What every girl except m.., p.4
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       What Every Girl (except me) Knows, p.4

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
 
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  When I didn’t answer, Cleo said seriously, “Gabby, you are looking less like a little girl and more like a woman.”

  I couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. “Does that mean I do?”

  “No. You certainly don’t have big hips!” Cleo said firmly. “These are good changes. It means you’ll be a woman soon.” She paused.

  “Unless you already are?” Cleo asked deliberately. What did she mean? Did she mean what I thought she meant? Like in the movie from health class? Me?

  “Oh, no,” I said. “Not me.” The mall was just ahead, thank goodness.

  “Well now, here we are. Let’s go find you the perfect coat!” she said as she pulled the car into a parking space. “Something as beautiful as you are.”

  The first thing we saw when we walked through the big glass doors of Saks Fifth Avenue was two women poised like models—tall, wearing lots of lipstick and eye shadow, with little baskets slung over their arms. Cleo and I hurried right by them, trying to hold in our chuckles, but neither one of them tried to spray us with anything. How they could just see that we weren’t the typical Saks Fifth Avenue−shopper types, I didn’t know.

  We rode up the escalator to the Young Miss department on the second floor. Cleo was right. There were displays of shorts and sandals and summer dresses and hats. And way in the back were rows and rows of coats with big signs saying 25% OFF, so crammed together they held themselves up off the floor without hangers.

  Cleo picked through the coats like a clothing expert, which of course she was. She could tell right away what would fit or not fit, what was a maybe and what was out of the question.

  “Oh my God, no. You’d look like one of those poofy ice skaters in that thing,” she said, when I held up a short, pinkish jacket trimmed with white fur around the sleeves and the hood.

  And Cleo knew what was me and what wasn’t. Which was more than I had ever figured out before.

  No. No. Maybe. No. Maybe. Definitely no.

  I was getting hot and tired of trying on coats. Back to the first maybe. It was a simple black-and-red winter parka that was cinched just a little at the waist to give it shape. The saleslady came bustling over.

  “This is the one,” Cleo said to the woman and then turned to me. “Right?”

  “Yup,” I said.

  “Come over here and I’ll ring you up,” the saleslady said with an irritated look on her face. She, too, must have been able to tell we weren’t the big Saks Fifth Avenue−shopper types. She was ready to make the sale and move on.

  The woman’s voice trailed away as she whisked the coat over to the cash register. “You and your daughter have made an excellent choice,” she said.

  These words lingered in the air, as if waiting to be noticed. Cleo laid her credit card on the counter with a snapping sound. Then she looked right at me and smiled.

  “Yes,” she said. “We have.”

  Chapter 9

  My brand-new coat was hanging in the hall closet, waiting for Monday to be worn to school. And I was waiting; a too-long, boring weekend. I knew Taylor wasn’t going to be around, not even to talk with on the phone. She had left Friday to go visit her dad in New York City (and that was a long-distance call). Cleo left just after our shopping trip for a clothing show somewhere in Connecticut. It was just going to be me and my dad and my brother all weekend.

  And my dad was spending practically the whole weekend out in his studio painting. It seemed that lately, like for the last several months, like for as long as Cleo’s been around, Dad’s been painting a lot. And whistling a lot. My dad whistles really well when he’s in a good mood.

  I watched TV mostly, although we don’t have cable out here, something to do with the wet ground and the closeness of the river, and my dad is too cheap to buy one of those satellite things. So we have an antenna, and no one I talk to even knows what an antenna is.

  Sunday my brother and I were on the two couches in the living room. I was lying down. Ian was sitting up with his guitar. Ian, of course, had the remote control. He never lets me even touch the controller when he’s watching something. Ian had on some science-fiction movie, and he was practicing scales during commercials.

  “Do you have to do that?” I said. I turned my head to him, but other than that I didn’t move my body at all. My feet stuck up into my view of the movie, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t even paying attention.

  “It’s a commercial,” he answered. His fingers were lifting and pressing down all over the neck of his guitar, so fast they couldn’t possibly know what they were doing. His other hand seemed barely to move over the hole in the center, but notes were coming out, like millions of beads forever dropping on the floor.

  “It’s not a commercial now,” I complained.

  “You’re not even watching,” Ian said to me.

  “I am, too.”

  After a beat I added, “Why can’t you do that in your room?”

  He didn’t answer, but it seemed to me he played louder after that. When the movie was finally over, I held out my hand for the controller.

  “Now it’s my turn,” I said. We each were allowed sixty minutes for TV choice a day. That was Ian’s rule. Sometimes, he’d rack up minutes from the day before and add them to his time the next day or even the next week. When I’d say that wasn’t fair, he’d say I could do it, too, only I could never keep track of something like that.

  “No, it isn’t,” Ian informed me. “I’ve got twenty-three minutes left over from last Tuesday.”

  “Ian. It’s my turn to pick a show,” I said. The only response I received was a jazzy riff on the guitar but no controller.

  I cannot say that on other occasions I had not thrown myself completely into the fight, beginning with a few whines then moving onto a fierce lunge for the controller. Throwing a pillow, yelling for my father, or worse. But that day I didn’t have it in me. The weekend was almost over. I just wondered why Ian had to be so mean to me. Why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, just want to make me happy one time. Like the families on the TV shows. Just like that. Just to be nice.

  I decided to walk away. Ian sat still playing, the guitar between his heart and his lap like a shield. He still didn’t offer me my turn.

  The music that came out of his guitar seemed just as distant. Far away from me. Where did it come from? Why had he inherited something from a mother who liked to sing?

  And what about me?

  As I left the room, I thought I heard his voice.

  “Here, take the dumb controller.”

  *

  I went downstairs and played video games by myself till my thumbs ached. I went back upstairs to the kitchen and stared into the pantry, but there was nothing to eat.

  I wasn’t hungry anyway. I wandered outside for no other reason than I had nothing better to do than watch acorns fall from the trees and I didn’t feel like working on my science project.

  Acorns were dropping so fast it was like someone was throwing them. One hit me square in the neck.

  “Ow.” I spun around and rubbed the spot behind my ear.

  But acorns don’t fall sideways.

  “Knock it off,” I shouted into the empty yard.

  No one was there, but I knew. Throwing acorns was Ian’s signature move.

  Another acorn flew by my right shoulder. Now he was asking for it. I ran around the side of the house by the cellar door. As I ran I grabbed as many fallen nuts from the ground as I could. I zigzagged back and forth, which I knew from experience made me a moving target, harder to hit. Only one more acorn landed on the back of my leg before I reached cover. Once I was safely behind the house I thrust the acorns into my pockets and filled my fists with more. I peered around the house.

  Ian was in his favorite spot. He liked to climb to the top of our old swing set and strategically straddle the bar across the slide. He couldn’t run anywhere, but, of course, he had a clear view of me from almost anywhere in the yard, and his aim was better so it didn’t matter.

  I
decided on a surprise attack. I hated to get spiderwebs in my face, but that’s just what Ian counted on. Instead of running across the lawn, I would go around the other side of the house, crawl under the porch, and get off at least my one or two shots before Ian could turn around. (Our rule had always been only one acorn at a time; heaving a whole handful was not allowed. And not in the face.)

  “C’mon in! Supper!”

  It was our dad. He had come out onto the porch. If Ian turned around now he would see my hiding place. I withdrew deeper into the spiderwebs. They stuck to my fingers and my hair, but I didn’t make a sound.

  Ian jumped down off the swing set and headed inside, right toward me. But I could still leap out as he walked by. At close range I might even hit him for once. I saw Ian’s feet pass. I waited. Five…four…three…two…

  “Ha! Gotcha!” Ian bent down and saw me, crouched under the porch, where I was defenseless.

  He had his acorn poised and ready to throw, but he didn’t.

