|Donna D. Vitucci
In this photograph five school girls sit on the steps of Maria Goretti two brunettes, three blondes, and one of those blondes blushing towards strawberry. Mary Helen was the beauty among them. See how their uniform skirts hide their knees, their shins, how they sit facing the camera, but legs angled so the plaid hems just skim the tops of their thick white ankle socks? They are proper young women, posed for the camera, indiscretion and indecency under wraps until the shutter clicks and sets them free, collapsing with laughter into one another's lap. Those same chaste skirts hike up to reveal kelly green gym shorts and smooth bare thighs. Mary Helen's menthol Trues fall out of her blazer pocket, spilling onto the sidewalk. She shrieks, Don't crush my cigs!
The three o'clock busses have gone. The sisters have retired to their convent. Soon the boys will be dismissed from St. Francis. This is what the girls wait for, for boys cruising by in Corvairs and Gremlins and Pintos, all those small cars with too many packed inside, the more crushed the better. The girls aim for crushing, they'd like to be crushed to death. Life is so vibrant, so fierce they can't bear it, and so they yearn to be crushed, crushed against boys, the stiff oxford cloth of shirts folded into their eyes, the buttons pressing plastic nubs into their cheeks, the day-worn cotton with the boy-smell in every stitch. The girls live for moments when they can arrange the length of a boy's body against the demure skirt and gym shorts of before. They love the boys' tongues and the boys' curly long hair that they flip from behind their ears with busy hands. Girls and boys compete to see who can be busiest, who can touch something new. The boys' cars screech off, all exhaust and speed and abandon, with their willing captives. Where the girls' perfume lingers upon Goretti's façade, the ivy roots deeper into stone. None of this is news.
After joyriding, the girls scatter to seven o'clock suppers and mothers' exasperation and daddys' disapproving, What kept you?
Tardiness rides on the back of excuses. Could be Student Council, Mission Fund; play practice, but more likely wet kisses in a backseat, with Danny Feldkamp, John Platter, Paul Vogel. Each girl settles on one boy to whom she is true.
Day of Reconciliation, when the Maria Goretti Junior Class convenes in the gym to think about their lives and the resolve to do good, but all they can think is boys. The nuns assemble a slide show of flowers, waterfalls and other nature scenes meant to inspire, backed up by Simon & Garfunkel over a cruddy sound system. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
Troubled water, headed for trouble, one of them in trouble. Over winter vacation, the girls phone one another, speculations overlap, pentagram-like, in the skies above their houses between Christmas and New Year's. Mary Helen will never again wear the Maria Goretti uniform.
They say she's visiting her artist aunt in Maine. They make it sound like she's studying the coastal landscape next semester by choice.
Mary Helen always had a gift for the arts, the sisters say when Goretti reopens in January. The girl had a discerning eye.
An eye for boys, her friends snicker, hands at their mouths to catch their catty words. Gone not even a month, but they're already turning on her. They can pair off, two versus two now, with no odd one to rise above with her swing vote.
In the fall, Mary Helen returns slim as ever to play receptionist at her dad's insurance agency, while the others will sashay through Homecoming, Christmas Concert, Senior Prom.
Friends don't remember her as an artist, though there's a picture in the year book of Mary Helen smiling up from where she kneels on the ground, with a fat brush poised above blank cardboard on which she'll paint Junior Class Car Wash. The photo's caption reads, Traffic lines around the block for the chance to lay dollars in the hand of Class Treasurer Mary Helen Blaine.
When they distribute the annual, Goretti hallway gossip overflows with double entendre, the verb lay and the use of Mary Helen's hands. At the agency's front desk, Mary Helen doesn't hear the trifling behind her back.
She had a baby girl, a fact not discussed, though it's known in the way earth's gravity is known. Danny used to tease her: You're a little intense, aren't you? It's what she was good at, what she offered freely when she still thought intensity was the most that could be taken from her. Nuns teach what they feel necessary and in spite of themselves girls listen: Vigilance, they say. Or, recast by Mary Helen's wit: Blink, and the world wrecks you.
At Goretti's graduation, Mary Helen attends as spectator, and in the after-crowd of family hugs she stands beyond their giddiness. That strawberry blond hair cascading down her back, her friends can't remember her once cutting it. Swallowed up by their blue graduation gowns, they feel sorry for Mary Helen in the ivory dress that fits her form and indicates her limited future. They, with their awards pins and college plans, will spend the next months shopping and packing and straining against rules Mary Helen has already stepped outside of.
They are children posed beside her at summer picnics in their pastel shorts and summer shirts. She arrives straight from work in her wrap around skirt and tailored blouse, her hair back in a barrette. Ducking out early from these parties, she reminds them she's got Blaine Insurance to get up for in the morning while they loll in bed, heads heavy from the late night drinking she politely declines she, the famed guzzler of their crowd.
No one can imagine it yet, not even Mary Helen, but as others plod through campus orientations, her September plans, too, will include travel, east to a coastal town where they say moose wander onto the highway when confused by fog. She was in the top five percent of her class, she knows there's no turning back. Still, she is amazed at the way her seventeen year-old body accommodated, then returned to its lithe form, how it continues crying out for what's missing.
You can't fathom it, she tells the others, and it's true, they can't imagine what she has accomplished.
The raggedy coast Mary Helen's brush put to paper is a part of her, exchanged for softness that has rolled out on the ocean toward Greenland. To that innocence she waved bye-bye, a lift of the fingers, trance-like, the same way she gets set to touch type numberless insurance forms in her father's office.