Sixty-six: Manly Concerns
May was nearing its end; without fanfare, my older sisters celebrated their 16th birthdays. Marca, consoling herself for her soccer team not making the state finals, got her driver's license. Our year-end testing was done; I got A's, Marca got a C average, but didn't need to go to summer school this year for anything. I took some placement exams for Port Laughton University and exempted out of Freshman English, (thank God) and would be allowed to take a poetry class and a "Study Habits" class in the Fall term. I thought I could handle the workload; nothing that Marca and Oesha had brought home the year before had been the least challenging to me. Besides, being naturally the young genius, I had made them save all their homework, thinking that their teachers probably didn't change their lesson plans much from year to year.
School should have been done with the week before Memorial Day, but we had the flood days from last Fall to make up; they were hideously boring, as the teachers had no real work for us. We turned books in and watched movies in the auditorium, but had to sit with our home room classmates, which meant that I could not even see where Rachel was; nor was I able to spot the mysterious Christine from the estate farm in any of the older classes. Maybe she was older than she looked, I didn't know, but Aunt Sully hadn't taken me with her to visit the farm anyway since that one time, and I didn't want to ask anyone about her, because I didn't want a lecture on which girls I could or could not consider as possible liaisons.
Don't get me wrong -- I was far from disinterested in Rachel. But she and Christine were very different. Rachel was a city soul, and missed ready access to movie theaters and delis. Christine lived on a farm, baked cookies, did art work, took care of a baby, wore clothes that to me were exotically shabby; Rachel, by her own admission, ran the vacuum, did the dishes, and watched television every evening. It wasn't like I was looking for a wife, but I was drawn to both of them in my thoughts, and in my dreams.
(I used to share a lot of my dreams with Aunt Sully, but there came a time when my dreams were just not of the sharable sort, at least most of the time. She never pestered me about my dreams, so I think she understood my reticence.)
The babies' rooms were all finished, and even had lost their smell of paint. Lawley and Carter's rooms were to be in what had been Michel's and mine; the walls had been done in a clear, vibrant blue, like the blue of a summer morning right after the fog clears, with white wainscoting and unassuming curtains. Bare of furniture as yet, they seemed echoing and foreign. (I had already become accustomed to my thick rugs and heavy oak furniture upstairs.) I turned on the light in the shared bathroom between the rooms, and admired the iridescent blue tiles that bordered the white. The sink was new, and the medicine cabinet above it was larger than ours had been. The lights were brighter, but not as harsh as before, and there was a plaid wallpaper on the walls of green and gold and blue. I had to duck to look in the mirror properly, and in the light, caught sight of two long, curling hairs under my chin.
My God, how long have those been dangling there? I wondered, and headed upstairs to the third floor to find John. I found him in his office, poring over a map of the woods. "Hey, Owen, how's it goin'?" he asked, grinning, knowing I would be a little annoyed at the sing-song.
"Hairy, John. May I borrow a razor from you? I don't want to ask Marca if I can help it."
"Wondered when you'd notice those, but then I thought maybe you were going to try for a beard."
"It's not funny. They look disgusting. And they're bright red."
He handed me a razor from their bathroom. "You know how to use this?"
"Yes, I do. We shaved off Michel's sideburns two years ago and didn't cut him once." I paused before leaving. "They're coming home soon, aren't they? I confess to missing my siblings."
"We all do, you know that. But your aunt thinks they're going to be changed when they get back. Thinks everyone is. She says it's going to be like Halloween for a while, with strangers wearing the old faces."
I chuckled. "I feel a bit stranger than when they left, myself. Moving upstairs has been a growth opportunity, and I don't mean just for longer pants. With them away, and now with my own place to live, the Five ... well, it's not like we're still so much of a team. And Oesha says she wants to stay in Italy."
"Claire's not going to let her do that, I guarantee. She says Oesha turns male heads all too easy. Andersol says they'll be back the third week in July, if they haven't told you already."
I left him then to go to my rooms and get rid of the two long hairs and the five smaller, finer ones that orbited around them. This is it, I told myself, you'll be doing this for the rest of your days.
When you're six years old, and look at the men around you, they seem like alien creatures, and even though you know you're a boy, you can't really believe that you're ever going to change into one of them. They're so big, so loud, so stubble-faced; they have thick wiry eyebrows and hair all over their arms and hands. Then there's the voice thing, and the height thing, and the next thing you know the moon has become full and hair is jumping out everywhere, and it's been so long since you thought about it, it's all kind of a surprise.
Are girls different?
I slammed my journal shut, laughing. What a stupid question.
A hot Sunday afternoon in June. Rachel and Megan, her mother, had come up to the estate to ride with me and Aunt Sully. We chose the trail of the fire road because it was so shaded by the tall trees; Aunt Sully and Megan rode ahead of us.
"I see you shaved off your beard," Rachel said with a wicked smile.
"Yeah. Why didn't you tell me I was germinating?"
She shrugged. "I didn't know if you were growing hair to be proud of it or not. Some guys do, even if it looks stupid, because they're glad to be old enough to be able to grow hair."
See, that's what I meant about girls being different. How do they know stuff like that? She was absolutely right. Even red, had my newly found talent for hair chosen to make a reasonably uniform goatee, I might have let the shaving wait until one of my adults complained about my hirsute condition. Even if it looks stupid, she said. "Please, I request that in the future, if I sprout some kind of growth that looks stupid, let me know before I humiliate myself in public."
Even as she laughed, we heard hoofbeats ahead of us. The rhythm was of a horse in a slow canter -- a lope, I corrected, as the rider came into view and I could see Western tack on the horse ... and Christine in the bulky saddle.
She slowed her horse to a walk, and Aunt Sully and Megan stopped to shake hands and do introductions. Then Christine moved her horse forward to greet us.
I was a bit rosy in the face, I knew, having both of the girls of my dreams in the same scene, but I introduced them to each other calmly enough. What I was unprepared for was the emotions that sailed across their faces. Christine scanned Rachel up and down in a calculating two seconds, and though she only smiled, there was a definite sneer that came through, an almost pitying sneer, that Rachel was riding a pretty pony and English tack, while she, Christine, was riding a ranch quarterhorse, holding reins one-handed, using a worn Western saddle that had seen a lot of work and years. And while Rachel wore a neat blouse tucked into khakis, Christine wore blue jeans, also worn and work-stained, and a form-fitting tank top that emphasized her strong shoulders and full breasts. "Pleased to meet you," she said as she grasped Rachel's hand.
Rachel snatched her hand back, shaking it. "You don't need to crunch my hand, Miss. If I wanted to be crippled, I'd slam it in a car door instead." Her face was pale, and furious, though immobile.
"Sorry," Christine said insincerely. "I guess I've been working too hard, don't know my own strength."
"Maybe you can work on relationships," Rachel snarled, "with people instead of cattle."
Christine grinned and rode away on the road, back in the easy canter again.
Honestly, I had no idea what to say, in the face of Rachel's anger, in the wake of Christine's obvious put down. Lamely I said, "I only ever met her once."
We rode on in silence for a few minutes; I could see that Rachel was mad as hell. In confused feelings, I had no idea what I should say next. I had no understanding of what I was feeling -- on one hand, I was really flattered that the two ladies of my heart obviously hated each other over me, but on the other, I didn't want to see a catfight or piss either one of them off. I couldn't just desert Rachel and ride Mackerel up beside the adults, even though I dreaded what she might fire at me if I didn't; if I didn't keep my conversation with Rachel on an even keel, my aunt would simply forbid me to ride with her. None of the three of us, Christine, Rachel, and me were supposed to have any kind of strong relationship -- and God help me, I didn't think I had any kind of relationship at all with Christine -- why was she so nasty to Rachel?
But she had been; she had acted as though I somehow belonged to her. I was nearly drunken with the encounter, but had to get my wits back, or Rachel would never speak to me again.
I felt that if I spoke again, I'd seem even more apologetic, as though I had something to feel guilty about (which I really didn't, unless both the girls were telepathic and homed in on my dreams), or I'd seem callous, which would be totally like stuffing a grenade in my mouth and swallowing.
Instead, I sat a little deeper in the saddle, collected Mackerel's reins, and gave him a little heel cue. He shifted to the left with his hindquarters, tucked in his chin, and began to trot almost in place, keeping pace with Rachel and Berg, but floating with the flexion of his legs.
"What is he doing?" cried Rachel, mesmerized by the horse's dance.
"Not sure," I lied. "Maybe he was stirred up by that other horse's canter."
"He looks like an angel," she said. "But I'm glad Berg isn't doing that!"
"Look, up there! A hawk! See the red tail feathers?" How totally timely that bird was.
"A red-tail! You know, in Rochester, I don't think I ever saw a hawk except in the zoo. Not even when we went to the lake."
With relief, I let off the pressure on my horse's reins and eased my seat. He relaxed into a walk again. Good boy, you deserve something sweet for a treat after that one. "I like it when I see them carrying off snakes. I figure that every time I see that, it's one less chance of getting bitten."
I hoped that she would gasp and ask about the presence of snakes in our hills, but she didn't. Instead she just turned and stared at me with her sapphire gaze. "Too bad not all the snakes get carried off."