Two young teens, life-long friends, discover each other though not in the usual way. A gentle "coming-of-age" tale.
I slept somewhat fitfully that night. A few bizarre dreams had overtaken me. In one of them Sam and I were getting married though she was the groom and I was the bride. That dream in particular woke me up and I stared into the darkness for a few minutes before realizing that all was well and drifted back into dreamland.
Sunday morning I awoke quite refreshed. I looked at the clock on my night stand and it read 10:00 AM. That couldn’t be right, could it? I’d never slept for twelve hours in a row before. Well, not since I was a little kid anyway. I made my way to the bathroom and took care of business. That finished, I splashed some water on my face, ran my hands through my hair and went back to my room to put some clothes on. Mission accomplished I made my way downstairs to the sound of voices coming from the kitchen.
"Oh John," my mother’s best friend in the world, Alice Peters exclaimed. "You look so pretty!" Both she and my mother burst into giggles as I shook my head trying to figure out what they were going on about. Suddenly, I remembered. The earrings! Sam’s mother stopped laughing and finally said that they did indeed look quite nice and asked me if I was happy with my decision to get them. My decision, I thought briefly? I looked over to my mother for help but she just stared off into space.
I knew Mom must have informed her before I ever entered the kitchen as the tiny gold bullet shaped studs hardly made any kind of statement. "I’m quite fond of them, thank you, Mrs. Peters." She didn’t know what to make of my reply and decided to leave the matter alone. I had never called Aunt Alice "Mrs. Peters" before in my life. Since I first learned how to talk she had always been "Aunt Alice" to me. With the way I was feeling about Sam, I wasn’t sure calling her "Aunt" was still appropriate. I’m not sure if she gathered the double meaning of my reply, but the twinkle in her eyes told me that she suspected something was going on.
"I understand you and Sam had quite a wonderful time at the beach yesterday?" Again I looked at her carefully trying to gauge the seriousness of her remark. The way Sam had left me I wasn’t sure whether she’d had a good time at all. Aunt Alice’s comment, I decided at last, was sincere and I told her we did indeed have a great time. Anxious to make my departure, I rummaged through the cabinets for a bowl . I grabbed a box of cereal from the shelf, filled the bowl, splashed some milk on it, grabbed a spoon and made my way into the backyard to sit at the picnic table, to eat in peace, and to ponder the events of the last few days.
It seemed all of a sudden everyone was calling me " Joan." Sure, it had happened at various times throughout my life but these last few days it seemed like a constant barrage. I wasn’t really sure how to deal with it. In the past I’d just laugh it off and that seemed to calm things down. Somehow, I didn’t think that was going to work this time. In any event, as I thought over all the things that had happened yesterday, I was pretty sure that being called "Joan" was the least of my problems. Sam was acting very strange and so was my mother. Perhaps they’d been drinking from the same tainted well?
I was pretty sure that Mom’s actions were tied to cousin Melissa’s upcoming wedding. In a way, I understood her feelings yet in another way I felt rejected. She didn’t love me for who I was. I knew I was being silly thinking such thoughts, still I have to admit, it bothered me a bit. And San’s insistence on calling me Joan, asking me if I loved her and then. sucking on my nipple! What the hell was going on?
I sat at the table and started shoveling now soggy cereal into my mouth. Shandy ran to and fro in search of some invisible enemy. I called her over and she came running, wagging her tail behind her. She put her front paws up on the bench and began nuzzling my side with her snout. Long ago Shandy figured that whatever I was eating had to be better than her dog food and she sensed an opportunity with just the two of us together and no one to stop her from eating out of my bowl. I looked into her big brown sad eyes, gave her a kiss and placed my bowl on the grass beneath. Her tail started oscillating wildly in anticipation. She licked the bowl clean, I picked it up and stared at it for a moment, scratched Shandy’s head while murmuring "good girl" at her and thought about what to do next.
I couldn’t just sit trapped in the back yard all day. I could still see Mom and Aunt Alice through the kitchen window and it didn’t look like they’d be leaving any time soon. I picked up my bowl and spoon and headed back into the kitchen. "Did the dog enjoy your breakfast?" Mom asked.. I made no reply and went to the sink to rinse out my bowl. She didn’t seem mad, so I wasn’t going to push my luck.
Having rinsed out my bowl and placed it carefully in the dishwasher, I headed for the hallway and a safe escape. Just as I got to the doorway I was stopped by Mrs. Peter’s voice. "John, could you do me a favor?" I stood there waiting expectantly for her to continue.
"John" my mother admonished "that’s no way to treat our guest." What Mom meant was, I was supposed to reply "Of course!" without waiting to find out just what said request entailed.
"Of course, I’d be more than happy to Aunt Alice. How can I help?" Mom looked at me and nodded approvingly.
"Well John, I’ve been wanting Sam to get her ears pierced for the longest time. She’d always throw a tantrum and insist that only girls did that. Now seeing as you, a boy, have your ears pierced perhaps you can convince her that it’s OK to have it done?"
On the surface, her request seemed reasonable. I still wasn’t sure just how I was going to explain wearing earrings to Sam myself. I stood there staring at the both of them not sure what to say. I noticed a playful look dancing about Aunt Alice’s face as she waited for my response.
"Ahh Aunt Alice, I’m not sure it will do any good, but I’ll certainly give it a try." That seemed to satisfy the both of them and Mom nodded that I was indeed dismissed.
I headed again for the hallway and I heard Aunt Alice say "Looks like you win this round, Joan," Hearing "my" name I headed back into the kitchen. The ladies broke into giggles as my mother informed me that Mrs. Peters was talking to her. My face went crimson as I turned around and headed back to the sanctuary that was my room.
I sat on my bed once again lost in thought. At last I decided to give Sam a call and see if she wanted to do anything. I dialed her number and waited for her to pick up. She answered on the first ring. "Sam?" I inquired.
"What’s up Joan?" came her reply. I sighed inaudibly thinking if I was going to end this "Joan" business, I’d have to do it soon. Still, I knew the phone wasn’t the place to do it.
"Not much. You want to do something?"
"Sure, what did you have in mind?" I had no idea what to do, so I went on the offense.
"Now wait a minute Sam, I can’t be deciding all the time what we’re going to do, can I?"
She laughed and said, "No, I guess not. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be around." With that, the phone simply went "click."
Total confusion engulfed me. How was I going to tell Sam about my earrings? I decided not to say anything in hopes that she wouldn’t even notice them. Yeah right, like that was going to happen. I remembered my Mom told me to keep turning them in my ears so that they’d heal properly and I began to twist each one in turn a bit nervously. A few minutes later I heard my mother announce "John, your friend’s here!"
"Tell her to come on up," I replied. Sam bounded the stairs like a bull moose in search of its prey. I greeted her at the top of the stairs She turned me around and nudged me into my room. She grabbed my shoulder, spun me around to face her and smiled at me.
"Joan, you look very pretty today. Did you do that for me?" Yes, I knew she was talking about the earrings but I didn’t know how to respond. I looked at her crossly and I could see that she was getting upset again. "I’m sorry John, I won’t call you Joan anymore if you hate it." Tears began forming in those perfect blue eyes.
I didn’t know why, but I just wanted to comfort her. This was all starting to get a bit overwhelming for me. "I’ll tell you what. You can call me Joan when we’re alone but when others are about you must promise to call me by my first name" She smiled at that. She now knew that I knew that she knew (ok, that struck me as funny) my middle name was "Joan." She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. For a moment I thought we were dancing. Perhaps we were, but the music was her breathing and the beat was provided by our two hearts moving in complete synchronization.
After floating about in that fashion for a few minutes, I decided that we’d better do something or Mom and/or Aunt Alice would be bounding up the stairs to see what was going on. "Sam" I whispered dreamily in her ear "we’d better do something." She was lost in the music that wasn’t there. I knew she heard it too. It made me feel all soft and warm inside but, I could feel the tension building as I imagined yet again Mom bounding up the stairs and finding Sam and I in a close embrace. I broke off contact with her and she slowly awakened from the dream. I had a huge smile on my face and suggested that we go and take a walk on the boardwalk.
Yes, we had just been yesterday, but there wasn’t a lot to do in our little seashore town and besides, who could ask for anything more? She leaned forward and whispered in my ear "Whatever you want to do sweetheart is fine with me." I so wanted to ask her about the walk home yesterday. Why had she refused my hand as we walked and later my company for the evening. Somehow, none of that seemed important anymore. We made our way downstairs and I decided we’d better go and inform our mothers of our plans before heading out. We walked into the kitchen and were greeted by the smiling police. Such perfect teeth on two middle aged ladies. Sam waited for me to speak first figuring that I’d have an easier time of it. I opened my mouth to speak, when suddenly Aunt Alice said "Don’t John’s earrings look exquisite darling?" Sam wasn’t about to get drawn into this conversation and simply shrugged her shoulders. Aunt Alice decided to use discretion and made no further comments about my ears. Perhaps just leaving a note would have been a better idea. At that point I informed them that Sam and I were going for a walk on the beach. The ladies just smiled at us as we said our goodbyes.
We left the house and headed back to the boardwalk. To prove a point, I reached for Sam’s hand as we traversed the pavement. She looked at me, smiled, and grasped my hand tightly as we headed off towards our goal. I almost felt stupid doing it, but I couldn’t help smiling. Just holding her hand, I felt completely connected to the universe. "Sam, I promised your mother I’d ask you something."
She looked at me curiously "What?" was all she said.
"Well, she wanted me to convince you that it was OK to get your ears pierced."
"Why?" she replied.
"Well, every time she asked you, she said you’d throw a tantrum and tell her that only girls do that. Since I’m a boy and my ears are indeed pierced, she figured you might relent and get it done."
"My darling Joan" she said "Some boys may indeed get their ears pierced, but I’m not one of them." Well, I figured it would turn out like this. In fact, I thought her reaction would be a lot worse. Besides, in some strange way I was glad that my ears were pierced and that hers weren’t.
Having fulfilled my obligation to Aunt Alice, I decided to focus on my surroundings. Suddenly I remembered that I was holding my beloved’s hand and decided to send her a message via squeezes. I squeezed her hand tightly three times in rapid succession and turned to look at her to see if she could figure out my message. She simply looked at me and smiled and repeated the procedure that I had performed just moments before. "Do you know what I said to you in hand language?" I asked her.
She laughed out loud as she replied "Yes, I love you too Joan" I started to wonder whether this was all just a dream. Two days earlier we’d been playing baseball and she was proving to me as always how much better she was than me.
I felt a strange sense of power as our relationship was redefined. I was no longer "John" her erstwhile inept friend. I was "Joan" hmmmm? Hang on a second. I was who? You see, I found this all very confusing. She squeezed my hand three times rapidly in succession yet again, but this time I knew the message wasn’t "I love you" but rather "it’s all right." It was like I was meeting her for the first time in a lot of ways. She pulled my hand and spun me around right there in the middle of Webster Ave. She pulled me close and once again wrapped her arms around me. I couldn’t help noticing those that passed us. Some were smiling, some were oblivious, and some shook their heads in disgust at such a public display of affection. The last comment I heard before Sam grasped my head in both her hands and kissed me was "Get a room!" That from an elderly couple on their way to the boardwalk Sam released me, and my head in a whirl, I followed her lead as best I could. We made our way up the ramp and onto the boards.
"Which way?" I asked. Without answering she pulled me towards the route we had taken yesterday. Perhaps there was a downside to hand holding that I hadn’t considered? Rather than respond to my question, I was simply pulled along as one would a toy on a string. I considered this for a moment, and decided that I’d gladly follow her anywhere she wanted to go.
As we passed a wheel of chance I pulled at Sam’s hand motioning her to stop. "Good morning girls. Place your bets, all bets down, no more bets." Girls? Did he say girls? Sam started giggling and reached up and twisted one of my earrings. Pierced ears do not a girl make, I thought to myself. Sam continued to laugh as the wheel began spinning. I had placed my quarter over number 2. I had never played one of the wheels that offered stuffed animals as prizes before. Sam began squeezing my hand and shouting with glee as the wheel slowed to a stop showing number two a winner. The barker began shouting "we have a winner!" in an attempt to draw a crowd. "what would you like, Miss?" he asked. Sam continued laughing as I stood there, my face turning beet red. In exasperation I simply pointed at the black and white teddy bear in the front row. The operator removed it with great fanfare and announced again for all to hear that…"we have a winner!" I grabbed poor teddy and we made our way down the boardwalk, Sam still laughing uncontrollably.
She finally stopped, looked me in the eyes and said "Joan, he thought you were a girl!" I was beginning to regret ever having stopped to play the damned wheel.
"I do not look like a girl!" I exclaimed.
She eyed me carefully and said "Oh, I don’t know? I think your earrings just made the obvious more clear." What was she talking about? I’d been staring at my own mug every morning in the mirror for my entire life and nothing reflected in the glass ever said "girl" to me. She looked at me cradling the stuffed bear in my left arm and said. "What shall we name him then?"
Not in the mood to play "name games" I simply replied "Teddy." She thought this was very funny and laughed insanely as we continued down the boardwalk.
"Do you think your Teddy is hungry?" She asked. By this time I’d had enough and headed for the nearest trash can. They were dispersed strategically throughout the boardwalk "Oh no Joan! Don’t you dare throw him away!" She grabbed him just as I’d released him into the bin. I had wanted the bear for her. A gift to show her how I felt. She seemed to think it would be more appropriate for me to have it.
At last I told her; "Sam, I got this for you."
"For me?" What on earth would I do with a stuffed animal.?" I began walking away from her. Finally she followed holding the bear by one arm as a three year old might carry it. She caught up with me and said "Thank you Joan, that was very sweet of you, but really, I want you to have it." If she thought she had no use for a teddy bear, then what did she think I’d want with it? This was all getting too damned complicated!
She looked at me hopefully, held out the toy in a gesture of peace and waited for me to accept it. Not knowing what else to do, I took it from her and held it with proper respect cradled in my right arm. "Next time, I will win one for you,." she said. I could imagine the look on my mother’s face when I walked through the door carrying a teddy bear. I just shook my head in response and reached for her right hand with my left. She accepted it and we walked on.
"Are you hungry?" she asked. "It’s my turn to buy us lunch."
"Not right now Sam," was all I could think to say.
"Well, you’ll have to forgive me then, cause I’m famished!" She dragged me off to the hot dog vendor on the corner where you could still get a hot dog and a drink for $2.00. She devoured it with relish both literally and figuratively. I had no idea that a hot dog could be eaten so quickly.
"You should enter the fourth of July eating contest " I told her. She seemed to consider this for a moment before replying.
"Nah, I have to be in the mood to enjoy a hot dog." Having said that she ordered another. She still had her drink from the first one untouched and offered me the second one. I accepted it gratefully. I hadn’t had anything to drink other than the bit of milk soaked cereal.
I drank the soda down in one continuous gulp as Sam watched me. She nibbled slowly on her hot dog this time. "You must have been thirsty." Not feeling that a response was required, I nodded my head in agreement.
"You want to play some ski ball?" I asked her.
"Lets just go for a walk on the beach" she said while smiling furtively at me. I began to wonder whether I was to be "dessert" after she had eaten her lunch. We approached the entry way to the beach and removed our sneakers before descending the ramp to the sand below. Not waiting for me to ask her "which way?" she pulled me towards the same destination as yesterday. Once again we walked on the beach with a wave gently caressing our feet on occasion. I tried to spin her towards me as we walked under the pier and steal a kiss. She would have none of it and continued walking.
At last we reached our somewhat secluded spot. No one was about and to the west nothing but sand dunes and hurricane fencing. She smiled at me and pulled me down. That was her subtle way of beckoning me to sit beside her. I sat with Teddy still cradled in my right arm. She grabbed him away. Took each of his tiny arms in one of her own and began making him dance in front of us. The bear looked a bit silly with his button eyes dancing about but not as silly as Sam did making him do so. "How do you like your new owner?" she asked the bear. It seemed to stare at her plaintively till finally she lifted it’s mouth up next to her ear. "Really?" was all she said as if the bear had communicated some secret to her. I laughed and playfully punched her in the arm. She looked at me as if trying to decide whether or not to return the favor. At last she simply said "Be careful when you hit me, Joan." I wasn’t sure if she was having me on or being serious so I simply nodded in assent.
We sat there staring out to sea. It was a perfectly clear day. On the far horizon we could see a few freighters and wondered aloud as to their destination. Suddenly Sam pulled a small cylindrical tube out of her pants pocket. I recognized it as being lipstick. "What’s this?" I asked her.
"Well, if we’re going to be kissing properly, one of us should be wearing lipstick." With that she pulled a small circular device out of her pocket too. I also recognized this as being a lady’s compact and knew that upon opening it there would be a tiny mirror contained within. She held one item in each hand, looked at me and said "Well?" I thought it might be sexy kissing a girl with red lips. I’d never done such a thing before. Sam looked at me and smiled. "I’m glad you approve." She said. I did indeed approve and waited silently for her to open the containers and apply the contents. After a moment she grabbed my hands and placed the items firmly in my grasp.
"What???" I replied in a rather confused state.
"You didn’t think I was going to wear that, did you?" she asked. Now I really was at a loss. Apparently she had brought these items along for me to use.
"Surely you don’t expect me to wear that, do you?" I asked her.
She smiled again and said "It was all right a moment ago when you sat there waiting for me to put it on, wasn’t it?"
There was a certain twisted logic to her reply. Something was definitely wrong but for the moment I couldn’t think of what it was as I stared deep into her eyes. She said at length "Give the tube to me". I did so feeling a huge sense of relief. My relief was short lived however, as she took off the cap, twisted out the base and told me to "pucker up." Was I going to let her emasculate me in this way? "You do want to kiss me?" She asked in a serious voice. My head bobbed up and down and she replied "Good, now hold still." I sat there and let her apply the bright red waxy substance to my lips. As far as I could tell, the tube had never been used before. "Yes Joan, it’s new. My Mom got it for me at Christmas time hoping that I’d give in and use it." I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to notice that it has been opened and applied when she performs her next surreptitious inspection of my bedroom.
Having completed her task, she handed me the small mirror so I could view myself. I thanked her but declined the opportunity. She stared deep into my hazel eyes and said "you really are quite beautiful, Joan." I melted at her gaze.
Certain in my heart that it was the wrong response, I still replied. "Thanks, Sam." With that she lunged for my now ruby red lips and kissed me. I kissed her in return, not sure of the kaleidoscope of feelings that soared through me. Having applied a tiny amount of the red substance via our kiss, her tongue began to explore my mouth. I was lost in the moment and this time, found myself sprawled across her lap with her arms wrapped round me as her tongue probed deeper and deeper. If there was a heaven, I could only hope it was half as good as this.
"I love you Joan, you know that don’t you?" she whispered.
"Yes!" I whispered in return. She kissed me again and prodded me.
"Say it then." She demanded.
"I love you Sam." It all felt so right, yet something still seemed wrong. At the moment, I wasn’t even really sure what it was. Eventually, we stopped and stared back out to sea. Sam held me in her embrace and I felt safer than I’d ever felt in my life.
"You’d better fix your lipstick, girl" she said to me. Almost as in a trance, I took the proffered items and began my task. I did want to look pretty for Sam. I tentatively opened the mirror and then the tube, twisting it till lipstick poked through the opening. I glanced over at Sam, she was watching me in awe as I slowly applied a fresh coat of color to my lips. "You do realize" she said when I’d finished "you did that like you’d been doing it all your life." I smiled at her and reached for her one more time. She pushed me away and said "No, Joan, I don’t want to mess up your lips." I took the tiny mirror and held it far enough away from myself so I could see my entire face within. I had to admit, I did look pretty. This made me happy, embarrassed and ashamed all at once. Boys weren’t supposed to be "pretty." "Relax Joan" she cooed sensing my ambivalence.
She took her hand and brushed my bangs back away from my eyes. Suddenly I forgot what I was upset about and smiled at her beatific face. I went to return the makeup items to her but she insisted that I keep them. For some strange reason, that made me very happy. I placed both items in my front pocket and remembered that it was past time to "twist" my earrings. Sam looked at me and said "Here, let me do that for you." She gently rotated each post in an almost sensual manner. After a few minutes she said "Come on, it’s time to go." I felt like pouting. Did we have to go already? Had I been standing, I’m sure I would have stomped my foot in protest.
She stood up and grabbed my hand, pulling me into an upright position. :"Let’s go girl" she said.
"Sam", I whined, "Do you have to keep calling me girl?" She thought about it for a moment as we walked.
"You don’t really mind, do you Joan?" I looked up at her and responded
"No, Sam, I don’t." With that she broke into a huge grin and we made our way back to the boardwalk. I clutched Teddy safely in my right arm, my left hand entwined in Sam’s and we continued our trek with our arms swinging to and fro.
A few teenage boys up ahead playing in the surf noticed us and commented "aww, look at the girls holding hands like lovers" Sam just smiled and kept pace. My mind reeled wondering why those two had thought we were two girls. I quickly remembered the earrings and thought that was the reason. Then I remembered the lipstick. Sam laughed knowingly. She twisted me around till I was caught in her firm embrace and began kissing me till all traces of lip color disappeared. The two young men who had been watching us must have been creaming their jeans. They stood there mouths agape not making a sound.
At some point Sam stopped and said to me "You feel better now baby?" Indeed I did as we once again began our trek homeward. The trip home was a blur. The only thing I remembered was that this time Sam hadn’t released my hand along the way. We reached my front door and Sam held me close, but only for a moment. "I’ll see you in the morning sunshine," she said as she kissed both of my eyes softly and tenderly. I smiled up at her and made my way inside with Teddy safely in tow………
I realized as I walked through the front door that I was holding a Teddy Bear! I began making a bee line for the stairs when my mother’s voice stopped me dead in my tracks. "Is that you John?"
"Yes, Mom, it’s only me!"
"Come here right now!" she commanded.
Thinking quickly and wanting to get "teddy" safely hidden in my room before encountering her I replied "I’ll be right with you Mom. I really have to go to the bathroom."
"I said NOW!" Not sure whether I should simply leave the stupid bear on the stairs or proceed down the hall and into the kitchen, I began walking towards her voice. "Do you have any idea what time it is?" she asked.
"Errr, no Mom, sorry, I don’t!" I had lost total track of time that day. Her question had me looking out the window where I noticed that signs of daylight were quickly fading away.
"It’s 7:00 PM!" she shouted at me. "You had me worried sick young man." Oh no, back to the "young man" stuff again.
Well, at least she wasn’t calling me "young lady." I laughed aloud at my thoughts. She looked at me for the first time and asked "Is something funny? And what’s that you’re holding there?"
Looking down at my shoes I replied "No, Mom, nothing’s funny. And this? It’s a teddy bear."
"I know what it is, just what the heck are you doing with it?" I looked down protectively at the bear in my arms and thought carefully before responding. I found myself quite fond of teddy and was afraid that if I said the wrong thing it would be confiscated and thrown away.
"Well Mom" I began "you see Sam and I were walking on the boardwalk…" my voice drifted off into silence. She stood there staring at me
"And?" she inquired.
"And I found myself playing the game and winning on the first try. I wanted to win something for Sam. I guess she forgot to take it home." I looked at her, my eyes pleading. I could tell that she half-believed me.
"Well, you’d better not let your father see that thing. It’s going to be hard enough trying to explain away your earrings."
My earrings? I considered reminding her that the ear thing had been all her idea, but I simply replied "Yes Mom. May I go now? I really need the bathroom!" I implored.
"Go ahead. Put that "thing" away and get washed up for dinner. We’ll be eating as soon as your father gets back. By the way, he’s not going to be in a good mood as he’s out looking for you this very minute." I wasn’t sure why there was all this concern about my safety all of a sudden. This wasn’t the first time that I’d arrived home after 7:00 PM. The world was indeed going "topsy turvy."
I made my way to the stairs carrying teddy as nonchalantly as I could. I walked into my room and tried to decide just where to place my new possession. At last I placed him atop my pillow leaning back on the headboard. His tiny face smiled at me and his eyes seemed to suggest that we were sharing a secret. I made my way into the bathroom, took care of business and instead of simply splashing some water on my face and washing my hands, I decided that I’d better inspect my face more carefully from here on out. My hands reached up and I began twisting the earrings once again. On close inspection I could see traces of red around my lips. I was grateful that Mom hadn’t looked at me more closely, but rather seemed to be preoccupied with teddy. Thank you teddy, I thought to myself and smiled. Then I remembered the compact and lipstick still in my pocket. Where to put them? There was no hiding anything in my room. Mom was intimately familiar with every square inch of my bedroom. At last, I decided on my backpack. I opened the small, secret, zippered compartment inside and placed the items in. I reasoned that even if Mom did find them, I could tell her I was holding them for some girl who was afraid of getting caught with makeup on school grounds. That done, I made my way downstairs.
It was now 7:30 and Dad still hadn’t returned. I begged Mom to let me go in search of him but she simply told me that I was in enough trouble already. At last the screen door opened and my father’s voice greeted me "Ahh, you’re here." Upon seeing me sitting there he glanced briefly in my direction as if trying to decide whether or not to start screaming at me. Finally he simply said "Good, let’s eat." I was relieved on several levels. First and foremost, he hadn’t gone off on me about having been out without knowing my whereabouts. And more importantly, he hadn’t said a thing about my ears. Had Mom informed him already?
Thankfully, Mom had set the table and we sat down to eat. Pork chops. Ugh! Mom knew I hated them. She looked at me and smiled as if daring me to complain. I hadn’t eaten anything all day but a bit of soggy cereal that morning. I was starving. "Would you like some applesauce, Joan?" she said to me.
"Joan, who’s Joan? Or are you talking to yourself again dear?" my father asked her. Mom laughed and asked Dad whether he had forgotten that my middle name was indeed Joan. Dad simply looked at her as if she’d lost her mind and continued eating. As hungry as I was I simply couldn’t stomach pork chops. Mom looked at me sympathetically, but simply focused on the food in front of her. I sat there and slowly played with the food on my plate wishing that the dog would appear by my side so I could feed her surreptitiously under the table.
Smuggling as much of the foul tasting meat as I could into my napkin I asked if I might be excused. "Let me see your plate dear?" Had Mom forgotten that I wasn’t a baby anymore? With the potatoes and broccoli gone and just a few mangled bits of meat remaining she said "very well, you’re excused." I stood up, took my plates and headed into the kitchen. I dumped the contents of the napkin into Shandy’s bowl and proceeded to rinse off my plate before placing it in the dishwasher.
I then began my job of tidying up the kitchen. I was certain that Mom would be pleased that she hadn’t had to remind me one more time to do my job. Thankfully, there wasn’t anything left over so I wouldn’t have to dig the plastic storage containers out of the cupboards. I scrubbed out the pots and pans, dried them and put them away. At last I asked Mom if I could take my leave as I had some homework assignments to finish. Mom simply said "Of course dear" and Dad nodded in agreement. I practically ran out of the room before Dad noticed my ears. If he had noticed, at least he hadn’t said anything.
Up in the safety of my room I looked at teddy sitting on my bed. Remembering Sam’s question to me that afternoon, I wondered whether I should have saved some pork chop for poor teddy. "Are you hungry teddy?" My mind asked the stuffed toy silently . For some reason this struck me as funny and I started giggling. An outsider viewing this scene would have thought me in need of medication.
I turned on my desk lamp, sat down and found myself staring off into space. What was Sam doing at this very moment, I wondered? I shook my head in an attempt to clear it and focus on studying for tomorrow’s history exam. This would be Mrs. Stratford’s last test of the year. Thankfully, there would be no final exam. I had her class in the morning and Sam had her right after lunch. For some strange reason I was determined to do more than just "pass" this time. It was after 10:00 PM when Mom told me it was time to turn out the lights and go to bed.
"But Mom! I still need to go over the material a bit more. This is the last test of the year and I want to do my best." She looked over at the open history book on my desk. She didn’t know what to say. I had never before asked to stay up late to study
She eyed me intently, not sure just what was "really" going on and said "all right, you’ve got till 11 o’clock. But when I come back your light had better be off and you’d better be fast asleep."
I so wanted to tell her about me and Sam, but I simply replied "thanks Mom." and she exited my room closing the door softly behind her.
Knowing that Mrs. Stratford was big on dates, I went over my list again. I continued on in this fashion until looking at the clock on my night stand, I noticed that it was now 11:15. Damn! I exclaimed hoping that I could get ready for bed before Mom reappeared. I made my way carefully into the hallway. Crept silently into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, twisted my earrings and headed back to my room. Thankfully, I had a clean pair of pajamas in my drawer. I put them on quickly and turned out the lights. Within minutes Mom appeared. I heard her enter and say "Good night Joan sweetheart" in a soft voice before making her exit.
I lay in bed and found myself snuggling teddy. I held him close remembering the afternoon on the beach with Sam. I found myself wondering what the bear had said to Sam to make her reply "Really?" and smiled to myself. I wasn’t that far gone. With teddy held tightly in my arms, I drifted off to sleep.
At 7:00 AM sharp, the alarm began screaming at me. I felt as though I’d just closed my eyes moments before. Upon opening my eyes I noticed that I was hugging a stuffed animal. For a moment I was at a loss but quickly remembered. "Good Morning ‘Teddy" I said to the inanimate object. I kissed him gently on the cheek and placed him carefully on my chair before making my bed. The bed made, I centered him atop my pillow. I ran to the bath and took one of the shortest showers in recorded history. I combed my hair in my usual careless manner, twisted the earrings yet again, and made my way to my room to dress for school.
By seven thirty I was ready to go. Asking where Dad was this morning, Mom informed me that he had an early day and had been on the road at 6 AM. I thought perhaps that Dad was overdoing it, but what did I know? Mom gave me a brief inspection and said "you look lovely Joan, I hope you do well on your test." At some point, I was going to have to have a talk with her about all this "Joan" nonsense but now was not the time.
A few minutes later Sam appeared at the front door screaming "Hey Joan, are you ready?" Mom, having heard her simply smiled at me. I shook my head yet again to clear it, grabbed my backpack and headed out the door.
"So, are you ready for Mrs. Stratford’s history exam?" She asked.
"Oh no!" I replied a bit cheekily "Is that today?" She looked at me wondering whether or not I was serious. I started laughing and she punched my shoulder playfully.. "Gotcha!" I said to her.
"Ok, who won the war of 1719?" She asked. My forehead broke out in sweat as I tried to remember the battle she was asking about. She saw the look of worry on my face and started laughing. "Gotcha!" she exclaimed. It was my turn to punch her on the shoulder but I was reluctant to do so. She waited for it expectantly and finally realized why I was being hesitant. "It’s all right Joan, go ahead" I stared briefly into her eyes and gave a very playful delicate "punch" to her left shoulder as we continued on our journey.
"Sam?" I asked her dolefully.
"Yes, Joan?" she replied.
"Please don’t call me Joan while we’re in school"
"All right Joan, I won’t" I sighed not sure whether she understood just how important this was to me.
"Sam!" I exclaimed. She simply laughed in reply. We made our way to school and arrived just as the busses were pulling up. We began talking about the events of the weekend, when Billy and Jimmy came steadily toward us.
"Wow you should have been there!" Billy said.
"Been where?" I replied knowing full well what he was talking about.
"The Game!" said Jim now standing directly beside Billy.
"It sounds like you two had a great time," Sam interjected.
"You don’t know the half of it" responded Billy. With that, the bell rang meaning we’d have access to the hallways and more importantly, our lockers. I smiled at Sam and bade Billy and Jim farewell for now.
"See you guys at lunch." I said as I made my way to homeroom. Taking my seat for attendance, I opened my backpack and grabbed my history notebook hoping for a few more moments to review my notes in silence.
"Hey Look!" someone shouted "John’s got his ears pierced!" Walter Windom, never one of my favorites, made the observation. A few of the girls murmured among themselves and some giggles ensued. I tuned them out and focused on my notes.
"Mr. Johnson?" .. "Mr. Johnson?" Finally, I realized that Mrs. Pembroke was taking attendance and responded appropriately, "here."
At last the bell rang and we all exited quickly each of us heading off in different directions. I made my way to Mrs. Stratford’s class and took my seat. Moments later, with the entire class seated, Mrs. Stratford entered the room. "I hope you’re all ready for your exam today?" she asked.
"Exam?.. I thought it was just a test,?" I found myself saying aloud.
"Yes indeed, Mr. Johnson, it is "merely" as you put it, a "test". However, since this is your last test of the year, I thought a bit more weight might be implied." She shook her head and began counting the number of students in each row. Tests were distributed and we were told not to do anything until told to do so. "Class" she said. "The test is half multiple choice and half essay. You all have the same questions however the order has been rearranged to discourage cheating." We’d all heard this particular speech a thousand times before and waited for her to announce that it was time to begin. "You have one hour to complete the test. When you are finished, please bring your papers up to my desk. At that point you may do whatever you wish quietly at your seats. Begin!" she said.
I looked at the first few questions. My mind was drawing a blank. I found myself staring out the window in hopes that history lessons would find their way back into my head. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax reminding myself that my performance on this test was only the difference between an "A" and a "B" not passing or failing. Still, I was determined to beat Sam on this one and that gave a special edge to the proceeding. Looking back at the questions, the answers seemed to come out of nowhere. I finished the multiple choice section in record time and found myself writing furiously as I answered the essay questions. With ten minutes remaining, I was finished. I felt no need to review my work and simply walked up to Mrs. Stratford’s desk and placed the completed test in her waiting hands. She smiled at me and commented quietly "I like your earrings, John" I nodded thank you and made my way back to my desk waiting for the bell to ring.
The rest of the morning passed quickly and soon the lunch bell sounded. I made my way to the cafeteria to see my friends. Billy and Jim were already seated when I cam upon our table. Sam had yet to arrive. I hadn’t even seated myself before Billy began ranting "honest John, you should have been there!" Honest John?.. hmmm that had a nice ring to it.. oh!.. the baseball game… "There’s something different about him" Billy mused when Jim cut in "He’s wearing earrings!" They both laughed as if they’d made a joke. At that moment Sam arrived and seated herself at the table.
"Good Morning gentlemen" she imparted with a brief glance at me.
"Sam? Did you notice?.. John’s wearing earrings!" Jim said once again as if everyone in the world were blind but him.
Sam smiled at him sweetly and said "Yes Jim, I know." This was most likely, the wrong response as Billy and Jim started making a much larger issue of it than was required.
"Sam and Johnny sitting in a tree" Jim sang. How original I thought to myself.
Sam quickly gained control of the table informing Billy and Jim that if they had a problem with my earrings that she’d be happy to hear about it.
Billy eyed me suspiciously and said at last "your girlfriend’s going to beat us up then if we continue, Joan?" At this both Bill and Jim burst into laughter. Sam eyed them both warily and I was indeed afraid that she would tar the living daylights out of both of them.
"Guys Guys! Calm down," I begged with a sharp look in Sam’s direction. The precursor to a war they couldn’t win evaporated before their eyes.
At length, Bill began talking about the game. "John, you should have been there! I got Don Mac Dougal’s signature on this baseball!" He held it up proudly in his hand for my inspection.
"Donnie Mac" laughed Sam. "He isn’t going anywhere!" Her remark simply meant that in her opinion Donnie would never made it to the major leagues. Bill and Jim stared at her in disbelief.
"What do you know about it?" Bill said.
"I simply know that he hasn’t got the goods" Sam replied. I attempted to intervene and bring the topic back to more mundane issues like Mrs. Stratford’s history exam. Neither Bill nor Sam would have any of it.
Finally, Bill exploded "I know you don’t know jack shyte about baseball" he almost screamed. Sam looked at him smiling, her eyes dancing about.
"I’ll tell you what Billy boy. I’ll bet you five dollars that I can strike your silly ass out on three pitches." I wasn’t sure what to make of Sam’s challenge. Bill was the starting third baseman for the school team. I could see a flash of remembrance cross his eyes as he recalled the time she had bested him at arm wrestling.
Still, he provided with much bravado… "Where and when?"
"This afternoon at 4 o’clock at Forbes field." she replied. We had but moments remaining in our lunch period but Sam asked me how I’d enjoyed Mrs. Stratford’s test.
I laughingly replied, "you’ll find out soon enough."
The afternoon passed uneventfully . The final bell rang and I found myself waiting outside on the sidewalk for Sam to appear. She didn’t keep me waiting. As we walked home instead of discussing events of the day she talked about how she was going to strike out Bill on just three pitches. We made it home in record time. "You’ve got five minutes to change" she shouted as we came upon our block. She opened her front door and disappeared inside I found myself wishing that this entire episode would just "go away/" That wasn’t going to happen, I knew, and I quickly made my way across the street. I opened my front door quickly and ran up to my bedroom to change. I knew I had only minutes before Sam would appear at my front door urging me on. I tied my sneakers tightly and made my way back down the stairs.
I stood at the front door waiting for Sam to appear. "Have you got your catcher’s mitt?" she asked. I gave her a "Duh" and pointed to my left hand. She smiled at me and we headed off to Forbes Field. "OK Joan, I’m going to make short work of that bastard."
"Do we have to do this Sam?" I begged. She shook her head at me in disgust and kept on walking. We arrived at the field about ten minutes early. Sam suggested we use the time productively and strode out to the mound. She motioned me to take position behind home plate. She began throwing easily at first, slowly building up momentum. It wasn’t long before Billy and Jim arrived each carrying a glove and a bat. As they arrived Sam threw her "change-up." Seeing it, Billy laughed aloud saying that this was going to be easy.
"Sam, Jim, Billy do we have to do this?" I implored.
"Shut up Joan and just catch the ball" This from Billy. Jim, who was standing next to him began laughing.
"Who the hell do you think you’re talking to Billy Goat?" I asked.
"You heard him Joan" Sam said. "Just shut up and catch the ball." I stood up, looked at the three of them as tears began slowly rolling down my cheeks. I shook my head from side to side, took off my catcher’s mitt and threw it on the ground in front of me. Without a word, I walked off the field. I had a faint hope that Sam would follow me. She didn’t. She just said "It’s OK, we don’t need her, Jim can catch." Hearing Sam refer to me as "her" was like a knife wound to the heart. The tears flowed faster and I began running. I didn’t stop till I reached my front door. I sat down on the front steps sobbing uncontrollably. Shandy sensing my presence from the backyard began "woofing" noisily. Not wanting to encounter my mother I made my way around the side of the house and entered the backyard through the gate. Shandy, it seemed to me, could sense my sadness.
I walked over and sat down at the picnic table. I put my hands on the table and then my head down on my hands and continued crying. Shandy came over and looked up at me hopefully with her tail wagging. I tried to pull myself together, but it just wasn’t working. The dog gave up and sat by my side and began whimpering softly as if she knew just how miserable I felt. My body wracked with heaving sobs as I sat there shaking uncontrollably. At some point, I fell asleep.
"Is that you John? What are you doing? Is everything all right?" My mother’s voice assaulted me with questions in rapid succession. I looked up and saw her questioning me from the kitchen window.
"Yes Mom, it’s me, I’m fine and I guess I was just a bit tired. I fell asleep."
"Well, come in here, I have something to tell you." I slowly lifted myself from the table. I felt as though I were walking through water as I made my way to the back door. I gritted my teeth, determined not to show my pain to Mom.
"Sweetheart! Your Aunt Alice is going out this evening and Sam’s going to be having dinner with us. Isn’t that great?" I couldn’t imagine anything worse at the moment and stood there with my jaw hanging open. "Where is Sam? Isn’t she with you?"
I was on the verge of tears once again but managed to reply "No Mom, she stayed at the park to play some ball with Billy and Jim. I wasn’t in the mood, so I came home."
"Oh, all right John. Well, you can go and empty the clothes hampers and get started on a few loads of wash before dinner." Wanting to be anywhere but where I was, I made the trip upstairs and began sorting laundry. I had three baskets filled and carried the one with the whites down into the basement and put them into the machine. After adding the bleach and detergent, I made my way back upstairs. I headed quickly for my room before Mom could engage me in conversation.
I entered my room and threw myself down on the bed. I lifted my head for a moment and there was teddy smiling at me. I wanted to get my pocket knife and cut the stuffing out of him. Instead, weeping softly, I picked him up and forced him into my bottom dresser drawer. I ran back and jumped on the bed and wrapped my arms around my pillow and let the tears flow. I’d never cried so much in my life. Half an hour later, I grabbed another basket and headed back into the basement. The washer was indeed done. I removed the whites and threw them in the dryer with the setting on high heat. I finished loading the permanent press items, added detergent and started the second load of laundry.
I walked upstairs heavy footed and as I entered the kitchen Mom smiled at me and told me what a great help I was to her. I smiled wearily at her and tried to make my way back to my room. "John, come here, something’s wrong" she said. There was no hiding anything from Mom. "Sit down" she commanded. I sat at the table and she came over and brought me a cup of coffee. She grabbed one for herself from the machine on the counter and sat down opposite me. "OK John, tell me, what’s going on?"
I desperately wanted to tell her but all that came out of my mouth was "Nothing Mom, everything’s fine." She shook her head and seemed to stare right through me unsure whether she should pursue the matter or just let it drop. We sat there silently drinking our coffee. At last the buzzer from the washing machine sounded and I knew that the load was done. I pushed back my chair and arose telling Mom that I wanted to get the wash done before dinner. Back upstairs I went and brought down the third and final basket containing jeans and such. Down two flights of stairs I checked the dryer to see if the whites were done. They were still a bit damp so I shut the door and let them spin awhile longer. I removed the permanent press items and put the final load into the machine. Dad liked his dress shirts air dried so I put them on hangers while the machines clanged noisily around me. At last I removed the whites and put the next load in the dryer. The permanent press cycle was a short one. While the last load was washing and the others were drying I stood at the ironing board and folded the whites.
How could Sam have betrayed me like that? Boys, I thought silently and shook my head. Wait a minute? What was I thinking? Sam wasn’t a boy. Lost in confusion I did my best to focus on the task at hand. A short while later the dryer pinged letting me know that the permanent press cycle had completed. I knew from experience that the secret to wrinkle free clothing was to get those clothes out quickly and either on hangers or folded neatly so I worked as fast as I could. Mom liked the way I folded her delicates and told me I’d make some girl a good wife someday. She’d always laugh when I’d blush as she said it. I finished folding just as the washing machine stopped letting me know that the "normal" load was completed. This was the longest of the drying loads so, I placed the neatly folded clothes in the baskets and took them upstairs to put away.
It was shortly after 6 PM when the front door buzzer sounded. Normally I would have answered it, but I already knew who it was and I didn’t want to see her. In a way I was surprised that she had the guts to show her face over here after what had happened. She handed Mom my catcher’s mitt that I’d left at the park. "John left his mitt? I don’t believe it! Is everything all right?"
"Yes Aunt Joan, everything’s fine" I heard Sam say. I’m glad she thought so. I was so angry I wanted to scream!
"John, Sam’s here" I heard my mother’s call.
"I’m going to be awhile Mom, I have the last load of laundry to fold and put away." I replied. Sam was the last person on earth I wanted to see right now. I knew I’d have to walk past her as I made my way down the stairs. through the foyer, down the hall and into the basement. I made my way silently.
"John!" she exclaimed "You should have been there!" I ignored her comment and continued walking. "Boys" she said. At that Mom and Sam both broke into laughter.
I ran down the stairs to the basement and almost fell head first onto the concrete floor below. I grabbed the banister and stopped briefly before continuing down. I took my time folding the jeans and such before placing them back in the basket. At length, I knew I couldn’t hide down there forever and made my way up the stairs carrying the basket of clean clothes. Mom smiled at me as I moved past and Sam just ignored me as I made my way to the stairs to finish my job. Having put all the clothes away, I knew I couldn’t hide up there forever, though I did consider the possibility. I went into the bathroom and washed my face before going back downstairs. I walked into the kitchen. Mom and Sam were sitting at the table deeply engrossed in conversation. I started to make my way towards the family room to watch a bit of TV when Mom stopped me.
"John?" she asked. "I believe you have something of Sam’s?" Had Sam told her about the lipstick? My heart raced in panic. Sam looked at me and smiled. She made no effort to let me know just what was going on. I could tell from her smile that she knew exactly what Mom was on about. Oh well, I thought, at least they were back to calling me "John" again. Mom eyed me inquisitively waiting for me to figure it out. My wheel wasn’t spinning. My hamster had died. "The Teddy Bear?" Mom said at last. I issued a huge sigh of relief. At that Sam burst out laughing and Mom just looked from one of us to the other. A look of total confusion.
"Oh Yes the teddy bear!" I exclaimed Happy to have an excuse to leave their presence, I made one more trip up the stairs. I looked over on my bed and noticed that teddy wasn’t there. Now wait a minute. It’s an inanimate object after all. Just where did that damned thing get to? Then I remembered. I’d stuffed him into the bottom drawer of my dresser.
I pulled open the drawer tentatively and there was teddy staring at me with expectant eyes and a wide grin. I found myself picking him up delicately and hugging him to my chest whispering "I’m sorry" into his uncomprehending ears. The tears started again and it took me a few minutes before I could compose myself and make my way back down the stairs. Teddy and I made our way into the kitchen and I announced "Here he is." And held him up for Mom and Sam to see. Conflicting thoughts surged through me. I found myself wanting to rip teddy limb from limb though he’d done nothing wrong and wanting to hug him incessantly. I knew he’d be safer in Sam’s hands and held him out to her for her acceptance. She looked at me quizzically before responding
"Thanks for keeping him for me, John" was all she said.
A few awkward moments passed before Mom announced that Sam had picked a miserable night to come over for dinner. "You should have been her last night." Mom said. "We had pork chops. Tonight, we’re just having hamburgers and baked beans." I much preferred this evening’s menu to last night’s and made it known to a chorus of "boos!" from Mom and Sam. I almost felt like laughing and surprised myself as a chuckle escaped my mouth. "You two can set the table, we’ll be eating in a few minutes. And, since we have company we’ll eat in the dining room!" Mom loved eating in the dining room and would use any excuse to make use of her bone china. I was still beyond upset with Sam and let her know by my silence that I was annoyed with her.
At 7:30 sharp my father came bounding through the door and without any further ado announced "what’s for dinner, I’m starved!" Mom laughed at this and told him we’d be eating momentarily in the dining room as we had company. Dad looked at her quizzically, then noticed Sam (the "company") and made his way to the head of the table Having seated himself he eyed us and said "And how are my girls this evening?" I had reached my limit.
"Dad!" I screamed "Hello!, This is your SON speaking!"
He laughed as he said "Hmmm? Do sons wear earrings these days?" My face went red as I’d forgotten all about them.
"You stop that right now Bob" my mother chastised him. In the end, we all were laughing as the platter of hamburgers was passed about.
I felt as if I hadn’t had any protein in days and found myself contemplating a third burger as Mom admonished "John, don’t you think you’ve had enough?"
"Well Mom, you make such great hamburgers" I replied. At that, Mom blushed. Mom rarely allowed her heart on her sleeve, let alone her face. Sam had been relatively quiet at dinner, responding politely to questions when asked, but otherwise volunteering nothing. I was still very upset with her, but I didn’t want her to leave. Perhaps she had some explanation for her actions that I could swallow? All right, the possibility of that being the case was almost non-existent. Still, I didn’t want her to go.
We sat at the table far longer than usual that evening and I told Mom that if I was doing the dishes, I’d better get started as it was getting late. "You can skip them this evening, Joan" she said. Ahhhhhhhh shyte back to the "Joan" stuff again, I thought to myself. It figured that Mom would pick an evening where there was practically nothing to do to tell me that I could "skip it." "Why don’t you and Sam go have a talk" she suggested. Mothers, I thought to myself. They saw everything.
"Sounds like a plan Mom" I replied. With that, I motioned for Sam to follow me into the backyard. She did and moments later we found ourselves sitting at the picnic table. Shandy came running over and went straight to Sam, ignoring me. Some friend YOU are, I thought. Sam laughed as she nuzzled Shandy and pet her gently all over. She squeezed her so tightly that she yelped in pain and anticipation of more to come. I knew however, that Sam was done with her as she pet Shandy on the head for a moment before dismissing her.
"Sam" I said at last "How could you have done that to me this afternoon?" She looked about to cry, but I wasn’t feeling sympathetic towards her that evening. "Cry, if you want to," I said "It won’t help." She looked at me in a new light. As if I’d stumbled across one of her secrets. "Do you have ANY idea how much you hurt me this afternoon?"
"Well, I had some idea when you walked away leaving your mitt behind, but, I was focused on kicking Billy’s ass at that point." She replied.
"You, You, You!" I screamed incoherently. "You do realize that you confirmed the "Joan" thing with Billy and Jim and then referred to me as "her?"
"So?" she asked.
"Sam, what was the ONE thing I told you about calling me Joan?"
"That I don’t do it in public" she said "So?" she asked again. Could she really be that stupid, I wondered?
"Sam you completely emasculated me in front of those two idiots formerly known as my friends. Billy called me "Joan" and you confirmed it. But, that wasn’t enough! You had to add the "her" icing on the cake, didn’t you?"
"Don’t you want to know how it turned out?" she asked me.
"No, Sam. I don’t. You obviously don’t get it. I don’t ever want to hear about this afternoon again."
She looked at me, shook her head and said "No, thank you Joan for reminding me why I don’t have any girlfriends." I stared at her in disbelief wondering if she grasped the irony of her own statement.
"OK Sam, that’s enough for one evening. I hope you’ll take good care of teddy as I’ve grown quite fond of him" I said.
"Awww, I don’t want to take your teddy bear, Joan"
"Teddy was never meant to be mine Sam." I informed her. Yet again she looked at me like she had no idea what I was talking about. "Boys" I found myself thinking once more. It was time to go, I was tired and wanted to get to bed.
"I love you Joan" Sam said to me softly.
The only answer I felt comfortable giving her that evening was, "I know." Wisely, she didn’t press the issue and simply said she’d see me tomorrow.
Boys will be Boys
It wasn’t going to be that easy getting rid of Sam that evening. She came back inside and bade her farewells to my parents before taking her leave. "Are you going to be all right, Samantha?" my mother asked her.
"Thanks for your concern Aunt Joan," Sam replied before informing her that it wouldn’t be the first time she’d be home alone.
"Make sure you ring me when you arrive" was all my mother said. Sam sighed. She practically lived 100 feet away, yet she assured my mother that she’d call as soon as she was in the door. Mom seemed reassured and Sam made her way for the exit. I decided that I needed just one more moment alone with her before she left.
"Hang on a moment Sam," I said. "I’ll walk you home." Mom smiled at my gallant behavior and told me she expected my return within minutes.
Sam and I made our way across the street and walked the two house difference in a manner of seconds and silence. We stood in front of her house and she grabbed me in her arms again. I wanted to push her away, yet I didn’t. She stared into my eyes again and said "I love you Joan." I was still too angry and hurt to respond in kind. At last she said "it’s all right sweetheart, you don’t have to say anything." I heaved a sigh of relief and just stood there letting her hold me.
I said "I’m sorry Sam, I have to go," and removed myself from her embrace. She took her keys from her pocket, opened her front door and disappeared inside without looking back. Thinking that to an extent this was as much about saving face as anything else, I didn’t stand there staring at her front door, but forced myself to move back across the street and inside my own front door.
"That was quick Joan," my mother said.
"Did Sam call?" I asked her.
"Yes, she did darling," Mom replied.
"Good" I said. "I’m going to bed. Good night Mom, good night Dad" I said as I made my way up the stairs for the last time that day.
I entered my room feeling a sense of loss. Sam was gone. Teddy was gone. For some reason, I felt totally abandoned. I’m not sure what made me think of it, but my mind went towards my backpack and the secrets hidden within. I forced my mind to think about any homework left undone. There wasn’t any. Within moments I was once again thinking about the two items locked safely in the hidden zippered compartment of my backpack. Before I knew it, I was standing at the bathroom mirror holding the compact and the lipstick in my hand. I wasn’t in need of the compact, so I turned my attention to the tiny tube and popped the head off the cylinder before twisting the base. Seeing the waxy red substance emerge made me smile in remembrance. I held the tube steadily in my right hand and thought about what to do next.
Sam thought I’d applied the substance expertly, but that merely told of her total ignorance of the subject matter. I stood there staring at my face in the mirror. Without thinking I raised the tube towards my face. I puckered my lips almost unconsciously as I applied the creamy, sweet smelling substance to my lips. Feelings of shame and pride assaulted me simultaneously. I stared at myself head on. Hair cascading around my face, bits of gold attached to my ear lobes, and bright ruby red color saturating my lips. I did indeed look "pretty." What’s more, I liked the look. I posed in the mirror seductively and then was overtaken by feelings of shame. I sat down on the commode and removed several wads of toilet paper from the roll. I don’t think I’d ever felt more confused in my life. I began violently wiping my lips with the paper. The gobs of red paint on the tissue remnants told me that it was indeed coming off successfully. Having finished the job, I threw the now red streaked bits into the bowl. I sat there for a few moments trying to figure out just what was happening to my life. Exhaustion overtook me soon enough. I flushed and inspected my face in the mirror. There were still a few traces of red stuck in the crevices of my lips and I just couldn’t force myself to remove them.
I make my way back to my room and removed a clean pair of PJs from the dresser. I had placed them there only hours earlier. I grabbed them in both hands and held them up to my face, inhaling their fragrance. I buried my head in the soft fabric and almost began crying again. Sternly, I admonished myself. That’s enough Joan, I thought. I turned out the light, made my way under the covers and was asleep within seconds.
It seemed like only seconds later that the alarm was sounding reminding me that this was a school day. I thought about telling Mom that I was sick and could I please just spend the day in bed. This would raise all types of questions about my "illness" and I decided in the end that it would be easier to go to school. I sighed, got up and made my way into the bathroom. Still feeling exhausted, I sat on the bowl as I relieved myself. This is the way that girls go, isn’t it. I thought? I almost stopped myself midstream to stand and "pee like a man." Even I couldn’t resist laughing at my insane thoughts. I finished up and jumped into the shower without adjusting the water temperature first. Big mistake: I must have jumped three feet as the icy water struck me. It was only moments before the hot water kicked in and I luxuriated in the warmth of the drops making sure to scrub my face properly thereby removing any traces of lipstick.
Staring at myself in my bedroom mirror as I toweled off, I thought about the day ahead. Donning a par of khaki pants I carefully considered what "top" to put on. The light green striped one, I decided at last. I began wondering to myself as I did up the buttons. Usually, I’d grab whatever I reached first and put it on. And what was with this "top" business? It was a shirt, plain and simple. I put my lipstick and compact back in the secret compartment and made my way downstairs for a quick bite before heading out the door. Dad had left for work early again and Mom was on the phone as I made my escape.
I stood outside for a few minutes. There was no sign of Sam. Should I go and knock on her door, I wondered? I didn’t want to start the day off on the wrong foot and finally found myself ringing Aunt Alice’s door bell. "John, what are you doing here?" she asked me.
"Isn’t Sam going to school today?" I asked.
"Why yes she is dear, but she left some time ago." I thanked her and apologized for bothering her so early in the morning and quickly made my way down the street. Tears began flowing down my cheeks as I continued on to school. I thought about going home or simply not showing up at all but I knew there’d be hell to pay. A thousand thoughts swam through my head as I kept walking. The bell rang as I arrived and a swarm of kids made their way towards the entrance. I searched the crowd quickly but saw no sign of Sam as I made my way to home room. I couldn’t remember feeling sadder in my life as I took my seat and waited for Mrs. Pembroke to take attendance. The room was surprisingly quiet, but then again, it was a Tuesday. Energy levels always seemed low on Tuesdays. I sat at my desk and stared silently out the window waiting for the bell to ring. It took forever but at last it did ring and we were on our way to first period. Mrs. Stratford, as she always did, waited until the last student had entered the room before closing the door behind her.
Mrs. S. surveyed the class from the front of the room and commented "I see Pete Wilkins isn’t in today. No wonder after his performance on the test yesterday,. You know what they say about those who fail history, don’t you class?" That was a sad. rhetorical attempt at humor, but still she continued "They are doomed to repeat it!" A chorus of groans filled the room.
"Yes Darla?" she replied.
"I was wondering whether you were finished grading our tests yet?" she asked.
The teacher smiled at her and said "Why yes, Darla, I have. There were quite a few surprises among the papers but you know I never give out grades until I have finished grading all five sections." Darla Raspberry, I thought to myself. Little miss goody two shoes. Some kids used to tease her about her names. Yes, her first AND last name. "Marla Gooseberry" some of the kids called her. Darla never got upset though. She thought they were laughing "with" her. Besides, I thought, you had to feel sorry for anyone with the last name of a piece of fruit.
The rest of the period passed uneventfully as did the rest of the morning. Soon the lunch bell sounded and we made our way to the cafeteria. I’d been lost in such a fog this
morning that I forgot to make my lunch. There was no lunch money for me, I could either bring my food or spend my allowance. Needless to say, I rarely bought my lunch. I stood in the queue waiting for my chance at the putrid offerings. It always amazed me how they could screw up something as easy as lunch so badly. These must have been the top graduates from a generation ago operating the cafeteria, I laughed to myself. Seeing nothing appealing, I settled for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and container of milk. My dwindling funds took a $1.50 hit for that garbage. Now came the hard part.
I really didn’t want to see Jim or Billy. Sam was another story entirely. I made my way towards our table and stopped dead in my tracks. There along with Bill, Jim, and Sam was Duncan Smythe. They were all sitting there laughing and having a grand old time. For a moment I thought about emptying my tray in the trash bin and hiding out in the boys room till lunch was over. I made a quick survey of the room and noticed only one table with an empty seat. Technically, they all had empty seats. Each table was designed for six, but no table was ever occupied by more than four students. I walked over to the table and said "Excuse me, mind if I sit here?"
Sarah Miles looked up at me and said, "Go away, can’t you see we’re talking?"
Darla and Sally were also seated there and Darla said "Hey Sarah, be nice. John has to sit somewhere. Can’t you see his seat’s been taken?" Sarah looked over and noticed Duncan occupying my usual chair.
"All right John, you can sit here but only for today." Having won a small victory, Darla beckoned me to take my place.
"Thanks" I mumbled in appreciation to no one in particular. They began talking about the history test yesterday. All three of them were in the same class as me.
"What do you think Mrs. Stratford meant by saying there were some surprises?" Darla asked the three of us.
Sally and Sarah shrugged their shoulders and feeling the need to participate in the conversation I replied "Well, I’m sure you did the best Darla as always, but I think I did pretty good too."
"You John?" She laughed. I wasn’t known for my intellectual prowess and at length I looked at her slyly and joined her in laughter. Neither Sally nor Sarah commented at all. They knew they’d passed and that’s all they cared about. Darla went out of her way to include me in the conversation and for that I was grateful. I ate my sandwich, drank my milk and began getting up to make my exit. "John" Darla said "you can eat with us anytime." I smiled at her as I returned my tray and without looking back at my former table, made my way to physical education class.
Mr. Stratford, Mrs. Stratford’s husband was our gym teacher. We changed in the locker rooms and headed into the gym waiting for attendance to be taken. That completed we were led through a series of calisthenics before we knew what was in store for the day. Dodge ball was the game and I was ready to play. The sides were chosen and I moved back to the line ready to play. The whistle sounded and we ran towards center court to grab the balls. The balls were similar to soccer balls and the object of the game was to hit someone without them catching it. If it hit them and then hit the ground, they were out. If they caught it, you were out. I felt an extra surge of adrenaline running through me and knew no one was going to catch my offering. I made it to center court first, picked up the ball and eyed my target. Yes, it was Billy. You were never supposed to throw a ball at someone’s head, but mistakes happened. I threw the ball with all my might and Billy collapsed like a sack of potatoes. The game stopped. Everyone ran to Billy’s aid. I stood there without moving and examined the laces on my sneakers.
Finally, Billy got up and was escorted off the court. "Mr. Johnson!" The coach screamed, "My office right now!" The teams started laughing and making cat calls as I slowly made my way to Mr. Stratford’s tiny office. He went in before me and walked around his desk and sat down. I made a move for the chair on my side and was informed that I hadn’t been told to sit. "You, did that on purpose, didn’t you John?" he asked. I stood there not sure how to respond. I knew I meant to hit Billy and hit him specifically, but honestly, I don’t think I intended to hit him in the head. "Is everything OK between you and Billy?" he asked. Coach was concerned about his starting third baseman and the upcoming game on Saturday.
"Yes coach" I replied "Everything’s fine."
"I don’t think you should play anymore today John, but you’re not getting off that easy." I found myself running laps around the gym for the last twenty minutes of class. Each time I rounded the corner with Billy and his friends, they would break out in jeers.
At last the class ended and we hit the lockers to change for our next class. No one said anything to me and if they had I’d have probably wound up in the principal’s office on charges of insanity. I made my way to Mr. Benson’s science class. I hated science, but did my best to pay attention. We were studying the earth’s strata. I couldn’t think of a better cure for insomnia. Just before the final bell sounded, Mr. Benson informed us that our final test of the year would be on Friday. That gave me three days to get this nonsense in my head and a lifetime to forget about it. The bell rang and I made my way for my locker. I carefully selected the texts I’d need and made my way for the exit. I got outside and by force of habit found myself waiting there for Sam. When she didn’t arrive after a few minutes, I began the lonely trek home.
Everything seemed so damned bleak. How could someone tell you they loved you one minute and the next treat you like a nonentity? I desperately wanted to talk to my friend. I found myself counting the cracks in the pavement on the way home as a way to occupy my mind. I was up to 128 when I arrived at my front door. I stood outside the door for a moment trying to calm down before I went in and announced my presence. I was determined that Mom not notice just how upset I was. "Mom, I’m home!" I shouted upon entering.
"John, you’re early" she said.
"Yes, well I walked alone and guess I was walking a little faster than usual."
"Well,, good" she said. "You can help move the furniture so I can give the rug a good cleaning."
"Mom, I really have a lot of homework," I tried.
"Oh, well of course dear," she said "but don’t you think you could just help me for a few minutes?" How could I refuse?
For the next half-hour I found myself moving everything that wasn’t nailed down while Mom attempted to engage me in idle chit chat. I wasn’t in the mood and deflected her attempts with brevity. Having moved the last piece out of the way I asked "Can I go now?"
"I suppose," she said. "But I’m going to need your help in an hour or so to put everything back." Great, I thought as I made my way up to my bedroom. I entered and half expected to see teddy sitting atop my pillow. Of course he wasn’t there. I put an album on the stereo in hopes that it would shake me out of my mood. Savage Garden’s "To the moon and back" came on and I found myself lost in the song wondering if the right kind of pilot would come along for me. "John" I head my mother shouting, "it’s for you! Someone named Darla?" her voice asked inquisitively. "Thanks Mom" I said as I reached for the phone.
"Darla" I said, "this is a surprise."
"Hi John" she said hesitantly. " I heard about what happened in gym class and I just wanted to make sure you were all right." Was I all right? No, I definitely wasn’t all right.
"Of course Darla," I replied, "I’m fine. Thanks so much for your concern." I added.
Silence filled the airwaves for a few moments. I wanted to ask her how she’d gotten my phone number, as it wasn’t published. Finally she asked, "I was wondering if you’d like to get together and study for Mr. Benson’s test tomorrow evening?"
"That would be great" I replied all the while feeling like I was cheating on Sam and not feeling good about it.
"Tomorrow evening at 7:00 PM, my house" she added before I could ask her where and when. I knew the Raspberries lived around here somewhere but wasn’t exactly sure where. Darla provided me with her address. I had probably walked past her house a thousand times never knowing that she lived there. "Would you like to walk with me to school tomorrow morning?" she asked before I could hang up. Her house was three blocks away and only one block out of my way.
Not wanting to spend the walk in the morning counting cracks in the sidewalk I smiled and said "That too would be great! I’ll see you at 7:40, if that’s OK? She replied that would be perfect and we said our goodbyes. By the time our conversation ended "Santa Monica" was playing softly in the background. I wasn’t sure why, but this was my favorite song on the album and I found myself singing along…"but on the telephone line I am anyone, I am anything I want to be…" Damn, such a pretty song. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again and all of a sudden I was sitting there with a huge grin on my face.
Not wanting to appear the total idiot, I decided I’d better bone up on the layers of the earth. When it came to science I was an excellent chef. "John" my mother shouted "Get down here now" What now I wondered as I made my way down the stairs. "Come on, we have to get this room back in order." As we began moving pieces about Mom asked me just who this "Darla" person was. I told her and before I could finish she was asking me about Sam.
"Sam, what about Sam?"
"Well, I thought she was your best friend?" Mom asked honestly.
"Darla and I are just studying for a test. Speaking of which, I won’t be able to eat dinner with you and Dad tomorrow evening. Darla and I are studying together tomorrow evening at her house. They only live a few blocks away and I have to be there by 7 PM. If that’s all right?"
"I guess it’s OK" Mom replied "But I’m going to need her full name and phone number before you go running over there."
"Her full name is Darla Raspberry and I don’t know her phone number" I informed her.
"Raspberry?" Mom started laughing "Oh My!" she laughed again and made her way into the kitchen. She returned quickly carrying the phone book and asked me if Darla lived on Mountain Ave.?
"Yes, Mom, that’s her" I answered.
"Well, I’m just going to have to call Mrs. Raspberry and make sure this is all right" she informed me.
"MOM, YOU CAN’T DO THAT!" I screamed. "Isn’t it enough to know where I’m going to be and who I’m going to be with? I am going there to study for a test! I’ll be home by 10 PM at the latest."
"You’ll be home by 9:30 young man" she informed me. I said OK figuring I could stretch it out to 10 by calling her from Darla’s house tomorrow evening.
"Can I get back to my studying?" I asked her.
"Go!" was all she replied.
Back up in my room I began twisting my earrings. I just realized that I hadn’t thought abut them all day. They stuck a little at first but then began spinning easily. I hoped that I hadn’t messed anything up. The next thing I knew I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror admiring my ruby red lips and again twisting my earrings. What was wrong with me I wondered? Why was I doing this, I wondered, again as I posed as prettily as I could in the mirror in front of me. Mirror mirror on the wall I thought and began giggling. Something was not quite right in my head, but I wasn’t hurting anybody I reasoned and removed the lipstick and washed my face.
A short time later Mom shouted up to me again. . "John, dinner’s ready!"
"I’ll be right there" A last look at my face to make sure nothing was amiss, I made my way downstairs. As I walked down I realized that the tube of lipstick was in my pocket. Although it didn’t show at all, just knowing it was there made me nervous. "What’s for dinner?" I asked before my father could.
"Yes darling, what’s for dinner?" Dad asked echoing my sentiments.
"Tonight we are having steak!" Mom announced. Steak! My favorite!
"and?" Dad asked…
"and French Fries" Mom announced. Wow I thought. It may sound silly but steak and french fries was a rarity in our household. No, it wasn’t about the money, it was just that Mom was not that fond of beef and preferred a healthier diet. Yeah, like pork chops I laughed to myself shaking my head. Well, this was her reasoning, not mine. The caper was fresh corn on the cob. I was salivating in anticipation. I grabbed the A1 sauce for Dad and the ketchup for myself and sat down to eat.
"So, how was your day John?" Dad asked.
"It was all right, I guess" I replied remembering the horrible way it started out.
"Oh?" said Mom "Well Alice called me this morning and said you’d been over looking for Sam. It seems she ditched you?" Mom asked with genuine concern in her voice.
"I think she had to be at school early today." I lied, wondering why Mom had waited till now to spring this information on me.
"Everything all right with your classes then?" he asked in an attempt to show genuine concern. I smiled and told him everything was fine and told him about my plans to study with Darla tomorrow night. "That’s my boy," he smiled and Mom just shook her head in disbelief. I did my best to concentrate on my food. Hell, all I’d eaten was that dreadful peanut butter sandwich. I seemed to be losing weight unintentionally as my pants felt a bit loose around my waist. As was their usual pattern, Mom and Dad became engaged in conversation and I continued devouring my dinner. I still had a bit of steak left when I thought of Shandy. Feeling sorry and a bit guilty, I left a bit of steak on my plate.
I asked Mom if I could be excused and she repeated last night’s performance. "Let me see your plate" she asked. It was clean but for the few bits of meat remaining. "You haven’t finished your dinner" she informed me.
"But Mom, I’m stuffed. You don’t want me to get sick do you? Besides, Shandy really loves steak and I thought I’d save a bit for her." My case having been made, I stood up and made my way over to Shandy’s bowl. She was not allowed in the house during dinnertime. I scraped the few bits of meat in and made my way to the sink. While Mom and Dad continued talking and eating I began cleaning up. I was done with the oven racks by the time they finished eating and cleared their plates away for them.
"What, no dessert?" my father asked.
"You don’t need any dessert," my mother replied pointing at Dad’s ever expanding waistline.
My job done, I let the dog in and made my way up to my room to continue studying. I sat at my desk for a few minutes wondering what it was going to be like studying with Darla. I’d never studied with anyone else before, not even Sam. Sam, I thought. What was she doing right now? Did she miss me? Was she taking good care of teddy? Did she miss me? I so wanted to call her, but summoned all my resolve and in the end, I didn’t dial her number. In some strange way, I was proud of myself for not caving in, calling her, and begging forgiveness as I’m (almost) sure she expected. I actually did manage to get some studying done, surprising even myself. At last, I made my way to the bathroom, twisted my earrings, brushed my teeth, and made a point of standing as I relieved myself before heading back to my room to put on some fresh pajamas and going to say goodnight to Mom and Dad. I’m not sure why but as I bade her goodnight Mom pulled me close, hugged me, told me she loved me, and also informed me that she would always be there for me, no matter what. I wondered just what prompted that display, but she kissed me gently on the forehead and told me to sleep well before I could formulate a coherent thought.
Back upstairs in my bedroom I adjusted my clock to awaken me at 6:50 instead of the usual 7:00 AM. I wanted to make sure I had enough time to make my lunch and be at Darla’s by 7:40. I climbed into bed wishing that I still had teddy to hug as I drifted off. I almost considered finding some time to head to the boardwalk in an attempt to win another "teddy," but I knew in my heart it wouldn’t be the same…. I turned off my light and within nanoseconds I was sleeping soundly……………..
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