Chapter One: Homecoming
September has always felt more like New Year's to me than January first. It's such a brand-new start -- new classes, new friends, new teachers, new clothes...This September I was entering a school almost twice the size of our old one, and it was scary to think about being one of the youngest kids again instead of a seasoned eighth grader. I hated the thought that I wouldn't be considered sophisticated anymore, and I'd probably feel as awkward as I used to.
"Hey, no sweat!" Lester, my soon-to-be-twenty-two-year-old brother said. "You'll get used to it in no time -- the leftover infirmary food, the -- "
"What?" I said. We were sitting out on the front steps sharing a bag of microwave popcorn on the very last day of August. In fact, we'd just made a lunch of hot dogs and popcorn.
"Didn't you know?" he said. "The food in the high school cafeteria is leftover stuff from the prison infirmary. But it won't kill you. Of course, there isn't any hot water in the showers, and -- "
"What?" I bleated again.
"And the showers, you know, are coed."
"Lester!" I scolded. If anything would drive my friend Elizabeth to an all-girls' school, it was rumors like that.
"Hey, look around you," Lester said, taking another handful of popcorn and spilling some on the steps. "Do you realize that practically every person you meet over the age of eighteen went to high school and lived to tell about it?"
"I know I'll survive, Les, but when I think of all the embarrassing things I'll probably do, all the humiliating stuff just waiting to happen..."
"But what about all the good stuff? The great stuff? What's the next good thing on your agenda, for example?"
"Dad coming home this afternoon."
"See? What else?"
"Patrick gets back on Saturday."
"There you are," Lester said.
He was being pretty nice to me, I decided, considering that he'd just broken up with his latest girlfriend, Eva, for which I was secretly glad, because I don't think she was his type. She certainly wasn't mine. She had starved herself skinny and was always finding fault with Lester. If they ever married, I figured it would be only a matter of time before she started criticizing me.
"Are you picking Dad up?" I asked. Lester's working on a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Maryland. His summer school courses were finished, but he works part time.
"Yeah. I got the afternoon off from the shoe store. I figured Dad deserves a welcoming committee. Want to come?"
"Yes. But first I want to bake him something," I said.
I'd already bought the ingredients because I'd planned this cake in advance. I once found a note on a recipe card of Mom's for pineapple upside-down cake, saying it was Dad's favorite, so I decided to make that.
Mom died of leukemia when I was in kindergarten, so it's just been Dad and Lester and me ever since. Except that Dad's going to marry my former English teacher, Sylvia Summers, who's in England for a year on an exchange program, and Dad was just coming back from a two-week trip to see her. One of the reasons Miss Summers went to England was to give her time to decide between Dad and Jim Sorringer, the assistant principal back in my junior high school. She and Jim dated for a long time -- until she met Dad. But I guess she decided she didn't need a year to think it over after all, because when Dad went to visit her, they became engaged.
Pineapple upside-down cake is really easy, especially if you use a cake mix. All you do is melt a stick of butter in a large baking pan, stir in a cup of brown sugar, add canned pineapple slices, and then the cake batter. I had the phone tucked under my ear and was explaining all this to Pamela, my other "best" friend, while I worked.
"...and when you take it out of the oven, you turn the pan upside down on a big platter." And then I added, "Why don't you make one for your dad? Surprise him." If ever a girl and her dad needed to learn to get along, it was Pamela and Mr. Jones. Ever since Pamela's mom ran off with her NordicTrack instructor, Pamela's been angry with both her parents, but she and her dad are trying hard to make it work.
"Maybe I will," said Pamela. "You have any pineapple I could borrow?"
"I think so," I said.
"We may not have enough butter."
"You could borrow that, too."
"Would you happen to have a cake mix?"
"Pamela!" I said.
"Never mind. I'll go to the store," she told me.
While the cake was baking, I did a quick cleanup of the house. I dusted the tops of all the furniture, ran an electric broom over the rug, made the beds, and wiped out the sinks -- sort of like counting to one hundred by fives, skipping all the numbers in between.
Lester did the laundry and the dishes, just so the place wouldn't smell like sour milk and dirty socks when Dad walked in. Miss Summers always has the most wonderful scent, and I could guarantee that her flat in England didn't stink.
Of course, what I wanted most to know was where Dad had been sleeping while he was there, but I'm old enough now that I don't just pop those questions at him. I'll admit I've imagined the two of them having sex, though. If I ever get near the topic, he says, "Al!" My full name is Alice Kathleen McKinley, but Dad and Lester call me Al.
We had things pretty much in order by 3:45 -- the cake cooling on the counter, the laundry folded and put away. I decided to put on something a little more feminine than my old cutoffs, so I dressed in a purple tank top and a sheer cotton broomstick skirt. It was lavender with little purple and yellow flowers all over it, yards and yards of gauzy material that swished and swirled about my legs when I walked. I stood in front of the mirror, whirling around, and the skirt billowed out in a huge circle. Even Lester was impressed when he saw me.
"Madame?" he said, holding out his arm, and we descended grandly down the front steps.
Dad's plane was landing at Dulles International, so we had to drive way over into Virginia to pick him up. I sat beside Lester, my legs crossed at the knees, feeling very alluring and grown-up. I was wearing string sandals, and my toenails were painted dusky rose.
"It's going to be awkward, isn't it, after Miss Summers moves in," I said as Lester expertly navi-gated the beltway.
"I can't eat breakfast in my boxers anymore, I'll tell you that," he said.
"I guess she won't exactly be eating breakfast in her underwear, either," I said. "Gosh, Lester, I hardly even remember Mom. I don't know what it's like to have a woman around, I'm so used to being the only female in the house."
"Don't feel sorry for you, feel sorry for me," said Lester. "Imagine having two females here, taking over!"
The plane was going to be fifty minutes late, we discovered when we got to the airport, so Lester bought us two giant-size lemonades. We sat on a high stool in a little bar while we drank them, my feet crossed at the ankles, and my four-tiered skirt cascading all the way down to the floor.
Then we ambled around, looking in shops, until I realized that the lemonade was going right through me.
Lester waited outside the rest room, and when I came out again, I told him I wanted to check out a little gift shop I'd seen earlier. I was already thinking of what to buy Miss Summers for Christmas, and hurried on ahead so I could look around before Dad's plane came in. Two guys, maybe a year older than I, came up behind me and, as they passed, one of them said, "Cute butterflies."
What? I thought.
An older man passed on the other side of me and smiled.
Then, "Al," came Lester's voice. "Wait."
I glanced around and saw Lester walking rapidly up behind me.
"Stop!" he whispered urgently, taking hold of my arm, and I felt the fingers of his other hand fumbling with the waistband of my underwear.
"Lester!" I said, jerking away from him, but he gave a final tug, and suddenly I realized I had walked out of the rest room with the hem of my skirt caught in the waistband of my yellow butterfly bikini.
"Oh, my gosh!" I cried, covering my face with both hands as several more people walked by us smiling.
"Just pretend it happens every day," Lester commanded, urging me forward again.
"Everyone saw!" I croaked, feeling the heat of my face against my palms.
"Al," he said, "people are far more interested in catching a plane than they are in your underpants. The world does not revolve around you. Keep walking."
I uncovered my eyes. "Is this what it's going to be like living with a philosopher?"
He shrugged. "Would you rather go the rest of your life with your hands over your face?"
I took a deep breath, and we made our way to the gate.
We had to wait till Dad went through customs, of course, and then he would take a shuttle to the main terminal. But at last the passengers were coming up the ramp and through the exit, and there he was in his rumpled shirt, a wrinkled jacket thrown over his arm, a trace of beard on his face, a man without sleep. But I don't think I'd ever seen him look so happy.
I threw my arms around him as Les reached out for his carry-on bag.
"Oh, Dad!" I said.
"Home!" he sighed in my ear. "And what a welcome! Good of you to meet me, Les!" Then he and Lester hugged.
"Bet you're ready for some sleep," Les said, grinning.
"The bed will feel pretty good, all right," said Dad. "How are you guys, anyway?"
We chattered all the way down the escalator to the baggage claim area, and Dad and I watched for his nylon bag to come around the conveyor belt while Les went to get the car.
"So what do you think, Al?" Dad asked, grinning at me as we retrieved his bag, then leaned against the wall by an exit, waiting for Lester. "Think you'll get along with your new mom?"
"Oh, Dad, it's the most wonderful news in the world," I said. "You don't know how long I've wanted you and Miss Summers to get engaged. I can't wait!"
"Neither can we. This separation's going to be hard, but we'll manage," he said.
"Will you be getting married next June?"
"July, maybe. We haven't worked out all the details yet." He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "So how did you and Lester get along without me?"
"Okay. He broke up with Eva, you know. And Marilyn's back in the picture. Sort of. They're just friends, Lester says."
"Well, that's good. I've always liked Marilyn. Is Patrick back yet?"
"Saturday," I told him.
I asked him about Miss Summers's flat in England, and he described the rooms, and what the town of Chester looked like, and then we saw Lester's car pull up outside.
I crawled in back and let Dad have the passenger seat. But there was so much to tell. As Lester drove, I rattled on about how Aunt Sally had flown over from Chicago to make sure Lester and I were okay, and how we got her to leave again, and how Pamela had gone to Colorado to live with her mother, then come back again to be with her dad, and how I got my string sandals at a half-price sale, and...
"Al," said Les.
I stopped. "What?" Was I acting like the world revolved around me again?
He nodded toward Dad. Dad's head was leaning against the window, and he was sound asleep. Smiling, still.
Elizabeth and Pamela and I sat on my couch Saturday afternoon, our bare feet propped on the coffee table, gluing little decals to our toenails. Elizabeth was putting roses on hers, I was gluing stars, and Pamela was gluing on signs of the zodiac.
"I don't know," I said. "We may just look freakish. Maybe they don't wear toenail decorations in high school."
"Are you kidding?" said Pamela. "They do anything they want in high school. You see all kinds of stuff. You can be as old-fashioned or individual as you like."
"I thought we were individual," I said. Pamela now had a blue streak right down the middle of her short blond hair. It made her head look sort of like a horse's mane. Elizabeth would probably have to be tortured before she would do anything to her long dark hair.
"So if we're individuals, why are the three of us sitting here all gluing decals on our toenails?" Elizabeth asked.
"Good question," I said.
She leaned back and stared at her feet. "I'm scared," she told us. "I'm afraid I'll get lost in high school and be late to class or I'll wander into some part of the school reserved for seniors or I'll start my period and the rest room will be out of Kotex, or -- "
"Elizabeth, shut up," said Pamela. "If you're going to begin high school no different than you were when you started junior high, then what's the point?"
I gave Pamela a look, because Elizabeth went through a sort of anorexic period over the summer, and we think she's beginning to pull out of it, but we're not sure. I didn't want Pamela to say anything that would set her off again.
"What she means is you've got too many big things going for you to worry about all the small stuff," I told Elizabeth. "Lester says if you just look around, you'll realize that almost everybody over the age of eighteen..." I stopped right then, because my eye caught something moving outside the window, and when I looked out, I saw Patrick riding up on the lawn on his bike.
"It's Patrick!" I cried, thinking he wasn't due back till evening. I grabbed my can of Sprite and sloshed some around in my mouth before I got up and went out on the porch to meet him.
He looked as though he'd grown another inch -- taller, somehow, in his white Polo shirt and khaki shorts. Patrick has red hair, so he doesn't really tan, but his skin looked a deeper red. "Hi," he said, smiling at me.
"Hi," I said, feeling shy all of a sudden.
"You wanted me to bring you the perfect shell," he said, handing me a little box.
"Is it? Really?" I lifted the lid.
It was a beautiful shell, curved at one end, a beige color with little white spots all over it, and ivory on the inside.
"It's not perfect," he said, pointing out a small chip on the edge, "but it was the best I could find." Then he pulled me toward him. "How about the perfect kiss?"
I loved the feel of his arms around me. It was broad daylight there on the porch, but I didn't care. I put my arms around his neck and turned my face up to his. He pressed his lips against mine -- softly at first, then hard and firm, and his fingers spread out across my back. It was a long, slow, beautiful, kiss.
He let me go long enough to breathe, and asked, "Well, how was it?"
"It'll do," I said, and we kissed again.
"Ahhhhhhhhh!" came a long, loud sigh from the window. We jerked around in time to see two heads disappearing, one brunette, one blond, followed by the rapid thud of footsteps going upstairs.
Copyright © 2001 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor