Ready or Not


Ready or Not

Mine are typical parents. They wouldn’t let me date until I was 16 years old. I guess it was good, because even though I hated to admit it to my most secret self, no boy had ever asked me for a date. I was confident that when I reached 16, everything would change. For years I’d looked forward to it, and both Mom and Dad had solemnly promised that I could date when that time came. As my 16th birthday approached, my family made little remarks to let me know they were aware of its importance.

Mom said, “You’re becoming a fine young woman, Wendy. You’re not so shy as you were a year ago. You’re ready to handle most situations.”

My grandparents smiled and said, “Sooooo, you’re nearing 16, are you?”

My Aunt Maudie looked me up and down and said, “Well, I’d hoped you’d fill out a little by the time you were 16. You’re still built like a beanpole.”

My three younger sisters followed me around the house and kept saying things like, “Wendy, are you going to get married when you’re 16? The girl across the street did.”

And Dad said, “I can’t believe my little Wendy, grown up and ready to date boys!”

So you see what I mean when I say that turning 16 was such a big thing. I had a feeling that being 16 would change me from a shy, skinny kid to a sophisticated society girl. Whenever I thought about that day, I saw “SIXTEEN” in giant red lights flash to the whole world that I was ready. I saw a new telephone hastily installed in my room to handle the flood of calls. I saw myself frantically shopping for clothes for my hectic social life. But most of all, I saw practically every boy at school clamoring for my attention.

By the time the big day arrived, I’d memorized a dozen imaginary conversations for different types of boys. Each time the telephone rang, I mentally flipped through the snappy dialogues.

I was ready.

My birthday came. That morning I wore my new, faded-denim jeans and yellow, Calcutta-cloth shirt. My long, sun-streaked blonde hair was smooth and gleaming. It swung casually at every turn. The faintest flick of green eye shadow made my green eyes glow greener. With my brown bag over one shoulder and an armful of books, I bounced eagerly down the street toward the school.

“Get ready, all you people,” I thought. “Here comes 16-year-old Wendy!”

And then do you know what happened? Nothing—absolutely nothing.

My new, faded-denim jeans; my new, yellow, Calcutta-cloth shirt; my shining, swinging hair; and my faintest flick of green eye shadow were wasted. Even my whole, newly glowing self was wasted. I must’ve sparked as much excitement as an old-style math book. None of the boys said more than hi. For all they cared I might’ve been a wall map or a library table.

My family birthday dinner that night didn’t help much. Grandpa teased, “Well, here’s little miss 16-year-old and never been kissed, I’ll bet.”

“Grandpa,” I said coldly, “I never intend to be kissed. I’m going to devote my life to a great cause.”

For about three weeks no one mentioned that I’d had an important birthday. I knew my sisters were itching to say something, but somehow, Mom silenced them. I kept busy daydreaming about the honorable, sacrificing career I’d have. I also tried to ignore the complete lack of telephone calls from boys.

Then one evening as we were eating dinner, the phone rang. My ten-year-old sister knocked over her chair trying to reach the phone before it rang again.

“Hello,” she said. “Yes, just a minute.”

She dragged the phone toward the table and screeched, “Wendy, it’s for you! It’s a boy!”

“You don’t have to scream so,” I hissed. “He’ll hear you!”

“But it’s a boy! He wants you! Maybe you’ll have a date now,” she said.

I picked up the phone. “Hello? … This is Wendy. … Okay. … Okay. … Fine. … Fine. … All right. … (Heaven help me! Where were those clever replies I’d memorized?) Yes. … Of course. … Just a minute, I’ll see.”

“Does he want a date, Wendy? Does he want a date?” My 13-year-old sister asked.

“Mom, Dad, it’s a guy from school. He wants me to go to the community concert with him Friday night. His parents can’t go, and they gave him their tickets.”

“Do you want to go?” Mom asked.

“Oh, I guess.”

“Who’s the boy?” Dad asked.

