Fifteen Summers


Fifteen Summers

I was 15 years old, and that summer I wished I could stay 15 forever. I had two close girl friends, I was old enough to earn babysitting money so I could buy pizza and ice cream, and I could do the 600-yard run faster than anyone else in the school. What more could a girl ask for?

That last day of school I had worn my favorite broken-in jeans and had walked around proudly with my award for the 600-yard run tucked under my arm with my yearbook.

“Hey, Morgan!” I called when I saw Eric Morgan in the middle of a bunch of girls as usual. “Sign my yearbook!” I elbowed through the crowd.

“Hey, creep!” he said, with his usual punch to my arm. “You’ll have to wait in line,” referring to his group of female followers.

“Aw, I’ll catch you later.” Eric was the “boy next door” in my life. I’d known him just about forever, I guess.

Oh, it was a great feeling leaving the school that day. Everything was shiny and warm. I rarely wore shoes in the summer when I was outside, and the grass was warm and tickley under my feet. I felt free. I was ready for anything. Or so I thought.

Later that afternoon I ran out the front door of my house, jumped off the porch, yearbook in hand, on my way next door to Eric’s house. But I stopped in the middle of my yard, hair blowing in my face, bare feet suddenly immobile. Eric was sitting on his porch. Beside him sat a girl. I mean, not a girl like me, but a girl with long, rippling hair, shorts, and long smooth legs. They seemed to be engaged in something very confidential. And for the first time in my life, I felt that I did not belong.

I finally dragged my feet back to my front door. Who was that? I hadn’t seen her around. And where did she get that tan?

“Mary Jane!” I jumped at my mother’s voice. She carried a basket full of dirty clothes under one arm and my wriggly baby brother under the other.

“I need your help,” she said.

Ugh. She always needs my help.

“Don’t pull a face. Go clean that room of yours.”

“Oh, mom! Please! Have you seen that room?”

“Of course. That’s why I’m telling you to clean it.”

“But, mom!”

“No buts. Just go.”

No buts, no buts. Mothers can say things like that. I could see me saying that to her! I don’t think my mother was ever a teenager.

Friday night Jill and I slept over at Barbara’s house. We brought our yearbooks so we could all compare the fantastically dull things that perfectly intelligent people had written. “See you next year!” “Have fun this summer.” “Algebra was fun.”

Unbelievable.

I had at least tried to write things I really meant to people. Like, “Hey, funny face! Call me this summer and we can go water skiing together.” Or “Hey, biology was a drag, but you’re the funnest person I know to dissect cats with.”

“Listen to this!” Barbara said. “I love your foxy hair and captivating voice. Maybe I’ll come over this summer and swim in your swimming pool. Can’t wait to see you!” Barbara burst into giggles.

“Good grief!” I said. “Who wrote that?”

“Eric Morgan!”

Eric! I was stunned. And I saw a long-legged girl with rippling hair, and I saw Barbara with fantastic, shiny brown hair, and I saw Eric, and I saw me, and I saw something happening that I couldn’t understand. Yet Barbara and Jill sat munching potato chips and laughing as if nothing were happening at all.

“Eric is crazy,” Jill laughed. “Look what he said to me.”

She thumbed furiously through blue and white autographed pages, a grin crinkling her freckles, while Barbara’s eyes sparkled in anticipation.

I felt like I was sitting back in an easy chair watching a movie. I could see it, but I was not part of it. And the producer had done some awfully tricky things, and it didn’t seem fair.

“Here it is,” Jill said. “I love your cute little nose and the way it wrinkles up your face when you laugh. And those dimples! I’ll see you this summer for sure!”

I sat cross-legged, hugging my yearbook up close against me. Barbara and Jill were very far away, their laughter distant. And they didn’t even realize that I was gone. They sat there in their lacy nighties, laughing like crazy. I, in my cut-offs and football T-shirt, crawled into my sleeping bag and slept.

Of course, Saturday morning Barbara and Jill had to rib me all through pancakes and bacon about being the first one to fall asleep. It was the usual thing, so I just ribbed them back, but they were strangers. I didn’t know them anymore.

I helped mom clean the house like we always did on Saturdays, but it wasn’t as painful as usual because my mind was somewhere else. I had plans for that afternoon. I was going to wash my hair and put some of that lemon creme rinse on it. Then, instead of just blowing it dry, I might try to do something with the curling iron mom had given me last Christmas. If it turned out okay, I’d go over to Eric’s. He still hadn’t signed my yearbook.

When I was ready, I went slowly around the bushes in the front yard to make sure that there wasn’t a girl on the porch with him. There wasn’t. He was washing his dad’s car in the driveway with a bucket of sudsy water and the hose. I took a breath, felt my hair to make sure it was still behaving, and strolled across his front yard.

“Eric,” I said in his ear.

“Aaa,” he yelped, jumping forward, drenching himself with the hose.

“Hey, you shouldn’t sneak up on a guy like that!”

I didn’t know what to say, but I felt my hair again, and it still felt good. I stood there waiting for something, I wasn’t sure what. Neither was he.

“Well?” he said.

“Oh.” I cleared my throat. “Um … I wanted you to sign my yearbook.”

“Oh, okay.” He dropped the hose on the ground. “I’ll go get mine,” he said, running to the front door. He was back in a moment. I sat on the shaded porch. I could feel the cool cement through my shorts. I stretched my legs out leisurely before me.

“Good grief,” Eric exclaimed. “What happened to your legs?”

I looked at my stubby white legs, covered with nicks and scrapes, with a couple of bandaids hiding the two worst spots.

“Just forget it,” I said.

Eric began to hoot and howl with laughter. I stood up and stalked across his front lawn.

“Hey, come back here.” He swaggered after me. I briefly looked at him but kept walking. “Hey, come on,” he said. He grabbed my arm.

“Don’t touch me, Eric Morgan!”

“Hey, I was just teasing. Come on, you don’t really look all that bad.” I stood firm. “Come on, Mary Jane,” he said softly. And something happened to me. A tingling in my arms and legs. A light-headedness. A temporary paralysis. Then I looked at him, and I couldn’t keep the smile from my lips.

“Okay?” he said gently. “Come on.” I had to give in. I walked back to the porch. I had spent the whole day figuring out what I would write in Eric’s yearbook. I had repeated the words over and over again to myself at least a hundred times.

“Dear Eric,” I began. “You know you’re not just the boy next door anymore. You’ve been a part of my life for almost 16 years.” I hesitated before writing the last sentence. Between making beds and vacuuming and scrubbing floors, I hadn’t decided whether I was brave enough or not. What if he laughed? I looked at him. He was still busy writing in my book. His thick black hair was a little mussed up, windblown. His cheeks were sunburned. Just think, I told myself, I probably know more things about him than any other girl. Or anyone at all in fact. We spent our childhoods together. I kept his secrets; he kept mine. I’ve seen him cry. Other girls look at him and see a big husky guy. I look at him and see a vulnerable little boy.

He signed his name with a flourish. Looking up at me he caught me staring. For just a moment our eyes met in silence.

“Well,” he said, “you done?”

My eyes lingered just an infinitesimal second longer. “No,” I answered and scribbled, “Just remember, Eric, that you’re a boy and I’m a girl and that can lead somewhere.” Blushing so hard I could feel it, I quickly signed my name and shoved his book into his hand, taking mine from him.

I hopped off the porch and thumbed through my yearbook as I walked. I couldn’t wait to see what he’d said to me. Wow, all those fantastic things he’d said to Barbara and Jill, and he’s known me longer than he’s known them. I finally found the page and I stood still to read it. “Hey, creep!” it said. “You’re not a bad kid. We’ll have to have some more of those great water fights this summer. See you around, Eric.” That was it. All of it. Oh no, I thought as I felt the pressure building in my nose, in my eyes. I thought, I’m going to cry; I’m going to stand right here in his yard and cry. Yet I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run to the safety of my front door, to the privacy of my bedroom.

Suddenly an ice cold avalanche hit the back of my head and cascaded over my shoulders, freezing my back and my legs all at once. My breath seemed sucked into my stomach and held there. I screamed, tossing my yearbook aside, and charged at Eric and the water hose, 45 minutes worth of messing around with the curling iron down the drain. This was the last straw.

“Eric Morgan, you awful …” my words became lost in a torrent of hurt and anger. All I could see was cold, spraying water and a laughing sunburnt face. I screamed, I pushed, I knocked him down. “Hey!” he yelled. “Cut it out! What are you?” he panted. “Crazy?”

It suddenly occurred to me that I must be. I grabbed my yearbook and ran.

“Mary Jane!” Mom yelled as I ran through the kitchen. “Look what you’re doing. You’re getting water all over! I just did this floor. Do you hear me?”

“Leave me alone, mom!”

“What did you say?”

“I said leave me alone!” I slammed my bedroom door. I didn’t come out for the rest of the day. Even when mom knocked on the door and said we were having pizza for supper.

“What’s wrong, dear?” she kept asking. I just wanted to scream at her. She wouldn’t understand. She had never been a teenager.

I spent the next few weeks pretty quietly. Pretty alone. I sat in my backyard a lot and listened to my stereo; I mowed the lawn sometimes and drank lemonade. Jill and Barbara called me a lot at first. They asked me to go horseback riding or water skiing. But I usually said no, and after a while they quit asking me. Mom still kept asking me “What’s wrong?” and dad kept trying to tickle me and tease me or challenge me to a game of chess. Mom would ask me if I was sick, and I would say I didn’t know, because I didn’t.

July was my birthday. But not till the end of July. I told myself at the beginning of July that I had a whole month to get used to the idea of being 16.

July was also the Young Artists’ Festival. That’s a program that my stake had been holding annually for some time. It wasn’t really a competition, or wasn’t supposed to be, but each entry was graded on a scale from one to ten, with one being the best you could get. It was an opportunity to “do your thing” in front of an audience and get some recognition for it.

Two years ago Barbara and Jill and I had asked another girl, Sandy, to enter the quartet division with us. We practiced hard and had a lot of fun. We even made costumes. We couldn’t believe that we were only given a rating of four. After all that practice! The next year we had taken a realistic look at it and had just about found the nerve to ask Jill not to sing with us, when she dropped out on her own. She wasn’t dumb. We asked a girl named Lori to take her place. That year we earned a two.

So when Brother Wood, who had been in charge of the festival for years, called up to ask if we’d be performing this year, well, it was the first thing since the day of “The Great Water Fight” that gave me a good reason to get up each morning. If there was one thing that I wasn’t confused about that summer, it was my love of singing. I’d been born with it, I guess.

So I quit sitting around, and we started having practices two or three times a week, with Jill watching to tell us what to do differently, or what to do more of. Another girl, Karen, played the piano for us.

It was after one of these practices that Barbara invited us all over to swim in her pool.

“Mary Jane,” she said, “you haven’t been in my pool once this summer.”

“I know,” I said uncomfortably. “I’ve … been busy.”

“Well, you’ll come today, won’t you?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. After all the singing we’d been doing, I was feeling a little more human and it had been a hot summer.

“Good,” she said. “Eric will be glad.”

“What?”

“Eric. He’s been swimming at my house all summer. He’s always telling me to get you over there.”

“He is?”

“Yes.” Suddenly her voice was very soft. “He says he’s missed you.”

“We have too,” Jill added quietly.

I looked from Barbara to Jill then down at my hands. I didn’t know if I wanted to go swimming or not if Eric was going to be there. He’d probably make cracks about my one-piece swimming suit or about my legs. But they were really tan now, after sitting in my backyard all summer.

“Did he really say that?” I asked.

Barbara nodded solemnly.

“Okay, I’ll come,” I said. But, I thought to myself, I sure won’t curl my hair for him.

The sun was extra hot that day. It seemed to bounce off the pavement and get caught in my eyes. The water was cold and delicious to my body. Under the water all was quiet, perfectly silent, perfectly solitary. That is, until I suddenly felt a tight clutch on my foot and I looked down to see Eric’s body moving gracefully up alongside mine. We both soared to the surface and our heads popped through, making bubbles and waves. Laughter from the other girls filled the air. I swam to the side and pulled myself out, then sat on the edge. I had already decided how to treat Eric the next time I was forced to be with him. Aloof. Very aloof. So when he pulled himself out and sat beside me I just kind of looked the other way.

“Race you across the pool,” he said.

“Not now.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

He didn’t say anything. I kept looking the other way. I wondered what he was thinking.

“Mary Jane,” he said quietly. That soft voice again. It made me nervous. I looked at my legs. “Why do you hate me now?”

I stopped breathing and looked at him, my mouth hanging open. There were those blue eyes again. Then suddenly we were surrounded by the other girls.

“Mary Jane,” Barbara said as they all sat down around us, “we’ve got it all figured out.”

“What?”

“White formals.”

“Huh?”

“For the festival. We’ll wear white formals.”

“Formals?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean last year we wore checked gingham with pinafores.”

“Well, Mary Jane,” she said, “last year we were little girls.”

Later that evening Eric walked home with me. We walked in silence most of the way, but I was troubled because I felt that I had to say something to him. I didn’t hate him, and I wanted him to know it. As we neared my house, I finally stopped walking and turned to face him.

“Eric.”

“Mary Jane,” he said at the same time. We both laughed just a little. Then we were quiet again.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know what to say.”

Laughter. Silence.

“You were right you know.”

“About what?” I asked.

“What you wrote in my yearbook.”

“Oh that.” I blushed.

“Really,” he said. “I’m a boy and you’re a girl. A good-looking one too.”

I grinned and stared at my terribly interesting toes.

