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The Grooming of Alice


Page 15 of 15

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“Are you back?” we kept asking Pamela. “Are you staying?” She looked a little heavier than she had before, as though she’d been on a fast-food diet, and she needed a haircut, but we didn’t care what she looked like. We just wanted her here.

“I’m back,” she said at last, after we’d squeezed the breath out of her. “Mom’s boyfriend is a total jerk. I told her so. And she sent me home. If she hadn’t, I’d have left, anyway.”

“But … your dad …?” I began.

“I called him from Colorado, and we had a long talk. I told him how I hated it when he said I’d turn out like Mom, and I didn’t like him calling me a tramp, either. I said he had to trust me more, and he said I had to let him know where I was going and when I’d be home, and I guess we both agreed to try harder. We’re also going to see a counselor. He set it up. So here I am.”

“You don’t know how good it is to see you!” Elizabeth told her.

“Pamela!” I said suddenly, grabbing her arms. “Dad and Miss Summers are getting married!”

Pamela shrieked. “Honestly? Oh, Alice! You’ll be in the wedding!”

“I hope so. It’s not till she comes back next year, though.”

Pamela stared at me. “You mean she’s not coming home right away? She’s going to stay in England and teach?”

“Well … yes. I mean, that’s what she agreed to do,” I said.

“I thought she went there to be alone and make up her mind! So she’s made up her mind. I’d think she’d take the first plane home. She can legally have sex every night if she wants it, and she’s going to come back next year?”

We sat there on the bed thinking about it.

“Maybe they just like to anticipate it—have something to look forward to,” I said at last.

“It doesn’t seem any stranger than you going out to Colorado to live, Pamela, and coming back again three weeks later,” Elizabeth observed. She studied Pamela’s face closely. “What exactly did your mom’s boyfriend do to you?”

“He didn’t slap me around, if that’s what you mean,” said Pamela.

That’s not what Elizabeth meant. “He didn’t sneak in your room at night and … and molest you, did he?”

“No, but the kinds of looks he gave me, I felt as though he’d like to. And Mom didn’t even notice,” Pamela said. “She’s so dense when it comes to her boyfriend. She only sees what she wants to, and makes excuses for him all over the place. I’ll bet he’s cheating on her and she doesn’t even know it.”

“That would be so awful,” I said. “Your boyfriend making out with someone else and everybody knowing it but you.”

“Well, that’s mom for you. She ran away with him on impulse and now she has to convince herself she did the right thing,” Pamela said.

But Elizabeth was still concentrating on Pamela. “You know,” she said, “even if you don’t want to tell us, Pamela, there is a hot-line number you can call.”

“I wasn’t molested!” Pamela yelled just as Mrs. Price came in the room with some ice-cream sandwiches.

She stopped and looked around, and then, when Pamela and I cracked up, she said, “Well, that’s good to know, Pamela,” and left the three of us howling on the bed.

We talked for a long time. I told Pamela about Lester and Marilyn, and about Aunt Sally taking us by surprise. She told us about the plane trip to Colorado, and how she’d had to sit next to this man who kept taking his false teeth out and putting them in his pocket, and then putting them back in his mouth again, and we laughed.

I called home finally to let Lester know where I was, and Pamela called her dad to say she was still at Elizabeth’s. We lay across one of Elizabeth’s twin beds and talked about all the things that had happened since we’d known each other—the Uplift Spandex Ah Bra, the time the boys tried to throw me in the pool, our trip to Chicago together, and the man who hit on Pamela …

But there was too much catching up to do for one evening, and finally Pamela’s dad came to pick her up around ten. I walked slowly back across the street, smelling a hint of fall in the air, enjoying a light breeze that meant the end of the heat spell.

I thought about the big things—the really big things—that had happened this summer—Mrs. Plotkin’s death; Pamela’s running away, then moving to Colorado and coming back again; Dad’s trip to England, his engagement; and Lester’s breaking up with Eva. Somehow the world of grooming seemed so trivial in comparison. I still wanted to look great and feel good about myself, but I wasn’t going to spend a lot of my life worrying about it.

You could have the best body, the shiniest hair, the clearest skin, great cheekbones and legs, and be as lonely as anything. Look at Pamela. Look at Eva. But life was full of second chances. Pamela was back, and the Three Musketeers were going to start high school together after all.

HOMECOMING

SEPTEMBER HAS ALWAYS FELT MORE LIKE New Year’s to me than January first. It’s such a brand-new start—new classes, new friends, new teachers, new clothes… . This September I was entering a school almost twice the size of our old one, and it was scary to think about being one of the youngest kids again instead of a seasoned eighth grader. I hated the thought that I wouldn’t be considered sophisticated anymore, and I’d probably feel as awkward as I used to.

“Hey, no sweat!” Lester, my soon-to-be-twenty-two-year-old brother said. “You’ll get used to it in no time—the leftover infirmary food, the—”

“What?” I said. We were sitting out on the front steps sharing a bag of microwave popcorn on the very last day of August. In fact, we’d just made a lunch of hot dogs and popcorn.

“Didn’t you know?” he said. “The food in the high school cafeteria is leftover stuff from the prison infirmary. But it won’t kill you. Of course, there isn’t any hot water in the showers, and—”

“What?” I bleated again.

“And the showers, you know, are coed.”

“Lester!” I scolded. If anything would drive my friend Elizabeth to an all-girls’ school, it was rumors like that.

“Hey, look around you,” Lester said, taking another handful of popcorn and spilling some on the steps. “Do you realize that practically every person you meet over the age of eighteen went to high school and lived to tell about it?”

“I know I’ll survive, Les, but when I think of all the embarrassing things I’ll probably do, all the humiliating stuff just waiting to happen …”

“But what about all the good stuff? The great stuff? What’s the next good thing on the agenda, for example?”

“Dad coming home this afternoon.”

“See? What else?”

“Patrick gets back on Saturday.”

“There you are,” Lester said.

He was being pretty nice to me, I decided, considering that he’d just broken up with his latest girlfriend, Eva, for which I was secretly glad, because I don’t think she was his type. She certainly wasn’t mine. She had starved herself skinny and was always finding fault with Lester. If they ever married, I figured it would be only a matter of time before she started criticizing me.

“Are you picking Dad up?” I asked. Lester’s working on a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Maryland. His summer school courses were finished, but he works part time.

“Yeah. I got the afternoon off from the shoe store. I figured Dad deserves a welcoming committee. Want to come?”

“Yes. But first I want to bake him something,” I said.

I’d already bought the ingredients because I’d planned this cake in advance. I once found a note on a recipe card of Mom’s for pineapple upside-down cake, saying it was Dad’s favorite, so I decided to make that.

Mom died of leukemia when I was five, so it’s just been Dad and Lester and me ever since. Except that Dad’s going to marry my former English teacher, Sylvia Summers, who’s in England for a year on an exchange program, and Dad was just coming back from a two-week trip to see her. One of the reasons Miss Summers went to Eng

land was to give her time to decide between Dad and Jim Sorringer, the assistant principal back in my junior high school. She and Jim dated for a long time—until she met Dad. But I guess she decided she didn’t need a year to think it over after all, because when Dad went to visit her, they became engaged.

Pineapple upside-down cake is really easy, especially if you use a cake mix. All you do is melt a stick of butter in a large baking pan, stir in a cup of brown sugar, add canned pineapple slices, and then the cake batter. I had the phone tucked under my ear and was explaining all this to Pamela, my other “best” friend, while I worked.

“… and when you take it out of the oven, you turn the pan upside down on a big platter.” And then I added, “Why don’t you make one for your dad? Surprise him.” If ever a girl and her dad needed to learn to get along, it was Pamela and Mr. Jones. Ever since Pamela’s mom ran off with her Nordic-Track instructor, Pamela’s been angry with both her parents, but she and her dad are trying hard to make it work.

“Maybe I will,” said Pamela. “You have any pineapple I could borrow?”

“I think so,” I said.

“We may not have enough butter.”

“You could borrow that, too.”

“Brown sugar?”

“Well … maybe.”

“Would you happen to have a cake mix?”

“Pamela!” I said.

“Never mind. I’ll go to the store,” she told me.

While the cake was baking, I did a quick cleanup of the house. I dusted the tops of all the furniture, ran an electric broom over the rug, made the beds, and wiped out the sinks—sort of like counting to one hundred by fives, skipping all the numbers in between.

Lester did the laundry and the dishes, just so the place wouldn’t smell like sour milk and dirty socks when Dad walked in. Miss Summers always has the most wonderful scent, and I could guarantee that her flat in England didn’t stink.

Of course, what I wanted most to know was where Dad had been sleeping while he was there, but I’m old enough now that I don’t just pop those questions at him. I’ll admit I’ve imagined the two of them having sex, though. If I ever get near the topic, he says, “Al!” My full name is Alice Kathleen McKinley, but Dad and Lester call me Al.

We had things pretty much in order by 3:45—the cake cooling on the counter, the laundry folded and put away. I decided to put on something a little more feminine than my old cutoffs, so I dressed in a purple tank top and a sheer cotton broomstick skirt. It was lavender with little purple and yellow flowers all over it, yards and yards of gauzy material that swished and swirled about my legs when I walked. I stood in front of the mirror, whirling around, and the skirt billowed out in a huge circle. Even Lester was impressed when he saw me.

“Madame?” he said, holding out his arm, and we descended grandly down the front steps.

Dad’s plane was landing at Dulles International, so we had to drive way over into Virginia to pick him up. I sat beside Lester, my legs crossed, feeling very alluring and grown-up. I was wearing string sandals, and my toenails were painted dusky rose.

“It’s going to be awkward, isn’t it, after Miss Summers moves in,” I said as Lester expertly navigated the beltway.

“I can’t eat breakfast in my boxers anymore, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

“I guess she won’t exactly be eating breakfast in her underwear, either,” I said. “Gosh, Lester, I hardly even remember Mom. I don’t know what it’s like to have a woman around. I’m so used to being the only female in the house.”

“Don’t feel sorry for you, feel sorry for me,” said Lester. “Imagine having two females here, taking over!”

The plane was going to be fifty minutes late, we discovered when we got to the airport, so Lester bought us two giant-size lemonades. We sat on a high stool in a little bar while we drank them, my feet crossed at the ankles, and my four-tiered skirt cascading all the way down to the floor.

Then we ambled around, looking in shops, until I realized that the lemonade was going right through me.

Lester waited outside the restroom, and when I came out again, I told him I wanted to check out a little gift shop I’d seen earlier. I was already thinking of what to buy Miss Summers for Christmas, and hurried on ahead so I could look around before Dad’s plane came in. Two guys, maybe a year older than me, came up behind me and, as they passed, one of them said, “Cute butterflies.”

What? I thought.

An older man passed on the other side of me and smiled.

Then, “Al,” came Lester’s voice. “Wait.”

I glanced around and saw Lester walking rapidly up behind me.

“Stop!” he whispered urgently, taking hold of my arm, and I felt the fingers of his other hand fumbling with the waistband of my underwear.

“Lester!” I said, jerking away from him, but he gave a final tug, and suddenly I realized I had walked out of the restroom with the hem of my skirt caught in the waistband of my yellow butterfly bikini.

“Oh, my gosh!” I cried, covering my face with both hands as several more people walked by us smiling.

“Just pretend it happens every day,” Lester commanded, urging me forward again.

“Everyone saw!” I croaked, feeling the heat of my face against my palms.

“Al,” he said, “people are far more interested in catching a plane than they are in your underpants. The world does not revolve around you. Keep walking.”

I uncovered my eyes. “Is this what it’s going to be like living with a philosopher?”

He shrugged. “Would you rather go the rest of your life with your hands over your face?”

I took a deep breath, and we made our way to the gate.





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