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Chapter One: Teasing Sal
Dad says it's the dumbest thing he ever saw, but every year the Washington Post comes out with a list of what's "in" and what's "out" -- movies, songs, food, clothes, TV programs, even people. It's done sort of tongue in cheek, but I read it anyway.
"Al," he says (he and Lester call me Al), "are you really going to let somebody else tell you what you should be eating and wearing and talking about? You're not a zombie, remember. You're an interesting girl with a brain of her own."
I like my dad. I know kids who are always knocking their parents, but Dad manages to squeeze in a compliment even when he's trying to teach me a lesson. I know if Mom were alive I'd love her too, but she died when I was in kindergarten.
"Imagine waking up some morning and finding out that everything in your closet and refrigerator was on the 'out' list," said Pamela, when we were discussing the list. She and Elizabeth are two of my very best friends.
"Imagine waking up and finding your name on the 'out' list," I said. "One day you're part of the 'in' crowd, and the next you're not."
"Then they weren't real friends to begin with," said Elizabeth.
We were walking home from the library, enjoying the first faint feel of spring, a warm breeze that ruffled our hair. We were ready for spring -- ready for something new. Elizabeth had a new boyfriend, Justin Collier, the absolutely handsomest guy in eighth grade. Elizabeth was the first one of us who had been invited to the eighth-grade semi-formal in May.
Pamela had already turned fourteen, and she was ready for anything too, especially anything that would take her away from the mess at home -- namely, her mom's running off to be with her NordicTrack instructor.
As for me, it was time to concentrate on where my own life was going. Miss Summers, my gorgeous seventh-grade English teacher whom my dad loves, is going to England for a year as an exchange teacher because she can't decide between Dad and our assistant principal, Jim Sorringer, who's in love with her too. After worrying about my dad's love life for over a year, I decided it was out of my hands and I wasn't going to waste any more of my life trying to work things out for him.
"Bring on the spring!" I said, lifting my face toward the sun and feeling it full on my cheeks and forehead. "Gwen says you can be a candy striper at the hospital once you're fourteen. That's what she's going to do this summer."
"Who's Gwen?" asked Pamela.
"The short black girl in my math class."
"Do they pay you?" she wanted to know.
"I don't think so. It's all volunteer."
"I won't be fourteen till December," said Elizabeth. "I guess that leaves me out."
"I'm not volunteering at any hospital! Who wants to empty bedpans all day?" said Pamela.
"I think candy stripers deliver magazines and mail and stuff," I told her. But I could tell it still didn't appeal much. Pamela was depressed enough without working in a hospital. Was it possible we'd each be doing something different come summer? It would be the first time since we'd known each other that we hadn't spent the whole summer together, going over to each other's houses almost every day.
"I'd rather think about the semi-formal," said Pamela. "Summer's still a long way off."
"Who are you going with?" Elizabeth asked her. I was going with my boyfriend, Patrick, of course. A guy named Sam, in Camera Club, had asked me too, but Patrick's been my boyfriend since sixth grade, so I guess it was Patrick and me for the dance.
"Aren't you back with Mark?" I asked Pamela. "Aren't you going with him?"
"I'm going to ask somebody new and different," Pamela said. "I'm thinking of asking Donald Sheavers."
"Donald Sheavers?" I gasped. My old boyfriend from Takoma Park, handsome as anything but dumb as a doorknob.
"Going steady is 'out,' Alice. Didn't you know? Everybody goes out with everybody. In a group. And when you do go out with a guy alone, you mix it up. I mean, maybe you'll go to a party with him and come home with someone else. You and Patrick have been going together so long you're like an old married couple."
"Hardly," I said.
"It's true! When you only go out with one guy, everyone assumes you're having sex."
"What?" Elizabeth cried.
"Oh, Pamela, that's not true," I said. Sometimes she really ticks me off. Pamela makes these statements like they're true for everyone, and they're not.
"Wait till you get to high school!" she said. "If you're still going with Patrick then, I'll bet kids will talk. Besides, how do you know you won't like other guys better if you never try any of them?"
"I don't know. I just hate giving up somebody I really like, that's all," I told her.
"You don't give him up, that's the point, Alice. You share him. And when you choose buffet, you can have something of everything!"
I rolled my eyes.
"How are you going to wear your hair for the dance?" Elizabeth asked me.
"On my head, as usual," I said.
"I'm going to wear mine piled up on top," she said.
"Now that's out!" said Pamela. "Everyone says so. We're all going together in the same car, aren't we?"
"Yes! We pile in the car and see how many couples we can squeeze in. That's 'in.' So I've heard, anyway," said Elizabeth.
I wondered if I should start making a list -- what's in and what's out. The thing was, I could see already that in some ways I was out. Whenever we read magazines together -- Pamela, Elizabeth, and I -- I want to turn past the articles on "shaping your brows" and "fabrics that flounce" and go to personality quizzes and stuff. Elizabeth and Pamela are sort of fixated on clothes and hair and makeup, I think. I can take about ten minutes of it, and then I'm bored out of my mind. They've already made phone calls back and forth about what they'll wear to the dance and haven't included me. Then I wonder if they talk about me behind my back -- criticize the way I dress and everything. What will happen to us when we get to high school? I wonder. Who will be "in" and who will be "out"?
When I got home, Lester, my twenty-one-year-old brother, was making spaghetti sauce for dinner. I stood in the doorway watching him add the ingredients, and when he started to mash the garlic, I said, "That's 'out,' Lester. Basil's 'in.'"
"Really?" said Les, and put it in anyway.
When Dad came to the table in a blue shirt with white collar and cuffs, I told him those kinds of shirts were out.
"So?" said Dad. "Then I'll have my own special look, won't I?"
It was when I was breaking my breadstick into a dozen different pieces that I realized both Dad and Lester were staring at me.
"Feeding the birds?" asked Dad.
"No...." I took my index finger and idly flicked each piece across my plate, then flicked them in the other direction. "I'm ready for a big change in my life, but not the kind that's happening to me."
"So what's happening to you? Fangs at the full moon, or what?" asked Lester.
"Be serious," I said to both of them. "I just realized that good things don't stay the same. I mean, I can remember when Elizabeth and Pamela and I imagined us all getting summer jobs at the same place and going to the same college and all getting married around the same time and living in the same town. And already we're thinking about doing entirely different things this summer."
"Well, you're not Siamese triplets," Lester said. "You really will continue breathing on your own, you know."
"It's called 'life,' Al, and life is change," Dad said.
"Not all change is good, though," I told him.
"I know," he said.
I started in on my spaghetti, but Lester always puts too many mushrooms in it for me. I like chunky spaghetti sauce with lots of meat in it, and Lester's sort of slides its way down your throat.
"Life should be like a Coke machine," I said. "You drop in your money and get the same drink over and over again. No surprises."
"You're absolutely profound," said Lester. He's a philosophy major in college, senior year. He switched over from business. "That would be as boring as boiled potatoes."
"Someday it's going to happen to you, Les," I told him. "Marilyn's not going to wait for you forever, you know. You can't just go on ringing her number, thinking she'll always be there. One of these times you'll call up and find out she's married."
"She's not the only woman in the world, Al," Lester said, which was about the same thing Pamela had said about Patrick.
Something good happened after dinner. Aunt Sally called from Chicago and said that she and her daughter -- my grown-up cousin Carol, who used to be married to a sailor -- were coming to stay with us for five days. Carol would be attending a convention in Washington, D.C., so Aunt Sally was coming along, and she'd cook all our favorite dishes.
"That's great!" I told her. I love having Carol around. She's sophisticated and funny and knows absolutely everything I need to know about life and stuff. The one question I've always wanted to ask her is what it's really, really like to have sex with a man. I couldn't think of a single other person I could ask. I'd be too embarrassed to ask Marilyn Rawley, Lester's girlfriend. Ditto Miss Summers. And I sure wasn't going to ask Aunt Sally, because if she told me once that getting your period was like a moth becoming a butterfly, she'd probably say that sexual intercourse was like a deer getting antlers or something.
Elizabeth's mother told her that sex between a husband and wife is beautiful, but "beautiful" doesn't do anything for me. Pamela read in Ann Landers that Niagara Falls, where a lot of couples go on their honeymoon, is a bride's "second biggest disappointment," meaning, of course, that intercourse is the first. So what does it feel like? I've always wondered. As good as a back rub? A kiss? Or is it more like a sneeze or hiccups?
"You're sure you have room, now?" Aunt Sally was asking.
"Of course! Carol can sleep with me!" I told her.
"We'll sleep wherever you put us. It will just be so good to see you all again," said Aunt Sally.
I told Dad and Lester that they were coming, and Les was happy too, because he and Carol get along real well. She's a few years older than he is, and they always kid around. Dad, though, didn't exactly jump for joy, because Aunt Sally is Mom's older sister, and she's probably never quite forgiven him for wooing Mom away from a rich boyfriend named Charlie Snow, and all because Dad wrote such wonderful love letters.
"Is it okay if Carol sleeps with me?" I asked Dad when I told him they were coming.
"If it's all right with Carol," said Dad. "I'm going to put Sal in my bedroom, though, and I'll put up the cot in the dining room for myself."
"Sure you want to do that, Dad? Have her snooping through your things?" Lester asked.
"Everything that's important to me is in that trunk in the attic," Dad said. "I'd rather have Sal confined up in my bedroom than give her the run of the downstairs. She'd be up at the crack of dawn making biscuits."
A week later, I had just finished hosing off the front porch and was mopping it dry when a cab pulled up, and out got Carol and Aunt Sally.
"Hi!" I yelled, throwing down the mop, and ran out to give them both a big hug.
"Alice, you're looking gorgeous!" Carol said, and we both laughed, because I was barefoot, with my jeans rolled up to my knees.
"So are you!" I said, only Carol really was gorgeous. She's on the tall side, with hair about the color of mine -- more strawberry, maybe, than blond -- and she has really green eyes. She was wearing a rayon pant and jacket outfit, and a scarf of a million colors around her neck.
Dad and Lester came out of the house, and when Carol saw Les, she dramatically held out her arms and cried, "Lester!"
He fell right into the act. "Carol!" he said.
She rushed into his arms, and he bent her backward almost all the way to the ground like they do on a dance floor.
Dad sort of chuckled, and Aunt Sally stared, but I laughed. Some people are real live wires, and Carol's one of them.
"Carol, how lovely you look!" said Dad, when she was upright again. "And, Sal, how are you?" He hugged them both. "How's Milt?"
"Just as stubborn and wonderful as ever," Aunt Sally said. "He talked about coming, but decided that somebody ought to stay home to feed the cat." Then she hugged us all again. She said she was going to cook supper, Dad said she'd do no such thing, we went inside and ordered takeout, and then sat around the dining room table eating pork lo mein and cashew chicken.
"My, you've certainly fixed up the place since we were here last," said Aunt Sally. "New furniture and all! Ben, you've got excellent taste."
I almost wished she hadn't said anything, because part of the reason Dad bought good furniture was that he'd started dating Sylvia Summers. But for once Aunt Sally showed some tact and didn't bring it up. She focused on Lester instead.
"Lester," she said, scooping out the last cashew from the little white carton, "what is a handsome man like you doing unattached, I'd like to know?"
Aunt Sally has felt for some time that Lester's too flighty when it comes to women and that he should pick one special girl, not just "jump from one to another," as she put it.
"Easy, Sal. He's only twenty-one," Dad said genially.
"And still in school," I put in, "which he will probably be for the rest of his natural life, because after June, he's going to graduate school."
"I didn't say I was in a rush to see him married, but I'd think by now there would be one special lady in his life," said Aunt Sally.
"Same here," I said. "That's what we're all wondering." I grinned at Lester.
I could see the corners of his mouth twitch the way they do when he's about to make a joke, and he looked across the table at Carol and said, "Oh, but there is!"
"Oh, Lester!" said Carol, her voice breaking just a little.
Aunt Sally looked quickly from Lester to Carol, and I laughed again. The thing about Aunt Sally is she never seems to know when you're joking. Dad told me once that Mom had a great sense of humor. Maybe she got it all and her sister didn't get any, but Aunt Sally's sure fun to tease.
"I heard that one of your old girlfriends got married," Aunt Sally said. "Ben sent me a picture of Alice in her bridesmaid's dress, and I'll confess, I was a little surprised you let Crystal get away."
"She had a greater love for another man. These things happen," Lester said. "More egg rolls, anyone?"
"What about that other girl, the one who works for you, Ben?" asked Aunt Sally.
"Marilyn Rawley," I said helpfully.
"Yes, what about Marilyn?" Aunt Sally just wouldn't shut up. "Are you still seeing her?"
"I was until Carol reentered my life," said Lester.
"Be still, my heart," said Carol, and Dad and I laughed again. This time Aunt Sally laughed a little too.
But it was later, when we'd finished eating and had spread our photo albums on the dining room table, that the joke began to build. Lester was sitting at one end of the table, Carol around the
corner from him, and every time they came to a picture of Lester, Carol told him he looked handsome or virile or studly or something. Every time they came to a photo of Carol, Lester said she looked beautiful or voluptuous.
Aunt Sally alternated between falling silent every time they complimented each other or talking too loud and too fast. I went along with the joke by pretending to take it seriously and stopped laughing out loud, even though I was cracking up. It was hard to tell just what Dad was thinking. I guess he was a little puzzled, a little embarrassed, but he figured -- hoped, anyway -- that it was all in good fun.
After a while Lester and Carol and I migrated to the living room, leaving the photo albums to Dad and Aunt Sal, who knew a lot more of the relatives than we did.
Lester chose an old Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy video to put in the VCR. He and Carol sat on the sofa and I sat cross-legged in the recliner, enjoying their jokes and comments about as much as I did the movie itself.
Lester and Carol are the kind of people who sort of feed each other lines, and if one of them starts a joke, the other can finish it. We were talking about the different kinds of kisses you see on the screen, and every time we came up with a new one, Les and Carol would demonstrate, really exaggerating, making me laugh. They'd gone through the John Wayne kind of kiss to Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable to James Bond, and they were demonstrating the Alan Alda kind of kiss when we noticed Dad and Aunt Sally watching wordlessly from the dining room.
"And then there's the lip-brushing style, like this," Carol told me. She put her hands on Lester's shoulders, slowly leaned toward him, and brushed his lips a couple of times with her own before they kissed.
Dad and Aunt Sally got up from the table and came to stand in the doorway, looking disturbed.
Lester and Carol took in the situation immediately.
"Dad, Aunt Sal," Lester said, looking as serious as he could without laughing, "Carol and I have something to tell you."
Carol took over. She reached for Lester's arm, put her cheek against his shoulder for a moment, and said, "Les and I are engaged. We can't keep our love a secret any longer."
Aunt Sally plopped down in a chair, looking dazed. Was it possible, I wondered, that she thought they were serious?
"You're...you're cousins!" Aunt Sally gasped. "You can't marry!"
"Oh, we'll find a state where it's legal, Mom," Carol said.
"Or we could elope," added Lester, his voice cracking a little, the way it does when he's trying not to laugh.
Dad still didn't say anything. I think he figured that if he just shut up and listened, he'd know whether to worry or not.
"When did you decide all this? Carol, you never said a word to me!" Aunt Sally continued.
"Oh, we've been writing back and forth," Carol said, "and Les writes the most beautiful love letters!"
Aunt Sally jerked around and glared at Dad as though it were all his fault.
"Don't look at me, Sal. I'm in the dark here," Dad told her.
Aunt Sally faced Lester and Carol again. "Have you set a date?" she asked.
She did believe them! I laughed out loud, and Aunt Sally turned on me next.
"Did you know anything about this?" she asked.
"Only that I get to be one of the bridesmaids," I kidded, looking serious again.
"And don't forget to give me your measurements, Alice, so I can order your dress," Carol said, winking at me.
We kept it up for the next five minutes until things got so outrageous that Aunt Sally began to guess, and Dad looked relieved. We never came right out and said we'd been teasing, and I think Dad wished we hadn't started it in the first place.
I couldn't help but feel a little bit sad for him just then. The trouble with being part of an "in" joke or an "in" crowd is that there has to be somebody who's "out." And you never know how that feels, I guess, until it happens to you.
1999 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Interpersonal relations Fiction, Sex Fiction, Prejudices Fiction, Single-parent families Fiction, Schools Fiction