The Usual Rules

A Novel

Joyce Maynard

St. Martin's Press

Prologue


It was a story Wendy knew well, how she got her name.

Your dad wanted to call you Sierra, her mother would begin, because you were conceived in the Sierra Mountains, on a camping trip. Trout fishing, naturally. But ever since I was a little girl, I always said if I had a daughter, I'd call her Wendy.

Her mother loved musicals, the big old-fashioned kind. Growing up in Cedar Falls, the only time she ever saw a show was the annual Lions Club production, but one time they had the real Broadway version of Peter Pan on TV, with the actress Mary Martin playing Peter. Having a woman play Peter wasn't as strange as you'd think, because she was skinny and her hair was cut short like a boy.

This was way back. Wendy's mother, Janet, was only five years old at the time. She herself had been named after a singer on her parents' favorite show, Lawrence Welk. One of the Lennon Sisters. But even back then, she knew she wasn't a Lawrence Welk type. She was going to be a Broadway dancer. She wanted to play Peter Pan herself. Someday that was going to be her flying over the audience, dancing with the Lost Boys, singing ``I've Gotta Crow.'' Her hair was long but she'd cut it.

She got to New York on a bus when she was eighteen years old. Back home she'd done some typing for her father's insurance office. With the money she'd saved she rented a room in the Barbizon Hotel, which catered to young women who came to New York City from places like Missouri. She went to auditions, but in the meantime she got a job as a waitress at a Chock Full o'Nuts restaurant and a second job, nights, as something called a Peachy Puff girl, selling cigarettes and candy bars at clubs in a little outfit that was basically a bathing suit, with a few ruffles on the bottom. That was where she met her friend Kate. The two of them saved up their money so they could buy tickets to shows. She went without food sometimes, but never musicals.

Janet was a wonderful dancer. They always told her that. But not being able to carry a tune, she was out of the running for featured roles, if any singing was involved.

Her big break was getting to be an understudy in A Chorus Line. Not for any of the main parts, but when one of the dancers in the company couldn't go on, Janet did.

The problem was, she got this look on her face when she danced. Hard as she tried, she couldn't change. It's fine to be happy, a casting director told her once. But you keep giving me rapture, and that's a little much.

The audience is meant to be looking at the featured performers, another director told her once. When you're dancing, we end up watching you.

I'll try not to stand out so much, she said.

I don't think you can help it, he told her.

The closest she ever got to an actual role was final callbacks for Princess Tiger Lily in a road company revival of Peter Pan. Not Mary Martin anymore.

I think this time I'm going to get it, she had told her mother when she called with the news.

The next day, running across the street on her way to the theater--her last audition, when it was down to just a handful of dancers--a bicycle messenger ran into her. She knew the minute she hit the ground that it was bad. She sat on the curb, on the corner of Forty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue, crying. A man came out of a stage door, carrying a bunch of tools. A set builder. Hey, he said. You look like you could use a cup of coffee.

That was Garrett. He was working as a carpenter, but he was really an artist. He took her out for dim sum that night. He was very handsome in a way that made her think of Billy Bigelow in Carousel. As soon as her ankle was better, they danced together in his loft. East Coast swing.

They fell in love. He painted her. A few months later, he took her cross-country in his truck. Camping mostly, and stopping along the way at places where the fishing was good. He loved to fish, and she actually liked tying flies, or thought she did, she was that much in love.

By then she had started to wonder if it really was what she wanted most, to tap-dance in the back row now and then, nights when somebody in the company called in sick, living in her little one-room apartment, eating her soup alone. She was twenty-six years old. A whole new crop of terrific dancers landed in New York every year, also wanting to dance on Broadway. They were younger than she was, with the kind of fierce ambition she used to have when she first got to New York.

The pregnancy--discovered a few days after they returned from their camping trip--came as a surprise, but not bad news. What do you say we get married? Garrett had said.

From the beginning, Janet had understood that Garrett was something of a Peter Pan type himself. But she had a weakness for lost boys. Even a hit show would close eventually. A tour would end. A marriage and a baby ran forever. That was the hope anyway.

I didn't even have a boy's name picked out, her mother told her. I was so sure you were going to be a girl.

