Despite a rocky start to the day, here I have landed, in my rocker on the porch in soothing clean air and soft sunshine. My Chicago cup sits on the metal table beside me, with the cell phone which remains silent despite my willing it to ring. I hope to hear the technician on the other end of the line, his gravely cheerful voice announcing that he’s 30 minutes out, hold on, hot water will soon be restored.
Or not. A. B. May considers a lack of hot water to be an emergency. I share their assessment. The young man on the phone tried to talk me into calling someone else, despite my monthly fee for a Gold Maintenance Agreement. I declined. So I made the arrangements: My coffee date cancelled, my computer charged, my dog fed, me showered in cold water and dressed in clean clothes. Waiting.
I’ve spent a lot of time waiting in my life. Waiting for a knock on the door, waiting for word, waiting for inspiration. I fall into a reverie and it all floods back. . .
My mother asked, “Do you want me to steam the skirt? it won’t take a minute.” I shook my head. She moved to the front of me, brows drawn, mouth set. A hand reached out. She tugged at the hem. She said, “I can give you my compact for your bag.” Another fierce shake; another cringe. She stood with folded arms.
I could see she regretted my dress. Bright blue with little black polka dots; a sweetheart neckline; long sleeves. I liked it but I had mainly chosen it because of its price tag. I knew my mother couldn’t afford to help me with the purchase. I paid for it with babysitting money, the dollar-an-hour that I earned for watching the Tobin kids while their parents ran a restaurant in the Central West End. Hard money. Mr. Tobin came back drunk most nights, 3:00 a.m. after the bars closed. I walked the three or four blocks home because I didn’t like the way he helped me into the car.
Mother paced. “When’s he coming?” She had asked a dozen times already and I had answered her, each time the same. “Soon.”
It wasn’t a prom. Just a homecoming dance, at someone else’s high school. I have no idea why the guy had asked me. Desperate, probably. We barely knew each other. Nobody in their right mind would take me to anything about which they cared. Not a dance, not a party. It had never happened.
At the same time, I have no idea why I accepted. I had been vomiting all day. I’d had to wash my hair twice because we couldn’t tame the curls. I smeared two lines of bright blue crayon shadow over my eyes, swiped my cheeks with powdered blush, then rubbed the whole lot off. The result satisfied me, a pale shimmer of color suggesting a careless disregard for looks. My mother made me go into the bathroom and steam my face with a hot, wet washcloth.
When the doorbell finally rang, we jumped. My father rose from his recliner while my mother pushed the little boys into the kitchen and told them to hush. I could hear them running towards the back of the house shouting, “Mary’s got a date! Mary’s got a date!” My face burned.
My father let the boy into the living room and I stood, miserable, waiting for him to say something. He held out a plastic box. My mother stepped forward, took the corsage, and gushed as she pinned it to my shoulder. I whispered, “Thank you,” and gripped my mother’s arm to keep the boy from seeing me shaking.
Somehow I walked to the car. Somehow I let him hold the door. Somehow I found something to say all the way to the gymnasium in which I would, somehow, move among the pretty girls with their pastel formal gowns. In my bright blue. In my black polka dots. With my hair braided and wrapped around my head because my mother had convinced me that nobody, nobody, wore their hair down. Which everybody did, straight, parted in the middle, long and shiny.
I waited for him to come around to my side. As I got out, he steadied me and then, his eyes on mine, he said, “You look beautiful.”
I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember what high school he attended. I don’t recall the year, though it had to have been 1971 or ’72. But I remember the long, long hours before he arrived at my parents home, an endless waiting. I can never forget the agonizing span of time between telling him that I’d go and the instant when he took my heart into his hands and kept me safe with those three words: “You look beautiful.”
Judge me if you will. But those three words made everything bearable, if only for that brief moment. I’ve carried the feeling with me all these years.
The sun climbs higher. My phone has not yet sent its little song into the morning air. I don’t mind. I have time. I can wait.