Gliding through freshly fallen snow on my way to visit Kathy at Hinsdale Sanitarium and Hospital, I imagine I’m an Olympic contender. I get a running start and then slide down the sidewalk, leaving marks like ski tracks in my wake. Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman blasts through the transistor radio in my hand. Whenever I hear it, I imagine some cute guy admiring me as I walk by, even though I’m not a woman yet. Well, in the physical sense, I guess I am.
My first period leaked out just two weeks before I started high school and three weeks before my fourteenth birthday. I welcomed it with about as much enthusiasm as I would a quart of Penzoil poured into my underpants. I was one of the last girls from our neighborhood to menstruate. That’s what Jillie said anyway. She finds out stuff like that from her mom, who actually has friends in town, unlike Wanda the Wicked Witch of the Western Suburbs. She acts as though everyone in Hinsdale thinks she’s a leper. There’s some truth in that. She’s different than other parents, and not just in the way she treats Kathy, Mary Ruth and me. Take her clothes. She wears only floral patterned, synthetic house dresses that zip up the front. Even when the temperature plunges below zero. That’s all she’ll wear under a ratty car coat my sisters and I outgrew ages ago. The dresses were cartoonish when new; they get worse with wear. Threads stick out at the seams like legs on a centipede. The only footwear she puts on her tiny feet are sandals with wedged heels and black canvas straps crisscrossed over her toes and behind her ankles. She calls them “wedgies.” In winter, she wears white bobby socks with her wedgies, making them look even more bizarre.
A couple of years ago, I accompanied Wanda to Ben Franklin, which is not far from the junior high. The store was having a half-price sale on wedgies. While I was helping her search a bin of shoes for size 4-1/2, two girls from school sauntered in. I slinked to another aisle. Head down, I pretended to be absorbed by a jewelry display. But then Wanda yelled, “Laura!” The girls approached me, their faces aglow with a devilish mirth.
“Is that your mother?” one of them asked. The other snickered.
“Uh, no, she’s just somebody I know.” I backed away and returned to the wedgie aisle.
“Where were you?” Wanda snapped as we walked to the cashier.
“Just over looking at some circle pins.”
“Liar. You wanted to get away from me, didn’t you. You’re just like everybody else in this town. You think you’re too good for me.”
I kept quiet, feeling guilty as Peter when he denied knowing Jesus. I also feared Wanda might raise her voice and make a scene before we were safely inside her Chevy Bel Air, where nobody else would be able to hear her rant.
Classmates used to taunt me about Kathy and Mary Ruth, too. “She’s not your sister, is she?” they’d say when one of my sisters passed by. When I’d answer in the affirmative, their laughter would hit like a basketball aimed at my gut. That was in junior high, when, despite everything our teachers said to the contrary, the only thing that seemed to matter was how you looked, not who you were on the inside. As the eldest, Kathy had to face this scrutiny first, wearing second-hand outfits that looked like they’d been swiped from the set of Oklahoma.
These days, we babysit, clean houses and do other odd jobs, and we buy our own clothes. The ribbing has subsided. It seems, overall, things are going well this year for all three of us, that is, if you don’t include Kathy’s fall, which broke her back.
Snowflakes land and melt on the sidewalk as I approach the hospital and open the door. I rush through the lobby, to the elevators and up to Kathy’s room. Soon, I’m perched on the edge of her bed, concentrating as a ball of yarn rolls on the floor. Under, over, under, over—I finish a row of knitting and pass the half-completed scarf to her.
“That’s very good, Laur, nice and even.” She runs her nimble fingers along my stitches. “See, you can do it.” I’m not used to Kathy encouraging me. I wonder if she might be setting me up for some king of ridicule like when we were younger and I was the butt of all the family jokes.
Kathy hands the project back to me. “Do another row. You’ll be knitting a sweater soon.”
I doubt that. I tried knitting once before back in Brownie Scouts. Each girl was supposed to make a scarf to give to her mother for Christmas. I stuffed my twisted disaster in the back of my closet, where it sat like contraband for months, until Wanda did one of her routine purges of all possessions she deems useless or unnecessary.
I start on the next row. Under over, under over. How I envy Kathy’s fortitude. She’s been here for two months and has kept up with all of her schoolwork, and she’s teaching me how to knit to boot. She’s always up to something productive, like theater, where she works magic backstage. That’s what led to her broken back, though. She was painting scenery for a play when she fell fourteen feet from a scaffold.
Friends on the scene helped her up and asked if she was okay. She said she was fine and even walked around for several minutes. Then the stabbing pain hit. She asked Lainie, her closest friend on the crew, to take her to the emergency room.
“Should we call your mom?” Lainie asked.
“No. Take me to the hospital first, otherwise I’ll never make it there.” Kathy knew too well that, without intervention, Wanda would give her an aspirin, send her off to bed and tell her to be in school the next day.
Lainie drove Kathy to the emergency room, where Wanda was notified after Lainie made sure the doctor on duty saw Kathy and knew she was badly hurt.
I’m finishing another row when Mary Ruth tromps in, the lenses of her brown tortoise-shell glasses still a little steamed up at the edges, her cheeks rosy from the cold outside air. She’s just finished a study session with her calculus buddies.
“Ready for a ride?” Mary Ruth asks. She unbuttons her coat and lays it across an upholstered chair by the window.
“Sure thing,” Kathy says. Earlier today, her doctor gave her the okay to use a wheel chair, and we intend to take full advantage of that development. The three of us giggle as we ease Kathy out of the bed and into the chair. And we’re off. Mary Ruth and I walk her down the hallway to a window. Then we spin her around and push her to the other end of the hall. Up and down we go, one end to the other. Mary Ruth and I take turns pushing the chair, and with each switch at the helm, we increase our speed until we’re running so fast, we can barely stop at the windows on either end of the hall. All three of us find this hilarious.
“Watch it, girls,” a nurse calls. “You know you’re not supposed to run in the halls.” We slow down, stop at the elevators and move our frivolity to another floor, until a nurse there tells us to slow down too. “Think of the other patients here,” she scolds.
Feeling guilty, we return to Kathy’s floor, where aides are bringing dinner trays to all the patients. It’s time for Mary Ruth and me to go.
Mary Ruth hugs Kathy. Then it’s my turn. “See ya tomorrow,” I say. Mary Ruth and I back out the door and then shuffle, arm in arm, toward the elevators. I’m sorry Kathy got busted up, but I enjoy seeing my sisters every day at the hospital, a place where Wanda never visits, a place where we are safe from her rage, safe to let our armor down, safe to dream of love washing bitterness from our home like showers flushing away decay and awakening the earth in spring.
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