaron away from his soccer game and over to the slide to have a “little talk.” Aaron just drank milk at lunch the next day and told the cafeteria lady he wasn’t very hungry, but after school in the bus line, Nicole showed all the girls her four packages of gum. The next day the class was abuzz with news that Michael was grounded for a month because he had tried to steal two bags of red licorice from the drugstore across the street from school. Michael had told Sean that they were for his girlfriend Tina, but now that he didn’t have them, he was probably going to get traded to Mallory.

Sean was best friends with Aaron since both of them wore glasses and had mothers who wrote little notes on the napkins they tucked into their son’s lunchbags. These notes had to be removed from the brown paper bags slowly, casually, and placed on the lap to be ripped up into small pieces and thrown in the trash. Sean and Aaron had made themselves masters of secrecy. They had also noted the air of innocence their glasses lent them in the eyes of adults. It was Sean who realized this trust could be put to a higher use, and Aaron was first to be recruited for his plan.

Aaron took the role of distracter, asking to use the telephone at the gas station. After that he needed change for a dollar and directions to the nearest bus stop. Meanwhile, Sean went behind the corn chip display and loaded his backpack with cupcakes, candy bars, and gum.

“So I take a right at the tree and then a left at the mailbox?” Aaron knitted his eyebrows in ten-year-old confusion. He was lucky, the cashier scrounged for a pencil to draw a map. Sean exited behind his friend while the cashier traced streets and fire hydrants on notebook paper and Aaron nodded and smiled saying, “Oh, I see. Thank you.” He bought a pack of Doublemint on his way out to demonstrate his gratitude, and then met Sean by the pop machine outside. Together they went to Sean’s house and stored the afternoon’s take in empty shoe boxes under his bed. It was only a matter of days before two bespectacled ten-year-olds were topping the social ladder of the fourth grade along with Doug. For his part, Doug liked Kate much more than all of the confusing attention he received, thus he was happy to share in the prestige.

While Aaron and Sean continued to pilfer unsuspecting gas stations and convenience stores every few days to replenish their popularity, the formerly adorable Eric discovered that two pimples had sprouted on his nose and his sway over the girls of the fourth grade was beginning to wane. Danny’s famed bike was left in the driveway overnight and the front tire run over by his father’s car the next morning. Sprinter Brian twisted his ankle playing Little League and lagged behind in gym class relay races. For no apparent reason, Nick’s mother began to burn her famous chocolate-chip cookies. The two most well-respected boys in the fourth grade could read books at the tenth grade level, and rumors that both Aaron and Sean’s mothers kissed them before dropping the boys off for school were ignored as hearsay.

When Eric showed up at school with a necklace of pink pearly beads and Brian toted a whole box of chocolate-covered peanuts, no one was very surprised. The world had been turned upside-down and Mallory was the feared reflection in the eyes of every fourth grade boy. Silver pins shaped like daisies slipped out of a mother’s jewelry box in those precious minutes when she was cooking supper. A couple red silk roses from off the mantel would never be missed. While the baby-sitter was watching television, it was possible to drag a chair over the kitchen counter and reach the candy bars and gum on the highest cupboard shelf. These gifts were displayed near the coat rack before school or during recess, avoiding those adult eyes that would never understand the system.

Michael understood it too well, still grounded three weeks after he’d tried to slip the red licorice away in his coat pocket. He could not go outside, could not weed gardens or rake leaves for a few quarters, had been deprived of his allowance for two months. Michael’s mother bought no candy, and she didn’t own jewelry that would be appealing to the average fourth-grade female. Michael began to lock himself in a bathroom stall during lunch, trying not to make noise as he opened his brown paper sack and ate the sandwich and pretzels as silently as he could. Soon after his run-in with the law, Michael had been traded to Mallory and lived in fear that someone would make him kiss her on the playground at recess. He began coming to school just a few minutes before the bell rang, when all the other kids would already be inside. That way he did not have to risk long, embarrassing minutes by the monkey bars or swingset.

No one saw it happen. At that corner of the schoolyard there was a large tree blocking the road from the view of most classrooms. The driver swore he’d had his turn signal on, had seen the boy cross safely to the other side of the street. He thought the youngster might have dropped something in road, hopped off the curb and bent over, out of sight, to retrieve it. When ambulance sirens wailed down the street ten minutes after the tardy bell, everyone in the fourth grade plastered themselves to a window, squinting and craning their necks.

The medics tried to comfort the boy sitting on the curb, his body hunched small, wanted to inspect him for bruises or possible broken bones. In his hands Michael cradled three squished candy bars, their torn and tire-marked wrappers oozing caramel. He ignored the throbbing in his head, thinking of how the chocolate had slipped through his hands in a few brief seconds.