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“Do they ever talk about what it was like then, your grandparents?”
“All the time. And they tell me how much better I’ve got it. The problem is, the better I’ve got it, the more they expect of me. In my grandparents’ time, for a black to graduate from college was really something. In my parents’ time, you’d better go to college ’cause you had a lot to prove. And my generation—my folks wouldn’t even listen if I said I wasn’t going. If I said I just wanted to work at Kmart or something, they’d say, ‘What part of no don’t you understand, girl?’”
When I got home from the hospital and was reading the comics on the sofa, I got a call from Mrs. Price, Elizabeth’s mother.
“Alice,” she said. “I wonder if you could come over for a few minutes. Is this a bad time?”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll be over,” I said. I knew that Elizabeth was at her piano lesson, and figured Mrs. Price needed to run to the store for something and wanted me to watch Nathan.
I slipped on my sandals and went across the street. Mrs. Price was wearing a backless sundress the color of grass, and had Nathan in her arms.
“I’m just getting ready to put him down for a nap,” she said as he grinned at me and held out half his slimy graham cracker. “Be back in a minute. Sit down, Alice.”
I went in the living room—the room with a huge photograph of Elizabeth in her First Communion dress above the couch. I could hear Mrs. Price’s footsteps on the floor above, Nathan’s sleepy whine as she left his room, and soon she was back. Mrs. Price sat down across from me and smiled. She has dark hair and eyes, just like Elizabeth.
“How’s the volunteer work going?” she asked. “Elizabeth tells me you’re working at the hospital.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’d never want to be a doctor, though.”
“Me either,” she said. “The only time I’ve been in a hospital overnight is when I had my children. Listen, would you like a Coke or something? Lemonade?”
What was this, I wondered? A tea party?
“No, I’m fine,” I said.
She nodded. “Alice, I wanted to talk with you because I know you’re probably Elizabeth’s closest friend. You and Pamela, anyway. But I’d like this conversation to be confidential. I mean, I’d rather you didn’t tell Elizabeth that we talked.” She waited.
“Okay,” I said, but I didn’t feel good about it, because I didn’t know what she was going to say next.
“How do you think she’s looking lately?” her mother asked.
“Great! Elizabeth always looks great.”
Mrs. Price smiled a little. “I meant … well, I know that you and Pamela and Elizabeth have been concentrating a lot on your clothes and looks this summer, and … well, I’m concerned about Elizabeth, frankly. I think maybe she’s taking this weight business too far, and I wondered what you thought.”
“I think she looks almost perfect right now,” I said. “Except that her shoulders are beginning to look a little bony. She’d probably look better if she gained a few pounds, but she doesn’t pay much attention to what I say. What I do know is that she wouldn’t look good if she lost any more.”
“I’m so glad you said that,” Mrs. Price said. “I was afraid maybe you girls had agreed to lose a certain number of pounds this summer—a competition or something. Because I just don’t like what I’m seeing in Elizabeth at all. If she eats, I don’t know what. A bite here, a bite there …”
“I guess I figured she eats as little as she does when she’s out with us because she eats more here,” I said.
“And I figured it was just the other way around,” said her mother. “That maybe she was filling up on junk food when she’s out with her friends. To tell the truth, Alice, I’m scared to death she’s going to be anorexic or something. When Elizabeth sets her mind to something, she’s awfully hard to stop. I just wanted to be sure that you and Pamela weren’t encouraging her to be so thin.”
“Not me,” I said. “One of the reasons we run in the mornings is so we can eat what we want. I do, anyway.”
“Well, I really appreciate your coming over,” she said. “I’m just not sure how to handle this, because I know that you’re not supposed to nag.”
“I’ll do anything I can,” I promised, getting up.
“Thanks, Alice. I know you will. You’ve been such a good friend to Elizabeth the last few years. We were so happy when your family moved in across the street.”
As I walked back home I wondered what was happening to us—Elizabeth and Pamela and me. Maybe fourteen was the year of the plagues. Maybe we were being punished for trying to make ourselves beautiful.
“Lester,” I said at dinner, “if there was only one feature about me you could change, what would it be?” I knew better than to ask for a whole list.
“Your brain,” he said, never taking his eyes off the sports page.
“Visible,” I said. “Appearance-wise only.”
“Your mouth,” he said, and went on reading.
I knew it! I’d always supposed my lips were too thin. Maybe I’d have to get a collagen injection to make me look pouty. I tried to see my reflection in the glass door of the oven. “It’s my lips, isn’t it? They’re too thin. Maybe I should have them enlarged.”
“No, you should staple them shut,” he said. “I’m trying to read the baseball scores.”
I looked over at Dad.
“Al, you look perfectly fine to me. You look more like your mother every day, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” he told me.
Sometimes what he says is exactly right.
The next morning when Pamela and Elizabeth and I were running together, Pamela said, “I don’t want to lose any weight; I just want to firm up my arms and thighs.”
“Me either,” I said. “I just want to stay healthy.”
Elizabeth didn’t say anything, just kept huffing away as we climbed the slope on the final leg of our run. So I added, hoping to appeal to her Catholic upbringing, “If I decide to marry and have children, I figure it’s my moral responsibility to be strong and well-nourished.” I was about as subtle as a jackhammer.
Elizabeth still didn’t say anything, but Pamela looked at me in disbelief. “Who are you? Mother Teresa?”
“I’m just looking ahead,” I said.
I noticed it didn’t have much effect on Elizabeth, though, when the gang got together that night. Pamela had relaxed the no ice cream rule, because one of the things we like to do is walk over for ice cream, especially now that the shop has become a Baskin-Robbins. Elizabeth got real talky, the way she does when she wants to hide the fact that she’s not eating. When the rest of us got our cones and she still hadn’t ordered, I said, “Elizabeth, what kind are you getting?”
“Oh … yeah,” she said, and then, to the girl behind the counter, “one scoop of raspberry sherbet.” She ate only a couple of bites, though, and threw the rest away when she thought no one was looking.
Actually, we had all noticed the girl behind the counter because she was new, she was petite, and she was cute. I’ll bet she was a size three, with short dark curly hair and deep dimples in each cheek. She was also a well-developed three, nicely rounded, nothing skinny about her. But she was funny and bubbly, and the guys were kidding her about what year she graduated from kindergarten and did she still wear training pants. She seemed to enjoy the attention. I felt like an awkward elephant in comparison. Her name tag said PENNY.
Mark had given her a hard time. He’d asked for chocolate and she’d no sooner put her scoop in that container than he’d said, “Uh, no, make that pistachio.” As soon as she reached for that, he’d said, “No, make it buttered almond,” and so on. Finally she had just packed a little of each into a cone and handed it to him and he’d paid.
Brian found out she’d moved here in June and had been hired just a week ago. “I am definitely interested,” he said about her as we sauntered home. “I love those curves!”
and pizzazz!” said Patrick.
I hoped Elizabeth heard. She only changed the subject.
I wore the ring with the big green stone in it to the hospital on Friday, and the first chance I got, looked at the patient register to see if Mrs. Plotkin was still there. She was. I wished I’d brought her something.
“Hi,” I said, going in to sit next to her bed, then realized she’d been asleep, and I apologized all over the place for waking her.
“Oh, never mind that,” she said. “I’ve got all day and all night to sleep. Not much else to do around here.” I was noticing how gray her hair was now.
“Look,” I said, holding out my hand with her great-grandmother’s ring on it. It was still taped at the back so it would fit my finger.
“Oh, my goodness! You still have it. Now isn’t that nice!” she said, smiling at me, and took my hand in hers, turning it this way and that so she could see the ring better. “I’m so glad I gave it to you, dear. It almost matches your eyes exactly.”
“I’ll keep it always,” I told her.
“It was supposed to go to my daughter, you know. Those were my great-grandmother’s instructions. Except that I had no children, so that settled that. Never had any nieces, either.” She gave my hand a pat, as if to put an end to the conversation. “Now. How’s the summer going?”
“About the same. Except Elizabeth’s mom is worried about her because Elizabeth’s so concerned about her weight.”
“Wasn’t she the pretty girl with the dark hair and fair skin? I think she was in someone else’s class.”
“That’s the one,” I said. “She had Mr. Weber.”
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Plotkin closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head slightly. “It always amazes me,” she said, “how some of the most beautiful girls are the most worried about their faces and figures. Why, look at the rest of us! The ordinary women. We got along all right, didn’t we? We married, had careers … All this concern over beauty!”
Her voice drifted off, and I knew for sure I had interrupted her nap and shouldn’t be there.
“I think I interrupted your nap,” I said aloud. “Besides, I need to get down to the volunteer desk and see what they want me to do.”
She smiled at me. “You’re so sweet to drop in like this, dear. I always wonder what my students do once they leave my classroom, and you’re one of the few who keeps in touch.” She patted my hand again. “Make every day special, Alice. Each one is special, you know. Find something every day to be glad about.” She winked. “And tell Elizabeth I said so.”
I smiled, too, and then, on impulse, I leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Have a good nap,” I said, and she smiled again and closed her eyes.
Gwen and I talked about her at lunchtime.
“When I first saw her at the start of sixth grade,” I said, “I honestly thought she was the ugliest woman I’d ever seen. Her face … her nose … her receding chin and buck teeth … I did everything I could think of to get kicked out of her room so I could be in beautiful Miss Cole’s classroom, but it didn’t work. And by the time I left sixth grade, I loved her more than any other teacher I’d ever had. It was as though she’d changed—physically, I mean. She just wasn’t ugly to me anymore, but I was the one who was changing.”
“I’ve got an uncle like that. ‘Uncle Ugly,’ we used to call him, but he was so much fun, it just sort of turned into ‘Uggie’ and that’s what we called him,” Gwen said. “Uncle Uggie. The smallest cousins never did know how Uncle Albert got his nickname. Didn’t even know what it stood for. But he wasn’t ugly to me anymore, either.”
I swirled the ice around in my cup and thought some more about my favorite teacher. “She said to make every day special.”
“She got that right,” said Gwen.
Patrick and I went to a movie over that Friday night. It was rated PG, but there was a real sexy scene in it—a woman in a black slip lying on top of a man, kissing him—and afterward, walking home, we stopped under some trees, and Patrick French-kissed me, putting his tongue all the way into my mouth, pushing it hard between my teeth, and I liked it. Liked the tight way he held me to him.
We were leaning against the trunk of a tree, and Patrick put his lips against my neck. “I go too far?” he asked.
“Huh-uh,” I murmured, actually wishing he’d do it again, and he did. We stood with our arms around each other, and I said, “I wish you weren’t going to Maine.”
“So do I,” he said.
Elizabeth invited Pamela and me for a sleepover Saturday night. She said her mom had suggested it, and I was sure of it when we were presented with hamburgers, pizza, and popcorn—the works. I guess Mrs. Price decided that if one thing didn’t tempt Elizabeth, another might.
Elizabeth did eat half a hamburger, though she didn’t touch the pizza. She also ate a few handfuls of popcorn and drank a couple sips of Coke. As we were getting ready for bed, though, she came into the room in her short pajamas, and Pamela exclaimed, “Gosh, Elizabeth, what’s happening to your knees?”
“What?” Elizabeth said, freezing to the spot.
“Look at them!” Pamela said. “You’re lost so much weight that your legs look like sticks and your kneecaps look huge.”
Elizabeth broke into tears. I glared at Pamela, but it was too late. I’d never seen Elizabeth like this before. She suddenly picked up a piece of pizza off the pan and threw it at the window. Elizabeth!
“Hey, I’m sorry! I …,” Pamela began.
Elizabeth threw another piece, and it splattered on the sill. We sat stunned, unable to say any more for fear she’d throw the whole pan.
“Justin thinks I’m too chubby! You think I’m too thin! I can’t please anyone!” she cried. She sat down on the bed, hands over her face, her shoulders shaking. I was scared out of my wits.
“Elizabeth, I’m really, really sorry!” Pamela kept saying. “I should have kept my big mouth shut.”
In answer, Elizabeth suddenly grabbed the last piece of cold pizza and crammed the whole thing into her mouth at once—stuffing, stuffing—tomato sauce running down her chin, a piece of cheese glued to her cheek.
“’Ere!” she said, gulping it down. “Satisfied?” As soon as there was any more room in her mouth, she grabbed a handful of popcorn and flattened it against her lips. And finally, after she’d swallowed, “I can’t please anyone!” she repeated, tears streaming down her face. “Not you or Justin or Mom or Dad! Why do I even try?”
“Yes,” I said, taking my cue. “Why do you?”
She wiped her mouth finally and sat breathing heavily, exhausted. “Why do I what?” she asked at last.
“Try to please everyone? Or anyone? What about you? What do you want?” Dr. Alice, that’s me.
She only started crying again.
“Elizabeth, are you going to go your whole life trying to please other people instead of yourself?” I asked finally, still terrified inside.
She didn’t even seem to be listening. “Nobody ever agrees!” she went on. “Mom says one thing, you say another …”
“Exactly,” I said.
Elizabeth blew her nose, but she was still crying hard. “Nobody likes me just the way I am.”
“Because we don’t know what you are, Elizabeth, if you try to change all the time,” Pamela said.
“You have to figure out the place where you’re comfortable and happy and healthy and then stay there,” I told her. “Never mind what anybody else says.”
“Yeah, but how do I know—?”
Pamela cut in. “If you’re always hungry and thinking about food, you’re not healthy and you know it. Or if you’re always eating every excuse you get and never letting yourself feel hungry, that’s not good either.”
“She’s right,” I said. “If you get to the place where you like yourself the way you are, Elizabeth, that’s how others will like you, too.”
We cleaned up the pizza mess, and Elizabeth went in the bathroom to wash her face. I heard the stairs creak
below and knew that Mrs. Price had probably been down there trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. Afterward we turned on Elizabeth’s TV and sat on her bed, finishing the popcorn. But every so often, Pamela and I glanced uncertainly at each other. Had we helped? Had we hurt? Elizabeth was the first friend we’d had who might be getting anorexic, and we felt as helpless as her mother did.
Monday was one of those wet, humid days in Maryland when it feels as though the Chesapeake Bay is floating just over your head and could dump on you at any moment. Everything you touched felt sticky, and there wasn’t any breeze. It was a pleasure to step inside the hospital and feel the air-conditioning cool my arms and face.
Gwen and I signed in at the volunteers’ desk and got our assignments for the day. I checked the patient register to see if Mrs. Plotkin was still there, and she was, so I was pleased I wasn’t assigned to physical therapy all morning.
I was supposed to stock shelves in the gift shop and then do magazine rotation in all the waiting rooms. That means weeding out magazines that are more than a month old and replacing them with current issues. Gwen was on mail delivery, and we passed each other on fourth and took a few minutes to leaf through an old People magazine to see which stars were still married to whom.
I had just changed magazines in the waiting room of the maternity ward—leaving plenty of Field and Stream, Sports Illustrated, Worth, and Newsweek for expectant fathers and putting the old magazines back on my cart—when I heard a code blue.
Gwen had taught me to listen for that. This very calm but determined-sounding voice announces, “Code blue, code blue,” and a room number, then a couple of doctors’ names. What it means is that a patient is having a crisis—his heart has stopped or something—and that those doctors are to go immediately to that room.
I had just turned the corner with my cart when I heard, “Code blue 517, code blue 517, Doctors Roland and Garcia. Code blue, code blue …”
I left my cart and ran for the stairs. My heart pounding, mouth dry, I reached the floor above and opened the door to the corridor to see nurses and attendants gathering outside Mrs. Plotkin’s room, pushing in a cart full of equipment. The elevator door opened, and a doctor hurried out and on down the corridor to 517.