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“What?” he yelled.
“That’s what he said, Lester. I couldn’t reason with him! He said I couldn’t be trusted, so—”
“So I have to suffer? I have to put up with Sal snooping through my things and asking what time I’ll be home, and giving me subtle hints about sexually transmitted diseases, and leaving clippings about alcohol-related deaths on my dresser? How could you be so stupid to think you could pull something like that on Dad?”
I couldn’t take any more. Pamela hadn’t called me, Dad was mad at me, Elizabeth was praying for me, and now Lester was against me, too. I leaped up from the table and screeched, “Everyone in the whole world hates me, and I might as well be dead!” Then I dramatically ran upstairs to my room and banged the door so hard that the house shook.
If there was ever a worse summer in my entire life, I don’t know when it was. Except maybe the summer Mom was so sick, which I can hardly remember. She died when I was five, they tell me. Somehow, having both Lester and Dad mad at me at the same time was more than I could bear.
I lay on my bed a long time trying to sort things through. All kinds of thoughts were going through my head. I think I was maddest of all at myself for sabotaging my chance to be alone with Patrick while Dad was away.
Ever since that drum lesson in Patrick’s basement when he’d kissed me, and again on our porch, trying a different kind of kiss—a different position, anyway—I’d remembered that zing going through my body—that heavy, warm, excited feeling, and it felt good. I wanted to feel it again, and part of the thrill is not knowing what Patrick will do next. I wanted it, and encouraged it, but knew I would never agree to having intercourse. You just sort of want to see how far a guy might go and how far you’ll let him before you stop. Which is probably what worries Dad. It’s not fair in the least, of course, expecting a boy to make all the moves and the girl to just react to them. How does he know what you want or when to stop? I wouldn’t want to be a guy and have all that responsibility for anything in the world.
I finally got up because the phone was ringing and Lester called up the stairs that it was for me. I answered out in the hallway. It was Pamela.
“Alice,” she said, “Thanks for letting me come over the other night. I hope I didn’t get you in trouble.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I said bitterly.
“Well, Dad and I had a talk, and I promised I wouldn’t run away anymore if he wouldn’t keep telling me I was going to turn out just like Mom, so maybe things will be different, I don’t know.”
“Yeah? Well, now my dad’s mad at me!” I told her. “He was furious at me for not telling him you were up in my room. I told you he’d be mad, Pamela, and now I’m grounded for a week.”
“Did you tell him it was all my idea?” she asked.
“So what’s he supposed to do? Ground you for a week? He’d just ask if we were Siamese twins, with one brain doing the thinking for both of us.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry, Alice.”
“Well, so am I. I can’t see any of my friends or go anywhere except the hospital and the Melody Inn.”
“We can call, can’t we?”
“I guess. He wasn’t that radical.”
After we hung up, I decided I might as well go downstairs. I hadn’t had any dessert yet, and I was still hungry. So I found a box of vanilla wafers, poured myself a glass of milk, and took them into the living room. Then I sat down in my beanbag chair, the box of cookies between my knees, and took out a cookie at a time, dipping it in the milk, then stuffing the whole thing in my mouth. Thrust, crinkle-crinkle, dip, chew; thrust, crinkle-crinkle, dip, chew …
Lester was catching up with a stack of newspapers on the couch. “What are you, an assembly line?” he asked finally.
I didn’t answer. I pretended I could turn him into a centipede just by deep concentration.
“Quit glaring at me, Al. I can feel your eyeballs boring through the back of the newspaper,” he said.
“Well, you’re being just as unreasonable as Dad,” I told him. “What if Eva called you some night and said she’d had this big fight with her father and wanted you to smuggle her into your room for the night? What would you do?”
“She lives in an apartment,” came Lester’s voice from behind the newspaper.
“But what if she didn’t? What if she lived at home and all her girlfriends were out of town and you were her last great hope?”
Lester slowly lowered his paper and peered at me over the top. “You are Pamela’s last great hope? Doesn’t she have at least a dozen friends?”
“You’re dodging the question, Lester. It would be the same moral dilemma regardless of who took her in.”
“Do you really think I could have a woman up in my room with Dad here and he wouldn’t know about it?” Lester asked.
“Answer the question, Lester.”
We heard the back screen slam, and Dad washing his hands in the kitchen.
“Well, even if I did, I’d choose a woman with enough sense not to flush the toilet when everyone else was downstairs,” he said.
“You see? See? You would have done the same. It’s easy to tell someone else what to do, but …” I realized suddenly that Dad was there in the doorway.
“Maybe I should be in on this discussion,” he said.
“Maybe you should!” I said, heating up. “Because all you’ve done is yell at me and tell me your feelings, but you haven’t listened to mine.”
He came on in the living room and sat down at the other end of the couch. “All right. Now that tempers have calmed down a little, maybe this is a good time to talk.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Lester. “I haven’t calmed down. Because of Al, here, and her gnat-brained friend, I have to put up with Aunt Sal for two weeks while you’re in England?”
Dad sighed. “She isn’t coming. She and Milt have already rented a cottage in Michigan the last two weeks of August, and of course I wouldn’t expect her to change her plans.”
“The earth is fair and the Lord is bountiful!” said Lester, and I felt this huge wave of relief. Relief and excitement.
“I’m ready to hear your side of the story, Al,” Dad said.
“Okay. I realize that hiding Pamela in my room was wrong, but when she called me that night, all she said was for me to meet her at the mailbox on the corner. It wasn’t till then that she said she wanted to spend the night at our house, that I had to keep it secret, and if I didn’t let her she’d go back to the Greyhound bus depot and spend the night there. And I knew you wouldn’t want her to do that. I told her it wouldn’t solve anything and that she should go back home, but she wouldn’t listen. What should I have done, Dad? If I’d said no and she went to sleep on a bench at the depot, and a sex fiend dragged her outside in the alley and raped her and slit her throat, and her father had a heart attack when he heard the news, and her mother committed suicide because she felt it was all her fault for running off with her NordicTrack instructor, and then I told you it never would have happened if I’d let Pamela stay here where I knew she’d be safe, how would you feel then? Huh? Huh?”
“Would you repeat that again, Al? I think I might have missed something,” said Lester.
Dad thought for a minute. “I think, in a situation like that, you should have talked her into coming here without making any promises, and then let me know she was here.”
“And betray my friend? You’d go right to the phone and call Mr. Jones, and he’d come and get her, and then she’d run away again and really go to the bus depot. Probably buy a ticket and take a bus to somewhere. And you saw what she was wearing, Dad. Those short shorts and halter top! I was just being loyal to a friend, and for that I get punished!”
“I didn’t say I’d send her home if you’d told me. But I would let her father know that she was all right. I’d say she was upset and suggest she be allowed to stay here for a while until things cooled down.”
“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t thought of that. But
, of course, Pamela’s whole point in running away was to scare her father silly. If anyone should have been locked up for a week, it was Pamela.
We were all quiet a moment. Then Dad said, “I want you both to know that my going to England to visit Sylvia means a great deal to me. But if I have to worry about what’s happening here at home, I won’t have a very good time, and neither will she.”
“You can trust me, Dad! I won’t do anything like that again while you’re away, I promise!” I told him.
“I want it strictly understood,” he went on, “that no one, no one—male or female—is to spend the night here, or part of a night here, while I’m gone.”
“I promise,” I said.
Dad looked at Lester.
“Okay by me,” he said, somewhat reluctantly, I imagined. But I knew that wouldn’t bother him much. After all, if Eva had her own apartment, Les could spend the night there.
“And I also want it understood,” said Dad, “that both of you are to spend every night here, and not just part of a night, either.”
I saw Lester swallow. “Define ‘night,’” he said.
Dad just gave him a look. “I want you each to look out for the other, but you are basically each responsible for yourself. If there’s disagreement, though, Les has the final say. Understood, Alice?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I gave Lester a look.
“Listen, Dad,” Lester told him, “We both want you to have a good time, and you don’t have to worry about us. We know not to leave anything cooking on the stove, we’ll remember to lock the doors at night, we’ll—”
“I’m not concerned about the stove or the doors,” Dad said pointedly.
“And I’m not going to do anything with Eva that I wouldn’t do if you were right here in town,” Lester added.
“I wonder why that isn’t particularly comforting,” Dad said, but smiled just a little.
Both Dad and I felt better when the discussion was over. He understood the pressure I’d been under to keep Pamela’s visit secret; I realized that she still could have stayed here if I’d told Dad about it; and Lester knew he had to stay here at night, and that Eva wasn’t part of the game plan while Dad was gone. It was Les who didn’t feel any better after the discussion than he had before.
Up in my room later, I was thinking again about Patrick and the two weeks Dad would be gone. I couldn’t invite him in, of course, but there was no rule about sitting out on the swing in the dark, just the two of us alone, without Dad watching from the window.
When I heard Lester come up to his room later, I went out and stood in the doorway, watching him unpack all the dirty clothes from his hiking trip. “Eeuuuw! It smells like a week’s supply of dirty socks!” I said.
“Ummm. Good. Man smell! Testosterone!” he teased.
“I doubt Eva would care much for it,” I told him.
“She doesn’t have to like it. She wasn’t invited along. You don’t take a woman like Eva hiking in the mountains.”
I thought about that a minute. “You might have taken Marilyn,” I said.
“Marilyn’s history,” said Lester. “Besides, this was a guy thing.”
“Les, how far can you go with a boy before it’s considered sex?” I asked.
He threw another pair of socks on the pile and looked at me. “Who are you? Monica Lewinsky?”
“Really. I want to know.”
“Hey, babe, sex covers a wide territory. Holding hands can be sexual. Hugging and kissing can be sexual. Hair stroking, arm caressing, back rubbing, foot touching, thigh grazing, knee patting, ear blowing, tongue kissing, finger locking, and eye gazing can all be sexual.”
“Huh?” I said.
“Anything that produces a zing, a ping, or a rush is sexual, okay? What you want to know, I think, is where do the okays end and the no-nos begin. Right?”
“And that’s something you have to decide for yourself. Aunt Sal’s definition of sex, she told me once, is anything you wouldn’t do in front of your parents.”
“Which is most of the above,” I said, discouraged. “Elizabeth says a nun told her to keep both feet on the floor at all times, but Pamela says only if you keep your knees together.”
“Which, of course, leaves the whole upper torso fair game,” said Lester. “And it also doesn’t deal with the question of what it does to a woman’s sexuality if she always goes just so far and then stops. This is what makes human life so interesting, see? If we were animals, we could just roll around and do whatever felt good with whoever came along. But now that we’ve evolved, now that we’ve got consciences, and have societies and family structures and stuff, we have to play by the rules. So for the two weeks I’m in charge, please, just don’t do anything with Patrick that, if I were to walk out on the porch and turn on the light, would embarrass me. Okay?”
Since Lester doesn’t embarrass easily, I figured that gave us plenty of room.
“All right,” I said. “Same with you and Eva?”
Lester growled at me. “Get outta here,” he said, and threw another pile of clothes on the floor.
DAD AND I WERE SPEAKING AGAIN, BUT I was still grounded. As he said, Pamela wasn’t his responsibility, but I was, and sometimes loyalty to a friend can get in the way of common sense.
The news of my grounding spread fast. I began to realize that almost nothing makes you more popular than to be grounded. Everybody started calling, and I could tell by Dad’s reaction that he wished he’d nixed phone calls, too.
“You can’t have anyone over?” Jill asked when she called. “Not even Patrick?”
“Especially Patrick,” I said, and felt really sorry for myself about that.
“What you need is e-mail,” said Karen. “I can’t believe you don’t have a computer, Alice.”
“Lester has one,” I told her, not wanting anyone to think we’re behind the times, even though we usually get something about a decade after everyone else has it.
“Then you should have your own private e-mail! We could send you all kinds of messages. Ask your brother to set one up for you.”
I would, but this didn’t exactly seem the right time for it. I was supposed to suffer.
Gwen, though, didn’t think it was such a bad punishment. When we rode the bus together Monday, she said if she ever lied to her dad, she’d probably be grounded for a month. “The one thing he won’t sit still for,” she said. “That and sass talk.”
“How many in your family?” I asked.
“Five. Two brothers. Dad’s even stricter with them.”
“What about your mom?”
“She and Dad must have gone to the same school. They agree all the way down the line,” said Gwen.
The week before, I had been on flower and mail delivery at the hospital, and Gwen had been assigned to physical therapy. Now we were switched, and I helped out in the physical therapy room, changing the paper sheets on the tables where patients were examined and taught their exercises, or helping patients from one exercise machine to another, wiping off the equipment and stuff.
One of the patients was a tall woman with red hair who had had a stroke. She walked with a cane because one of her legs didn’t move right, and her arm looked stiff on that side of her body. Even one side of her face looked stiff. I had the strange feeling when I walked her back to the front desk that it was my mom I was helping, and I told Gwen about it later when we ate lunch in the cafeteria.
“Don’t you remember anything about your mom except that she was tall and had red hair?” Gwen asked, after she’d listened.
“She wore slacks a lot and she liked to sing, Lester told me once. And she always made Dad a pineapple upside-down cake for his birthday. And she was a good swimmer. All I’ve got are bits and pieces, and those all come from somebody else. I mean, I had her for five years, Gwen, and yet I hardly remember any of them.”
“My aunt says you don’t remember anything that happe
ns to you before the age of four,” Gwen said. “She says you could be scared by a man in a tall hat and you’d never remember it, but you’d go on being scared by men or tall hats and never know why.”
“I guess that’s why I want to be a psychiatrist,” I said. “Find out what happened to me during those first four years.”
Gwen wrinkled her nose. “Find out why you’re as nutty as you are?”
When I got home that day there was a little package waiting for me inside the screen. CARE PACKAGE, it said on the outside. Inside was a Hershey’s bar, a paperback novel, a CD, and a little notebook and pencil. FROM JILL AND KAREN, read the note. TO HELP YOU THROUGH THE REST OF THE WEEK.
That’s what’s so nice about friends.
Patrick had been calling every night, of course. “We still can’t sit out on your porch?” he complained.
“We especially can’t sit out on my porch,” I told him. “Anything really fun or pleasurable is verboten.”
Just after dinner, though, about the time the gang would be gathering to do something together, I heard someone call my name and went to the front door. Patrick and Pamela and Mark and Brian were all standing out by the street on the sidewalk.
“It’s public property!” Pamela declared. “He can’t drive us off.”
Then Elizabeth came over. I sat on the swing on the porch and rocked, and we called back and forth, and pretty soon Elizabeth went home and came back with a ball of twine. Brian tied one end of it to a telephone pole, then threw the ball to me.
“Cable car!” he yelled. “Cable car.”
While I watched, he took off one of his sneakers and tied the laces together over the line of the string. Patrick wrote a little note and dropped it in the sneaker. I came down off the porch and held the ball of twine taut to the ground, so that it tilted toward me, and Brian’s sneaker came hurtling down. I read the note:
SO NEAR, AND YET SO FAR, Patrick had written. I laughed. I got a pencil from the house and on the other side of the note I wrote, YOU COULD ALWAYS CRAWL IN MY WINDOW.
After I dropped it in the sneaker, I stood up on the porch and held the ball of twine high over my head, so that the sneaker went careening back the other way.