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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 1972
She watches the clock, checking the second hand to see if it’s time to go yet. Her freckled hand trembles as it brings a forkful of mashed potatoes to her mouth. She sets it down. The fork clanks against the dinner plate’s blue rim, and her mother’s eyes are on her.
Her mother assesses the plate. Peas untouched, potatoes furrowed by fork tines, meatloaf covered in ketchup to conceal only a small piece has been consumed.
She tries to smile, but her cheeks feel tight. “Guess I ate too many chips.” She will accept this small sin if she may be forgiven the larger one coming. She touches the chipped crystal salt and pepper shakers. Years ago, she and her siblings had held the crystal shakers up to sunbeams, to create rainbows. “Rainbow makers,” they’d called them. “Can you pass me the rainbow maker?” they’d say at dinner, and their parents would exchange confused glances. And they’d laugh, giddy in the power of their shared secret. Secrets are not so nice now. They are dark and make her sick.
Her father, at the head of the table, says, “Drink your milk.” He doesn’t look up, but she knows the remark is aimed at her. You’d think her parents worked a dairy farm, the way they push milk. She lifts the sweating glass and swallows a mouthful. It is cold and wet and tastes of soap. Someone didn’t rinse the dishes well. It wasn’t her, not this time.
She pokes at the meatloaf and watches her brother, Bobby, eat. He is the only one left at home with her. Her other brothers and sister have grown up and moved to their own places. He will leave too, in a year or so. Bobby shovels potatoes and peas into his mouth. Then he chews and chews, twenty times at least, before he swallows. Has he always done this? He is the brother who scared her with stories of the boogie man when she was little. Who told her there were monsters under her bed. But he is the same brother who saved her from choking. Who stuck his grubby index finger down her throat and fished out the butterscotch candy blocking her airway. Tears come to her eyes and she blinks them away. They cannot see her cry. They’ll know something is up. She pinches the web of skin between her left index finger and thumb.
Her mother asks Bobby about his job, and he talks about a customer who didn’t know the difference between a spark plug and . . . she drifts off. Her father’s fingers are stained brown at the tips, and his hair is going gray. Even his mustache is streaked with silver. He would die if he knew what she was about to do. It would kill him. She bites down until her front teeth indent her lower lip, and then she asks, “May I be excused?”
Both parents eye her plate. Both frown. Her mother is about to tell her to eat more.“I told Lucy I’d meet her at 6:30.”
When they don’t respond immediately, she adds, “I’m sleeping over, remember?”
"Whatcha doing?” Bobby asks.
“We’re going to a double feature.” She twists the napkin in her lap, strangling the fabric. Thank God she checked the paper for this weekend’s listings. “The Last House on the Left and then Bluebeard.”
“Double feature?” her father says. “Is Mr. MacManus picking you up?”
“Yes.” She pictures Mr. MacManus, reading the paper in his recliner, balancing a cigarette on his lower lip. He won’t be picking her up from the movies. Not tonight.
She prays her father won’t argue, that she won’t have to explain again that she is sixteen years old, old enough to go to the movies with her best friend. She doesn’t want to argue that she can be trusted. She’s not sure the lie would make it out of her mouth.
He sighs, but she recognizes the hollow sound in it that means he will give in. Her mother looks at her father. He sets the rules. He nods. Her mother says, “Be careful.”
She rises from her chair. The smell of her mother’s perfume, Wind Song, makes her wince. She used to love the smell, but now it makes her queasy.
“Clean your plate,” her mother says.
She takes the plate into the kitchen and scrapes her food into the trash, the potatoes sticking, refusing to budge, until she pushes them with her knife. They land atop empty cans and cigarette packets and discarded circulars. She sets the plates and utensils in the sink, where her mother will wash them using Palmolive. Her mother wears bright yellow gloves to prevent “dishpan hands.” She hums songs as she washes, Simon and Garfunkel or “She Loves You” by the Beatles.
The girl’s eyes water and she blinks, fast. On the yellow fridge is a picture of her and her siblings two Christmases ago. They are arranged before the Christmas tree. Bobby has his arm wrapped around her neck and Dave is making rabbit’s ears behind Mikey’s head. Carol ignored them all, posing. Her pregnant belly upstaged her smile. The girl will not allow herself to think of her nephew, Jimmy. Not now.
She grabs her knapsack from outside her bedroom. She will be gone two days, she tells herself. Only two days. And then she’ll be back, and it will be okay, things will be okay. She calls, “See you later!” and hustles downstairs, her feet thumping heavy on each step. Then she’s outside, and the sun is sinking and the air smells like hot dogs and lighter fluid. The neighbors are grilling though the air is nippy and it’s past grill season.
She sets her eyes to the road ahead and counts every car that passes. It keeps her from looking backward, to thinking of what lies ahead. It keeps her centered and present in the moment. That’s what she must be. She pushes her long hair behind her and leans forward as she walks, away from home and her life before. When she returns, on Monday, it will be fixed, and everything can go back to the way it was.