Wendy: the oldest of the children Peter took with him to Neverland. The sensible one, but full of spunk. The one who kept things together for everyone.

Things had been rough in Neverland for Wendy and her two brothers, and the other Lost Boys. They hardly remembered their own mothers, they'd been gone so long, so it was Wendy who took care of them. She did things like mend their shirts, but she also told them stories.

I'd do that, too, Wendy told her mother when they got to this part. If I had a brother, I'd take the best care of him.

Some people might have gotten fed up with a person like Peter Pan. He was so irresponsible, but Wendy was patient. She loved him for the good parts and forgave the rest.

Even though she was this sensible, motherly-type person, there was another side to Wendy. She was an adventurer. She was brave, even when she was captured by the pirates. At the darkest moments, she never gave up hope.

Many times, when she was little, Wendy and her mother had rented the video of Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. When it got to the place where Peter asked everyone to close their eyes and think hard if they believed in fairies, to keep Tinker Bell from dying, Wendy had done it. Yes, I believe, she called out to the television set. I really do.

Of course, everything had turned out all right in the end. That was one of the other great things about musicals, her mother said. The happy endings.



PART ONE

New York

One

Quarter past six. In ten minutes, Wendy would have to get in the shower. Her clock radio came on. A newsman was talking about the elections for mayor of New York City. She switched to music. Madonna.

She went through her new school clothes in her head, thinking up combinations. Her mother said the great thing about the gray pants was how you could wear them with anything, but when she wore them yesterday, she'd felt as if she was playing dress-up. Nobody else in eighth grade had pants like that. She wished she'd gotten the purple-and-green-plaid kilt instead, that her mom said was impractical. Her mom, who owned three different-colored feather boas and red velvet harem pants, a leopard-print cat suit, and a tutu, not to mention all her old Peachy Puffs getups.

Those pants really flatter your figure, her mother said when she put them on yesterday.

Do you think I'm fat? Wendy said. Her mother was a size four, and they could share clothes now, but Wendy could tell that before long, her clothes would be bigger than her mother's.

Of course not. All I meant was they make you look even slimmer than usual.

I'm fat, aren't I? Wendy told her.

You've got a perfect body. Much nicer than if you were one of those stick-figure types. I always wished I had a shape.

In other words I'm chunky, said Wendy.

You look just right, her mother said. Your bones are bigger, that's all.

Louie opened the door partway, just enough that she could see a corner of his face, eyes crusty, thumb in mouth.

Are you dry?

He told her yes.

Positive?

There's just this one little drip but it got soaked up in my sleeper suit, so it doesn't count. He stood there holding Pablo, with the old blue ribbon from when Pablo was new wrapped around his thumb. He liked to twirl the tip of the ribbon in his ear with his free hand while he sucked on the thumb of his other hand.

Just don't get any pee on me, she said.

He positioned himself in the bed so every inch of the side closest to Wendy was touching some part of her. She could hear the slurping sound his lips made on this thumb, and his breathing, slow and quiet, still labored from last week's cold.

One two three four. He was counting the rabbits on her pajama bottoms, though after twelve or thirteen, he usually gave up.

dn0
I dreamed we got a puppy, he said. The two of them had been after their parents about that forever.

What kind?

With spots. Little and fuzzy.

Are you going to school again today? he said.

I already explained to you, Louie. I go to school every day now except Saturday and Sunday. Five days in a row, school, and two days home, only probably a lot of times I'll be sleeping over at Amelia's Friday nights.

I want you to stay home with me, he said.

She could hear the shower running in the room next to hers. She called it her parents' bathroom, even though Josh wasn't her real father, only Louie's. It was easier, plus he seemed more like her father than her real one.

You'll be going to school, too, pretty soon anyway, she told him. Thursday is preschool orientation, remember? You might want to work on not sucking your thumb so much. The other kids might make fun of you.

I changed my mind, he said. I don't want to go to preschool after all. I want to stay home and play with you.

Well, I'm not going to be home, she said. And even if I was, I probably wouldn't play that much.

Why?

I'm not in that stage anymore. Once you get to my stage in life, you want to do different kinds of things.

What?

