Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

I Hear You Calling, 1978

 

 

I. 

In the library, holed up behind history books, you read Trixie Belden mysteries, escaping the shrill voices of those girls in the cafeteria. You eat the raisins you’ve hidden in your pocket, one by one, carefully so that Mrs. Paulson won’t catch you. You know the risk of having nowhere to escape those girls, who still to stone at your approach. 

They will not tell you what you’ve done, will not accept your apology. What are you sorry for?” those girls sneer, knowing full well you have no idea what you’ve done to blue-eyed Melinda with her long hair the color of molasses.

Years later, you learn that eleven-year-old girls form their own Greek chorus.

Here, behind the safe shelves, you delve into books about nicer girls for comfort:  girls with secret signals, girls who share each other’s clothes, girls who would never make fun of how you have to get a bra early or start wearing a pad once a month.  No one talks about things like that in 1961. You eye publication dates, firm in your belief you were born too late.  These girls wouldn’t dream of scrawling obscenities in the restroom about your bushy blonde afro.  These girls in books are kind and sweet and you can be sure there’s no truth or dare game involving removal of clothing at their slumber parties. These girls in books are better than those girls who teach you that first important lesson of what it is to be a girl among girls. Girls in 1978 teach you to watch what you say, what you do, how you dress, long before any sixteen-year-old boy ever comes along to care if you have a build, blue eyes, long hair.

You try to remember if the exile was a week or a month of feeling like it was forever. You do not remember the name of the girl whose small gesture let you back in. You don’t remember if you finally said the right thing, or if they just got tired of spending so much time ignoring you.

But you do remember your friend Beth’s plaid coat, a hand-me-down from her sister, becoming the butt of all the jokes and you—arm and arm with Melinda, Stacey, Julie Tracy, Crystal—swinging down the street, laughing, laughing, laughing at the acid green and pink material enveloping her small frame, until your sides ached and you could merely snort, which made you all laugh and laugh again.

In that breathless moment of inclusion, you fooled yourself into believing that the girls of 1961 were fiction. In that ringing sound, you forgot Beth calling out “wait, wait” as you ran ahead, grateful it wasn’t you they were leaving behind, grateful you had learned to watch your step.

II. 

You invited me to the pool.  In a rush, I pulled tight blue lycra over my skin, the babyfat of my belly bulging at the middle, the white trim of the neckline hovering just over boobs-to-be. We walked down the street.

You were always the girl I wanted to be, you in your sparkly suited flip-flopped wonder—Michelle, ma belle. “We’re best friends,” you had whispered the day before, “I trust you and you alone.”  That’s a siren call at eleven. 

But it was really Tammy who would be the key to your triumph in the girls’ room and with the boys, whose hormoned gazes raced up and down your tan limbs, as arm and arm, you both sauntered along the corridors of our small school, tottering on wedges higher than anyone else’s. 

I dove into the deep end and swam through the other swimmers to the bottom, since I couldn’t do the crawl, and wanted to be mermaid instead of mere girl.

Poolside, you and Tammy sighed over Shaun Cassidy, his face plastered on the cover of Tiger Beat and discussed the scent of Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific, hoping it lingered on Mike Pace’s jacket. The color you wanted to paint your toes was Rizzo Red. 

I should not have been surprised that you asked how deep I could dive, or asked how long I could stay hovering against the sharp, stuccoed bottom: Blue and one and blue and two and blue and three and blue and four and blue and five and blue and six and blue and seven and blue and…I should have known that when I came up, you’d be gone. 

At first, I thought I had turned myself around.  When I realized I was abandoned, I dipped fast so the chlorine seared away the tears. I got out, snatched a towel, which fell back in, opening like a handkerchief across the aqua expanse. The second time, I raised its damp tented shape from the water like a doomed fish.  I lifted and dragged it the three blocks home, letting it wet a snailish trail along the sidewalk.  

In my front yard, I glanced at the bird’s body that had lain there all week, slowly being devoured by ants.  I thought about putting it in a box and delivering it to your doorstep, but wrung out my towel over it instead.  I made my way into the house and its cold air conditioning. 

III.

What is it about disco balls—the scattering of light that makes everything feel enchanted.  If only the right boy asks you to dance. 

At eleven, do burgeoning breasts and the artful use of hairspray make you into an adult?  From this distance, one can only wonder at the effort to teeter above boys with freckles and bowl haircuts.  In two-inch-wedges, Missy finds that first bra strap cuts hard across the back.  The gaps in her teeth are not yet fixed by braces, her new contacts make her eyes blink wide.  Dances made her palms sweat. And there, that crowd of Stacies and Danas and Samanthas with their perfect bell bottoms and Farrah hair, so confident, asking the boy spinning records to play them Kiss or put on Peaches ‘n’ Herb.  

Missy couldn’t have disturbed their reign if she tried, these Queens of the Sixth Grade.  She hangs on the edge, close enough to be part, but not close enough to be shunned.

At twelve, what makes boys think it’s right to send that other boy, who is what we call “special,” into this group of cruel girls.  Owen--all white hair and white skin, his thin body loose--lumbers up to ask each girl to dance. The Queens turn from him, giggling.  He giggles, unknowing, back.  Stacey has to push him away.  He asks Missy last. 

She looks in his eyes (all dim hope), and is filled with wild doubt.  Peter Criss’ voice is loud in the background:  You say you feel so empty. . .I’m always somewhere else.  And you’re always there alone.  Owen asks again, adding, “Please.”  He is wearing a suit coat too big for him.  He bows, going deep down so that she sees how the top of his head has little hair. 

She knows enough to know that, two years from now, if Owen dies, not to be surprised.  But she stands silent.  She cannot form words.  She shakes her head. 

He nods—as if wise—and walks back to the boys, who cackle and point at him, at her.  Generous Owen turns back to Missy, smiles and waves.

That evening, Missy does not dance to the Bee Gees.  She does not dance to the Commodores.  She refuses every boy.  A small meaningless gesture. 

The light slides across the lipglossed lips of the lovesbabysoft-scented popular girls.  She is never going to be like them, never part of the group—and yet, in the moment, she has been exactly their kind of heartless queen.  

What would it have been to take those hands in kindness? What would a few sad steps under the sparkling dome of light have cost her?  

If she had said yes, perhaps a spell would have been broken—myriad spots of light breaking up to spill around the room, the two of them framed in its center, spinning forth in awkward wonder, the music reverberating across the wooden floor: I know you’re lonely.  And I hope you’ll be alright.

 

 

Christine Butterworth-McDermott’s poetry, nonfiction, and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron, LUNCH, The Normal School, River Styx, Sliver of Stone, and Southeast Review, among others. She is the author of a chapbook, Tales on Tales: Sestinas (2010) and a full-length collection, Woods & Water, Wolves & Women (2012). She is the founder and editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. Her next full-length collection, Evelyn As, will be published by Fomite Press in 2019.