“His name’s Norris Elkington. He’s in my science class.”

“Is he the right kind of a boy?” That was Mom asking that.

“He’s okay. Nothing too cool.”

“But he’s a boy!” My 13-year-old sister exulted. “You’ve got a date at last!”

Mom looked at Dad. “Well, I suppose it’s all right, Wendy, if you’re sure he’s a nice boy.”

For a minute I hesitated. The community concert wasn’t my idea of a super date, but … “Norris,” I said into the phone, “it’s okay. What time on Friday? … Oh. … Oh. … Well, that’s fine, I guess. … Oh. … Yes. … (There’s that sparkling conversation again.) Tell your mother thanks. See you. … Bye.”

“Well now, that’s a nice beginning,” Mom said brightly when I sat down again.

“His mother’s also giving him their Diner’s Card, so we can go to dinner first,” I said.

“That’s a big evening for a first date,” Mom said. “I hope it works out.”

As Friday approached I became more jittery. I didn’t want to go to the community concert. I didn’t want to eat dinner with Norris. I didn’t even want a date. I thought, maybe I’ll fall and break a leg. (I could see my hospital room crammed with red roses.) Or maybe Mom and Dad will look me straight in the eye and say, “No dating until you’re 17!” (Don’t think of that; it might give them ideas.)

Well, Friday came and so did Norris—promptly at 6:30. I sneaked one last look at myself and knew that I was as scrubbed, sprayed, polished, brushed, and scared as I ever would be.

My eight-year-old sister snuggled up to me and said to our mirrored reflections, “Gee, Wendy, you look beautiful. I’ll bet Norris’ll want to marry you.”

“Don’t talk like that,” I said. “I won’t be dating him again.”

Norris surprised me. He looked better than I’d hoped. He’s taller and skinnier than I am, but he has the same sun-streaked, blond hair and greenish eyes. As he shook hands with my parents, I could see that he was as scrubbed, polished, and brushed as I was.

Mom and Dad and all three sisters stood at the front door and watched Norris help me into his family car. How thankful I was that Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Maudie hadn’t come as they’d threatened to! I felt like the number one exhibit.

Norris sat rigidly, with both hands on the steering wheel. I sat rigidly over on my side. Both my hands clutched my brown bag. As we drove down the street, our conversation went about like this:

“Well, it’s a real nice night,” Norris said. “Not too cold, just nippy.”

“Yes, it’s very nice. I like nippy weather.”

Silence.

“I bought a tankful of gas,” he said. “I’d sure hate to run out.”

“Oh, yes, it’d be terrible to run out.”

Silence. Horrible, silent silence.

“My mother says she’s sure we’ll like the food at the Broiler,” he said. “I hope it’s okay with you.”

“If your mother says it’s fine, I’m sure it’s good.”

“Of course, if you’d rather go some other place, just say so.”

“Oh, no, no. The Broiler sounds great.”

Well, I thought, we’re improving. We each made two statements on that subject.

“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.

“Math.”

“Math? Oh, how nice. What do you like about it?”

“Don’t know. Just like it.”

And that ended that subject.

About then we came to the Broiler, and getting out of the car and being seated took a few minutes. As I picked up the enormous gold and red menu and scanned the price list, I remembered Mom’s advice.

“The thing to do,” she said, “is to order what he does. Then you won’t be out of line.”

So I waited for Norris to say something. He said, “What would you like?”

“Oh, I haven’t decided yet. What’re you having?”

“I don’t know. My mother says the roast beef is very good. But I’ll get what you get.”

Oh, no, I thought. Why doesn’t he make up his mind? Why couldn’t we have gone to Gino’s Pizza Palace?

“Norris,” I begged, “surprise me. Order for me.”

“Really?” He looked pleased. “Well, let’s have the roast beef. We know that’s good. My mother said so.”

It was good, too. But I wished his mother hadn’t practically ordered it for us.

There wasn’t much talk during dinner. Norris looked at me twice and both times said, “This is great, isn’t it?”

Then there was the concert. I sat there feeling sorry for myself. What’s so great about having a date? And with Norris—he’s about as exciting as a bowl of melted lemon jello. And this boring concert, yuck! Who wants to listen to that guy up there screeching back and forth on that violin? And I was tired of saying, “Oh, yes, nice. I’m really enjoying myself. Oh, yes, really!” Well, Norris didn’t inspire me with anything else.

Most of the time he sat there with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands and stared at the floor. He and his idea of a date were just out of it, completely out of it.

After the concert, we got into the car and drove off. Now this was the time I’d dreaded most for days. What if he tried to put his arm around me? Or worse, what if he tried to kiss me? I sat stiffly on my side of the car and noticed with relief that both of Norris’s hands seemed to be cemented to the wheel. The big tales I’d heard at school about guys driving around and parking somewhere and expecting a girl to get really friendly ran through my mind. That’s when I wished for the tenth time that I was home with my three little sisters watching the Friday night movie on TV.

And then Norris said, “How’d you like to take a little drive, Wendy, up around Red Hill Loop?”

“No, no, I’ve got to hurry home. I really do.”

“Anything you say, Wendy.” He turned the car toward home.

The next hurdle was the front porch. We walked up the front steps, and for the first time in my life I was grateful for Edison’s invention of the electric light and the big, lighted globe at our front door. Mentally, I thanked Mom and Dad for turning it on.

I put one hand on the door knob and said, “Thank you for a very interesting evening, Norris.”

“I’m glad you thought it was interesting,” he said. “Maybe we can do it again, sometime.”

And then he held out his right hand, and without thinking I reached out and we shook hands! We actually shook hands! Then Norris ran from the circle of light, slammed the car door, spun the wheels, and was gone.

There I was. He hadn’t even tried to put his arm around me! I didn’t even have a chance to brush him off. That’s one tale I wouldn’t tell at school. Imagine, he shook my hand!

Naturally it wasn’t very late, so the whole family was up watching TV when I came in. There were eager questions from them and reluctant answers from me.

After a few minutes Dad said, “Doesn’t it occur to you, Wendy, that Norris might’ve been just as unsure about the evening as you were?”

“Why should he be?” I asked.

“I’ll bet it was his first date, too,” Dad said. “And remember, he found the courage to ask you. That’s a difficult thing to do the first time.”

“Maybe his mother made him do it,” my 13-year-old sister said.

“Maybe he worried more about it than you did,” Mom said.

“Do you really think Norris was jittery, too?” I asked.

“You think about it, Wendy,” Dad said.

I did think about it while I washed my face and brushed my teeth. Three things kept coming back in my mind: how Norris had sat at the concert with his head in his hands, how quickly he’d brought me home when I turned down the ride, and how he’d run into the dark after shaking my hand.

Oh, no, I thought. All I had cared about was how unhappy and bored I was. I hadn’t thought about how he felt.

As I switched out my bedroom light, I realized that turning 16 hadn’t changed me really. I was still a shy, skinny kid, and, I hated to admit it, a selfish, self-centered brat.

There was a knock on the door. “Wendy, are you asleep?” Mom called. “The telephone—for you.”

It was Norris.

“No,” I told him, “you didn’t wake me. … Speak louder, I can’t hear you. … Oh, you don’t want to wake your parents. … What? … Thank you. I’m glad you liked my hair. … What? You thought the concert was yucky? … I can’t help laughing. You say such funny things. … You mean it? You wish we’d gone to Gino’s Pizza Palace? You do, honest? … Tomorrow, sounds really neat. I’d love it. … Okay. … Okay. … See you. … Bye, Norris.”

As I switched out my bedroom light once more, I wondered what to wear the next day when Norris and I went bike riding. I’ll wear my new, faded-blue jeans. No, I’ll wear my … hey, wait a minute, brat. What would Norris like? I wonder what his favorite color is?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley