Mama went to quilting club in the church basement on Tuesday nights. She usually took me and if Edith wasn’t in class she went too.
I didn’t like to sow. I wasn’t any good at it and often pricked my finger on the needles.
“So, Blanche. What do you think you’ll do after graduation?” Millie Baker asked me as she pulled the thread through her quilt piece.
“I really don’t know,” I answered honestly.
I hadn’t thought of what I’d do after graduation. It was a year away and I was just trying to survive my junior year. The only thing I liked to do was read and write but I couldn’t make a living reading and I’d never shown anyone anything I’d written before.
“I think she’d do well as a secretary,” Alice Bouse said with a smile. “She enjoys writing and I could see her typing away on a typewriter pretty easily.”
Fran Tressel nodded approvingly.
“I could see her doing that as well,” she said. “She’d be personable and easy to talk to.”
Other women around the circle nodded and murmured in agreement, talking about me as if I wasn’t there or have my own mind to make up.
“It’s not a bad profession,” Jan Spencer said with a grin.
Jan was the secretary for the school district superintendent and the rumor was she was paid generously for her work. I chose to ignore other rumors about Jan’s close friendship with the assistant superintendent, one that his wife didn’t appreciate.
“And just remember, hon’ there is no rush on gettin’ married,” Betty Bundle said, chewing gum and randomly licking her finger so she could pull apart fabric to stretch out and cut for her project.
Betty’s dirty blond, bleached hair was always piled on top of her head in a messy bun and her earrings were so big they looked like golf balls hanging from her ear lobes. She was a waitress at the local diner and she didn’t have every Tuesday off but if she did she was at sewing club, making me feel like I wasn’t alone with my lack of sewing talent.
“She doesn’t need to worry about that. She isn’t even dating,” Mama said.
My face felt hot. It was true, but there was no need for her share it with all the women in the sewing circle.
“No? A cute little thing like you? I can’t imagine why you don’t have the boys falling all over you,” Betty said holding a stretch of fabric up in front of her and scrunching her face in disgust at the mistake she’d made.
The women were busily sewing, some at machines, some by hand. Millie was shaking her head at the mistake she’d made in her quilt block.
“It’s just not like it was when we were young,” she said. “Young girls today have some time before they have to find a husband and start having kids. Don’t be like that Jenkins girl, Blanche.”
There were a few clicks of the tongues and “mmhmms” from the gathered women.
“I don’t even think she’d turned 16 when she had that baby,” Alice Simms said. “Her whole life had to be put on hold. Just a shame. And now she’s just popping them out like candy.”
“What’s she up to now? Four? Good grief. She’s just ruining her figure,” Doris Landry said with a snort.
“Well, at least she loves them,” I said.
I looked around the room worried about the reaction I would receive from such a comment during a full on complaining session. I didn’t usually speak out but it came out before I’d even fully thought it through. A few of the women glanced at me in surprise. The rest simply nodded as they knitted and sowed, showing they agreed with what I’d said.
“I mean, she cares for them. And they seem to love her too,” I said softly, looking back at my disaster of a project. “I’m sure it’s not easy but – well, maybe it’s worth it at the end of the day.”
Betty winked at me.
“That’s a good point, Blanche. It really is,” she said. “She seems pretty happy – even with starting so early and with that Billy Tanner not giving her much of a life with his job as a farm hand.”
A few of the other women nodded in agreement while some scowled disapprovingly at the mention of Billy. They seemed pleased to push the blame on Billy for the situation now instead of Annie.
“I was 15 when I had my first baby,” 80-year old Jessie Reynolds said quietly from the rocking chair at the end of the row of women. “but that was a long time ago. I was a baby with a baby. That’s the way it was done back then. It wasn’t too shocking for a girl to get married at 14. Our parents couldn’t always afford to take care of us and if a good man could, then we were married off.”
“I would not have enjoyed living back then,” Emily Langer said with a shake of her head. “I can’t imagine being married off to some dirty old man.”
“My man wasn’t dirty at all,” Jessie said with a small laugh. “He was the sweetest man I’d ever met. But I’m sure there were many marriages that weren’t as pleasant as ours.”
Jessie looked at me.
“Blanche, honey, you’re smart. You know that and we all know it. You don’t have to rush into family right away,” she leaned forward, put her hand on mine and smiled. “You take your time. Find a career that will make you happy and see what the world is all about before you rush into getting married and having babies, okay?”
I nodded. I didn’t want any kids right now or maybe even ever. I’d never even babysat one and didn’t like the smell of them. Not only that but their noses were always runny and sometimes they puked for no reason at all.
“Oh, Blanche is probably going to stay home with me for awhile after graduation anyhow,” Mama said. “She can help me at home until she decides on a man to marry. I think she’ll be a housewife, just like me.”
Mama smiled at me and I didn’t know whether to smile back or not. I tried to smile and then looked back at the quilt pieces on my lap and wondered if I really wanted to be just like Mama – an obedient wife who spent most of her days cooking and cleaning and her nights volunteering for the church rummage sale or at the sewing and quilting club.
I didn’t want to rush into a marriage, but I also didn’t want to be stuck in this town my whole life. A career that would take me to adventure sounded good to me.
I felt a bit of annoyance as well at the idea that Mama had already planned my life out for me and the rest of the women seemed to want to do the same. It was my life anyhow. What say did they have in it? I pushed the needle in and out of the fabric aggressively as I thought and then mumbled a curse word under my breath when the needle dug into my fingertip again.
“What’s that, Blanche?” Jessie asked.
“I was just telling my thread and needled to cooperate,” I said forcing a smile.
I sucked the blood off my finger and vowed to find a way to get out of sewing group the next week.
It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in May when I saw Hank again. I hadn’t seen him in four months. Mama wanted me to pick up milk and eggs at the supermarket for her while she looked for material for a new summer dress at Missy’s Sew and Fabric across the street.
The wide aisles of the small, family-owned supermarket were almost empty and I shivered in the refrigerator section. When I pulled the milk off the shelf and turned around, I gasped at the sight of him standing in the aisle, hat tipped back, a toothpick in one corner his mouth and a few strands of light brown hair laying across his forehead. He grinned and took the toothpick out of his mouth. His green eyes were bright with amusement.
“Hey there, Blanche,” he laughed as he spoke. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The one corner of his mouth tilted a little higher than the other when he smiled
I hated the way the sight of him made my heart pound in my chest, how the sight of that crooked smile made my knees feel weak. I hated that I noticed again how beautiful his eyes were. I knew my face had flushed pink under his gaze.
I stepped around him without responding, too embarrassed to speak, knowing Daddy wouldn’t want me to, but he followed me to the eggs.
“Making a cake?” he asked.
“No,” I kept my eyes on the eggs, on the floor, anywhere but on him.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said.
I’d been thinking about him too but I didn’t want him to know that.
“When can I see you again?” he asked.
I didn’t answer but still he followed me.
“Can I swing by tonight?”
He kept talking as I walked, trailing behind me. “I’ll throw a rock at your window. If you want to see me, come out so we can talk.”
I hurried to the cashier with my heart pounding and a rush of butterflies in my stomach. I tried to tell myself I wasn’t excited that he wanted to see me. I tried to tell myself I didn’t care.
When the rock hit my window that night, I laid there for a long time with the moonlight pouring in on my bed. I did want to see him, but I remembered what daddy had said. What if it all was true? If it was true then why was Hank picking me to talk to? I wasn’t special like all those other girls.
I wasn’t even pretty. My brown hair frizzed in the humidity unless I kept it tied back in a pony tail. My skin was almost always pale, except the dark circles that seemed to always show up under my eyes in the spring. I was scrawny and my hips seemed to just fall in a straight line, unlike Edith’s that curved seductively and made every dress look attractive on her. If all that wasn’t bad enough, I wore thick black glasses when reading or at school.
I rolled to my side, my arms under my head, squeezing my eyes closed tight, thinking.
What if daddy saw me sneaking out into the darkness? I knew he’d be furious. And what if I fell for Hank and then found out it had all been a joke he’d set up with his friends so he could make fun of me? I wrestled with my thoughts in the darkness, opening my eyes, staring at the blue glow of the moonlight casting a patch of light on the rug on the floor by the window.
I heard the clink of another rock against the window and looked at Edith. She was still asleep.
I tiptoed to the window, looking out at him looking up at me, waiting. He grinned and waved from the side yard, standing next to mama’s rose bush. I took a deep breath and decided to quickly find out what he wanted, then run right back to bed.
I raised myself on my tip toes, moving slowly across the floor, past Mama and Daddy’s closed bedroom door, pressing my back against the stairwell wall to avoid steps I knew would creak under me.
Hank took my hand as I stepped off the porch, leading me across the yard and down through the field to the maple tree before he spoke.
“Hey, girl, I knew you’d come out,” he said with a small smirk, still holding my hand as he turned around.
“I don’t know why you’d even want to talk to me,” I said softly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not anyone special.”
“You’re special to me,” he said. “I like you. You’re sweet, smart, and I know if we start talking you’ll open right up to me – like a rose in bloom.”
My hand felt small and sweaty in his.
“I want to know more about you,” he said, squeezing my hand. “Like what do you want to do when you get out of this town? What do you do for fun? You ever been to a movie? I know you don’t dance but do you ever want to?”
He was talking softly, standing close to me. I heard genuine interest in his questions. I shifted nervously and cleared my throat.
“I ..uh…I like to read,” I said, feeling stupid, kicking at the dirt with my shoe, head down. “I like movies – like anything with Ingrid Bergman or Cary Grant. Sometimes Daddy takes us to the theater. I don’t know about dancing. I’m not good at it.”
“How do you know you’re not good at it if you’ve never tried?”
I decided I should try to be polite and ask him a few questions as well.
“Where’d you learn to play guitar like that?”
“From my uncle,” he said, letting go of my hand and searching the front pocket of his jacket for a cigarette. “He was in a band and showed me how to play when I was just a tot.”
He leaned against the tree, lighting the cigarette. The spark of the flame lit his face briefly and I felt my heart pounding faster as I caught a glimpse of his eyes, his lashes dark and long.
“ I feel free when I play, you know? I don’t have to make anyone happy,” he said. “I just have to play that music and let it take me out of my head and out of that room and out of this crappy little town.”
He folded his arms across his chest, watching me.
“What about you, Chatterbox?” He asked. “You don’t want to spend your whole life here, do you?”
I knew I didn’t want to always live in this village, in the midst of farms and not much else, but I didn’t feel like I could say it. I wanted to go to all those places I read about in my books at night, huddled under the covers with a flashlight. I’d never told anyone about my dreams and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“Come on, now, be honest with me,” he said. “There is more out there for you isn’t there? I’ve heard about you from my little brother and his friends. They say you like to read. What do you read about?”
I looked up at him and wondered why he wanted to know anything about me.
“I read about places far away,” I heard myself blurt out the words and realized no one except Emmy, and maybe Mama, had ever acted interested in what I thought. “I read about adventures far away. I love anything with a good story and maybe a –“
My gaze fell to the grass, glistening silver in the moonlight.
“A good romance,” I said, embarrassed I had admitted my affection for romantic stories in front of someone who probably knew more about romance than I ever would.
Hank laughed softly and blew a long trail of smoke into the darkness.
“I like a good romance,” he said, smirking and looking me up and down .
I felt my face grow hot under his gaze. I shifted my weight nervously from one foot to the other and twirled a strand of hair around my finger.
“Why you looking so shy, Chatterbox? Hasn’t any boy ever acted interested in you?”
I shook my head.
“Well, they must be blind. Those boys are missing out and they don’t even know it.”
“I’m a nerd.” I shrugged. “I don’t dance and I don’t flirt and I don’t dress all up like Edith and those other girls.”
He laughed then remembered he was supposed to be quiet and glanced quickly at the house. After a few seconds of watching the dark house to make sure no lights came on, he grinned at me.
“All those other girls are just putting on an act,” he whispered. “ Don’t you let them intimidate you. Besides that might be what little boys look for in a girl but it’s not what men look for.”
He tossed the cigarette down and stepped closer to me.
“You’re a pretty little thing, Blanche,” he said softly. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not. Shoot. I couldn’t take my eyes off you at the dance that night.”
He pushed my hair back from my face and I looked up at him.
“I still can’t,” he said softly.
My muscles tensed as he cupped my cheek in his hand. I wanted to run away and hide but I wanted to stay right where I was at the same time.
I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of his skin against my cheek. I kept my eyes closed as I felt his mouth graze my forehead and then my cheek and then my lips. He pulled back slightly then leaned close again and covered my mouth with his, gently, as he slid his arm around me and pulled me against him. The kiss lingered for a few moments before I felt panic rush through me.
I pulled away quickly and shivered.
“I have to go inside now. Before my parents – “
He was watching me with a smile and my heart was pounding.
“Can I see you again?” he asked.
“Yes. I mean no. I mean – I don’t know.”
The grass was moist with dew as I ran back toward the house and gingerly opened the front door so I wouldn’t wake anyone. Upstairs I slid my shoes off and crawled into bed, still in my dress. I pulled the covers around me and tried to stop shivering. When I closed my eyes I could still feel his arms around me and his lips against mine.