Battle Hymn Of The Teenage Girl: Part 2
The change in Pete sideswiped me. For a few years he had been saying he wanted to work with juvenile delinquents once he finished his psychology degree, and Aunt Ellen would say, “That’s because he is one.” The funny thing was, he never got in trouble beyond reprimands for not paying attention in class. He just skulked around, tall and lean, a black knitted cap pulled low over his eyes, looking like he had no intention of doing what he was told. But as Lisa’s other half, he transformed into a respectable authority figure, at least he thought so. If she was lady of the house, that made him man of the house.
I wasn’t a part of this whole new deal. Lisa made a big fuss about making dinner every night, and Pete about sitting down to the dinner made, but I wasn’t offered anything, nor called to the table. I ate pizza from work, or peanut butter sandwiches. I doubted I was welcome to the bread she bought, and I would have fainted from hunger before asking, so I bought a loaf myself. Heat and humidity molded bread quickly, so I kept mine in the freezer, defrosting a slice or two at a time for toast or a sandwich. Lisa had a rant to Pete over this, one she must have known I could hear, the house as small as it was and her shouting. “There’s a whole loaf of bread rotting in there! It’s a sin what she does! A sin!”
Lisa suffered under the illusion she was a devout Catholic. Pete trotted dutifully off to Mass at her heels. She complained about needing to go to confession as if it were a trip to the pharmacy, an ordinary though dull chore. What in the world could she possibly be confessing I wondered? Living in sin, not feeding the hungry, griping about how her lover’s parents made her feel crowded when they came down on weekends? None of these could be sins in her mind. What did she think were her sins?
I stayed out of the house as much as possible, working my day job at a boardwalk pizza place, finding things to do until bedtime. Early in the summer Lisa buttonholed me, told me with an authoritative air that she and Pete had talked about it, and I couldn’t be out so late. “It’s OK this one time. But not anymore.”
I said nothing. Didn’t bother to nod. She had no way of winning this one. Rich and Ellen had let me keep my own hours in Oceanside for three years now. If she thought she could pretend I wasn’t in the house and then suddenly hand down parental pronouncements, that was laughable. I wasn’t going to stay in to be ignored while they played kissy face.
I had decided the previous summer my values were different from the rest of the family, and not only different but superior. Once I knew myself in the right, they could still hurt me, but they couldn’t change me. The only thing that made me change was love, but only Ellen ever even tried that.
They lost me the summer I was fifteen, over lunch. In the morning Aunt Ellen told me she was going to take her daughter Marcia, Marcia’s friend and me out to lunch. Lunchtime was hours away at this point, so I said I would like to go visit a friend, and what time should I be back?
“We’re leaving from here at 12 o’clock.”
I got ridiculously excited about this lunch. We seldom went out together unless we were driving somewhere, so it was going to be special, a treat. I visited with my friends, bragged about my lunch date, and bounced back to the house. Right away I saw it was too quiet. Aunt Ellen’s car was gone. I looked carefully at the clock. Two minutes after twelve. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, then the chest. I breathed in carefully, steadying myself. Then I walked back to my friend’s house, willing myself to be calm. I didn’t knock but just went in the door, and locked eyes not with my friend, but with one of her housemates standing in the front room. One look at my face and she cried out, “Grace! What’s wrong!”
I stumbled in her direction, holding out my arms. She caught me and stroked my hair as I sobbed for a long long time.
“Can you tell me about it?” she murmured when I quieted.
“It’s going to sound stupid.”
“It’s not stupid. I promise.”
“My aunt. She said she would take me out to lunch. And then she left. Left without me.” A fresh burst of tears began once the facts came out, but less intense than at first.
She promised she wouldn’t think it was stupid, and she didn’t. She told me a story about her father getting angry at her about some little thing, and insisting she go to church alone, making her get in the back seat alone, dropping her off alone in front of the sanctuary. We sighed over the inexplicable perfidy of parents.
She told me I was a great girl, and that God loved me very much, and understood everything I felt. I knew she was right. God was my center, He cared about me, He had sent these good friends to me because He knew how hard things were for me in my family. They were a bunch of college students who all belonged to Campus Crusade for Christ, all living in a big dilapidated house in Wildwood for the summer. I met them up on the boardwalk, and they invited me to their Bible study, to hang around the house and talk about prayer and theology. I had just finished the tenth grade, and I became a sort of mascot for them. They never tired of feeding me, talking to me, taking me along on day trips. The big old house was a wonderful place.
I stayed until I felt better, then went for a long walk, ending up on the boardwalk, on a bench that faced the ocean, and that was where Ellen found me. She sat down. I refused to look at her. “The girls were really hungry. They were really, really hungry and couldn’t wait.”
“It was two minutes after twelve.”
“Hon, they were really hungry.”
“So hungry they couldn’t wait two minutes.”
There wasn’t much to say really.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“I went to Debbie’s house. I had lunch.”
“Look, sweetie, look. It’s OK to believe in God, but…” Oh, this was going to be about my cheery born again friends, who truth be told did show up at the house with toothy smiles and choruses of Praise the Lord! I knew they were sincere, and I also knew they probably sounded insincere to my frowning uncle. I knew my old school Catholic aunt wasn’t familiar or comfortable with this end of the evangelical spectrum. But she picked the wrong moment. “Sweetie, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this. You need to balance your life. God is fine, but…”
I stood up and walked away while she was still talking, and I had never done that to Ellen. I never did it again. But I walked away down the boardwalk determined. I had had it with all of them. I didn’t bother blaming Ellen for leaving me, she couldn’t stand up to anyone, and Marcia cared a lot about getting what she wanted. No doubt Marcia nagged and Ellen caved, and a promise to me was beside the point. I would never leave another person behind because I wanted to eat right this second, but I realized this was perfectly in character for Marcia. If she wanted something, that was all the right and wrong she thought about.
Marcia had never seemed to like me much, and I had wished I could win her over, tried and been rebuffed. Now I didn’t care. Marcia was dumb. She had no character. While I ferreted out Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lesser known novels because I liked The Scarlet Letter, she read Cosmopolition, or if she could sustain her attention, a whole romance novel. I went out to study the Bible: she went out to go bar hopping. I knew she drank heavily, that she sometimes didn’t remember parties from the weekend before, that her friends would snicker as they passed around pictures of her drunken self draped over various guys. I didn’t need approbation from this sort of person. I was above it.
I returned to the house at dusk and headed for my pajamas. Marcia followed me into the bedroom mumbling vaguely, “Was really hungry…” I turned my head away. So hungry you could wait ninety seconds but not a whole two minutes. Too much of a strain on you.
Maybe she realized something had changed, maybe she didn’t. But something very basic changed for me when I realized my cousin was a different person than I ever wanted to be.
Marcia often wore a hot pink tee shirt with the words “Every Inch A Woman” emblazoned across the bust, and a picture of a pair of female lips clamped lusciously on the shaft of a red rose. It was the sort of thing I couldn’t carry off but she could, and now I saw the shirt wasn’t mature and sophisticated, it was sleazy. The pouty lips were crusted with glitter. On the boardwalk I found a decal that read “Always A Lady” in a lovely script. I requested the decal applied to a soft blue top, and the tee shirt man’s face softened when he read it. He handed me the finished product with a gentlemanly nod. I wore it often, in a defiance they were all too slow witted to recognize. If they thought I was giving up God, or getting more balanced about it, whatever that meant, they had another think coming. My love and my loyalty belonged to Him. I liked myself when I was with Him: I liked the person I was becoming under His wing. I was different from them, and let them exclude me and critisize me, but I would prove my will stronger than anyone’s. I would go down with the ship.
But Ellen changed tactics, perhaps reasoning that joining them was easier than beating them. She took to praising me in front of others for reading my Bible every single morning before work, for sticking with the King James Version in spite of the difficult language. To my surprise, on my birthday Marcia presented me with a new Bible. Ellen hung over my shoulder as the wrapping paper came off, and as I absorbed the shock that Marcia had just given me a Bible, Ellen scanned the cover before I did.
“Marcia! You got her a Catholic Bible!” exclaimed Ellen. Marcia looked doubtful.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said. “There are so many different versions of the Bible. People have their favorites, you know, there are dozens of different translations.” I smiled magnanimously. Marcia’s face said she had no idea there were Catholic and Protestant Bibles, let alone dozens of others.
I’ll take you back to the store, babe,” said Aunt Ellen. “”We’ll exchange that for a Protestant one. Whatever you want.” She shot a glare at Marcia.
I beamed at everyone. Of course Marcia wouldn’t know the first thing about buying a Bible. Who would expect it?
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