The Blunderbuss

If only I’d been a boy — but then, who’s to say being a boy giant is any better than being a girl giant?

Well, Hollywood, for one. The Hulk might not be the guy you want to share an emotional confession with, but if a power-hungry supervillain comes along: bam, he’s your man. Need to tame an ornery river? Paul Bunyon’s at your service. Fiending to escape from your miserable orphanage? Look no further than the BFG! And if you want real-life examples, there’s always the NBA. Remember Yao Ming? He was tall enough to make even me feel small, and people loved him. Loved him!

Whenever people try to tell me that I don’t have it so bad, I ask them to name me one likeable giantess.

My father liked to trot out my Great Great Aunt Edith, but as far as I was concerned, she was pretty much a nonstarter. The painting of her astride a white horse had appeared in the living room shortly after I hit my fifth foot, placing me in the heretofore unthinkable third standard deviation above average. The timing, as my brother Charlie pointed out, was suspect.

“And anyways, how do you know it wasn’t just a small horse,” I added, and my father, after a long pause, conceded that the horse’s size was not evident; there was nothing in the painting, save my apparent Great Great Aunt, to indicate scale.

I shouldn’t be so hard on my father — most people can’t even furnish a conveniently long-dead relative. “Just do Mom and Dad a favor and, like, get good at basketball. Or, I dunno, pole vaulting, maybe?” was my sister Anna’s suggestion. My brother Christopher, who had skipped a grade and even so took most of his classes at the nearby college, told me to stop looking for corollaries and figure out a way to “render your height immaterial.” Easy for him to say — he was straight up 50th percentile; all of my siblings were, as were my parents and their parents and everyone else in my life. Sure, Kindra Bassett was taller than all the boys in our class, but thanks to me, she too seemed regular-sized. She should have thanked me, with friendship, ideally, not just a likeable giantess. Instead, she was best friends with Cassie Silverton, possessor of the largest shoe-to-floor gap in our class. I used to stare at that gap until my eyes blurred, while my own legs spooled behind me like so many forks of spaghetti.

I don’t know how many people I asked to give me a likeable giantess. Asking demanded a certain level of comfort, and, as a giant, aka a freakazoid, that level was rarely attainable. I do know that  Julie Kim was the first person to give a satisfactory answer.

“Gerd. Norse goddess of light,” she said. “Easy.” This on the second day of fifth grade. On the first day, I’d been sitting on the tire swing during recess, legs stretched in front of me like skis, thinking about how there were 181 days left until summer vacation, and then trying to think about something else, like that maybe I would try out for the basketball team this year, just to shut everyone up, but first I’d need to get my dad to install a hoop in the backyard, where no one could see me practice, and second I’d need to get, like, Michael Jordan to be my coach, and even then I’d still probably flub all my shots.

I didn’t even see Julie until she was right in front of me.

“They should really make bigger swings, huh,” she said, placing one small hand on the rubber, next to my leg.

“I hear they do in middle school,” I said. I noticed that each of Julie’s fingernails was painted a different color, and her index finger was all but covered by its three rings — two mood rings and one elegant gold band with a large, square blue stone. (Later, Julie would tell me that the gold ring had belonged to her mother; it was her engagement ring. My own mother found this odd, but to me, it was just another example of how the rules were different in California, where Julie was from. In California, I thought, I might not even be a giant.)

“Middle school, hah. You should see the swings in college.”

“I should,” I agreed.

“I’m Julie,” she said.

“I’m Giant,” I said, because it was already there, underlying the talk of swings, and because, just that morning, at the bus stop, my father had reminded me to “hang a hat on my problems.”

Julie laughed.

“Fold your legs in, Giant. I’ll give you a spin.”

Julie Kim! She had moved to Holliston with her father, into the big grey house on Cedar Street. Mrs. Kim and Julie’s triplet baby sisters were supposed to materialize at some point, but two months in, it was still just the two of them. Until their furniture arrived, they slept on camping cots in the living room; when it grew cold enough, Mr. Kim sometimes built a fire in the great fireplace and let Julie and me roast hot dogs on special, long-tined forks.

Julie was tiny, nearly as small as Cassie, and I should have hated her for that alone, but I couldn’t; I was instantly, unreservedly enthralled. Julie bounced instead of walked; she loved to climb — trees, the off-limits boulder on the edge of the playground, the rope in gym class. She wore ragged flannel button-downs and boys’ jeans slashed just above the knee and hiking boots and knotted bright red bandanas around her long black hair. She had seen nearly every horror movie and harbored a borderline passion for Freddy Kruger. She had gone with her older cousins to an Eminem concert and could rap the words to “Lose Yourself” almost as fast as Em himself. She could fit ten saltines in her mouth — two more than Bobby Kirk. “You should be able to beat me, Giant,” she choked, spraying me with saltine flecks. “Not all of me is giant,” I protested, but I was laughing — it was only with Julie that I could laugh about my size.

Every day for maybe two weeks after she’d told me about Gerd, Julie brought me another Norse giantess. Gunlad, goddess of poetry. Ran, goddess of the sea. Hyrrokin, goddess of wolves. Eventually, the giantesses ran out, but by then I didn’t need them. Class picture day came, and for once I wasn’t in the upper right, crouched beside the teacher. At recess, I found myself playing foursquare — very badly at first, and then less so after Julie told me to keep my eyes on the ball. “Just follow the ball with your eyes and then your arms will follow it automatically. Your height can be an advantage, Giant.” An advantage? I didn’t believe that, but it did come to seem like less towering of a disadvantage (pun intended). Stephanie Friedman invited me to her birthday party — a downcast invitation, so curt as to seem prompted, but I took it. I had skipped Halloween since my second deviation, but that year, I went as a redwood tree, and Julie was the Pacific Wren that hung out on my boughs. In what was perhaps the year’s crowning glory — “use your height to your advantage, Giant,” Julie urged, again — I donned sunglasses and my mother’s leather jacket and purchased four tickets to Black Swan, the viewing of which gave me and Stephie and Krista Andio nightmares for weeks, though it merely caused Julie to spend hours clinging to her hallway bannister, attempting to get on pointe.

On the final day of fifth grade, Julie and I roamed the halls, singing out goodbyes to the art room, with its overwhelming smell of dried paint, the computer lab, whose rows of candy-colored iMacs never failed to trigger an eye roll from Julie, though I found them pretty, and the assembly hall, where the bully Elliot Washington had — twice — fallen victim to one of Julie’s beloved whoopie cushions. The cafeteria was empty, and we clambered onto the center table, where Stephie and Krista and later Julie had held court, swapping Pringles for Lunchables, adding so many butterfly clips to Krista’s hair that the red disappeared entirely, and debating, with varying degrees of intensity, whether Bobby Kirke was hot (Stephie), gross (Krista), or whack (Julie). (“What do you think, Elodie?” Krista had asked, in a way that made it clear she didn’t care but also that I had better get it right. “Short,” I’d managed, at last, and everyone laughed, even Krista. “Elodie likes the VP,” Julie hooted. Vice Principal Evans was pushing seventy, but he was taller than me.)

“Let’s lie down head to head so that our hair bleeds together,” I said, and Julie did so immediately, spreading her black hair out like a fan. Mixed together, my fingers couldn’t tell whose was whose, just as I’d hoped.

Two weeks later, Julie was gone, back to San Francisco — “you’ll have to come visit me, Giant. You can pretend to be my mom and we’ll get our noses pierced in the Mission,” and I was right back to where I started, hovering in the upper right corner.

That fall, I had another growth spurt. It would be my last, but I did not know this, and the pain that shot through my legs seemed directed, like a punishment from on high. “I must have been an axe murderer in a previous life,” I moaned to my mother, who laughed. She did not laugh when, after the growth spurt ended, leaving me at just over six feet, I refused to get out of bed. “You can’t make me,” I said, and it was true; I was too big. One day turned into three turned into a week. Desperate, my father stayed home from work and the two of them fireman-carried me into the car and then up to the school doors, but when they let go, I collapsed. After a brief, harried conferring with Principle Giest, my parents agreed that I would have lessons sent to my home until I felt “more like myself.” More like myself! It would take feeling much less like myself to get me back through those doors.

Julie’s postcard came about two weeks into my self-imposed exile. In her neat, block capitals, she urged me to come visit for Columbus Day weekend. A Tribe Called Quest was playing in Golden Gate Park and her cousin Nessie had already agreed to take her. “Nessie has blue hair. You’ll love her,” Julie wrote, and I smiled at that, the notion of myself as the kind of person who loved people with blue hair. On the back of the postcard, a seagull and a pigeon shared a perch atop a street sign. I smiled at this, too, and then I got out of bed and padded downstairs, into the kitchen where my mother and siblings were eating breakfast.

“If you let me go to San Francisco for Columbus Day weekend, I’ll go back to school,” I said, placing the letter on the counter. My mother bought the ticket right then, even though Columbus Day was only a week away. It was a mark of how worried the whole family must have been that not even Anna called it out as unfair.