Mademoiselle, page 1
Copyright © 2016 by
Suzanne Jenkins. All rights reserved.
Created in digital format in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations in blog posts and articles and in reviews.
Mademoiselle is a complete and total work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
noun (pl) mesdemoiselles 1. a young unmarried French girl or woman: usually used as a title equivalent to Miss
noun a women’s magazine first published in 1935 by Street and Smith and later acquired by Condé Nast Publications. Its final issue, 2001.
Growing up, my goal was to have an exciting life, a life that would surpass the humdrum way we lived when I was a child. Not sure what would lead to this phenomenal life, when I learned to read, the idea that I could be an author wove its way into my brain, shining like a beacon lighting the way for the next fifteen years.
At night, I’d lay awake long after my sisters had fallen asleep, imagining the place where I’d write. A romantic space, far more suited for reading than actual work, it could be a garret, the kind Josephine had in Little Women or Laura Wilder’s cabin in the woods. Our old house in the suburbs had an attic, but the only way to access it was through a hole in the cedar closet ceiling, so its occupation took place only in my dreams where I’d arrange imaginary book piles as I fell asleep.
I recently came across my old childhood copy of Little Women. It’s a cheap, dime store purchase I’d made with money saved from my allowance for helping my mother around the house. Even with the cardboard cover peeling off, finding it was like buried treasure unearthed as I held it in my hands. Slowly turning the pages, I came across the date and my signature in cursive, the round, childish, neatly made letters carefully transcribed. In a fantasy I’d pretended to interview Louisa May Alcott long dead by that date, and thinking about the sweet child I was, already loving books and reading, brought tears to my eyes.
After I grew out of the writing in the garret fantasy, my sisters introduced me to Mademoiselle Magazine, and that changed everything. Like a girl possessed, my obsession with the stories I read in the magazine grew.
It took five years, but I finally graduated from college, landing the dream job. I hoped against hope being employed would be enough to satisfy my mother. Unfortunately, though I’d found the job, my mother believed that not having found a husband constituted a failure.
During those five years, self-imposed isolation bred more distance between me and my classmates than if we’d been in different schools. All through college, Mother harped at me. The phone in the hallway would ring, and I’d freeze, closing my eyes, praying to God it wasn’t her calling. Then the dreaded tap at my door.
“It’s your mother again,” a dorm mate would announce, rolling her eyeballs.
Reluctantly, I’d go to the phone.
“Hi, mom,” I’d say, looking at the ceiling.
“Do you have a date this weekend?” she’d ask, not wasting words.
“No,” I’d say. “I’m packing to come home.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” she’d complain. “Stay at school. And not in your dorm.”
“There’s nothing to do here,” I’d say. “The other girls are coming home, and I want to come home, too.”
“You’re not trying hard enough to meet new people. If you keep coming home every weekend, if you refuse invitations, you’ll never make any friends.”
What she meant was I’d never meet my husband. The truth was I didn’t want to make friends. Invitations to join in weekend fun stopped after I refused enough during my freshman year. It was a relief; I liked being alone while I was at school. I felt the few who actually persisted in befriending me sought me out the way a scientist looks for an unusual specimen, like they were either taking pity on me, or needed my presence to boost their own sagging self-confidence.
To add to the stress, by the end of my freshmen year, the major which my mother had picked for me just didn’t fit; elementary education. Going along with her plan was the path of least resistance; easier than fighting her to get my own way.
The reasoning for pursuing a teaching degree, she’d explained, was so that when I had kids of my own, I would be off work when they were off from school. My sisters had listened to the propaganda, and because I respected them, I gave in to her, as well.
“What makes you so sure I’ll have kids?” I’d replied.
In spite of what she said, I was never going to be tied down with kids. Kids were not in the plan. Not where I was headed. My mother’s life revolved around us kids, sacrificing her life, and I wasn’t letting that happen to me.
“Everyone we know has children,” she said, maddeningly.
Giving the curriculum a try, after a year, I was sure teaching wasn’t for me. If I had to spend one more day with other elementary education majors, people who really wanted to be there and could see that I was a fraud, I’d kill myself. Unless I rebelled and chose the career path I’d dreamed about, I was giving in to misery. The prospect of following that dream, of having an exciting life gave me the strength to defend myself, to stand up to my mother.
When I told my mother what I intended on doing, she had a fit.
“You’ll waste a whole year!” she cried, pulling her hair. “What will you do instead?”
“Journalism,” I said without hesitation. “I want to write.”
Dumbfounded, my mother didn’t understand the concept of taking a class to learn to write. No one in our family did anything like write. We have teachers, nurses, even a chef. But write? It was as obscure as if I’d said I was going to school to be an artist.
“How can they teach you to write? You either got it or you don’t,” she said, mumbling. “Your father would die if he wasn’t already gone. It’s a blessing he isn’t here to see you ruin your life, Alev hashalom.”
Those words really hurt. But in all fairness to my mother, she hadn’t been privy to my childhood fantasy. One of the ways social anxiety manifested itself in my youth was an abhorrence of displeasing my mother, so I avoided sharing most intense feelings with her or my sisters. My sisters knew what I longed for because their observations led to questions that were more like badgering, and eventually I’d share my deepest longings with them.
I felt my birth had been a disappointment to my parents; my name, Philipa the best indication. My father’s name was Philip. They’d obviously wanted a boy after four girls, and when my mom had another girl, they made up that derivative. We aren’t Italian; then it might’ve made sense.
So I was Philipa Weiner. The name alone was enough to give chase. I was hunted down like a rat in elementary school, bullied because of the name and my red hair.
“My goal is getting you through a school year without having your books stolen or your glasses broken,” my mother lamented, determined to get me to graduation at any cost.
“Poor Pipi,” my oldest sister, Martha lovingly said. “I wish I could protect you.”
“We’ll take care of her,” Lynne and Ida chorused. “As long as we’re there, no one will mess with Pipi Wiener!”
The bullying continued through elementary and junior high, however. My sisters couldn’t be with me every second of the
Looking back, I believe it was during this time I developed my love of track. In junior high, the bullies had to catch me in order to harm me, and no one was fast enough. Protecting myself had become an exhausting priority.
By the time high school started, I knew that the safest place for me would be home, behind locked doors. Visualizing hoards of zombie-like creatures chasing me, I begged my mother to homeschool me, a controversial undertaking in those days, but she wouldn’t do it.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, trying to be positive, but not convincing me, placing the blame for the attacks on me, the victim. “Just relax. You invite those bad children to torment you by the way you act. “
Stunned at her blame the victim mentality, my sisters Ida and Lynne became even more protective of me. Today, my behavior would be classified as social anxiety disorder, but back then, I was just called shy.
After all the worry and concern, high school turned out to be shocking, but in a good way. A big city school in the center of an upper-middle class community, all the little junior high schools from the surrounding areas melded into one. Definitely the little fish in a gigantic ocean, I felt surprisingly safe there, a place where I could hide from bullies in the vast sea of students.
The sisters set the routine for us to follow together; walking to school, having lunch, and until after school sports started up for me, walking home. If their protection was needed, at least during those times I’d be safe.
The confusing hallways and throng of humanity pressing in on the first day were overwhelming. Walking me to my homeroom, they hovered over me as long as they could before insisting that I go into the classroom. Finding my desk, I turned to see them leaning in the door making sure I was okay, rousing the curiosity of my classmates. After lunch, my sisters and I parted again, them wishing me well. Walking to my next class, I stared down at the floor with my hair hanging over my face, hugging the wall.
“Boy, you sure are pretty.”
Instead of continuing on, I swung around to see who the speaker was, the red creeping up my neck onto my cheeks. On the very first day of school, the boy who would end up being my best friend sought me out to boldly say what no one had said before. Up to this time, I had only been teased, or worse. But when I saw his face, I knew he was sincere, his eyes kind. Sticking his hand out for me to shake, the gesture caught me off guard.
“I’m Wax,” he said. “Walter Spencer, but everyone calls me Wax.”
Scrutinizing him out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t be sure of his motive. Was he teasing me? His delivery was as nerdy as mine would have been, but because he was so handsome, it just didn’t ring true.
Timidly, I nodded my head. Avoiding his hand, shoving mine into the folds of my skirt, he thrust it out a little further, pumping it in the air until he was interrupted.
“Wax!” a boy yelled from the stairwell. “You comin’ or not?”
I turned to look at the boy and saw he wasn’t alone; there were three or four of them, his posse, looking down on us. Not with derision at all; just curious. Wax didn’t take his eyes off me, waving away his friends.
“I’ll be right there,” he mumbled, staring into my eyes.
Putting his hand out again, I reluctantly took it to shake, but he didn’t shake right away, cradling my hand in his. Cool and dry, the feel of his skin shocked me, expecting his hand to be hot and sweaty like the hands of boys who tried to grab the volleyball away from me in gym. His cool hand cooled off my entire arm, I could feel the coolness traveling from his fingertips up my arm until my entire body was cool, and the little hairs on my face and arms started to rise up. I stifled a giggle as a body rush spread through me from my head to my feet, unlike anything I had ever felt before.
“I live around the block from you, did you know that?” he asked softly.
I shook my head, trying to remember who lived on the street I passed daily, could see from my bedroom window in the autumn after all the leaves had fallen.
“Can I walk home with you tonight? I mean after school.”
Still recovering from his touch, I had to regroup, pondering what walking home with him would mean. My mother, like a vulture roosted on the back steps, waiting for me and my sisters to come home from school. If she saw me with a boy; oh God, what a thought.
“I can walk home with you as long as my mother doesn’t see us,” I replied. “She’ll embarrass you.”
What I meant was she’d embarrass me, but Wax laughed out loud.
“I can handle your mother, trust me,” he said, with more confidence than I’d ever had. “She’s just watching out for her daughter.”
Bending down to my ear, his breath warm on my neck, and in a voice so soft I had to strain to hear him, Wax whispered, “You’re worth watching out for.”
I wanted to melt into a puddle, just collapse right there on the floor of the high school hallway. Then reason set in. Not trusting him yet, I didn’t know him. What if he was setting me up? I’d been the target many times in the past, some charming boy pretending to be nice and then letting me have it when I least expected it. Memories reminded me to use care; destroyed homework papers, a stolen book bag, and the worst, a dead robin in my lunch sack, I’d trusted the wrong boys enough to be more than cautious.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said uncertainly, wanting to agree, but fear stopping me. “Can I let you know after school? I have to think about it.”
Deciding to find my sisters, I’d ask their opinion, the two people on earth I did trust. I was in ninth grade; Lynne was in tenth and Ida in twelfth. They’d know what to do.
While he looked at me curiously, I wondered what Wax Spencer thought of me now, sorry I made such a big deal out of an invitation to walk home from school.
“I’ll be waiting right here,” he said. “If you show up, fine. If not, my feelings will be hurt.”
Smiling at me, his teeth were very white but the left eyetooth sort of overlapped, giving him a very young grin like a little boy. I had to fight not to smile too broadly because his face made me happy as it always would, his beautiful eyes sincere and hopeful, never taking their gaze off me.
“Okay, maybe I’ll see you later,” I said, straight-faced.
Moving away from him, I headed to class, awkward as usual, hoping my skirt wasn’t tucked in my butt, or caught in my tights. Giving up to pride, I turned to look behind me and he was still there, a subtle smile on his face. Waving, he mouthed later. With my books clutched to my chest, stumbling a little, I walked to class with Wax looking after me.
Before the end of the day, I got similar responses from my sisters. Ida said I’d better walk home with Wax or she’d do something that would really embarrass me, and I knew she was capable of it. Lynne said she thought it would do me good to get to know Wax. Always the romantic, Lynne had the future in mind.
“There is a dance almost every quarter. If you make a boy-friend, not a boyfriend necessarily,” and here she inserted quotation marks with her fingers, “but a boy slash friend, you’ll have a date for every dance. Pipi, you’ll never be alone on national holidays. Yes, walk home with him. How does he look to you, anyway?”
Lynne was more superficial then she liked to let on. I pulled her aside.
“Swear you won’t repeat this,” I said sternly. “The others will crucify me.”
She crossed her heart. “Swear, cross my heart, hope to die.”
“He’s gorgeous,” I said, sighing. “I can’t believe he even talked to me.”
Lynne slapped my arm playfully.
“Stop putting yourself down, Pipi. You’re pretty ravishing yourself.”
I shook her off and started walking backwards toward my class.
“Yes, that’s a great idea!” she asked, slapping her leg. “Don’t want mom hanging around, no we don’t!”
Laughing, Lynne took off toward her own class. I thought for a second how lonely it was going to be when they both graduated, away at college and I’d be at school, alone. I had a few years with my sisters though, so I wasn’t going to worry about their absence yet.
The afternoon dragged by with two last classes. In art class, sitting next to the class clown, and spending an hour trying not to get in trouble, my head down, resting on my crossed arms on the desk, hiding the tears which rolled down my face from laughing so hard, completely inappropriate.
And the final, sleepy hour in creative writing which would have been wonderful if the teacher had cared about teaching us. I fought to stay awake because it was the one subject I was really interested in.
Instead, the girl who sat next to me taught me how to put eyeliner on the bottom lid, and I did her eyebrows for her. Finally, at three sharp the bell rung. My heart started beating like a drum; I could feel it in my throat, the anticipation of seeing Wax and what the walk home with him might bring looming ahead.
Taking my time getting back to the staircase, he’d said after school, so that meant I could go to my locker first and get my book bag. If he thought I wasn’t coming and left for home, that would be fate. What if he didn’t intend on showing up? What if he was simply teasing me? Well, I would find out soon enough, trying not to succumb to disappointment before the fact.
Once I got to my locker, I nervously dawdled in my obsessive way, methodically pulling out the books I needed for homework, systematically filling a book bag. Then I took an extra minute to organize my already neat locker, stalling for time. All books were new, notebooks and sharpened pencils and pens neatly arranged. Having a clean locker and new books at the beginning of the year was instrumental to my mental health. Part of me was excited about what the twenty minute walk home might bring, and part dreaded it; I didn’t make small talk easily. What would we say to each other?
by Suzanne Jenkins / Fiction / Contemporary / Suspense have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes