Before Gladys emptied the kitchen garbage can into the larger receptacle in the alley, she unlocked the chain holding on the lid. Having to chain up garbage. That was another thing she had to get used to. Trash pandas and other wildlife around here that stole food scraps. She liked the term trash pandas, a new one for her. It meant raccoons, and she imagined them as masked bandits, but the word panda also reminded her of home. If they hadn’t moved, they would have gotten to see Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the new baby panda bears that lived in the National Zoo in Washington. Playful, adorable pandas. She wanted to see them with an urgency she thought wasn’t cool. Like she should have outgrown cute things by now. She’d have to work on her coolness factor if she wanted to become a different person in this place. No, that was wrong. She was someone different. It was the kind of different that was the problem.
“Gladys, what are you doing?” Her mother shouted from the back porch window.
“Taking out the trash.”
“For half an hour?”
Gladys checked her watch. It hadn’t been a half hour, but she re-chained the can and picked up the emptied one. Geez. What was the urgency? It was summer, and it was Saturday, the day for sleeping in and grocery shopping, not that Gladys could ever sleep in with her mother on the alert. She yawned aloud, longing for her unmade bed. But then Gladys cheered up. Today was the day Jessica was going to call to invite her to go out with her and her friends. Jessica said she’d call in the morning when they’d decided on where they were going, so it was a good thing she was awake at this obnoxious hour. Gladys couldn’t believe she’d forgotten about the phone call.
She rushed inside and dumped the garbage can back in its place. Her mother leaned against the counter making a shopping list. “Can we not get the peanut butter from the co-op?” asked Gladys. “That stuff is like cement.”
“No cement peanut butter. Got it.” Her mother pushed up her granny glasses. With her long hair falling from a middle part, her mother looked like a female John Lennon. “Any other special requests?”
“I don’t suppose you’d consider buying white bread?”
“Why Gladys, I didn’t know you supported industrial poisoning.” Her mother turned back to her list. Gladys didn’t bother to roll her eyes. Her mother was a proud counter-culture member, such as it had been, for over a decade and wasn’t going to change her ways now. In fact, even Gladys’s appearance into her life had been a sort-of counter-culture idea. If Jessica only knew about the way Gladys had been conceived. That was a secret she hadn’t told anybody. It was enough that Jessica already knew Gladys had been born out of wedlock, something Gladys had leaked out, hoping it would bump up her social standing with Jessica’s group. But she was still burdened with her name, a name making her sound like a 100-year-old spinster.
Gladys. She had looked it up in a book of names in the high school’s library. Gladys was a Welsh version of Claudia. Claudia was a variant of Claudius, itself a version of the Latin word, claudus, meaning lame. It figured. Most of the time she felt lame and it didn’t help to have a name that actually meant lame, though not in the same way. Her mother had picked it because she thought it sounded like a flower. A flower name for a flower child. She wasn’t and the name wasn’t. Obviously.
Her mom left the kitchen to get her wallet for grocery shopping. Gladys got herself a glass of water from the tap. They used to live in an apartment, now they lived in this house called a shot-gun. Clearance for a shotgun from the front door to the back. That’s what it meant. The name matched the violence Gladys felt about it. She hadn’t wanted to move, to once more be in an awkward newbie, having to laugh off comments like “Gladys? My grannie’s name is Gladys!” She had thought about changing it but not in time for the first year of school, and not in time to ask her mother to sign off on it. She didn’t really think her mother’d go for the change, which required a legal guardian’s approval before the age of eighteen. Her mother had left the latest Ms. Magazine on the counter when she went to get her wallet. Gladys was deciding if she wanted to read “Whatever Happened to the Male Pill”—she could certainly relate to that as a daughter to one—when the telephone rang.
“I’ll get it!” yelled Gladys, yanking the handle off the receiver. They only had one extension and if you managed to untwist the perpetually tangled cord, it stretched all the way into the bathroom. Gladys went there, jamming the door shut against the cord.
“Hello?” said Gladys.
“Oh, hey. We’re going to Turkey Run. Can you be ready in an hour?”
“Sure,” said Gladys. She was both relieved and a little disappointed that the phone call had been so brief. Not so brief was the discussion with her mother.
“Where are you going to go?”
“Um, I think it’s a state park?”
