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I swallowed. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, Lester,” I said in a small voice. “I mean … we’ve lost Mom, and I—”
Lester walked over and gave me a quick hug. “Okay, babe, here’s something to remember when you worry that I’m recklessly, stupidly, carelessly walking too near the edge and my foot is going to slip: I don’t want to die, either. I have as much interest in keeping myself alive as you do. More, in fact. So I expect to be right here in a week, pinning your ears back as usual.”
I sniffled and hugged him, too. “Okay,” I said, then added, “and kissing Eva?”
“You’ll be back in a week as usual and go on kissing Eva?”
“No reason. I just thought … maybe she gets makeup on your collars or something.”
Lester blinked and shook his head. “You know what, Al? Sometimes you’re really weird. Weird and getting weirder,” he said.
“I know,” I told him. “It’s one of my talents. It’s what I do best.”
PAMELA AND ELIZABETH AND I KEPT getting up early to go running. Pamela’s already slim, so all our running only made her look better, muscles toned. Frankly, I couldn’t see that it made much difference in me—my waist and thighs, maybe. The biggest change was in Elizabeth. We’d been running now for about three weeks, and she had already lost the pudginess under her chin and in her cheeks. I could definitely see an improvement in the size of her stomach.
So it really surprised me once, when Pamela and Elizabeth and Karen and Jill and I were at the mall together, that Elizabeth casually announced she wouldn’t be going out with Justin Collier for a while. We’d just started down an escalator and we turned and looked up at Elizabeth, standing behind us.
“What do you mean, for a while? Are you going to Siberia or something?” I asked.
“I’m not dating anyone until I lose more weight, and I’m especially not dating Justin, after what he said about me,” Elizabeth declared.
Jill frankly stared. “Are you completely nuts? Justin’s only the cutest guy in the whole school. Just give the word, Liz, and I’ll go after him myself.”
“We weren’t actually going together or anything,” Elizabeth said.
“But he likes you! He took you to the dance! Elizabeth, what is your problem?” Karen asked.
“I’m fat,” Elizabeth said. “He called me chubby. I’m not going out with anyone until I slim down.”
Karen, who’s been slim all her life, I guess, said, “Boy, I wish we could trade problems. I’m always drinking malteds to put on weight—malteds with peanut butter in them, even—and as soon as I put on half a pound, I lose it again. Mom’s the same way. So’s my grandmother.”
“What’s Justin supposed to do, Elizabeth?” I asked. “Sit home waiting for you to lose weight?”
“That’s up to him. He wants me to be thin, I’ll be thin. But I won’t go out with someone who thinks I’m fat.”
“Will you shut up about fat, Elizabeth? You aren’t even borderline,” said Pamela.
“Not to me,” Elizabeth answered.
Karen giggled. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s go over to my house and I’ll call Justin and find out how he really feels about Elizabeth.”
We all started laughing, and looked at Elizabeth. She just shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said.
Karen lives with her mom in an apartment, and her mom was at work. We sat around her living room while she looked up Justin’s phone number.
“Hey, doesn’t he work?” I asked.
“He should be home by now,” said Karen, and dialed his number.
Justin’s dad answered. Karen held the phone out away from her so we could all hear.
“Yes, just a minute, I’ll get him,” he said.
Karen giggled and rolled her eyes at us, and then she was saying, “Hi, Justin. It’s Karen. What’s happening?”
Justin has a soft voice, so it was difficult to hear what he said, but we all crowded around.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Karen was saying. “The heat’s brutal… . Oh, nothing much. A bunch of us went to the mall this afternoon… . Yeah, Elizabeth was there… . That’s probably why you couldn’t reach her, then… . Yeah, she told us. I don’t know what’s the matter with her, Justin. She’s got this thing about weight… .”
Karen! Elizabeth mouthed.
But Karen barreled on: “I don’t know what you said to her, but she… . I know! We’ve all told her, but—”
Suddenly Jill grabbed the phone out of Karen’s hand and, raising her voice just a little, speaking a little more breathy, she said, “Hi, Justin, it’s me. Elizabeth.”
“Jill!” Elizabeth hissed, lunging for the phone, but Jill turned her back. She honestly did sound like Elizabeth.
“Oh, Karen’s just kidding around,” Jill said. There was a long pause, and we all wished we could hear what Justin was saying. “Okay, then,” Jill said finally. “What do you like about me?”
Elizabeth covered her face with her hands.
“My eyes, yes …,” Jill repeated, grinning and nodding toward the rest of us. “My hair … my what?” She opened her mouth in surprise, and motioned toward her butt. We were sure Jill was making it up, and Pamela grabbed the phone from her hands.
“Justin, that was Jill, not Elizabeth, and this is Pamela … yeah, I know you’re confused. So are we. We are the most confused and confusing girls in Silver Spring… . No, it wasn’t Elizabeth’s idea to call. You want to talk to her?”
Elizabeth violently shook her head and backed away. Pamela giggled.
“He says to say hello to everybody in the room, but he and his parents are heading out for dinner,” Pamela told us. “Bye, Justin.”
“Bye, Justin!” Jill and Karen and I screeched.
“You guys, that was so stupid!” Elizabeth said after we’d hung up.
“That’s what he said,” Pamela reported, laughing.
“Now that everybody in this room has flirted with Justin Collier, can we go home?” I asked, and Pamela, Elizabeth, and I said good-bye. If this wasn’t the best summer we’d ever had, it was certainly the silliest, I decided.
It wasn’t just exercising that was slimming Elizabeth down, though. Pamela and I discovered she wasn’t eating. Not much, anyway. When we’d order a pizza, for example, she’d take only one slice and pull the cheese off the top before she ate it. She carried this little calorie book around with her, and she wouldn’t take a bite of anything until she’d checked it out.
“I can eat all the strawberries and melons I want,” she said. “And I can have any vegetables, except potatoes, corn, and peas.”
“Oh, boy, that’ll fill you up,” I said. “You know, Elizabeth, half a bagel now and then wouldn’t hurt you.”
“And skim milk,” said Elizabeth. “I can have that, too.”
“What about eating everything you normally would and just taking smaller portions?” asked Pamela.
“Too risky,” said Elizabeth. “Once I had a taste of chocolate, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to stop.”
“What are you, a perpetual motion machine?” I asked her. “You’re not on automatic, Elizabeth. You can tell yourself to stop.”
“I know what I’m doing,” said Elizabeth.
The fact was, I don’t think any of us knew what we were doing. The summer between eighth and ninth grades was turning out to be the SMC—Summer of Mass Confusion. I was moody with Dad and Lester because they got to go somewhere and I didn’t; Elizabeth was having fights with her mom over food, she told us; and Pamela was fighting with her dad.
Pamela said that ever since her mom left, it was as though her dad were trying to lose her too. When she did something he didn’t like, he’d say, “You’re going to turn out just like your mother,” and that really ticked her off.
“If you don’t want me around, just say so,” she’d tell him.
But he did wa
nt her around, and told her so. It was just that they both blew up over every little thing.
On the Fourth of July, Patrick’s folks were entertaining a diplomat’s family and wanted him to be there. All my other friends were off with their families doing something different. Dad and I did something different, all right. We watched the fireworks on TV. We really know how to party.
The following night, though, about ten o’clock, I was folding the laundry when I got a call from Pamela: “Alice, don’t ask any questions, just meet me at the corner by the mailbox in fifteen minutes, okay? And don’t tell anyone.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’ll see you at the mailbox,” was all she said, and hung up.
Now what? I wondered.
Dad was watching an old Spencer Tracy movie on PBS, and at ten-fifteen, I called, “I’m going down to the mailbox, Dad. Be back in a couple minutes.”
“Okay,” he answered.
I got there before Pamela, but then I saw her under the streetlight a block away, walking toward me with a small overnight bag in her hand. I went up the sidewalk to meet her. “What’s happening?” I asked.
“Alice, you’ve got to do me a huge favor,” she said. “I want to stay at your place tonight and I don’t want anyone to know. Not even your dad or Lester.”
“Lester’s in the Rockies.”
“Well, I don’t want my father to find out where I am. We had this really big fight after dinner, and I walked out.”
“Where did you go? Where have you been all this time?”
“Sitting in the Greyhound terminal, but I don’t want to stay there overnight.”
“You know he’ll call here!” I told her.
“That’s why I don’t want your dad to know. You’ve got to smuggle me inside your house and I’ll leave early tomorrow morning. No one has to know I’m there.”
“Pamela!” I said. “I can’t!”
“If you don’t, I’ll go back to the bus station and spend the night there.”
I looked at Pamela in her short shorts and halter top, and knew that the last place she should be spending the night was a bus station.
I sighed. “All right. Wait outside till I give the signal and I’ll sneak you in the back door. If Dad’s still watching TV in the living room, you can come up to my room without his seeing you.”
We walked back to my house; I took a deep breath and went in. “Hey, Dad, want me to make you some popcorn?” I asked, hoping the noise of the air popper would drown out the creak of the hallway stairs.
“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s too hot for popcorn. If you feel like making milk shakes, though, I’ll take one of those,” he said.
“Sure.” The blender was even better.
I went out in the kitchen and poured milk and chocolate syrup in the blender, then added ice cream and turned it to high speed. I went to the back door and signaled Pamela.
Tiptoeing down the hall, I peeked in to see if Dad was still in front of the TV, then motioned Pamela out of the kitchen and she sneaked upstairs. I went back in the kitchen and turned off the blender.
“One milk shake coming up!” I said, taking it in to Dad.
“Thanks, honey. Aren’t you having one?”
“Yeah. I’ll make another for myself.”
“If you’ve never watched a Spencer Tracy movie, you’d like this one—Bad Day at Black Rock,” he said. “Sure you don’t want to watch? I could fill you in… .”
“No, I’ve got a good book to read,” I told him.
“Enjoy!” he said, and settled back down.
I made another large milk shake, divided it between two glasses, and went upstairs. As soon as I got in my room, I closed the door behind me.
“What happened?” I asked again, handing Pamela one of the glasses. “And we’ve got to whisper.”
She seemed more angry than anything else. “I’m going to teach Dad a lesson he’ll never forget,” she said. “He won’t let me do anything! Some of the bikers from school rode by, and I was just sitting out on the porch talking to them. We weren’t doing anything, and he came out and practically dragged me inside. He humiliated me!”
I knew all about being humiliated on the front porch. But I also know that when a girl says she “wasn’t doing anything,” what she sometimes means is “yet.”
Pamela continued: “Dad and I were absolutely screaming at each other, and he called me a slut. He said I’d turn out just like Mom. I slapped him, and he slapped me back.” She swallowed. “We’ve … neither of us … ever done that before. Afterward he went out back to smoke, and I just threw some things in a bag and went to the bus station. Let him worry all night long, I don’t care. It’ll serve him right.”
She took a long drink of the milk shake, and I wondered if she could even taste it. She was sitting cross-legged on my bed, and I sat at the other end with my shake, facing her.
“It’s okay to stay here, but you can’t run over without telling him every time you have an argument,” I said.
“I know, but this was the worst fight we’ve ever had.”
I sat there studying Pamela, listening to the movie sounds drifting up from downstairs, feeling pretty lucky, I guess, that Dad and I get along as well as we do.
“How are you going to use the bathroom?” I asked. Trust me to come up with practical questions, but, like Patrick says, I’m practical. “If Dad knew you were here, Pamela, he’d freak out.”
“I don’t know. I’ll just use the john once before I go to bed and again in the morning, and then I’ll leave,” she said. “I can brush my teeth in here.”
I leaned back against the headboard. “What’s happening to us, Pamela? You and Elizabeth and me? This was supposed to be a great summer.”
There were tears in her eyes. “I know,” she said, and her voice was as high as a kitten’s mew. “I don’t want to go live with Mom, but all Dad and I seem to do anymore is fight.” She began to cry.
“You’re both sad and miserable,” I told her.
“And angry. That’s what I am most,” she wept. “Sometimes I think I really hate Mom for what she’s done to Dad and me. All she cares about is herself.”
I just listened. There wasn’t anything, really, that I could say. I wished I’d asked Lester to look up Mrs. Jones while he was in Colorado and tell her what she was doing to Pamela.
I decided I’d better check on Dad, so I took our glasses down to the kitchen, making sure I rinsed them out and put them away. Then I went in the living room to collect Dad’s glass. He was just turning off the TV.
“Want another one?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I’ve had enough,” he said. “Say, how’s it going at the hospital, Al? Anything interesting?”
“Pretty much the same. I was in the hall when an emergency came in the other day. People yelling and banging doors open and attendants and tubes and everything.”
“Well, it’s a broadening experience. Everything new that you can experience will only make you wiser.”
“Everything?” I teased. “I can think of plenty of experiences you don’t want me to have.”
He gave me a look, and we were about to joke some more when the phone rang. I went out in the hall and took it before Dad could answer.
“Alice?” came Elizabeth’s voice. “Mr. Jones just called and wanted to know if Pamela was over here. He says she went out earlier and hasn’t come back!”
“Really?” I said. “When was that?”
“Around seven, he thinks.”
“Did he … was she mad or something?”
“He said some boys came by and Pamela was out on the porch with them, and then he and Pamela quarreled.”
“Oh, she’s probably walking it off,” I said. “I bet she’ll show up.”
“Well, you’re awfully calm about it,” Elizabeth said. “From his description, I’ll bet those guys were bikers from school. I’ll bet she rode off with them and they’re having sex somewhere, just to spite her father.�
Elizabeth’s imagination was off and running. I was tempted to tell her where Pamela was but, knowing Elizabeth, I was sure she’d feel guilty if she didn’t tell Mr. Jones. If she tried to keep it secret, she’d end up at confession on Saturday apologizing for me, too, and I didn’t want to put her through that.
“What do you think we should do?” asked Elizabeth.
“I don’t know,” I told her.
“Mr. Jones said he was going to get in his car and go looking for her. Maybe we ought to go with him.”
“I don’t think so,” I told Elizabeth. “I think we ought to stay right where we are, so that if she calls either one of us, we’ll be home.”
“Okay. But if you hear anything, let me know,” Elizabeth said. “I’m really worried about her.” And she hung up. Now there were two people worried about Pamela.
Dad stood in the living room doorway. “What was that all about?”
“Elizabeth says that Pamela had a fight with her dad and stormed out, and he’s looking for her. My guess is that she’s walking around the block.”
“Sort of late for her to be out, though, isn’t it?” Dad said. “They’ve sure had their share of trouble lately.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Al,” he said, “if you’re ever mad at me, don’t run off. Stay and argue, okay? Easier on my digestion.”
“Okay, if you promise not to run off with a Nordic-Track instructor,” I said.
“No danger of that,” said Dad.
I grinned. “How do I know you won’t go to England to see Miss Summers and decide to stay?”
“I’d come back just to see what you and Les were up to,” Dad told me.
When I went back upstairs, I closed my door after me and motioned for Pamela to be quiet. I threw my spread on the floor on the other side of the bed and made her sit down there in case Dad came up.
“Who was on the phone?” she whispered.
“Elizabeth,” I whispered back, and told her what she’d said about Pamela’s dad.