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Patrick, the dope, read my note out loud, and the guys all whistled. I think I was having more fun being grounded than I was before. Dad came to the door once and looked out, but he didn’t say anything.
Then the kids started sending me stuff in the shoe. Elizabeth went home again and came back with an all-day sucker. After that was delivered to me, I picked a bunch of Dad’s asters growing by the steps and sent the bouquet back out to her. We sent sticks and stones, nickels and dimes. I got a can of soda from the house and sent that, too. Somebody came by with a half-eaten ice-cream cone and even put that in Brian’s sneaker, but it tipped over, and Brian had to wash out his shoe.
We had a great time.
That night Dad said, “I don’t think I’m exactly getting through to you, am I, Al?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing perfectly well what he meant.
“It’s all fun and games to you, isn’t it?”
“When your dad hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” I said, paraphrasing Aunt Sally or somebody.
I think Dad almost smiled, but I wasn’t sure. The thing was, Dad and I seemed to be growing a little apart, and it bothered me. On the one hand, I wanted to hug him, have things like they used to be between us, and wished I never had to leave home. On the other hand, I knew I had to leave someday, and I was sort of starting that slow separation now so that when it was time to make it official, I’d be ready.
Lester was having his problems, too. He left home that night at eight to go pick up Eva, but was back ten minutes later to shave again. I couldn’t believe it. I thought he looked fine when he left here the first time, and I’ll bet she asked him to shave again. “Maybe you should change your shoes, too, while you’re at it,” I joked.
“Shut up, Al,” was all he said.
What a crazy, mixed-up summer it was.
I talked to the gang almost every day. Pamela and her dad were still arguing a lot, but at least she wasn’t running away. All Elizabeth talked about was calories. She was getting so boring! Jill had been flirting with Justin Collier while Elizabeth was on her diet kick, and Patrick said he missed me.
I didn’t want to sound too eager about the two weeks in August when Dad would be away—as though I were actually suggesting something—but the next time Patrick called and said he’d be glad when my punishment was up, I casually mentioned the fact that Lester and I would be by ourselves the last two weeks of August.
“No kidding!” said Patrick. “That’s when I’ll be in Maine with my folks.”
I thought he must be joking. I was sure I’d told him before that Dad was going to England. “Not the whole two weeks!” I said.
“Two and a half, actually,” he said. “It’s some resort in Bar Harbor. We’re getting together with my uncle and his family.”
“Oh, Patrick!” I said.
There was a pause.
“It’s only for two and a half weeks. It’s not like I’ll be gone forever,” he said.
“But … but …” How could I say we could have been alone, on the porch, for two weeks? What I really meant was that we could try things—well, he maybe could try things—we hadn’t done before, don’t ask me what. But how would that sound? “I just … well, we wouldn’t have Dad watching us all the time,” I finished weakly.
Patrick only laughed.
After I hung up, I felt like a fool and sat staring at the wall. It was as though Aunt Sally had known exactly what was going through my head and had talked to God about it, and God had arranged for Patrick to be in Maine the two weeks I’d be most vulnerable. I could get around Dad, possibly, and Aunt Sally, too, but not Dad and Aunt Sally and God!
“This is the crummiest summer ever!” I told Lester when he came home that afternoon from the shoe store. He only grunted. He hadn’t been in exactly the best mood either these days.
When I went to the Melody Inn again on Saturday to put in my three hours, Marilyn Rawley asked about Lester. She runs the Gift Shoppe three days a week after her classes at the university, and all day on Saturdays. She works even longer hours during the summer. On this particular morning she was wearing a thin cotton dress with little flowers on it, and sandals, and her long hair was pulled up off the back of her neck and tied with a ribbon.
“Hi, Alice,” she said. “How’s Lester?” And then, without missing a beat, she asked, “How’s Eva?”
I looked at her. “How did you know about Eva?”
She smiled a little. “Word gets around. I hear she’s really classy.”
I wrinkled my nose the way Gwen does and tried to think of an appropriate answer while still being loyal to Lester. After all, he might marry Eva someday. “She’s not you,” I said.
“Well, of course she’s not me, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know about anything, and the world is all mixed up.”
“Well, it doesn’t get any better,” Marilyn said, straightening the Brahms paperweights behind her, then rearranging the rack of Beethoven ties. “I told myself I’d get over Lester, and I’m not even close. I think about him, dream about him, cry about him … ”
“What is it about my brother?” I asked, puzzled. “Crystal’s married and she says she still dreams about him. I don’t get it. I see him every day and I can’t figure it out.”
“He was tender, considerate, loving, romantic …”
“Lester?” I bleated. I mean, I live with him. I watch him eat breakfast when he’s half asleep. I listen to him belch. I even wash his socks sometimes. But I guess when you love someone, it’s not just when they’re dressed in a suit and tie and wearing Brut aftershave … It’s all the other times, too, when they’re sick or smelly or grumpy or unreasonable …
“Well, I don’t think Eva’s good for him, if you want the truth,” I told Marilyn.
“Lester never knew what was good for him,” Marilyn agreed. And then, “I was the best thing that ever happened to him, and he let me go.”
“He’s inexplicable,” I said, using a word I’d learned in English last semester.
We had my “coming-out” party the next day. It had been a week since I’d been grounded, and when I got to Mark Stedmeister’s house that afternoon, everyone was there. Patrick gave me a long, slow kiss right in front of everyone, and they all clapped and cheered. Karen had even brought a cake that said WELCOME BACK! I almost wished I’d get grounded more often. Everybody was great, and said how much they’d missed me, and treated me as though this huge injustice had been done. I still thought my punishment was unfair, but Dad had made his point: I had assumed that Pamela’s way was the only way to handle the situation. I didn’t use my head. But that aside, I was prepared to enjoy my party. We laughed and splashed and sunned and loafed.
I was really surprised at Elizabeth, though—how much thinner she looked. I mean, we’d only been on our grooming kick for a month or so, and she had really slimmed down. In fact, she was beginning to look too bony in places.
She didn’t eat any of the cake, I noticed, and when Mark’s Mom brought out a pizza, Elizabeth didn’t take any of that, either. I put a slice on a paper plate and set it in front of her, but she just broke off a corner of the crust and ate that. Every time I looked her way, she’d reach out and pretend she was going to take another bite. She’d hold it up to her lips and give the appearance of eating, but then she’d laugh and say something to someone and put it down again, or slide it from one side of her plate to another and never eat it at all.
“Hey, Elizabeth, you look great!” I told her. “You can eat again, you know.”
“I’m eating!” she said, and ate another crumb.
We all debated whether to stick around at Mark’s or go to a movie. His mom headed off to the mall, and we could have gone there, but didn’t want to keep running into her. So we thought about going to the movies instead.
We were standing at the side of the pool drying off when I happened to look over at Elizabeth and see a long
trickle of watery red running down the inside of her thigh. She was laughing and joking with Mark and Brian and hadn’t even realized she’d started her period.
Pamela and I both saw it about the same time. We each sprang together, enveloping Elizabeth in our towels and moving her on toward the house. I think the guys had noticed, too, though, because I saw them nudge each other.
“What’s the matter?” Elizabeth asked, confused. “What did I do?” That’s Elizabeth for you. She automatically assumes she’s guilty of something.
“I think you’ve started your period,” I whispered when we were safely through Mark’s back door and heading toward the basement bathroom.
Elizabeth came to a dead stop. “What?”
“It was sort of running down your leg,” said Pamela.
She yanked the towels away and saw pink smudges on them. “Oh, no!” She flung herself into the bathroom. “I’ll never come out as long as I live!” she wailed plaintively “Anybody got any Kotex?”
“I don’t,” I said. “Just fold up some toilet paper, Elizabeth, and tuck it in your pants.”
“There isn’t any! The roll’s empty,” Elizabeth bleated, “and I’m really menstruating hard now. Oh, my gosh!”
I don’t know how so many things happen to Elizabeth. “I’ll go get some from Mrs. Stedmeister,” I said, and then remembered she was on her way to the mall. “Well, from Mark, then.”
“No!” Elizabeth screeched from the other side of the bathroom door. “Don’t you dare! I don’t want him to know I’m walking around with toilet paper stuck in my pants.”
She was absolutely impossible. Pamela went out on the deck and got her own bag. When she came back, she called, “Okay, Elizabeth, open the door. I’ve got something for you.”
The bathroom door opened a crack. “What is it?” Elizabeth asked.
Elizabeth looked at us in horror. “I can’t! I’m a virgin!”
We stared at her.
“Hey, Elizabeth, we’re virgins, too,” I said, speaking for myself, at least. I’m never too sure about Pamela. “We can still use the junior size.”
“No!” she cried just as Mark and Brian came in from outside. Elizabeth shut the door again. Pamela and I sat down on the floor in the hall to wait.
Brian studied us. “Where is everybody?” he asked.
“We’re just waiting for Elizabeth,” I told him.
The guys looked at us, then at the bathroom door, and finally turned and went back outside.
“Elizabeth, they’re beginning to wonder,” I called.
Elizabeth opened the door a crack. “I am not using a tampon!” she insisted. “I want to be a virgin on my wedding night.”
Now Patrick stuck his head in the back door. “Hey, Alice! You going to get dressed?”
“When we get Elizabeth out of the bathroom,” I said.
“What’s taking so long?” he wanted to know.
“Feminine problems,” said Pamela.
Patrick immediately disappeared.
Pamela pushed the tampon through the crack under the door.
“I won’t use it!” said Elizabeth. “I’m just going to put my clothes back on and run home.”
“Your clothes are still out by the pool, and we’re not getting them for you until you put in that tampon,” said Pamela. “Don’t be such a dweeb.”
Elizabeth began to wail.
“Elizabeth, shut up!” I whispered through the door. “They make tampons precisely for girls like us. Just gently insert the tampon and come out!”
Jill and Karen came in from outside.
“What’s happening?” asked Karen.
“Elizabeth’s in there losing her virginity,” said Pamela.
“What?” gasped Karen.
“Tampons,” I told them. “She’s never used one before.”
There was silence from the bathroom. Then Elizabeth’s faint voice. “Do I take the paper off first or what?”
We all looked at each other.
“Take off the paper and insert it,” ordered Pamela, her mouth to the door.
“Not the end with the string, for heaven’s sake. You have to pull it out again, remember,” I said.
“It won’t go in,” Elizabeth whimpered. “It just goes halfway and stops.”
Mark and Brian opened the back door and peered cautiously inside.
“Push, Elizabeth, push!” Karen was saying.
“Is she having a baby?” Mark joked.
“Elizabeth, will you hurry? They think you’re in labor,” I called as the boys went out again.
There was silence, and at last the door opened. Elizabeth was holding the empty cylinder in her hand and her forehead was wet with perspiration. But she had the triumphant look on her face of a woman who has conquered the universe.
DAD SAYS IF I WANT TO BE A PSYCHIA-trist I have to go to medical school and become an MD first. Then I specialize in psychiatry.
“Why do I have to know about feet and intestines to understand why people act like they do?” I asked him.
“Because the body and mind work together. If you want to work in a hospital setting and be able to write prescriptions, you’d have to be a doctor,” he told me. “But if you want to work in a clinic and see less seriously ill patients, you could probably be a psychologist. Get a Ph.D. And if you want to help people with common everyday problems who don’t need long-term therapy, you could just get a master’s degree and be a school counselor.”
“How many years of college is that?”
“At least five.”
“And I wouldn’t have to dissect frogs’ stomachs or pigs’ lungs to graduate?”
“I doubt it,” said Dad.
It was nice to know I had all those choices, provided I’m still interested in peoples’ minds when I get to college. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work with their bodies. I liked to go in patients’ rooms at the hospital and take them cards or flowers, see their faces light up, and sit and talk with them. But I didn’t like to see them in pain. Didn’t like to go into a room to find someone throwing up.
Gwen was definitely better at this than I was. She didn’t see hospitals as depressing places at all. She saw them as hopeful.
“At least the people who work here are trying to make folks better,” she said. “No one’s trying to hurt them or make them worse.”
When I got on the hospital elevator the first Wednesday in August, I heard a nurse address a man as “Mr. Plotkin.” So that was my sixth-grade teacher’s husband!
“Is Mrs. Plotkin here again?” I asked him.
He looked at me, and then smiled. “You must be Alice,” he said. “Yes, I’m afraid so. She’s been having quite a time with it. If we could just find the right combination of medicines …”
“Is she well enough for me to visit her?” I asked.
“Absolutely. She’d love to see you. Room 517 this time. I’m going home to attend to a few things, but I’ll come back this evening.”
I did all my assigned jobs first, then went up to fifth and entered her room. She looked a little fatter than I’d seen her last—well, puffy, maybe—but her skin was paler. Her smile was just as wide, though.
“Oh, Alice! Just the sunshine I was hoping for today,” she said when she saw me.
I looked toward the window because it had been a foggy morning with no sun at all, but then I realized she meant me.
“Your heart again?” I asked, pulling a chair up to her bed.
“Oh … heart … kidneys … if it’s not one thing, it’s another. The trouble with medicine today, dear, is that what’s good for one part of your body may be bad for another. But how are you? How’s your summer going?”
“Sort of nuts, if you want the truth,” I said. “Pamela’s been fighting with her dad, Elizabeth’s starving herself, Patrick’s going to Maine for two and a half weeks
, my dad’s going to be away for two weeks … Everything’s changing.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be life at all. No two days are ever alike.”
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “If you could go back to being any age you want, though, what would you choose?” I asked her.
Mrs. Plotkin laughed. “What makes you think I’d want to go back at all? I might choose to be the very age I am now, without all this hospital business, of course.”
“You wouldn’t want to be young again?” I asked, which seemed rude when I said it, but she didn’t seem offended.
“A child, you mean? Well, a lot of that I’ve simply forgotten. My teenage years? Oh, I don’t think so. They’re such a roller coaster, you know. The twenties were exciting because I was starting out on my own; my thirties because I fell in love; my forties because I loved teaching so much and found I was good at it; my fifties because we did a lot of traveling; and my sixties … well, I haven’t been sixty long enough to know, but I bet they’ll be something. There’s always hidden treasure waiting to be discovered.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but I promised I’d come to see her again on Friday, and I told myself that this time I’d wear the ring she’d given me back in sixth grade, the one that used to belong to her great-grandmother. I wanted her to know I still had it.
At lunchtime I told Gwen about it, how Mrs. Plotkin wouldn’t go back in time to choose her favorite year. Only I didn’t say her name. I just said a favorite teacher of mine.
“She sounds exactly like my grandparents,” said Gwen. “They always expect the next year to be their best, even in their seventies.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Seventy years ago they hardly had any of the things we have now. Could hardly do any of the things we can do now.”
“You can say that again,” said Gwen, taking another bite of her egg salad sandwich. “Seventy years ago, girl, we wouldn’t be sitting here together like this. Forty years ago, even, when my folks were little.”
I keep forgetting. I guess I’m color-blind when it comes to Gwen.