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When We First Met
By Norma Fox Mazer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Norma Fox Mazer
All rights reserved.
It was March when Jenny first saw Rob in his rainbow suspenders. March was a month she had never liked—the way it played around with feelings, tantalizing with the thought that winter was over and spring was coming, promising but never delivering. March, to Jenny, was wet, raw days with the wind sharp through her jacket. It was dark gray mornings and greasy rain running down the windows. March was the month when her spirits sank. March was the month her sister Gail had died. And yet March was the month she first saw Rob in his rainbow suspenders.
The moment she walked into the auditorium she noticed the blond boy sitting a little forward of the balcony. His head glinted like a gold coin in the dimness. In that first instant Jenny saw him completely; absorbed him, as it were, into herself. The curly gold head, blue shirt, rainbow suspenders—but these were details. He leaned forward as if about to call out to her. And something happened to Jenny. Stunned, she sat down next to Rhoda.
"Ready?" Rhoda asked.
Jenny slid halfway around in her seat. The golden-haired boy was still leaning forward, intently watching her. Color mounted in her face. Who is he? Something winged and strong beat inside her. Was this the unnameable "it" for which she had been waiting so long?
"Want one?" Rhoda offered her a mint Lifesaver.
"Thanks. My favorite." Jenny pulled her braids forward over her shoulders. She was a tall, slender girl with a narrow, high-ridged nose. Years ago, someone had described her as a "Modigliani girl." She had found the Italian's paintings in the library-girls with narrow, lopsided faces and eyes shaped like primitive fish, which stared somberly out into the world—and never since had thought herself pretty.
Rhoda disagreed. "You're striking-looking."
Nice of Rhoda. Remembering helped Jenny not to slump even when she was tired. She was a proud person—too much, sometimes, what her father called stiff-necked—and she was reserved, gave her friendship and loyalty sparingly.
"Okay, people!" Mr. Marchese called. "Let's have the first pantomime. Lewis? Ferd?" Lewis—thin, nervous, shy—followed by Ferd—big and stolid—went up onstage. Two unlikely candidates for drama class, but both here because of Rhoda. Jenny sucked on the Lifesaver, resisted the impulse to turn again and stare at the boy in the rainbow suspenders. Had he really been looking at her, not Rhoda?
Rhoda Rivers, best friend, a sun around which many male planets revolved. On Valentine's Day eight boys had each sent her a single red rose. Astonishingly, only a few years before, Rhoda had been a short, bony thirteen-year-old, quick with smiles, smirks, and elephant jokes. Now she was a queen, moving through Alliance High with a constant retinue. Rhoda's hair stood out all over her head, frizzy and shining. She had become quite beautiful and, at the same time, had taken to wearing eccentric clothes.
One day she had come to school dressed all in pink—pink angora sweater, pink harem pants, pink ballet slippers—and she had carried around a stuffed pink rabbit. On another day she wore a striped baseball cap perched on her mass of hair where it rode like a little ship, and on her wrists, like bracelets, candy-striped ribbons tied in bows.
Onstage, Lewis slowly crumpled to the floor where he writhed with an agonized expression, while Ferd twirled his right hand above his cupped left hand. Suggestions came from the class. "Let me touch my native soil." "I can't stand it anymore!" "I'll never get the stains out of these white pants."
Jenny's eyes slid out of focus. Casually she put her arm along the back of the seat, turned ever so slightly ... and, yes, he was watching her still. He had a mass of curls and beneath—the face of an angel. She put on an indifferent, yet slightly curious expression, as if she'd turned around to study the dark, stained walls at the back of the auditorium: those greasy hand prints, something anthropologists of the future might liken to cave drawings.
Then again she faced forward. Someone must have guessed Ferd and Lewis's pantomime. A new pair were going up onstage. The face of an angel. What a remarkable thing to think. What was happening to her? Where was her ordinary reserve and caution? The face of an angel—what did she mean by that, for instance? High cheekbones, a broad, shining forehead, a defined nose (a nose that had character), but it was his eyes, blue eyes ... Even separated by rows of seats, she had seen the blue of his eyes, the blue of a lake or a country sky. The face of an angel— how excessive! Surely, she didn't mean that....
"We're next," Rhoda said, nudging her.
Onstage they stood opposite each other, hands raised and flat on the air, then each moved her hands searchingly, as if over a pane of glass. Their theme was "Something came between them." It had been Jenny's idea.
When they came offstage, the boy was gone. And Jenny thought, Well, no wonder, it's March.CHAPTER 2
"Here, sweetie ..." Amelia Pennoyer spread her youngest daughter's fingers on the piano keys.
"Like this?" Ethel asked. At five, she was still chubby, and her hair, somewhere between the color of honey and sand, was combed into old-fashioned shoulder-length corkscrew curls, which Amelia put up in papers twice a week. Of all Amelia's children, this last, she thought, was the gentlest, the one readiest to meet the world with a smile.
Ping ... ping ... Ethel banged down on the keys. "Ethel, watch." Amelia played the simple tune. Really, she had very little to teach her. Years ago, as a child herself, Amelia had wanted piano lessons, but her family had not been able to afford them. In the first year of her marriage she had found the upright through a MOVING, MUST SELL EVERYTHING ad. It had cost $100—two of her paychecks—at that time a huge sum. Now the piano was old, the top covered with white water stains, out of tune, and rarely used. Oh, she had had so many plans: to take piano lessons, to have three perfect children, to go to college nights, to love Frank the same way forever; in short, a master plan for life to be wonderful.
Well, in some ways—those first few years, for instance—it had been so very good: the babies, and Frank, trim then, with all his hair. And that energy! He would leap out of bed mornings, grab her by the foot. "Come on, lazy, get up! Look at that day!" And times he'd get frisky, run all over the house carrying her piggyback.
"Try to push the keys down crisply, Ethel." Memory was a strange thing. Certainly there were memories Amelia could do without. Times she'd yelled at Jenny, the miscarriages before Ethel, the way her father-in-law had died. But, on the other hand, there were so many things she couldn't remember that she wished she could. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, sleepless, she would try to remember the last time she had hugged Gail, kissed her.
She moved restlessly on the piano bench, wondering how much Ethel remembered of Gail's death. She'd only been three. How much could a three-year-old understand? They had told Ethel that big sister went to Heaven, that Gail was with God. Ethel had nodded as if satisfied, but weeks later she asked her mother, "When is Gail coming home?" Now an image came to Amelia—a car scraping Gail off her bike, like a knife scraping butter.
"Today I sang a song in school," Ethel said. "Mrs. Lawret said I was good as television. Did you watch me cross?"
"With the binoculars?"
Pittmann Elementary School, where Ethel had started kindergarten in September, was only two blocks from their house, but the corner of Catherine Avenue and Pittmann Street was a raceway for impatient drivers going to work. Mrs. Young, the crossing guard, a tall, needle-thin black woman, was always on duty, holding back the traffic for the children. She knew every child by name and never took her eyes off them, yet every day Amelia stood on the porch watching Ethel through binoculars. Because ... because Gail was dead ... because Mrs. Young might look away for an instant ... because at that precise moment a car might come down the street, the woman behind the wheel seeing Ethel only through a sodden, drunken haze....
Amelia wiped sweat off her lip. Stop ... enough. No, finish it, finish the picture: Amelia is running down the street, she feels nothing, hears nothing, she is running, flying, flying to rescue, to save, to snatch Ethel from beneath the wheels as she had not been able to snatch Gail. And she is turning to the creature behind the wheel, to the evilness that drank and drove, turning to her and ...
Amelia's heart raced painfully. And what? She had never raised her hand to anyone. Oh, sometimes a swat or a slap to one of the kids, but not this, not this rawness in her, this rage.
"Mom?" Ethel looked up, frowning.
"Keep playing, sweetie."
Two years. Tomorrow would be two years. March eighth.
She thought of Gail coming into her bedroom at night, sitting on the edge of her mother's bed. "Oh, Mom, wait till you hear!" Couldn't wait to spill out the details of her day. Sweet, sweet the way she'd share things with Amelia. Not like Jenny. Jenny would just look at you without saying a word, making you feel uncomfortable, as if she were creeping into your mind. How different they all were. Gail and Jenny. Vince and Frankie. Night and day, all of them.
The phone rang. Her stomach jolted. Jenny ... Frankie ... Had something happened? What if it were Valerie calling from California to say that Vince ... Everyone knew California drivers were insane, that on the L.A. Freeway ...
She picked up the phone in the kitchen. "'Melia," Frank said. "You need anything?"
"Who'd you expect, Johnny Carson?"
Hearing her husband's ordinary, weary voice comforted her. "Why don't you bring home some of those ginger snap cookies Ethel likes?" she said. "Oh, and a quart of milk."
"Everything okay?" he said.
"I was just working with Ethel on the piano." They talked for another moment, then hung up. In the living room Ethel punched the keys aimlessly.
Jenny rode her bike home slowly, taking it easy, not pushing. It was nearly dark, the air crisp. Odd how that thing she and Rhoda had done for drama class kept popping into her mind. Something came between them. Then she thought of the boy with the rainbow suspenders. Oh, he was so beautiful.... Could he really have been looking at her like that? Nearly eighteen, and she had never had a real boyfriend. Nothing serious. Many crushes when she was younger, then fewer and fewer. Waiting. Waiting. For what? For whom?
She coasted down Jericho Hill. Her mother would have supper for her. She'd study while she ate—as long as her father wasn't home yet. He didn't like people doing two things at once. "If you're going to eat, eat. If you're going to study, study." She squeezed the hand brakes for a red light and realized that tomorrow was the eighth. For weeks she'd been aware of the day coming closer, aware and yet pushing away the awareness. Pushing away the guilt that lay like a hard seed just beneath the surface of her mind. The thought that Gail might be alive today if. If she hadn't taunted Gail ... if she had said at once, Okay, I'll go to the store. ... If she had insisted when Gail finally got peeved enough to start out, No, Gail, I'll go, you stay and finish baking. Yes, then everything would be different today. She had always been swifter, speedier than Gail. She had walked faster, talked faster, her temper had been quicker to ignite. She had even done her homework, gotten dressed, and taken showers faster than Gail. And she would have made the trip to and from the market faster. Safely.
At seventeen she was already a year older than her older sister ever would be.
"That you, Jenny?" her mother called as she opened the door.
"Jenny, my sister." Ethel was in her pajamas, listening to a record.
"Ethel, my sister."
The house smelled wonderful, tomato sauce and garlic bread. "I'm starved, Mom." She never felt hungry at work.
"I thought I heard sirens." Her mother looked up from the oven. A tall woman with worried brown eyes that always seemed to hold secrets Jenny would never know.
"I saw cars piled up down at the corner."
Her mother's hands flew out. "Not another accident! This street—"
"No, no, I think it was just a traffic jam." She sat down at the dining room table with her food and chemistry book. Her father was working late. In her room Ethel was talking to herself.
Once that had been Jenny's room, also. She had shared it with Ethel and Gail. Now Ethel had the big room all to herself. Well, not exactly, since, in a sense, Gail still occupied it, too. There was Gail's shelf full of glass animals, Gail's out-of-date movie mags stacked on Gail's bureau, and Gail's bed exactly the way she had left it: bedspread wrinkled, stuffed animals across the pillow, and Frye boots lined up at the side. And then, too, there were snapshots of Gail pinned on the wall. Gail as a pretty, chubby baby (looking remarkably like Ethel). Gail, a plump, smiling six-year-old. Gail kneeling in her pleated cheerleader's skirt, her hair falling loose and curly around her face, looking into the camera proudly.
Every morning for a year and a half after Gail's death, Jenny had awakened to see those pictures and every morning something heavy and thick filled her heart. For a long time after Gail died, Jenny had found it impossible to do anything nice for herself. She gave up girls' track, she denied herself movies, TV, ice cream, and even long, hot showers. She knew it was penance for the fight she'd had with Gail. She knew the penance was meaningless, but for months she had been helpless to stop herself from doing, or not doing, those things. Gradually, her life had returned to normal. Rhoda had helped. On the bad days when Jenny couldn't stave off the memory of her last fight with Gail, Rhoda would stay with her, walking sometimes for miles and hours, Rhoda talking, her arm linked with Jenny's. It wasn't that Rhoda said anything special, but that she was there. Once, Jenny tried to thank her. "For what?" Rhoda said. "For talking? I should thank you for listening."
"Enough to eat?" Jenny's mother said now, sitting down across from her.
"Plenty, Mom. It was good."
"How was work today? And school?"
"Okay." Jenny thought of the boy in the rainbow suspenders. That was private. She started telling her mother a funny story about a customer who had turned his thick shake upside down to show how solid it was. "'You see,' he said to me, 'it's like glue.' And just as he said it, the whole shake fell out glop, all over the counter."
But her mother wasn't really listening. She drummed her fingers on the table. "I sent her a red rose," she said abruptly.
"That woman. Montana."
"The woman who—a red rose?" Amelia Pennoyer nodded. "I ordered a single red rose. I told them I wanted it delivered tomorrow."
"Mom, a red rose—that's for love. Red roses are what Rhoda's boyfriends sent her on Valentine's Day."
"It's for blood, Jenny. You know what tomorrow is. I want to remind her."
"Mom—" Jenny looked sadly at her mother. "Enough, Mom," she said softly. "It's been two years. You've got to—" She stopped, not wanting to say forget. She didn't mean that exactly, but something like it. "You've got to let go, Mom."
Her mother had caught her hesitation. Strange how, despite their apartness, which Jenny sometimes felt so acutely, they often, as acutely, tuned in to each other's thoughts. "I don't want that woman to forget," her mother said. "I want her to remember the way I do. Every day of her life."CHAPTER 3
"Well, fans," the radio voice burbled enthusiastically, "This is Norman Greenberry here to tell you it's a BEAUTIFUL Wednesday morning in our fair city. The forecast is for plenty of SUNSHINE on this EIGHTH day of MARCH and—"
Glancing at her mother, Jenny snapped off the radio. "Thanks," her father said as she sat down next to him.
Amelia stood at the stove, flipping pancakes, her head bent. She wore an old gray-and-yellow housecoat with a loose hem. Nobody said anything about the date, but Jenny knew none of them was unaware. Well, maybe Ethel, but Frankie had looked as if he were ready to smash the radio just before she turned it off.
The sun hadn't been shining two years ago on March eighth.
"Where's Gail?" her mother says, coming in, a shopping bag in her arms. Her face is wet, full of color. "Why'd she go out? Did she wear her raincoat?"
"She was baking something, needed cream." Jenny bites her pencil. If x equals 56 ... The phone rings. Her mother: "Oh, hello, Frank ..." In their room, Ethel murmurs to herself. In the kitchen, her mother turns on the radio. Rain spatters the windows.
Her mother comes back. "Jenny, when did you say Gail went out? I've been home nearly an hour."
"She probably met a boy."
"What market did she say?"
"I don't know."
The doorbell. "Who can that be?" Her mother goes into the hall. Jenny flips pages in her history book. Do it tomorrow first period?
"Yeah?" Not looking up.
Going into the hall then, seeing her mother suddenly old, nose gone beaky, eyes sunk back into her head. A policeman standing there. "Jenny, there's been an accident ... Gail ... stay with Ethel ..."
Her father calls from the hospital. "Gail's in a coma. Stay home with Ethel. The best thing you can do for us right now."
She feeds Ethel, puts her to bed. No use trying to do homework. Sits in the living room, the TV on. Phone again. "Mom?"
Excerpted from When We First Met by Norma Fox Mazer. Copyright © 1982 Norma Fox Mazer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved it! the only problem I had with this book was that it ended!
I love this book. I couldnt put it down. I will read it over and over. its hard for me to read a book that dosent get my eye in the frist chapter. this one did. this book just put me in the story. like i was Jenny.
When We First Met is a great book about two teenagers; who fall in love and discover a horrible truth. The boys mother killed the girls sister!! What will happen betwwen them? Read the book and find out!!