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A thirteen-year-old girl lives through the very special frustrations that come with the realization that real life doesn't measure up to the ideal.
"Tibb, you are a slob," my sister Nina said.
I didn't answer her. It was not the kind of remark that required an answer.
She has called me worse things.
She thinks she's so much just because, all of a sudden, boys call her up on the telephone. Not just one boy but two.
Why not? She was fifteen last May. It is about time. She is a Gemini. That is the third sign of the zodiac and it means twins. She also has a split personality. Which means she is either up or down but never in between.
That is true. If she is in an up mood, she is sweet and smiling and pleasant. If she is in a down one, beware! That is all I can say. Beware.
She had been in a down mood for quite a few days until these boys called her. One she knew because he was in her French class. The other, named Tiger Jones, if you can bear it, had seen her at the beach and found out her name from a friend of a friend. Any boy who actually calls himself Tiger with a straight face I could not give the time of day to, but we are different, Nina and I.
Anyway, I think she had about given up hope. About boys calling her, that is. But then my mother broke down and bought her a bikini. She says it's a bikini but it's the biggest bikini I've ever seen.
You can hardly even see her belly button.
I don't call that much of a bikini, but people believe what they want to believe. The capacity for self-deception in people is really amazing. It is especially strong in Geminians, or whatever you call them.
She also bought some stuff to streak her hair with. Her hair is quite nice, sort of a dirty blond, like mine, but she wanted to streak it. All the kids she knows are streaking theirs.
Not only that, but she said she had to buy a bigger bra. She doesn't look any different to me. She was about to send away to one of those courses they advertise in magazines, showing a woman BEFORE, who looks O.K. to me, then she takes this course and AFTER she looks like a sex symbol. Those are not my words. That's what they call women with big chests, sex symbols.
My mother said the AFTER picture made the woman look like a nursing mother.
My mother can be quite earthy at times.
I don't understand what all this fuss about bosoms is. I know kids in my class who stuff their bras with Kleenex so they'll look like sex symbols. If they only knew. The Kleenex looks all lumpy and bumpy and wouldn't fool a baby.
I myself do not have a figure. I probably never will. I have grown almost three inches in the last year and I will not be fourteen until August. I am a Leo. That is the best sign of the zodiac. Leo the Lion is king of the beasts and people born under this sign are very strong, forceful, steadfast, and practically everything good.
"Be glad you are tall," my mother said. "It is far better to be tall than to be short. You will notice that all fashion models are tall and slender. Just remember to stand up straight; never hunch your shoulders and pretend you are shorter. Stand straight and throw your shoulders back and hold your head up. I envy you."
It is interesting to note that when my mother stands as tall as she is able, she comes to my ear. She wears a size six shoe. I wear an eight. My hands are also large. I would say "enormous" but I have been accused of exaggerating by too many people, so I will stick to "large." I drop things when I am nervous and even when I'm not. I stumble over chairs and couches and stuff like that. Even when I'm careful I do.
The last time my grandmother came to visit, I slopped tea in the saucer and on her and spilled a whole plate of cookies in her lap. She said, "Don't worry, Tibb, it'll wash right out," and when I went to get a sponge to clean the mess up, I heard her say, "She is just like a young colt."
She didn't mean to hurt my feelings but I went out to the kitchen and cried anyway. It is sort of interesting to watch yourself in the mirror when you cry. People are so ugly when they cry. I am particularly so. My nose gets red and swells up and my face gets even more spotted and my eyelids puff up. I am hideous.
I have always wanted a colt of my own. My father said he would buy me one if we ever moved to a place where we had room.
That'll be never.
If you can't own a colt, I've decided, you might as well be like one.CHAPTER 2
Nina and I fight a lot. We didn't use to. As a matter of fact, we were good friends when we were little. We played secret games and had secret signs that nobody else understood. I used to let her come into my bed when there was a thunderstorm. We are only a little more than a year apart and my mother used to dress us alike. People mistook us for twins, which we sometimes pretended to be. Now when I remind Nina of this, she makes a gagging sound and says, "You and me! Twins! You must be out of your mind."
She has a rather unfortunate personality at times. I myself find that persons born under the sign of Gemini are a little tough to take.
I have a friend named Jennifer. She is a Pisces and she is also getting tough to take. She and I were both going to be vets when we grew up. I would still like to be one but Jen gets mad when I talk about the plans we made long ago.
She has even changed her name. That will give you some idea of the phoniness that besets people when they are Gemini or Pisces and also when they hit the age of puberty. Or it hits them. Jen is six months older than I am, so she is almost closer in age to Nina.
