At 8am I walked out the front door with a Spanish grammar and a social studies textbook under my arm. I was earlier than usual. I was usually late. Today I needed time to make a little detour on the way to school. As the front door slammed behind me I walked past my parents' bedroom window and glanced in. My mother wasn't there. I headed for the courtyard entry but veered left into the back door of the garage.
It was dark in the garage. And damp. I gently closed the door behind me and rifled in my vinyl bucket purse for the nylons. I already had the white cotton garter belt on under my pleated skirt. I bent down and untied the two-tone oxford laces and peeled off my white anklets. The cement floor smelled mildewy and a line of ants were making their perpetual pilgrimage across the cracked and oily surface. I pulled out the pair of Dark Cinnamon stockings with Demi Toe and ruched them up in my fingers the way I had seen my mother do and poked my toe into the filmy mass. After snapping the rubber tab into its metal ring twice for each leg, I bent down to inspect my ankles. They were wrinkled but it didn't matter. I pulled my socks back on and the horrid oxfords and made a dash out the door.
I still wasn't too late to pass Danny DeMilo at the intersection of Ramona Street and East Meadow Road as he launched himself down the sidewalk, hands in his jeans pockets, no books under his arm, and conferred on me a cursory nod of his manly jawline. My nervous system jumped to alert. I waved my free hand perkily and yelled HI DANNY! conscious of my shiny smooth shins. Danny strode past me, his head tilted upward as if something in the blank December sky had mesmerized him.
I didn't walk past the elementary school any more. We had moved since I graduated to Wilbur Junior High. Now I approached the low stucco buildings arranged like barracks and entered Wing E where my locker was. Only when I had to go to second period math on the other side of the school did I glimpse, over the chainlink fence and playing field of Fairmeadow Elementary School, the kindergarten babies in their midget swings and the first grade girls, dangling under their dresses like pastel paper parasols from the monkey bars.
The main corridor echoed with the mingled sounds of slamming metal lockers and high pitched laughter as clumps of girls in short skirts and colored tennis shoes drifted down the hallway past boisterous gaggles of skinny boys. At the glassed in breezeway the stream of students narrowed and became a crush as pubescent twelveyearolds packed together with gangly sophisticates of fourteen, the tallest of them commanding the throng like captains of an elf crew. Hey shorty, where's the flood! an Elvis look-a-like yells at a crop-haired seventh grader in cuff rolled jeans who pretends he hasn't heard. The ninth grade boys laugh and jostle the crowd, leering suavely at the passing stream of poof-haired ingenues who stare back and snap their gum before wheeling into the girl's bathroom in groups of three and four to reseal their hair with aerosol spray cans and reapply frosty white lipstick and black mascara.
That ratfink Duane told Len about Jerry an' me at the party last Saturday and now he wants his Christopher back! a ninth-grader wailed as me and my best friend Karen looked on in awe. DeeDee Danz stood before the mirror in all her glory -- ratted hair mounded into a perfect globe with a tiny velveteen bow at the juncture of hair and cheek. Between the hem of her tight black skirt and the impossibly pointy toes of her flats her legs gleamed black as coffee. This was no rumply bloused, hairy-legged, buck-toothed teenage girl. This was Woman. DeeDee was as far from being me as I was from being my own mother. At fourteen, just two years older than me, she might as well have been forty. I stared at the front of her baby blue mohair pullover where the disputed St. Christopher medal dangled in iridescent blue enamel on a waist-length silver chain. I eyed the small disk with longing as if the token could have passed me through the pearly gates of heaven. Then a loud clanging announced the start of classes and the bathroom emptied. The milling throngs vanished from the corridors -- all but the hallway guards who lingered, hands crossed behind their red wool sweaters, hoping to report escaping truants.
After school Karen and I walked to South Court where we always parted. She turned left into the meandering street of new tract homes and I continued down East Meadow alone. Along this older avenue the boxy little houses sat under broad canopied trees that stretched from Middlefield Road in a line all the way to the railroad tracks. On the right side were the bungalows of the first suburbs built right after the war. On Karen's side the asymmetric angles and Japanese-style landscaping of the Eichlers, as everyone called them, housed the families of the newly arrived engineering school graduates who came to work for Lockheed or Hewlett Packard. My street was the last one before the railroad tracks, Ramona Street.
We had moved into the house the summer before when the family decided that Los Angeles was too strange a place to grow up in. We had been there less than a year when Dad called it quits at the electronics firm that had lured him from his job in San Francisco. It was the same railroad track down the road that used to carry him every day into the City in his grey flannel suit and pressed white shirt.
Now we were back. But we no longer lived in the cul-de-sac off Cowper Street and Terry and Carol and Melissa had new best friends and lived in the opposite direction from my school route. There was still Karen. She was the only one who had come to visit me during that lonely year in Los Angeles. Now I spent almost every day at her house. They had a piano and a TV room and no baby sister to bug us. But even Karen was changing. She had braces on her teeth and wasn't so interested in riding bikes or playing Barbies. We had had a fight over a boy, too. Actually, it was over a note to a boy. I had crumpled the paper into a wad and stuffed it in my mouth just so she couldn't have it. We had shouted at one another.
Hi, he said.
Hi, I replied, hugging my binder a little closer to my chest.
Kenny lived two doors down from our house and was also in seventh grade. He was really cute. At least that's what Carolyn Wenborn and Sara Johnstone said. They both had crushes on him. I had spent the summer hanging out with Kenny and his sisters -- there were four -- and the other kids on the block. Mostly I just played with the girls, Barbies or double-dutch jump rope. Sometimes we played Kick the Can in the dusky warm evenings, and I remembered....
It was mid July. The sky over the Lucky Market parking lot had turned an electric blue and mothers were calling in the little kids. The older kids, me and my brother Andy, Kenny and his sister Corrine and one of the Anderson boys. Somebody set a rusty coffee can on the dirt mound in the unfinished lot that still had tufts of wild mustard growing around the edges of the farm field it used to be. There was a new fence around the lot too. Shiny chain link, about four feet high, it separated one side of Ramona Street from the store lot but had a gate in the middle so the residents didn't have to go all the way around the block to the market.
The sky was losing its color and soon it would be too dark to see anything but the white t-shirts of the boys. Kenny was King of the Mound and already had caught Corrine and the Anderson kid. There was just me and Andy who was already spied out over in the lot behind a parked car. I crouched behind some shrubbery in the Wertz's front yard across the street.
I could just give up and go in, I calculated. Sometimes it was easier than the humiliation of getting nabbed by some grubby little kid. I was still the same size as boys my own age but I hadn't grown any taller since the 6th grade and my legs were short. But I was still a good runner. Karen and I had competed in the all-city track meets the year before and I had won the 50-yard dash and the standing broad jump. But I would have to beat Kenny, and he was already on junior varsity track. I looked toward the gate in the fence. It was a long way from the mound. The can would be a lot closer if the fence weren't there. I had to make my move.
Kenny had just tagged Andy out when they both saw me break for the mound. It seemed I saw their faces in slow motion as I burst from the bushes and ran past the open gate, my legs pumping furiously across the asphalt. Kenny started forward to intercept me. But then something in me exploded as if I had suddenly sprouted the wings of the devil himself and I knew somewhere deep down in my stomach that I could make it. I tore down the street, measuring the top of the fence with eagle's eyes and sprang forward on leopard haunches. I aimed for the top middle of the fence, aimed for and caught the edge of a chain link with one toe, grabbed the steel frame, and vaulted myself over the top. My body lifted over my arms in a sinewy arch and I landed two-footed in a tilt toward the mound, my knees buckling momentarily as I scrambled in a heart-thumping dash for the can. I hit the mound running and threw myself at the can; unable to stop, I toed it in midair and stumbled down the other side. Still gasping, I turned to see Kenny was right behind me, a look of astonishment on his face. Wow, he said softly.
Can I walk you home? It was Kenny's voice. He was walking beside his bike in the gutter next to me.
My heart began to pound just like when I cleared the fence. But it wasn't the same feeling. Instead of a confident exhilaration, a certainty of my arms and legs doing just what they have to do and my brain concentrating on a pinpoint and the universe at the same time, I felt a sudden nausea. I was frozen in panic. I was sure my face was swelling and I felt a burning heat. I looked down at the sidewalk as my mind raced all over. I wished he would go away. Please go away. I couldn't think anymore.
No. I don't think so, I said in a small voice.
I don't remember if Kenny said anything. I couldn't hear. I was melting into the sidewalk but I hadn't even stopped walking. I stared straight ahead as he got back on his bike and rode away.
A million years passed before I turned up our driveway. There was nobody in front of the Pisciotto house, two driveways down. I could see my baby sister through the window of our shared bedroom, bouncing on the bed. I'd have to lock myself in the bathroom if I ever wanted to finish Gone With The Wind, I thought. When I reached the courtyard, I looked around furtively to make sure no one noticed me go into the garage. Maybe I shouldn't have turned him away. Now we'll never talk again, I knew. Somehow, that was better. I wouldn't have to feel that vertigo, that small, tight terror. I could go back to my longing. I stuffed the wadded nylons back into my purse and went inside.