Josh was making French toast. The kitchen smelled of just-ground coffee beans and frying butter. He was playing the Teach Yourself Spanish tape. Part one of her mother's birthday present last month. Part two was the trip to Mexico scheduled for next spring, when Wendy was going to stay at Amelia's or possibly go to California to visit her real dad, but she wasn't supposed to count on this. It had been nearly three years since she'd seen him.

Her mother had said they couldn't afford a trip to Mexico, but Josh told her she worried too much. Six months from now, I could get hit by a bus, he said, and boy would you ever wish you'd gone on that trip.

The coffeepot made the sound that meant the coffee was ready. Josh poured himself a cup of coffee. Louie hopped in on one foot. He had taken off his cape now and replaced it with the cummerbund from his Aladdin costume. All week he'd been working on his skipping, and now he was circling the table, making little frog jumps. He hadn't figured out yet how to alternate his feet.

Hola, muchacho! said Josh.

Blabbyblaba, Louie said. Where's my cereal?

Josh had already poured it. At your servicio, senor.

The voice on the tape was reviewing yesterday's lesson. Donde esta la estacion central de autobus? he repeated.

Wendy studied Josh's face as he stood at the stove, holding the spatula like it was a microphone. His hair was going in all different directions. He hadn't shaved yet, and he was wearing the same old green sweatpants and his Yankees T-shirt from last summer's subway series. He wasn't handsome like her father, and he didn't have her father's six-pack that made Amelia call him a hunk when she saw his picture. Josh had curly black hair and the kind of face you'd like to see if you had a problem.

Powdered sugar on yours, miss? he asked. He set down a pitcher of maple syrup in front of her. Heated. She had told herself she was going to cut calories today, but now she poured a pool of syrup on her plate.

Mom up yet?

She's a little tired this morning, he said. I told her she should call in sick, but she said she'd just skip breakfast instead and take a later train.

She was supposed to fill in my field trip permission forms and the one about who to contact in an emergency, Wendy told him. My homeroom teacher said not to leave it to the last day. Also, I wanted to talk to her about my clarinet. They gave me a really crummy rental. I was thinking maybe we could buy one instead.

It wasn't the permission forms that were making the sharp sound in her voice, she knew, or the clarinet, either. She was thinking about the argument they'd had last night about her going to California. She wanted to visit her father. Her mother had said, That's crazy. School just started.

You never let me do anything, Wendy had told her. As usual, Josh tried to make peace.

We'll talk about the clarinet tonight, he said. Meanwhile, I'll sign the forms. Let your mom have an extra ten minutes' sleep.

It's supposed to be filled out by a parent, Wendy told him.

For a second, Josh got a look on his face that reminded her of Louie when he stood at the bus with her that first morning she went off to junior high.

What do you say we give it a try this once, he said, reaching for the form. Father or no father, if you get injured in some knock-down-drag-out volleyball game, I'm probably the one who'll come running down to school to get you.

Watching Josh as he took out the jar of raisins, arranging them on Louie's plate in the shape of a man, Wendy felt crummy for saying what she had. Do you have any idea how lucky we are to have someone like Josh in our life? her mom said to her, times when Wendy treated him the way she knew she had just now. Do you even remember what it was like before he came along? Do you think Garrett would ever put himself out for you the way Josh does?

No.

I don't know why I say the mean things I do, she told Amelia. My parents are just getting on my nerves so much lately. Sometimes these horrible remarks ooze out of me.

Maybe you're possessed, Amelia said. We could perform an exorcism. Amelia had seen a video recently where that happened to a girl, and when they finally held the exorcism ceremony, all this horrible green vomit squirted out of her mouth and her head swiveled around like a cartoon character.

On TV, the weatherman was pointing to a map of New York and saying it looked like perfect weather clear through the weekend. Better grab yourself one last dose of summer, folks. No excuse not to get out and vote today.

Josh had been making her a sandwich. Now he was packing an apple in her lunch bag.

You got Macintosh, she said. I like Granny Smith, remember?

I didn't want raisins, Louie told Josh. I wanted chocolate chips.

We don't have chocolate for breakfast, Lou-man, Josh told him. As for you, Miss Picky, the Granny Smiths at the market weren't any good.

But Sissy gets hot chocolate, Louie said. That's chocolate. Just not in the shape of a chip.

Tell you what, son, Josh said. You eat the raisins, and tonight we'll make ourselves some chocolate-chip cookies. Maybe you can bring in a few extra on Thursday for you know what.

I want Mama to come, too, when I go to preschool, said Louie.

Mama wouldn't miss it, Josh said. That's why she decided not to take the day off today. So she could be there with you Thursday.

Back when her mother first introduced her to Josh, she meant to hate him. She was only seven then. She'd seen a video at Amelia's house around that time, called Parent Trap, where a couple of twins whose parents were divorced decided to get them back together, and it worked. Even though Wendy didn't have a twin like the girls in the movie, that was her plan.

She was mean to him that first night at the restaurant. She didn't order anything except water, even though sushi was her favorite. I was just wondering, Josh said to her as she sat there, not even touching the soybeans that she loved, what is your opinion of miniature golf?

She had never been miniature golfing but she always wanted to. There was a course called Dreamland they sometimes passed on their way to Fire Island that her mom said they'd stop at someday, but they never had. Josh took them there, and after that, when Wendy's mother said it wasn't really her type of activity, it got to be something he and Wendy did, on Saturday afternoons when her mom and Kate went to yoga.

They were at Dreamland when he told her about wanting to get married to her mom. I could understand if you aren't too thrilled, he said. I know you've got a dad, and it's understandable that you'd like it a whole lot better if he was with your mother instead of me. But I promise I'll try hard to make her happy. And I'll teach you every single thing you ever wanted to know about jazz.

Which was nothing.

She was the flower girl. All that day, she kept thinking about the Parent Trap video and waiting for her real father to come crashing in and say something like Janet, it was all a terrible mistake. Come back to me. What are you doing hanging around with this chubby guy with hair on his shoulders and love handles, when you could be with me?

Even after it was all over, and Josh's mom was hugging her, and she had on so much perfume Wendy could hardly breathe, and saying how she'd always wished she had a granddaughter--even then, Wendy kept expecting something to happen that would make him disappear. But the next thing she knew, Josh was moving his clothes into her mother's room and building a bunch of shelves for his collection of old jazz LPs. Sometimes at night, she could hear them having sex.

Josh was a stand-up bass player. He worked weekends mostly, usually Friday and Saturday nights, and sometimes he'd get hired to play at a wedding, but he was usually home during the day, except when he gave lessons. He loved to cook, and instead of take-out Chinese and pizza, he made them things like eggplant parmigiana and roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes.

One day he found a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix in their cupboard. He took it into the living room, where Wendy and her mother were watching a video of The Music Man.

Janet, he said in a voice that was so serious, Wendy actually worried he was mad. She'd never heard him get mad before. She was surprised at how scary it was, hearing someone who's always nice to you sound angry all of a sudden. Not like her father, who she could remember sounding mad, even though she'd been so little when he left.

Now Josh was holding the box of Duncan Hines in front of her mother, like evidence. I hope and pray this is the last time an item like this ever makes its way into our kitchen. Just tell me it was temporary insanity.

I bought that a long time ago, her mother said. I didn't think I'd ever know anyone who could make us brownies from scratch. I swear I'll never in my whole life buy another box of Duncan Hines.

Then Wendy knew it was a joke, because the look on her mother's face was like some character in a soap opera whose husband just found out she was in love with someone else.

When she said that, he put his arms around her and made a sound like a bear in the forest--a low, happy growling noise, as if he'd just found a tree stump full of the sweetest honey deep in the underbrush. Something about the way the two of them looked at each other like that made it seem as if they were the only two people in the world.

It was Josh, not her mother, who seemed to know Wendy was feeling that way, because he looked up at her then.

Knowing your mother's talents in the kitchen, he said, I can tell the only hope I'll ever have of handing down my secret time-tested brownie recipe is if I teach it to you.

Wendy and Josh melted the chocolate over the double boiler. You melted the butter in with the chocolate. Butter, never margarine, he told her. He showed her how to sift flour and beat the eggs with the sugar till they made a golden-colored froth, and he let her be the one to pour the melted chocolate mixture into the eggs, very slowly, so at first it was part dark brown, part creamy yellow swirls, until gradually the chocolate was all mixed in. Then the flour.

Now for the most important part, he said.
arPutting it in the oven?

Oh my God, he said. You have even more to learn than I thought.

He reached for a package of pecans and poured a bunch into a plastic sandwich bag. He took out his big wooden rolling pin.

Josh didn't come with much stuff when he moved in with them. A box of clothes, his string bass, a picture of himself with his sister and his parents when he was around nine, and a stuffed rabbit, also from when he was little. Not a whole lot else. But the rolling pin was his. Wendy's mom never owned one before.

Let's say there's this boy in your class who keeps getting on your nerves, making fart sounds when the teacher isn't looking, he said. Do you know anyone like that?

The thing was, she did.

Or some girl who tells you she isn't going to invite you to her birthday party, and even though she's a major jerk, you really wanted to go because everyone else in your class was going to be there.

This also had happened.

Here's what you do about it, he said. He held the rolling pin over the bag of pecans. He smashed it down with surprising force on the bag of nuts. Not so hard the bag broke. Just hard enough to crush the nuts.

That one's for all the boys who make fart sounds, he said. This one's for snobby girls who won't invite you to their dumb party.

Wendy watched him for a minute. Then he handed her the rolling pin. Your turn, he said. It took her a second to get it.

Ms. Kempner, my gym teacher, she said. Who never picks me for dodgeball. Wendy smashed the rolling pin down on the nuts.

People who are cruel to animals, she said. People who litter. People who sit down on the seats on the bus that are supposed to go to handicapped people and senior citizens. Mom's boss, that makes her stay late all the time. People who give you dirty looks when you go into a store with breakable things, just because you're a kid.

The nuts were crushed enough by this time, but the two of them kept thinking up more reasons to bang the rolling pin.

What's going on in there, you two? asked her mother.

It's not something you'd understand, Jan, he told her. It's one of those things only brownie
up0bakers appreciate.

In the kitchen now, Josh was saying the days of the week in Spanish, but instead of saying them, he was singing, like some performer on one of his old jazz albums. He had Louie's spoon in one hand and he was beating out a rhythm on the counter.

Wendy wanted another piece of French toast, but she didn't let herself reach for it. She poured herself a glass of water. Nice-looking outfit, he said when he finally sat down with his coffee. That's one of the new ones you and your mom got at Macy's, right?

She had changed three times this morning. In the end, what she put on was her old standby from last year, a denim skirt and a sweater. Standing in front of the mirror, she had decided she would give up bread, bagels, and granola bars until she lost ten pounds. There were so many skinny girls in her class now. She weighed 111 pounds, the heaviest she'd ever been.

I bet you're the prettiest one at your whole school, said Louie, patting her hair.

I definitely am not, she told him. Anyway, how would you know? You've never even been to my school.

I have superpowers.

She looked at the clock--Felix the cat, with a tail that swung in time with the seconds. Oh God, it's five past seven, she said.

Why don't you stick your head in the bedroom and say good-bye to your mom, Josh said.

I'm late already, she told him. She picked up her backpack and her clarinet case.

I'm going over to Amelia's after school. Tell Mom to wear the new dress, she called from the stairs.

Wendy had been best friends with Amelia since first grade. In third grade, they'd tied their desks together, until the teacher made them cut the string. They had invented a language nobody else understood. Later they made up all kinds of other things, too. Like saying Bloody Mary ten times very fast for good luck and daring each other to give the cutest boy on their subway train a blue M&M right before they got off at their stop. Mostly, it was Amelia who thought up the stuff and Wendy who went along with it, like when she propped up a picture of Josh's father, who was dead, and they stared at it for twenty minutes without taking their eyes off one time. Wait and see, his lips are going to move, she said, and after a long time, Wendy said, Oh my God, you're actually right.

Last year when Amelia's family got their new apartment in Brooklyn Heights, it felt like the worst thing that ever happened to Wendy.

This morning Wendy rode alone on the bus, as usual, listening to her Walkman. Today the CD was Sade--after Madonna, her favorite. Even though Sade sang a lot about having her heart broken by someone--and Wendy had never had that happen to her--it seemed to her Sade was the kind of person who would understand, even if she didn't fully understand it herself, how it was she could be feeling so confused and unhappy so much of the time, even as everyone around her thought things were going fine. All you had to do was look at Sade's beautiful, mysterious face to believe she knew what she was talking about when she sang about the king of sorrow. Even the comfort of a stone would be a gain. How desolate was that?

