What every girl except m.., p.7
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       What Every Girl (except me) Knows, p.7

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
 
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  “Three tablespoons of butter and seven-eighths of a cup of milk is the same as one cup of heavy cream,” Lynette repeated.

  Amber raised the heat on the rice and milk. It bubbled slowly in loud plops. “Maybe it will just get thicker if I boil it. Get ready to add the egg stuff. Lynette, get those little saucers ready.”

  “Let’s try what Lynette says,” I said suddenly.

  The bottom of the milk and rice was starting to stick to the pan. A burning smell rose from the stove.

  “Oh, no,” Amber said and threw the pan off the burner. It sizzled. “What does Lynette know!? She was hit by a truck.”

  I was stricken, but Lynette didn’t seem bothered by the comment at all.

  “Three tablespoons of butter and seven-eighths of a cup of milk,” she said.

  “Well, I’m going to try it,” I told Amber.

  We already had the milk. I had to sneak over to borrow butter from Peter’s group while Mrs. Drummond was tasting group six’s ladyfingers.

  When I asked, Peter threw a stick of soft butter at me, and somehow I caught it before the butter hit the floor and smushed.

  “Good catch,” Peter said.

  “Thanks,” I called over my shoulder as I hurried back to my unit.

  Amber was so nearly comatose with worry that Lynette and I had to save the rice pudding by ourselves. We slipped the pan in the oven just as Mrs. Drummond came over and peaked into the viewing window. The rice pudding sat like miniature boats in a shallow pond. When she asked us how everything went we told the truth.

  “Oh, that is clever. A good cook always knows her substitutes.” She even clapped. “Amber, that must have been your idea. Am I right?”

  No one said anything. Lynette didn’t, so Amber sure didn’t. But Amber was biting her lip and looking worried. I kind of liked Amber then, like maybe she had a conscience but not enough of one to credit Lynette for her idea.

  Mrs. Drummond announced our rice pudding earned us all an A+, and she walked away.

  Amber finally spoke. “Thanks, Lynette.” She twisted a pot holder in her hands and looked down at the floor.

  Just as Lynette was going to say something, the bell rang to end the period. We finished up the dishes and got ready to leave. The rice pudding was safely in the refrigerator. I placed the last mixing bowl on the drying rack. Amber thanked Lynette again and left quickly. She still looked pretty shook up.

  “Amber didn’t mean what she said,” I told Lynette, but I didn’t want to look right at her. “About you not knowing anything.” I worked diligently on wiping the counter, but I could feel Lynette’s attention focus behind me.

  “I wasn’t hit by a truck, you know,” Lynette said.

  “What?” I kept rubbing around in one spot.

  “I was in an incubator right after I was born, and the doctor forgot to turn on the air for a couple of seconds,” Lynette said. “I know the story about the truck, but that’s all it is—a story.” She was talking fast now.

  I looked around to see if anyone was listening to this. Only Mrs. Drummond was still in the room, at her desk, bent over in concentration. The second bell was about to ring.

  “That’s the truth.” Lynette seemed desperate.

  “Oh, well that’s okay,” I said, quickly grabbing my knapsack. “We better get going.”

  “I thought you’d understand. I thought you’d want to know the truth,” Lynette said. Her face held a puzzled look.

  “I’m sorry but…the bell’s gonna ring.” I started to leave. I didn’t think I wanted to hear any more.

  Chapter 20

  It was the start of Thanksgiving vacation. Taylor was going to spend it at her dad’s. I couldn’t help being a little glad to hear the sadness in her voice when Taylor told me. I was going to miss her, too, and it’s so much better to miss someone who’s also missing you. We weren’t going to be able to talk on the phone for almost a week.

  I had no idea what my family was doing for Thanksgiving. When Taylor asked me, I told her we always had Thanksgiving at home. But when I thought about it, with Cleo in the picture, I really wasn’t sure.

  No one was home when I got off the bus. There was a note from my dad that he had to go to the college for a department meeting. I didn’t know where Ian was. I found myself more than half-wanting and half-expecting Cleo to be home.

  As far as I was concerned, Cleo was totally moved in. She had moved the colander in the kitchen from the dish cabinet to the pot cabinet, and the can opener from the place-mat drawer to the wooden-spoon drawer. She never spent more than one night back at her place anymore.

  My dad’s bathroom was more filled with her things than his own. This, I loved. When Cleo wasn’t around I liked to poke around and touch her stuff. She had a pink razor and tampons, lip gloss and nail-polish remover, a wooden hairbrush and ladies’ deodorant. And a bottle of something called Woolite under the sink. I was considering looking through Cleo’s stuff again, since she wasn’t home, maybe trying out her razor on my legs, in a spot no one would see.

  But first, I’d get myself something to eat in the kitchen. I sat at the table with a box of Goldfish crackers and some juice. I stared out the window for a while and listened for the sound of a car over the gravel driveway; Cleo’s car or my dad’s car.

  That’s when I felt it.

  I felt like I was peeing in my pants. In fact, that’s what I first thought—I thought I was peeing in my pants, so I just got up and went to the bathroom. I leaned way over as I sat down, so I saw two little drops of red fall into the toilet.

  This was it. Oh, my God.

  This was it.

  It. I wanted to scream for someone.

  But no one was home. For the first half an hour I ran around the house, excited and nervous. I calmed down long enough to get out my journal—Book Two—and write everything down. But I wanted so badly to tell someone. It wouldn’t be real till I told someone.

  I even tried calling Taylor, but I got her machine. I knew I would, since she said she was leaving right after school. It wasn’t the kind of message you leave on an answering machine. So I just hung up.

  The second half hour, I settled down and tried to read a book I had to read for English, but I couldn’t concentrate.

  By the time they got home, the excitement had worn off and I was too embarrassed to say anything.

  “What?” Cleo asked me. “What is it?” She followed me into my room when I asked her to. I hoped she would have figured it out already, so I wouldn’t have to say it. But I had to say something, because I was using a folded-up paper towel and walking with my legs squeezed together to keep it from falling out.

  “What?” she said again. I closed the door behind us.

  “This is where I keep my journals.” I pointed to the secret space under my night table. “My diaries, sort of.”

  I lifted the piece of material draped over the table and revealed three books, one on top of the other. “I write stuff in them. Dreams and important stuff that happens. Right when it happens, I write it down.”

  Maybe I could just show Cleo what I had written. Maybe she’d just flip through one and see: This is it. It. I’m screaming out loud. Today I got my period for the very first time.

  “Oh, I keep a journal too,” Cleo said. She bent down and took a peek under my night table, but she didn’t take one out and read what was inside. “But that’s not what you wanted to tell me, is it?”

  I walked over to my bed and sat. I’ll say it fast.

  “IthinkIgotmyperiod.”

  “Oh, Gabby, I had this funny feeling that was it. That’s great.” Cleo sat down beside me and leaned over. She hugged me. “Do you know what to do?”

  I shook my head.

  “Well, I have something in my pocketbook I can give you for now, and then we can go out later and buy you your own,” she said.

  I didn’t feel so embarrassed anymore. I was getting excited again, because Cleo was excited.

  “Any cramps?” she asked me
.

  “No, I don’t think so.”

  “Oh, you’d know,” Cleo said and laughed.

  Now I’d know something Cleo knew. We were both women.

  Cleo squeezed me on the leg and began to stand up. “I’ll be back with that pad. It’s a light-day pad, but I’m sure it will be fine for right now.”

  “Cleo?” I don’t know what I was thinking. Looking back, I guess I wasn’t thinking at all. That was the problem. I had this tremendous “wanting.” It felt like if I didn’t ask then, right then, there would be no other time. It would be too late.

  “What, Gabby?” Cleo waited by the door. Her hand was on the knob, but she didn’t open it. I was glad for the distance between the bed (me) and the door (her).

  “When you and my dad get married…,” I began, “Am I supposed to…? Will you…? Should I…? Can I call you Mom?”

  There are single moments in my life that take longer than any others. Seconds that linger and suck all the air out of me, like I’m inside a bell jar. This was one of them. Cleo’s hesitation was one horrible second too long. Her face was frozen, her hand was still on the doorknob. Not completely in, but nearly heading out.

  “Is that what you want?” Cleo asked me, still stopped by the door.

  But what I wanted was so much more than that. And it seemed on this very day, as I became a “woman,” my oldest wish was going to be lost to me forever. For me it was too late. Too late to have a mom.

  “No, I wouldn’t want that. I was just asking what you thought,” I said.

  When I looked out the kitchen window later that afternoon, I noticed the river had risen. Trees that had stood low on the banks now looked as though they were floating. Their branches made trails in the flowing water.

  Chapter 21

  “It’s tonight? Not tonight,” I complained.

  “I told you.” My dad looked at me. “Didn’t I?”

  No, he definitely hadn’t told me the Faculty Show was that night. Or maybe I knew but I forgot. Either way, I had just started my Thanksgiving vacation, I had just gotten my very first menstrual period, so I should have been resting, and besides, it was cold and rainy out.

  “Well, if you don’t want to go…” My dad was putting on a tie. “I suppose you’re old enough to stay home alone.”

  “In fact, you’re a woman now.” My dad smiled at me. So Cleo had told him. And she had left to get changed at her house, right away. I didn’t even hear her leaving. But I did find the necessary item left discreetly on my bed.

  “I hate wearing a tie.” My dad tugged at his shirt collar.

  We were all hanging out in my dad’s bathroom. Ian was shaving (although I thought that was a waste of shaving cream and I told him so). My dad pulled off his tie and started all over again.

  I had this funny thought, while we were all jammed into the bathroom. I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. I remembered when Ian and I used to take baths together, and if my dad was shaving he would put shaving cream on our faces and we would shave each other’s cheeks using a toothbrush. I so definitely remember when Ian refused to take a bath with me anymore. All of a sudden I was ashamed, and I was embarrassed for all the times I hadn’t been ashamed. It was a long time ago, but I could feel that feeling right then like it was just the day before. Embarrassed.

  “All right, all right. I’ll go,” I said, standing up quickly.

  “Good, because Cleo’s going to meet us there,” my dad said. “By the way, Cleo said she’d stop at the drugstore for you,” he added, not quite looking at me. Ian kept his concentration on his careful shaving.

  Embarrassed. For all of us.

  I think in the end I just didn’t want to be home alone on this most important day of my life. Maybe I’d have my first taste of wine from one of those little plastic cups, and then I’d have two important things to write about in my journal for one day.

  I completely forgot that Mrs. Tyler had said she wanted to go to this opening until we got there—until we walked in and I saw her standing next to some even-taller-than-she-is man in a blue blazer. Richard Tyler, I thought. Wait till I tell Taylor I saw him.

  I headed in the opposite direction, away from the Tylers. I wasn’t in the mood for Mrs. Tyler. Not tonight. My dad headed right for the metal folding table and took a glass of wine from the triangle formation of mini plastic cups. I headed for an empty corner of the room. Ian sort of drifted along with me.

  The room was set up with three freestanding walls on which the smaller paintings and photographs were hung—watercolor paintings, collages, black-and-white portraits. One artist displayed tiny clay boxes with sticks inside. I thought they looked like something I could have made in kindergarten.

  The larger oil paintings were hung on the four permanent walls of the room. I saw my dad’s cows, clouds, and river views all around me. His paintings were among the biggest. They were, I thought, by far the best.

  I recognized some of the other art professors milling around the room, also with little cups of wine in their hands. Someone always smoked cigarettes at these things even though they weren’t allowed to. I was getting a headache and a little menstrual cramp, I thought.

  “How long is this going to last?” Ian said to me.

  “I don’t know. But Dad isn’t going to want to stay long.” I sat down on the floor, tightly crossed my legs, and leaned my back against a beam.

  “He might want to stay this time,” Ian said. “Cleo might make him.”

  I didn’t want to talk about Cleo. I didn’t want to think of how stupid I must have sounded asking Cleo if I could call her Mom. The key to surviving embarrassing moments is to not think about them. Then Dad spotted us. He hurried over and stood with me and Ian in the corner by my beam.

  “I hate these things,” he said. He yanked at his tie to loosen it, so now it hung cockeyed, caught on the button of his dress shirt.

  “What things?” Ian asked. “Openings? Or your tie?”

  “Both,” he answered with no sense of humor whatsoever. “When is Cleo going to get here? So we can leave.”

  I looked over at Ian with an I-told-you-so eyebrow lift.

  “Oh, there she is,” he said suddenly. Cleo had come in. She walked right by Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. She looked beautiful. She was wearing a short black dress and cowboy boots. She looked cool and elegant at the same time. I saw Mrs. Tyler pull Mr. Tyler off toward a painting on the other side of the room.

  Cleo was holding something in her hands, but I couldn’t see what it was. She looked around the room, her eyes scanning. She caught sight of us. A big smile drew across her face and she headed over.

  “Why are you guys all hiding here?” she said with a laugh. “Larry, go mingle. I heard people looking for you. The department head is here.”

  “That’s exactly why I’m leaving in five minutes. I made my appearance. I’ll get you a drink,” my dad said. “Then we’ll go.”

  He headed back to the metal folding table. Ian trailed right behind him.

  “Gabby,” Cleo said right away before I could follow them. “I wanted to give you something. To commemorate this evening for you.”

  She was holding out a gift, wrapped in natural paper with brown twine. I took it. I flipped it over in my hands and looked at it. It was small, hard, and square. Like a box of…sanitary pads.

  “It’s not that,” she said and let go a laugh as if she read my thoughts. “I did stop at the pharmacy, but that box is in my car. This is a gift. Really. That’s why I left so quickly. I wanted to get to this special store before it closed.”

  Oh.

  She nodded for me to open it. Slowly I unwrapped the paper. Underneath was a blank book, like the one I used to write down my dreams and the one I compiled my list in and the one I used for a journal. Only this one was special. It had a red cover made of velvety paper with tiny, dried flowers pressed right into it. It was tied shut with a fat red ribbon. It was beautiful.

  “Open it,” she urged.

  I pulle
d open the ribbon and lifted the front cover. There was an inscription inside, written in Cleo’s swirly lettering.

  For your most private thoughts, for your dreams

  For your wishes, and hopes, and new beginnings on this special day

  To Gabby with love,

  Your Mom-to-be,

  Cleo

  I felt so large right then. I felt like I took up the whole room. I was too big, too old. I was almost as tall as Cleo.

  I felt huge. I felt so dumb. Cleo was only eighteen years older than Ian. Only twenty-one years older than me.

  Can I call you Mom? Had I really said that? What had I been thinking?

  “I didn’t really mean…,” I stammered.

  “I know,” she stopped me. “I won’t…I can’t even try to guess how it feels not having a mom. I only hope I can be a part of your life, a good part, at least. It’s all new and we’re both learning.”

  As large and clumsy as I felt in that room, exposed by the bright fluorescent lights and betrayed by my own changing body, I wanted what Cleo was offering. I still wanted it. I had always wanted it.

  “If you don’t want to…,” I said, my voice shaking.

  Cleo stopped me. “We can be for each other, Gabby, whatever we can be.”

  My dad and Ian came back. My dad had all our coats draped over his arm.

  “No wine, Larry?” Cleo looked at my dad. “I just got here.”

  “I really hate these things,” my dad said, as if that was an explanation.

  “Larry…,” Cleo began, but then she took her coat from my dad. “Oh, you artist types,” she said.

  I clutched my book to my chest. Ian was wrong. Cleo wasn’t going to ruin us. Just the opposite. This was going to be better than great.

  On our way out we bumped into Mrs. and Mr. Tyler. I can do this, I convinced myself. I watch TV.

  “Dad, this is Taylor’s mother, Mrs. Tyler,” I introduced her to my dad.

  So far, so good.

  They said their hellos, then Mr. Tyler stuck out his hand.

  “Richard Tyler,” he said, unprompted.

  My dad shook his hand, too.

  “Your paintings are wonderful,” Mrs. Tyler said. “I do a little interior design. Maybe we could work together sometime.”

 
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