The party was to celebrate my boyfriend Chris's high school graduation, no occasion for rejoicing as far as I was concerned. As usual, the Melvilles had gone overboard for their one and only son, putting up a big white tent in their overly landscaped backyard and having the food catered by Biscuit, the hot new restaurant in Iowa City.
I'd already been forced to talk to the high school principal, two Spanish teachers, and Chris's next-door neighbors; my smile was sagging like Custer's mustache. All anybody could come up with to say to me was, "Just think, Robin, next year you'll be graduating!" Whoopee. Sure couldn't wait for my big fabulous future to start.
I found Chris scarfing down shrimp at the buffet table. "Having fun?" he asked between mouthfuls.
"Fun might be too much to aim for," I said, hooking my thumb in the armhole of my dress to try and stretch it a little. It really was too tight this year. "You think we can leave soon?"
"I don't know." He grimaced. "It's my party. I can't just..."
"I know, but it's been going on all afternoon already. I thought we could...you know...have our own celebration." I tried to look innocent and loving, rather than the way I actually felt -- bored and bummed.
Chris slipped an arm around my waist and kissed my hair just above my ear. "I can't wait," he said. "You know, you look gorgeous in that dress."
I gave him a skeptical look. "This dress is a hundred years old."
"It is not, and anyway, I like it on you. Don't you believe me?"
Big sighs from both of us.
We'd argued about this more than once -- that when Chris compliments me I disagree with him or say it's not true. He says I don't value myself enough, but I think I'm just being realistic. I look okay, but my hair's too thin, and my boobs aren't very big, and I never have anything to wear he hasn't seen a million times already. Chris always says my eyes are beautiful, but eyes are a pretty small percentage of a person. No, the only thing special about me is Chris.
A beefy hand on the end of a long arm divided the air space between us.
"Christopher! The young man with the big future!" I looked up at the tall, bald-headed guy connected to the arm and recognized Dr. Ransom, fellow surgeon and friend of Chris's dad. Chris's mother is a doctor, too, a pediatrician here in town. The party was lousy with medical types; I'd already been introduced to two cardiologists, a neurologist, and an obstetrician. My mother is a nurse, so I've heard enough about doctors over the years that I'm not that impressed by a string of letters tacked on behind a name.
Where was Franny, anyway? There weren't many high school kids there because most of Chris's friends were seniors, and their parents were throwing parties for them, too. Franny was a junior, like me. The only reason she'd agreed to come was because she'd never been inside the Melvilles' house and she wanted to "check it out." I just hoped she wouldn't get caught by one of the good doctors nosing through their closets or taking inventory in the kitchen cabinets.
Dr. Ransom was practically shouting at Chris. "Best years of your life, son! You're going to have a wonderful time at Georgetown. When I was at Hopkins -- stop me if I've told you this already..."
Blah, blah, blah. The guy loved bouncing his big voice off Chris, but Chris didn't mind. He'd have a conversation with a rock if you painted a face on it. I gave Chris a smile and pulled away. Georgetown University, a thousand miles from Iowa, was not my favorite topic of conversation.
I was headed across the lawn to see if Franny was inside when I was intercepted by Dr. Melville. The female one.
"Robin, dear, could you do me a huge favor?" She tipped her head over toward one shoulder to show me how sorry she was about asking someone who wouldn't dare refuse her.
"Sure, Dr. Melville. What do you need?"
"The caterers have left to do another party. They'll be back to clean up, of course, but meanwhile they've left several platters in my kitchen, which are too large for me to manage in these heels. I hate to ask you, but..."
But there was no one else she'd dare ask. She was probably thinking I looked like I ought to be working for the caterer anyway.
"No problem," I told her.
The Melvilles' house is large by any standards, but in Thunder Lake, Iowa, it's a mansion. In order to get to the kitchen you have to walk across a big screened sunporch filled with wicker chairs and flowery cushions. Then the kitchen opens up in front of you, an enormous black-and-white room in which everything sparkles, from the faucet handles to the china cat food bowls. In our house the faucets are lucky to have handles, and the cats live in the barn where they nosh on filet of mousie.
The hors d'oeuvre platters were lined up on the island between the kitchen and the family room, and there, sitting on a stool, picking at olives, was Franny.
"There you are," I said. "You deserted me."
"I think you're confusing me with your boyfriend." She swallowed a hunk of cheese and reached for more. "Besides, it's hotter than hell out there."
"No kidding. And I have to take these trays out. The caterer left."
Franny's jaw fell. "Jesus, why don't they get the Prince to do it?"
"He's busy fending off jerks. Help me, okay?"
She sighed. "Okay, but I'm not putting my shoes back on. Let's leave one tray inside, so we can come back in and have our own party."
We each took two trays, wobbled down the steps and across the grass to the tent. Chris was still on the other side of the table laughing at some old guy's jokes.
"Thank you, girls," Dr. Melville said as she swept by the table on her way to greet more guests.
Franny gave a low bow. "Your wish is our command."
I elbowed her. "Careful, she has no sense of humor."
"Really? Can't she buy one? A sense of humor is more useful than most of those other senses if you're going to get through life in one piece."
Franny is an expert on getting through life in one piece. The year I met her, the year we started middle school, Franny's life was in half a dozen large chunks. Her parents had just begun the most publicly bitter divorce Thunder Lake had ever seen. They blamed each other for their own problems, and for "ruining the kid." By the time I met her, they were both demanding their right to the money, the house, the cars, and Franny.
It got so bad they'd each show up after school and stand in front of the building literally pulling her back and forth between them. A few times Liz, her mom, was pretty drunk. Several times the principal tried to stop their arguments, and once the police were called.
Franny was just about nuts from the whole thing. Her grade school friends were scared of the whole situation and totally deserted her. She'd show up in class wearing big black boots and short shorts, with black eyeliner circles drawn around her eyes so she always looked surprised. The first time I saw her, she had a shaved head. To me she seemed like the most interesting person in the whole school. Her life was high drama while mine was still a Nickelodeon cartoon. Within weeks we were inseparable.
Franny's stories were riveting. When she told me her mother had had a boyfriend before she divorced her father, I was horrified.
"What did he do when he found out?" I asked her.
"Got drunk, as usual."
"But, I mean, did he scream or hit her or anything?"
"No, he usually hits me. He's afraid of Liz so he just smacks me instead."
"Franny, that's awful! You can't live with him anymore!"
Whenever I said things like that, Franny would smile at me, as if she was really sorry to have to tell me what a crappy world it was. "It just seems awful to you because your mom is so normal. I'm used to having crazy parents."
But I refused to agree. "It is awful, Franny. You're just used to it so you don't see how bad it is."
I couldn't imagine living with a man who got drunk and hit me when he was mad at my mother. In fact, I could barely imagine living with any man. My dad had left us right after my first birthday; I saw him only a few times a year.
When I was younger I'd get so excited waiting for him to come over to take me out for lunch, I'd sometimes get sick to my stomach and Mom would have to call him and put it off for another time. Just having him standing in our living room made me nervous. It made the whole house feel different, as if Mom and I were cats and here this dog -- a totally different species -- had walked into our house, and even though he seemed friendly, I didn't really know any other dogs. How were you supposed to act around a dog? I didn't even speak dog.
By the time the day was over and he dropped me off at home again, I'd just be getting used to him. I'd be starting to purr a little bit. Just in time to start missing him and his big barky voice.
Franny had been living with her mom in one of those developments where all the houses look the same. Her dad had gotten an apartment in Iowa City, where he worked, and he wanted her to live there with him instead, which would have meant changing schools. While they argued about it, they kept dragging her back and forth between Thunder Lake and Iowa City, until finally they started battling it out in court.
Franny got furious with both of them. "If I'm already ruined, why do they even want me? I'm not going to live with either one of them! I'm running away to Chicago."
I felt bad for her, having to put up such a brave front. But the day she showed me the bus ticket, I got scared. "You can't go there alone! Where will you live?"
"I'll get by," Franny said, lighting up a cigarette and trying to look tough without inhaling.
"I'll go with you," I announced, hoping it wouldn't come to that.
But she refused my company anyway. "Your mother would miss you too much. And you'd miss her." Which was true.
"But you can't leave, Franny!" I begged. "You're my best friend!" We cried a little over how much we'd miss each other. I hated to see Franny cry; once she started, she often couldn't stop, and I knew she wasn't crying over me. She'd cry until the eyeliner ran down her cheeks and smudged my bedspread.
So I came up with a plan. Franny would run away to my house. Mom and I lived in a small apartment in town then, but Mom's bedroom was downstairs and mine was upstairs with its own bathroom. We figured whenever Mom came upstairs Franny would just climb in the bathtub and pull the curtain. We had such elaborate plans; we thought we were geniuses.
It worked for two days. By then the police had been called in and Franny's parents had plastered the whole town with posters that had her picture under the headline: MISSING! I suppose, under the circumstances, my mother thought it was peculiar that I ate a hearty dinner and then asked for an extra pork chop and baked potato to take upstairs for a "snack." She followed me up and there stood Franny trying on my sweaters.
When Mom told her she had to call her parents immediately, Franny popped her gum and shrugged. "I was getting bored up here, anyway." I already knew she only lied like that when she felt really hopeless. I hugged her even though I knew she wouldn't hug me back in front of my mother.
While Franny was on the phone, I told Mom some of the details of Franny's home life. "How can she go back there? We have to help her!" I begged.
So Mom made us cocoa and explained to Franny that she was welcome in our house anytime. "Anytime," she repeated. "And if you ever need help, you call me right away."
Franny didn't say anything, but she listened. Before long our house was as much her home as mine. It turned out that neither of her parents wanted her with the other parent, but they didn't particularly want her themselves either. Sometimes she'd call late at night because Bill had come by to declare his rights again, or Liz was passed out under the kitchen table, or she was alone and scared. No matter what time it was, we'd drive over and rescue her. That's what Franny always called it: a rescue mission.
She's been living with her mother for the past two years now and things aren't as bad as they were. I can't remember the last time we did a rescue mission. But Franny's not the same kid anymore who cried all over my bedspread. Sometimes she seems about twenty years older than me and done with crying for good. She definitely has a sense of humor about her life, though, even if not everybody gets the joke.
After restocking the buffet table we went back inside the Melvilles' house; Franny headed straight for the refrigerator. "What do they have to drink?"
"There's soda outside."
"I'm not going back out there again. Ooh, lemonade -- that's good." She brought out a large blue-and-white pitcher.
"Be careful with that. Dr. Melville loves that thing -- it was her mother's."
"Didn't I tell you? I'm old enough to pour my own juice now."
"Do you think you should drink that? I mean, it wasn't put out for the guests."
"It's only lemonade. I don't think they'll miss it."
She stuck the pitcher back in the fridge, picked up the remaining tray of food, and walked toward the family room. "Let's sit down where it's comfortable."
"No! You can't take food in there!" I said. "Dr. Melville doesn't let anybody eat on that carpet. And besides, they just recovered the couch."
"Oh, for crapsake!" Franny turned around, slapped the tray down on the counter and sank onto a stool. "This place is a torture chamber. You can't touch the china, you can't eat the food, and you can't sit on the furniture. Are you allowed to pee in the toilets or does Dr. Melville have rules about that, too?"
"I'm sorry. I just don't want her to get mad at me, that's all."
"Why? You think all of a sudden, after two years, she's going to change her mind and decide she's so crazy about you that the Prince can stay here and go to the University of Iowa so you won't be separated? Yeah, that'll happen." She stuffed an artichoke heart in her mouth.
"I can't afford to antagonize her, that's all. And stop calling Chris, the Prince."
She shook her head. "Is he really worth all this gloom and doom? You've never even gone out with anybody else."
"You wouldn't understand, Franny." She hates when I say that, because she's never had a boyfriend. But it's true.
She built up a little temper over it. "Oh, get over yourself, Cinderella! He's just a guy."
"No, he isn't..."
"Yes, he is! There's nothing so damn special about -- "
"Yes, there is!" I shouted at her. "He is special!" And then the bawling started. Didn't even see it coming this time. I guess Franny didn't either.
"Oh, Jesus. Come on, Robin. Don't start this again. Please!"
"Okay, he's special already. Really special. Stop crying!"
It had all been so easy with Chris, right from the beginning. He was the perfect boy and he chose me. I knew I didn't deserve him, but I had him anyway. Except now he was leaving and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't imagine what my life would be like without him.
When I heard the footsteps coming up the porch stairs I tried to sniff the tears back, breathe deeply, look normal. But it was obvious what had been going on -- my face was blotchy and slick with moisture, and Franny was handing me a tissue. Chris stopped abruptly just inside the kitchen door and his smile faded.
"Oh, Robin," he said. "Not again."
Copyright © 2003 by Ellen Wittlinger