Posted by: patti | September 4, 2009

Starting School, Part 1 (Fiction Friday)

Monday, September 14, 1987.

Mom slaps my hand away from the radio.  She doesn’t have to take her eyes off the road to keep me from changing the station.  Guess she likes Depeche Mode more than I do.

I cross my arms and slump in the seat.  I didn’t even want her to drive me.  I wanted to take the bus, but Mom insisted.  She and Matt are both buzzing with impatience to get me out of the car.   They can’t wait to get rid of me so they can start their day together.  Mom tried to say it so I wouldn’t feel left out, but I do, I want the museum and then lunch with Dad and then whatever there’s time left to do.  I’m the one who loves the city, not Matt.  And she’s never taken me in for a day in the city, just us.

And I don’t want to go to Orientation.  What can anyone possibly teach me about going to high school?  My test scores were good enough to get in—shouldn’t I know how to go to school?

Mom stops the car across the street from the big black gates, directly across from the blue and gold sign:  The Holy Name Academy, College Preparatory School for Girls, Founded 1936.  I’ve only been here once before, for Open House, and I don’t remember the building being this big.  It looks like a castle.  All it needs is a moat.

I’m going to get lost here.

Mom leans forward against the steering wheel to peer into the side mirror at the traffic coming up the hill.  I look at the houses around the school, big, pretty Tudors with pink flowers and green green lawns.  This is a much better neighborhood than ours.  Mom has reminded me a few times this summer that Donald Trump grew up in Jamaica Estates—she wants me to stay on the school side of Hillside Avenue.  I’m starting to see why.

“I’ll be here at two.  Don’t keep me waiting,” she says now.


“And, Sarah, it wouldn’t kill you to try and make a friend.  Smile at someone.”

Right.  Just like that.  “Okay.”

“Just be yourself.  I’ll meet you right here, okay?  Two o’clock.”  She smiles at me.

I try to smile back.  “Okay.”

“Have a good time, honey.”

I pick at a seam on my pants.  I shouldn’t have worn these.  They’re too pink.  The girls heading up the hill and into the gate are all wearing brown and black and khaki pants.  The instructions said no jeans, but it didn’t say to dress like a Gap ad.  I just want my uniform.

“I don’t want to go,” I say, trying hard not to whine.

Mom clicks off the radio.  “I know.”  She gropes under her seat for her handbag.

“Here.  Use this to take notes today.”  She’s holding out a pen, the silver Cross pen Dad gave her when she finished her Master’s.

It’s cold in my fingers.  I twist it open and shut.  “Thanks, Mom.”

I still don’t want to go.

She sighs.  “Sarah, just relax. Don’t be so sensitive.”

I swallow my own sigh.  How can I be myself and not be so sensitive?

At the gate, I turn to wave to Mom, but the car is already gone.  I follow the instructions on my paper: up the stairs, across the courtyard, through heavy brown metal doors, turn right into the auditorium.  A bell rings as I am crossing the courtyard.

The hallway opens into an enormous, bright atrium trimmed with rough stone and polished marble.  There are worn scatter rugs on the brick-colored stone floor.  A huge bulletin board fills one wall, with all kinds of fliers fluttering under a blue and gold banner that shouts “Welcome New Freshmen!”

As opposed to Old Freshmen?

I cross the atrium to look at the bulletin board, not ready to go into the auditorium yet.  There’s a schedule of tryouts for softball, basketball, volleyball, swimming.  There’s Glee Club.  Drama Club.  Math Team.  Speech Team.  Debate Team.  Chess Club.  A club for every language, even Latin.  There’s a call for writers for the school newspaper.  There’s an invitation to join the yearbook staff.  I touch the papers to make sure they are real.

I can be anything I want here.  I feel lighter.  I feel like my pants maybe are the right pink, I feel like doing a little dance, and I do, a little shuffle-shuffle-kick toward the auditorium.

I stop at the door and hold on to the wood frame.  The auditorium is maybe the biggest room I’ve ever been in.  It’s like a cathedral—the ceiling has the same ribs and wooden beams as St. Patrick’s in the city.  Rows and rows of seats march down a sloped marble floor to an emerald-curtained stage.  The same material hangs on the huge windows.  It looks soft but official, regal somehow.

The information packet I got says I’m about to enter Holy Name’s largest Freshman class ever, 195 girls.  If all of us are here, we don’t come close to filling this auditorium.

I don’t know where to sit, but I start moving down the aisle.  There are still miles of rows before I reach the other girls, all these girls who will be my new friends.  I resist the urge to do my little dance again.

A woman with grayish hair bounds onto the stage, and something about her, in her denim skirt and ruffled blue blouse, tells me she’s a nun.  She reaches for the microphone near the podium, and I see her large wooden cross, her Birkenstocks and stockings—oh, yeah, she’s a nun.

I sit on the aisle, a few rows from the stage.  The girl next to me is wearing loose khakis and a fuchsia Izod shirt.  Her collar stands straight up, disappearing into her long brown hair.  Her bangs poof out just right, covering her forehead and eyebrows, and her straight straight hair falls down her back, the longest hair I’ve ever seen.  Her hazel eyes seem unnaturally bright in her pale face.

I wonder how she gets her collar to stand up like that, and I’m about to ask when she introduces herself.  “Hi, I’m Tara.”

“I’m Sarah, I mean, Sally,” I say.

Her friendly grin slips, and I realize I’ve already said something weird.  My face gets hot.

“So which is it?”

“Sarah’s my name.  Sally’s my, well, it’s kind of a nickname.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.  They don’t sound anything alike.”

I shrug.  “I know, but my dad says they’re related.”

“Weird.  It’s like me saying ‘My name is Tara, but you can call me Lucy!’”

“No, it’s not!” I open my notebook as if I have something more important to do, but all I do is twist the silver pen open and shut.  I grit my teeth against Mom’s voice in my head, don’t be so sensitive.

“Nice pen,” Tara says.  “I have one just like it.”

“Yeah?  My mom gave this to me, as a, you know, a back-to-school gift.”

“Really?  A pen?”  She looks sorry for me.  “My parents gave me a computer.”

I gape at her.  I’ve only used a computer in the lab at St. Stephen’s.  I had no idea you could have one for your own.

Tara laughs at me, showing her perfect teeth.  “So, what does your dad do?” she asks.


“Yeah, where does he work?”

“Oh.  He’s a lawyer in the city.”

“Mine too!  What firm is he with?”

“He’s not with a firm.  He’s a public defender.”

Tara shifts over in her seat, like she doesn’t want anyone to see us talking.  “Really?  How can you afford to go here?”

I look at my lap.  My pants are too pink, a baby pastel pink, not like the smart bright fuchsia of Tara’s Izod.  I should’ve just worn my uniform.  I should’ve sat somewhere else.

She asks where I live, and when I tell her Sunnyside, it’s clear she doesn’t approve of that, either.  She lives in Jamaica Estates, she tells me.  Of course she does.

“What kind of music do you listen to?” Tara asks, and it feels like she is trying to give me one more chance to be cool.

“All kinds, I guess.”

“Like, what?  What bands?”

“Um, Elton John?”

“Really? Elton John?”

Clearly, I am not cool.

“My mom listens to Elton John,” Tara informs me.

Totally not cool.

“What do you like?” I ask, probably sounding too defensive.

“Oh, you’d hate it,” she says, breezily.

“No, I wouldn’t.”

She hands me her walkman.  “Here, listen.”

Her eyes are still bright and clear, but they’ve gotten wider, like she’s trying not to laugh.

Her walkman is small and shiny, brand new.  She flips the tape over, presses rewind, finds the spot she’s looking for.  She asks if I’m ready, and her eyes are most definitely laughing at me.

I look around the auditorium, hoping the nun came back and will start Orientation now and Tara will have to leave me alone, but the stage is empty.

I take the earphones from Tara, but they are the kind you put right in your ear, and I can’t get them to stay in.  She laughs and puts them in for me.  I smell perfume on her wrists when she reaches around my face, something clean and grassy.  There’s a small scar on her cheek, three tiny lines that disappear into her dimple when she smiles.

She hits play, and a high, sad voice moans in my ears Day after day, I will walk and I will play but the day after today, I will stop and I will start and just as I’m thinking I don’t mind this soft sound at all, guitars start, loud and fast, and his voice hardens Why can’t I get just one kiss Why can’t I get just one kiss, and I’ve never heard anything like this before.  The guitars keep changing, the sound goes up and down, and I look at Tara to see if she’s playing with the volume.

She’s not, but she’s watching me carefully, and I can’t look at her, not when the singer is whining something won’t let me make love to you, and when the voice starts up again, Why can’t I get just one fuck Why can’t I get just one fuck, I jump, and she laughs, exposing her teeth again, and each time he says that word, says fuck, I feel my face get redder.

The song changes again, fast to slow, fast again, faster now, and I want to move with it, but I hold myself really still because Tara is still watching me.

Words to memorize Words hypnotize Words make my mouth exercise Words all fail the magic prize Nothing I can say when I’m in your thighs

I feel like I did when I was in sixth grade, in Health class.  Once I saw on paper how bodies were supposed to fit together, I imagined every body I saw against my own.  But then we moved to a different chapter in Health before I  really understood, before I could figure out what questions I needed answers to.  The teacher changed the subject, just like Mom changes the channel when couples start kissing on TV, and I still don’t know how to fit a body against mine.  Or why I want to know what it feels like.

But the song reminds me of dreams I’ve had, reminds me of wishing all last year that Brian O’Sullivan would kiss me.  The song makes me want to move my mouth, but I don’t know how.  The song makes me want to do something with my hips, but I don’t know what.

A girl moves down the aisle past us, and I like her outfit:  blue floral blouse, long denim skirt, red cowboy boots.  Her dark hair is pulled back in a red banana clip.  She looks older, curvier, than fourteen, and the small bright flowers on her shirt move with her body.  I watch her slide into a row ahead of us and sit.

The song ends abruptly and I pull the thingies out of my ears.  I swallow, not sure what to say, not sure I trust my voice anyway.

“You were so intense!”  Tara is laughing.

“I wanted to hear the words.”  Words to memorize.

“Which words?”

“All of them.”  I want to ask to borrow the tape, I want ask the name of the song, the name of the band.  Mom wouldn’t ask.  Mom would play it cool, would act like she knew everything already.  I don’t know how to do that.  Aunt Sam would ask, and she’d make not knowing seem cooler than knowing.  I don’t know how to do that, either.

“Did you want to get just one fuck?”  Tara is giggling, but there’s something to it I don’t like.

I shrug and feel my face get hotter.  I twist the pen.

“You were totally undressing that girl with your eyes.  Do you want to fuck her?”

“What!  No!”  My face is hot, my hands are shaking, my armpits are cold.

“Are you a lesbo?”  Her voice is the perfect imitation of sincere curiosity.

I know exactly what she means without knowing exactly what it is, and panic rises to fill my throat, choking my “No! No, I’m not!”

Her eyes widen.  “You are!  You’re a lesbian!”  The girls in front of us look around and turn back, giggling, heads together.

Oh God.

“Hey, there’s Kathy!” Tara squeals, and she climbs over me into the aisle and launches a hug at a tiny girl with curly black hair.  They squeal and bounce to seats in an empty row behind the rest of us.

I close my eyes and slide down until my skull catches the back of the chair.  Thank you, Kathy, whoever you are.


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