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Something Ugly

My sophomore year of high school was traumatic in the sense that it is for most girls coming of age and discovering the mystery of boys. Two boys specifically. I had an on-again/off-again boyfriend named Paul who was kind, if not a bit white bread and boring. He walked right up to me after school one day and asked if I would “go with him.” “Go where?” I asked, and he laughed. I had a strange feeling in my stomach that I passed off as butterflies, but instead of excitement, it was nausea. I should have known then. The gut rarely tells a lie, and mine didn’t like Paul. Did I listen? Of course not.

Around the same time, I also had a flirtatious next door neighbor--a senior!--who was so good looking, strikingly so, that I always seemed to be tongue-tied in his presence. Rennie wasn’t overly tall. The perfect height for kissing, I thought. He had short brown hair, a sharp jawline, perfectly straight, white teeth, and a small, square butt that fit snugly into any one of his many pair of faded Levis. How I loved his Levis.

To be fair, Mr. On-Again/Off-Again boyfriend wasn’t kind at all, but I was hopeful in that ridiculous manner of adolescent wishing. Boyfriend-ish Paul was a shallow thing, but deep enough as not to throw suspicion his way. Or so he hoped. You see, I had a hunch that he didn’t really like me. He wanted my best friend, the one he described as “the social girl with the big boobs.” Again, I should have known. He was ultimately disappointed because my friend wanted nothing to do with him. We had established the girlfriend’s code of not dating boys the other had called “dibs” on, and I had wasted a dibs on Paul. I explained the code of honor to On and Off Paul, but he wasn’t listening. I was a means to an end for him, and the end wasn’t me. The flirt next door was another story. He was genuinely interested in talking to me, but I was pretty sure it was (sadly) never to be more than just friendship. The neighbor boy did most of the talking in the beginning because my pretzeled tongue was always in the way. He liked having a female friend, he said, and I liked to sit near him. Did I mentioned that he smelled good too? His was a heady mixture of citrus and ocean and pine trees all at once. He’d stop by my daylight window, “Hey, come over! My mom just pulled cookies out of the oven and the chocolate chips are still hot and gooey.” Exactly how I felt about him, my first big crush: all hot and gooey inside.

“I like you,” Rennie told me once, and I nearly choked on the breath I had been holding for months. Finally? Oh please, oh please, oh please, oh please! I scootched forward a fraction of an inch--space not detectable by the human eye--in case he decided to lean in for a kiss with that perfect mouth. We were sitting on the loveseat in his TV room, side by side, our denim blue jean knees touching. “You’re not like the other girls,” he explained. Hmm… I wasn’t sure where this conversation was going and could see a few ways it might shake down. Still, I braced for a kiss, one I imagined would be the best of all times, slow and perfect. But I decided to play it cool. “Oh?” I let my voice be a little high, curious but casual. “But what about Heather?” or Michelle or Jennifer or any other of his cutsie girlfriend flavors of the month. Rennie had a girl herd that followed him. In fact, it was hard to keep tabs on all of the pink cardigan types, a constant parade of cheerleaders with pompoms and white Keds.

“Oh, I still like them, you know, as girlfriends.” He paused and my heart shattered inside my chest. “But you actually listen to me,” he continued. “Not just pretend to listen.” He grinned and I managed a weak smile. Ugh. I had been friend zoned before that was a thing. I looked down, away from his magical brown eyes, roundish almonds with a hint of mischief. “So, can I tell you what I’m making in wood shop?” he’d asked. “Sure,” I’d answer. We talked a lot about wood shop, almost all the damn time. It was the class he was talking for the first half of his senior year. The second part of the year was autobody.

I was wildly jealous and not just about the attention he was getting from the ever-giggling and increasing horde of Kimberlys and Lisas and Melissas. No. I was jealous because while Cute Neighbor created wooden things like birdhouses and learned about cars, I was required to take Home Economics--cooking and sewing, to be specific.

The cooking half the year was fine. I still remember how to make buttermilk biscuits and how to set a formal table. From left to right you have the fish fork, dinner fork, and salad fork. Above the forks, you’ll find the butter plate and knife. Then next to salad fork, in the middle of the placesetting, you’ll find the service plate with a folded napkin on top. To the right of the service plate is the dinner knife, fish knife, soup spoon, and oyster fork at the far edge. A water goblet can be found above the knives, then to the right a red or white wine glass (perhaps both), and a sherry glass or champagne flute to the far right of the glassware. Funny because today I use a single fork or spoon and one dish--a small plate or bowl--when I eat. I also drink my red wine taverna style, out of a stemless glass, sometimes a Mason jar. But I can set a table.

No, the hellish part of my Home Ec. elective that wasn’t an elective wasn’t learning how to use a convection oven or folding napkins or making a colorful plate of food (“Young ladies, stay away from a monochrome dinner plate. Your food must be vibrant. Remember: We eat first with our eyes!”) The hellish bit of Home Ec. was the sewing part. [Insert dramatic eyeroll from me and a sigh] Of course, my mother is an accomplished seamstress, as was her grandmother. Sewing women stretch back along the maternal branches of my family tree, but always, they skip a generation. In other words, my mother’s mother, like me, was hopeless with needle and thread. If the trend continues, my daughter will be a sewing whiz and hers will be a dud. Genetics are a weird thing.

As the months went by, I heard about engine parts and changing tires from Neighbor Crush. I sat stock still and listened as he described carburetors and exhaust lines, his deep voice rumbling to mimic an idling truck. He gave step by step instructions for changing a flat tire, and offered to show me on his mother’s car. If ever I am able to purchase a car, my teenage heart hoped, Rennie might help me with it. I made up my mind to buy nothing but a lemon.

The worst thing happened just as all seemed right in my teenage world. It wasn’t On-Again/Off-Again Boyfriend. He was still mostly off. It was Cute Neighbor Boy and a question I had hoped to avoid. He flashed me a grin: “How goes it, Betsy Ross?” To answer, I showed him my hands, wiggling all the fingers. The sewing machine hadn’t clipped me yet. “See?” I said, proudly. “Ha! No injuries". "Well, there’s still time,” he teased.

My final project of the semester was to sew a blouse. If I’m to be perfectly honest, the word “sew” should be in quotation marks here because the project was a mess. The requirements called for a button up shirt with sleeves, a yoke, and at least one pocket. Seemed like an easy request, but I was all thumbs and all of them had been poked at least once with straight pins. I cut out the pattern pieces and tried again and again to sew them together on the machines at school and on my mother’s at home. I tried to sew the pattern pieces correctly, but the Sewing Gods were against me. The tension would be off, leaving fat loops of thread instead of tight, orderly stitches, or I would burn through a bobbin, only to have a long line of stitching come loose.

At home, I would wad up the monstrosity and run from my mother’s sewing room, tears streaming down my face. Domestically-inclined elves would appear, or so I assumed, and rip out the bad stitching, pressing the pattern-pinned pieces flat again for another try. It was by the good grace of my mother, masquerading as a house elf, that I didn’t give up. It was serious, but she kept a cool head. She knew that I would not have passed high school without that damn blouse. A passing grade in Home Ec. was a still a requirement for girls at that time.

The blouse was finally finished, but certainly not a beautiful work. Not by a long shot. I flushed when Cute Neighbor asked to see it. “No. No.” I protested, but he insisted. My secret crush knew all about my struggle with “the blouse from hell.” Over the months, I had gained control over my hormonal senses enough to speak to him without stuttering. At long last! Cute Neighbor knew more about me than Mostly Off-Again/Not-Really-a-Boyfriend boyfriend, who was still hanging around, probably hoping for a big-breasted hookup with my friend. Cute Faded Levis folded his arms over his chest and stared at me, waiting for an answer, wanting to see my finished fabric masterpiece. “Okay, okay!” I told him, and left to go get it. On the five minute walk, I remember hoping a crater would open in the earth and swallow me whole. Alas, I returned unscathed, garment in hand. “You gotta try it on,” he said. I stood looking at him, suddenly struck dumb.

In the end, it was that smile and those great big beautiful teeth. I couldn’t say no. Could I? His every single thing was like kryptonite to me, but this? I’d have to find a way to ditch out of actually putting on the blouse, and the only way to do that was to be honest with him. I explained that I couldn’t possibly put it on because what held it together, and barely at that, was a slipshod combination of loopy stitches, masking tape, and staples. I held up Exhibit A to be judged by a jury of my peers--a jury of one, technically, unless we were counting his dog. Rennie stepped forward and took the blouse from my hands. After a few moments of careful consideration, after examining the sleeves and the pocket, eyebrows raised over the line of uneven buttons, he gave his deliberation. “It’s not so bad,” he lied.

It was a thoughtful fib, but I couldn’t take it. Neither of us could, so we laughed and laughed. The blouse was a hideous creation, haute couture à la Victor Frankenstein. I turned it in later that week and failed the sewing final, to be sure, but my cooking grade and biscuit know-how had saved me and brought my combined course grade to a passing “C.” My mother certainly breathed a sigh of relief. I would pass my sophomore year and return in the fall, a junior.

Time passes in a flash, like it always does. I’m not entirely sure what happened to Cute Neighbor Boy or his faded Levis. His family moved or, more likely, ours did. I don’t remember if we got to say goodbye. But here’s what I do remember about my second year of high school: 1) Baking powder and baking soda are not the same thing, nor should they be used interchangeably in any recipe. 2) It’s totally okay to dump a “not really boyfriend” who searches for greener pastures while standing in yours. And as for my first deep, heart-pounding crush? Sigh. 3) Although he never did kiss me, I remember our unlikely friendship and how we laughed and laughed about that ugly blouse.

And you know what? I still don’t sew.

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