I eased my hands on my abdomen, breathed deeply, and looked at my eighth-grade science teacher. As nervous as a mouse that hears a cat through the wall, I knew the time had come. Part one of Mom’s plan began when I raised my hand.
“Yes, Chartreusa?” Mr. Frost said.
“I’m supposed to call my mother to pick me up early. I have an appointment.”
“Oh, all right.” He hesitated, as if considering that I might be lying; but he had nothing to fear. Since moving from California to Gainesville, Florida last month, I had gotten all my teachers to trust me; so, Mr. Frost would never suspect that I stretched the truth.
“I’ll write you a pass to the office so you may call her.”
After grabbing my briefcase, I stopped by the restroom on the way. Blundering into the office, my emotions wanted to bust out all over the place as I handed the pass to the younger secretary behind the left side of the long counter.
“Well, you look chipper,” she said, watching me set my briefcase on the counter, “standing there grinning like a Cheshire cat.”
“Was I grinning?” I straightened the curve out of my lips with my fingers. She giggled. I glanced behind me through the front window. “Wow, it’s a great day, isn’t it?”
The secretary stared at the drizzling rain. “Yeah, if you’re a frog, maybe.”
I smacked the counter with my hand. “Well, I’m as happy as a toad in a damp, dark cellar.”
“Cellar? Boy, can you tell one of us is not from Florida?” She pointed to the little table by the wall to my left. “Students use the President’s phone.”
I raised my eyebrows. “The President … in Washington?”
“Under the picture of Mr. Carter there. You won’t have to dial nine. The phone’s only for calling outside the school.”
I looked at the table below President Carter’s picture. “Oh, I get it. Thanks.” I walked to it, lifted the receiver, and dialed.
Mom had gotten a job at a new car dealership after she and her new husband, Cody, moved us to Gainesville last month before school started. Cody Talon had gotten his first position as a professor at the University of Florida.
A woman answered the phone.
“I’d like to be put through to the cashier, please.”
Silence. “Hello? Cashier,” Mom answered.
“Mom, this is your daughter with the weird color name, you know … Chartreusa Dickinson?”
“Char! What’s up? You sick, honey?”
“What? What? Code red? I’ll be right there.”
She hung up.
The secretary leaned on the counter. “Code red? That’s it? That’s the message to your mother?”
“Code red.” I hung up and sauntered back to the counter.
“You some kind of spy,” the secretary asked, “sending secret codes over the phone?”
I bobbed my eyebrows and grinned again. “Could be.”
The secretary pressed her lips together. “I see. A nineteen-eighty version of Mata Hari.”
“Mata Hari?” I tilted my head and pursed my lips.
She flipped a hand at me. “Forget it … before your time.”
I held up my free hand with an index finger pointing at the ceiling. “I get it. She was a spy, right?”
“World War Two.”
“Well, I’m not spying, but my secret is ….” I leaned over the counter, and she did, too. I whispered in her ear so the other secretary wouldn’t hear.
My secretary popped her head back and out-grinned the Cheshire cat. “Congratulations!”
Mom burst through the door twenty minutes later and offered her best owl eyes. I slipped a hand over my abdomen and nodded. She exploded in squeals that made me quickly glance around. Two boys stood at the right end of the counter talking to the other secretary, and a male teacher listened to a dean beyond them by the far wall.
Unable to block my growing smile, I whipped a finger to my lips. “Shhhhhh.”.
Mom strutted over, grabbed me by the shoulders, and danced us around in a circle. Breaking free, she announced, “My daughter’s started her first period!”
Normally, I’m not very good at remembering faces—but, that day, the first day of my womanhood, four faces I had never seen before burned themselves into my memory forever.
My secretary grinned again. “Code red?”
Mom nodded. “Code red.”
The older secretary wrinkled her nose and flattened her lips while the male teacher turned and raised his eyebrows. The boys jerked their heads around so fast they nearly twisted off. Their wide-eyed faces glowed red before splitting into devilish grins. They stared at my pelvic area as if they could see through my skirt. I wondered if they saw me naked, or with a Kotex on.
“Did you take care of it right away?” Mom asked, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Mom?” I looked at the floor hoping everyone in the office would disappear—and they did—until I looked up again. “Not so loud,” I whispered. “I stopped by the bathroom on the way here.”
She leaned back and beamed at me. Her smile widened so much I thought it would leave a permanent mark on her face. “You want me to take you into the bathroom to check it?”
“Mom!” I lowered my voice. “It’s all right.”
“You sure it’s secure?”
“Arrrrrrgggggg! Mom!” I grabbed her arm and pulled her to the door.
My secretary walked to the counter and pushed a ledger book toward us. “Your mother must sign you out.”
“Oh, yes,” Mom said, dashing back to the counter. “What a day.” She sighed. “What an incredible day this is going to be.”
“Mom?” I said, standing by the exit hoping the urgency in my voice would hurry her. The two boys stared at me until I felt my clothing peel away. I stared into their faces—and saw lust to the six-hundred-and-sixty-sixth power. I slid my briefcase in front of my pelvis, but then I realized that if they could see through fabric, they could probably see through leather and cardboard as well. “Come on, Mom. Let’s go!”
Dropping the pen on the ledger, she pointed to the secretary. “She’s my youngest daughter of two. Caroline is ten months older, but Char here … she started first. Can you believe that?”
“Well,” the smiling secretary said while nodding, “what do you know?” The male teacher looked at Mom, and then at the secretary grinning back at him. He looked once more at Mom and escaped into the vice principal’s office behind the older secretary’s desk.
I threw out my free hand. “May we go now, Mom?”
The younger secretary stared at Mom. “Obviously you’re not taking her to a gynecologist.”
“Of course not,” Mom replied. “We’re going out to paint the town red!” She threw her arms in the air and danced around.
“That’s it, Mom! I’m out of here.” I opened the door and stepped into the breezeway that cut the administration building in half.
Mom strutted out and faced me with her childish grin. I set my briefcase down and crossed my arms. My sneer felt worse than Miss Gulch’s in The Wizard of Oz when she came to take away Dorothy’s Toto. “How dare you make a spectacle of yourself like that.”
We stared at each other as long as we could stand it before bursting into laughter.
Picking up my briefcase, I thought of how much I loved it when she let me reverse roles with her. She’s the greatest Mom ever.
She threw one arm around my shoulder and walked toward the front of the building. “So, my little girl is a woman now. Did you see the looks on the faces of those two boys?”
“I was only aware of them straining to see through my skirt. What about the male teacher? You sent him into full retreat.”
Arriving at the car, Mom opened the front passenger-side door for me. “Men just aren’t comfortable with a woman’s body. That’s one thing you’re going to find out for yourself.”
I climbed in and she shut the door. Leaning through the open window, she shoved her face close to mine.
“Female is everything, Char. It may be a man’s world, but it’s a woman’s universe.”
She walked to her side of the car, and I couldn’t help admiring her. What a clever, intelligent, open-minded, confident woman. How lucky can a girl be?
“Okay, Char-baby.” She climbed in, shut the door, and smiled like a carnival barker who had just suckered his one-millionth customer. “Char the woman, I should say. Where are we going to celebrate?”
“The Silver Saddle Corral. You were going to buy me a big, medium-rare steak, remember?”
She pointed at me and winked. “Good choice. You’ll need the iron.”
We drove to my favorite steakhouse, ordered big meals, talked “woman-to-woman,” and two hours later, we headed home.
“How am I going to handle Caroline?” I asked.
She pulled herself back until her arms stretched rigid to the top of the steering wheel. “I’ve been thinking about it. It wouldn’t be right to hide it from her. It wasn’t your fault you started first.”
I leaned against my door. “She’s got to start soon, Mom.”
“She will. She will.”
“Aren’t you worried about it? She’ll be fifteen in December.”
She dropped one arm in her lap. “I’m not worried. Mine started at fourteen and six months. Your fourteenth birthday’s next month. How about that, Char? You beat me by seven months.” She turned left onto a two-lane road.
I hung my left arm over the back of my seat. “So, what about Caroline?”
“Do what you would do if you were an only child.”
“Well,” I held out my left arm and opened my hand, but nothing came to mind, “I wouldn’t have anyone to tell except you. I’d let you tell Cody and kind of ignore it with him myself. And then … and then I would just take care of it.”
Mom nodded. “Sounds good. You take care of it, and don’t say anything to Caroline. When she discovers it, treat it like nothing special.”
I slapped my right hand onto the dash. “You know she’s going to start trouble. She’s the jealous one.”
“Yes, she is.” She stopped at a red light, drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, and looked at me. “She’s probably been worried about you getting yours first. I don’t know what reaction she’s planned. She pitched a fit over Cody and me getting married last July, and then over moving to Florida in August. She probably will pitch one over this, too.”
She thrust her lap hand over her abdomen. “Ouch! Damn that hurt.”
I tore my hand off the dash and leaned forward. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been having these sudden pains. Owwwwww!” She glanced at me. “There it is again.”
“It can’t be cramping. Your period was two weeks ago.”
She looked at me with widening her eyes. “You’ve been following my menstrual cycle?”
I nodded. “Mine was coming soon, so I watched you closely last month.”
The light turned green and Mom accelerated. I watched as she returned her hand to her lap. The pain seemed to have gone away. She started whistling her favorite tune, I’ll Never Love This Way Again by Dionne Warwick. After making another left turn, she grabbed her stomach with both hands and threw her head back. “Oh, shit!”
“What is it, Mom?”
The car veered to the right.
I slid toward her with both arms poised in front of me. “Mom, the car!” I waited for her to recover; but she continued holding her abdomen, leaned back, and turned her head toward me. Her eyes closed, and I grabbed for the wheel; but she fell against me keeping me from getting a good grip.
After taking out a street sign, we plunged through a shallow ditch and narrowly missed a pine tree. The jolting car forced her foot to jam the accelerator. I fought against her pitching body and tried to shove my foot on the brake.
Concentrating on our feet, I didn’t see the wooden fence charge at us. Looking up, I could only squeeze the wheel and scream. Lucky for us it was frail and we blasted it to bits without slowing down.
I leaned forward and allowed Mom to fall behind me. Her foot lifted off the gas, and I jammed on the brake. We stopped just shy of a picnic table. The family sitting there hadn’t seen us coming; and the parents and three elementary-age children sat ashen-faced with sandwich debris hanging from their mouths.
“Help!” I screamed, keeping my foot on the brake. “My mother’s sick!”
One parent ran to each side of the car. The father opened the driver’s door and quickly threw the automatic gearshift into park. Then he eased Mom out as his wife opened my side.
I didn’t wait for her to pull me out. Instead, I pushed past her and ran around the other side of the car.
“Mom! Mom! What is it? What’s happening?”
The ambulance men allowed me to ride with Mom. Arriving at the hospital, they wheeled her gurney inside and made me wait in a room. Cody and Caroline entered about thirty minutes later. We stood staring at each other in the center of the waiting room. Six other people sat nearby.
“How is she?” Caroline asked.
“No one’s come out and told me anything,” I replied.
“It may be awhile before they know what’s going on,” Cody said.
Caroline’s cheeks reddened, and she looked close to panicking. I hoped she wouldn’t blame Cody for Mom’s illness.
“So, what happened?” Caroline asked.
I told them everything except that my period had started.
“A pain in the abdomen?” Cody asked. “That could be anything.”
Caroline shifted her eyes toward Cody, her glower growing by the second. “Is this the first time she’s had pain there?”
“She had been complaining about mild pains from time to time; but she hadn’t thought anything of them.”
Caroline threw a hand in the air and leaned forward. “And you didn’t think it was important enough to mention it to us?”
“Caroline,” I snapped, wringing my hands behind my back. “Don’t start. Not here. Not now.”
She shifted her glare to me. “What do you mean ‘don’t start’? Those were early warning signs.” She shoved a thumb toward Cody. “He should have had her check it out instead of just sitting on it.”
“Don’t you think Mom had some say in it?” I asked. “After all, it’s Mom’s body.”
Cody held out his hand palm up. “I did mention it to her on more than one occasion, but it’s pointless for us to discuss what should have happened. We’ve got to come together and support her as a unified family.”
Caroline dropped her arms and stared at Cody as though she considered giving him a tongue-lashing. Instead, she swung around, marched to the nearest window, and stared through it.
Cody and I glanced at each other as my tears welled up. He opened his arms, and I slipped into them. He wanted to comfort me in the worst way—and I needed it.
Ever since Caroline knew of Cody’s existence last June, she’s hated him. I remember Caroline’s reaction the last time we were out on Lake Isabella in Mom’s best friend’s boat. That’s when Mom sprang the news on us. I knew it was coming … but Caroline …?
“Mattie!” Hazel yelled. “You’ve got a fish on your line.”
“Ohhhhhh!” Mom snatched her rod and yanked it.
“Mom,” I said, “don’t pull so hard. You’ll yank the hook out of his mouth.”
“I’m not pulling hard, Char.”
Caroline dropped her pole on the deck of the small cabin cruiser. “Come on, Mom, reel him in. You’re going to lose him.” She reached for Mom’s rod.
Hazel laughed. “Why do we always refer to a hooked fish as him?”
“Need we state the obvious?” Mom tugged on the line. “Apply a little introspection on that one, Hazel.” We all laughed—except for my sister, who didn’t get it. She wasn’t as interested in the English language as me, so she didn’t have a clue that introspection meant self-examination.
Caroline’s glare made me stop laughing. She crowded me. “What’s so funny, Miss Straight-A’s-in-English?” Then she tore her eyes away and grabbed at Mom’s rod. “You’re too rough, Mom. Let me do it.”
Pulling it out of reach, Mom thrust out her arm. “Caroline, I can do it. I know how to fish. I was the one who taught you.”
Hazel sat on the side seat. “You’re darn right she knows how to fish.”
Caroline moaned and reached for the rod again. “Come on, Mom. You always let them get away. I want fish for supper.”
Mom threw her hand into Caroline’s midsection and tickled her. “I don’t know how you’re going to do that with all the giggling you’re doing.”
Between her squeals of laughter, Caroline yelled out several times, “Mom, stop!” She backed away, her mood souring.
Mom pulled more steadily while reeling—and when the tip pointed up, she whipped it down parallel to the water’s surface and reeled up the slack. She brought the eighteen-inch fish alongside.
Hazel grabbed the line and pulled the rainbow trout aboard. “Look, Mattie, it’s Professor Cody.”
Mom bent over it. “Yeah, I hooked him good, didn’t I?”
Caroline offered Mom a nasty glare.
Mom raised her eyebrows. “Honey, what is it?”
Caroline continued to stare, trying in vain to control her expression. “Can’t we quit now?”
I knew better than to get involved. I sat on my deck chair, lifted my feet to the seat edge, and wrapped my arms around my knees to wait out the impending nasty scene.
Mom lost the glaring contest, slipped on her happy face, and turned to the rest of us. “And on that note, there is some happy news. Cody has asked me to marry him, and I said ‘yes.’”
“What?” Caroline exploded.
“Yes,” Mom said. “And he’s accepted a teaching job at the University of Florida. In three weeks we’re marrying and moving to Gainesville.”
Wham! Blam! Two big bombshells that we girls weren’t expecting—and they changed our lives forever.
Caroline stood and wrinkled her face. She threw out her arms and spoke with tears in her voice, though none appeared for real. “I thought this was just some fling, Mom. You can’t be serious. You’re nearly thirty-six and he’s twenty-eight. Don’t you know what that means?”
“Yes,” Mom replied. “It means I love him and neither of us care beans about age.”
Caroline slapped her hands together. “Well, I can think of another reason. You’ve only known him for three weeks, so you don’t really know him. And if he were my real father, it would mean that he was twelve when he knocked you up with me.”
Caroline could get away with saying those hurtful things, because Mom never let them bother her. She could look past the insult and see the hurt in a daughter.
Not getting the response she wanted, Caroline tried again. “I just can’t see a twenty-year-old woman getting it on with a twelve-year-old kid, so doesn’t that make him more like a brother than a father?”
If Caroline had been my kid, she’d be dead in the next six seconds. Instead of murder, Mom laid down the rod and reached to embrace her emotionally shaken daughter. “Honey, there’s no need to—”
But my sister had been stubborn since birth. When she wanted to be punished, there was no ignoring her. She pushed Mom away and poured on the tears. “No! You can’t do this. I don’t want to go to Florida. If you have to marry the jerk, then the least you can do is make him live here.”
Mom reached for Caroline again and kept her voice calm. “There’s nothing for a professor here around Lake Isabella. Please try to understand—”
Caroline jerked free and rushed to the cabin entrance keeping her back toward us.
“Come on, Caroline,” Hazel said, stooping over the fish and removing the hook from its mouth. “Don’t let it spoil our fishing. They’re just beginning to bite.” She pointed to the fish. “Look, we caught him, didn’t we?”
Caroline stamped a foot on the deck, spun around, and rushed toward us. She snatched up the fish and flung it over the side.
“Fishing is stupid!” She turned back toward Mom. “It’s cruel. Don’t you know it hurts the fish?”
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