  “I knew you were there all the time,” Ian said. He emptied the rest of his ammunition onto the ground and headed inside for dinner.

  “Just as long as you know I’m the best,” he said. Sometimes Ian came just close enough to being nice to me that I could see some potential.

  Chapter 10

  Monday morning I woke before my alarm even went off. I dressed fast, ate, and went outside wearing my brand-new, beautiful coat. Ready to go to school. All ready. However, I was now twenty-two minutes early for the bus.

  I was so early that it was still dark out. I followed the little path my dad cut in the tall grass toward the water. I looked at my watch. Twenty-one minutes to go. I walked a little farther. Darkness sat so deeply on the river that everything was the same color—the sky, the ground, and the slow-moving Wallkill. It felt like the sun would not be able to rise up and lift it away.

  I stood with my feet tipped down toward the water. My heels were dug into the steep wall of mud, and that was the only thing that kept me from slipping into the river. A cold wind came across the valley and whipped my hair across my face. It got caught in my mouth and stung my eyes. I usually wore my hair back so tightly that a tornado couldn’t blow a strand out of place. But on our way out of the department store Friday, Cleo had insisted on buying me these two barrettes. They sparkled with pink-and-blue-and-yellow light. They were small crystal-butterfly barrettes. One for each side of my head, perched just above my temples—butterflies alighting for a brief rest before taking off in flight. That’s how Cleo described them, anyway.

  “Well, try wearing your hair down,” Cleo had said when I told her I didn’t wear barrettes.

  I wear a ponytail, always. But she bought them for me anyway, for some possible me I couldn’t see. In the store I was hopeful, but here and now I anticipated these barrettes having the same fate as the skirt my grandfather had bought me.

  Now I watched the murky river. Trees on the opposite bank struggled to stay part of the land. They leaned dangerously over the passing river. Huge roots stuck out from the bank, like giant hands reaching for something to grab onto as the dirt they stood on was drained away.

  George told us that the river pulls soil from the far side of its path and drops sediment on the other, and so it slowly creates bends and turns as it travels on its way. But slowly, ever so slowly. It took thousands of years to make this Wallkill River Valley; to flatten the land by meandering back and forth. Thousands of years, going nowhere, just wearing away at the same piece of land until it was flat, until it was a valley.

  I reached up and touched my hair, to touch the barrettes, to pull the hair from my face. My hair had doubled in size, and it blew around my head, out of my control. I slipped one butterfly from my hair and then the other. I bent down in the wet mud, careful not to get it on my new coat. With a strong stick I started digging.

  When the hole looked big enough I dropped the two barrettes in and quickly covered them up. Still kneeling beside the burial spot, I pulled my hair back with one hand and flipped a hair tie around it with the other. I tugged it all into a tight ponytail.

  I was me again. The old me, the one I was used to.

  I saw my bus in the far distance across the flats, just rounding the corner by the Johnsons’ farm. If I ran I would just make it.

  Chapter 11

  After almost a whole week wearing my new coat, it didn’t feel new anymore. Taylor didn’t feel new anymore, either. We were friends. We claimed the very end of one table in the cafeteria for ourselves.

  “Do you think this weekend you could sleep over at my house?” Taylor asked me. She brought lunch from home and was opening various wrapped items and setting them out before her.

  Somewhere in the back of my head I thought I was supposed to ask Taylor to my house next, since I had been to her house once already. But I didn’t want to. I liked Taylor’s house, even if I didn’t feel completely welcomed. Her house had what mine was missing. It was where I wanted to belong.

  I even had a dream about it one night that week. I couldn’t remember it all, but it was sort of my house/Taylor’s house, and I was sleeping in my dream, which is always strange. Mrs. Tyler was saying, “Wake up, sleepyhead. Wake up,” in this soft voice. I woke up in my dream, but I knew I was still dreaming, and in my dream I knew Mrs. Tyler wasn’t talking to me. When I really woke up I had real tears in my eyes and my pillow was all wet, but I don’t remember crying in my dream.

  “So can you sleep over?” Taylor repeated. “I already asked my mom if you could.”

  “Sure,” I said. I was having the chicken taco boat, applesauce, carrot sticks, and milk.

  “Don’t you have to ask your mom first?” Taylor asked. I answered, as I always did before I was ready to explain, “She’ll let me.”

  “Good, because this is my weekend with my mom. And Richard is going away for business. Not that you wouldn’t like Richard, because he’s the best.”

  Taylor took a slip from her bottle of V8. “But when it’s just us girls, it’s really special. I really want you to come.”

  I could tell she meant it. Taylor said things just as she felt them, sort of like Cleo.

  “It will be so much fun,” Taylor said.

  “Your mom said I could come over?” I had to ask. “Sleep over?”

  “Of course, silly. Why?”

  “I don’t know I thought maybe she didn’t like me,” I ventured.

  “Who cares what she thinks?” Taylor said, flipping her hair off her shoulder.

  Yeah, who cares? I thought, and I pushed away the feeling of hurt that was threatening to sting me. Who cares?

  “What did you do last weekend in New York?” I said, to change the topic.

  “My dad took me to a movie and we went out to dinner, and that’s really depressing because you look around and there’re all these other kids eating out with just their dads, ordering Shirley Temples, and you just know they’re divorced, too.”

  Taylor was opening her dessert. Four cookies wrapped in waxed paper.

  “But the divorce was really the best thing. They both say so. I want my mom to be happy, and she’s so happy with Richard.”

  Taylor offered me two of her cookies.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  “My mom always packs me too much to eat,” Taylor said, biting into her dessert. “Why do you always buy?”

  My mouth was full. The cookie was more crumbly than I had anticipated, so after I took a bite I had to shove it all in my mouth or else have it fall onto the table.

  “Mmmfff.” I tried to swallow.

  “Got milk?” Taylor laughed as she handed me my container.

  If I laughed the cookie was going all over the place. I thought that would be more unsightly than either of my two previous choices. I breathed in through my nose slowly and took a swig of milk. My cheeks were stuffed full and milk dripped on my chin.

  Taylor was hysterical. “You should see you!” she squealed.

  I finally swallowed. I wiped
my face. I looked at Taylor and said with a big smile, “I looove the chocolate glaze.”

  We both nearly burst with laughter.

  As soon as we gained control of ourselves, Taylor said, “Got milk?”

  “I looove the chocolate glaze,” I said on cue.

  And just like that we had a history. Two lines only we two understood.

  And then I said, “I didn’t really tell you the truth before, Taylor. I don’t have a mother.”

  Taylor stopped laughing and looked at me, waiting for me to finish explaining. She didn’t know that I was already finished.

  “What do you mean? Are your parents divorced?” “My mother died when I was three.” It was my standard response.

  Unless someone went further—and they usually never did—I never elaborated. Most people said a polite “Oh, I’m sorry” and that was it. But just in case, I had a prepared second response.

  “How did she die?” Taylor went further.

  “It was an accident.” I had to use my prepared second response.

  Taylor’s face looked twisted. She didn’t say anything more. She did something more amazing. I was just about to carry my tray to the garbage, and she reached out and touched my hand.

  “I don’t even remember her,” I said, like lines from a play.

  “Oh,” Taylor said sadly. She shook her head back and forth. “An accident,” she said softly to herself.

  “Let’s go out,” I stood up. “There’s only a little bit of recess left.”

  “Okay.” Taylor stuffed everything into her bag.

  Most of the kids had already finished and left. The only full table still sitting was the table of boys. They were usually the first to throw their food across the table, shout, yell, leave garbage all over, and run outside. Then I saw the cafeteria lady watching them with her eagle eye from a swivel chair by the door. The whole boys’ table must have gotten lunch detention. Peter sat at that table.

  As we passed by the boys on our way out, Taylor said loudly, “Got milk?”

 
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