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Patiently Alice

(Part of Alice)
By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

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Chapter 1: Leaving Home

The summer between ninth and tenth grades, I learned that life doesn't always follow your agenda.

I had signed up to be an assistant counselor at a camp for disadvantaged kids. Somehow I had the idea that at the end of three weeks I could get the little girls in my cabin feeling like one big happy family. First, though, I had to talk myself into going.

I was sitting at the breakfast table watching Dad pour half-and-half in his coffee, and I decided that was a metaphor for my feelings. Half of me wanted to go to camp the following morning, and half of me wanted to stay home and be in on the excitement of Dad's marriage to Sylvia two weeks after I got back.

I wanted something to happen. I wanted at least one thing to be resolved. Everything seemed up in the air these days -- Dad's engagement to Sylvia, Pamela's mother leaving the family, Elizabeth's quarrels with her parents, Lester's on-again off-again relationships with women, Patrick and I breaking up. My life in general, you might say.

"Are you eating that toast or just mauling it?" asked Lester, my twenty-something brother, who was leaving soon for his summer class at the U of Maryland. "That's the last of the bread, and if you don't want it, I do."

I slid my plate toward him. "I can't decide whether to go to camp or stay here and be helpful," I said.

"Be helpful," said Lester. "Go to camp."

I turned toward Dad, hoping he might beg me to stay.

"I can't think of a single reason why you shouldn't go, Alice," he said. "Sylvia's got everything under control."

That's what I was afraid of. Not that she shouldn't be in control. It was her wedding, not mine. But Sylvia had just got back from England, where she'd been teaching for a year, the wedding was about six weeks off, and if they had done any planning, I hadn't heard about it.

"I thought you were supposed to start planning a wedding a year in advance," I said.

"We're just having a simple ceremony for friends and family," Dad said, turning the page of his newspaper and folding it over. He looked like a cozy teddy bear in his white summer robe with floppy sleeves, and for a moment I felt like going over and sitting in his lap. He's lost a little weight, though, on purpose. I know he wants to look handsome and svelte for the wedding, but he'll always look like a teddy bear to me.

I lifted my glass of orange juice and took a sip. "You're not just driving over to the courthouse to be married by a justice of the peace, are you?" I asked suspiciously. Maybe it was going to be even simpler than simple. I felt I couldn't stand it if Sylvia didn't wear a white gown with all the trimmings. She had already told Dad she didn't want a diamond engagement ring, and that, according to Pamela Jones, was sacrilege. "How can it be forever if you don't have a diamond?" she'd said.

"Of course we're not getting married in a courthouse," said Dad, and told me they were still planning to have the wedding at the church on Cedar Lane in Bethesda. That was perfect, because it was sort of where they'd met.

Miss Summers was my seventh-grade English teacher at the time, and -- because Mom died when I was in kindergarten -- I've been looking for a new mom ever since. A role model, anyway. And Sylvia, with her blue eyes and light brown hair, her wonderful smile and wonderful scent, seemed the perfect model for me and the perfect wife for Dad. All I had to do was get them together, so I'd invited her to the Messiah Sing-Along at Cedar Lane, and the rest is history.

Well, not quite. It's taken all this time to make it stick. But she finally gave up her old boyfriend, our junior high assistant principal, Jim Sorringer, for Dad. And now the wedding is set for July 28, and I wanted details. It had seemed impolite to start asking Sylvia questions the minute she got off the plane.

"Long gown and veil?" I asked Dad.

"No, he's wearing a suit," said Lester.

"Is Sylvia wearing a long dress?" I asked.

Dad smiled. "I haven't seen it yet."

"Orchestra?"

"A piano trio of a good friend of mine, Martin Small," said Dad.

"Three pianos?"

"Piano, violin, and cello," Dad said.

"You want him to fill out a questionnaire, Al?" Les asked. My full name is Alice Kathleen McKinley, but Dad and Lester call me Al.

"Something like that," I said, and grinned. Then I said it aloud: "I just want to feel needed, Dad. I want to make absolutely sure this wedding takes place. Maybe I ought to stay home and help out."

"If you want to feel needed, hon, you could hardly find a better place than Camp Overlook -- all those kids needing attention like you wouldn't believe."

That was true, and I knew I couldn't back out anyway. Pamela Jones, Elizabeth Price, and Gwen Wheeler were going to be assistant counselors along with me. We'd been interviewed, received our instructions, gone through a day of orientation and training, and tomorrow we'd get on one of the buses taking the kids up into the Appalachian Mountains.

The phone rang for the fourth time that morning.

"I'm outta here," said Lester, scooting back from the table and picking up his books. "See you, Dad." Lester himself was looking pretty svelte these days. He has thick brown hair -- on the sides, anyway. It's a little thin on top. He's taller than Dad, but I'll bet he looks a lot like Dad did when he was Lester's age. Handsome as anything. All my girlfriends are nuts about him.

I went to the phone in the hallway and picked it up. "Hello?"

"Toilet paper," came Elizabeth's voice.

"What?"

"We'd better bring our own. No telling what kind they have at camp," she said. "And tampons."

"I've already thought of that," I said. "But I still need to buy a sports bra."

"And I need a baseball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes," said Elizabeth. "You want to run over to the shops on Georgia Avenue?"

"I'll meet you outside," I said.

Elizabeth lives just across the street, and we were on our way in five minutes. We were trying to think of things we may have forgotten.

"Breath mints," said Liz.

"Mosquito repellent," I suggested.

"Imodium, in case we get the runs," she went on.

I glanced over at her, beautiful Elizabeth with her long dark hair and thick eyelashes, who was studying the list in her hand, covering every conceivable thing that might cause her embarrassment while off in the wilderness. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, and was beginning to look more filled out again after a season of skinniness that had worried not only Pamela and me, but her folks as well.

"Watch out," I said, steering her away from a signpost. Gwen and Pamela and I joke sometimes that we never have to worry about anything, because Elizabeth will do our worrying for us. Which isn't exactly true, of course. We just worry about different things.

We got the bra and the cap and stopped at the drugstore for the rest. I was heading for the checkout counter with my mosquito repellent when Elizabeth called, "One more thing, Alice."

I went back to find her looking at men's hair tonic and shaving cream.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Just a minute," was all she said.

I leaned against the shelves behind me and noticed how hair products for men took only half the space of hair stuff for women. Maybe because women have twice as much hair, I thought, smiling to myself. I'm letting my hair grow long now. It's almost as long as Elizabeth's, but Pamela still wears hers short, and looks more sophisticated.

I was anxious to get home and finish packing, so when I saw Elizabeth moving slowly along the display a second time, I said, "What are you looking for? Let me help." Maybe she was supposed to buy something for her dad.

"Oh...something," said Elizabeth.

"What? I want to get home."

"Alice, I promised myself I wouldn't leave this store until I found them," she said. And then, looking quickly around, she whispered, "Condoms."

"Condoms?" I yelped. I couldn't help myself.

Elizabeth clapped one hand over my mouth, but there was no one in our aisle to hear. I jerked her hand away.

"Are you nuts?" I said. "Who for?"

"Anyone," Elizabeth said determinedly. And then she added, "Well, for Pamela, mostly. Just in case."

"Pamela?"

"Well, you know how moody she's been lately."

"In case of what? She's moody so she needs condoms?"

"Her mother and everything."

"Her mother needs condoms?"

"Oh, Alice, when someone's as upset as Pamela, she could do all sorts of things you wouldn't expect. We don't know who she's going to meet or what the guys are like, and she'll be away from home...."

"So will we!" I said.

"Look," she told me, "I was reading this article -- 'If He Won't, Then You Should' -- and it said that especially when a girl is away from home, she should have back-up protection in case she's in a situation she can't control."

I don't know where Elizabeth finds this stuff.

"If she can control it enough to get a guy to put on a condom, I'd think she could also get herself out of there," I said.

"Okay, but we don't know what's going to happen at camp, right?"

"Hardly that!" I said.

"But just in case, I'll have condoms for anyone who needs them," she told me.

I sighed. Elizabeth has been trying so hard to be cool lately that she's getting bizarre. But right then she looked like a little Mother Superior trying to protect us all, and it struck me as pretty funny.

"Maybe condoms are in the plumbing section," I said.

"What?" She turned and looked at me.

I tried not to laugh. "You know...you put them on a man's...uh...faucet."

She gave me a sardonic smile. "Be serious."

"Toy counter? When you want to play?" I suggested. "Automotive needs? In case you do it in the backseat of a car?"

"Alice!"

"How about over with the school supplies? No, I've got it! In men's wear!"

She ignored me. "I wonder if we need a prescription."

"Let's go home," I told her.

"No!"

A clerk appeared at the end of our aisle with a box of deodorants and began shelving them. I pushed Elizabeth forward. "Go ask him," I said.

The man looked up. "Can I help you?" he asked. He was a plump guy of about thirty, friendly and businesslike.

"Yes," Elizabeth said, her words coming in a rush, cheeks pink, "I wonder if you could tell me where I could find men's condoms."

The clerk paused only a moment, then said, in the same businesslike manner, "Aisle eight, next to women's sanitary products."

Now Elizabeth's face turned crimson. The clerk immediately returned to his deodorants, and I pushed Elizabeth around the corner into the next aisle, where we collapsed against each other, trying not to laugh out loud.

"I was so embarrassed!" she gasped. "If anyone heard...!" And then, as though afraid she might lose her nerve, she propelled herself toward aisle eight. The next thing I knew we were standing in front of a row of little boxes, with pictures of men and women in romantic poses, walking along the beach at sunset or dancing among palm trees.

Elizabeth grabbed a box of Trojans and was off toward the cash register, her face still peppermint pink. I tagged gleefully along as she surveyed the three lines. Two of the cashiers were men in their twenties. Elizabeth took the line with a middle-aged woman at the register.

Standing behind her, I rested my chin on her shoulder. "She's probably going to ask if you have a permission slip from your mother," I whispered.

"Shut up," Elizabeth murmured.

"Maybe you have to be eighteen. Maybe she'll call the manager," I went on.

"Alice!"

We were next in line. I plunked down my mosquito repellent, and Elizabeth put down a package of breath mints, another of Imodium, and the condoms. We put our money on the counter as the woman rang up the items, but when she picked up the box of condoms, she couldn't find a price sticker. And then, while we cringed, the grandmotherly looking lady held them up and called out in a gravel-truck voice, "Frank, do you know how much these are?"

The thin-faced man at the next register said, "What are they? Regular?"

And the woman said, "No, lubricated tip."

Now both our faces were burning.

The man gave a price, the clerk rang them up, and the minute Elizabeth had the sack in her hand, we headed for the exit.

"That's another store I can never enter for the rest of my natural life," said Elizabeth.

I'd been home only ten minutes when the phone rang.

"Alice, do you have any good mysteries? I want something to read in case I'm bored out of my skull," came Pamela's voice.

"Elizabeth doesn't think that will happen," I said. "She's bringing condoms."

"Elizabeth?" cried Pamela.

"For you," I added.

There were three seconds of silence, and then we both burst out laughing.

"She sure must think I lead an exciting life," Pamela said.

"I think she's more afraid that you will!" I told her.

"Can you see Elizabeth going into a drugstore and asking for condoms? I mean, can you even imagine that?" Pamela asked me.

"Now I can," I told her. "I was there."

Sylvia came for dinner that night. "Well, are you excited, Alice?" she asked.

"Are you excited?" I countered. "Your wedding's next month!"

"Yes, but I'm so busy, I hardly have time to think," she said.

As soon as she had walked in, she and Dad embraced, and I looked away. I mean, it's such a private moment. I guess the other reason I look away, though, is because their kisses are reminders of Patrick and me -- the way we used to kiss. And though I'm supposed to be over him now -- we broke up last fall -- I guess you never quite forget your first real boyfriend. It helps, of course, that we're still friends, but it's hard to think of someone as just another buddy when you've been as close as we were.

"I've got a list of things to do for each of the five weeks, and first on my list, while I can catch you, Alice, is to ask if you'll be my bridesmaid," Sylvia said. And before I could even squeal out my delight, she said, "My sister's coming from Albuquerque to be my maid of honor."

"Of course I'll be a bridesmaid!" I said. "How many are you going to have?"

"Just you and Nancy. I have so many friends at the school that if I picked any one of them, the others would get upset. So I'm going to choose only the two women closest to me."

Women! She had called me a woman! I could almost feel my breasts expanding inside my 32B bra.

"Oh, Sylvia!" I said.

"I've got a dressmaker who says she can whip up two dresses in time, and I got my gown off the rack, so if you'll choose the dress you like, I'll have it made while you're at camp," Sylvia said.

Dad and Lester were busy making beef Burgundy for dinner, so Sylvia and I took over the dining room table and she put three different dress patterns in front of me. Her color scheme, she said, was teal and royal blue. I couldn't imagine it until I saw the two colors together, and they worked really well. Her sister was going to be in royal blue, so I got to be in teal. That pleased me because my hair is strawberry blond. In some lights it looks blond, in some it looks red, and at night it even looks brown, but blue green is definitely good on me.

The gowns were all very simple in design. One was straight across the front with spaghetti straps and a long narrow skirt; one had a scoop neckline and short sleeves, and the third had a V neck with straps that crossed in back.

"I can choose any one of them?" I asked.

"Yes," said Sylvia. "Nancy's already chosen the one she likes best, but I'm not going to tell you which it is. You should have the gown you like best. I'm not one of those people who believes bridesmaids should look like identical twins."

"I like the one with the spaghetti straps," I said.

"That's exactly the one Nancy chose," she said, and hugged me. "Excellent taste, Alice. As soon as we have dinner, I'll take your measurements."

"Oh, her measurements are simple," Les said from the doorway. "Thirty...thirty...thirty."

"Lester!" I said.

Sylvia just laughed. "Don't you believe it, Alice. You've got a great figure."

Sylvia Summers is the only one who could ever lie and get away with it. I'm more like thirty-two, twenty-five, thirty-four, but what I was really wondering right then was if my bra and underpants had holes in them and whether I'd have to take off everything to be measured.

At the table Lester asked Sylvia, "Do you actually enjoy this? The photographer, the cake, the flowers, the rings, the candles, the music, the..."

"I love it," said Sylvia.

"Actually," said Dad, "we've sort of divided up the work. She's taking care of the wedding details, and I'm arranging the honeymoon."

"Sounds fair," said Les.

I was able to slip away before dinner was over and change my bra, which had old elastic in back, and by the time Sylvia came upstairs with the measuring tape, I was in my robe.

She's very efficient and acted as though this were what she did every day of her life: measured girls in their underwear. I knew I shouldn't have minded -- she was almost my stepmother -- but I was glad when I could put on my robe again.

"Well, someday, Alice, it will probably be you and me in a room together taking measurements for your wedding dress," she said, smiling.

I smiled back and said flippantly, "And having that intimate conversation for the bride-to-be."

She laughed and I laughed, and then, because my joke had gone over so well, I took it a step further: "But now you're the bride, so if there's anything you need to know, Sylvia, just ask me."

"Well," she said, "nothing I can think of at the moment. Is there anything you would like to ask me?"

I could feel myself blushing. Had I been that obvious? Had she seen right through me? What I really wanted to know, of course, was whether she and Dad had already made love, but it was none of my business and I wouldn't ask it in a zillion years.

"No," I said, "but if I think of something, I will."

"Good," said Sylvia. "I want to keep things open and honest between us. I know we won't get along perfectly all the time -- no one does, not even Ben and me. But I'd like it if we could promise each other that when something upsets us, we'll talk it out. There's nothing worse than people going around holding grudges and never talking about them and nobody quite knowing who's mad about what. Agree?"

"Yeah, that's pretty awful," I said, thinking of the time Elizabeth and Pamela had turned against me for a while and nobody would come right out and say what was wrong.

"Is that the way you and Dad solve problems? Talk them out?"

"We're working on it," she said.

I got one more call before I went to bed that night. It was Gwen.

"You all packed, girl?" she asked.

"All except the small stuff," I said. "You know what I wish? I wish we were going to a camp where we wouldn't need a hair dryer, conditioner, nail file, lip gloss...."

"It's called Girl Scout Camp," she told me. "We've been there, done that. Those kinds of camps, I mean."

"So it's all about guys, isn't it? Who we might meet?" I said.

"You could say that," said Gwen. I thought of her perfect eyebrows, her short but shapely legs, her skin the color of cocoa. I'll bet she's had a different boyfriend for every year of her life, though she and Leo -- Legs is his nickname -- have been going together for eighteen months.

"So what's up?" I asked her.

"Legs and I had a fight," she said.

"You broke up?"

"Not exactly. He said he was going to drive out and visit sometime during the three weeks we're at camp, and I said I didn't want him to. I think he's been seeing another girl when I'm out of the picture, and I guess I just want to be free to fool around myself if I meet somebody."

"Fool around...meaning...?" I asked.

She laughed. "Hang out with...kiss..."

I couldn't help myself: "Elizabeth's bringing condoms," I said.

I heard the expected gasp at the other end of the line. "Elizabeth?"

"For Pamela. Just in case. She says anything could happen."

She laughed. "She goes around thinking like that, anything might. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that if Legs calls asking for directions to that camp, don't give them to him. Okay?"

"Got'cha," I told her.

I had just gone to bed when the last call came. Dad tapped lightly on my door. "Al? Hate to disturb you, but it's your Aunt Sally. Shall I tell her you've gone to bed, or do you want to talk with her? It's only ten o'clock Chicago time."

"I'll take it," I said groggily, and padded out to the upstairs phone in the hallway. If I didn't talk to her now, I knew she'd call again the next morning when I was trying to get out the door.

"Oh, Alice, dear, I just want to wish you a very happy time at Camp Overlook," Aunt Sally said. She's Mom's older sister and looked after our family for a while after Mom died. She and Uncle Milt have a daughter named Carol, a few years older than Les.

"Thanks, Aunt Sally," I said. "I'm an assistant counselor, you know. I'm not going as a camper."

"I know that, dear. Counselors have a lot of responsibility, and little children look up to them."

I wondered why Aunt Sally didn't give her sermons from a pulpit every Sunday.

"Meaning...?" I said, knowing very well that Aunt Sally didn't call just to wish me happy camping.

"Why, nothing, dear! I think it's wonderful that you are going to be a role model for all those little children. They'll want to imitate everything you do."

"Thank you," I said.

There was a brief silence, and then Aunt Sally said, "Your father tells me it's a coed camp."

Here it comes, I thought. "Yes," I told her.

"So there will be male counselors as well as female?"

"That's what 'coed' means, all right," I said.

"Well, as I said to your Uncle Milt, you're Marie's daughter, and I know you would want her to be proud of you. Of course, this is the first time you've been away from home for any length of time, and there are all those woods and hills and valleys and -- "

"Aunt Sally," I interrupted, trying not to laugh, "are you afraid I'll get lost?"

"Oh, no," she said.

"Are you afraid I'll drown?"

"Not really."

"Are you afraid I'll go off in the woods in a fit of passion?"

"Why, whatever made you say that?" Aunt Sally choked.

"Because I can read you like a book," I said gently. "Actually, I doubt there's anything you could worry about that Elizabeth Price hasn't thought of first. But I appreciate your call, and I will really try to have a most magnificent summer, role model and all."

Copyright © 2003 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

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