Authors: Jayne Pupek
Daddy looked at me with a pleased smile. He didn't know how selfish I could be. He reached across the table and wiped the milk from my lips. “Good. Well, let's get ready to go. I need to shave and change my shirt. Why don't you take Tess upstairs? She'll be sharing your room. You can show her where to put her things.”
I nodded and picked up my chick.
The tomato girl followed me upstairs.
“I'll bring Tess's suitcases up in a minute,” Daddy called from downstairs. I heard water running and figured he must be rinsing out his coffee cup or my cereal bowl.
“You won't mind sharing your room with me, will you?” Tess asked.
I shook my head and walked up the last few steps. I didn't know how I felt about sharing my room. It could be fun, like a sleepover, but not if she upset Mama or made Daddy act like a fool.
The small mirror at the end of the hall reflected Tess's pale face and blonde hair. She looked delicate, like a fine lace doily.
If I'd known I was going to have company, I'd have cleaned my room. My dirty clothes spilled over the edge of my laundry basket and onto the floor. My bed was unmade, the covers shoved up against the footboard. Candy wrappers covered the table beside my bed. Atomic FireBalls and Tootsie Rolls filled a jar next to my reading lamp.
I placed my chick on the bed and pulled the yellow bedspread over the sheet, so at least it didn't droop on the floor. As I shoved the candy papers into the wastepaper basket, I felt thankful that Daddy had painted the walls buttercup yellow a few months earlier. With the new gingham curtains Mama sewed for me, my room looked nice even with the mess. Mama wasn't real strict about things like making the bed, picking up clothes, and dusting furniture. I started to apologize, but I decided not to, hoping maybe Tess wouldn't notice the mess if I didn't mention it.
“The colors are really nice,” she said, looking at the yellow walls.
“Daddy painted the room for me.”
“Your daddy is a talented man. I bet there's nothing he can't fix or do.” She said this with so much pride it made me feel proud of my father, too. Tess touched the wall, lightly, almost like a caress. She smiled to herself as if she had a secret.
Just then Daddy walked through the partially opened door. “Making a delivery,” he said as he set two suitcases beside my bed. “I'll leave you girls alone to get to know each other.” He shoved his hands inside his pockets as if he didn't know what to do with them. “I'll go shave.”
Tess stood in the middle of the room and twirled a strand of her hair in her fingers as she watched Daddy leave. I felt like snapping my fingers in front of her face.
Instead, I went into the bathroom to mix water with the cornmeal Daddy had left for my chick last night. The tap water was hot enough to make a soft gruel. Satisfied I'd stirred away all the powdery lumps, I returned to my bed and fed my chick while Tess unpacked her larger suitcase.
No one had ever shared my room with me. Mama sometimes had bad dreams and wandered in my room to sleep beside me, but that was different. Those were fretful nights with Mama clinging to me, her fingers digging my skin.
It looked like Tess must have planned to stay awhile. She'd brought everything a girl could need. She pulled out jeans and cutoffs, a short denim skirt, and three dresses. She hung them in the closet beside mine. Her bras and panties went inside the dresser drawers with my socks and leotards, her pink nightgown on the hook on my door. She placed a stack of paperbacks, drawing pad, and photo album on the nightstand by my bed.
Tess had a second, smaller suitcase for makeup and perfumes. I'd seen these cases in the Sears catalog, but didn't know anyone who had one. “You can borrow this whenever you want,” she said.
“I can?” At first I thought she meant the suitcase itself, then realized she meant the items inside.
She nodded. Tess turned the suitcase over on my bed, spilling tubes of lipsticks, a powder compact, plastic barrettes, silver loop earrings, hair combs with silk daisies glued to them, a bead bracelet, spray bottles of perfume, and pots of skin cream.
“I love makeup,” she said, sitting next to me on the bed. “I want to go to cosmetology school one day, or maybe sell Avon door to door. These are samples,” she explained as she folded her thin legs under her. “They give you these so you can try the shades at home, and when the Avon lady comes back, you tell her you want a full-sized tube of the color you liked best.”
I watched Tess open the compact and trace her mouth with red lipstick.
“Do you think I'm pretty?” she asked.
