What every girl except m.., p.9
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       What Every Girl (except me) Knows, p.9

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
 
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  I really needed to make this phone call.

  I tiptoed out of bed. I didn’t notice anything unusual in the kitchen or anywhere else around the house. Except that it was quiet. The windows were frosted with cold condensation. The wood floor was freezing under my bare feet. I looked at the clock—seven forty-five. Too early to call Taylor. Mrs. Tyler looked like someone who cared about her beauty sleep. She would definitely care if I did something rude and called too early.

  I’d just wait awhile.

  By five past eight I was getting antsy. Where was Cleo? Ian was known to sleep through the whole morning. But my dad was an early riser. He got up with the first light, checked everything in the house, made his coffee, and was out in the studio working by seven. This morning I seemed to be the first one up. I decided I would eat something, then go look for someone. While I was contemplating the breakfast cereals in the pantry, I turned around to see my dad.

  “You look terrible,” I said.

  “I didn’t sleep much.” He walked over to the sink to start the coffee. He opened three cabinets before he found the filters.

  He really did look terrible. He filled the coffeepot with water.

  “Dad, can I call Taylor?” I started. “Is it too early still? What would—” I didn’t get to finish.

  “Sure, sweetie.” He walked out of the room. He forgot to plug in the coffee machine.

  When Cleo was around so much in the beginning it felt weird. And then after a while it didn’t anymore. But it’s funny how things can fall right back to the way they were—so quiet, with Dad and Ian and me going about our business, not talking much. It was a long while before I even noticed.

  “Cleo’s still sleeping?” I asked, pressing my Rice Krispies into the milk.

  My dad had wandered back into the kitchen. He plugged in the coffee machine. The water starting steaming right away.

  “Cleo’s not going to be around anymore,” he said. He stood watching the hot water drop into the glass coffeepot.

  My spoon stopped halfway to my mouth. That’s when Ian walked in. He didn’t look so good, either, but he never does.

  “Cleo’s gone?” Ian said.

  “She left last night,” Dad told us both. “It’s all for the best. She wasn’t ready to get married.”

  Cleo was gone?

  “Is she coming back?” I asked. I pushed my bowl as far away as I could reach.

  “No, as soon as she can get a flight she’s going to her sister’s in Colorado. Yeah, it’s Colorado, I think.”

  The coffee was apparently ready enough, and my dad poured some into his mug as the rest of it dripped down onto the burner and spattered.

  “She’s coming back to say good-bye,” I told my dad.

  My dad turned to me. His eyes were puffy and his hair was uncombed. Something about him was so unfamiliar it made me feel unsafe, like the time I reached for my dad’s hand at the gallery so long ago, a hand that turned out not to be his hand. I felt lost again.

  “No, sweetie. I don’t think so,” he said. Then he spoke out loud, as if for someone’s benefit, though not mine. “I tried to get her to change her mind,” he said. “I tried till two in the morning.”

  “You’re lying!” I screamed.

  Then I cried. I don’t remember for how long. I ran into my room and flung myself on my bed. I cried such sobs that my body hurt. My nose ran freely. I couldn’t even think what it was I was crying about. My body was crying, my eyes were crying, my nose was crying. It didn’t matter what I thought anymore. Crying had taken over and when it was done it left me empty.

  My dad didn’t know what to do with me. He sat on my bed for a while, and then he went away. He came back with some tea. Then he left again.

  Taylor called me, but I couldn’t talk.

  Finally, after an hour or so, I got up and walked out of my room. I went straight down the hall to my dad’s room. All of Cleo’s stuff was gone. Her books by the bed, even her little reading light. The piece of Brazilian lace she had put on the bureau was gone, as well as the bottle of hand lotion that had been on top. She had two little mirrored boxes she kept her jewelry in. They were both gone.

  I went into the bathroom. Her hairbrush and toothbrush were gone. Her Tom’s Natural Toothpaste was gone. Her razor, her women’s shave cream, even the Woolite was gone. Then I remembered the antique cigar box that Cleo used to hold Q-tips and cotton balls in the linen closet. I walked out into the hall and opened the closet. It was gone, too.

  She had been so utterly thorough, I thought.

  It was like she didn’t want anyone to know she had ever been here. Ever.

  I suddenly ran back to my room. I flung open my door and headed straight for my night table. Under the hanging piece of material I had my three notebooks and by my bed a fourth, the one Cleo had given me. Slowly I lifted that one into my hands. The ribbon was undone, although I was sure I always retied it whenever I looked at it. I hadn’t written anything in it yet. I was saving it. But I often flipped through the empty pages, thinking about what I’d write.

  Now I lifted the red cover with the dried flowers pressed inside.

  The first page was missing.

  I held the book closer to my face. Tiny rips were all that was left of the page where the inscription had been written. The page had been carefully torn out.

  Your mom-to-be.

  Mom-to-be. Mom-to-be.

  It was if she had never been here.

  I didn’t cry. I wasn’t ever going to cry again.

  Part II

  Chapter 25

  It took me a real, real long time to even open the red journal Cleo had given me. At first, after she left, I was so upset I couldn’t touch the book—not even to throw it out. Then I got this dumb note from her about three weeks after she left saying her leaving had nothing to do with me and she only tore out the inscription in a moment of panic and confusion, that I’d understand when I got older, or maybe I’d be lucky and never have to.

  I never wrote back.

  After a while the red journal seemed like just another blank book. But I would never write in it. And I’d never pull out the rest of that torn page. I’d keep it there, all jagged and ripped. Then by four and a half months later, I barely even thought about any of it, anymore. Honest.

  I’d grown up a lot since then. It was too bad Kelly Noonan hadn’t, though. She still wore only purple, with only one day off, when she wore all green for St. Patrick’s Day. The next day she was right back to purple.

  And Taylor and I were now totally best friends. YBFs.

  We had a list of lines that we had to recite whenever one of us started the sequence. So far we had, in order:

  I looove the chocolate glaze.

  Got milk?

  Hurry, get a paper towel.

  And then one day Taylor and I were standing in the bus line to go to my house after school. There were three late bus routes for kids who stayed after, but some days, like that day, there were only a few of us waiting.

  “You guys have to dress alike, too?” Peter said. He was in the line next to ours waiting for his bus to show up.

  Taylor and I both looked at each other at the same time to see what Peter was talking about. We hadn’t even planned it, and we hadn’t noticed it all day. Taylor was wearing white overalls, a blue T-shirt, and a white sweat jacket. I had on blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a blue windbreaker. The exact reverse and the exact same thing.

  “YBFs!” Taylor stood back to admire our clothing and how good we looked together. How two good friends naturally chose the same colors on the same day. YBFs.

  “I didn’t say you were elves,” Peter said, shaking his head and holding up his hand in a gesture of disbelief.

  We both looked at him, Taylor and I. It took a minute and then we broke out laughing at what Peter thought he had heard. Y:why. Babe. Fs:Elves?

  “Why be elves?” Taylor asked me, as if this question had seriously just occurred to her.

  “Why not?
I answered.

  And then that was one of our lines. Just simply, Why be elves?

  Peter was still shaking his head at us out his bus window while Taylor and I ran through our lines (now four of them) and laughed. Another bus arrived and the rest of the students went home. It was only Taylor and me left waiting.

  “Hey, Gabby?” Taylor said quietly.

  “Yeah?”

  “Is there anything I should know for when I get my period? That is, if I ever get my period,” Taylor said.

  There wasn’t much to know, I told Taylor. Just that it doesn’t come the same time every month even though they said that in the movie. And it doesn’t hurt or anything. And it’s no big deal, really, after the first time, after the first hour or so.

  Mr. Worthington finally appeared in his big, yellow bus, rounding the turn into the school.

  “Gabby?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Well, when I do get it, I don’t want to tell anyone till I tell you.” Taylor finished quickly before the bus arrived.

  “Really?”

  “You’re my YBF,” Taylor said.

  “And you’re mine,” I said.

  Chapter 26

  Ian stood by the door, ready to leave for school, and commented on the river. Even though I was the only other person in the kitchen, I wasn’t sure that he was talking to me.

  “By tomorrow the bus will have to go around the long way,” he said.

  I looked out the window. It was only six-thirty in the morning, and already the sun was fully risen. The Wallkill was threatening to spill over its banks due to melting snow from the surrounding mountains and unusually wet weather. When that happens, water rushes over the low flats of the cornfields and the low roads. The police come around with orange barricades to divert traffic all the way around, almost to Rosendale. Water rushes up all around our property, because our house is built on a slight hill. Only the house and our driveway stay dry. The grass of our lawn gets laid flat and wet under a thin layer of murky water. Already the trees just beside the river were covered midway up their trunks.

  “Maybe even by this afternoon,” Ian said.

  I couldn’t tell if he was glad or unhappy or worried by this. Like most things, he simply reported it. Just as Ian had never mentioned Cleo again, not even to say her name. But, like I said, after four and a half months you can forget a lot.

  “I bet by this afternoon they’ll block off our road,” Ian said as he walked out the door to catch the bus to the high school.

  I wasn’t taking the bus that morning. My dad was taking me to his office with him so I could get pool passes for the college pool. I had invited my best friend, also known as Taylor Such, YBF, to come swimming with me Saturday when my dad had all-day classes. I had told my dad all week that if I didn’t get the passes by Friday, the administration offices would be closed.

  He might have been slow and disorganized, but my dad usually came through.

  We got to the college early. I waited in the studio-art office while my dad did something he said he was supposed to have done the week before, of course. Then we could go to the administration building and get the pool passes, he promised.

  The magazines in the office were really bad, Art Times and Arts in Review. Nothing I wanted to read. I kept looking up at the clock on the wall, because if my dad didn’t get back soon I was going to be late for school.

  I stared at everything in the room to pass the time and finally focused on the secretary, who sat typing at her computer.

  “Hi, Robin!” Someone’s voice flew in through the open door to the office. By the time the secretary looked up to wave, the person was gone. But she had looked up just in time to catch me staring at her.

  “Your father should be back any minute, honey,” Robin told me with a fake smile.

  She resumed typing at her computer. She had two bracelets on each arm and three rings on each hand. As her fingers hit the keys, the bracelets clicked and the rings danced up and down. That’s when I noticed her fingernails. They were painted white. Short and perfectly square.

  I picked up the copy of Art Times and held it to my face. Then I slowly brought my hands around, kept them low so as to be inconspicuous, and turned them over to inspect my own nails. I bite my fingernails, not so much out of nervousness, but as sort of a Gabby Weiss manicure. It keeps them short, but jagged and certainly not white. Not pretty, not a girl’s hands, not like Robin’s.

  “How do you get your nails so pretty?” I asked.

  Robin stopped typing, looked up, and glanced around the room to see who I was talking to.

  Duh.

  “Oh, thank you,” she said finally.

  Robin apparently didn’t realize that what I really wanted was an answer. She was still smiling that dumb smile. I was still waiting.

  “Gelatin,” she said, finally catching on. “I buy these packets of gelatin in the grocery store and I mix it in with a glass of water and I drink it.”

  This was list-journal information.

  “Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”

  “Your dad should be out any minute now,” Robin said again.

  I made her nervous.

  As soon as my dad returned, we went to get the passes. I made it to school on time, and as soon as I saw her in the hall I snuck a look at Taylor’s nails. They were neatly filed and shiny, pinkish-clear.

  I knew that if Mrs. Tyler thought it was important for Taylor, she would be the first to run out, buy the gelatin, and mix it up every morning for her daughter’s breakfast. Maybe she already did.

  “What are you looking at?” Taylor asked me.

  “Nothing.”

  I had told Taylor a lot lately, but not everything.

  I hadn’t told her about my list. I hadn’t told her about my mother. I hadn’t told her it was my fault that my mother had died.

  “No, really, what are you looking at?” Taylor nudged me with her elbow.

  “You have nice nails,” I told Taylor, “that’s all,” and we headed to our homeroom.

  *

  When I got home that afternoon, my dad was outside checking the groundwater situation. The grassy fields that led directly to the river were saturated. My dad stood in the path he himself had cut and shifted his weight from foot to foot. He looked like he was on a seesaw you couldn’t see. He was grumbling again.

  The septic. Damn. The well. Damn it.

  Whatever that river was carrying, it couldn’t hold much longer. The ground was full, the water was as high as it could get, and eventually everything would spill out, like stories that have to be told.

  Chapter 27

  It was Saturday. Mrs. Tyler had agreed (way in advance) to pick me up from my house after lunch and then drop Taylor and me off at the college. My dad was going to pick us up after we went swimming, after he was done with his classes, and take Taylor home. My dad even had to talk to Mrs. Tyler on the phone about all these plans. Which he did. And Mrs. Tyler was right on time.

  “Are you sure this is the right place?” Mrs. Tyler asked twice, even though the words SUNY NEW PALTZ MEMORIAL GYMNASIUM were nailed to the wall of this huge, brick building.

  “You’ve been here before?” she asked. “You’ve done this before?”

  “Millions of times,” I said. But to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t ever gone to the college gym without a grown-up before.

  “We’re fine, Mom,” Taylor said firmly. We both got out of the car.

  Taylor had to wave to her mother again from inside the big window of the gym, and finally Mrs. Tyler drove away.

  I hadn’t even been swimming here in probably two years, not since my dad used to take me and Ian on hot summer days, before they built the new town pool out by the high school. I was hoping, I was praying, I would remember where the women’s lockers were and wouldn’t look like I didn’t know what I was doing.

  When my dad took us, he used to take me into the men’s room and shuttle me right out through the showers to the pool. We always ca
me already dressed in our bathing suits. But the last time I came with my dad and Ian, I insisted on walking through the women’s room to get to the pool. (Or rather, I refused to walk, or even run, through the men’s locker room.) The thought of naked men horrified me, and Ian told me those college students always walked around naked like nobody’s business. “It is something that happens to you when you get to college,” he’d said. “You lose your fear of being nude.”

  I thought of that as Taylor and I headed for the women’s locker room. I somehow remembered the right direction: down the steps, to the right past the squash courts. The vending machines were new. Taylor must have been a little nervous, too, or she picked it up from me. She walked a little slower as we got near the door.

  WOMEN’S LOCKER ROOM.

  Just as I reached for the handle, the door swung open and a college woman came out. We nearly banged into her.

  She seemed startled, but she didn’t say anything. Her hair was combed but totally wet. She smelled of soap and chlorine as she passed by. She looked so grown up, and I imagined she had been naked just a few minutes before. If I thought about this too long, I was going to chicken out.

  “Go ahead,” I said, holding the door for Taylor.

  Inside, the smell of chlorine was even greater. The warm steam from the showers and cold air from the hall met right at the position by the door where Taylor and I stood. Women of all sizes were walking around—women in all stages of getting dressed and undressed. Breasts bobbed and bare bottoms walked by.

  I started straight down a long row of lockers and benches and found an empty corner close to the pool entrance. We scooted far down the bench against the wall.

  I knew if I looked at Taylor I was going to laugh nervously and loud and the whole locker room would echo. All around us metal lockers banged closed and reverberated. Showers ran, toilets flushed, wet footsteps padded. None of the women were talking much, but it was hollow and loud with locker-room noise.

 
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