The bus stop was around the corner, across a street, then down half the length of Broadview, a street that ran parallel to our street. It was the back street–the one that bordered the field with the storm drain. The field that we heard someday would become a freeway. I felt like I was in a completely different neighborhood even though all the houses were exactly like those on Elkelton. Diamond paned windows still dark in the early morning light, cars still in driveways, I walked to the corner where I had been told the bus would be. No one was there.
Was I in the right place or was I late and the bus had already come and gone, and I’d miss the first day of school? How long should I stand here to see if that was true? I couldn’t walk. The school was miles away and I had only been there once when my mother took me to register and choose classes. I thought about how long it would take to run back home but my parents had already left for work. How would I explain not going to school to my stepfather when he returned home that afternoon? I could already see his expression. He wouldn’t yell. He never did. But this was one of those anxious moments where I wouldn’t be able to predict what he would do.
A girl came out of a house at the bend in the road and saved me from making a decision. She had a slate blue notebook just like mine and I could see the gold edges of a Pee Chee folder tucked inside. I had one too. Her name was Debbie and we would become friends for a while. We’d sit on bus number seven together in assigned seats, and I’d stick by her when the mean girls at the bus stop decided she was the perfect target for their taunts and jabs. The girls who would point out my unshaven 12-year-old legs clad in ankle socks and the dresses or skirts I had been learning to sew myself. The girls who chased Debbie down the block in the opposite direction from her house one day after the bus let us off. I’d never been around kids who behaved like this, let alone be on the receiving end of their nastiness. I learned very quickly not to draw attention to myself. It was something I had gotten fairly good at around Leo, but this was different. Every morning, I’d have to wonder whether what I wore or how I looked would pass inspection.
Luckily, school was different. I blended in, which is what I was most comfortable with. It allowed me to observe those who didn’t, who lived their school lives on the edge of what was expected, or just over the edge–like wearing skirts that were too short. The offending wearer would be sent to the nurse where she’d have her skirt measured, then when found guilty, have to wear something else of even longer than expected length. I always pictured a pile of clothes wadded into a bag in the corner, who they once belonged to, what they smelled like. The idea of having to wear anything from that imagined bag was horrifying even though I’d never put myself in the position of breaking that dress code rule. Yet the girls who did, flaunted the loaned replacement garments as if they were a badge of honor. I didn’t understand it. I only understood the humiliation of being told you had broken a rule and would have to pay for it. I wasn’t a stranger to rules, but I was learning there many I’d never thought existed.
Home Economics was my favorite class. I loved all the cubicles set up like tiny kitchens, each with a range, cupboards stocked with dishes, and drawers full of silverware and utensils. Learning proper table settings for particular meals was especially interesting–like how many forks needed to be set out and where each sat in relation to another. That we had none of it other than the basics at home or that I’d probably never get to set a table like the illustration in the textbook was beside the point. We made tapioca pudding, and muffins which was far more entertaining than what was going on in Science. I didn’t want to watch another film on venereal disease or hear that it couldn’t be contracted from doorknobs, toilet seats, or swimming pools. I didn’t want to see another film on drugs–of the bizarre interpretation of what it felt like to be on LSD, or to smoke pot, or take uppers, downers, or sniff glue. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to sniff glue to begin with. But there was a girl in my PE class who must not have thought so.
She was smaller than I was, with strawberry blonde hair that always looked like it needed to be brushed. She stood next to me in line up each day before activity began, never saying much of anything. I remember the day she seemed to be wobbling and unsteady, her head down when the teacher called out our names. It was like she didn’t know where she was. She was pulled out of line and taken to the nurse. Someone said she had been sniffing glue in the bathroom. I never saw her again and wondered what had happened to her.
I hated Math, but liked my 7th grade math teacher. Mr. Saito also taught art, and I enjoyed seeing the projects around the room the students lucky enough to be in an art class were working on. It was more interesting to think about those projects than what we were learning because I was having to unlearn the way I had been taught to divide via “New Math” on the base in Spain, and relearn long division. Not only was the thought process different, it looked different on the page. I started out in that class in a seat near the windows with yet another nice Debbie who, at one point, wondered why I scrunched my shoulders so much. I wasn’t sure about what she meant at first, then felt the familiar instinctive urge and understood.
I was too embarrassed to explain that my training bra didn’t fit properly because my flat chest had nothing to anchor it in place. That when my mother and aunt dragged me to White Front to try on bras over my clothes in the lingerie aisle, I was only interested in getting the dreaded task over with. All it needed to do was stretch around my rib cage and cover my nonexistent boobs from others as we changed clothes in the PE locker room. There was no way I was going to be the only girl who still didn’t own one. The idea that someone had noticed I was constantly scrunching my shoulders to adjust it without tugging on it mortified me. How many others had noticed?
Mr. Saito must have figured out I wasn’t focused on what he was doing, so moved my seat to where I was right in front of him in the second row. That’s when I met Renee. She was a skinny girl with braces and a great sense of humor. She wore fat yarn head bands in her hair, tied in a bow. I liked them so much, I started tying mine just like hers. She could also play the piano and was so good, she often got to play the warm ups in Chorus. We became very good friends–so much so that I went to her house and met her family. I remember the day I said to my own mother, trying to describe Renee’s, “She’s a Mom-Mom. You know, she doesn’t go to work,” and I never lived to hear the end of it. I always thought that it would have been something memorable to have my mother explain why my comment bothered her instead of getting mad about something I didn’t fully understand. She was upset because she knew I like Renee’s mother, and not because her mother stayed at home.
The bus rides home were nearly always good because we got to listen to music on KCBQ if everyone behaved. There were a few rowdy 8th graders who caused problems from time to time and the bus driver would punish the entire bus load for their behavior by turning off the radio. I always had a library book to read on those days. but on the good days, we could all sing along to The Beatles and “Hey Jude’s” endless refrain, or Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” And then there was the chorus of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” which never failed to get attention. The kids would yell in unison about “breaking out the booze” and “having a ball” then howl with laughter afterwards. But “Hey Jude” was my favorite. There wasn’t a bad day that song couldn’t fix right before I had to walk home and start chores. But even the Beatles were about to change. It seemed everything would.
To be continued…
This is a draft of a memoir. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo and writing about my life in houses. It’s uncomfortable to put myself out here like this, unedited and by the seat of my pants, but I’ve got 14 days to get a good foundation down for something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. We’ll be off to England then for several weeks, and I hope to have something solid enough to work with when we return. Thanks for reading. All input is appreciated.