I slouched in the leather seat and glared at my mom. “You said you wouldn’t say anything.”
She sighed. “I meant I wouldn’t say anything right then. Since I was so angry . . . so confused why you’d mess up your pretty face like that.”
“I happen to like it.” I leaned forward and pulled down the vanity mirror of my mom’s Volvo. A beam of sunlight flashed off the new titanium microstud in my nose. I really did like the way it looked. It gave me a dose of exoticness, like this honors student could tear it up on the club dance floor or something. The mirror flipped back into place with a smack.
Mom slowed the car at an intersection by Louie’s Café and the Piggly Wiggly and then pulled it up to the Gas ’N’ Go. A round man in coveralls jogged over to fill it up. I wondered if he were a bulldog in his former life.
“Can you clean these for me, Poppy?” Mom passed me her sunglasses and rummaged around in her briefcase. I took the glass-cleaning cloth out of the glove compartment and wiped. When I handed the glasses back, her gaze fell on my microstud and she grimaced. “I know your friends back home were into body piercing and tattoos and Lord knows what else—”
“Only two of those guys had tats, Mom.”
“Well. Anyhow, I guess I should be thankful you only have your ears and nose pierced. But don’t you think it might be easier to . . . fit in here if you take that thing out?”
Fitting in had never been my modus vivendi.
And whether she knew it or not, Mom hadn’t exactly fit in back in Boulder. Too high maintenance for a hippie, not rich enough for a socialite, and not liberal enough for an academic. Perhaps she’d fit in better here in Texas, for better or for worse.
I fiddled with the SCAN button, quick to pass over the hick tunes, Jesus music, and Republican talk shows. Finally, I found something that teetered on tolerable: an older song by The Used.
The gasoline man rapped on the side of the car as he replaced the nozzle in the pump. Mom waved her Am Ex out the window. “The hole will grow back and you’ll never know it was pierced,” she continued brightly, turning the music down until it was barely even audible.
“Thank you, Mrs. Browne,” the man said, beads of sweat shimmering on his red face. He looked at her the way men look at attractive women. Like he’d forgotten how to blink.
I waited for Mom to correct him (“It’s Ms., not Mrs.”) but she never did. She smiled, snatched her receipt, and pressed the gas pedal. “Pleasant Acres isn’t exactly Boulder. And now that you’re going to a Baptist school, the dress code is much stricter and—you read the handbook, didn’t you?”
“We’re not Baptist.”
She sighed. “Like I said, I researched your academic options, and Calvary High is the one I felt was best for you.”
“Did you ever entertain the notion that staying in Boulder would be best for me?” I muttered, picking at the raisin-colored polish on my thumbnail.
“Of course I did.” Steering one-handed, she rubbed her temple with the other. “I didn’t want to pluck you out of school right before your sophomore year—”
“However,” I said in my best Professor Emily Browne voice, “the opportunity to teach at a small, up-and-coming liberal arts college and to be a big fish in a microscopic pond was all too enticing.” I rubbed my hands together sinisterly.
Mom had traded in her professorship at the University of Colorado for one at Kinsley College and had dragged me to the podunk town of Pleasant Acres, Texas. It boasted white-picket-fenced neighborhoods, oil derricks at almost every corner, freakishly huge pecan trees, and a permanent notch in the Bible Belt. Yee-haw.
“Despite what you think, it’s not all about me,” Mom said without a hint of humor. “Everything I do, every choice I make, is about us. The cost of living is so much less here, and that means we can save more money for your college education. Besides, Pleasant Acres isn’t so bad. You have to admit, the people are extremely friendly. Our neighbors in Boulder never brought us homemade casseroles and muffins.”
I’d flaked almost all the polish off my nails. They looked worse than before I’d painted them, I realized with a surge of frustration. “That’s because the people back home actually gave a shit about our cholesterol levels.”
Mom muttered, “Watch your language, Poppy,” her programmed response any time I let a curse word slip out in her presence. A few minutes later, she said, “Honey, I know you’ve got the jitters for your first day at a new school. To be honest, I’m a little nervous about my first day too.” Her eyes—greenish-blue, so different from my own dark ones—locked with mine.
She wore a cap-sleeved blouse and a navy blue pencil skirt—clothes she’d had for years but that somehow still managed to look fresh. She’d pulled her light brown hair into a professorial chignon, accessorized with a silver pen. As always, she looked elegant and beautiful, and I had a strong suspicion that if she’d just loosen up a little, she’d have men lined up for miles. Come to think of it, she could use some girlfriends, too. Anything so I could get a little breathing room.
Maybe I should’ve said something reassuring like, “Oh, come on, Mom. You’re a great teacher and everybody’s going to adore you.” Instead, I just sat there, refusing to admit to myself that she was right: I was a nervous wreck. Nausea provoked my stomach. Maybe it was a good thing I’d skipped breakfast.
The Volvo’s tires glided along Calvary Road, which meandered through trees so tall and dense that only slits of the blue sky were visible above. Mom pulled up to the stately red-brick school and braked for a mob of backpack-toting guys to clear the crosswalk. They wore polos and khakis; their hair was combed and their faces clean-shaven. They looked like they were going for job interviews. Or, on second thought, like they needed to get laid.
Mom peered at them over her sunglasses and asked, “See any potential boyfriends, Poppy?” For one scary second, I wondered if she’d read my mind.
“Now, she wants to talk about boys,” I said to the Universe, crossing my arms so I didn’t have to look at my nails anymore. “I thought you wanted me off guys for a while. You know, like until I’m thirty-five.” She wasn’t too keen on her daughter following her down the knocked-up-teenager road.
“Now, that’s not true, Poppy. I had a bad feeling about that Simon guy, that’s all.”
“Spence. His name is Spence.” I couldn’t say why I felt it necessary to correct her for the millionth time. Turned out, she was right about him being a freak. A messed up, macabre, stuff-of-nightmares-and-horror-flicks freak. It had just taken me four months to draw that conclusion myself, and now I’d rather just erase that phase of my life, once and for all.
“Maybe you’ll meet someone here, a nice young man who treats you with respect,” Mom said, coasting up to the front of the school. “You know what they say about Southern boys. . . .” She parked alongside the curb and faced me.
“That they wear too-tight Wranglers, chew tobacco, and marry their cousins?”
She cracked a smile. Maybe it was being in a new place, surrounded by strange sights, smells, sounds—but it was crazy how such a small gesture gave my spirits a much-needed boost.
Before jumping out, I checked my reflection in the visor mirror. I’d decided to wear my light blond hair down, but I came prepared with an emergency ponytail holder in case I got too hot or my hair went flat. I tucked a lock behind my left ear.
“You sure you don’t want to take that thing out of your nose?” Mom asked, watching me closely as I checked my makeup. With this humidity, it was a miracle my eyeliner wasn’t dripping down my cheeks.
“You really think I’ll scare everybody off with a little stud in my nose?” I widened my eyes and blinked angelically.
“Let’s face it, Poppy. You can use all the help you can get in the making friends department.” Ah, so nice to know my own mother considered me a social apocalypse. I could say something about the pot calling the kettle black, but there was no use. “Not to mention, you’ll want to get in your teachers’ good graces.”
Taking a deep breath, I rolled my shoulders. Then I pushed open the door and unfolded myself, straightening my top: a little crocheted sweater I’d salvaged by adding some cool metal buttons. “My teachers will adore me,” I said, smirking.
“Don’t forget to go by the office and get your roster,” Mom called out the window. “And I’ll pick you up at two forty-five.”
“Okay. Thanks. Bye.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come in with you?”
“Only if you hold my hand and leave a big red lipstick mark on my forehead,” I muttered under my breath.
Gravel crunched under her tires as she pulled away. I marched alongside the hedge, past the flagpole, up the stairs, through the main entrance, and directly to the office. The poodle-haired lady at the desk hung up the phone with a “God bless” and knocked over a little pot of violets. As she dusted the dirt onto the carpet, she beamed at me. “Welcome. You must be Poppy Browne.” She opened a file cabinet and pulled out a folder. “Here is your student ID. Turned out cute as a possum, don’t you think?”
I examined the teensy photo on the laminated card. Wearing my hair in a ponytail when I’d registered had clearly been a mistake. Other than looking like a bald girl with demonic red eyes, yep, cute as a possum.
“And here’s your information packet and class schedule. Looks like you’re taking mainly junior- and senior-level courses. You must be a very smart young lady.” Or a young lady whose mother had zero tolerance for academic mediocrity.
The lady glanced down at a note paper-clipped to the folder. “Let’s see . . .” She tapped her chest several times, fumbling for the reading glasses that dangled from a beaded necklace. Once they were in place, she said, “Ah, yes. A delightful junior by the name of Bridgette Josephs volunteered to be your student hostess. She’ll take you to your classes and answer any questions you might have your first few days. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have as well.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Winstead,” I said, picking up her name from the brass-plated sign on her desk.
“You’re more than welcome, Poppy.” She scrutinized me, her eyeballs appearing cartoonish behind her glasses. “Now, let’s see. It seems you might have some questions about our dress code. Perhaps we forgot to give you a copy of the handbook?” She opened the file cabinet at her side and slipped out a piece of light green paper. Then she ran her bright pink fingertips down the paper, paused, and read out loud: “Young ladies are to wear dresses or skirts that come no higher than the top of the knee.” She cleared her throat meaningfully while I studied my skirt. It would come to the top of the knee of someone who was four feet tall. “They may also wear slacks, dark jeans, or capri pants,” she continued. “Shorts, tank tops, tube tops, off-the-shoulder shirts, and spaghetti-strap dresses are forbidden. Shoes and socks or hosiery are to be worn at all times.” Leaning over the side of her desk, Mrs. Winstead checked out my black boots, and though she frowned, she said nothing. I wiggled my toes and shifted my weight, suddenly realizing my feet were unbearably hot. Maybe I’d have to switch to my black Converse, at least until it got a little cooler. She flipped the paper over, her lips flapping as she read silently. Finally, she dabbed her forehead with a Kleenex and said, “There’s nothing about nose jewelry. Probably because we’ve never had anything like that come up here at Calvary High. Oh well, just be sure and follow the dress code from here on out, all righty then?”
I nodded, thinking it would be funny if an official dress code enforcer policed the hallways.
“Good girl. Oh, mercy me. Here’s Bridgette Josephs,” Mrs. Winstead said, a gust of relief in her voice. “She’s not only your student hostess—she’s one of our brightest and most involved students. I’m sure you two will be the best of friends.” Her feeble chuckle made me think she wasn’t so sure about the last part.
Bridgette flashed me a wide, metallic smile. “Welcome to Calvary High.” Her sweet-sounding voice caught me by surprise. Despite her broad nose, over-plucked eyebrows, and fashion disaster of a floral knee-length skirt, her cheeks were rosy and her hazel eyes sparkled. Overall, I found her somewhat cute, on the verge of being pretty.
“Come on, Poppy. We don’t want to miss morning service. It really gets the day started off right. Now, I know you went to a secular school back in Colorado, so you’ve probably never had an opportunity like this. It’s kind of like a pep rally, only there’re no screaming cheerleaders or mascots bouncing around. I guess you can say it’s a spiritual pep rally.”
I wasn’t a big fan of the pep rallies at my old school, so maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. I’d just sit back and relax. Hopefully no one would even notice me.
© 2010 Wendy Toliver