You think turning fifteen will be the best. You’ll take drivers’ ed. You’ll stop being a freshman, finally. And maybe, with the help of your three best friends, you’ll learn to talk to boys better. So you spend practically the whole year happy, hopeful even, setting little goals for yourself until your father tells you he got a promotion. Then everything changes. Then you’re moving to Texas.
There’s talk, for a very short time, of my mom and me staying in Chicago
until I finish out school. I overhear her on the phone with a friend. She’s
sighing a lot, laughing. She’s quick to say, “Oh, we’re
not sure exactly. John may go down first for a while.” Then a pause. “I
know. It may be better for everyone if Ella finished up here. We just don’t
A moment of indecision is always a good time to put in your two cents. I spend the next few days trying to act troubled, but thoughtful. I bring up meaningful subjects, such as world peace, summer jobs, and the Valentine’s Day dance. I act as agreeable as possible to remind my parents that they’ll want to do everything they can to keep me in this cheerful condition, since they already have experience with adolescence and my three older sisters.
Then one day I’m sitting on the back steps listening to my parents in the kitchen. My father’s just home from work, shaking peanuts from a jar. My mother’s starting dinner. The radio’s on. I’m waiting.
“I think Ella’s really growing up,” my mother begins.
This has real potential. There’s a long pause as my father considers her position.
“What do you mean? You think she can handle the move now?”
“I do,” the traitor says. “Maybe this’ll give her time to adjust and she won’t spend all summer worried about the new school. She’ll make friends down there. Have some fun.”
“Okay, then,” my father says, not needing any more persuasion.
Of course, no one asks me what I’d like to do. The decision has been made.
Before I know it, it’s Valentine’s Day. None of us get invited to the Hearts Afire dance, so Christine, Amy, and Jen throw a little going away party for me at Christine’s house. We have the best time listening to music, dancing, and watching movies. Her mom bakes this huge chocolate chip, heart-shaped cookie with M & M’s and butterscotch chips added, and we pretty much eat the whole thing, even though we ate half the dough already. Lying on the floor, all of us feeling totally sick, my friends invent stories for me about what they think will happen in Dallas and what it’ll be like at my new school. They tell me I’ll suddenly be this new person, more attractive, smart, and witty, and everyone will love me, which is the hardest part to believe.
After they fall asleep, I lie there with my eyes wide open, trying not to cry. The sleeping bag smells like David, Christine’s older brother, and it’s not a bad smell, kind of like the beach at winter. This is about as close to a boy as I’ve ever been, except in eighth grade when Sarah McNamara had a kissing party in her basement, and I got stuck with Jeff Melanowski who everyone called Melon Head. We only kissed once, but it didn’t really count because it was so dark and not quite on the lips.
I wonder if all the boys in Texas wear cowboy hats and boots.
I’m sure I don’t know how to do any of this ¾ how to move and make new friends. How to get ready for something so foreign when everything I know and everything I remember will be in Chicago. Without me.
In Dallas everything comes across new and clean. Shiny. The neighborhoods
look like suburbs instead of part of a city, like Lake View, where I used
to lived, where trains and buses took you anywhere you wanted to go, and
the stores were only a few blocks away. Here, people drive. And everything
feels far away.
Our ten-year-old house is brick with glossy black shutters and a curving front walk, edged by a weedless yard. There’s no paint chipping anywhere. It’s a little overconfident for my liking, with central air and a stainless refrigerator that doesn’t hold magnets. My old house, on the other hand, was a rambling bungalow, and Becky and I shared a room on the third floor, which had slanted ceilings and radiators that thumped and hissed. There was something comforting about living right under the roof. Something safe.
This neighborhood is swept and mowed and clipped. “Manicured,” my mother gushes.
“And the roads don’t have potholes,” my father adds, like we’re in a commercial for how great Texas is.
I have to start my new school in two days, and each one of my older sisters calls to talk to me, which never happens. I think my parents put them up to it. Becky, who’s in college in Boston, says she can’t wait to come home this summer, that we can check out Dallas together. Janie ends up telling me about her new job at the ad agency since I don’t say anything when she asks what’s up. But Liz is pretty cool about it; she’s getting married this summer so she has temporary moments of sensitivity. She says, “Are you nervous about starting your new school?”
Mom and Dad have enrolled me at Spring Valley Day School, where a coworker of my father’s sends his kids.
I try to respond casually. “Not really nervous, no.” Even though I am.
“What’re you gonna wear the first day?”
“I’m not sure. Mom’s taking me shopping.”
“Don’t let her talk you into something babyish.”
“I won’t. They actually wanted me to wear a sweatshirt they bought for me when I interviewed at the school.”
“Yeah. And it’s purple and green.”
“Purple and green?”
On Monday morning, my first day, I throw up and have to change the new shirt
I bought the day before. I tell my mom I decided to wear something else,
and she gets mad because we took a long time at the mall to find my outfit.
I can hardly talk the whole drive to school, and when we get there it’s
jam-packed with cars going every which way. Mom’s trying not to act
annoyed, but I can tell by her mouth all straight and tight that she is.
I can’t see one other person my age getting dropped off by a parent. Meanwhile we have this hideous blue station wagon that’s been the family car since before I was born practically. Each of my sisters drove it in high school, and when Becky suddenly needed a car up at college, my parents gave her the Volvo, the good car. Don’t ask me why. She bugged out about it, as if they should’ve given her a new car or something. And now, like some bad dream, I’ll be stuck with the Blue Bomber, which I swore I’d never drive in public, even with my learner’s permit.
To make this moment worse, my mother actually leans over like she’s planning to kiss me good-bye, and I say, “Mom,” with a very firm look, so she backs off.
“Remember,” she tells me, putting on a brave face, “bloom where you’re planted.”
Luckily no one’s near enough to hear this.
I give her a weak smile, climb out of the car, and feel for the first time how out of place I am in Texas. Is it my imagination or is everyone staring at me? At my short brown, curly hair. My pale skin. My clunky, winter, midwestern shoes. My camouflage backpack, which was cool back home, now clearly stands out as some kind of fashion emergency. Most of the girls are wearing shorts skirts and color-coordinated sandals, with painted toe nails and silver toe rings. They have highlights in their hair and complicated up dos that look casual but may actually require another person to perfect. I can’t believe how underdressed I am.
For a split second, I want to whip back into the car, duck down, and tell my mom to put the pedal to the metal. But I don’t. I swallow the bubble in my throat and walk across the quad to the headmaster’s office like I’m supposed to. His nice secretary hands me a schedule and escorts me to my first class ― geometry, which is actually one of my better subjects.
The teacher, Mr. Milauskas, seems fine, geeky in that math-teacher way, but nice enough to smile when I sit down in the only open seat, smack dab in front of him, to start my new life.
The rest of the day goes along. I get introduced in every class; faces turn to stare, but that’s it. Nobody leans across the aisle to make friends. It’s March; they already have friends.
At dinner my fathers asks, “Did you make any new friends?”
I try not to roll my eyes. “Dad, it’s my first day.”
“Maybe you could join a club.”
“Great idea,” my mom chimes in.
Parents are so out of touch.
“It’s March.” I state the obvious, the same thing I’ve been telling myself over and over. “Everything’s already decided.”
“It’s practically summer, Dad. No one does anything now.”
And hello, I’ve never in the history of my life been a club-joining type of person.
“What about a spring musical? Do they have something like that?” my mom says as she passes me the salad.
There’s really no response necessary.