I nodded. She had blue-green eyes and long, pale blonde hair, almost as white as a winter moon. Her red mouth stood out like a summer poppy against her fair skin. She didn't have a single freckle or mole on her face, just a tiny scar above her left eye. Without thinking, I reached out to touch it. “What happened here?” I pulled my hand away, remembering it was rude to be nosy.
Tess ran her finger along the scar. “I fall sometimes on account of my epilepsy. I hit the edge of the coffee table a couple years ago. Left a scar.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Of course not, it healed up a week or so after I fell.” Tess put her compact back on the bed and tucked her hair behind her ears.
“No, I don't mean the scar. I mean epilepsy. Does that hurt?” I knew epilepsy was some sort of disease, but I'd never known anyone before who had it.
Tess didn't answer right away. She looked straight ahead as if the answer hung in midair. “No, I can't say epilepsy hurts so much. Sometimes I have a headache afterwards, or bumps and bruises from the falls. Those hurt. But the seizures don't hurt. It feels sort of like falling in a dream, or floating too long in water, and then it feels like nothing at all. Mostly it's a scary thing because I never know when a seizure might happen, and I don't like to be around people when it does. It's embarrassing to wake up on the floor and know that strangers have seen me like that.”
I nodded. That's how I feel every time I have to work math equations on the blackboard with the rest of the class watching me get the answer wrong. Sometimes the backs of my legs feel like they'll collapse and my hands shake so hard my numbers look squiggly. I wondered if solving too many equations could one day bring on a seizure. Maybe that's what caused epilepsy in the first place, just being so nervous so long you can't stand on your own two feet.
“It's okay if you have a seizure around me, Tess. I won't mind.” I patted her arm. Tess looked as fragile as porcelain. Part of me wanted to take care of her and make sure she didn't break. Another part of me wanted her nowhere near our house.
“I better finish unpacking.” Tess shoved her cosmetics and toiletries into a pile in the middle of my bed.
She turned over a pink and white box. The letters
were printed on the front of the box.
“You can borrow these, too, if you need one,” she said.
I knew what they were for, but not how to use them. “I don't need one.” The idea made me press my legs together tight.
“No, not yet. But you will when you're a little older, and when you do, you'll have one.”
I remembered a sixth-grade girl on the bus who stood up one day and everybody had laughed at the rust-colored stain on the back of her pink dress. “You shit your pants,” the boys yelled. But Mary Roberts, who knows about these matters, whispered in my ear, “It's blood, not shit. My mother says it's the curse. It's written in the Bible. It only happens to women.”
Mama hadn't told me much about the bleeding curse. When I asked her, she said it was like wearing a bra, that the time for those things would come. “Mary Roberts shouldn't be telling you things she knows nothing about,” she had said, and since the subject seemed to upset Mama, I didn't bring it up again.
But now, with Tess, I had a chance to find out something that even Mary Roberts didn't know. “How do they work?” I asked.
“Well, every month, a woman bleeds a few days, and these are like sponges that soak up the blood.”
“Does it hurt like a cut?” It sounded awful. I pressed my legs together even tighter. Maybe I didn't want to know more.
“Only a little, up here,” she said. She pulled up her shirt and placed my hand on her warm belly. “But not where the blood comes out. That doesn't hurt.”
I nodded like I understood.
“Okay, then I'll keep one.” I tried to sound brave and curious.
“Sure.” Tess opened the box and pulled out a cigar-shaped tube wrapped in white paper.
“Thanks, Tess.” I wrapped my fingers around the paper and hoped my moist palms wouldn't ruin it. Mama might not want me to have it, and I wasn't sure how much Daddy knew about women things. I'd have to hide it.
“Do you have a special boy at school?” Tess asked, her voice interrupting my thoughts.
“No! Yuck! Boys are gross. Although there is one nice boy, Michael Sullivan. He has red hair and eyes so blue you almost wouldn't believe he could see through them. The first time I saw them, I thought he was blind. That's just how blue they are. He carried my books from the library once, and then said he'd carve our names in a tree if I let him kiss me.” I felt myself blush as I spoke.
Tess smiled and lowered her voice. “So did you? Did you let him kiss you?
He was twelve, a whole year older than me, and might tell his friends if I kissed the wrong way. “No.”
“I don't know how.” I looked at the floor, suddenly feeling sorry I'd said so much. What if Tess told Daddy?
Tess must have read my mind. “Don't worry, I won't tell. We can keep secrets, yes? Besides, when I was your age, I used to practice kissing.”
“You did?” I thought about the smoke kisses she'd blown on Daddy's neck, how her lips had formed a perfect red
“Yes, mostly in the mirror, but there was an older girl who used to live next door to us and she gave me kissing lessons.”
I tried to imagine kissing Mary Roberts, but somehow, it just didn't fit. Mary would surely stand with her hands on her hips explaining that girls are not supposed to kiss each other. If there was anything in the Bible against girls kissing girls, Mrs. Roberts would have covered it.
“Want me to show you?” Tess asked.
“Well, maybe someday. Not today,” I whispered.
“Suit yourself. Just remember, you need the right shade of lipstick. Mulberry Pink is perfect, I think.” Tess opened a small white sample tube and told me to purse my lips.
I sat back on the bed and did my best to follow her directions. Holding still was hard. My mouth twitched as she colored my lips.
“When you kiss, you always close your eyes. You never kiss with your eyes open. That's a very important rule. Go ahead, close them.”
I closed my eyes tight. Why was I listening to her? I hardly knew Tess, and part of me didn't even like her. Part of me hated the way she looked at Daddy, and the way he looked at her. But she had the kind of voice that made a person want to follow. Before I knew it, I felt my eyes warm behind closed lids. Would I see bright lights and swirling colors like I did when I pressed my thumbs against my eyes?
The mattress shifted a little as Tess leaned forward. Her breath smelled like coffee and peppermint.
“Now, open your mouth.”
Nervous and unsure, I did as she said. I felt my lower jaw drop and knew right away I had opened too wide.
Tess sighed. “No, more like half-opened. Pucker up your lips like you do to blow bubbles.”
I closed my mouth partway and felt my face go warm again. I felt suddenly silly and ashamed.
Was I supposed to take a deep breath? I wanted to ask, but everything happened too fast. I smelled honeysuckle perfume, felt her breath, moist and delicate against my face, and in an instant broken by only the sound of breathing, Tess's lips pressed mine, warm and soft like taffy. Butterflies stirred inside my stomach, and then their lace wings fluttered inside my throat. I could feel them fly through the pores in my skin and circle my head.
Tess's mouth pulled away from mine. “There,” she said. “How was that?”
Finally, I remembered to breathe. I opened my eyes. The room blurred before coming back into focus. My face grew warmer still. I felt grown up and two years old at the same time. Since I didn't know what to say, I smiled and changed the subject. “I have to clean up my chick now before Daddy is ready to go.”
“Did you like your kiss?” Tess asked, her voice lifted in a curious and light way.
I couldn't answer. I felt small and shy as I climbed off my bed with my chick in one hand and Kotex in the other. This much I knew for certain: I would never be able to kiss Michael Sullivan and remain standing on two feet. Kissing a boy, I felt sure, would bring on something worse than epilepsy.
My third dresser drawer held a shoebox half-filled with popsicle sticks I was keeping to make a birdhouse. Mary Roberts and I had been saving them for nearly six months and would soon have enough. Scooping the sticks to one end, I buried the Kotex and closed the drawer.
At the bathroom sink, I wet the corner of a cloth and wiped my chick's face and beak clean. I looked in the mirror and pursed my lips. Did I look any different now, having kissed a girl? I strained to see any difference, but noticed only the pink color in my cheeks where I'd blushed. I wondered what kissing a boy might really feel like. Would it taste and feel the same, or like something else entirely?
I wondered if Tess had ever kissed a boy.
â¢ â¢ â¢
ADDY CALLED TO US
from across the hall to hurry up, it was almost time to go to the hospital.
Tess helped me get ready. She pulled my lime green dress from the closet, slipped it over my head, and buttoned the three back buttons. She held my saddle shoes while I pulled on clean socks and rolled them down around my ankles to let the lace trim show.