Wendy looked out the window of the bus, at the men with their briefcases, hurrying down the street to the subway, the women in their business suits and sneakers, a young couple leaning against a phone booth, kissing, teenagers on their way to school, or not. When she spotted a girl close to her age, she always calculated if the girl was thinner or fatter than her. The other thing that had her worried was the uneven way she was developing, so she was still almost totally flat on her right side and rounding out, as even Louie had noticed, on her left. She kept her notebook tight against her chest most of the day for that reason, but today was her first gym class of eighth grade, and already she was trying to figure out a way to change in the girls' bathroom so no one would see.

I would give anything if I could just get out of gym, she said, but only inside her head.

This morning the halls at her school were covered with posters--elections for class officers. Back in elementary school, she knew all the names, but this school was so much bigger. Even though it was just the second week, she already had her routine down. She ate with Amelia and sometimes a boy named Seth, whose voice hadn't changed. She knew the names of people in her classes but doubted many of them knew hers. All around her, people called out to one another, but except for one time when another clarinet player, who sat next to her in band, asked to borrow a reed, hardly anyone except Amelia and Seth had spoken to her so far this year.

At eight-thirty, the homeroom bell rang. Some people lingered in the hall till the last possible minute, but Wendy was sitting at her desk promptly as usual when the teacher came in.

Who's got their permission slips and health forms? she asked. Besides Wendy, there was only one other girl.

The announcements came on. This month's announcer was a girl named Robbie from Wendy's history class. When she was picked to start off the year as guest announcer, she said how perfect was that, since she was going to be an anchorwoman when she grew up.

Okay, guys, said Robbie. Get out your notebooks and write down these dates. Be sure to bring wads of cash to school Friday for the pep squad bake sale. But most important, mark down the night of October twenty-eighth for the absolute best ever Halloween dance, sponsored by the eighth grade. Don't leave it to the last minute to ask someone special to go with you, either. Hint, hint.

Wendy didn't write down the dates. She and Amelia might rent a couple of scary movies that night and color their hair black. Either that or she'd take Louie trick-or-treating around the neighborhood like last year.

She looked out the window. It was a perfect day. She wished she could be outside on her bike. She would put her colored pencils in her backpack and go to Prospect Park and spend the whole day drawing Japanese animation storyboards. She'd go to Ronnie's Pets and imagine she got to pick one of the puppies. She'd go into the city to the Metropolitan Museum--never mind that her mother said she was too young to ride the subway alone--and sit in the room with the Tiffany glass windows and just think.

She'd take a cab to the airport and stow away in a plane to California. And when she got there, she'd call up her dad and say, Surprise, I'm here, and he would come to meet her with this huge bag of almonds from his own personal almond tree in his yard and never mention what her mother had said that one time: Not because you've got a problem but just to let you know, there's twenty calories in every one of those.

In the seat next to her, Buddy Campion, one of the most visible candidates for eighth grade class president, was working on a poster. Wendy's homeroom teacher was doing the annual back-to-school demonstration on the correct method for covering your books with brown paper bags.

People. I want to remind you. We encourage you to decorate your books in a creative manner. But I don't want to see any crude or inappropriate language or imagery on your schoolbooks, and I'm sure I don't need to specify further just what that sort of thing entails.

Wendy looked out the window again. The picture came to her of her little brother in his blue sleeper suit and golden cape, snuggled against her that morning, smelling slightly of pee. She thought about Josh, handing her the brown paper bag with her lunch as she headed out the door. Sade, whispering into her ears through the headphones on her Walkman, ``Take me to the belly of darkness.''
l
Call your mom at work, Josh said. You know she hates it when she doesn't get to say good-bye. She thought of Louie, bending his whole head over her plate after she was finished with her French toast and lapping up the last of the syrup. If her mother was at the table, she might have told him no, but Josh laughed. Are you a boy or a dog? he asked.

A dog, said Louie. A karate dog.

Last Thursday, she got a letter from her real father. Why don't you come see me? he wrote. You wouldn't believe my crop of oranges, and the almonds are going to be great this year, too.

Isn't that typical? her mother said. She was talking to Josh, but Wendy heard. All summer he kept putting off the visit, she said, and now that she's going back to school, he tells her to come see him.

She thought about the cabin in California in the picture he'd sent her with the letter, with the cactuses around it and morning glory vines climbing the fence. If she lived in California, she'd eat nothing but oranges off his tree and throw sticks for his dog, and she'd get skinny as Christina Aguilera.

Where did you get your tan? Robbie Gershen would ask her when she got back. Oh, surfing, she'd say. My dad taught me. He lives in California. He's an artist.

She tried to picture her father, but the picture was hazy. It was so long since she'd seen him. We're due for some major father-daughter hangout time. What do you say? he wrote. I'll send you a ticket as soon as you let me know the date.

Even Wendy knew there was no way she could miss two weeks at the start of school, but she asked anyway. When her mother said no, Wendy said she never let her do anything.

You just want me to hate my dad as much as you, she said. You probably hate me, too, because I remind you of him.

Josh took her by the shoulders then--not angry, but firm--with those bass player hands of his gripping her so tight it just missed being painful.

Listen, he said after her mother had walked out of the room. You know that isn't true. Your mom just loves you so much she doesn't want to see you hurt.

Sometimes I wish she'd just drop dead, Wendy told him.

Mrs. Volt was passing out more forms. The revised school dress code, with a parents' advisory concerning midriff tops and guidelines for skirt lengths. At the desk next to hers, a boy named Sean was tattooing his arm with the name of some girl named Cindi. He had made very small cuts in his forearm with a razor blade, in the shape of the letters, and now he was filling them in with ink. Wendy wondered what it would feel like to be Cindi, to have a boy love you so much that he would make cuts in his wrist for you. Josh would probably do something like that for her mother, come to think of it. If she wanted him to. As it was, he just left her Post-it notes all over the place.

She could hear the sound of lockers slamming in the hall. The audiovisual cart wheeled past, and from the cafeteria came the smell of chili cooking. Outside the window, a squirrel ran across an electric line. She could make out the words of the Madonna song that was everywhere at the moment, on someone's car radio. The floor trembled very slightly, the way it always did when the L train went by.

Later, Wendy would think back on that morning, trying to remember every single thing. She would remember the smell of the butter in the pan and the sound of Josh singing along with Madonna, the gold of the sun hitting the roof of the church across the street from their apartment, the woman who had gotten on at her bus stop, talking about some congressman who had an affair. Having to try her locker combination three times before she got the lock to open. The band director calling out to her, I'm betting you're the one clarinet player who practiced over the summer, which she had.

She would list all the things she would do--cut off her hair, cut off her arm, both legs, gain fifty pounds, two hundred, never have a boyfriend, never have anybody fall in love with her for her whole life, stand naked in front of her whole gym class--if she could just return to how it was before.

Pause, Louie liked to say when he got up from the couch to go to the bathroom or get a cookie and he didn't want you to do anything until he returned. Rewind, he said when he came running back in the room and it looked as if things had been going on without him. Sometimes they'd be watching a video, but he also said it if someone was reading to him, or if they were playing Go Fish or checkers. He thought you could freeze time in real life, same as on a video.

If rewind wasn't possible, then pause. Freeze forever at this moment and never go on to the next, and it would still be a million times better than what happened when she did.

Later, she would consider what she was doing at the exact second it happened. Walking up to the pencil sharpener in front of the room and wondering, as she sharpened her pencil, if anyone was thinking she looked fat. Doodling on the back of her notebook, a Japanese animation-style picture of a girl in an orange jumpsuit with a punk hairdo and a boom box--a picture she would never finish. Opening her binder partway, enough to look again at the picture her father had sent her of the cabin with the cactus. The morning glory vines and the funky green truck and her dad holding the puppy against his chest.

I guess they're still getting the kinks out of our bell system, because it definitely should have rung by now, Mrs. Volt said to them. If it doesn't ring in another minute or two, I'll just send you along to your first-period class.

Then came the voice of the principal on the loudspeaker.

Everyone remain calm, please. We're still trying to get the details. There's been an accident.



Copyright © 2003 by Joyce Maynard