What every girl except m.., p.10
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       What Every Girl (except me) Knows, p.10

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
 
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  Both Taylor and I began undressing in that girl way, which I learned last year in fifth grade when we had to change for gym. At first I had to watch the other girls getting into their gym clothes; arms pulled out of shirts but still completely covering their bodies, shirts covering their legs while they pulled off their pants. I wrote it down on my list. Now I, too, am able to completely change my clothes without being undressed for a single moment.

  “Where do we put our clothes?” Taylor asked me. She was in her bathing suit with her oversized towel tightly wrapped around her waist. It hung almost to her feet. I was busy covering up my own body, wearing a big sweatshirt with my swimsuit underneath.

  “In any locker that’s empty,” I said.

  Most of the lockers had padlocks dangling, but we each found an unused one, stuffed all our things quickly inside, and slammed it shut again.

  “Ready?” I asked.

  I had my bathing suit from last year. I hadn’t thought much about it when I grabbed it from my drawer that morning, but now it felt tight.

  “Leave your sweatshirt here,” Taylor said. “Just use your towel like me. I’ve got to use the bathroom first. Where is it?”

  I pointed. At least the stalls had doors on them that closed.

  “Wait for me,” Taylor ordered as she shut the swinging door and I heard the lock slide into place.

  I reopened my locker, slipped my sweatshirt off, and threw it in. I wrapped the towel around my waist as Taylor suggested and I stepped out from the bench aisle to wait for Taylor by the bathroom. I heard her struggling to pull down her suit.

  There were mirrors at the end of each row. I caught a glimpse of myself as I waited. Since no one was around, I dropped my towel a little. I dared to take a tiny look at myself. Maybe I could see if my hips were starting to get big. I faced backward and tried to twist my head all the way around and see myself from behind. But that hurt my neck too much. I straightened myself out and looked again.

  Something looked wrong. My bathing suit was tight, but that didn’t account for the soft skin visible below both shoulder straps. Flesh that had started as the small beginnings of breasts now reached up toward my underarms. And the material of my bathing suit no longer covered it.

  “What’s wrong?” Taylor had come out and stood beside me.

  I wanted to hide, but there was no place to go. I looked at Taylor’s body beside me in the mirror. Her chest was still flat, her torso square; no flesh softened her angular ribs and slipped out for the world to see.

  “What?” Taylor said again.

  I didn’t want to call attention to something she hadn’t noticed yet. My first thought was to put my shirt back on. Make an excuse and never go swimming again as long as I live. As I stared at myself, I began to look more and more wrong.

  For the second time since I had known Taylor, she did something remarkable. She put her arm around me and asked again. Softly.

  “Gabby, tell me,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

  So I told her. And standing in that locker room looking into the mirror, neither one of us could figure it out. “Well,” Taylor began, “let’s look around.”

  “No way!”

  “Just casually,” Taylor instructed, “like we’re just taking a little walk to the sink to wash our hands.” She lowered her voice.

  So we walked casually over to the long line of sinks. I turned on the water. Two women walked behind me. One in sweats and the other in a bathing suit. The one in the bathing suit was tall and very muscular, but just around her arms and chest she was round and soft.

  Another woman walked by wearing nothing on top at all. I looked away as fast as I could and then looked back. She was very round and jiggled and had white, round flesh from her breasts to her underarms. It was not grotesque. It was not a deformity. They were women.

  We watched a few more women, fat and thin, flat and large breasted, big and small, and it seemed that for some, this skin was an extension of their breasts. When we were at least partially satisfied that I was at least nearly normal, we decided to head for the pool.

  Neither of us said a word. We immediately jumped into the shallow end, without even testing the temperature of the water. Without the usual squeals and screams that come from dunking one toe in at a time.

  “God, my hands are shaking,” Taylor said, emerging from a dolphin dive just next to me.

  “Why? If it was you, you could have just gone home and asked your mother.” I wiped the water from my eyes.

  “My mother!” Taylor practically shouted. “My mother! My mother says she’s ‘having a visit from her friend’ when she has her period. When my Aunt Judy was pregnant, my mother couldn’t even say it. She told me Aunt Judy was ‘in the family way’!”

  “A visit from her friend?” I started laughing.

  “My mother has to run the water in the sink while she’s peeing so nobody can hear! My mother won’t let me see her underpants in the laundry”

  I was laughing; pool water was dripping from my hair.

  “So you see, YBF, it’s not what you think. I really couldn’t just go home and ask my mother,” Taylor said. She tipped her head all the way back and let the water neatly comb the hair off her face. “Anyway, my mother does all the asking in my family.”

  “Well, at least you have a mother.” But even as I said it, nothing seemed as clear as it once had.

  I bent my knees and I let the water swallow me up. My body felt weightless, as close to flying as I could ever be. When I came up for air, Taylor was looking right at me.

  “Gabby, tell me what really happened to your mother,” she said quietly, swimming toward me.

  Chapter 28

  So I finally told Taylor the story about my mother, because that’s all it was. A story.

  I told Taylor that my brother and I got up one morning and couldn’t wake our mother up. We were really little then, so neither of us can really remember her. We went down in the elevator to the doorman, but it is only a vague memory, I told her.

  I told Taylor that my mother’s accident was an overdose of sleeping pills. My mother had wanted to sleep a little more in the morning, and since I was so noisy and loud she needed to take more, but she took too many more by mistake. So it was partially my fault.

  That’s the story. She died.

  “So where was your father?” Taylor asked right away.

  “What?”

  “Where was your father? Didn’t he know something was wrong? Why did he let you and Ian go by yourselves in the elevator?”

  I didn’t have an answer for this. My father wasn’t part of the story. It was just as I told it. My brother and I tried to wake our mother up and we couldn’t. We rode in an elevator. That’s the story.

  “Didn’t you ever ask him?” Taylor went on.

  “Who?” I asked. I was feeling a chill from my wet hair as we sat on the curb outside the gym and waited for my dad to pick us up.

  “Ask your dad. Didn’t you ever ask him what happened? Where was he?”

  “Why don’t you ask your own self questions?” I snapped at Taylor.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Like where was Richard all that time your parents were married and buying real estate. Didn’t you say you’ve known Richard from before your parents got divorced? So your mother knew Richard while she was married to your dad, didn’t she?”

  Taylor looked at me, with confusion in her face. And hurt. At least she wasn’t asking any more questions.

  That afternoon, as Ian predicted, the Wallkill River flooded its banks. The barricades went up. We had to drive home the long way around.

  *

  I stopped writing in my list journal that night, forever. The things I needed to know to be a woman were more complex than I originally had thought. It was more than how to train your bangs or how to cross your legs. It was more than I knew, or even Taylor knew.

  I stuck my list journal under my coloring books (the fancy kind of coloring books, of movie star
s and famous women, not the baby cartoon kind) and left it there. My last entry was the one about fingernails and powdered gelatin.

  *

  My dad was getting more and more agitated by the flooding river. He got up in the middle of the night with a flashlight and checked everything. Each and every thing. He came into my room, to check on me, I suppose. I wouldn’t have even known he had been in my room except that in the morning I saw the clothes I had left on the floor hanging over the back of my chair.

  It reminded me that Cleo must have come into my room when I was sleeping to tear that page out of my red book. And then to top it off, I had a really bad dream that night.

  I dreamt that I was running across the flooded ground flapping my arms wildly. Just when I thought I was about to take off into the air, I suddenly got stuck in the thick mud and I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t run and I couldn’t fly.

  I made sure to write down what I could remember in my dream journal in the morning, but I still had an uneasy feeling. I knew it had something to do with all that talking I did with Taylor after swimming. Talking can stir things up in your mind like that. Another mystery of the mind.

  But it was no mystery that I had been really mean to Taylor.

  *

  As soon as I got to school, I had to run and find Taylor and apologize. She was by the main office.

  “I’m sorry,” I said right off the bat.

  I’m not used to apologizing; admitting I was wrong when I really don’t want to admit that. And besides, you never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. But this time I really meant it more than I cared how Taylor would feel about me or how I felt about myself

  “I shouldn’t have said that stuff about your mom and your stepfather,” I said.

  “I’m sorry, too, for asking about your mother,” Taylor said. “You obviously don’t want to talk about it and I pushed you.”

  True.

  “You were right, though,” Taylor went on.

  “About what?”

  We started down the hall for our first class.

  “My mom was seeing Richard before she and my dad got divorced. I knew it then. I knew the whole time.”

  I looked around at everyone passing us in the halls, all the other kids heading to their classes. All with their own embarrassing stories, probably. Still, out of some kind of instinct, I felt ashamed for her. I moved closer to Taylor so we could talk more softly as we walked.

  “I never told my dad.” Taylor watched her feet as she talked and walked. “Maybe if I had…”

  “You can’t think even for one minute that it’s your fault your parents got divorced,” I said to Taylor.

  Taylor stopped at the door to our homeroom. She didn’t need to say anything this time. I knew she didn’t really think she was to blame, but maybe if she had said something to her dad, maybe it would have been different.

  It was the same with me. I sort of knew it wasn’t really my fault that my mother had taken an overdose of sleeping pills, but then again I sort of knew it was.

  Chapter 29

  My dad was in his studio when I got home from school. I opened the back door of the garage to the familiar smells of oil paint and turpentine. I would ask him here. About my mother. I would ask him why he didn’t do anything that morning my mother died. Why we went alone in the elevator.

  It is important to confront my dad in his own territory. I remembered once Ian wanting something or another for his guitar or his amp and trying to ask Dad for it while we were eating at a restaurant.

  I could have told Ian right then and there it wasn’t going to work. Outside of his natural surroundings my dad can’t think straight, so he gets cranky. “No” is about all he can say when he can’t think straight.

  I stepped inside the studio. My dad wasn’t painting. His paint table was wiped clean. White glass, not a drop of color. The easel stood empty, not even a sketch pad for a charcoal study. All the tubes of oils were carefully put away, brushes sorted by function and drying; scrapers, pencils, and charcoals in an old coffee can. There was only a lingering smell from when he had been painting regularly. He still spent a lot of time out there, but he wasn’t whistling very well these days.

  And it was dark. Only the light over his desk was on. My dad was bent over and writing. He stopped when I came in. “Hi, sweetie,” he said. “How was school?”

  “Fine.”

  When I didn’t directly cross and go through the kitchen door, my dad closed his notebook. He put down his pencil. I sat down on the hooked rug that covered most of the cold, concrete floor.

  For a long while I didn’t say anything. I listened to the hum of the house, the electric buzzing noises that are always running in the background. It all seemed the same as it had always been, just like Ian said. The three of us. Why would I want to go and ruin that?

  “Dad?” I began.

  “Hmm?” My dad, too, was staring quietly into space, perhaps listening to the same comforting sounds of a house standing still.

  And then Taylor’s voice:

  Where was your father?

  Didn’t he know something was wrong?

  I looked at my dad sitting in the same chair where he always sat. He cleared his throat. Everything the same as I always remembered it. Safe. Why would I want to go and ruin something like that?

  “Nothing,” I said.

  I uncrossed my legs and stood up. I opened the door to where natural light filled the kitchen and walked inside the house. Ian was home, sprawled on the couch. His guitar was right beside him but he wasn’t playing. The TV was on, an empty package of Fig Newtons was on the coffee table.

  “You pig,” I said. I was joking. I don’t even like Fig Newtons.

  “There were only a few left,” Ian defended himself. He kept his focus on the TV.

  “Anyway, you’re the pig,” he said. “There was a whole box two days ago, and I’ve only had seven. Four yesterday and three today.”

  Who counts their cookies? I thought. Ian does. He counts everything. He measures all time. He demands all fairness. He hoards up TV minutes from days before and he’s mean.

  “What’s your problem, anyway?” I shouted. “Why do you pick on me so much? What did I ever do to you?”

  I suppose Ian could have come up with several incidents at that moment. He could have mentioned the time I warped his favorite CD by leaving it next to the heater, after listening to it without his permission. He could have recalled the time I told everyone at his eleven-year-old birthday party that Ian threw up in the car once when he was little, even though I hadn’t even been there.

  But he could be so mean, so mean to me.

  I wanted to hit my brother over the head with the Fig Newton box. I wanted to scream out loud forever or till I felt like stopping. I wanted to know everything he was holding inside and keeping from me.

  “What’s wrong with you?” Ian said. He finally had to look at me.

  “You!” I said. “You’re what’s wrong with me! You’re my big brother. You’re supposed to take care of me. Look out for me.” The sound of my own voice and my own words and my own anger scared me, but I continued. “You never do. You never did!”

  Ian withdrew deeper into the cushions of the couch. He looked smaller, and all of a sudden I felt sad. I knew I was asking for something from someone who was as alone as I was. I felt like I had thrown an acorn right at the back of Ian’s head and for the first time it hit him.

  Still, I couldn’t ask Dad. I had tried that.

  “Why haven’t you ever looked out for me?” I said. “Not since that day. Not since that day you took me in the elevator with you. Why did you even take me with you in the first place?”

  It was hard to see Ian look so uncomfortable. For as much as I had fantasized about cutting my brother down to size, it was a size that frightened me.

  “How could Dad have let you take me like that? And where were we going?” I asked. I had to know.

  The TV was still on—ta
lking and canned laughter coming out from the set, cars screeching their tires, and then a commercial for hair gel.

  “Dad wasn’t there,” Ian told me as he turned back to the TV screen. “We were the only ones in the apartment. I was going out to look for him, I guess. I don’t know. We were alone.”

  *

  There are stories you always hear, and stories you know you are making up; not quite lies, really. There are things you’ve always thought were true, maybe just because you’ve never thought about them in any other way. Things that don’t make sense but you’ve never questioned them, and when you finally do, you can’t understand how you could have accepted them for so long.

  We were alone?

  We wound up in Ian’s room with the door shut. I don’t think I had seen the inside of his room since I was five. At first I just kept looking at all his stuff. The cool CD rack that bent around like a wave, the posters, on every inch of every wall, of every musician Ian thought ever counted for anything. He had an incense burner, an ash tray (I didn’t ask him what for), a major compact disc—and—dual tape player. He had ceramic bowls filled with different things: guitar picks in one, pennies in another, Snapple bottle tops in another.

  “After we tried and we couldn’t wake her up, we got in the elevator and went down to the lobby. We told the doorman our mother wouldn’t wake up, but he didn’t believe us. Didn’t believe me,” my brother told me.

  “We were still in our pajamas, but we walked out into the street. Then we just went back in and waited. I don’t remember what happened after that.”

  With his words, Ian painted a lonely picture of two little children in their sleeping clothes wandering around the halls of an apartment building in New York City.

  “I didn’t even think to call nine-one-one. The doorman told us to go back upstairs and let our mother sleep. Well, he was a grown-up, right?”

  Is he asking me? I turned to look at Ian.

  I wanted to reach over and touch Ian, the way Taylor could do for me, but I couldn’t move. The door was shut, and I suddenly felt trapped. At the same time, I never wanted to leave this room, this moment. I wanted to go on talking, telling stories, sharing stories.

 
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