This question marched in bold black capital letters made of iron-on felt across the white front of a baseball t-shirt with three-quarter marigold sleeves. The shirt was tucked toward the back of one of the dusty vintage shops that used to dot the south end of 41st Avenue. It was sheared along the entire bottom hemline, so it curled up along the asymmetrical edge. Back then my new friends and I pretended we wouldn’t rather be shopping in brightly lit, clean fashion havens far, far away from the sandy gutters and grimy windows of our little beach town’s thrift shops which would one day be replaced by the original Verve Coffee Roasters and the Penny Ice Creamery. Upgrades that make Pleasure Point, finally, truly pleasurable.
After wearing a Catholic school uniform in the neighboring county, I refused to blend in. Ever again. And this shirt refused to blend in as well. Who, I wondered, pondered the latitude and longitude of an entire state with enough ferocity to carefully iron felt letters onto a t-shirt, and why? It would be an instant conversation starter. And at fourteen, new at school and new in town, I needed conversation starters.
We leaned into the funky, weird closet of yesteryear. So what if we didn’t have anything that fit our hormonally warped young bodies? We would remake our silhouettes with the outlines of old army jackets and long crepey skirts, and unique one-of-a-kind ensembles that would represent our souls - our fresh teenage personas that blended into each other like poorly dyed fabric.
One glance at this baseball tee, with it’s very pointed yet vague question, a command really, and I knew it could reveal an aspect of my own personality to the rest of society. Upon sight, people would surmise that I was quirky and philosophical. Surely this query on the whereabouts of Pennsylvania was meant to be metaphorical; surely a study on existentialism.
But over time, the next six years to be exact, what I came to love about the baseball tee, what I found so compelling, was not the lingering question it posed to oncoming foot traffic. It wasn’t that I thought it might represent an aspect of my personality. No, what I loved about the shirt was what it revealed about people when they halted or slowed their pace to read it. The shirt became a somewhat accurate indicator of strangers’ personalities. “Whadduzyershirtsay?” I heard over and over.
Sometimes grown men would stop and read my shirt, careful not to let their gaze languish on my tiny, narrow chest, and then they would grin and exclaim, “Where in the hell IS Pennsylvania?” They walked away smiling. Sometimes people would approach from the opposite direction, their shoes scuffing the sidewalk, their eyes squinting and their lips moving silently as they made out the bold font. As soon as the question registered, they scowled, or pursed their lips, or shook their heads as they continued on, momentarily distracted. The font was impossible to ignore. It didn’t draw the eye so much as yank it. For a split second, it was the only thing a person could see, and for a split second they let their guard down and exposed some vulnerable piece of their heart. The shirt irritated and provoked, it confused and bewildered. And everyone responds differently to provocation.
In college, my friends were clued in to the mechanism by which a stranger could be evaluated when they encountered the baseball tee. It was a quick truth-teller. On campus, a pretty blond girl and her friend stopped me on the sidewalk. “What does your shirt say?...Oh. Why? Ew.” And it would later turn out that girl really was a bitch.
Some of my friends came to rely on the shirt as a divining tool at parties, though they would never wear it themselves. “Come out with us tonight, we’re going to meet some new people,” they’d say. “Wear the baseball tee.” Instantly, they weeded out would-be girlfriends and boyfriends who responded poorly to unexpected provocation or confusion. It saved us a lot of time.
Long before the shirt began to grow dingy with wear, I grew weary of seeing a side of people I didn’t want to know right off the bat. My friends sometimes felt the same way.
“We’re going out tonight,” they’d say. “There’s this guy I like...You should come too...Don’t wear the baseball tee this time.”
Jody Rae's (she/hers) work has appeared in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, From Whispers to Roars, and Phoebe Journal. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, "Failure to Triangulate". Her work can be found at www.criminysakesalive.com. Twitter: @JodyRae_