Authors: Constance C. Greene
“What'll you have, girls?” The waitress poked her pencil daintily into the depths of her newly hennaed hair and waited.
“Coffee, all right, Grace?” Ms. Govoni said.
I nodded, thinking if I opened my mouth, I might get sick right then and there, making everything worse.
When the coffee came, it tasted bitter, as if it had been boiled. I drank it anyway.
“Sometimes it helps to put things into words.” Ms. Govoni's voice was kind. “I know it's helped me on occasion.”
I knew if I didn't tell someone, it would never go away. I would run the scene in the girls' room back and forth a hundred times, in slow motion, until it poisoned me. It would continue to eat into me and drive me crazy. I had to get rid of the pain and humiliation.
If I told my parents, they might think I'd made it all up.
“Okay. This is the way it was,” I said, deciding.
I twisted my hands and cleared my throat. Ms. Govoni listened.
“This is it,” I began again. Not sure I could go on. Maybe if she'd coaxed me, if she'd said anything at all, I might have decided not to tell. But she only sat quietly, waiting.
“Ashley.” It was hard, saying her name. I swallowed and tried again. “Ashley said she wanted to see if I was for real. Here, I mean,” and I
touched myself. “She started to rip off my clothes so they could all see me naked. See if I was for real. They held my arms while she ripped. Then you came. If you hadn't, I don't know what would've happened. But you did.”
I heard her draw in her breath sharply.
“Oh, Grace” was all she said. “Oh, Grace.”
I didn't look at her. I didn't dare. I knew if I saw tears of sympathy in her eyes, it would start me off again. I'd cried enough. Tears get you nowhere. They only make you swell up, and make your face feel stiff and your eyes like slits in your face. Tears make you even uglier than before.
I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to cry anymore.
I waited while Ms. Govoni paid the check, uncertain as to what I was going to do next. I wasn't going back to school, and that was that. Even if she tried to talk me into it, I wasn't going. I couldn't. Wild horses couldn't drag me.
But I should've known Ms. Govoni wouldn't try to make me.
“If you want, Grace,” she said as we went out to her car, “I'll run you home. And when I get back to school, I'll make up some storyâtell your homeroom teacher you weren't feeling well. Something. I won't tell what really happened. Unless you want me to.” Her dark eyes were so kind, so full of compassion, I could hardly bear it.
“No,” I said. “Don't tell them. I have to think about things. I don't want to go home, though. I think I'll just walk around. Thanks a lot. For everything. You've been very nice. I don't know what I'd have done without you. Thank you.”
We shook hands.
“If I can be of any more help, Grace, I hope you'll call on me,” Ms. Govoni said.
“Thank you.” I was beginning to sound like a broken record. I watched her drive off, toward school, and began to walk. Putting one foot in front of the other took my mind off myself.
“I heard you went for coffee with Govoni,” Estelle said accusingly next day after lunch break. “You look terrible. What happened?”
I rooted around inside my locker, pretending to look for something.
“Did something happen yesterday? They said something happened in the girls' room. Ashley was there, I heard. Bet she did something nasty. Or said something. I hate her. You can tell me, Grace. My lips are sealed.”
I laughed. Half in, half out of my locker, I laughed so hard I thought I might be getting hysterical. Maybe I'd get stuck and they'd have to call the janitor to get me out. That'd be the icing on the cake. Me, stuck inside my locker, in hysterics.
All I could think of was an old World War II poster I'd seen that said
LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS
. I figured Estelle had the loosest lips in the county. Maybe the whole state.
“What's so funny? Meet me in the parking lot after last class.” Estelle dangled her car keys enticingly. “Give you a ride home.” Estelle had failed her driving test three times. The parallel parking loused her up. On the fourth try, she passed. I privately think they passed her to get rid of her. Now she gets to drive her mother's car to school if she does the shopping on the way home.
I would rather have walked, but it was starting to rain and I couldn't face the faces on the school bus. Word would've got around by now. They'd look at me, curious, wondering what went on, and I couldn't handle them. Not now.
Estelle is a terrible driver. She takes the back roads to avoid traffic. She says they're all out to get her. Even on back roads she drives smack in the middle of the road, eyes peeled for deer, hubcaps and abandoned plastic garbage bags bulging with orange peels and worse. The one thing Estelle doesn't really expect to run across is another car. When one sometimes does come around a curve, catching Estelle with her pants down, so to speak, it's instant drama. The oncoming drivers' faces clench tight as any fist as they struggle to avoid a collision. Horns blaring, tires squealing, they hurl obscenities at Estelle, who drives on blithely. She can handle anything but an oncoming car.
When I got to the parking lot, it was raining hard.
“Get in,” Estelle ordered, swinging open the door. “You look awful.”
“You said that once,” I told her. “If you're going to bug me, I'll walk.”
We zoomed out of the parking lot, almost sideswiping another car, a '57 Chevy with fins a mile long and a red stripe painted around it.
“Ooooh, what I wouldn't give for a car like that!” Estelle said.
We headed for the A&P, Estelle shooting glances at me as she drove.
“Quit looking at me,” I said. “Keep your eyes on the road.”
“I heard you were crying in the girls' room,” Estelle said again. We were stopped at the light at Park Street. “I heard you were having a fit. Is that true?”
I didn't answer.
“Okay for you.” Estelle stared at me. The light changed and the car in back gave a little beep, telling us to move on. Estelle glared into her rear-view mirror. “Some people,” she said, putting the car into third instead of first, bucking forward like the Lone Ranger's horse. Estelle's mother said if Estelle wanted to use her car, she'd have to learn to shift. She wasn't having her kid have it too easy, just put it in D and go. Driving shouldn't be made too easy, Estelle's mother said. Little did she know.
“What do I care? Do it your way. All I want is the straight story. I am your best friend, aren't I?” Still I didn't answer. Estelle spied a neighbor walking across the street. She waved madly, calling attention to herself.
“Keep your hands on the wheel,” I said in a cold voice.
“Hey, whose car is it anyway?” Estelle snapped.
“Your mother's,” I reminded her. “And believe me, if she saw the way you horse around when you're driving her car, she'd blow a gasket.”
“Who's to tell her?” Estelle's eyes got smaller as her cheeks came up to meet them.
I shrugged. “Oh, maybe that person you waved to might. Anybody. One of her customers. âOh, Helen, I saw your daughter downtown today,'” I imitated the customer. “âShe was carrying on something fierce, causing a traffic tie-up. Driving your car. I couldn't believe my eyes. Aren't you a brave thing, turning your car over to her.'”
“Oh shut up,” Estelle said. I sat in the car while she went in to buy fat-free milk, strawberry yogurt, a bag of Fritos and a six-pack of diet soda. They snack a lot in her house.
On the way home I suggested we stay on the main road.
“Keep to the right,” I said, “and let the trucks and big stuff go by and we'll be fine.” Estelle gave me a dirty look, but she took my advice. We sailed along at about thirty-five in a nice controlled way. Up ahead was a bridge overpass. Someone had written on it in big red letters.
MONDAY I LOVE YOU
, it said.
I shuddered, as if someone had walked on my grave. I could feel goose bumps crawl up and down my spine. I felt the way I do when I read a line of poetry, or a sudden, beautiful truth. A revelation. Just when I thought I had them licked, tears coursed their way down my cheeks, as if they knew the way.
Estelle slowed to a snail's pace.
“What now?” she asked. “You want me to stop? Pull over? Are you sick?”
I shook my head, sending drops flying. “No, it's nothing. Only what someone wrote on the underpass. It's silly. Very silly.”
Estelle pulled into a Texaco station and stopped. “It makes me very nervous driving when you're like that,” she said, biting her lip. “Maybe I ought to take you to the emergency room. Maybe they could give you a shot or something.”
“I'm perfectly okay. It got to me, that's all. Did you see? It said, âMonday I love you.'” I looked over at Estelle to see her reaction, not really expecting her to understand.
“At least it isn't dirty,” she said. “Mostly they write pornography on those overpasses. My mother says in her day all they did was draw big hearts with arrows through them and you wrote your initials and the initials of the boy you were in love with. Nowadays it's all filth.”
“Let's go,” I said, suddenly itchy. “What're we waiting for?”
“Your eyes are all sunk in,” she commented. “It must be due to all that crying.” I could feel her waiting, expecting some sort of confession from me. I wasn't going to budge.
“My eyes are always sunk in,” I said. “It runs in our family.”
A gas-station attendant with “Eddie” written on his breast pocket came over to the car and knocked on the window. When Estelle rolled it down a crack, he said, “Whaddya say, girls? You want something? Gas? Oil? Air in your tires?”
“We're waiting for the rain to stop,” Estelle said.
His eyebrows shot up. “You tried the windshield wipers? They do wonders with them these days.”
In a huff, Estelle rolled up the window, almost nailing Eddie's nose as she went. He jumped back in an exaggerated way and made an obscene gesture.
“See? See? What did I tell you?” Estelle pulled out into traffic without looking to see what was coming. Tires squealed, brakes screamed.
I put my hands over my eyes.
When I was little, before William was my friend, my mother made a career of taking me around to child model agencies, entering me in beauty contests. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that some important person would spy me and cry out, “That face! Perfect! Sign her up!” She'd read of such things happening. The child, me, Grace Schmitt, would earn such vast sums as to make it advisable, indeed necessary, to establish a trust fund. The breath caught in the throat, thinking of such things. A trust fund. The child would buy its parents the mansion that had always been out of reach. Mansion complete with Olympic-size swimming pool and Jacuzzi, though the parents would use neither, being unable to swim and afraid of swirling waters in the home. Like famous performers or rock stars who, though leading lives of total debauchery, were always good to the old folks, I would provide.
If I'd been older, I might've been embarrassed by such presumption. But what did I know? I was on the threshhold of five and going downhill all the while, though mercifully unaware of time's toll. Dressed in my little puffed sleeves, matching bloomers and black patent-leather ankle straps, off I'd go. In those days my father held a steady job and my mother took some time off and led the life of a typical carefree housewife. Our floors and windows were murky, the laundry piled up. My mother, despite her faults, has never been house proud.
Smelling strongly of bubble bath, I'd stand like a statue while my mother brushed my hair. Well, the hair was a problem. Full of static electricity, wispy, mouse brown, it lacked something. A blond, curly wig, made of real hair, was considered, discussed. And dismissed, the price prohibitive. So I went with the natural look, smiling, quite happy with my lot.
After each interview, my mother made a point of treating me to a black-and-white soda, my favorite, or a chocolate malted, hers. Malteds, though delicious, always made me feel sick. I would start out full of enthusiasm. Then, about halfway through, nausea would take hold. Even if I drank slowly, I couldn't avoid the sick feeling. My early childhood is full of memories of leaning over strange toilet bowls in ladies' rooms, dry heaving.
Once I was a runner up (fourth place) in a beauty contest sponsored by our local hardware store, where my father happened to be working at the time. The first prize was a snow shovel, I remember, won by a large, goofy-looking boy whose father was the president of the Chamber of Commerce. It was said by some that the boy was more than ten, the age limit for the contest entries, but no one wanted to go to the wall on this point. This was a small town, and most of the people worked locally.
For my trouble, I got a free packet of parsley seeds. We planted them in our tiny backyard when spring came. They never came up, and it wasn't until quite a lot later that we discovered we were supposed to have soaked the seeds in water before putting them in the ground.
But my mother was ecstatic. Set aflame by our victory, she batted at my father's morning paper, crying, “See! See! I knew it. We have a little beauty here. Right in our midst! Didn't I tell you? Yes, I certainly did.” And from behind the shield of his newspaper, I caught one of my father's eyes surveying me. The eye was dubious. Was I indeed a beauty?
If something is said often enough, does it come true? My mirror did not lie. I wasn't beautiful but thought I was, for I'd been told so often. The myth had been planted and nourished.
Actually I resembled a baby bird, newly unseated from the nest, mouth constantly open for the passing worm. Hair impossible. Looking back at myself in those days, I smile at my own innocence. Children are so wise, so tender, so unsuspecting. So at the mercy of adults. As well as of other children less tender than themselves. I didn't know at the age of four what unhappiness was.