A princess on Another Planet

НазваниеA princess on Another Planet
Дата публикации28.06.2013
Размер0.64 Mb.
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The Artful Dodger
When Dorrit and I get home, my poor father takes one look at Dorrit's hair and nearly passes out. Then he goes into her room to have a talk with her. That's the worst, when my father comes into your room for a talk. He tries to make you feel better, but it never quite works that way. He usually goes into some long story about something that happened to him when he was a kid, or else makes references to nature, and sure enough, that's what he does with Dorrit.

Dorrit's door is closed, but our house is a hundred and fifty years old, so you can hear every word of any conversation if you stand outside the door. Which is exactly what Missy and I do.

"Now, Dorrit," my dad says. "I suspect your actions concerning your, ah, hair are indirectly related to overpopulation, which is something that is increasingly becoming a problem on our planet. Which was not meant to sustain these vast clusters of people in limited spaces...and tends to result in these mutilations of the human body--piercings, dyeing the hair, tattoos...It's human instinct to want to stand out, and it manifests itself in more and more extreme measures. Do you understand what I'm saying?"


"What I mean," he continues, "is that you must do all you can to resist these unwarranted instincts. The successful human being is able to conquer his unwanted and unwise desires. Am I making myself clear?"

"Sure, Dad," Dorrit says sarcastically.

"In any event, I still love you," my father says, which is the way he ends all his talks. And then he usually cries. And then you feel so horrible, you vow never to upset him again.

This time, however, the crying bit is interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Please, let it be Sebastian, I pray, while Missy grabs it. She puts her hand slyly over the receiver. "Carrie? It's for you. It's a guy."

"Thanks," I say coolly. I take the phone into my room and close the door.

It has to be him. Who else could it be?

"Hello?" I ask casually.



"It's George."

"George," I say, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice.

"You got home okay?"


"Well, I had a great time on Saturday night. And I was wondering if you'd like to get together again."

I don't know. But he's asked too politely to refuse. And I don't want to hurt his feelings. "Okay."

"There's a nice country inn between here and Castlebury. I thought maybe we could go next Saturday."

"Sounds great."

"I'll pick you up around seven. We'll have dinner at eight and I can get you home by eleven."

We hang up and I go into the bathroom to examine my face. I have a sudden desire to radically alter my appearance. Maybe I should dye my hair pink and blue like Dorrit's. Or turn it into a pixie cut. Or bleach it white blond. I pick up a lip pencil and begin outlining my lips. I fill in the middle with red lipstick and turn the corners of my mouth down. I draw two black tears on my cheeks and step back to check the results.

Not bad.

I take my sad-clown face into Dorrit's room. Now she's on the phone. I can tell by her side of the conversation that she's comparing notes with one of her friends. She bangs down the receiver when she spots me.

"Well?" I ask.

"Well what?"

"What do you think about my makeup? I was thinking of wearing it to school."

"Is that supposed to be some kind of comment about my hair?"

"How would you feel if I showed up at school tomorrow looking like this?"

"I wouldn't care."

"Bet you would."

"Why are you being so mean?" Dorrit shouts.

"How am I being mean?" But she's right. I am being mean. I'm in a mean, foul mood.

And it's all because of Sebastian. Sometimes I think all the trouble in the world is caused by men. If there were no men, women would always be happy.

"C'mon, Dorrit. I was only kidding."

Dorrit puts her hands on top of her head. "Does it really look that bad?" she whispers.

My sad-clown face no longer feels like a joke.

When my mother first got sick, Dorrit would ask me what was going to happen. I'd put on a smiley face because I read somewhere that if you smile, even if you're feeling bad, the action of the muscles will trick your brain into thinking you're happy. "Whatever happens, we're all going to be fine," I'd tell Dorrit.


"Of course, Dorrit. You'll see."

"Someone's here," Missy calls out now. Dorrit and I look at each other, our little tiff forgotten.

We clatter down the stairs. There, in the kitchen, is Sebastian. He looks from my sad-clown face to Dorrit's pink and blue hair. And slowly, he shakes his head.

"If you're going to be around Bradshaws, you have to be prepared. There could be craziness. Anything might happen."

"No kidding," Sebastian says. He's wearing a black leather jacket, the same one he was wearing at Tommy Brewster's party and on the night we painted the barn--the night we first kissed.

"Do you always wear that jacket?" I ask as Sebastian downshifts on the curve leading to the highway.

"Don't you like it? I got it when I lived in Rome."

I suddenly feel like I've been swept under a wave. I've been to Florida and Texas and all around New England, but never to Europe. I don't even have a passport. I sure wish I had one now, though, so I'd know how to deal with Sebastian. They should make passports for relationships.

A guy who's lived in Rome. It sounds so romantic.

"What are you thinking?" Sebastian asks.

I'm thinking that you probably won't like me because I've never been to Europe and I'm not sophisticated enough. "Have you ever been to Paris?" I ask.

"Sure," he says. "Haven't you?"

"Not really."

"That sounds like being a little bit pregnant. You either have been or you haven't."

"I haven't been there in person. That doesn't mean I haven't been there in my mind."

He laughs. "You are a very strange girl."

"Thank you." I look out the window to hide my tiny smile. I don't care if he thinks I'm strange. I'm just so happy to see him.

I don't ask him why he hasn't called. I don't ask him where he's been. When I found him in my kitchen, leaning against the counter like he belonged there, I pretended it was perfectly natural, not even a surprise. "Am I interrupting something?" he asked, like it wasn't odd that he suddenly decided to show up.

"Depends on what you call interrupting." My insides were filled with diamonds, suddenly illuminated by the sun.

"Do you want to go out?"

"Sure." I ran upstairs and scrubbed off my clown face, knowing all the while I should have said no, or at least allowed myself to be convinced, because what girl agrees to go on a date spur of the moment like that? It sets a bad precedent, makes the guy think he can see you whenever he wants, treat you however he wants. But I didn't have it in me to refuse. As I pulled on my boots, I wondered if I'd come to regret being so easy.

I'm not regretting it now, though. Who makes up those rules about dating, anyway? And why can't I be exempt?

He puts his hand on my leg. Casually. Like we've been dating for a long time. If we were, I wonder if his hand on my leg would always produce the reaction I'm having now, which is a confused sort of divine giddiness. I decide it would. I can't imagine ever not feeling like this when I'm with him.

I'm losing it.

"It's not that great, you know," he says.

"Huh?" I turn back to him, my happiness pitching into inexplicable panic.

"Europe," he says.

"Oh," I breathe. "Europe."

"Two summers ago when I lived in Rome, I went all around--France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain--and when I got back here, I realized this place is just as beautiful."

"Castlebury?" I gasp.

"It's as beautiful as Switzerland," he says.

Sebastian Kydd actually likes Castlebury? "But I always imagined you"--I falter--"living in New York. Or London. Or someplace exciting."

He frowns. "You don't know me that well." And just as I'm about to expire from fear that I've insulted him, he adds, "But you will.

"In fact," he continues, "since I figured we ought to get to know each other better, I'm taking you to see an art exhibit."

"Ah," I say, nodding. I don't know a damn thing about art either. Why didn't I take art history when I had the chance?

I'm a goner.

Sebastian will figure it out and dump me before we've even had a proper first date.

"Max Ernst," he says. "He's my favorite artist. Who's yours?"

"Peter Max?" It's the only name I can think of at the moment.

"You are funny," he says, and laughs.

He takes me to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. I've been there a million times on field trips, holding the sticky hand of another little classmate so no one got lost. I hated the way we were marched around, scolded by a teacher's aide who was always somebody's mother. Where was Sebastian back then? I wonder as he takes my hand.

I look down at our intertwined fingers and see something that shocks me.

Sebastian Kydd bites his nails?

"Come on," he says, pulling me along beside him. We stop in front of a painting of a boy and a girl on a marble bench on a fantasy lake in the mountains. Sebastian stands behind me, resting his head on top of mine and wrapping his arms around my shoulders. "Sometimes I wish I could go into that painting. Close my eyes and wake up there. I'd stay there forever."

But what about me? screams a voice in my head. I suddenly don't like being left out of his fantasy. "Wouldn't you get bored?"

"Not if you were there with me."

I just about fall over. Guys aren't supposed to say these things. Or rather, they're supposed to but never do. I mean, who actually says things like that?

A guy who is crazily, madly in love with you. A guy who sees how incredible and amazing you are, even though you're not the cheerleader or even close to the prettiest girl in the school. A guy who thinks you're beautiful, just the way you are.

"My parents are in Boston," he says. "Want to go to my house?"

"Sure." I figure I'd go just about anywhere with him.

I have this theory that you can tell everything about a person by their room, but in Sebastian's case, it isn't true. His room is more like a guestroom in an antique boardinghouse than an actual boy's lair. There's a black and red handmade quilt, and an old wooden captain's wheel hangs on the wall. No posters, photographs, albums, baseballs--not even a dirty sock. I stare out the window at the view of a fading brown field and past that, the stark yellow brick of a convalescent home. I close my eyes and try to pretend I'm with Sebastian in the Max Ernst painting under an azure blue sky.

Now that I'm actually in his room--with him, for real--I'm a little uneasy.

Sebastian takes my hand and leads me to the bed. He puts his hands on either side of my face and kisses me.

I can barely breathe. Me--and Sebastian Kydd. It's really happening.

After a while, he raises his head and looks at me. He's so close I can see the tiny flecks of dark green around his irises. He's so close I could count them if I tried.

"Hey," he says. "You never asked why I didn't call."

"Was I supposed to?"

"Most girls would have."

"Maybe I'm not most girls." This sounds kind of arrogant but I'm certainly not going to tell him how I spent the last two weeks in an emotional panic, jumping every time the phone rang, giving him sidelong glances in class, promising myself I would never, ever do any bad thing ever again if he would only talk to me the way he had that night at the barn...and then hating myself for being so stupid and girlish about the whole thing.

"Did you think about me?" he asks slyly.

Oh boy. A trick question. If I say no, he'll be insulted. If I say yes, I'll sound pathetic.

"Maybe a little."

"I thought about you."

"Then why didn't you call?" I ask playfully.

"I was afraid."

"Of me?" I laugh, but he seems oddly sincere.

"I was worried that I could fall in love with you. And I don't want to be in love with anyone right now."

"Oh." My heart drops to my stomach.

"Well?" he asks, running his finger along my jaw.

Aha. I smile. It's only another one of his trick questions.

"Maybe you just haven't met the right girl," I murmur.

He brings his lips close to my ear. "I was hoping you'd say that."

Rescue Me
My parents met in a library.

After college, my mother was a librarian. My father came in to borrow some books, saw my mother, and fell in love.

They were married six months later.

Everyone says my mother used to look like Elizabeth Taylor, but in those days they told every pretty girl she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. Nevertheless, I always picture Elizabeth Taylor sitting demurely behind an oak desk. My father, bespectacled and lanky, his blond hair modeled into a stiff crew cut, approaches the desk as my mother/Elizabeth Taylor stands up to help him. She is wearing a poodle skirt flourished with fuzzy pink pom-poms.

The skirt is somewhere up in the attic, zipped away in a garment bag with the rest of my mother's old clothes, including her wedding gown, saddle shoes, ballet slippers, and the megaphone embossed with her name, Mimi, from her days as a high-school cheerleader.

I almost never saw my mother when she wasn't beautifully dressed and had completed her hair and makeup. For a period, she sewed her own clothes and many of ours. She prepared entire meals from the Julia Child cookbook. She decorated the house with local antiques, had the prettiest gardens and Christmas tree, and still surprised us with elaborate Easter baskets well past the time when we had ceased to believe in the Easter Bunny.

My mother was just like all the other mothers, but a little better, because she felt that presenting one's home and family in the best possible light was a worthy pursuit, and she made everything look easy.

And even though she wore White Shoulders perfume and thought jeans were for farmers, she also assumed that women should embrace this wonderful way of being called feminism.

The summer before I started second grade, my mother and her friends started reading The Consensus, by Mary Gordon Howard. It was a heavy novel, lugged to and from the club in large canvas bags filled with towels and suntan lotion and potions for insect bites. Every morning, as they settled into their chaises around the pool, one woman after another would pull The Consensus out of her bag. The cover is still etched in my brain: a blue sea with an abandoned sailboat, surrounded by the black-and-white college photographs of eight young women. On the back was a photograph of Mary Gordon Howard herself, taken in profile, a patrician woman who, to my young mind, resembled George Washington wearing a tweed suit and pearls.

"Did you get to the part about the pessary?" one lady would whisper to another.

"Shhhh. Not yet. Don't give it away."

"Mom, what's a pessary?" I asked.

"It's not something you need to worry about as a child."

"Will I need to worry about it as an adult?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. There might be new methods by then."

I spent the whole summer trying to find out what it was about that book that so managed to hold the attention of the ladies at the club that Mrs. Dewittle didn't even notice when her son David fell off the diving board and needed ten stitches in his head.

"Mom!" I said later, trying to get her attention. "Why does Mary Gordon Howard have two last names?"

My mother put down the book, holding her place with her finger. "Gordon is her mother's maiden name and Howard is her father's last name."

I considered this. "What happens if she gets married?"

My mother seemed pleased by the question. "She is married. She's been married three times."

I thought it must be the most glamorous thing in the world to be married three times. Back then, I didn't know one adult who had been divorced even once.

"But she never takes her husbands' names. Mary Gordon Howard is a very great feminist. She believes that women should be able to define themselves and shouldn't let a man take their identity."

I thought it must be the most glamorous thing in the world to be a feminist.

Until The Consensus came along, I'd never thought much about the power of books. I'd read a ton of picture books, and then the Roald Dahl novels and the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. But that summer, the idea that a book could change people began to flutter around the edges of my consciousness. I thought that I, too, might want to become a writer and a feminist.

On Christmas of that year, as we sat around the table eating the Buche de Noel that my mother had spent two days assembling, she made an announcement. She was going back to school to get her architecture degree. Nothing would change, except that Daddy would have to make us dinner some nights.

Years later, my mother got a job with Beakon and Beakon Architects. I loved to go to her office after school, which was in an antique house in the center of town. Every room was softly carpeted, perfumed with the gentle scent of paper and ink. There was a funny slanted desk where my mother did her work, drawing elegant structures in a fine, strict hand. She had two people working for her, both young men who seemed to adore her, and I never thought you couldn't be a feminist if you wore pantyhose and high heels and pulled your hair back in a pretty barrette.

I thought being a feminist was about how you conducted your life.

When I was thirteen, I saw in the local paper that Mary Gordon Howard was coming to speak and sign books at our public library. My mother was no longer well enough to leave the house, so I decided to go on my own and surprise her with a signed book. I braided my hair into pigtails and tied the ends with yellow ribbons. I wore a yellow India print dress and a pair of wedge sandals. Before I left, I went in to see my mother.

She was lying in her bed with the blinds half-closed. As always, there was the mechanical tick, tick, tick of the grandfather clock, and I imagined the little teeth in the mechanism biting off a tiny piece of time with each inexorable movement.

"Where are you going?" my mother asked. Her voice, once mellifluous, was reduced to a needle scratch.

"To the library," I said, beaming. I was dying to tell her my secret.

"That's nice," she said. "You look pretty." She took a heavy breath and continued. "I like your ribbons. Where did you get them?"

"From your old sewing box."

She nodded. "My father brought those ribbons from Belgium."

I touched the ribbons, unsure if I should have taken them.

"No, no," my mother said. "You wear them. That's what they're there for, right? Besides," she repeated, "you look pretty."

She began to cough. I dreaded the sound--high and weak, it was more like the futile gasping of a helpless animal than an actual cough. She'd coughed for a year before they discovered she was sick. The nurse came in, pulling the top off a syringe with her teeth while tapping my mother's forearm with two fingers.

"There you go, dear, there you go," she said reassuringly, smoothly inserting the needle. "Now you'll sleep. You'll sleep for a bit and when you wake up, you'll feel better."

My mother looked at me and winked. "I doubt it," she said as she began to drift away.

I got on my bike and rode the five miles down Main Street to the library. I was late, and as I pedaled, an idea began to form in my head that Mary Gordon Howard was going to rescue me.

Mary Gordon Howard was going to recognize me.

Mary Gordon Howard was going to see me and know, instinctively, that I, too, was a writer and a feminist, and would someday write a book that would change the world.

Standing atop my pedals to pump more furiously, I had high hopes for a dramatic transformation.

When I reached the library, I threw my bike into the bushes and ran upstairs to the main reading room.

Twelve rows of women sat on folding chairs. The great Mary Gordon Howard, the lower half of her body hidden behind a podium, stood before them. She appeared as a woman dressed for battle, in a stiff suit the color of armor enhanced by enormous shoulder pads. I caught an under-current of hostility in the air, and slipped behind a stack.

"Yes?" she barked at a woman in the front row who had raised her hand. It was our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Agnosta. "What you're saying is all very well and good," Mrs. Agnosta began carefully. "But what if you're not unhappy with your life? I mean, I'm not sure my daughter's life should be different than mine. In fact, I'd really like my daughter to turn out just like me."

Mary Gordon Howard frowned. On her ears were enormous blue stones. As she moved her hand to adjust her earring, I noticed a rectangular diamond watch on her wrist. Somehow, I hadn't expected Mary Gordon Howard to be so bejeweled. Then she lowered her head like a bull and stared straight at Mrs. Agnosta as if she were about to charge. For a second, I was actually afraid for Mrs. Agnosta, who no doubt had no idea what she'd wandered into and was only looking for a little culture to enhance her afternoon.

"That, my dear, is because you are a classic narcissist," Mary Gordon Howard declared. "You are so in love with yourself, you imagine that a woman can only be happy if she is 'just like you.' You are exactly what I'm talking about when I refer to women who are a hindrance to the progress of other women."

Well, I thought. That was probably true. If it were up to Mrs. Agnosta, all women would spend their days baking cookies and scrubbing toilets.

Mary Gordon Howard looked around the room, her mouth drawn into a line of triumph. "And now, if there are no more questions, I will be happy to sign your books."

There were no more questions. The audience, I figured, was too scared.

I got in line, clutching my mother's copy of The Consensus to my chest. The head librarian, Ms. Detooten, who I'd known since I was a kid, stood next to Mary Gordon Howard, handing her books to sign. Mary Gordon Howard sighed several times in annoyance. Finally she turned to Ms. Detooten and muttered, "Unenlightened housewives, I'm afraid." By then I was only two people away. "Oh no," I wanted to protest. "That isn't true at all." And I wished I could tell her about my mother and how The Consensus had changed her life.

Ms. Detooten shrank and, flushed with embarrassment, turned away and spotted me. "Why, here's Carrie Bradshaw," she exclaimed in a too-happy, nudging voice, as if I were a person Mary Gordon Howard might like to meet.

My fingers curled tightly around the book. I couldn't seem to move the muscles in my face, and I pictured how I must look with my lips frozen into a silly, timid smile.

The Gorgon, as I'd now begun to think of her, glanced my way, took in my appearance, and went back to her signing.

"Carrie's going to be a writer," Ms. Detooten gushed. "Isn't that so, Carrie?"

I nodded.

Suddenly I had The Gorgon's attention. She put down her pen. "And why is that?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" I whispered. My face prickled with heat.

"Why do you want to be a writer?"

I looked to Ms. Detooten for help. But Ms. Detooten only looked as terrified as I did. "I...I don't know."

"If you can't think of a very good reason to do it, then don't," The Gorgon snapped. "Being a writer is all about having something to say. And it'd better be interesting. If you don't have anything interesting to say, don't become a writer. Become something useful. Like a doctor."

"Thank you," I whispered.

The Gorgon held out her hand for my mother's book. For a moment, I thought about snatching it away and running out of there, but I was too intimidated. The Gorgon scrawled her name in sharp, tiny handwriting.

"Thank you for coming, Carrie," Ms. Detooten said as the book was handed back to me.

My mouth was dry. I nodded my head dumbly as I stumbled outside.

I was too weak to pick up my bike. I sat on the curb instead, trying to recover my ego. I waited as poisonous waves of shame crashed over me, and when they passed, I stood up, feeling as if I'd lost a dimension. I got on my bike and rode home.

"How'd it go?" my mother whispered later, when she was awake. I sat on the chair next to her bed, holding her hand. My mother always took good care of her hands. If you only looked at her hands, you would never know she was sick.

I shrugged. "They didn't have the book I wanted."

My mother nodded. "Maybe next time."

I never told my mother how I'd gone to see her hero, Mary Gordon Howard. I never told her Mary Gordon Howard had signed her book. I certainly didn't tell her that Mary Gordon Howard was no feminist. How can you be a feminist when you treat other women like dirt? Then you're just a mean girl like Donna LaDonna. I never told anyone about the incident at all. But it stayed with me, like a terrible beating you can push out of your mind but never quite forget.

I still feel a flicker of shame when I think about it. I wanted Mary Gordon Howard to rescue me.

But that was a long time ago. I'm not that girl anymore. I don't need to feel ashamed. I turn over and squish my pillow under my cheek, thinking about my date with Sebastian.

And I don't need to be rescued anymore, either.
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