Grateful, Thankful

By Jendi Reiter

I could have avoided all that trouble if only I had remembered the capital of North Dakota. Normally I took schoolwork seriously, but it had been a late night at band practice and I decided to give myself a pass on memorizing stupid places I would never live. I couldn’t see my mother moving us anywhere shotguns were more popular than cappuccino. I dropped my regulation #2 pencil and bent down to fetch it, so that on the upswing I could skim a peek at Ryan McFarrell’s test paper. He winked at me, those blue eyes wide under streaky blond surfer-hair (he’d just moved to Boston from Santa Barbara and hadn’t perfected our cold-weather scowl yet), and moved his elbow to give me a better view. His dimbulb generosity would’ve been enough to blow our cover, but what really tipped off Mr. Hollister was that we’d both spelled it “Bizmark,” like a corporate logo. That’s how my first moments alone with Ryan were spent on a bench outside the principal’s office. It started as a “meet cute,” but it didn’t end that way.

Mr. Hollister felt we’d been ruined by progressive education. An dry old African-American man who wore a tweed suit and knit tie regardless of season, he addressed us tenth-grade history students as “Mr. McFarrell” and “Miss Porter,” and overloaded us with memorization drills like the principal exports of South America (Andy Birdsall got sent to sensitivity training for saying “wetbacks”). My mother argued with him all the time. She thought I should be reading Plato’s Symposium or taking field trips to anti-globalization protests. As for me, I had only two years left to think of a winning project for the Westinghouse science scholarship. A little boredom was relaxing.

If Alice B. Toklas High School had had a People Magazine, he would have been on the cover.

You remember that awful song “Bobby’s Girl” that the oldies station plays when they think no feminists are listening? Someone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, and she sings in her Minnie Mouse voice, “I want to be Bobby’s girl, I want to be Bobby’s gi-irl, that’s the only thing I want to be-e-e.” I’d been a hawker of bootleg rock-star souvenirs, the daughter of an imaginary African explorer, the junior math team captain, and the only girl in the woodwind section who still didn’t need a bra. I wanted to be normal for a little while, and Ryan McFarrell seemed like someone who could do it for me.

There he sat on the bench outside Mrs. Washburn’s office, his big hands hanging sheepishly between his knees. He grinned with embarrassment like a golden retriever, not really worried, whereas I was flapping around like a bat in a terrarium. I thought about what he’d see if he looked at me: untucked plaid workman’s shirt, brown hair flopping over muddy green eyes, a square jaw and cheekbones like Mick Jagger. I wasn’t a California dream. Maybe he wouldn’t look.

I tried to think of something to say, and when that failed, I considered looking aloof, like the popular girls who usually clustered around him in the cafeteria. But I worried that would make me seem like a snob. It was okay to act superior because you had long blonde hair and Steve Madden shoes, but not because you knew more than other people. I hoped our shared ignorance of North Dakota might put us on an equal footing for once.

“Sorry I got you in trouble. I told Hollister I was copying off you, but he said you shouldn’t have let me.”

“That was nice of you,” I said, amazed.

“Nah, no one would believe it was the other way around.” His big, careless smile showed no resentment that I was smarter, and a girl. Those weren’t things he’d ever wanted to be, so no harm, no foul. “You’re Prue, right? I’m Ryan.”

“I know.” Everybody knew Ryan: star of the lacrosse team, genial B student, subject of sexual gossip that I hoped was heavily exaggerated. If Alice B. Toklas High School had had a People Magazine, he would have been on the cover. We shook hands, then giggled at the grown-up phoniness of it.

Our punishment was anticlimactic. We covered for each other, and Mrs. Washburn, nose hairs quivering with exasperation, assigned him a thousand-word essay on honesty, while I was ordered to be a cafeteria monitor for the fifth and sixth graders for a week. She probably thought Ryan was guilty but couldn’t give him detention with all the important games coming up. For him, writing was penance enough. Poor kid, I wonder if anyone told him that it had to be a thousand different words. Meanwhile, the only thing I learned from watching ten-year-olds blow grape juice out their noses was that adults were seriously mistaken to call these the best years of our lives.

Ryan dropped by the cafeteria to see me every day of my week in the stocks. I couldn’t figure out why. He brought me goofy things like sour Starburst candy packs and a fridge magnet from Santa Barbara shaped like an angelfish with googly eyes. After five days, my status had risen to the point where I could quell a peanut fight without raising my voice.

When I was allowed to eat lunch with real people again, he invited me to his table, where all the large guys sat with their skinny girlfriends. These girls liked tiny, cute, ironic backpacks with Japanese cartoon kittens on them. We sized each other up, prepared to expose each other’s cluelessness about Mandy Moore versus the later poems of Edith Sitwell.

My mother was disappointed in my unimaginative choice of boyfriends. I hadn’t meant to tell her anything about him, but she caught me strumming my guitar along to Britney Spears’ “I Was Born to Make You Happy” on Lite 106.7 FM, and this was so outside my usual morbid taste in music that she figured out that her little girl had become a woman, or rather that intermediate stage, an idiot.

“Do we need to have the Talk?” she asked, delicate hand on her hip, in the doorway of my room where unpleasant conversations had a habit of taking place.

“The one about my brilliant future as a virginal nuclear physicist, or the one with the condom on the cucumber?”

“The one about being in control of your life. Don’t hand over the keys to the first pretty boy you meet.”

“We’re just friends. Chill out.”

But naturally I hoped we were more than that. I started taking an interest in lacrosse games. Sports were just numbers, only easier, because there were faces to help you remember them. I gave up on the Diet Snapple girls and sat in the bleachers with the beta males, athlete wannabes or secret homos, no one asked which. Soon I could sling Red Sox and Patriots stats with the best of them. Ryan saw me slouching in my unwavering uniform of black jeans and grunge plaid, my complete lack of girlish glee, and was intrigued enough to ask me to the end-of-year dance.

This dance was another point of contention between Mr. Hollister and the rest of the world. He lobbied for an old-school junior prom where the boys wore suits and gave the girls corsages, and the music was slow enough to make your granny’s teeth fall out. Naturally this idea was shot down, as none of the boys at Alice B. Toklas would have known where to stick a corsage. The student committee, sensibly enough, wanted an ordinary dance with our own music. Mrs. Washburn, on the other hand, wasn’t looking forward to three noisy hours of enforcing cleavage and navel exposure regulations. After the usual pretense at democratic debate, the school declared a 70’s costume party – maybe to make the chaperones’ life bearable through Woodstock flashbacks, or in hopes that we’d all show up in modest peasant blouses and dashikis. I wondered what they’d do if someone dressed in a burka. Don’t mind me, just reliving the Iranian Revolution.

“Dude, this is like, a freakin’ history assignment!” complained Mitch, one of Ryan’s lacrosse buddies. He was a tall half-Italian guy with bright blue eyes, which had given them the idea to go as Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Easy costume, cowboy hats and some craft fur pasted on their cheeks for sideburns, easy to take off once the night heated up and they began feeling ridiculous. Mitch’s latest girlfriend had a name with too many consonants – Karlla or Kaytlynne, something like that. She was going as Farrah Fawcett in that famous poster where the actress is spilling out of her white dress, giving thousands of spotty teen boys hope that they might see a woman’s nipple before they died. I’d watched her try on the outfit at Mitch’s place after school when we were supposedly studying for the biology final. I couldn’t compete with that. I mean, I might be able to collect all the pieces but I wouldn’t know how to put them together, just like owning a dictionary doesn’t make you a writer.

On top of that, Ada wanted me to go as Rachel Carson. “Mom, that’s not even a costume. What am I supposed to do, hold a dead bird in my hand?”

“The 70’s were a great decade for women’s rights. It’s a shame for you kids to be dressing up like airhead celebrities instead of taking pride in your history.” I think Ada felt defensive because she couldn’t afford to send me to private school. Despite the name, Alice B. Toklas High School wasn’t the first place you’d look for a cultural paradigm shift.

My options for pleasing her were limited. Jane Fonda? Golda Meir? Norma McGarvey? “Why do feminists have to be so ugly?” I muttered.

“Do you think I’m ugly?” Ada retorted, knowing the answer was obviously no. My mother had a perfect wiry little body that she dressed in geometric patterns of black, white and red, like a Mondrian painting. Even her thin arched eyebrows looked intelligent.

“I meant old feminists. I can’t go as you.” Please let her not have guessed that after I started dating Ryan, I’d gone through her cosmetics drawer one afternoon when she was teaching her “Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt” seminar. I did something gross and clumpy to my eyelashes, smeared on and wiped away and reapplied different lipsticks with names like pay-per-view movies. Did I want my mouth to say “Hot Tomato” or “Cherries in the Snow”? I looked in the mirror and saw a fabulous stranger, wondering if that was the face I’d grow into someday. Maybe I wasn’t ready to become someone else.

“How about Joan Baez? You love her music.” That was a tactful way of saying I’d driven the neighbors crazy last summer when I was learning the guitar, practicing her arrangement of the British murder ballad “Matty Groves”, which had like 22 verses.

“That could work, but will anyone know who I am without my guitar?” Actually, I was afraid for Joan. Her loose unstyled hair and gunny-sack dresses would seem hopeless to my classmates whose parents showered them with fur-topped boots and iPods. At Alice B., it would only be days before someone photoshopped her head onto Nina Hartley’s body and circulated it on the Internet.

“So they’ll figure you’re a hippie. You’ll still blend in. Hey, it beats Golda Meir.”

“Yeah, make love, not war.” But I had other plans.

The night of the dance, I felt gawky in my peasant dress and lovebeads when Mitch’s dad picked me up in his minivan. The ersatz cowboys had already sprawled out across the rear seats. I tried to make conversation with the K-girl, whose dress kept sliding away from her tiny tits. Talking to her was like one of those news shows where they interview a politician by satellite feed – that brief but infinitely distracting delay between question and answer. Try gossiping with someone whose information is invariably two days more current than yours, and you’ll see what I mean.

Costumes turn you inside out. They’re supposed to be not-you, but everybody assumes that what you choose is a reflection of your inner self. I consoled myself that poor Joan’s whole-grain idealism was really a costume for once, not what I intended to wear.

As soon as we arrived, I pulled Ryan into the locker room next to the gym where the dance was going on. “Here, hold this.”

“What’s the shopping bag for?”
“You’ll see.” I rolled up the oversized dress. Underneath I was wearing a strapless black bustier-leotard thing with the tiniest of frilled skirts (Ada would have found a request for a bikini wax highly suspicious). I pinned a bunny tail to my rear and swapped Joan’s black wig for a headband with fuzzy ears. My Birkenstocks went into the bag last. The only high heels I owned were black Mary Janes I’d acquired for last year’s math Olympiad award ceremony. They’d have to do.

“All ri-ight!” Ryan stashed my alibi costume in his locker. I saw myself anew through his eyes: This was a girl who might do anything.

On the dance floor I counted six John Travoltas, two Daisy Dukes, eighteen Charlie’s Angels, and an eerily convincing Fat Elvis, plus the usual assortment of hippies, war veterans, and Austin Powers imitators. The black students were the only ones who looked natural in their kente cloths. They moved through the crowd like visiting dignitaries observing the primitive tribal custom known as the “Electric Slide”.

The boys’ admiring glances at my costume, or lack thereof, made up for the feeling that my butt was constantly in a draft. Ryan and I danced close, then I felt another guy pressing up against me, and soon I was in the middle of a crush of hot, hopeful bodies, like a ball of mating worms. I stretched my arms up over my head. The bustier stayed in place. God was on my side. “Kitschy kitschy ya ya ta ta,” screamed the soundtrack. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” Having failed to pique our interest in history, the teachers were going for French.

We washed up at the edge of the gym, in the shadow of the sound machine, where couples sat with their hands in each other’s clothing. The make-out wall was for new pairs like Ryan and me who were still interested in showing off that they were together. The back stairs were where you went for serious action.

I blame that reflective bunny tail. It showed up white against the blackness I was trying to blend into, like a sign on my butt saying “Ground Me”. Mrs. Washburn’s voice arrested me with my tongue halfway into Ryan’s cute little mouth.

“Miss Porter! You cannot come to a school dance dressed as a Playboy Bunny. Put something on over that or I’m calling your mother.”

I stood up, my Mary Janes skidding on the slippery floorboards. “I’m not a Playboy Bunny,” I insisted. “I’m Gloria Steinem working undercover as a Playboy Bunny.”

Mrs. Washburn was not amused. “I don’t care who you are, you put some clothes on or you’re spending the rest of the dance in my office correcting seventh-grade math papers.”

“That’s not fair! I’m a feminist icon. You can’t shut down my political self-expression.” I could hear the other kids behind me whispering and laughing in the dark. Pray they were laughing at her and not me. I twitched my bunny tail in what I hoped was a seductive fashion. Though I’d never given a crap about Gloria Steinem before, I started to feel self-righteous anger as if I really were a political dissident, like those high school kids Ada told me about who’d been expelled for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Fat lot of good it did. Thirty years later and there were just as many wars as ever. Some of the guys sitting behind me with their hands in their girlfriends’ size zero jeans might get their heads blown off in the desert. What a fate, to die at age 20, still a moron.

I glanced at Ryan to see if my courageous stance was making an impression on him. Under the cowboy hat, his big handsome face, flashing in and out of visibility in the strobe lights, looked embarrassed and confused, as if he’d caught his best buddy getting too friendly with his horse.

“Come on,” I tugged his hand. “I need that crap I left in your locker.” Under my breath I muttered at Mrs. Washburn, “Child labor fascist.”

Once there was no more chance of public humiliation, Ryan decided to act sympathetic. “That was cool!” he said. He stopped in the hallway. “Here, let me take another look at that nice ass before you put the hippie suit on again.”

“It’s Joan Baez, not a hippie suit,” I griped, but turned around gamely like one of those little ballerinas on top of a music box.

“Whatever. Hey, next time you should wear a sign around your neck, so everyone knows what your costume is.”

“Next time I won’t wear any clothes at all. That should be easy to understand.” The floor vibrated with the thumping, squealing music coming from the dance floor. I heard the opening bars of “Hotel California”, a complex guitar riff I’d nearly mastered. The song made me want to be someplace far away, somewhere I’d be powerful and alive. I’d had a chance to be that woman and I’d blown it.

The locker room looked empty at first, but then I heard a soft, snuffling, panting noise. Drug-sniffing dogs? It would be just like Mrs. Washburn to spend money on that instead of fixing the elevators. I smelled my clothes before pulling them over my bunny suit, to make sure there was nothing compromising in Ryan’s locker that would damn me by association.

“Do you want to go back to the dance?” Ryan asked.

“Where else can we go?” I would rather be anyplace right now than back out there in my baggy clothes, surrounded by girls who got the memo on how to be sexy without getting busted.

“The back stairs?” he said hopefully. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment.

“Let’s go outside and get some air. We can still hear the music through the windows out on the parking lot.” I had a barely acknowledged fantasy of us dancing on the asphalt to a slow-motion ballad like the end of a Molly Ringwald movie.

As we rounded the corner of the bank of lockers, though, we discovered where the snorting sound was coming from. Mitch was sitting on the wooden fold-down bench in the handicapped shower stall. Karlla (Kaytlynne?), her Farrah Fawcett dress hanging off one shoulder, was moving her head up and down between his legs. Mitch’s expression was one of intense, almost painful concentration. He was still wearing the Butch Cassidy cowboy hat and black carpet-fuzz sideburns, which looked totally fake under the unforgiving fluorescent lights.

Ryan sat down on the bench across from this little tableau. My bubble-gum reverie of a midnight glide and grope abruptly popped. If I didn’t do something soon, he might forget I was there.

Mitch sighed, snapped out of his trance. He noticed us and waved casually, as if he were on a subway platform and Ryan had just sat down next to him while he was getting his shoes shined.

“Hey, what happened to the bunny suit?”

“She’s a political prisoner,” Ryan boasted. At least he still found me interesting, but we were on dangerous ground. No one wants a blow job from Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

I was watching Mitch’s girlfriend, still on her knees in the dank, echoing shower stall. What did it feel like, to do that? Was it so overwhelmingly good that you wouldn’t notice the cold floor and the huge empty room that smelled like socks? I’d only gone as far as letting Ryan pinch my breasts when we were studying European history in his room. His little sister banging out the “Minute Waltz” on the tinny piano downstairs (with the same flat note in the fourth bar all thirty-seven times) wasn’t an accompaniment conducive to Becoming A Woman. Worse yet, now my nipples get hard whenever I think of the War of 1812.

K-girl lifted her head and regarded us with a direct intensity that I couldn’t read. Was she angry at being watched, or getting ready for the next course? To his credit, Ryan squirmed under her gaze. He was a pretty nice boy, after all. He turned to me. “Do you want to -”

“Yeah, let’s go outside,” I said hastily. “We’ll see you guys back at the van.”

We pushed through the heavy double doors behind the gym and emerged into the cool evening air. The school windows were open to dispel the heat of the dance crowd, throwing flashes of green and magenta light across the asphalt. The music pounded along, unevenly audible, like the radio of a passing car that you hear from your bedroom window at night. The party seemed more special from this distance than when I’d been inside.

A couple of the hard-core nicotine addicts in our class were lurking by the far wall, no doubt dropping their ashes in the geraniums that the PTA had bragged about installing last year. Other than that, the blacktop was ours.

“Do you wanna dance?” I asked Ryan. He seemed a little surprised, but good-naturedly gave it a try – his usual response to the perplexities of high school. We swayed awkwardly to the strains of “Love to Love You Baby”, Ryan glancing over his shoulder too often to see if anyone had spotted us in a public display of affection. This was different from walking down the hall with our hands in each other’s back pockets. Slow dancing in the moonlight (okay, the sodium lights) was so sweet it was gross. There were a few couples like that at Alice B. Toklas, but no one knew what to say to them; they drifted to the edges of our crowd in self-absorbed little knots, seeming to have aged faster than the rest of us.

The dance over, Ryan leaned me against the brick wall and tongue-kissed me. My head was pounding and I felt my body get hot. All the layers of clothes I was wearing made me fidgety. It would be such a procedure to take it all off. His body, big and simple in jeans and flannel, pushed against me. I wanted someone to see us, whether to stop us or applaud, I wasn’t sure. I’m here, I’m really doing this, I told myself.

He pulled back for air, perhaps wondering where we could go to take it further. There was no cover out here, only some yellowish trees inside circular metal benches scattered around the edge of the lot. I was ready to sneak back inside, shed the floppy clothes and try to recapture the jolt I’d felt when I was dancing in my bunny bra at the heart of a crowd. The disco ball spun stars down the wall, over our faces.

“I’m going to go take this off,” I said, bunching up a handful of the skirt’s coarse printed fabric.

“In the locker room?” he grinned, obviously thinking of Mitch’s good luck.

The next thing I said, I swear, I was only asking for information. Trying to find out what I should be feeling.

“Is that what you want me to do…like Mitch…?”

“Really, would you?” His eyes lit up like Linus seeing the Great Pumpkin parked in his driveway. So what was I going to say – that it was a rhetorical question?

“Not in there, it’s nasty. I want to hear the music.” I realized that at a moment like this, I could tell him I wanted to have sex in a chicken suit and he’d start hunting up feathers and glue. That reconciled me to spreading the folds of my skirt out on the pavement, kneeling down like L’il Kim in a video, and pulling out his thing. I’d never seen one so close up before. His balls were wrinkly like elephant skin and his body smelled different from mine, a mushroomy smell, not unpleasant. I bent down and applied myself. I didn’t feel very much, maybe because I was concentrating so hard. It was kind of like playing the clarinet.

When he was done, his eyes sort of rolled back in his head, and he leaned against the wall like a kid in bed on Christmas morning, dreaming that it’s all sugarplums from here on out. His expression finally made me want to touch myself, but how was I going to do that in the parking lot, in Gloria Steinem’s pantyhose?

“I like that song,” I said, glancing up at the window from which Gloria Gaynor was keening, “At first I was afraid…I was petrified…” I got up. “I’m going to dance.”

Without pausing to zip my poor boyfriend’s fly, I was gone. By the time I washed my face and straightened my outfit in the locker room, I wasn’t interested in sex anymore. As long as I covered my ass, so to speak, they’d let me back out on the floor.

My classmates mostly have a short attention span. If I’d been a real political prisoner, I’d have languished in Siberia for a long time. No one remarked on my new, modest costume (sans wig) as I insinuated myself into a cluster of girls lip-synching to “Ring My Bell”. We looked like the cast of a variety show: two hippies, a Charlie’s Angel, Uhura from Star Trek, and one crazy butch girl wearing Viet Cong black pajamas.

Not one to dwell on feelings of abandonment, Ryan soon rubbed up against me. He was flanked by two of his sports buddies, Dan and Jeff. They all seemed glad to see me. I wondered if this was normal. In my last school, there’d been a surprisingly literate sequence of graffiti on the bathroom doors that described the soft-core adventures of two eighth-graders widely known to be “doing it”. The school had solved that problem by painting the doors in a thick, ugly coat of dark blue, but the legend of Jerry and Blaine was by that time immortal. I might already be the new Blaine. In which case, I’d have to hope Ada never again used the school bathrooms.

Jeff’s black leather jacket gave off a whiff of cigarette smoke. The rough odor, which I normally associated with the fear of being orphaned by lung cancer, now turned me on. I smiled boldly at them. We danced some more in a loose huddle, girls and guys, no one exactly with a partner. I forgot what I was wearing, who I was and the people around me. I never wanted to stop moving.

The ride back home in Mitch’s dad’s minivan was pretty subdued. Us girls had ended up in the back with him while Ryan sat up front and talked sports with Mr. Florio, fresh and alert as a nine o’clock job interview. Mitch had gotten hold of some liquor, which he’d offered me just before we left the school. I’d said no, of course. There was no point getting drunk when the party was over. Now his hot, sweet breath was wilting my shoulder. I didn’t much like Mitch, which oddly added to the thrill of having his heavy dark head sloppily pillowed on my chest. My body was like a machine I wanted to take apart to see how the pieces functioned separately from each other.

We had a month left before the end of sophomore year. Six and a half weeks before I would be shipped off to science camp in Waltham and Ryan would spend another summer behind the counter of a CVS. We spent a lot of that time under the bleachers, which didn’t get crowded until after lunch period. I wouldn’t do it to him when there were other people around. This gave me a reputation as someone with high standards. I looked forward to those hidden half-hours, tucked away in his big fuzzy arms, his smell of sweat and Ivory Soap mixing with that of the baking dirt of the playing field. Shaded from the hot blue sky, we listened to airplanes scream overhead and traded stories of all the places we’d lived.

I calculated that if I stopped studying now, I could still coast by with a B average, maybe B-minus in French but you couldn’t have everything. This wasn’t good enough for my mother, who bought a copy of “Reviving Ophelia” and left it around the house in places I’d notice it. It reminded me of the cringe-making time she’d deconstructed “The Little Mermaid” in front of twelve girls at my friend Betsy’s birthday party. Don’t lose your voice for a man. Just once I wished she would give me credit that I was making my choices for me, instead of assuming that any deviation from her life plan was because I’d fallen under someone else’s evil spell. Whereas doing what she wanted wasn’t brainwashing, it was simply common sense.

Truth be told, Ryan wasn’t the kind of person I would give things up for. Not back then, when I thought I deserved more than mere niceness. I’d found a way to be popular that bypassed the girls’ clique and all the vicious pink fluffiness that went along with it. Me and the boys, talking sports, swapping music from our favorite obscure bands – and then there was my hand cupping Ryan’s balls under the cafeteria table, bringing on that smile like money in the pocket. It got to be too easy.

And if I were Bobby’s girl, and if I were Bobby’s girl…

I let Jeff feel me up one night when a bunch of us were at Mitch’s house playing Nintendo. It was right after school ended. My mother hadn’t been paying much attention to my whereabouts lately because she was teaching a summer seminar at the Harvard Extension School, a bump-up in prestige that made her frantic. We ate dinner on the couch because the dining table was covered with open books marked up with four-color highlighters. The class was about contemporary women writers of formal poetry. Ada would read aloud from the books and ask me whether I thought they were good or not, as if I would know. There was a sonnet about pears I liked a lot, and another about anal fisting.

It felt good but weird to have Jeff touch me there, under my shorts, where no one but me had ever been. Like characters from one book showing up in a story by someone else. Realities that were separate suddenly weren’t. The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. He didn’t get all googly-eyed like Ryan when I did my usual thing, but we were different afterwards, like now he was on

my side, where I wanted him.

…what a grateful, thankful girl I’d be.

Occasionally I do plan for the future. I knew we all weren’t about to fall in love and get married. I was destined for an Ivy League math program, and maybe a romance with a foreign exchange student who would teach me to say “I love you” in Swahili and how to cook anjaro before he was called back home to overthrow the military junta. My boys here would probably go to community college and dream of watching porn on their own plasma TV. So after July 4th I cut my hair, packed up my guitar and willingly headed off to Brandeis for their summer science program for gifted high-schoolers. We’d agreed that I would come home for the weekends and spend weeknights in the dorm, saving Ada the daily commute. When we hugged goodbye on the leafy hill where the campus began, she seemed about to give me severe advice but thought better of it.

“Take care of yourself,” I told her instead. “Don’t forget your nicotine gum.”

She promised to stock up on my favorite energy bars if the food on campus was as bad as I feared. Ada had been working so long on an article about Lord Byron that I felt he was my naughty elder brother, whose exploits we followed in letters from his distant travels. She said she’d email me the next installment as soon as I got my account set up.

In my suitcase that night, I found she’d slipped in a box of condoms and a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. I guess she was smarter than I thought. But it didn’t stop her from having me. Whose life was she telling me not to waste?

Numbers proved to be safe and calming. With my fellow geeks, I graphed multivariable equations, fumbled through experiments with copper wires and flasks of foaming yellow liquid. A couple of the more attractive kids might have been hooking up, but there was even less future in that. We would soon scatter again to Bangor, Maine and Bismarck, North Dakota and all those other places that a few people lived in and the rest of us only memorized.

Ryan sent me a lot of cards that summer. He must have gotten an employee discount at CVS. They had comical photos of puppies and babies on them. One was a Snoopy card that played “You Are My Sunshine” when you opened it. I kept them all (except that one) on my dorm room dresser for people to see, but I didn’t know how to answer him.

I wanted to leave him with a good story. He hadn’t spread rumors about me or pressured me to go all the way. That counted for something. One weekend at home I picked out a card at the art store, a grainy oatmeal paper with a collage of hearts in newsprint and metal. I copied a poem into it, that one of Byron’s about how the sword wears out the sheath. I told him that he’d always be very special to me, but we had to cool it because my mother was threatening to send me to an all-girls’ school if my grades didn’t pick up. Let him fantasize a little about me at the bottom of a heap of lesbian field hockey players.

Between classes I would escape to play my guitar beside one of the ponds that dotted Brandeis’ weedy back acres. It was sad to think there would be no more late mornings under the bleachers, moments when time flowed slow and foolish. I wouldn’t miss sex as much. That was just my price of admission to the world of boys, their loud voices and big bodies that moved so easily through the nets of ambition that entangled Ada and me, as if for them the present would always last long enough. When I thought about this, which wasn’t often, I could almost believe in my own broken heart.

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About Jendi Reiter

Jendi Reiter's first book, A Talent for Sadness, was published in 2003 by Turning Point Books. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, Mudfish, The Sow's Ear Poetry Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Alligator Juniper, MARGIE: The American Journal of Poetry, Best American Poetry 1990 and many other publications. Awards include first prize for poetry in Alligator Juniper's 2006 National Writing Contest, a $2,500 third prize in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg 2005 Poetry Prize contest, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. She is the editor of Poetry Contest Insider, an online guide to over 750 writing contests, published by Visit her personal blog at for poetry, book reviews, and spiritual reflections. "Grateful, Thankful" is a chapter from her novel-in-progress.

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