“Well,” he said. “I’ve got to go.” I looked up at him, and once again our gaze was locked in time and space.

“Good-bye,” he said suddenly and ran home. I stared after him. With him went something. A part of me. A part that I wasn’t sure I was ready to give up just yet. Did I want to grow up? Was I ready?

Oh, I thought as I slowly walked into my house, this whole crazy summer is too much. I decided to take a nap.

Something was shaking me, and my head slowly cleared as I opened my eyes. It was mom.

“It’s almost time for supper,” she said.

I just lay there.

“Honey,” she said, feeling my forehead, “are you sure you’re all right?”

I still just lay there. She looked completely frustrated. She began to leave the room.

“Mama,” I said. She stopped and turned to look at me. I hadn’t called her mama for years, but I suddenly felt so little. “Do you remember when you turned 16?”

For a moment mom just looked at me, as if she didn’t understand. But slowly a dreamy look came over her face. Her eyes sparkled, and she gazed across the room as if I weren’t even in it.

“Yes,” she said slowly, walking to the window. There she rested her elbows on the window sill, her chin on closed fists. “I do remember something like that.” She smiled wistfully. I had never seen her like this. Maybe she had been a teenager. I was suddenly speechless. But she finally came back to the present and looked at me.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” She was very quiet. That was all it took to bring on the tears that had been stored up inside me for weeks. I was quickly in my mother’s arms, small and vulnerable, warm and protected.

“Oh, mama,” I sobbed, “I don’t know what I want or who I am or what I’m good for. What am I doing here? I want to live in summertime forever. I want to go barefoot and be happy. I want to care about someone. I want someone to care about me. But I’m scared.” I looked at my mother. “Do you know what I mean?”

Again she spoke slowly, distantly.

“Words don’t come easy to me as they do to you. But I remember feeling … well, as if someone had placed me in the wrong world. And it did no good to cry.”

“Why does it have to be this way, mom?”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she said, smiling. “I mean, it’s for sure we’ll never be 15 again. But I have you, don’t I? And I have your father, and your baby brother. And a lot of other wonderful things that I can’t even describe. You’ll know someday.”

Will I? I wondered. Will I really? But mom did look happy. For the time being, I would just trust her.

The Young Artists’ Festival was the night before my birthday. We had worked hard for this one. We wore our white formals. I spent all day doing my hair and getting ready. I arrived in time for the last-minute flurries that always go on before these productions can begin. Brother Wood was running around trying to get everything organized. Barbara, Sandy, Lori, and I were almost jumping up and down with excitement. The audience began to arrive, things began to settle down, and with the opening prayer, the program started.

Everyone was good. They always were. In fact, the four we earned two years ago was probably the lowest score that had ever been given in the history of the Young Artists’ Festival. So that everyone could fit into some category, pluses and minuses were also given.

As the judges began to read the scores, everyone was silent. Brother Wood gave his usual speech about how everyone had been so good. Then the scores were read. A two. A one. A three +. And on and on. Squeals and sighs.

“Quartet.” He read our names. Tension. Heart pounding in my ears. Hands gripping my chair.

“One +.”

Shock for a moment. Then shrieks!

At the reception afterward we were all standing around drinking punch and talking and laughing. The feeling of knowing a job has been well done was still lingering in my chest and bursting out of my eyes and out of my mouth, making me sound like someone else. It came out so smoothly, so … well, almost sophisticated. But easy. My arms were warm and brown next to the white of my dress. My hair felt clean and swingy. I almost didn’t recognize myself. I felt as if I had, in my hurry, left myself at home.

I was casually looking from one side of the room to the other to feel my hair swish across my neck when I saw Brother Wood coming toward me.

“Excuse me,” he said, breaking into our little group. Something about him wanted to make me nervous, but my new self refused to cooperate, and I looked at him steadily.

“Yes?” I said, since he seemed to be addressing me.

“I hope I don’t embarrass you, but there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”

I looked quickly around at Jill, at Barbara, and an assortment of curious faces. I felt my face flush slightly, but still I refused to flounder. I turned cool eyes to Brother Wood and smiled.

“What is it? I hope my slip isn’t showing.”

“No, no. It’s just that I hope you know that you are a beautiful young lady.”

What happened after that is not completely clear in my mind. I vaguely remember a circle of softly smiling faces. And I barely remember the still serious face of Brother Wood. But I very clearly remember the sincerity in his eyes.

At 11:00 that night I stood in front of my dresser mirror, still in my white dress, gazing into a thousand faces of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

That night at the stroke of midnight, while I was sound asleep, I turned 16. And I’ll never be 15 again.

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie