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True Believerby Virginia Euwer Wolff
My name is LaVaughn and I am 15.
When a little kid draws a picture
it is all a big face
and some arms stuck on.
That's their life.
You get older
and you are a whole mess of things,
new thoughts, sorry feelings,
big plans, enormous doubts,
going along hoping and getting disappointed,
over and over again,
no wonder I don't recognize
my little crayon picture.
It appears to be me
and it is
and it is not.
In the sex class we have to take by school law
where they showed condoms and scared us about AIDS,
they said, "Sexuality is the most confusing thing
about being a teenager." I am sure
this is correct
because I strained my ears to hear over the racket
of kids making a joke of the class,
waving condoms on their fingers,
And also because the sex teacher said it four times.
But me and my friends Myrtle and Annie
say it don't have to be the most confusing.
There is math and other hard subjects too
and street murders right near your block,
even people you loved.
And also torment of being let down
by what you counted on.
Me and Myrtle and Annie could say 1,000 examples.
The thing to do is stay virgin.
Then you don't have to wonder if you're pregnant
or worry about being a bad person
or decide whether to have the baby or abort it
or wonder for the rest of your life
if the baby is healthy
in her adopted home. Or his.
Me and Myrtle and Annie,
we all want to save our bodies for our right husband
when he comes along.
There is several ways to do this saving.
One is be snarly nasty to boys and not be their friend
and they will stay away from you.
But there is this girl everybody knows about,
she hated boys and men of all kinds
and one day she got raped just by going
to the discount store, she is a wreck you pity,
she slides her back along the locker doors in the hallways
and has lurching eyes.
Another way is Cross Your Legs for Jesus.
This is the club Myrtle joined, and Annie will probably too.
For the club you memorize Bible verses,
and in the club you will go to Hell if you have unmarried sex.
The club has many retreats and parties and fun picnics.
Boys are in it too.
The third way is never go anywhere by yourself.
I believe in my heart each of these 3 are not for me.
Be nasty to all boys and men?
No. I like them.
And it didn't work for that poor girl.
And Cross Your Legs for Jesus seems like a good idea at first.
But it doesn't feel right
when I think about it.
Does Jesus want that droopy raped girl to go to Hell?
And number 3 is trouble from beginning to end.
Never go anywhere alone? Sometimes I like to be alone.
I don't know how you recognize your own special husband
when he comes along. Will he look
totally different? Or does he look like everybody else
and you're the only one to recognize him?
I sure would like to get kissed.
How that would feel on my mouth.
How different I would be after,
a changed climate down in my insides.
And another thing.
My mom sat me down last night and she said,
"Verna LaVaughn. You remember your college plans."
This was not a question. She used both my names.
"Sure, I remember." This is too offhand for her
and she snaps at me about my tone of voice.
She has radar,
can feel rudeness coming, also sarcasm
before they start.
Also fake tiredness when you don't want to answer.
With my mom you are alert at attention or nothing.
"Yes, I remember my college plans," I say, polite.
"Well, you make sure you do.
Because I got a better job offer, I'll quit this mere little job
if you're sure you remember about college.
This job pays more,
I can put more in your college account.
It has better health benefits and dental."
And she says she'll have night meetings,
and for sure more paperwork. "I have to know," she says.
"Will you make me proud I took this big jump?
"Put yourself in my place, LaVaughn.
More of me goes to the office, less of me can stay home.
Sure, I'm happy for her new job.
This might mean I'd have more room to myself
without her standing over me
watching my own personal judgment.
"I understand," I say back.
"I don't think so.
You know what this means?
This means you can't do anything
She looks at me with her face full of rules.
I know the rules, have always known them.
Go to school, do homework,
have safe friends,
have a job after school,
don't make bad decisions.
When I baby-sat for that Jolly
with her two babies and no husband
was a bad decision my mom thought,
but I come out of that with no harm done,
and I also helped Jolly get up
after what her life done to her.
And those little kids were so cute, I miss them still.
"'Cause I can't pull you out of any mess, Verna LaVaughn,"
my mom aims her eyebrows at me.
"You got your work to do,
I got mine. There's only just so much of me
to go around."
At this moment I love my mom real much
knowing so much of her has been going around me
my whole life.
Then in the next minute she says,
"I seen many youngsters change their minds,
forgetting their life plan
or they pretend they never had one.
You need a long memory, LaVaughn.
You can't go forgetting the minute it gets too hard."
I say I know that.
We agree I still mean it about college.
I tell her I appreciate her.
And I truly believe
those things are both completely true.
And three hours go by till she starts again.
I'm in bed, still awake.
She comes in and sits on the edge
and she says,
"And another thing.
"You know what would stop your college plans
for sure, LaVaughn."
This too is not a question.
I'm supposed to know. I can think of many things,
money first of all.
Or a deadly accident on the street, her getting fired,
me getting low grades,
all the disasters that happen in many varieties
to people just trying to go along.
"A baby," she says.
"Oh!" I say, in huge surprise. "Not me. For sure. Promise."
"So you say now," she says.
"Promises are easy to break," she says.
"People get confused.
You can't do that, LaVaughn.
You can not let yourself get confused.
You know what I mean?"
"Mom," I say, "I'm not confused."
"People are confusable," she goes on.
"You keep your eyes on college.
I tell you this, LaVaughn:
What's down there between a person's legs
gets them into more trouble than anything."
This is embarrassing. I don't want to hear her opinion.
"I'm counting on you like I never counted on anybody
since your dad was here."
I tell her she can count on me.
We say Goodnight
and I am relieved my mom is out of my own private room
with her depending and counting on
I have hopes for life and some love too
After a long time I go to sleep
and dream of dancing
with somebody, nobody clear, just vague
with his arms around me.
And he likes the real LaVaughn in me.
I am lucky,
born under a good star, maybe.
Of the bad things that happened
the worst, top of the list of all time, is my dad got killed
when I was so little.
It is a burden like they say.
And nobody, my mom nor nobody
knows how this private burden weights on me.
But at least I had a dad. And he loved me gigantically.
In the picture on my bedroom wall,
holding a little version of me in his arms,
we are in matching baseball caps,
that is a happy man grinning.
And my friends. I am lucky in them.
Myrtle and Annie, they were with me
all the way through.
Myrtle and me were helpful to Annie all we could be
when she had that divorce in second grade,
and then the second divorce too,
And the way Myrtle's family takes drugs is a crime.
Very often she did not even want to go home.
Till her father went to rehab
when we were in eighth grade,
he is in there again now, too.
He promised Myrtle he would make it this time.
Still, she holds her breath.
Me and Annie are sympathetic.
But sympathy won't make her life different.
My friend Jolly got things complicated last year,
Myrtle and Annie rolled their eyes
about her. Jolly couldn't help it. I kept telling them.
It wasn't her fault she was pregnant
before she was old enough to see straight.
It was a dangerous world she got born into
with hardly never a chance for niceness in her life.
But when Myrtle and Annie got cleaning jobs at the church
and got invited into the Jesus club there,
first Myrtle, then Annie,
they acted like Jolly was dirt down beneath them.
Then Jolly ended up a slight hero
so they were wrong about her,
even if they never said so.
But they are still loyal to me for life, and me to them.
We don't have to say it in words, it just is.
It's true the pavement around here is filthy from side to side,
the alleys reek
and they are full of deadly events that could happen any minute.
High school students shoot their classmates
and if you even take one glance at the science of the world
you would want to never get out of bed in the morning,
birds and beasts are going extinct,
the rivers are poison, the fish are dying,
there is dangerous rain.
But I have these friends,
and my mom even took a harder job so I can get out of here
when I'm grown up.
And my hope is strong like an athlete.
Every morning when we walk through the metal detectors
to get into school
I know in my heart it may feel like a day of just waiting in lines
and hearing bells ring
and watching teachers try to keep order
among those wrongdoers in the classes.
It is an important day
of dues-paying so I can go to college and be out of here.
And I am lucky to have a room of my own,
instead of sleeping on a fold-out
like Annie in her house.
My room is my private territory
complete with my special ceiling design.
My ceiling above my bed is cracked like a tree hanging over,
and last summer when I was restless one rainy day
I painted branches on,
and put a bird nest up there too
and little baby birds peeking out
with their eensy skinny feathers
and their all-mouth look like on a science show.
I used my watercolors from way back in childhood,
my 10th birthday present from the aunts.
The set has six different greens
and enough odd hues and shades
to do branches and a good tree trunk.
I am quite proud of my painting.
Well, my mom came home and saw the wall and ceiling
and her mouth went into shock
as a rent-payer.
"Oh, LaVaughn, look what you did," she says,
"Oh, no," she says, and "Oh, no," again,
while she catches her breath and thinks.
Then she calmed down.
She stood on different spots in my room,
at the corner of my desk,
and by the closet door,
and over by the wastebasket.
She climbed on my chair and took a look up close,
and she laid down on my bed to see it from there,
never saying a word, just shifting around and looking.
At the end of this short tour of my room which is not large
her face got patienter
and she said, "LaVaughn, that's nice,
that's so nice. Oh, LaVaughn, that's real, real nice."
And she says in a whisper,
"Your dad would be proud."
It made the lump come in my throat
that came before lots of times
when I'm wondering how it would feel with his arms around me
like before when I was so little.
Sometimes I think I can almost make the feeling.
And then it disappears.
I tell my mom thanks.
Myrtle and Annie sing their club song for me before gym.
God's kingdom will endure. He gives to me my energy, Jesus keeps me pure."
God's kingdom will endure.
He gives to me my energy,
Jesus keeps me pure."
Then the chorus goes "Cross your legs for Jesus," and it repeats.
They say it sounds better with guitar and drums.
They are obvious about how unsaved I am.
They have new "JESUS LOVES YOU" shoelaces, bright gold.
We do our warm-ups,
then we go through the volleyball formations,
we holler and huff and jump like we are taught,
and it might look like old times
among Myrtle and Annie and me, but it's not.
"You're missing out on the miracle, LaVaughn,"
says Myrtle, in the showers.
I am not innocent enough to ask what miracle she means.
It is the miracle of being saved by God from being a sinner.
I didn't want to argue.
I imagine there is a God out there, or a Something.
Something to get the whole thing spinning along
way back there before there was anything
to even have a shape to it.
Myrtle and Annie and me went all through this subject before.
But now they have new news.
Myrtle and Annie say all Muslims and Jews and Hindus
and other religions will go to Hell
along with criminals and sexual teenagers
and all tribes of foreign lands
that have not come to Jesus and the Bible
which they say God wrote.
They don't explain how God came out of the sky
and wrote down words. "You just don't get it, LaVaughn."
It is the Joyful Universal Church of Jesus
that tells them these things.
They are right: I don't get it.
I personally would like to know how God let my dad die.
And why hasn't God made Myrtle's father
get well from drugs yet?
That would be a miracle.
Me and Myrtle share a bottle of shampoo like always
and I look back and forth at them
as we dry ourselves and put on our clothes.
With their club coming between our friendship
I want to say, "Yes! I'll be in your club!"
But I don't do it,
it doesn't feel right.
I don't think that is the job of Jesus, to keep me pure.
And I don't mean to be mean to Jesus in my thoughts,
that little baby born in a manger.
But I don't get how he hates so many millions of people
and sends them down to Hell.
So as we are getting dressed
and I run Annie's comb
down the back of her hair like always
for her exactly equal braids she wants,
I am wondering is this the last time I will ever have
Annie's comb in my hand, going down her hair.
I keep my eyes on the back of Annie's head,
bisecting her hair precisely.
And my skin goes shivery for a moment.
I want to join with them
to have it be like the old times we had,
but there's something holds me back.
If there is a God and Jesus,
is my dad in their heaven up there?
And if there isn't,
where is he?
Can he see me?
And then the biggest surprise:
Suddenly here comes Jody back again, changing everything.
He lived here a long time ago, then he left
and now he comes back, an astonishment in the elevator.
When we were little we played
kick-the-can a kazillion times.
We went to each other's messy little birthdays
and spilled ice cream
and I remember like a movie
how I stole his party hat one time,
it was blue and I was grabby.
Jody and me
were the only ones that got punished
when all of us kids on our side of the building
were mean to a person in a wheelchair. Some of the big kids
wheeled her very fast over big gashes in the sidewalk.
Us little ones just watched, but that was bad enough.
My mom was mad. Jody's too.
"You like to stare at people that had bad luck, LaVaughn?
Verna LaVaughn, you like to stare
at that poor woman being tormented?
What else you like to do, LaVaughn? Huh?"
I told her I like to color in coloring books.
She took away every coloring book I had,
and the crayons and markers too
for a whole month. "That will teach you," she said.
She put them away in her closet
and I couldn't color till she took them out again.
Jody was not allowed to ride his bike for a week.
Nobody else got punished.
Jody's mom and my mom taught us cards,
we played Hearts in their apartment and Old Maid.
And Double Solitaire.
Our mothers traded keys, one for each of us,
hanging on a string
so us little ones would have a safe place
to go in emergencies.
Even with self-defense classes in the building
you still need a place to go in danger.
It is a rule of the Tenant Council.
Jody and me each used our keys on strings
once way back then. Trying them out.
He came to our house
when I was just learning to make a peanut butter sandwich.
I made two of them, he ate most of his.
And I used the key in their lock one time.
He showed me his tropical fish in a tank,
he knew the big long names of those bright-colored swimmers.
We traded comic books and never gave them back.
Once Jody and me played cards for 2 days
when it snowed and there was no school.
And then they moved away.
And now they're back again.
And this is such a weird miracle about my little childhood pal:
He is suddenly beautiful.
In the elevator, it's all I can do to say his name.
"Jody?" I say. I steady myself against the elevator wall
in case it is not him. And because he is too gorgeous
to look at head-on.
He doesn't remember me
and then he does. "You were good at kick-the-can," he said.
"Really?" I said.
"Yeah, you had good legs," says this brand-new old person.
"Thanks," I say. "Do you still have fish in a tank?"
I'm amazed at my normal sound,
talking so calm to such beauty.
He could be in movies,
the way the parts of his face go together.
His mouth moves and words come out, Yes,
he still has fish, his hand goes to the elevator button,
I follow it, the wrist, thumb, index finger, a button pushes,
his arm goes back where it was.
My chest is so full of heartbeats it jolts my thinking.
Somewhere he was getting to be a perfect, handsome person
while I was only going through the years.
In the elevator maybe I asked him where he has been,
His face is standing there looking straight into mine,
the shape of his mouth, oh,
I can't imagine I ever saw such a boy before
and yet it is still the face of Jody from back then.
I get out of the elevator at my floor
and I lean on the wall,
my heart too loud for comfort
and my brain not so level either.
I get my whole breath back
by the time my mom comes home.
She is not struck dumb by the news.
She reminds me what I was not paying attention to
when I was a kid, the reason why they left:
Jody's mom moved them away
to try to get Jody a better chance in life.
"That woman, she's exhausted, she's drained,
cleaning dirty houses day in, day out,
Jody's all she's got."
I make comparison with Jody's mom and mine
but it is not the same at all. My mom never
cleaned other people's houses.
She would not live such a beat down life,
she just would not.
"Well, they tried, she couldn't pay that higher rent,
she got farther behind all the time,
and...." My mom plunks her paperwork on the counter,
reaches over and rubs a sponge around the sink,
lets her breath out in a huff.
"...and here they are, back again."
She says in her emphasizing voice:
"She was the first one when your dad died.
The very first one.
She come up here with a casserole,
she brought Jody along,
she stayed with me the whole night."
That is all a fog to me. Maybe I didn't notice him,
so confused as I was.
I'll never know how my mom made it through that time.
"You be nice to Jody, LaVaughn.
They don't have it easy."
So that's the way it is about Jody.
And she's telling me to be nice to him.
Does she not even know what Jody looks like?
I look at her flat as a plate, no expression.
I say Sure, I'll do that.
Jody's back just in time to start the new school year.
My heart is clunking.
Copyright © 2001 by Virginia Euwer Wolff
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