Fifty-three: My Girl
"How was Thanksgiving?" I asked Rachel, on the first day back on the bus after the holiday.
"Busy! I cleaned the whole house, from the front door to the bathrooms to the back patio. Mom had to work a double, so I thought I'd surprise her by having everything done when she came home, so she could just enjoy a day off. And I made spaghetti and meatballs and salad."
We'd had a Thanksgiving feast with the whole family, from the time we got up in the morning until we went to bed, with a special breakfast buffet, appetizers until the turkey was served around three, and repeat variations until bedtime. We had all dressed nicely for breakfast, rather formally for the turkey dinner, and then in comfortable sweats and slob clothes for the rest of the day. Even Grandmother had appeared in a fleece caftan over a cotton turtleneck in the evening, declaring when we complimented her on her outfit that she was being corrupted by our lazy and decadent ways.
It wasn't fair. Rachel was a nice girl, an intelligent and sensible person, a delightful companion ... and yet she spent a holiday alone, all alone. Why hadn't I asked about this before the break? We could have invited her to have dinner with us, and sent home plenty for her mother to eat when she got back from work. I should have thought this through, but I was still a dolt. I wanted to apologize to her, but what oozed from my unimaginative lips was, "That kind of sucks, not being able to have Thanksgiving together."
She shrugged. "We live with what we have. Mom was thrilled to tears to see the house clean, and food made for us to eat together when she came home." Rachel grinned. "She even let me have a glass of wine with her. It was cool. Then we both slept in until nearly noon the next day. Since the house was all clean, she could just enjoy a whole day off. We watched a couple DVD's, made Reuben sandwiches for lunch, and took a walk all the way up to the top of the ridge above the subdivision. There's a dirt road up there that looks like it goes on forever."
"Yeah, it's the fire road, I think. Well, I'm glad you had a good time with your mom. She works hard, sounds like."
"Too hard. I worry about her, but she says nursing is just a damn tough job all the way around. But it was a good holiday with her. We haven't had that much fun together since I was about ten. See you after school, Owen, my betrothed!"
One of the football players who rode the same bus turned and looked at me quizzically. "How'd you get her, and what's a 'betrothed'?"
Looking up at his swollen, lumpy face, I tried to measure my words. "She doesn't belong to me, she's a free agent. And 'betrothed' is a joke word from our English literature class."
"Huh," he growled, and went on his way, not questioning my definition or that our high school did not offer any English class specializing in literature.
Kelsa and Michel appeared on either side of me. "Nice sidestep, there, Owen," Michel observed. "Myself, I'd have told him I caught her in a Rodeo Hot Chick Roundup -- he might have changed careers!"
"No, he wouldn't, you dope. He's already been offered a full scholarship at CSU Chico if he can finish school with a 2.8 average."
"How the hell do you know this crap?" Michel sputtered at his twin. "Who do you talk to? I'm with you almost all the time and I never hear it!"
"Chantille Gorvy, whose older sister Crystal had one of his kids in September. We talk in Health Class, which is the last bastion of the segregation of the sexes. Chantille said that if they had the money, they'd sue the school system for saying that condoms made sex safe. But they don't have the money, and anyway, our texts do say that condoms aren't foolproof, but the teachers don't cover that in class, usually. But they do tell us to read the textbook, so if Crystal skipped class that day or didn't bother to read the chapter, too bad."
Michel nodded. "All we get in Health is to use condoms when we have sex, and warnings not to re-use them. And the signs of STD's, of course. And why to use anti-perspirants and what to buy if you have jock itch. You know, the basics. But there is no conversation about personal stories, not like you're talking about."
I left them chatting about the perversions of their fellow students and went on to my classes, thinking that Rachel didn't really 'need' me. I wasn't some prince in a fairy tale to come rescue her; she did just fine on her own. In fact, by the time I got to home room, I was convinced that I was a total idiot, a hormonal zombie, hopelessly infatuated by her ... brains.
Rachel was really pretty; I might even call her beautiful, though it wasn't in the current popular sense of beauty. Her thick, curly dark hair was a bit wanton in its wildness, and her fair skin was far from tanning salon tones. She wasn't thin to the point where I could circle her upper arm with my hand, as so many of our classmates were, glorying in their bony appearance, and wearing skin-tight clothing that made me embarrassed for their lack of sartorial sense. No, Rachel was of what I thought of as normal weight, and she dressed not for fashion, but for function -- don't get me wrong, she looked great every day I saw her. But she seemed to be above the faddish mode of dress that made every shirt a revelation of brassiere foundations, and every pair of pants an exposé of the form of underpants.
There were a lot of pretty girls in my grade, and in the one below me and the one above me, but I had observed most if not all of them to be vacuous in mind, or infantile in heart; none of them had attracted me as Rachel did. She could look me in the eye, and what I saw behind the startling blue of her gaze was a brain in gear. She thought about things, really thought about them.
What did she really think of me?
"Maybe you had better ask Rachel if she can stand the society photographers," Aunt Sully said drily when I asked her and John about the feasibility of having lunch with Rachel down town on Saturday. "They're hot on your trail after those stunts right before Thanksgiving. You might as well have issued a challenge or flipped them off."
My siblings and I, annoyed by paparazzi camped out by our bus, had one day carried with us, and at the appearance of cameras, deployed cut-out paper Groucho eyebrows, glasses, nose and moustaches. Another day we had painted our faces with white and black stripes in tempera paint (which got us a reprimand from the principals of our respective schools), and on still another, we had worn brown paper bags on our heads. We thought we were sending them a message that we didn't want to be photographed, but they were too feeble-minded to get it.
"Is it that you don't really want to be seen with me?" Rachel asked when I posed the question on the way to school.
"No! God, no! But will you mind if you end up on the Society Page of the newspaper if you're seen with me?"
"Owen, geeze. If I wanted to avoid you, I'd find another seat on the bus. I've ducked your photodogs by walking into school with other kids to cut you a break, but just so you don't get embarrassed by pictures with me."
Astounded by her humility, I told her, "I'm not embarrassed to be seen with you. You're wonderful. But I don't want you to be embarrassed by me."
"You're as much of an idiot as your sisters tell me. I wouldn't be embarrassed, unless you picked your nose at the table or lunged at me and tore half my clothes off."
"Okay. I can manage not to do those things."
"Don't push your luck, Mijo."
"You now speak Spanish?" How I wished the bus would break down and allow us to continue our conversation for hours.
"I speak 'Mijo,' but that's about it. And 'Enchiladas,' and 'Dos tacos de res.' I'm getting there. What time Saturday?"
"Eleven in the morning, would that be all right? I can pick you up at your house, or -- if you prefer, we could meet down at Mr. Perfect's Pizzas. Have you tried them yet?"
"No, I haven't. A pick up would be cool, but I'll have to clear it with Mom."
I had a date. I had a date. I had a date with a beautiful, smart girl.
Later in the day, I had an onslaught of the guilties. I was excited about having a lunch date with Rachel, but was unmoved by the bustle of three of my siblings, my aunt, my step-father-uncle, my grandmother, and my mother packing to move to Europe for an extended time. I knew I would miss them all until the Christmas break, but they were the known; Rachel was the new vista on the horizon, her light shining over all else.