The boys were back.
I dove into our old family car as a jostling crew of them cascaded the steps of Hampton Hall like marbles onto a ballroom floor.
Approximately five hundred boys in grades 8-12 enrolled each year in The Browning School. As faculty daughters, my best friend Lacey and I had cut our teeth surrounded by the big, sweaty creatures. But no longer would the boys pat our heads and say we reminded them of their little sisters back home. This year, the underclassmen were the same age as us.
The first boys passed the car. Gathering her travel things from the front seat, my mother called to me. “What are you doing down there, Georgie?”
I had read A Wrinkle in Time for the third time that summer, because it's one of my comfort books and I knew I was about to need a heaping helping of it. “Looking for an escape portal.”
She chuffed a laugh, but moved away, giving me peace. "There are no shortcuts in life, my love."
My brother Ronnie bounced on the back seat. “I have to go potty.”
“Tie your pecker in a knot, son,” my father said, “we’ll be home in a minute.”
My mother cut her eyes at my father. “Asher. Don’t say that word and especially in front of Georgie. It sounds so common.”
My father pooched his lips out to her in an air kiss. “I’m sorry, Julianne.”
Lacey and I knew all about peckers. Not that we had ever seen a live one, but we had conducted covert encyclopedia studies. My mother had described lovemaking as beautiful, sacred, and reserved for marriage. At the tender age of nine, I’d taken her gentle wisdom to heart and without question. But now at age thirteen, I’d begun to wonder.
I inched up the backseat and peeked out the window. The last boys had cleared the car and were heading down the hill toward the playing fields.
Browning's headmaster Dr. Banks, the kind of man who made you feel as though you were slouching even if you weren’t, appeared and placed a palm on my father’s open door. My father slipped a veneered pipe between his lips. “How was the trip, Asher?” Dr. Banks asked.
My father, chairman of the English department, climbed out and shook the headmaster's hand. “Fine, Harold,” he said around the pipe. That he never lit the pipe was a source of amusement for my mother, though she generally indulged his every folly.
Dr. Banks nodded at the retreating students. “The freshmen have been busy with a little cleanup effort this afternoon."
My father lifted his brows and grinned. “Uh oh, the first act of new school bravado?”
“They relieved Caffey’s bait shop of their entire stock of crickets. Let them loose in the seniors’ rooms. I tell you,” Dr. Banks said with a chuckle, “it sounded like the savannahs of Africa on the second floor of Hampton.”
I recalled the ill-fated fishing trip my father and I had taken when I was ten—the slimy scales of the whiskered catfish, the writhing stink of crickets in the cardboard cylinder—and shuddered at the thought of those creatures creeping and hopping around the rooms above our faculty apartment.
My father laughed fondly. “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” He was always quoting Shakespeare, whom he considered the wellspring of all wisdom.
Ronnie whined and tugged on my mother’s hand.
“Okay,” she said to him and lifted her chin at me. “Let’s go, sister.”
My father pocketed the pipe. “I’ll be right up with the bags, Juli.”
I followed my mother up the moss-spackled back steps of our building unable to resist peeking over my shoulder at the last students to move down the hill. Though I could imagine cricket slime on their fingers, there was a part of me that found their bad-boy behavior thrilling.
I caught a whiff of the honeysuckle that drooled along the old brick parapet and plucked a white blossom from the vine. I drew the stamen out and sipped at the bead of nectar. But it wasn't as sweet as I remembered. It tasted like . . . change.
I hadn’t seen Lacey in six days. I dove across my parents’ bed, snared the telephone and dialed the number I knew as well as my own face.
“I’m back!” I said as Lacey answered. We had pressing business—the outfits we would wear for the first day of school.
“I’m wearing the red plaid hip-huggers and stretch top,” she said, all saucy-like. Lacey was a PK—preacher’s kid—the daughter of Browning’s chaplain and teacher of religion, Howard Mattson. It had taken cajoling, tears, and ultimately her big sister’s intervention for the Mattsons to allow Lacey to wear the form-fitting styles of the seventies. As Lacey went on about new platform shoes she’d bought while I was away, I glanced at the door and then eased open my mother’s bedside drawer. The needlepoint canvas she’d abandoned was there along with her address book, crimped tubes of cream, and a back issue of McCall’s magazine. The pink compact that harbored her diaphragm was missing. My mind flew to the battered set of Samsonite luggage my father was bringing up from the car.
“My mother took her diaphragm on the trip,” I said to Lacey.
“You mean they did it at your grandparents’ house?”
I took another furtive glance at the door, a flush creeping my face as I thought about the times my mother’s giggles had wafted through the walls late at night when I was supposed to be asleep. “I guess so; I mean they probably do it wherever they go.”
“But if it’s supposed to be all holy like your mother says, you’d think they’d keep it more private.”
“I know. But, Lace,” I whispered, “what if when you start having sex, you just like can’t stop?”
Lacey cracked up. “You just can’t stop!” she gasped. The image of my friend rolling around on the floor, the phone cord twisting around her like a vine, made me laugh despite my discomfiture.
“Well,” I said when Lacey had collected herself, “I’m not about to start and neither are you.”
“So, stop worrying about it.”
I thought about the body-hugging outfit that I had lain out for the morning. “I might wear a sweater over my top tomorrow.”
“Don’t be a doof,” she said. Lacey chattered about the “Hair Styles to Try This Minute” article in Seventeen Magazine, and whether it would be risky to try one for the next day, until my mother called me to supper.
My mother made breakfast for supper. Ronnie had helped make the toast again; from my room I could hear my mother scraping the black from the bread. We gathered at the oak table I’d put my feet under all of my days. My father asked a blessing, before passing a red bowl of buttered grits my way. “Are you ready for the first day of eighth grade, sweet pea?”
“Yes, sir. I’m finishing The Scarlet Letter tonight.”
My father pounded the bottom of the catsup bottle with a palm. “I wish I could read about old Hester Prynne again for the first time. But you get something more from a story of that caliber every time you read it.”
“That is so true,” my mother said, tottering to the refrigerator for some jelly. Sometimes she didn’t bother to wear her special shoe in the house where no one cared that her right leg was two inches shorter than her left. I regarded my father with disdain as he smothered his bacon with catsup. (My father lived to try and get a rise out of me.) Leering at me, he smacked the stuff from his fingers one-by-one with while my mother wasn’t looking. We spoke of the cricket caper. “You have to admit it was one of the cleverer stunts,” my mother said, looking into the fridge as though there was a Broadway musical going on in there. "Where is the jelly?"
My father poked me with an elbow. “You felt cheap when that herd of boys passed the car.” His side of the family referred to feeling embarrassed as feeling cheap.
“Nah,” I said coolly around a bite of bacon.
“C’mon. You know you did.”
My mother flicked my father on the head and resumed her place at the table. She handed an open jelly jar to Ronnie. “Which class are you most excited about tomorrow, Georgie?”
“Definitely La Francaise,” I said, pronouncing the French word with practiced brio. I’d fallen in love with French watching movies on TV with my mother: Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through Paris in An American in Paris, and darling Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. “I’ve heard the teacher, Madame Beaulieu, gives a big award to the best student at the end of the year.”
My father had been an excellent student in his own academic career, and though proud of his position at Browning, he was disappointed that his daughter couldn’t attend the exclusive school. I didn’t mind having to go to public school as much as I wanted my father to feel proud of my quick vocabulary and my ability to speak knowledgeably on subjects he felt were important. And to my father, language was everything—the foundation of the literature he loved, which spanned all cultures and countries.
Smiling at him across the table, I raised my chin. “I’m going to win the French award.”
He tipped me a solemn wink. “You do that, sweet pea.”
The rest of the meal was passed in discussion about Hester Prynne, how she'd had a baby without being married and was forced to wear a big red A on her clothes for the rest of her life, making Ronnie's eyes great green pools—until my mother suggested a change of topic.
After a bath, I padded to my room and settled a Monkees album on my record player. Singing along with Davy Jones, I ran my hands over the crisp new stack of school supplies, and then sat on my bed and weaved the dark hair I’d inherited from my mother around plastic rollers.
My mother came in to say goodnight. She smiled and took a seat on my desk chair where my new outfit lay. She held the clothes in her lap. “Your father and I are proud of you for making academic goals for your last year of junior high,” she said.
I knew what was coming: though bookish and well informed, my mother not attended college herself. Instead, she’d spent four years behind a typewriter in the college admissions office so that my father, her high school sweetheart, could. “Thanks, Mama.”
Her smile flitted away. Smoothing the fabric with her palms, she sighed. “You know, darling, these clothes are nice quality, and stylish, but they’re very form-fitting.”
“I’m wearing a sweater over the top tomorrow.”
One side of her mouth curled up again as she took in my headful of rollers. She met my eyes. “I’m glad you have your sights set on going to college, Georgie. In the next years, it’s not going to be as easy for you living here at Browning. Soon, the boys are going to be looking at you differently. I trust that you’ll act like the lady we have raised you to be. And keep focused on what’s important,” she said, tapping her temple with a forefinger, “your education.”
“I will, Mama. I’ll make you proud.”
She left quietly after that, and once I was snug under the covers, I savored the last chapters of my book. Beneath the giant poster of Robert Redford tacked to the wall above my bed, I drifted off to the occasional cricket chirp, muffled curse, or thump overhead in the senior rooms. Toward morning, I dreamed I stood in the French room at Laurel Ridge Junior High holding an Olympic-sized trophy inscribed with Georgie Bricker Eighth Grade French Award. But the cheers of my peers turned to snickers and points, and horrified, I realized I was wearing nothing but a slip.