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I went down the hall as far as I dared, my back flat against the wall. I saw Mr. Plotkin come out, his face as white as chalk, a nurse with him, holding him by the arm.
More technicians. Another doctor. Voices. I couldn’t move. The nurse walked Mr. Plotkin on down the hall in the other direction.
For a long time the people stayed in the room, and I stood unmoving in the hallway, like a potted plant.
And then, one by one, they began coming out. The cart with all the equipment came first, then one technician, then another. No one was hurrying anymore. Doctors stood outside the room talking in low voices, writing things on their charts.
When the nurse came back with Mr. Plotkin, one of the doctors put his arm around his shoulder. I closed my eyes and felt tears welling up under my eyelids.
I opened them again to see Gwen.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, looking at me strangely. “Mrs. Hensley sent me to look for you. One of the nurses reported a magazine cart left outside 409, and …”
I could only cry.
Gwen led me to the sunroom at the end of the corridor and sat me down on the wicker couch. She put an arm around me just as a doctor had done to Mr. Plotkin. I buried my face against her and bawled, and she put both arms around me and rocked.
“Was it her?” she guessed. “Your teacher?”
I nodded and only sobbed.
“Oh, girl, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“I just saw her last Friday!” I wept. “I never knew … I never thought …”
“Girl … girl … girl …,” Gwen soothed.
I sobbed all the harder and couldn’t seem to stop. “I wore h-her ring,” I wept. “And … and I even k-kissed her, but I never said what she really n-needed to hear, Gwen. That I loved her.”
FOR GIRLS ONLY
I WENT TO THE FUNERAL ON FRIDAY WITH Dad. Pamela had said she’d go with me, but changed her mind at the last minute. She doesn’t like funerals, she said.
“Pamela, nobody goes because they enjoy it,” I told her. “You go because it’s your last chance to say good-bye.”
“If I said it, she wouldn’t hear me,” Pamela said. “I hate funerals. I don’t need anything else depressing in my life right now.”
That much was true. But all week I’d felt this huge sadness. It was hard to explain. Not even Patrick understood. He wasn’t going to the funeral, either, because of his drum lesson.
“She was a good teacher, but it’s not like she was a relative or anything,” he’d told me.
“To me, she was,” I’d said, and immediately clouded up.
Dad didn’t try to analyze it. He waited till I’d stuffed Kleenex in all my pockets, and then we drove to the Methodist Church for the memorial service. It was a beautiful summer day, a day we all should have been out enjoying the sun, but instead I was saying good-bye to the best teacher I ever had.
I don’t know what I expected—a church packed with former students, I suppose; all the teachers from the elementary school. But there were only about a hundred people there, most of them in their fifties and sixties—neighbors of the Plotkins’, I guess, and people from her church. The only person I recognized was the elementary school principal.
I wished I’d sent flowers. Why hadn’t I bought a huge bouquet with a ribbon that read, TO MY BELOVED TEACHER? Why hadn’t I called up everyone who had been in sixth grade with me and insisted they come to the service? Why hadn’t I dragged Pamela, shamed Patrick into coming?
When we sat down, however, I realized that Mrs. Plotkin wasn’t there. I looked around for a coffin, but saw only the two big bouquets of flowers on either side of the altar. I looked at Dad quizzically, and he understood.
“Many people don’t have burials, Al,” he whispered. “They want their bodies cremated or donated to science, and the family just holds a memorial service.”
I nodded. I was relieved, I guess, because I wanted to remember her the way she was when she held my hand there in the hospital, and I kissed her. Remember the way she’d smile at me when I walked in her room, as though I were the person she wanted most to see in the whole world.
A man was playing the organ. I don’t know why organ music is always so sad to me. But everyone was very quiet. The principal sat looking thoughtfully out a side window. Dad reached over and put his hand on mine. I liked having it there, as though it could protect me from all the sad things that happen in life, even though I knew it couldn’t.
Mr. Plotkin came down the aisle with several other people—relatives, I suppose—and after they sat down in the front row, a minister in a black robe got up and read from the Bible—“The Lord is my shepherd …”—and then he said we had all come to share our memories of a fine woman and a wonderful friend.
Isn’t it weird how you never imagine your teachers doing anything else but teaching school? I remember how, when I first found out that Mrs. Plotkin was married, I tried to imagine her in bed, making love to a man. I felt tears again and brushed them away.
The minister talked about what a faithful member of the church Mrs. Plotkin had been—a member of the welcoming committee, the committee on church and society, the worship committee, and, of course, the choir. What a beautiful voice she had had, the many times she had sung an alto solo. All news to me. Since she had retired after thirty years of teaching, she had helped cook at a homeless shelter, tutored inner-city children, helped two nephews through college, sponsored an orphaned child in India, and was a docent at the Children’s Museum, he told us. Then he said that if any of us wanted to share with the others some memories of our own, we were welcome to do so at this time.
For a moment no one said anything. The minister simply sat down in a chair and waited. Then a man sitting beside Mr. Plotkin got up and said he was Mrs. Plotkin’s brother, and how he’d had a hard time in high school with algebra, and how his sister had helped him through it. He was probably her first pupil, he said, and people smiled.
A woman near the back said that she was a neighbor of the Plotkins’, and that whenever there was a crisis, any neighbor needing help, Mrs. Plotkin was the first one there. Several more people stood up and said nice things, and then there was another long silence.
This was all? My stomach tensed, my legs felt numb, my throat began to tighten up, but I knew I had to do this one last thing for Mrs. Plotkin. I let go of Dad’s hand and shakily got to my feet. Like the others, I turned and faced the audience. It reminded me of the sixth-grade play in Mrs. Plotkin’s room. I remembered how she had instructed us—those of us with speaking parts, of which I was not one—to speak up and enunciate clearly.
“I … I didn’t know Mrs. Plotkin as long as the rest of you have,” I stammered, “but I just want t-to say that she was probably the b-best teacher I ever had. She was kind to me even when I didn’t deserve it, and it made me a better person… .”
There was so much more I could have said—wanted to say—but it would have taken an hour. So I just sat back down, and Dad put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed it. Mr. Plotkin looked back at me and smiled. Once again, the tears came.
The minister stood up finally and read something by Mr. Plotkin about how much he loved his wife, and all the happy years they’d had together. Then the organ was playing again, and the minister led the congregation in prayer.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had stood up in front of my father and said that Mrs. Plotkin was the best teacher I’d ever had. Not Miss Summers, the woman he loved. I felt my face beginning to turn red. And then I realized it was the truth. I loved Miss Summers; she’d been a wonderful teacher. But it was pear-shaped Mrs. Plotkin who sort of saved me from myself. Who taught me that beauty on the inside meant a whole lot more than skin and weight and hair and makeup. So what was I doing spending so much of the summer thinking about myself?
When the service was over, I had turned to leave with Dad when I felt someone clutch my arm. It was
Mr. Plotkin. His face looked almost as gray as his suit, and the pouches beneath his eyes looked like little bags for carrying all the extra sadness that his head couldn’t hold.
“Alice,” he said, taking both my hands in his, “it was so nice of you to come. Thank you for what you said.”
“I’ll always remember her,” I said, and showed him the ring she gave me.
“I know,” he said. “She told me.”
“I’m so sorry she’s gone,” I choked.
“I know,” he said again.
I couldn’t see, because my eyes were so blurred with tears. Dad put his arm around me once more, and we went back out to the car. All the way home, though, I cried. The more I cried, the more disgusted I felt Dad must be with me. It was as though I was telling him that Mrs. Plotkin meant more to me than Miss Summers ever had, but I couldn’t help it. I cried in big gulping, gasping sobs, and when we got home, Dad parked the car in the driveway but didn’t make any move to open the door.
“I … I’m sorry,” I said at last, my face all scrunched up, puffy and feverish. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. It’s as though she were part of the family.”
“I think she was, Al,” Dad said quietly. “I think she came closest, maybe, to being a mother to you for a while. You never did, you know, get a chance to really grieve for your mom; you were too young to understand the finality of it. I think it’s a fine thing that you loved Mrs. Plotkin so much. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t miss her so much now.”
Pamela came over that evening, but she didn’t want to talk about funerals. We were both sitting around moping when Elizabeth called.
“Mom’s got this surprise worked up, if you guys want to do it,” she said.
What Mrs. Price had “worked up,” in fact, were three tickets to an all-day seminar called “For Girls Only.” It would be held at the Y the following day, and she had gotten the last tickets left. There would be two sessions in the morning, a box lunch, and an afternoon session, all for girls between the ages of twelve and fifteen. A nurse would talk to us about our changing bodies, a nutritionist would talk to us about diet, and a fashion consultant would talk about grooming, which is a weird word, in my opinion. It always reminds me of horses.
“We’ll probably be the oldest ones there, but let’s do it,” said Pamela, desperate for anything to pass the time.
“I’ll go if you’ll go,” Elizabeth said.
“I’m sure Dad will let me off at the Melody Inn,” I said.
So the next morning we let the running go, and took the bus to the Y.
“I hope they don’t spend the whole time explaining menstruation,” said Pamela.
“Mom said the emphasis was on looking good,” said Elizabeth.
I hoped they wouldn’t tell me my calves were too straight or my lips were too thin or that any other part of my body was out of line somehow. I didn’t want to think that implants and liposuction were part of my future. I don’t quite trust these grooming seminars.
We were glad to see that at least a third of the audience was our age. The room had salmon-colored walls, royal blue chairs, and photos all over the walls of interesting women and girls—news commentators, scientists, TV stars, athletes, artists, singers… . Some were fat, some were thin, some were young, some were old. FOR GIRLS ONLY, said a banner on the wall at the front of the room, and there were paper cups of orange juice and bowls of peanuts on the window ledge.
We sat around breaking open the peanuts and tossing the shells in the waste basket, asking each other what school they went to, getting acquainted.
The program director at the Y was a young woman in jeans and a polo shirt who welcomed us to the seminar.
“This is for girls only,” she said, smiling, “so if there are any boys here in disguise …”
She went over the program with us, then introduced the fashion consultant. I was glad to see that she weighed more than ninety pounds, and didn’t look as though she had been in a concentration camp for the last three years. Her hair was red—dyed, probably, but it looked good—and she was wearing a filmy green and gold summer dress with green sandals. She sat on a high stool and kept her knees together.
“The secret of looking good,” she told us, “is to feel good about yourself. If you’re comfortable with your body and your clothes, you can relax and concentrate on your friends and conversation. If you’re worried about being too tall, however, you’ll walk slouched over. If you think you’re too fat, you’ll be thinking about hiding your stomach. If you’re uncomfortable about your appearance, you’ll always be tugging at something, checking something, concealing something—and your friends will feel uneasy around you. The aim is to learn what looks best and feels best on you, how to dress and fix yourself up in the simplest way, and then forget about it.”
That sure made sense to me. Then she gave us all kinds of tips for looking better: Pay attention to the colors your friends compliment you in; if you’re short waisted and want to look longer from your shoulders to your waist, wear a belt the same color as your shirt. If you want to look shorter from your shoulders to your waist, wear a belt the same color as your skirt or pants …
Elizabeth, of course, was making notes, and Pamela and I figured we could just read what she’d written if we wanted to remember something. The consultant went on: A short, quick squirt of cologne is all you need, don’t overdo; don’t just brush your teeth, brush your tongue if you want to avoid bad breath; forget green and blue mascara, just accent the colors in your own skin …
Each of us got a color analysis and a few personal tips before the first session ended, and I was glad that the fashion consultant didn’t frown or gag or anything when she looked me over. “Nice skin,” she said. “Great eyes.”
We lined up for more orange juice at the back of the room.
“Well, that was informative!” Elizabeth said enthusiastically. We were all trying to figure out if the fashion consultant wore any makeup at all or had applied it so skillfully that it looked completely natural.
“Makeup,” said Pamela. “Definitely makeup. Nobody could look that good bare naked.”
The second session was on nutrition, and I’d bet anything this was the reason Mrs. Price had bought tickets to the seminar. The nutritionist, though, was a young perky woman in shorts and a tee who talked about body build and the whole range of weights that went with each height.
“Just a few simple rules, girls, to keep your weight in the right range, and they really are simple,” she told us. “You don’t have to count calories. You don’t have to weigh your food. Best of all, you don’t have to give up anything. First, if you know you’re going to have a big meal or a special treat, go easy the rest of the day and do twenty minutes extra of vigorous exercise. It’s a trade-off.
“Second: Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. Don’t put anything in your mouth until you know you’ve got a stomach—till you can feel it talking to you. Then eat until you’re reasonably satisfied, not stuffed, and stop.
“Third, fill up as much as possible on fruits and veggies. Eat all the fruit you want. Exercise every day, drink lots and lots of water, and then forget it. If you do all this, then whatever weight you are is the weight that’s right for you.”
After that, with a lot of giggling and moans and sighs, each girl was asked to step behind a little curtain—something like a voting booth—and get weighed and measured. Then she was given a slip of paper with her height and weight on it, and the right range of weights for her.
“Anything above this range is too heavy, girls. Anything below is too thin. But notice that there’s twenty or so pounds here to play around with. No two girls are ever alike.”
We had sliced chicken and avocado wraps in our box lunches, each with a bunch of grapes, carrot sticks, and oatmeal-raisin cookies. And all the lemonade we could drink.
Elizabeth and Pamela and I sat together and compared our weight slips. The nutritionist said we could k
eep them private if we liked, but Pamela and I shared ours with each other. Pamela was dead center, I was six pounds up from average, and then, because Pamela and I had shown her our slips, Elizabeth showed us hers: eight pounds off the range on the low end.
“Well, you do want to get rid of those bony knees, Elizabeth,” said Pamela. “You’d look great with another eight pounds.”
Elizabeth was quiet for a while. “What if I can’t stop?” she asked finally.
“Stop what?” I wanted to know.
“Eating. What if I start putting on weight and keep stuffing and stuffing …”
“You never had that problem before, so why should you have it now?” Pamela asked.
And I said, “Just because Justin Collier made a dumb remark, you’re either going to starve yourself or go on a feeding frenzy? Don’t give him that power. You decide what goes in your mouth. Justin should have no say in the matter.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer, but she did eat all her lunch. All but the oatmeal cookies. Still, it was a start.
It was the afternoon session, though, that blew us away. The nutritionist took us for a walk around the Y, and then turned us over to a nurse for the third session. When we came back to the room with the salmon-colored walls and the royal blue chairs, we gasped and giggled and stared, for there on the front wall—the whole length of the wall—were anatomically correct drawings of nude boys. Fat boys, thin boys, tall boys, short boys, front and back.
We all began laughing and clapping, and the nurse—a plumpish thirtyish woman—laughed, too.
“Enjoy!” she said.
Even Elizabeth laughed. We gathered at the front of the room and gaped at the drawings. Every boy had a penis, of course, and no two penises were exactly alike. Some were long and thin, some were short and thick. Small and thick, long and thick, circumcised, uncircumcised, big testicles, small testicles … Some of the boys had no hair on their bodies at all, and some had hair all over their backs and abdomens. Some of the boys, in fact, had puffy breasts that almost looked like a girl’s. Skinny legs, thick legs, bowlegs, short legs … I don’t think any of us realized that boys were so different under their jeans.