LAST WEEK I did an oral report on waterfowl for science class. Geese and ducks are grazers and need short green grass for food. That was the first sentence. I got a B-minus, which pretty much sums up my life. A little better than average but nothing special. I learned that geese mate for life but not ducks. In the duck world there is a lot of weirdo hanky-panky stuff like corkscrew penises and forced copulation, which is basically duck rape, and even though everyone else in class laughed at that line, I didn’t think it was funny at all.
REAL HUMAN BEING SEX, that’s even more confusing. On that subject I know only three things. I know that my friend Tina and I used to play model. We’d lock the bathroom door and one of us would pose with our shirt pulled up and our pants pulled down while the other took fake pictures with an invisible camera. We’d act like we thought naked adult girls were supposed to act, which is like Playboy models: our chests arched up and shoulders thrown back. When one of us was finished posing, we’d switch. My pulse would race each time, so I knew what we were doing was wrong but I didn’t exactly know why. Afterwards, alone in my room, I’d bite my nails down to the quick.
I also know about kissing French. I’d done that with Eric Bingham in a closet at a party this summer. It was sort of gross and my tongue felt like a piece of meat that I was holding in my mouth at the same time I was trying to kiss someone and it made the kissing almost impossible. Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.
The last thing I know is that my boobs are getting big—bigger faster than other boobs around me, like the boobs themselves are aware of some competition I know nothing about. Amanda Klute is a grade above me and she has big boobs and all of us at Huntley Hills Middle School, the students, the teachers, even the janitor, we all know Amanda Klute has had sex already and her big boobs are like an advertisement for more. It’s obvious my own big boobs mean trouble.
THE ONLY DECENT way to get out of class in middle school is to visit the guidance counselor’s office. Before I stopped going, I used to see Miss Olson once a week, which was as often as I could go without people suspecting I had real problems. I liked spending time in her office. It was different than every other part of the school. She had green spindly plants in ceramic pots sitting on top of the orange radiator under a long dirty window and it always smelled like peppermint gum. I liked being in there but I never told her much of anything. I never told her that I spent a lot of time imagining all the people who lived before me, the cavemen and Spanish explorers and families in covered wagons and cowboys and Indians and Goldrushers and hippies and disco-freaks and the yuppies, the whole of human history, imagining that all of them had probably had a lot of sex, and how that’s so many people that it seemed likely to me there was no patch of land on this earth, except maybe parts of Mt. Everest and Antarctica, that hadn’t been used by someone at some point to have sex with somebody else.
I never told Miss Olson about how I’d stopped showering or about my mom telling me I was starting to smell. I never told her that I thought about Mr. Casals, the dad of the two kids I babysit for, that I thought about my tongue in his mouth because maybe a man knew how to kiss without it being so gross and meat-like.
THERE IS a boy my age who likes me. His name is Glen. He has a set of monster braces and plays the clarinet in band, not a great combination. I know he likes me because one time the phone rang when I was just home from school. I was listening to the microwave make my popcorn.
When I picked up, the phone said, “Sylvie. This is Glen Bell.”
There was nothing to say so I didn’t say anything back. But then he didn’t say anything either. So finally I said something.
I said, “What do you want?”
That’s when he started singing that Stevie Wonder song. He sang, “I just called to say I love you.” It was beyond embarrassing. I thought I might die, right there, listening to Glen sing Stevie over the popping of microwave popcorn. He sang, “I just called to say how much I care.”
I hung up.
I’D FIRST MET Glen Bell a few weeks earlier at Mr. Pomfrey’s annual spring student piano recital. I was playing Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 No. 3. Just that first page and a half through the main section to the first repeat and back again to the loud-quiet-big-deal ending. In my sheet music there are pencil marks all over in my seesaw handwriting saying, Practice this trouble area! Saying, For trill — 2 notes to every eighth. Saying, to left hand, Faster! Keep up!
The tricky thing about the piece is that both hands start out in the treble clef for a bunch of bars and the two hands are doing totally different things but have to keep time with each other. The left hand is like a metronome and the right hand is the one that gets to do all the fun stuff but can’t fall behind.
Mr. Pomfrey teaches piano out of his house a few blocks from school. I walk there every Thursday afternoon, out of the Huntley Hills parking lot, past the first stop sign, over the wood bridge that crosses the creek, around the bend in the road and then up the steep driveway. During lessons he keeps an ashtray on the corner of the big grand piano so he can put down his always-burning cigarette in order to clap his hands to help remind me to keep time.
“BA-ba-BA-ba-BA-ba-BA,” he says. “Four-four, Sylvie. This is not a waltz.” His face is a mess of wrinkles and eyebrows and hairs sprouting from his pointy nose and these muddy brown spots he says are from the sun.
At the recital Glen Bell’s little brother was playing Go Tell Aunt Rhody and Lightly Row—the worst most boring songs ever but everyone has to play them that first year and then everyone in the audience claps like it’s the performance of a lifetime even though all us older students have heard those songs a thousand times.
After the recital when all the kids were milling around the refreshment table in their uncomfortable dress clothes (Meaning, Mr. Pomfrey says, anything but jeans) this kid with a face full of metal and dark blue eyes came up to me. I recognized him as one of the eighth grade boys I didn’t know from school.
“I’m Glen Bell,” he said. “Nice chops.” He offered me his hand to shake. I didn’t shake it. He was obviously a weirdo. “I should know,” he said. “I’m a musician too.”
We both stared at the refreshment table and I reached for one of the chocolate chip cookies on the dessert tray but my mom saw from where she was across the room talking to Mrs. Pomfrey and stared her eyes into mine like I’m watching you, so I moved my hand over to the carrot and celery stick tray and grabbed a few of those instead.
Glen said, “I play clarinet.” He was wearing a suit and tie which seemed like overdoing it to me since he wasn’t even playing in the recital, his brother was.
I said, “I know. You’re in band.” My mom’s back was turned for a second so I grabbed for a cracker with cheese whiz on top.
“Yeah, jazz band too,” he said. “You ever seen us?”
I didn’t want to talk with cracker in my mouth so I shook my head no, but of course I’d seen them. We were all forced to sit through a set of their squawking every time we had an all-school assembly before winter and summer breaks. As if band isn’t bad enough, a kid’s got to go and further muck up his prospects at life by playing in the school jazz band, a group with the unfortunate name of Take the H Train, which I think was supposed to be some kind of reference to the H in Huntley Hills but really, everyone said, just seemed like encouragement to use heroin.
“We have a piano at our house, for my brother,” Glen said.
“Yeah,” I said. “We have one too.” It was like talking to a houseplant. “That’s how I practice.”
“No,” he said. “I mean you could come over sometime and you could play piano and I could play clarinet.” His hand reached across the refreshment table and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie and handed it to me. “You’re good enough. I don’t always like to play with other people because most people can’t keep up with me. But we could really, you know, jam.”
When I didn’t say anything he said, “I think we’d make beautiful music together.”
When I didn’t say anything he said, “That was supposed to be a joke. Anyway, bye.”
After Glen walked off and I finished almost dying I somehow got stuck talking to Laura Schmeigel’s grandfather who smelled like menthol rub and I kept trying to figure how to eat that chocolate chip cookie without my mom seeing.
Later at home I thought about my tongue in Glen Bell’s mouth. I wasn’t sure how well it would fit in there with all that metal or if maybe my lips would get all cut up. All I knew was that everything would be dark because my eyes would be closed because that’s how people kiss so I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all which doesn’t make any sense. If I ever get my tongue into someone else’s mouth again I’m going to keep my eyes open to see what the whole deal looks like.
AFTER MY mom and dad got divorced my dad moved to San Diego, which is only a six-hour car ride, my mom keeps saying, but seems to me about a million miles away. He has an apartment with a pull-out sofa all ready for me when I come to visit and there’s a balcony that “If you stand on your tiptoes,” he wrote once in a postcard, “you can see the ocean.”
I get postcards from my dad every week. He’s always asking me to write back, but that seems so weird—to write to your own dad to tell him about your life that he should just know about because he should be living with you because he’s your dad. He wouldn’t want the postcards I would send anyway. He doesn’t want to know about mom working a lot and her being so tired she drinks wine and doesn’t remember stuff we talked about the next morning. He doesn’t want to know about me wanting my tongue down Glen Bell’s throat or wishing Mr. Casals would walk me home and tell me I look pretty.
I WAS WATCHING MTV when Glen called the second time.
When the phone rang, I answered it.
Glen said, “It’s Glen Bell.”
I didn’t say anything.
Glen said, “Do you want to go on a date with me?”
I said, “I’m not allowed to date.”
Glen said, “What about a movie? That’s not a date.”
I said, “That’s a date.”
Glen said, “Not really. It’s more just a movie.”
I said, “Maybe. Would we have to be alone?”
Glen said, “I guess not. I could bring my little brother.”
On the television, a video I’d seen a thousand times was playing: a shirtless guy was dancing around a snowy forest.
I said, “Okay. But don’t tell my mom.”
He said, “I won’t.”
MY MOM PULLED the accordion nozzle out from a box of wine, me and her in the kitchen. Her clothes were always tired layers of crumpled fabric by the end of each day, her blouse untucked from the skirt of her suit, her matching blazer hung over the arms of a kitchen chair. It was late, way past dark, and I hadn’t yet microwaved a frozen Lean Cuisine for dinner. My arm was on the open freezer door and I was letting all the cold air out. I was trying to decide between Chicken Cordon Bleu or Beef Lasagna. What I wanted was a cheeseburger and onion rings and fries but my mom says we can’t eat like that because our genes make it easy for women in our family to be fat.
“Can I go to a movie this weekend?” I asked.
“With whom?” Her lips curled around the m in whom. Her wine glass rang as she set it on the kitchen counter.
“With a friend. Two friends. The Bells.” Technically this was not a lie.
She was mid-way through the box of wine so when she spoke it was with her eyes half-closed and her lips half-smiled.
She said, “I don’t know the Bells. Who are the Bells?” Her speech was slow. She was very tired and a little drunk. Or vice versa.
“They’re from Mr. Pomfrey’s. They were at the recital.”
“Those sisters who played the duet?” she said. “Oh, weren’t they wonderful? Why don’t you ever play anything like that?”
“I don’t have a sister,” I said.
My hand reached for the box of Beef Lasagna. “So can I go?”
When she didn’t answer I saw that she’d gone back to falling asleep while reading a magazine while watching TV.
Technically this wasn’t a no.
I HEARD my mom on the phone with my dad. They were planning my trip to see him when school’s out for summer in a few weeks. Well, you can’t let her eat whatever she wants. You know how she puts on weight. I know you’re her father. I know that. Well, that’s your choice. It’s none of your business. I’m not answering that. When they were done she called me to the phone from my room, saying, “Your father wants to talk to you.” The word father out of her mouth like spitting out a bug.
I WAS SUPPOSED to meet Glen Bell outside by the ticket booth at one o’clock. All week I kept thinking I’d get up the nerve to tell my mom I had a date that wasn’t really a date that was just a movie but I knew she’d say no so I never said anything. Then somehow it was one fifteen and my mom was driving me to the nursery so she could buy dirt for some new project she had going in the backyard and I realized I’d just stood up the only boy who’d ever asked me out. Why adults pay perfectly good money for dirt is one of those things I will never understand.
“Soil,” she said. “Not dirt.”
“It’s dirt,” I said. “It’s free. It’s everywhere.”
I pictured Glen Bell with his little brother waiting at the movie theater. How long would he wait? Would they go to the movie without me? Would he just go home? I got an icky feeling in my stomach. I thought about opening the passenger door of the car when my mom stopped at a stoplight and then jumping out and running to the movie theater, but I’m kind of a slow runner. My mom would’ve definitely caught up to me in her car before I made it very far. Plus my most defining trait is that I’m not very brave, so I never would have done it anyway. If I were more brave maybe I would’ve just told my mom the truth and demanded she allow me to meet Glen for a movie. If I were more brave maybe I would’ve told my mom I knew Dad left because she told him to. That I knew she made the choice for all of us.
THE LAST TIME I saw Miss Olson, she basically told me that I smelled. She smiled at me from behind her desk in front of the orange radiator with the spindly plants, everything smelling like peppermint gum. She said the growing body goes through a lot of changes and “I’m sure you’ve noticed that as a body changes, its smells change too.”
Even though I knew then that I hated her and would never talk to her again, I knew it was true. I’d noticed it: I smelled different. Humid. Musty. Like I needed to be put out on a clothesline to dry.
I sat across from her in a beige plastic chair and nodded like she was imparting the wisdom of the centuries to me, but I would never tell her the truth because the truth was that I just got bored with it. The same thing everyday. Soap all over my body. That orange bar of Dial on my washcloth. And how it smelled like after-shave or something, that soap. Like Dad. Also because gross stuff was happening. Hair was starting to grow in my armpits. My mom was urging me to shave my legs. I was obviously becoming a man. Or an ape. No, I wasn’t about to tell Miss Olson anything at all.
WHEN MY PARENTS split up it was a good thing I saw it coming because neither of them ever bothered to talk to me about it. They figured that when dad didn’t come home from his business meeting and started writing me postcards about his new apartment I’d put together the fact that we weren’t really a family anymore.
A few months after he was gone, my mom got all I am woman hear me roar and changed her name back to what it was before she was married. She said it was fine for me to keep dad’s name so now her name is different from mine. If our two names were next to each other on a piece of paper, there’d be no way to know that she was my mother and I was her daughter. It would just look like two totally different people’s names coincidentally near each other. The names of two strangers.
I CALLED Glen the day after I stood him up.
I said, “Are you mad?”
He said, “I’m mad.”
I said, “I’m sorry. I told you I couldn’t go on a date.”
He said, “I’m never talking to you again.”
A bird with greenish black shiny feathers flew up to the feeder my mom had hanging from an eave outside the kitchen window. It pecked its bird head into the food opening a few times and then flew away.
“This is kind of a weird question,” I said. “Do you take showers or baths?”
“I like where this is going,” he said.
“Shut up,” I said. “I told you it was weird.”
“Usually showers. Sometimes baths,” he said. “Why?”
On the other side of the window the bird flew back and brought a friend with him this time. Two of them pecking their beaks into the feeder, some seeds falling from their mouths, their heads quick swiveling back and forth as they chewed.
I said, “I haven’t really felt much like showering lately.”
“So you’re more into baths?” he said.
“No, I haven’t really felt like taking those either.”
IF I EVER wrote a postcard to Glen Bell I’d write: “Dear Glen, It’s okay if you want to touch my boobs. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry if I smell bad. You should know I might be turning into a man.
I’M NOT SURE what happened. I know that one time I was doing homework in the kitchen and I watched my mom put on her apron, chop vegetables and cook a roast, shout out that dinner was ready, put the veggies and roast onto three plates, hand one to me and one to my dad, take her apron off, sit down at her place at the table, take a sip of wine, then stand up, take dad’s plate from him as he was cutting the meat, and scrape every bit of his food into the sink without ever saying a word until he said her name once. Clara. Then she screamed at him. Screamed jackass and bastard and arrogant. I took my plate into the den and turned on the television loud. We never ate at the kitchen table again. Even now that dad’s gone, we still don’t. I eat in front of an open book on the floor of the den. Mom eats standing up in the kitchen in front of the TV.
IF I EVER wrote a postcard to my mom I would write: “Dear Mom, I don’t like it here anymore. I hate eating frozen diet food. When I visit Dad, first thing, I’m going to get a cheeseburger and onion rings. I’m going to dip the onion rings in mayonnaise. Love, Sylvie.”
I CALLED Glen.
“What’s it like having a brother?” I said.
“Annoying,” he said.
“No, really,” I said.
“It is. It’s annoying.”
“But he’s always around, right?” I said.
“Oh my god, yes. He’s always around,” he said. “He was even around on the date I was supposed to take you on.”
“You said it wasn’t a date,” I said. “I feel really bad about that.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You should.”
When I didn’t say anything he said, “What are you doing right now?”
I was watching TV with the sound off. It was a commercial for chips.
“Nothing,” I said.
“It must be so awesome being the only one,” he said.
On the TV, cheesy nacho chips danced their way out of a chip bag into a kid’s mouth.
“I guess so,” I said.
I heard far off piano music coming through the phone from Glen’s side.
“Do you only like me because of my boobs?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said.
Even if Glen really liked me it was easy to see how it would be. He’d want to touch my boobs and then he’d want to have sex with me and then he’d tell his friends and they’d want to touch my boobs and then I’d be one of those girls whose boobs were touched and had sex with boys, and I’d never know if anyone really liked me, me, ever again.
“Do you think my parents will ever get back together?” I said.
“Sylvie,” he said.
“Tell me,” I said.
On TV, the commercials were over and a video played, the sound still off.
“No,” he said. “That doesn’t really happen.”
“Glen Bell,” I said.
“Yes?” he said.
A woman in a tight dress and super high heels stood in place and moved her hips.
Margaret Malone’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink and elsewhere. Her story collection, PEOPLE LIKE YOU, is forthcoming from Atelier26 Books in November 2015.