“You don’t know where you’re going?” Her mother hunted up the map they’d used to navigate their way here from D.C. and spread it out across the dining room table. The table was a giant spool for marine cables and when Gladys was little, she’d pretended she’d shrunken down to the size of a pixie and it was really a regular-sized spool.
“Turkey Run state park. Woods, a lake. Not too bad of a drive. Who’s driving?” asked her mother. Gladys didn’t know, so she couldn’t answer. “That’s alright. I’ll just meet them when they get here.” It was pointless to try to convince her mother otherwise.
A horn honked. Gladys rushed up to the vehicle. She was dressed in cut-offs and a halter top, her bikini on underneath just in case they decided to swim. It was a hot day threatening to get hotter, so swimming was a distinct possibility. She wished she had asked Jessica about it before hanging up. She hadn’t asked Jessica about much, too afraid she’d discover something Gladys didn’t even want to think about, that Jessica didn’t want Gladys along after all.
The driver honked the horn again. The car, a tiny Datsun Bluebird, was already over capacity. “Stop it!” Jessica said to the driver. To Gladys she said, “The man addicted to horn honking is my boyfriend Hal.” She thumped the boy behind the wheel who pretended it hurt. “Michael, Sue, and Tommy, are in back.”
“My Mom’s coming out,” blurted Gladys.
“No problem,” said Jessica. “I’d love to meet the woman brave enough to raise a daughter on her own.” Hal snorted.
Gladys’s mother approached. Thank God she wore the band T-shirt with sleeves, not the one without, the one that showed her mom’s unshaved armpits. Jessica gave the introductions once more and Gladys’s mother eyed the back seat. “Make sure you drive within the speed limit,” she said to Hal, giving him a hard stare.
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Hal, grinning. Gladys’s mother pulled down her granny glasses and intensified her stare. Hal’s white-toothed grin crumpled.
To Gladys she murmured, “ten o’clock,” and Gladys made a slight nod she hoped those in the car did not see.
“Your mother’s a trip!” said Jessica once Gladys had squeezed into the back and her mother was securely inside their house.
“Tell me about it!” said Gladys. She counted the couples. It didn’t take a genius to figure that Tommy, the boy whose lap she’d had to sit on in order to fit into the car, was meant for her.
“I didn’t bring a towel!” said Gladys when they were halfway there.
“No need,” said Tommy. It’s a warm day.” These were the first words he had spoken to her since she landed on his lap. It could be he felt as awkward as she did with the seating situation.
“You think it’ll be crowded?” said Jessica.
“How the hell should I know?” said Jessica’s boyfriend, Hal. He drove intently and fast like he was being chased by the grim reaper.
“So, you were in Jessica’s Home Ec class?” said Tommy.
“Home Ec is lame!” said Michael. “They make guys take it!”
“As if we need to know how to sew on a button! We’ll just get our wives to do it, right, Jessica?” said Hal.
“As if,” said Jessica. Gladys was relieved Jessica had said it, so she didn’t have to. If there was one thing she and her mother agreed on, it was that a woman’s role in society should encompass more than button sewing.
“Nah, we’ll have our tailors do it,” said Michael, the boy at the other end of the back seat.
“Tailors? Who the hell has a tailor?” said Hal. He said it like the word tailor was somehow a dirty word.
“People with lots of money have tailors, dumbass,” said Michael.
“And that would be you?” asked Hal.
“It’s gonna be,” said Michael. His girlfriend, Sue, rolled her eyes at Gladys. It made her feel a little more included, less of a friendless outsider.
At the entrance, the park ranger gave them a temporary parking pass. He inspected the car with a skeptical look. “85 degrees in the shade,” said the ranger. “Make sure you pack water.”
“Water, yeah right,” said Hal when they had driven through and were out of the park ranger’s earshot. In the parking lot, they chose a spot near a tree. Another car hogged most of the shade. Outside of their car and the shaded car, there were only two more cars in the lot.
“Not many people here,” said Jessica.
“Quit being a scaredy-cat,” said Hal. “It’s not like we haven’t done it before.”
They unpacked the trunk, which turned out not to have any towels. Guess everyone was a fan of the drip dry, thought Gladys, missing her towel more than ever. There was a large cooler, a frisbee, a picnic basket, and an old blanket. Everyone helped carry these things, following Jessica’s boyfriend on a path through the woods. They reached a secluded spot with a small beach. There they dropped their load in a pile. The lake water reflected the cloudless blue sky and lapped the shore. The sound of the waves, a murmured coaxing.
“Who’s up for a brewski?” said Hal, taking one out of the cooler.
“We should set up first,” said Jessica.
“What’s to set up?” said Hal. He cracked the lid of his beer bottle against the cooler’s opener. Jessica and Sue spread out the blanket.
“Can I do something?” asked Gladys.
“You can come with us around those rocks,” said Jessica. A couple of large boulders shielded them from the boys. Jessica and Sue began peeling off their clothes the instant they were behind them. They did not have bathing suits on underneath. Once naked, they slapped their stomachs and compared their bodies disfavorably with each other.
“Oh!” said Sue when she noticed Gladys’s bikini. “You don’t have to take your suit off if you don’t want to.”
Gladys touched the rough surface of the boulders. She hadn’t expected this and somehow thought that Jessica should have told her. But maybe Jessica thought that since Gladys’s mother had been a hippie, Gladys was used to skinny dipping. The girls waited for her to decide. Gladys began to peel off her suit, starting with the shoulder straps of her bikini top. She unclasped the back and let the top fall away, then unbuttoned her cut-offs and slid these and her bikini bottoms off in one go. When she was fully naked, the girls applauded. Gladys felt like she’d accomplished something, even if it was something she did every day before taking a shower at home. Of course, this was different. She never got a round of applause when she got in the shower at home.
“You’ve got the loveliest breasts!” said Jessica. “Sue, doesn’t Gladys have lovely breasts?”
“Wish I had such big knockers! Hal complains about them every time we do it,” said Jessica.
“You should dump him!” said Sue.
Jessica smirked. “What do you think, Gladys? Should I dump Hal?”
“I think he should get down on his knees and kiss your feet that you even let him.” Gladys reddened. She had no idea she was capable of saying what she said.
“Oh, I know he’s a pig. But the sex is great!” said Jessica. She and Sue sniggered. “Come on. It’s hot. Last one in’s a used condom!” They all rushed towards the water, squealing and giggling.
At first, the water was blue-lip cold but when Gladys got used to it she began to have fun. She imagined herself as a mermaid, splashing and dodging Jessica and Sue. All her worries about lameness faded in the delicious feeling of water against bare flesh. Her pubic hairs free-floated, waving like kelp. She skimmed a hand against them when she thought Sue and Jessica weren’t looking, dared to brush a finger deeper. Her nipples hardened. So were the other girls’ so it was okay. They were in water deep enough to hide their breasts and when they surfaced, she could see the tight points in the center of their areolas. It was probably the cold water that did it.
They floated, plunged upward and dove down, chasing each other in a circle, enjoying the water like a trio of dolphins. Jessica stopped abruptly, pointing to shore. “The boys are about to break up our little harem,” she said. The two girls waved. Gladys ducked down.
She quickly realized it was not a solution to the naked problem. She’d have to breathe eventually. It was one thing being naked with a trio of girls, another being naked in front of a trio of boys. She decided she’d bob there, treading water, letting only her head and neck show above the water line.
“Hello, ladies!” said Hal. He got to them soonest, but Tommy and Michael weren’t far behind. When the boys were all there, a splashing party ensued. Gladys performed a few palm pushes, making the water move forward indifferently.
“You call that a splash?” said Tommy, laughing. Gladys pushed harder and a small tsunami swept his way. “That’s more like it!”
Hal maneuvered Jessica a little ways from the group. Michael did the same with Sue. They had stopped splashing each other, but little movements on the surface of the water indicated their hands were busy.
Tommy stilled and looked at Gladys with meaning. Gladys piped up. “Hey, everyone! Let’s go back to shore!” She had said the one thing which would ensure her own exposure, but the group would be back together, and they could resume the party as a unit.
“That’s a good idea!” said Hal. “I’m ready for some more refreshment.” He said refreshment as if it was a dirty word.
Gladys was the first one out of the water. The warm air and the gentle breeze caressing her skin felt like golden feathers. Hal’s snicker, close behind her, didn’t. He lifted the cooler lid and got out two beers, slapping both open on the cooler’s rim. He handed one of them to her.
“Thanks!” said Gladys. She had drunk beer before, at her cousin’s wedding and occasionally with her mother, a stingy half a glass, so she was familiar with the taste. On a hot day, the amber liquid felt good going down her throat. She gulped it.
“Whoa there, girlie! You gotta be careful with your first beer,” said Hal.
“This isn’t my first beer,” said Gladys.
“Right on!” said Hal.
The others weren’t far behind. Each grabbed a beer. Caps popped off. Swigs ensued. Water droplets stained the blanket.
“Anyone ready for a sandwich?” asked Jessica. She opened the picnic basket and handed them around. White bread, mayonnaise, and sandwich meats of various kinds. They took up positions on the blanket and ate.
For a while, Gladys ate her sandwich without adding much to the chatter. It was funny how casually everyone conversed. It was funny how small the boys’ dicks were. They had shriveled in the cold water. Gladys gave them a glance while the conversation rolled on about stupid teachers, stupid Home Ec again, and then something different.
“So, my parents are getting divorced for sure,” said Jessica.
“About time,” said Sue.
“Marriage is sacred. Says so in the bible,” said Hal. “When I get married, it’ll be for keeps.” He put his arm around Jessica. She rolled her eyes.
“If you get married!” said Michael.
“Who’re you going to live with?” asked Sue.
“Dunno,” said Jessica. She jiggled her shoulders and Hal removed his arm.
“Will they keep the house? That bar in the basement is ace!” said Sue.
“When my parents got divorced, they had to sell the house,” said Tommy. “I still miss the skylight in my old room.”
“Grow up, man!” said Michael. Tommy shoved him.
“Guess we’re all divorce orphans,” said Hal.
“Or soon to be,” said Sue.
“Not Gladys,” said Jessica.
Dripped dry and settling into a level of comfort with her own nakedness, Gladys had been enjoying the cover of silence. Now her cover was blown. All eyes were on her. She had to say something. She wanted the something to be cool and funny, comforting to Jessica, and at the same time protective of herself. She pinched a piece of blanket flannel between her thumb and forefinger. She drained her beer. What she said wasn’t funny, it wasn’t comforting, and, judging from the reactions she got, it wasn’t cool either.
“My mother got pregnant with me on a whim one night with the sperm of a gay friend and the help of a turkey baster.”
“Holy shit!” said Michael.
“How is that even possible?” said Tommy.
“You know how, dumbass,” said Michael.
The girls didn’t say anything. Gladys snorted into the dead air. Why had she said it? She had thought that somehow what she said would be a distraction. No, that wasn’t right. She had said it because she thought it might make her seem ice cold. No, that wasn’t right either. It was the conversation about divorce that had done it. After the skinny dipping, after the beer, after all the personal info they had shared, she felt a level of trust with these people, but once again, she had judged the situation wrong. She was such a spaz.
Hal stared into her face, his eyes round, his face a question mark. “Do you . . . Do you need another brewski?” he asked. He opened one and handed it to her without waiting for an answer. She accepted it and took a long swig. The group waited for her to swallow and say more, but there wasn’t more.
“Guess your story tops us all,” said Sue, as though it was a game of chicken.
Hal got up and stretched. His dick had returned to normal size, maybe a little larger than normal. “How about a private nap, Jess?” She rose, and Hal took her hand, leading her away from the group.
“I’m pretty tired too,” said Michael. He yawned, adding a howl at the end for emphasis. “What do you say, Sue?”
“Sure.” Sue got up and the two of them walked off in a different direction, leaving Tommy and Gladys on the blanket.
“So, you’re a freshman?”
“Sophomore now,” said Gladys. “We moved here a little before the beginning of summer last year.”
“Just in time for one glorious year at ol’ Henderson High,” said Tommy. “Say! If you haven’t been to Giorgio’s yet, we could hang out there sometime. I mean if you like pizza.”
“Sounds cool,” said Gladys. Every weekend, she and her mom got pizza at Giorgio’s, but Tommy didn’t need to know that.
“Guess the others will be busy with their—er, naps for a while. Want to hike around?”
“Can I get dressed first?” asked Gladys.
“Up to you,” said Tommy, grinning. She grabbed her bikini and cut-offs and put them on, also her sneakers. Tommy slipped on his trunks and a pair of high tops. He gave her a hand up after she’d finished tying her shoes. He kept her hand in his as he led her to the trailhead.
While they hiked, she let him babble on about the park, the chipmunks, skunks, and squirrels, and when he first went here with his dad as a little boy. His dad was mostly away these days, having moved out-of-state. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to go on about my dad, especially when you don’t have one,” said Tommy.
“I do have a dad,” she said. “He visits us from time to time with his boyfriend.”
“Wow!” said Tommy, and that made Gladys clam up. She didn’t want to go into it, didn’t want their first date, if that was what this was, to be focused on her own stuff. Sure, she had opened up the topic by saying what she said, but since she said it, she had the right to shut it down.
“Don’t tell the others about my dad. I mean, I love my dad. I’m not ashamed or anything. I just don’t want people talking about it.”
“You mean like you don’t want people to dissect you, like in freshman biology.”
“That’s cool.” Tommy helped her up and over a sand dune. They startled some plovers as they hiked down. When they reached a bare spot among the beach grass, they sat. “You know, if you think about it, your family’s really the most normal. I mean, it’s intact and all.”
After a while of sitting holding hands and not talking, they hiked back. It was late afternoon and getting colder. When they returned to the picnic site, the others were there, dressed and in the process of packing up. Almost everything was taken care of except for the blanket. Tommy and Gladys took opposite ends, shook it out and folded it up, meeting and parting, making sections until it was as small as a stadium cushion.
Gladys had gotten a little drunk, not used to having two full beers. But the food and the hike had worked most of the alcohol out her system. Not so for Hal, who had drunk the bulk of the beer. Throwing his keys at Michael, he got in the back next to the window and cranked it down. Jessica slid in beside him, while Sue rode shotgun. Gladys sat on Tommy’s lap as before, but this time she wasn’t nervous. He put his arms around her waist. She draped one arm around his shoulder.
“Guess you two had a good time,” said Hal, letting a puff of beer-scented breath waft their way.
The open window didn’t spare Jessica the brunt of the fumes. “Ugh!” she said, waving her hand.
“We did,” said Gladys.
Hal smirked and then began to puke, getting most of it to launch through the open window.
“Someone smells like puke,” said Gladys’s mom when she walked through the door. She was leafing through Ms. A few groceries still needed putting away.
“It’s nice to see you, too, Mom,” said Gladys. She started to help unload. Organic peanut butter again, when she clearly asked for the commercial kind.
“How was the trip to Turkey Run?” asked her mother.
“Fun. Strange. Mostly fun. We went skinny dipping and everybody’s from broken homes.”
“Really?” said her mom. Gladys didn’t know which comment her mother was reacting to until she followed up with, “And I thought we were the only ones with a broken home.”
“We’re not broken,” said Gladys. “Just a little bent.”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Do you want pizza for dinner tonight?”
“How about we have something different.”
“Great! Tofu burgers it is then,” said her mother. Gladys glared. “Kidding!”
They ate their Chinese carryout with the chopsticks provided, fighting over the last pot sticker.
“You know, sometimes it’s hard to make new friends in a new place. I’m glad you went out today,” said Gladys’s mother.
“Um, Mom? Do you think we could discuss something?”
“Why Gladys! You look so serious. Is it about the ERA?”
“It’s about birth control.”
“I’ll need your permission to get some.”
Her mother’s chopsticks hovered over the empty cartons. She found one last remaining miniature corncob and stabbed it. She chewed and swallowed before answering, “I’m proud that you came to me. I wouldn’t have been able to ask my own mother about it, or else I thought I couldn’t. In any case, I didn’t.”
“Is that a yes?”
“I’ll call Doctor Merkle and make an appointment for you.” Her mother’s lower eyelids filled. Gladys had never seen her mother cry. The possibility that she would now both thrilled and horrified her. But then her mother recovered. This wasn’t an after school special, the corny shows that were meant to bring families closer. This was the two of them, and yet the next thing her mother said was another surprise. “I’m proud of you, Gladys. I mean really proud. This move and all. You’ve handled it so well.” She squeezed Gladys’s hand.
“You, too, Mom,” said Gladys. She let the hand holding go on for a few more seconds. It wasn’t something they normally did, this affection thing. They joked and sometimes fought, but it felt good to feel her mother’s hand in hers and even better to hear the words she had spoken. “Should I clear the cartons?” Gladys asked.
Her mother gave Gladys’s hand a final pat. “Nah. Let’s be wild and leave them until tomorrow.”