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What does a young girl like Molly know who has no brothers and whose father remains carefully, if temptingly, concealed? Who has only once seen a little boy peeing in the street and from a distance? Who has never played doctor with the neighbor boys or watched an aunt change the diaper of a male baby cousin?
Not much. Molly's father would be the best source of information, but he won't show. At least, not all the way. He walks around in his jockey shorts every weekend and his pants go on only if the doorbell rings.
But when the doorbell isn't ringing he is forever scratching his planting tool, or whatever it is inside that white pouch that rolls like marbles and jiggles like jelly. Molly cannot take her eyes off that heavy-hanging compartment, but why can't he take his hands off it? Do all men check regularly to feel that it is still there? Do they all adjust it into place at intervals? Molly's father lifts and arranges it as if he is asking: "Are you comfortable yet?"
God knows Molly is not wishing she had one of those awkward loads to carry around, but she is desperate to know exactly what those hanging parts consist of.
All this talk about a man planting his seed in a woman that her mother is telling her all the time—well, what kind of planting device do men have? What kind of thing is someday going to plant something in Molly? What will she feel when finally the planting day comes?
Molly is in a boardinghouse in Coney Island. She is eleven years old and she has come here with a friend and her grandmother. They are visiting the grandmother's mother, an ancient white-haired woman who wears white woolen stockings. In the kitchen the two old women sit around a white wooden table sipping tea and Molly and her friend Monica go into the front room, which faces the ocean. The bare shade of the one window is pulled down against the morning sun, and a muted, ivory light comes into the room. The bed has an arched metal headboard—the bars are all painted white. The bedspread is white chenille.
There is a long, dim, silent hall between the two old women and the girls in the bedroom.
Monica whispers, "Let's play a game. A new one."
Molly nods. They agree: whatever the game, this will be the perfect place. They always play games. They often pretend they are actresses—they have wardrobes made out of their mothers' cast-off dresses. Or they play they are girls whose husbands are soldiers in the war. They have a hundred different games they have worked out and played in Monica's basement or in Molly's.
On this day Monica says, "Pretend I am an ugly girl who has no boyfriends, and you are my cousin."
"A girl cousin?"
"No. A boy. You're visiting with your family and you wander up to the attic where you find me crying on my bed. I am crying because I am so lonely."
Monica gets on the white bed and the sun's white light continues to come through the lowered window shade. Molly glances down the hall: she knows at once this will not be an ordinary game.
"Then you get on top of me," Monica whispers, holding out her arms. "To comfort me."
The bed creaks as Molly climbs on top of Monica and says, "And then?"
Monica says nothing, just tightens her arms around Molly. The bed rocks gently. Molly stays still, because she trusts Monica. After a few moments she finds there are hard bones in the body of her friend beneath her. She cannot breathe easily, although she feels as if she is breathing very fast.
She slides partly off to the side so that her friend's hip bone is between her legs. The sliding motion gives her an amazing feeling. She rises up on her and slides again. The bed rocks and Monica whispers, "You comfort me because I am ugly." When Molly slides several times more, something opens inside her with a burst and the excitement of the game rushes out.
Her heart is pounding, but not accelerating now. At once she loses total interest in the game. She feels slightly nauseated, but doesn't know why. She stands up on the wooden floor, breathing violently. Monica still wants to play. The game is just beginning for her. Molly finds it too hard to tell her that whatever she liked about the game she doesn't need anymore.
In a moment the two old women come down the long dark hall into the white room and smile at the girls. Monica looks to Molly as she has always looked. She has not been through what Molly has just been through.
The grandmother and the girls take the Culver Line train home to the Avenue F platform and they walk to Avenue ? where their houses are.
"Come over this afternoon and play with me," Monica says.
"Only if we play Canasta," Molly answers.
Molly's mother is packing Modess in her camp trunk for the second summer in a row. Molly is thirteen. The box is crushed and old looking, and taking it again this year seems futile. If nothing happened in the two years that she has been waiting, why should it happen in the two weeks that she is in Girl Scout Camp?
Molly is assigned to a tent in Lone Pine unit. There are five cots in her tent; Brenda is the only girl from home who is assigned to her tent. Brenda has had her period for the last two years; her sweaters are chosen to do for her what Molly's will never do for her.
Molly once heard Brenda's mother say to her mother: "Before I turn around she's another cup bigger. I don't know what to do about her!" But Brenda's mother was proud and Molly's mother was embarrassed for the meagerness of the women in their family.
At the first camp powwow, the counselors teach the girls to sing:
Lone Pine, Lone Pine
Hats off to thee!
To our unit faithful we'll always be,
Firm and true, united are we,
We are the best of all the rest,
Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah
for the Lone Pine Tree!
Molly is surprised at how loyal she feels already. On the first night, a spider creeps on Brenda's mosquito netting and plants itself above her face, looking down. Brenda sobs and
shrieks until Molly finally gets out of her cot and chases it away with the end of her flashlight. Brenda is crying for her mother and she hates Molly because Molly is not frightened by a bug.
On the morning of the second day, as they are changing to their swimsuits to go down to the lake, Molly sees the legendary spots on her pants.
She looks out between the canvas flaps of the tent and she sees the woods and the sky and sunshine over everything. She thinks: Finally I am having my life.
Filled with mystery, she holds the knowledge within her while the others write postcards home to their parents. When the whistle blows for swim time she says, softly, to Brenda, but to the other girls as well, "I can't swim today, I'vejust got my period."
Brenda says, "You're making it up. You never did before."
Although it seems unseemly, there is no way to give proof but to hold up her pants.
"You painted spots on them with red nail polish," Brenda says.
But the other girls congratulate Molly, and her own congratulations are inside her from the undeniable cramping low in her belly.
Can it really have happened? And away from her mother?
In the afternoon the Lone Pine unit goes on a six-mile hike. Molly has fantastic strength, she never gets tired. While the others are gasping and panting, she is striding along, finding, with new vision in her eyes, tiny salamanders hiding under the roots of trees. She gives the orange from her sack lunch to a girl who is sobbing because she is thirsty and her canteen is empty.
At night Molly writes a nonchalant postcard home, and in the middle of it, almost hidden among the words, she says, "By the way, I didn't go swimming today because I got my period."
In two days, when her mother receives the card, she phones the camp and Molly is summoned to the phone in the camp office.
"Are you out of your mind?" her mother says. "Going on a six-mile hike the first day of the first time? Are you very sick? Are you having bad pains? Shall Daddy and I come up to get you? Do you need me to send you fresh underwear? Are you in misery, Molly?"
And what can Molly say? That she is in ecstasy? That in the outhouse in the woods the smell of her napkin, with the smell of lime and the droppings of her campmates below in the dark, is like the smell of freedom? Of being contained in her own self, where her heart beats and the blood flows, and the energy to live comes without batteries or electric wires. She is not plugged into anything but herself.
"I'm fine, Mother," she says. For two years her mother packed the box for Molly, but she never believed it was a possibility.
"Do you want us to come and get you early, darling? Do you want to come home tomorrow?"
"No! No! I don't, Mother. I truly don't."
On a rainy Saturday morning in winter, Molly goes across the street to play cards with Brenda in Brenda's basement. They play War for a while, and then Brenda says, "My mother won't be home from the store for a long time. Let's change the game a little. We'll make it Strip War—and every time your number is lowest, you take off a piece of clothing."
Molly is wearing a barrette in her hair, a belt in her dungarees, a Star of David around her neck, shoelaces in her sneakers, and a ring on her finger. She is not worried because she has a long way to go to be stripped, and Brenda's mother will probably be home by then, or Molly will just decide it is time to go home for lunch.
Brenda sometimes has ideas for games that cause the same pounding in Molly's chest as the games Monica used to suggest did, but Brenda's games seem bad to Molly, and Monica's seemed wild and exciting. Molly doesn't play anything with Monica now but Canasta because she is afraid someone will find out what they did in Coney Island and a few times after that. It isn't that Molly didn't enjoy those games; she enjoyed them, but at the same time they scared her violently, because, mysteriously, in every one of them, like a sudden explosion, she stopped wanting to play right in the middle of the game, needing to get her breath and not wanting to go on with it most desperately after that moment.
Brenda loses a round of War, and instead of taking off her wristwatch or sliding a bobby pin from her hair as Molly expects her to, she pulls off her sweater and sits piercing the overheated air with the two white spears of her brassiere.
Molly looks to her cards and, to her dismay, wins the next round too; Brenda, watching Molly and smiling all the while, takes off her bra. She is as slim as Molly all over the rest of her body,' but her breasts are big and rubbery and resilient, and they seem to bounce around from her undressing exertions for several seconds before settling down. They continue to quiver as Brenda breathes, and Molly does not know what to do.
They play one more round and Molly loses.
"Take off your polo shirt," Brenda says. "I did."
"ld rather take off my barrette," Molly says.
"What's the point of playing this game then?" Brenda insists.
"I don't know. What is the point?"
"I want to see yours," Brenda says. "I showed you mine."
Hers are still showing. Molly's nipples would be shriveled and goose-pimpled if she had no clothes on, even in a hot room, but Brenda's nipples seem to expand and blow up like conical balloons as she sits there with the radiators clanking and the overhead pipes banging with steam heat.
"Mine are just ... ordinary," Molly says, "like yours, more or less."
"Then show me," Brenda says. "We're both girls. It doesn't matter. And if you show me yours, I'll show you something secret—two secret things that I found. Very secret things that you don't know about, and you never will unless I show them to you."
"Your mother ..." Molly says. Her face is flushed and she is filled with panic at the thought of what Brenda may say.
"Come on! If you hurry, we'll have time."
Molly takes off her polo shirt and her bra at the same time so Brenda will not see all the wrinkles in the AAA cups. Nothing quivers or shakes on her chest—she barely glances down because there will have been no miraculous change. There they sit, like two sunken anthills.
"Mine are bigger," Brenda says, as if that fact had been undetermined till now. She says nothing else. She is getting dressed.
Molly throws her clothes on, grateful that it is over.
"Hurry!" Brenda says. "Come upstairs now. Into my mother's bedroom."
It is quiet as a museum in the house. In the bedroom, Brenda takes a book from her mother's night-table called The Home Medical Advisor. She opens to a certain page with fingers that have had experience and reads to Molly: "To expedite intercourse, the woman lies on her back with her knees flexed."
"What does flexed mean?" Molly asks.
"I don't know. That's all it says here that's interesting to me." Brenda closes the book. "But the other thing I have to show you is much more important. Come with me." She goes around the bed to her father's side and opens his night-table drawer. She takes out a small red and gray box and flips the top back.
"What is it?" Molly asks.
"Trojans. He uses one every time he does it to my mother. I count them every day, so I know which nights he does it." "What are they for?"
"They keep the seed from getting in. I'll show you one."
"No! Don't!" Molly cries. "He might know. He might count them. You'll get into trouble."
"They're just like little whitish balloons," Brenda says. "I love to look at them."
There is the sound of a key in the lock. Brenda slams the box into the drawer and runs from the bedroom with Molly behind her. They arrive in the kitchen just as the door opens and Brenda's mother comes in with her packages.
"Hello, Molly. I just saw your mother at the window of your house. She asked me to send you home for lunch."
"All right," Molly gasps. "Fine, thank you. I'll go right now." She tears her coat from the hook in the hall and runs across the street to her house.
As she is eating her lunch her mother says to her: "Molly, look at yourself! You put on your polo shirt backwards and inside out today."
Molly's breasts are just not working out. Breasts are a woman's right—every woman has them—but hers are anemic, lopsided, a scarce palmful no matter how she leans or swings or tenses her muscles.
She has an image in her head of a long-haired farm girl in a peasant blouse, her waist cinched tight, and above it—this lovely, vast, soft swelling.
She knows by now she isn't ever going to get it.
She doesn't want to be told by her mother there are other interesting things about her that boys will like her for. What do boys have to do with it? She wants to like herself. She wants the right things out of life in the right sizes. She already understands that not all things are apportioned fairly. For instance, her father has less money than other men, and soon the whole family is going to move to Florida where he is sure business will be better for him.
Her mother has less patience than any mother Molly knows. On the other hand, the family has too much of some things: her mother has more worry in her and her father more teasing in him that she can often stand.
Molly wonders if there is anything good she's got too much of. In a way, what she and her parents have too much of is the equivalent of having too little. For instance, Molly has too much curl in her hair, too much length in her nose, too much gurgling in her stomach when she thinks ahead to what the next day will be like.
When she thinks ahead to becoming a woman though, she feels happy. It seems there will always be things to look
forward to: even after breasts and monthly periods are no longer a novelty, there will be babies to have. Boys become men and stay the same for the rest of their lives. Girls have the amazing comings and goings of blood or of babies for most of theirs.
But Molly sees that growing up is not going to be simple. Her brassiere is the smallest size in the world and even that does not get filled out. Wrinkles are everywhere, more on one side than another, and she can tell from the ads in magazines that tightness and fullness are the whole point of the matter.
One day she sees an ad for "a new miracle": a Blossoming Rose brassiere made out of a magic fiber that is "softly rounded and feels like real flesh." The bras are eight dollars apiece. She tells her mother about them, almost prayerfully, and her mother, having been flat in the chest when it was fashionable, doesn't see what all the fuss is about. "You are a very pleasant, intelligent girl," her mother tells her to reassure her, as if that has anything to do with the matter.
Excerpted from Now Molly Knows by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1971 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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