An Obvious Girl, by Karin Bishop
Chapter 16. Final Finals
Fortunately, I was ready for Biology and really amped up for my Spanish final! I felt great when I got home and found Mom’s recipe for meatloaf. We had a quiet night while I browsed through Geometry, checking and double-checking myself. All set for my last day!
I arrived at school, my head full of theorems and figures, made it forty feet and got slammed sideways into a wall of lockers with an ‘outta my way, fruit!’. Okay; the bullies weren’t all on their best behavior. I leaned against the lockers, my head throbbing, and tried to regroup the math in my head but something burst up through the scattered equations—Mom was right. I had to name names. I had to ease things here if I could. And the truth was, it wasn’t just me that was slammed into lockers, or tripped, or ‘swirlied’. Other kids got it too; small kids, odd kids, ethnic kids, smart kids. We all just took it and …
Another thought burst up, stunning me as I leaned; one word—Sarajevo. I remembered something I’d seen on TV about the Balkan Wars, and they showed children taking circuitous routes to their school to avoid snipers. Even the documentary cameramen were dodging and weaving, taking cover, as they showed these kids clustered behind cars, running from car to car as shields, slipping out and around and down back alleys, when their school was only a few blocks away. It was a testament to their courage and to their desire to learn.
But I also remembered the most horrific moment of the documentary: One moment a child was scampering between cars, and the next he was sprawled on the concrete, victim of a sniper’s bullet. His thin legs twisted under his shorts, his books spilled in the street …it was the single most graphic image imaginable to me, and seared my mind.
I’d always thought of that tragic child—but now I was struck by remembering what happened afterward. I’d never thought about it before, but other kids continued their way to school! They didn’t run out to help the child. I’d first thought it was because they could tell he was dead, but surely common decency would move one of them to go to him …But I was younger and simpler then, and later I learned that the reason they didn’t go to the child’s aid was because they would be shot, too. It was standard procedure for the snipers to shoot one person—child, woman, old man, anybody—and then pick off those who rushed to help. The schoolchildren had already learned the terrible lesson that to go to the sprawled child would mean their death. And they still had to get to school …
Being slammed into a locker wasn’t even in the same universe as the one those Sarajevo kids lived in; even the worst abuse I’d experienced paled in comparison. But I’d taken the abuse, day after day, year after year, as did the small kids, smart kids, ethnic kids; just like the Sarajevo kids, we kept our heads down, suffered our losses and went on. And we’d gotten used to it, just as a normal school day in Sarajevo meant dodging snipers. It was a fact of life; heck—it was our life. And that was no way for a kid to live.
Mom was right. God, was she right! Anything I could do to stop bullying was justified. And thinking of those Balkan kids, and the kids in Westmont—and at Mountain View, my middle school, and all the middle and elementary schools that had kids bullied daily—I resolved something else. I wanted to ask, or have Mom ask, the anti-bullying rep about helping the bullied. The kids like me who tolerated the intolerable. Mom had been talking about the abusers being abused at home, but what about a different ‘cycle of abuse’—the kids like me who expected it daily? It was like we were a generation of victims!
I knew that it was only because I was fully Angela, in my mind and heart, and I felt stronger. These thoughts would never have come to Andrew, who was still surviving day-by-day. Keeping his head down, metaphorically running behind cars, dodging snipers. And not helping the other kids who were bullied. Mom’s plan to move was exciting because it was new, but there was a little taste of running away, to me. Part of me thought I should dress up as Angela and march up to the Administration Office and proudly tell them that I was transgendered and that they had bullies …and the reality was that I would eventually be shot down metaphorically, just as a kid rushing to the fallen boy would be shot literally in Sarajevo. And the bullying would go on; the Powers-That-Be that allowed bullying to exist—or participated in it, like Coach—would just say that it was a single instance, it was my fault, it was just me. And I couldn’t expect the other bullied kids to stick their necks out, one-by-one. I’d be proud if they did, and it made for great, stirring movies, but the reality was survival.
Benjamin Franklin popped into my head—his line was something like, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.” But I couldn’t be the rallying point for the bullied; the sad, bitter reality was that being transgendered would make me an outsider among the outsiders. It wouldn’t just blur the issue of bullies; it would become the issue. The fairly conservative suburban families around us …they could maybe justify that their child was a target because he was small, or she was smart, or she was Mexican, or he was into Theatre. But I knew that some would be certain that, somehow, I deserved whatever I got because I was so different. I could even imagine ladies in the supermarket discussing me, saying, “Well, it is sick; so I suppose being slammed into a locker was a perfectly reasonable reaction to something so …perverse.”
As I straightened up from the lockers and headed to class, I realized that Andrew being Angela was completely separate from Andrew being bullied. I wasn’t Angela all of the past years that I’d been bullied. Well, I wasn’t named then, and hadn’t declared myself and knew that I had a future. I’d known that I was a girl, or at least wanted to be one—but the bullies didn’t, and that was the key, because they bullied other kids who weren’t transgendered. So the factor of being trans was separate from being bullied, but it would cloud the issue if I tried to be the ringleader, the One Who Stood Up, whatever.
Walking the halls, my eyes scanning for any possible confrontation, I worked on the problem. My radical new thought was that in addition to naming names of the bullies, I would name names of the bullied—not to the school district, but to the anti-bully group if they had a system or structure of helping bullying victims. I would discuss this with Mom, of course, but it felt sure and right and in a perverse way, I was almost thankful to my locker-slammer because not only was he probably the last—the final—bully of Andrew’s life, he made me think outside of Andrew’s little world of survival.
With this decision, the theorems and equations and geometrical figures all came flooding back in my head; I managed to make it to class just in time, sliding into my seat as the bell sounded and we got right to work. I got a smile and head nod from my Geometry teacher when I turned in my final, and since I didn’t have a sixth-period class—it had been PE, and there was no final for Study Hall—and since there was no other bullying, I was done, done, and done. I double-checked that my locker was empty, and that was the end of my attendance at Westmont High School.
The end of my existence at Westmont High School.
Because it also meant that it was the end of any necessity for Andrew Preston to exist. I walked home, feeling oddly bittersweet about The End of Things, and drew a bubblebath. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the afternoon; I was feeling a weird mental exhaustion and I guessed it was from always keeping Angela under wraps when I was Andrew, and also just the being of Andrew—having to walk and talk a certain way—was exhausting. Well, no more; I lay back and deeply breathed the eucalyptus scent of the bubbles and thought, yet again, that this moment marked the start of the rest of my life.
Mom got home a little earlier than usual; I was just in the bathrobe fresh from my bath. She instantly knew what I’d been thinking and feeling—not about bullies, but about the End of Andrew—because she crossed the room to me and enfolded me in a big hug.
“My Angela, my sweet daughter,” she murmured.
It was a fantastic, loved feeling that brought tears.
Mom said, “We’ll go do something fun. Come on!”
“What about the meatloaf?” I asked; we’d planned to finish it off tonight.
She waved a hand. “Enh …let it loaf!”
Bad joke aside, and with her working as a cheerleader, I quickly did my makeup and hair and added jewelry and put on a denim skirt and was going to put on a tank but she suggested a camp shirt in aqua; she said it was really cute on me and she liked to see it. I wore a white cami underneath, grabbed flats and purse and we were out the door.
It was a mystery to me what she was up to; she was driving to a part of town I rarely visited and then pulled between buildings and there was a small lot. She seemed in a bit of a hurry and I had to almost run to catch up when she got out of the car.
Turning onto the main street, she turned into the first door which turned out to be Modessa, a salon. A woman came forward, with upswept black hair and a big smile, and they embraced. Mom turned to me.
“This is my daughter Angela. Angela, one of my oldest friends, Kathy. She owns Modessa.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I smiled.
“Oh, she’s lovely, Carol!” Kathy beamed.
My smile faltered; ‘one of my oldest friends’ could be a nice thing to say, but the ease with which Kathy called Mom by her name meant the phrase wasn’t empty. And if she knew Mom as Carol, then she must know …
Kathy gently said, “I imagine that you’re a little worried right now. Please relax, Angela. There are only the three of us here at the moment, so I can say that I always wanted to meet you, and …” She looked at Mom, who nodded, and Kathy nodded with her and looked back to me. “And I believe Andrew has …left?”
I shook a little but nodded.
Kathy and Mom did the Look thing again, and in a quiet but warm voice, Kathy said, “He was never real, sweetheart. You were always there, hidden deep inside because you had to. It must have been so difficult, and I honor you for your courage. And now you’re finally here, a gift to your mother!”
I’d never thought of it like that, said so, and suddenly was in a three-way hug which Kathy broke.
“Okay, to business. I gave the girls a dinner break and they’ll be back in …ten minutes. Do you know the procedure?”
Quickly I looked at Mom and back to Kathy and said, “No, ma’am; I have no idea what’s going on, besides meeting you …”
Kathy rolled her eyes. “Carol! You didn’t tell her?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Mom chuckled.
I said, “She just said we were going to ‘do something fun’.”
Kathy bobbed her head side to side. “Can’t say she lied to you. Yes! Fun! Okay, less than ten before the girls are back.” She faced me directly. “Angela, my employees know nothing about you. And I can tell you that you have nothing to worry about. They’ve been told that you have been a tomboy and you’re just coming out of that silliness and embracing your femininity. They will completely understand and cut you some slack, because you’re so pretty it would seem odd that you haven’t already had your hair done! By the way, three of the Modessa girls were hard-core tomboys but I’ll defy you to guess which ones! Now, your mom has scheduled the works for you. Hairstyle, facial, nails, the works.”
“A treat, sweetheart,” Mom said, her smile so wide she looked like a kid on Christmas.
Kathy grinned. “So I want to say a few things quickly so you’ll be confident, because I guess you’ve never been in a salon before?”
“Not as a customer. Only once or twice, waiting for Mom.”
“Before I got back in town, I trust?” Kathy said mock-threatening to Mom, who chuckled and nodded.
Kathy grinned. “Okay, then! So, Angela, you’ll go in there and put on a smock. You may strip down to your lingerie if you feel comfortable or not, your choice. Six of one, half dozen of another. Some women like being as comfy as possible because this’ll take awhile.”
Mom smiled gently.“Sweetheart? I want to say some things quickly for your benefit and Kathy’s. First of all, don’t worry about the cost.” She turned to Kathy. “She’s so good about money!” Back to me, she went on. “And second, I’ve told Kathy what I have planned for you so don’t think anybody’s going off on their own.”
Kathy said, “She means if they ask you to lay back for aromatherapy, don’t say, ‘I didn’t ask for aromatherapy’.”
“I’m getting aromatherapy?”
“No,” Mom chuckled.
“In a manner of speaking,” Kathy said. “We try to use nothing but organics and many of them have some degree of aromatherapy built in. But a session with your head over some herbs, not tonight,” she chuckled. “Alright. I’ve got some ideas, seeing you now, but there are a couple of books to look through to see if you fall in love with anything.”
She pointed to a table in the waiting area, with butter-yellow leather couches around. There were rows of magazines and several large, wide books.
Mom and I sat and she turned to me. “Oh, and the third thing is …enjoy it! Just let them pamper you and …” She sighed. “Oh, honey; I’ve waited so long for this!”
I realized how important and special this was for her, too, just as saying goodbye to Andrew in my bubblebath was important to me. We were looking through the books, collections of hairstyles, and discussing them as ‘the girls’ came back from their break. It was funny, because I expected teenagers. Two were in their twenties, but the other three looked like they were in their thirties. They came back giggling and chatting and happy.
Kathy came over and sat. “Find anything?”
I spun the books to show her. “Um, this one, maybe, and I kinda like that one,” I pointed.
She nodded. “Both very reasonable. I’m thinking more along these lines.” She took one of the books and flipped to a section I hadn’t seen—Mom and I had been looking through the ‘Kids & Teens’ section.
Mom grinned. “What do you think, honey?”
“Wow, I …uh …” I stared at the picture.
The girl in the photo was probably early twenties with black hair. But setting that aside, her hair looked like it grew like mine and was about the same length at the farthest point. Her face was similar to mine as well. I nodded and just said another ‘wow’.
Kathy laughed. “Alright! We got a winner! Number forty-two, the daily special!” she called out in a funny voice. Seeing my odd look, she really laughed. “Just teasing! We don’t number ‘em or anything; I was just …”
Quietly, Mom said, “Kath? She’s freaked enough as it is.”
Kathy was immediately contrite. “Sorry! My sense of humor sometimes has no sense. I’m sorry, Angela, okay? I’ll be on my best behavior from now on. So, do you like the style?”
“I love the style, but please, just be yourself. Don’t feel like you have to be on your best behavior—” I laughed. “I didn’t mean it like that! I meant—”
Kathy grinned and patted my knee. “I understand, sweetie. Don’t worry about it.” Her grin turned wicked as she turned to Mom. “Her legs are even better than yours, Carol!”
Mom just beamed. “I know. She’s beautiful,” she said, looking at me with such love.
It was too awkward to give her a hug, the way we were seated, so I just did an ‘Aw!’ thing.
And then it was Showtime.
I decided to keep my skirt and cami on under the smock, hanging up the camp shirt, and was led out. Mom was in a smock, too! I realized it was a mother-and-daughter package, which explained why the salon was open late and Kathy had given the girls a break. Mom winked at me and we were led to separate chairs and then attacked from all sides.
They first asked if I wanted to listen to music or chat. I didn’t feel confident enough for salon chatting, so they produced an earphone thing that lay below my chin and up to my ears. They asked musical preference and I said soft jazz with a question and one girl grinned and nodded and some mellow groove started up and I smiled back at her. She told me to pull the phones out while she washed my hair.
She shampooed and conditioned my hair and massaged my neck and forehead. On her nod, I put the earphones in as she gave me a fingertip-wave goodbye, and then the stylist began brushing and cutting my hair. I watched in the mirror, fascinated. The woman worked quickly and surely, and Kathy’s joke about ‘the special’ made me smile. The girls talked among themselves; the jazz was low enough that I could hear them say something like ‘turn to the right a little’.
My stylist’s hands were a blur with the brush and dryer. In the mirror I could see she was done and smiling and I was not only blown dry, I was blown away. My smile was huge and she spun me towards the chair where Mom sat, hands extended as a nail girl worked.
“Oh, sweetheart, I love it!” she smiled.
“Me, too! Thanks, Mom!” I grinned, and made to get out of the chair.
Apparently, I wasn’t done.
“Need to pee?” the stylist asked.
“Uh …no?” I slowly slid back down.
Then she began painting my hair! I remembered that Mom had authorized everything, so I lay back as she worked. I kind of zoned out with the whole thing; someone put cool things over my eyes so I didn’t really know what was going on. Someone took my hand and began working on nails. A massage and some eucalyptus-based damp towel to breathe—no aromatherapy, huh?—and things proceeded. It seemed like the girl on my nails was taking forever and I knew that I didn’t know, because I’d never had anything done like this. But I was startled when my shoes were removed and she began working on my feet.
It was dark outside and the salon had cheerful candles as well as lights on, when they spun my chair to face the mirror and I gasped.
Chapter 17. Decisions
I stared and stared.
Gasped some more with each revelation.
Mom was behind my chair, her hands on my shoulders, smiling so happily, her eyes sparkling.
My hair had been lightened or highlighted, I guessed—I’d have to find out the right terms for things. The cut was so feminine, with a side part and a sweep of hair, the ends tapered and feathered from my chin to my shoulders. The stylist had said it was just long enough that I could still do a ponytail—but not a low boys’, only a cute girls’ ponytail. That was fine with me; I never wanted to tie it down in back again.
The only negative of the whole time in the chair was the cooling and then ripping at my eyebrows, but seeing them now, it was completely worth it! They were—cliché, cliché—delicate arches, and made my eyes look bigger but totally eliminated any lingering traces of Andrew. There was some soft makeup applied, but not much under the circumstances, and they had given Mom a suggested color chart for me.
But my hands …omigod! My nails had been lengthened and were a soft rose color. They were graceful and feminine ovals and made my fingers look slender and longer. I knew my toes had been done the same way. Well, soft rose, but not slender and long! Most importantly, my hands did not have any relation to Andrew’s hands, and I realized just how powerful this was, psychologically.
“Meatloaf,” Mom said, startling me.
“Oh, yeah; I’m kinda hungry now …” I murmured, staring at my image and starting to worry about my vanity—and Mom’s sanity.
“That’s what made me think of it,” Mom chuckled. “You know how you had to squish the meat and milk and eggs with your hands?”
I’d made her recipe the night before and nodded.
Mom went on as if ‘meatloaf’ made sense—which it now did.
She grinned. “I thought, ‘She’d hate to do that with her nails done,’ which got me to thinking about getting your nails done. Which led me to call Santiago—at the restaurant—and ask about nail polish on the hostess and he said it’s fine as long as it’s not black,” she grinned. “And I double-checked the dress code; we’ll pick up something for you tomorrow. But tonight, it was time for mother-and-daughter makeovers!”
She really hadn’t had a full makeover; her hair was styled and her nails done but I suspected she was done long before me and had been chatting with Kathy while they worked on me. Which reminded me …tomboys …I had no idea. Later, I told Kathy that, and she laughed and told me which ones had been ‘hard-core tomboys’: “Beth, your massage girl; Connie that did your nails—and me!”
On the drive home, Mom told me that she’d grown up with Kathy, who had moved away and come back twice, and yes, she had been a hard-core tomboy. Mom had a funny story about a dance they went to where girls were flirting with Kathy.
“I thought she might be a lesbian, but she was my friend and that was all that mattered,” Mom said. “Then her dad got transferred and moved away. She came back to the area after college and there was no trace of the tomboy—or her father. It was Daddy issues, and when her folks got divorced, the issues moved out, so to speak. Not gay. I was one of her bridesmaids but we all …” She frowned.
She’d obviously hit an unhappy memory, so to divert her away from it, I said, “She’s got a beautiful salon, and everybody seems to get along so well.”
“Yes, they do, and don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing!” she said, playfully stern. “But I love you for it. I was just thinking about the wedding, and …it was very hard for me. I knew—I absolutely knew in my heart of hearts—that the marriage wouldn’t last. Not because of Kathy, but I knew the guy and …” She shook her head. “But she was head over heels and I was stuck. Do I tell my friend the love of her life is a skunk? Or keep quiet and be supportive and then be there to pick up the pieces when it all crashed and burned?”
“It’s a tough decision, but I’m guessing you kept quiet, because you said were a bridesmaid.”
She nodded and sighed. “But they moved away and so I wasn’t there to pick up the pieces because it did crash and burn. I didn’t see her for years and years, and then she moved back here and started her salon and we reconnected.” She sighed again. “Maybe it’s for the better; I don’t know. Maybe I should have told Kathy that he was no good, stopped the wedding, even if I lost her for a friend. But that always bothered me; to tell or not to tell.”
“For what it’s worth, as an outside observer? She seems happy and successful and you two seem to still be friends. So whatever it took to get there, maybe you made the right decision after all. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
“So wise!” she beamed at me, then back to the road.
As she drove, I thought about the Telling-Or-Not-Telling issue, and the similarities and differences with me telling about the school bullies. I remembered my thoughts about ‘blurring the issue’, and did a little ‘what-if?’ exercise. What if Mom had a fling with the groom-to-be? She’d have first-hand knowledge that he was a skunk. If she told Kathy, Kathy could turn right around and accuse her of wanting the skunk for herself. Mom could say ‘No; he’s a skunk and I love you and thought you should know’ all she wanted, but the issue of the fling would always cloud the issue of the, um …skunk-hood. Just as being transgendered—until it was more widely accepted—would cloud the issue of school bullies. Being transgendered needed to be widely accepted, but it was a separate issue from bullies, like skunks and flings and …
I actually waved a hand, as if brushing away these thoughts. I knew what I was going to do, after talking with Mom about it, so let it rest. I couldn’t help noticing that my hand was now gorgeous, and the girl in the mirror was gorgeous, and for the first time I felt really, truly, that I was on my right track. I was who I was supposed to be ….
After a time, I said, “How long were we in there for, anyway?”
“Just under two …” She glanced at me. “You need a watch, young lady.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Oh! I can use my phone for time!”
While I fished it out of my purse, Mom said, “You can’t be checking your phone just to tell the time. We’ll get you something tomorrow.”
I was reading my phone; there was a text from Carrie: ‘How U holdin up? Finals OK? Txt me.’
I smiled, thinking of her. “Carrie texted me asking how I’m holding up with finals.”
Slowly and fumbling, I texted back: ‘All done!!! Think I did good. How U holdin up?’
Her text came right back. ‘Most good, 1 bad!! Argh! 1 more tmorow. Wanna hang fri-sat?’
I said, “She says her finals are mostly good, she thinks she blew one, though, and finishes with one tomorrow. She wants to hang Friday or Saturday …or Friday and Saturday; I don’t really know much about texting and how to—oh! I can’t hang with her!”
Mom nodded. “I’m sorry it started so soon, the clash between friends and work. It’s a hard decision to make; everybody’s got to deal with it in their own way.” She paused and quietly added, “And live by it.”
I nodded. I’d had no friends and now I suddenly was starting a new life. But I knew that I would need a job, and the way La Rioja had just seemed to appear, just as Carrie had in the movie line …But I had to prioritize. Without saying anything to Mom, I texted back: ‘Starting new job Thu-Fri-Sat nites. Argh! Wanna hang w/U but …’ and sent it, and sighed.
My phone chirped again. ‘Job? Cool! Tell me all—Burl Mall Fri or Sat day? Too far?’
“She’s happy for my job but wants to talk, and she asked about getting together at the Burlington Mall during the day Friday or Saturday, but worries it’s too far.”
Mom pursed her lips, thinking, then said, “It’s doable. I think we can put something together for you for your meeting at La Rioja. Like we talked about, black skirt, white blouse. But we could leave early for the Burlington Mall—I’m guessing she’s out of school then—and you girls could meet and we’d pick out your work outfit. Then your old mother will go quietly knit somewhere in a corner while you girls have fun. Then you can change into your work outfit and I’ll have you at La Rioja by 5:30. Sound good?”
I pretended to consider it. “All except for the ‘quietly knit somewhere in a corner’ part.”
With a straight face, I said, “I think crocheting suits you better.”
“Oh, you!” Mom laughed while I texted Carrie the plan.
It came back: ‘Food court Taco Bell at 1 Fri?’
I sent back: ‘CU@1!’
Ha, I thought! See if I can’t become a textin’ kind o’ gal!
Mom said, “I think the way you connected with Carrie so quickly is just …well, I was going to say ‘remarkable’ and it’s not remarkable for two girls to hit it off but it is remarkable in terms of Andrew, who had so few friends.”
“What about Santiago?”
“Mom, that was …” I looked out the window. “It’s complicated. We were thrown together by being the slowest in the class. And I guess everybody thought we were both gay, so it got to be like safety in numbers. But I practiced Spanish with him and he practiced his English so we were probably more productive than the guys that could run fast!” I chuckled.
“But you seem to be actual friends now, from the way he spoke with you.”
“I think we were, sort of, although we didn’t really do anything together during the rest of the school day. I’m …humbled by him. That he thought I was gay but it didn’t matter to him. But I think we can be friends—I mean, actual friends—now. I think it was more …like guilt by association or something before, at least at the beginning. But I kind of feel bad because I think he was more of a friend to me than I was to him.”
“And now …” Mom nodded. “I think I know.”
“Oh, God; you don’t think he has any …romantic ideas, do you? I couldn’t work there!”
“I don’t think that; it doesn’t feel like that to me. I think I know the reason, and you just answered it yourself—only use the names and it’ll make more sense.”
“What, you mean …’he was more a friend to me’, that thing?”
“Yes, but use full names.”
I gave her a look but shrugged. “Okay. Santiago was more a friend to me—”
“Santiago was more of a friend to …” I was surprised. “Oh.”
“Yes, exactly. Friends with Andrew or with Angela?” She glanced at me and back to the road. “I suspect he was friendly with Angela. When she was hidden behind the mask of Andrew as well as when she walked into his restaurant in a skirt. But Andrew couldn’t be a real friend, because he was a mask, and because he didn’t know how to make friends.” She grinned. “So don’t beat yourself up about it!”
Chapter 18. La Rioja
“You mean it, Mom? I can really do it?” I asked for the second time.
“Yes,” she sighed. “Give me …can I have ten minutes alone in your room?”
“Sure, but …Mom, if this is a bad idea or …”
She shook her head. “Honey, I think you’re right that we put Andrew away. I was a little surprised at first that you said you didn’t have anything you wanted to save as a memento.”
“But you do, though? Oh, Mom; I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking of you.”
Mom’s chuckle was sad. “It’s just that …” She straightened up. “I think the fact that there isn’t anything you want to save from your life as Andrew is very strong proof that …he wasn’t real. And I understand, sweetheart, I really do. But he was real to me, in a way.”
“I’m sorry …”
“No, no; you misunderstand me. I don’t believe there’s a single …thing of Andrew’s I want to save. Not a piece of clothing or something from a trip or anything. I don’t want or need the object. But as …insubstantial, perhaps? Yes, like a ghost, maybe. As insubstantial as Andrew was—because the real person, Angela, was tucked away—as see-through as he was, we still did things together. Not a lot of things, but …you understand that nearly seventeen years of my life has involved a boy named Andrew. I just wanted a few minutes to …”
Then she laughed!
“What?” I couldn’t read her mood at all.
“There’s this sense that Andrew is dead, even though I think that he was not fully real is closer to the truth. But you want to clean your room of Andrew and donate it all to charity and that’s a wonderful thought, and I think it’s psychologically healthy. But it still kind of feels a bit like a clean-up after a death. That’s why I laughed; it struck me like something out of Ghostbusters or that TV show, Ghosthunters or whatever it’s called.” Her voice became stagey and she waved a hand loosely. “I just wanted a few minutes to catch the last vapors of the deceased Andrew before he dissipated into the ether …”
“God! You make it sound so creepy!” I giggled.
She did, too, and nodded. “Humor me, okay? Ten minutes, and then in with the trash bags and we haul his carcass away.”
“Geez, Mom!” I giggled with embarrassment.
So we did. I decided to do a mourning period of my own, to sit on our couch for the time she was in my—Andrew’s—room. I actually went twenty minutes, thinking about what life had been like for him, but that always led me to think about what Angela didn’t get to do. Andrew didn’t do Scouting or sports or have friends. Angela would have done Brownies and Girl Scouts and probably played soccer and have a tight group of girlfriends …and I had to go away from those thoughts back to Andrew. Because …it wasn’t about me—Angela—it was about Andrew. I’d be a lousy mourner if all I did was think of things I didn’t get to do.
And the thing was …the thing was that Andrew wasn’t me, not anymore and maybe not for a long time. And he did feel ‘insubstantial’ when I thought of it, and then I thought of poor Mom watching her unhappy son growing up and at a loss for an explanation—but she’d said she had some ideas—until my Geometry teacher sent the note home and I broke down and told her the truth.
We hugged in silence in the middle of my room, and then without a word, we began shoving things in heavy trash bags and hauling them to the car. Goodwill was very glad to get the donation; the guy said they’d run low on boys’ clothing. They’d donated their donations to a shelter for battered women and their children and wasn’t that a sad commentary on society?
Despite how emotional the day had started, to my surprise I felt much lighter and free and happy as we pulled away from Goodwill. I think Mom felt it, too. And why not? We’d had our goodbyes and Andrew was now, truly, history. His-story. Over.
In the happier mood we both felt, Mom swung over to the huge industrial park and the Ikea store. I had never been, although I’d seen their commercials, and wow-wow-wow! Huge place, everything under the sun—never saw so much unpainted or white stuff in my life!—and lingonberries?
We found a vanity and mirror-on-a-stand and hat tree and that’s all we would be able to get in our car. I had to laugh at how everything was named after a Swedish town or something. When we got home, I used a handcart thing Mom used for luggage to get them into my room and had to just leave them there, although I so wanted to sit at my vanity already!
I showered and did my makeup and hair and put on my ‘starter outfit’, as Mom called it. It was a black skirt of hers that she had me try on first. She measured and disappeared with it to do some sewing magic. I wore a white camisole and she gave me the most delicious white blouse that she grinned and said was ‘silk-like’ and all I could think was, if silk-like feels this good, give me more silk! We’d debated about wearing the Mary Janes or flats and since Santiago had said ‘flats’, there was no sense giving the wrong impression in shoes, so to speak. Mom came back in and the skirt fit beautifully. She’d taken it in slightly and it sat right on my hips, but it was longer than a typical black skirt for a girl my age.
“I think we’ll find your work skirts in the Business Petites section rather than Juniors,” Mom nodded. “But it makes you look a bit older, too, which fits with the restaurant.”
“Mom, do you think this is crazy?”
“Crazy? What’s crazy? My son comes home from school on Wednesday and starts the next night as a beautiful hostess for one of the top restaurants in town? What’s crazy about it?”
But she couldn’t keep a straight face and we were both howling.
We’d not answered the intent of my question, which was …yeah, hostessing—but technically I am a boy, at least until Brad Alexander worked his document magic. But I kind of answered that question on my own, as I was trying hoops in my ears for the first time. Forget the technicality. I’m a girl, everybody seems to agree that I was always a girl, I was obviously a girl, so why shouldn’t I hostess? And it was a darned sight better than flipping hot dogs at the place in the Food Court where you wear two foot of a big hot dog on your head!
There was a little bit of time before Mom was ready, and I had the idea to jump on the internet and plug in our address and La Rioja’s address on our local transit’s website. It plotted the best bus route and listed the transfers—only one—times, duration, and cost. I printed it out and brought it with me. We talked about me riding the bus; Mom was opposed on principles but I pointed out that for her to take me to work would mean she’d have to leave her work early on Thursdays and Fridays. We compromised, as I thought we would. I would take the bus to work those days—we’d play Saturdays by ear—and Mom would pick me up afterward, because the buses were full and much safer at five in the afternoon than they were at midnight. And I knew that I’d feel much more like An Independent Woman.
And I needed that.
Oddly, I didn’t have a tremendous urge to do all the things I’d missed out on, not being Angela. I knew I wanted to spend time hanging with Carrie, letting our new friendship grow, and maybe one or two other girls if I met them. But I wasn’t going to try to make up for lost time. I was going to be a Senior and it was time I grew up. Maybe Andrew was my infancy and Angela my adulthood …and that was weird to think about so I was glad we parked at the restaurant and I could stop thinking that way.
We met Santiago at the door, and he stared and then smiled widely. He introduced us to Mrs. Mendoza, a short but very jolly woman—I hated to think in clichés, but she was jolly!—and his father darned near hugged me. We talked about the details of the job; the Mendozas pretended to be guests and I seated them and they clapped. They were also subtly—and sometimes not so subtly!—testing my Spanish abilities. Santiago frowned at one point and hit them with a rapid-fire burst of Argentine Spanish full of colloquialisms that I couldn’t make out, and they looked embarrassed and were so apologetic that I began apologizing—and then we all laughed and it was forgotten. They said they would teach me the slang and the flavor that made their language sing more than typical Mexican Spanish that we heard around town.
They loved my outfit; Mom and I nodded to each other, and the flats and makeup and nail polish were all acceptable, and then they surprised me.
It was time for Rosa.
I thought at first it was Argentine slang for something, but it was the name of Santiago’s sister who had been the hostess. She was resting at home but would meet with me to give me pointers—and the final approval!
Mom and I followed Mrs. Mendoza’s car to an apartment building and we followed her in. She was being jolly and laughing and bustling but I sensed an iron strength in her that I rather liked.
The apartment was comfy and cozy and there was a four-year-old girl running around; for some reason, I’d thought that Rosa’s pregnancy was her first. The little girl, Aña, was spinning in circles when we got there, and stopped with a whoosh and a swirl of dark hair and big eyes. She stared at me.
Then, she declared, “¡Eres bonita!” You’re pretty!
I went on one knee and said, “¡Estás aún más guapa!” You’re even prettier!
And that was it; I was in! After chuckles all around, we sat at the kitchen table with Rosa, a round-cheeked beauty who had pain lines at the corners of her eyes. I was concerned for her health. But I had a sudden pang of guilt that I wasn’t really a girl and also a sudden pang of envy and a pang of sorrow that I couldn’t share the pain of childbirth.
I’d passed the inspection with my exchange with Aña, I suppose, because Rosa was completely wonderful, launching into the procedure and then things to watch out for. She did a couple of ‘what if’ cases with me, and pronounced me ‘bárbaro’, which apparently was slang for very, very good or awesome or something similar.
Whew—I passed the Rosa test!
So Friday night, I would begin hostessing. I took a menu home to learn it.
I was excited and scared to death at the same time.
Chapter 19. Shopping with Carrie
After breakfast I pulled on some shorts and a tank and grabbed a screwdriver and pliers from our little ‘tool drawer’ and tackled my new mirror and hat tree. They were absurdly easy to assemble and it was wonderful to see myself in the full length mirror; once I got the hat tree together my first thought was ‘scarves at Claire’s’ and even I thought ‘you’re such a girl!’
I drank some cold water in the kitchen while I read the instructions for the vanity; that would be my chore for Saturday, as tempting as it was to keep going. But new furniture made me think about my new life in my new room. I went back in and sat on my bed and tried to sort of empty my mind of what I knew about my room. I realized I’d been looking at the thing for about sixteen years. It was a dull white room. Andrew had been neat and never had friends over for sleepovers or roughhousing or any boyish thing like that. There weren’t generations of sports posters that might have marred the walls, and certainly not pinups!
When I was little, there had been some Winnie-the-Pooh prints; at some point I couldn’t remember, they had been replaced by some art prints that had caught my fancy. They were pretty much clichés now, but when I first discovered them at ten or twelve, they amazed me. One was Magritte’s The Son of Man, the name of the famous ‘guy with the apple in front of his head’ painting. The other was Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. I liked it because it was like a snapshot of real life over a hundred and twenty years ago. I used to think up ‘backstories’ for each of the people in it, made up relationships—
—and I realized that they had been my friends, my only friends! Andrew’s anyway …
In the Renoir, I’d wondered if ‘the Boating Party’ actually on a boat, like a floating restaurant, or had some of them been boating, explaining the guys in the t-shirts? I wondered if the men in the white sleeveless ‘wife-beater’-type shirts smelled of sweat; had they been rowing or just showing off? One guy wore a top hat in the middle of the day—what was that about? And every guy there had facial hair of some kind! A pretty girl to the left played with a little black dog—at the table in a restaurant? Maybe it was okay back then, or maybe she knew the owners? I wondered if she knew the other girl seated across from her; they were dressed kind of similarly and I wondered if they’d coordinated their clothes before the luncheon? I had assigned names and changed the relationships from time to time; the pretty girl in the yellow hat—I’d named her ‘Clara’—leaning on the railing near the center, seemed to be looking at the man with the brown bowler, his back to ‘the camera’, so to speak. Then I thought she was really checking out the cute young brown-haired guy on the right, leaning over talking to his friends. Or maybe she was looking at one of his friends, a ‘wife-beater’ guy seated and wearing a yellow hat like hers. Maybe she was looking at the hat, or the cute white hat on the girl in the group—she was ‘Isobel’—and it was kind of saucy, with blue stripes, and was Isobel a friend or competition …
With a cold splash of realization, I had the absolutely stunning certainty that I had—that Andrew had—been viewing this painting as a girl. Guys were smelly or cute, and I was thinking about the girls’ relationships. It hit me that if I’d told my thoughts about my Renoir ‘friends’ to Mom years ago, it would have been so obvious that I wasn’t a typical little boy.
So the Renoir stays, I decided firmly. The Magritte can go, though. I was neither a son or a man.
I laid back and tried to empty my mind again, and then looked around my room, trying to not think about where the bed and bureau were. They were Andrew’s, but where would Angela put her bed, bureau, vanity, mirror, and so on, and then I thought about painting the walls but remembered that we’re going to move, meaning this had been really a pointless exercise except for the incredible revelation about my Renoir.
Computer time, next, and between Google maps and three school districts’ websites, I was able to come up with a sort of Venn diagram thing showing the best options for us. I took into account the public schools except for McKinley and Westmont, and where Mom worked; what little I knew about some parts of the city let me throw out a couple of places. All in all it only took a half-hour but I had some maps printing while I showered and shaved my legs. Yeah, it was probably too soon, but I loved the femininity of it. And all too soon it would become a chore.
Mom’s plan was to take the afternoon off, come home for lunch and we’d meet Carrie at one. I would be dressed casually to try things on but have my flats and jewelry and things I’d need for work with me. And it was scary and exciting to think ‘for work’; I really was at a jumping-off stage into adulthood. We were meeting at the Taco Bell; was it just a rendezvous or were we eating? Mom suggested I have a light lunch and could be covered either way, and I had soup and a half-sandwich as we looked over and talked about my mapping project. She suggested we start driving in the evening and on weekends. The housing market was apparently resurging a bit so she was going to start the ball rolling on Monday to sell the house. It was jarring to think that, but I kind of felt like putting the house in a trash bag, too, along with Andrew. Just get that whole past behind me and look forward.
And I was so excited on the drive to the Burlington Mall; between seeing Carrie, shopping for new clothes, and then my first night at work, I had to work to calm myself down. I didn’t want to freak out Carrie by being too crazy.
On the other hand, she kind of squealed and danced when she saw me, so maybe a little freaking out was okay! She wore a pair of low-cut black jeans that had some stretchy stuff in them because they were tight-tight-tight and a loose tiger-print top, sleeveless. I introduced Carrie to Mom, and fortunately they both had the same idea.
“Let’s get this girl some work duds!” Carrie teased.
I felt bad because Carrie and I began walking and Mom was bringing up the rear.
“Don’t mind me,” she smiled when I stopped for her to catch up. “Let’s hit Dillard’s first and that’ll probably do it for us. Then you girls scamper off …or whatever it is you kids call it these days,” she added in a funny granny-type of voice.
Carrie laughed. “You’re cool, Mrs. Preston! She’s right, though. I got here awhile ago and went to check out that store Black & White, ‘cause that’s your dress code?” I nodded and she sniffed. “Old lady clothes.”
I glanced at Mom, hiding a smile. I said, “Well, that’s kind of what we’re going for, actually. Like the skirt I wore last night, to get hired? It was one of Mom’s with a longer hem.”
“Had to take it in,” Mom mock-grumbled. “My little girl is growing up—and she’s still littler than me!”
Carrie laughed and I shared a happy look with Mom; the phrase ‘my little girl’ meant so much to us both.
We found some candidates in an adult Petites section; I tried them on and now I had three skirts. There were two white blouses that would work and I thought we were done, but Mom wanted to drag me to the shoe department.
“There are flats and there are flats. The ones you’re wearing now are fine for a teenaged girl at the mall. However, you wouldn’t wear them in a business situation, although you could wear flats. Check these out,” she said, holding up a more mature version.
They had it in my size and I did, in fact, agree with her that they looked more professional. Mom was making a face, thinking, and veered off into another section and then handed a shoe to the clerk, who nodded and disappeared, coming back with two boxes.
“Pumps, low heel,” Mom said. “I know you already wear heels, but that’s on special occasions and a lot of sitting.”
I actually had never worn heels; she’d said this for Carrie, and it worked because she was nodding.
“Oh, yeah! I thought I was killer in heels, I’d wear them on weekends and all, but I had to do a presentation thing and stood for like three hours and I was dying.”
Mom nodded, saying, “Angela, I’ll get these for you and I want you to wear them around the house, just like learning with heels, even though they’re lower. In part to break them in but these would be a much nicer presentation at La Rioja.”
“What?” Carrie yelled. “You’re working at La Rioja?”
I was confused. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“No, you just said hostessing and I thought like Applebee’s or Denny’s or something. La Rioja?”
She held her hands out. “That’s like the most awesome place ever!”
Mom smirked. “I take it you’ve heard of the place, Carrie?”
Carrie laughed at her own theatrics. “Oh, yeah. My dad’s favorite, favorite place for steaks. And he loves steaks so we eat there …I’ve maybe had twenty dinners there over the years. All fantastic. And the music, if they got the same guitar guy …I was dating this guitar player named Kevin? And Kev’s really good but he said the Argentine guy was the real deal and completely ignored me the whole time the guy was playing. I think he would have gone home with the guy if he could’ve!”
We all laughed and I asked if she was still with Kevin.
She waved a hand. “Ancient history. Moved to …Utah, I think.” She paused and grinned. “Poor guy!”
We got the pumps and then hit the Juniors for any other candidates. The skirts were too short, but we found two more really nice white blouses with some appliqués in white and nice stitching. Mom declared the ‘work duds’ were fully acquired and released us, telling me to meet her at the Dillard’s perfume counter at five. I’d change in their Ladies Lounge and we’d leave for La Rioja. So now it was Carrie and me and the Burlington Mall.
And we had a great time! We chatted about this and that, different stories about kids in our schools. We’d already kind of fluffed over how I really didn’t have any friends but where it really got dicey was how I got the job at La Rioja. I couldn’t very well tell Carrie that the son of the owner and I were in Boys’ PE together, so Santiago became ‘a classmate’ that I helped with English as part of a school program, and he helped my Spanish. Carrie was wiggling her eyebrows and saying things like, ‘So, this Santiago …he’s a cutie, right?’
I rolled my eyes at that one. “Carrie, you want to know the truth, he’s kind of pudgy and guys make fun of him for being gay but he’s not.”
Her mood shifted and she seemed almost angry.“Make fun of him? What the heck kind of school is that?”
I knew it was Bully Central but felt the need to downplay everything just then. “Just …dumb guy stuff, you know? Doesn’t have to make sense …they’re guys!”
She bobbed her head back and forth. “Yeah, you’re right. But making fun of somebody that’s gay—”
“Carrie, you’re missing the point. Santiago’s not gay. If he was gay, the morons wouldn’t be making fun of him, they’d be trying to beat him up or something. I think they know he’s not gay, and that’s where they get their fun, teasing him.”
Carrie nodded at that. “Morons, you said it. Yeah, that’s what they’d do. Think it’s fun to tease a fat kid, then beat up a gay guy. All in a day’s work for them.”
“You sound …kinda pissed off, and I’m not sure …”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, not at you, Angela! God, no! It’s just …” She shrugged. “I got a favorite cousin, Luke. A really cool guy, about six years older than me. When I was little, I just worshipped the guy. He was so smart, and so funny! When I was really little, I was gonna marry him!” She grinned like a kid. “Then when I got older, I was gonna marry a guy just like him.” Her smile faded. “Then he came out of the closet and my family kind of …turned their back, like disinheriting him, and he took off. I haven’t seen or heard from him for two years now.”
“Oh, that’s so sad!” I said, meaning it. “And you miss him a lot. And you’re worried about him.”
“Am I that obvious?” she asked, trying to be silly and roll her eyes.
I realized that she was very wounded over Luke’s disappearance. Without thinking, I reached out to hug her. She resisted for a moment, and then hugged but I felt her tremble.
She sniffed. “I just …I’m so scared for him, you know?”
“I know, Care,” I said and it just seemed to come out that way.
She stared at me. “What did you …Luke called me ‘Care-bear’ when I was little.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no; it’s cool! You didn’t know, and …and besides, you didn’t say the ‘bear’ part.”
I nodded, smiling. “That’s still Luke’s.”
She looked at me for a moment and said, “You’re good people, Angela.”
“You too, Care. Oh—if that’s okay!”
“Sure,” she grinned. “And I might slip and call you Ange!”
“Better than ‘Ge-la’!” I teased.
We giggled and started walking.
End of Part 6
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