Anyway, last time I called her on the telephone, I asked to speak to Jen.
"Oh, we don't have anyone here by that name," her mother said. I knew it was her mother because I've been calling that house since I was six years old.
"Isn't this TOwnsend 8-3560?" I asked, just to be sure.
"Indeed it is, but we do not have a 'Jen' here. We do, however, have a 'Niffy.'"
"A Niffy?" I said. I thought maybe it was some kind of a new cereal. "This is Tibb, Mrs. Stone," I said.
"Oh, Tibb, how are you? Jen has decided she will not answer to 'Jen' any more. We are instructed to call her 'Niffy' from now on. I am finding it rather difficult to break a habit of fourteen years, but I am trying."
"Oh," I said. "Well, is Niffy there then?" I felt like a fool.
"Just a minute," she said. "Niffy, your friend Tibb is on the phone."
"Hello," the voice said.
"No, this is Niffy." It didn't even sound like her.
"You've got to be kidding," I said. "How come you've changed your name?"
"You wouldn't understand," Jen said. "You are too young."
"Oh, splat," I said. "You are getting to be a pain in the neck. What's come over you?"
"It just so happens," she said, "that I have a date tonight."
"Who with? An orangutan?"
"It just so happens it's with a boy from out of town," Jen said.
"I didn't think it was anybody you knew," I said. "You have to be careful of blind dates. You might get stuck with someone who smokes pot or one of those."
"It is not a blind date." I could practically see Jen sticking out her lip.
"Who is it then?"
"It is this son of a friend of my mother's. He is seventeen and is going to college in the fall," she said. "And I have met him so it is not a blind date, smarty pants." She sounded like the old Jen for a minute.
"All I can say is, if a kid who's about to go to college takes out a girl who's fourteen years old, there must be something wrong with him. When'd you meet him, when you were six months old and he was a big boy of three? Did you two sport around together in your diapers?"
I can be very nasty at times. I have a cutting tongue. But not without provocation. This is not characteristic of Leos as a rule.
"You'll have to excuse me," Jen said. "I'm drawing a bath."
She shouldn't lay herself open like that.
"Oh, I didn't know you had taken up art," I said and hung up fast, beating her to it.
I went to look at myself in the mirror. I find that I do this frequently when I am feeling an excess of emotion. Like I said, I watched myself crying and now I watched myself being mad.
I am quite ugly. My ears stick out a little and my nose is too big for my face. My complexion has its ups and downs, just like Nina's disposition. Today it is in a down period.
If they were casting Cinderalla, I could play one of the stepsisters.
I feel like a stepsister.CHAPTER 3
"Tibb, you are the best person who ever happened to me," John said. It was right after I'd finished reading him a story. He likes to be read to because he likes to hear the words aloud rather than in his head. Also because it is easier. John is not too hot a reader.
He is my brother. He is seven and has a very good sense of humor. He laughs at all my jokes. John still sucks his thumb but only when he is very tired. He is a joyous child. That is the best word I can think of to describe him. Joyous. He looks like one of those stick-figure drawings you sometimes see. His arms and legs are like pipe-stems and he has this marvelous head which is a little too big for the rest of him. He will grow into it. His hair is very blond in the summer, which it is now, but in the winter it is dirty blond, like Nina's and mine.
John is very pleased with life. Every day is like a whole new adventure to him. He wears an enormous hat, an old straw beach hat of my mother's, and under that hat he looks like an elf.
John is a Taurus. Next to Leo, Taurus is the strongest sign of the zodiac. My mother is also a Taurus. John was born on April 28, the day after her birthday. She said at first she thought this was a nice idea until John started agitating about his birthday six months before.
"We have to start thinking about the party and the presents," he would say around the middle of October.
"Good heavens," my mother said, "it's not for months yet. It seems as if we just had a birthday. Don't make me age so fast. We still have Christmas to get through."
"It's not too early to start thinking about my birthday," John said. He can be very stubborn at times. This is an outstanding characteristic of people born under the sign of Taurus. The Bull, you know.
"I would like a bird's nest and an aquarium and a flashlight. That is all."
"Make a list," my mother said.
I helped him with the spelling and he made a list. My mother put it somewhere and then she couldn't remember where, which was all right because John changed his mind several times before he settled on what he really wanted.
Which was an ant farm and a Kennedy half dollar.
He got both.CHAPTER 4
My father said, "What's in the stars today, Lioness?" He calls me that because, as I said, I am a Leo. I do not let him leave for work in the morning without reading him his horoscope which comes in the morning paper. We also get an evening paper which has another horoscope for the following day, so that way we have the whole twenty-four-hour period covered.
"Just a minute, Dad," I said. I have to read my own first. "Look away from your own problems," it said, "and listen to those of your friends."
Well. My own problems are so many and so varied that I do not know if it is possible for me to look away from them. Most of my friends have similar problems, which in itself proves to be a problem. I can't see the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. I think it was Shakespeare but I'm not absolutely certain.
Most of my friends are worried because they are too tall or too short or too fat or too thin or they have bad breath or perspiration odor or one of those. There is that to be said for television; when you watch those commercials over and over it makes you much more conscious of all the things that could go wrong. I never realized getting yourself to smell sweet and be reasonably presentable was such an enormous undertaking until those commercials pointed out to me all the things that could go wrong. It is a very depressing thing to see those commercials one after another. You would have to have an enormous amount of self-confidence not to get depressed.
O.K. So I press on to my father's horoscope.
"Your ideas should be kept for a better time and place," I read to him. "Turn to young people for a lift."
"For a lift?" my father said. "Good gravy! Young people are going to drive me either to the loony bin or to the poorhouse. One way or the other, they're going to get me. I'm going to write to that horoscope expert and demand my money back."
My father is a Scorpio. He is musical and plays the harmonica very well. He also sings, but only old songs like "Deep Purple" or "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." And he says our songs are dumb.
He is very clever with his hands and has wallpapered the hall and the dining room. He does a better job than a professional, which he will tell you himself. My mother is the painter in the family. She paints the woodwork and the window sashes, only she is not as careful as he is and he goes around and inspects her work after she is finished and points out spots she missed. All of which drives her crazy.
He also built a bookcase in the hall and we almost never have to have a plumber in because he is a first-class operator with the plunger and stuff like that. When John was small he used to throw quite a few articles down the toilet. It saves a lot of money to have someone in the house who knows how to put in new washers and fix stoves, which he also does.
John is very proud of using my father's tools and is constantly making off with hammers and screwdrivers so that when Dad wants to use them, they are gone. Then my father hollers and tells John to go and find them, which he usually does, only by that time they are so rusty, due to the fact they have been rained on quite a lot, that they are no longer any good.
John has his own set of tools, small ones, but he likes my father's big ones better.
That figures.CHAPTER 5
"Tibb, really!" my mother said. "I've asked you three times to get the groceries out of the car."
"I didn't hear you the last two," I said. "How come Nina-concertina can't manage it?"
"I asked you."
I really like my mother, although she and I aren't hitting it off too well lately. We used to get on very well together and once in a while would have a conversation that, if anyone overheard it, they would probably think we were friends and not relatives at all. But recently we seem to snap at each other quite a bit. I have heard about the change of life but I don't think she is going through that because she is only thirty-eight. A well-preserved thirty-eight, as she would be only too glad to tell you.
So I decided I would go and get the groceries out of the car and not say anything more about Nina, who goofs off every time she hears the car come into the driveway. She runs into the bathroom and locks the door and turns the shower on. My mother, whom I consider a reasonably bright person, falls for it every time.
I took the watermelon out of the back seat and also the sack of potatoes. I tried balancing the potatoes on my head but they were too lumpy so they smashed to the pavement.
My mother watched from the front door.
"They're only potatoes," I said. "I wouldn't have tried it if they'd been eggs."
"I'd hate to put any money on it," my mother said.
"Tibb," she said while we were putting the groceries away, "you're getting awfully leggy."
"Yeah," I said. "I'm getting pretty army, too."
That is true. My arms seem to be getting longer and longer. I am really a little worried about them. Suppose they keep on growing until they hit the ground? What then? If I were friends with Nina and Jen, I would ask them if they thought my arms were getting unnaturally long. But I am not friends with them and my other good friends have gone away for the summer. I have this friend — Susan Friend is her name (would you believe it?) — and her father and mother took her to Europe this summer. She does not speak a foreign language. She has taken French for about a billion years but she can hardly ask for a pencil or say Bonjour, so you just know she won't be able to communicate. Anyway, she was practically in a catatonic state about the whole thing. Catatonic is one of the words I have just discovered and use with some frequency, mostly because it drives Nina up the wall. She pretends that she knows what it means and that it is not worthy of her attention, but I know when I say somebody is in a catatonic state, she grits her teeth and wants to smack me. For some reason, this gives me a great deal of pleasure.
I got a post card from Susan the other day from Rome. She wrote: "There are a lot of cathedrals here. Also there seem to be a great many Italians. See ya, Sue."
Excerpted from Leo the Lioness by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1970 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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