The next day, Monday, was warm, more like October than November, and I was surprised to see that there were still leaves left on the trees after the rain the day before. The leaves on the street were almost dry, at least the top layer of them, and my brother Chad and I shuffled through them as we walked to school. Chad’s two years younger than I, and he’s supposed to look like me: short, square, and blue-eyed, with what Mom calls a “heart-shaped face.”
About three years after Mom and Dad were married, they moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT is, to Brooklyn Heights, just across from lower Manhattan. The Heights isn’t at all like Manhattan, the part of New York that most people visit—in many ways it’s more like a town than a city. It has more trees and flowers and bushes than Manhattan, and it doesn’t have lots of big fancy stores, or vast office buildings, or the same bustling atmosphere. Most of the buildings in the Heights are residential—four or five-story brownstones with little back and front gardens. I’ve always liked living there, although it does have a tendency to be a bit dull in that nearly everyone is white, and most people’s parents have jobs as doctors, lawyers, professors—or VIP’s in brokerage firms, publishing houses, or the advertising business.
Anyway, as Chad and I shuffled through the leaves to school that Monday morning, Chad was muttering the Powers of Congress and I was thinking about Annie. I wondered if I’d hear from her and if I’d have the nerve to call her if I didn’t. I had put the scrap of paper with her address on it in the corner of my mirror where I would see it whenever I had to brush my hair, so I thought I probably would call her if she didn’t call me first.
Chad tugged my arm; he looked annoyed—no, exasperated.
“Huh?” I said.
“Where are you, Liza? I just went through the whole list of the Powers of Congress and then asked you if it was right and you didn’t even say anything.”
“Good grief, Chad, I don’t remember the whole list.”
“I don’t see why not, you always get A’s in everything. What’s the point of learning something sophomore year if you’re only going to forget it by the time you’re a senior?” He shoved his hair back in the way that usually makes Dad say he needs a haircut, and picked up a double handful of leaves, cascading them over my head and grinning—Chad’s never been able to stay mad at anyone very long. “You must be in love or something, Lize,” he said, using the one-syllable nickname he has for me. Then he went back to my real name and chanted, “Liza’s in love, Liza’s in love …”
Funny, that he said that.
By then we were almost at school, but I slung my book bag over my shoulder and pelted him with leaves the rest of the way to the door.
Foster Academy looks like an old wooden Victorian mansion, which is exactly what it was before it was made into an independent—private—school running from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Some of the turrets and gingerbready decorations on its dingy white main building had begun to crumble away since I’d been in Upper School (high school), and each year more kids had left to go to public school. Since most of Foster’s money came from tuition and there were only about thirty kids per class, losing more than a couple of students a year was a major disaster. So that fall the Board of Trustees had consulted a professional fund raiser who had helped “launch” a “major campaign,” as Mrs. Poindexter, the headmistress, was fond of saying. By November, the parents’ publicity committee had put posters all over the Heights asking people to give money to help the school survive, and there were regular newspaper ads, and plans for a student recruitment drive in the spring. As a matter of fact, when I threw my last handful of leaves at Chad that morning, I almost hit the publicity chairman for the fund drive instead—Mr. Piccolo, father of one of the freshmen.
I said, “Good morning, Mr. Piccolo,” quickly, to cover what I’d done.
He nodded and gave us both a kind of ostrichy smile. Like his daughter Jennifer, he was tall and thin, and I could see Chad pretending to play a tune as he went down the hall. It was a school joke that both Mr. Piccolo and Jennifer looked like the musical instrument they were named for.
I grinned, making piccolo-playing motions back to Chad, and then threaded my way down to my locker through knots of kids talking about their weekends. But even though I said hi to a couple of people, I must still have been pretty preoccupied because I found out later I’d walked right past a large red-lettered sign on the basement bulletin board, next to the latest fund-raising poster—walked right past it without seeing it at all:
SALLY JARRELL’S EAR PIERCING CLINIC NOON TO ONE, MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15 BASEMENT GIRLS’ ROOM
$1.50 per hole per ear
Sally Jarrell was at that point just about my favorite person at school. We were as different from each other as two people can be—I think the main thing we had in common was that neither of us quite fit in at Foster. I don’t want to say that Foster is snobby, because that’s what people always think about private schools, but I guess it’s true that a lot of kids thought they were pretty special. And there were a lot of cliques, only Sally and I weren’t in any of them. The thing I liked best about her, until everything changed, was that she always went her own way. In a world of people who seemed to have come out of duplicating machines, Sally Jarrell was no one’s copy, not that fall anyway.
I swear I didn’t notice the sign even when I walked past it a second time—and that time Sally was right in front of it, peering at my left ear as if there were a bug on it, and murmuring something that sounded like “posts.” All I noticed was that Sally’s thin and rather wan face looked a little thinner and wanner than usual, probably because she hadn’t had time to wash her hair—it was hanging around her shoulders in lank strings. “Definitely posts,” she said.
That time I heard her clearly, but before I could ask her what she was talking about, the first bell rang and the hall suddenly filled with sharp elbows and the din of banging lockers. I went to chemistry, and Sally flounced mysteriously off to gym. And I forgot the whole thing till lunchtime, when I went back down to my locker for my physics book—I was taking a heavy science load that year because of wanting to go to MIT.
The basement hall was three deep with girls, looking as if they were lined up for something. There were a few boys, too, standing near Sally’s boyfriend, Walt, who was next to a table with a white cloth on it. Neatly arranged on the cloth were a bottle of alcohol, a bowl of ice, a spool of white thread, a package of needles, and two halves of a raw potato, peeled.
“Hey, Walt,” I asked, mystified, “what’s going on?”
Walt, who was kind of flashy—“two-faced,” Chad called him, but I liked him—grinned and pointed with a flourish to the poster. “One-fifty per hole per ear,” he read cheerfully. “One or two, Madame President? Three or four?”
The reason he called me Madame President was the same reason I was standing there staring at the poster, wishing I were home sick in bed with the flu. I’ve never quite figured out why, but at election time, one of the kids in my class had nominated me for student-council president, and I’d won. Student council, representing the student body, was supposed to run the school, instead of the faculty or the administration running it. As far as I was concerned, my main responsibility as council president was to preside at meetings every other week. But Mrs. Poindexter, the headmistress, had other ideas. Back in September, she’d given me an embarrassing lecture about setting an example and being her “good right hand” and making sure everyone followed “both the spirit and the letter” of the school rules, some of which were a little screwy.
“Step right up,” Walt was shouting. “If the gracious president of student council—of our entire august student body, I might add—will set the trend”—he bowed to me—“business will be sure to boom. Do step this way, Madame …”
“Oh, shut up, Walt,” I said, trying to run through the school rules in my mind and hoping I wouldn’t come up with one that Mrs. Poindexter might think applied specifically to ear piercing.
Walt shrugged, putting his hand under my elbow and ushering me to the head of the line. “At least, Madame President,” he said, “let me invite you to observe.”
I thought about saying no, but decided it would probably make sense for me to get an idea of what was going on, so I nodded. Walt shot the cuffs of his blue shirt—he was a very snappy dresser, and that day he was wearing a tan three-piece suit—and bowed. “One moment, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “while I escort the president on a tour of the—er—establishment. I shall return.” He steered me toward the door and then turned, winking at the few boys who were clustered around the table. “Ms. Jarrell told me she would take care of you gentlemen after she has—er—accommodated a few of the ladies.” He poked Chuck Belasco, who was captain of the football team, in the ribs as we went by and murmured, “She also said to tell you guys she’s looking forward to it.” That, of course, led to a lot of gruff laughter from the boys.
I went into the girls’ room just in time to hear Jennifer Piccolo squeal “Ouch!” and to see tears filling her big brown eyes.
I closed the door quickly—Chuck was trying to peer in—and worked my way through the five or six girls standing around the table Sally had set up in front of the row of sinks. It had the same stuff on it that the one in the hall did.
“Hi, Liza,” Sally said cheerfully. “Glad you dropped in.” Sally had on a white lab coat and was holding half a potato in one hand and a bloody needle in the other.
“What happened?” I asked, nodding toward Jennifer, who was sniffing loudly as she delicately fingered the pinkish thread that dangled from her right ear.
Sally shrugged. “Low pain threshold, I guess. Ready for the next one, Jen?”
Jennifer nodded bravely and closed her eyes while Sally threaded the bloody needle and wiped it off with alcohol, saying, “See, Liza, perfectly sanitary.” The somewhat apprehensive group of girls leaned sympathetically toward Jennifer as Sally approached her right ear again.
“Sally …” I began, but Jennifer interrupted.
“Maybe,” she said timidly, just as Sally positioned the half potato behind her ear—to keep the needle from going through to her head if it slipped, I realized, shuddering—“I’d rather just have one hole in each ear, okay?” She opened her eyes and looked hopefully at Sally.
“You said two holes in two ears,” Sally said firmly. “Four holes in all.”
“Yes, but—I just remembered my mother said something the other day about two earrings in one ear looking dumb, and I—well, I just wonder if maybe she’s right, that’s all.”
Sally sighed and moved around to Jennifer’s other ear. “Ice, please,” she said.
Four kids reached for the ice while Jennifer closed her eyes again, looking more or less like my idea of what Joan of Arc must have looked like on her way to the stake.
I’m not going to describe the whole process, mostly because it was a bit gory, but even though Jennifer gave a sort of squeak when the needle went in, and even though she reeled dizzily out of the girls’ room (scattering most of the boys, Walt said afterwards), she insisted it hadn’t hurt much.
I stayed long enough to see that Sally was trying to be careful, given the limits of her equipment. The potato really did prevent the needle from going too far, and the ice, which was for numbing the ear, did seem to reduce both the pain and the bleeding. Sally even sterilized the ear as well as the needle and thread. The whole thing looked pretty safe, and so I decided that all I had to do in my official capacity was remind Sally to use the alcohol each time.
But that afternoon there were a great many bloody Kleenexes being held to earlobes in various classes, and right after the last bell, when I was standing in the hall talking to Ms. Stevenson, who taught art and was also faculty adviser to student council, a breathless freshman came running up and said, “Oh, good, Liza, you’re still here. Mrs. Poindexter wants to see you.”
“Oh?” I said, trying to sound casual. “What about?”
Ms. Stevenson raised her eyebrows. Ms. Stevenson was very tall and pale, with blond hair that she usually wore in a not-terribly-neat pageboy. My father always called her the “Renaissance woman,” because besides teaching art she coached the debate team, sang in a community chorus, and tutored kids in just about any subject if they were sick for a long time. She also had a fierce temper, but along with that went a reputation for being fair, so no one minded very much, at least not among the kids.
I tried to ignore Ms. Stevenson’s raised eyebrows and concentrate on the freshman.
“I don’t really know what she wants,” the freshman was saying, “but I think it has something to do with Jennifer Piccolo because I saw Mr. Piccolo and Jennifer come out of the nurse’s office and then go into Mrs. Poindexter’s, and Jennifer was crying and her ears were all bloody.” The freshman giggled.
When she left, Ms. Stevenson turned to me and said dryly, “Your ears, I’m glad, to see, look the same as ever.”
I glanced pointedly at Ms. Stevenson’s small silver post earrings.
“Oh, those,” she said. “Yes, my doctor pierced my ears when I was in college. My doctor, Liza.”
I started to walk away.
“Liza, it was foolish, Sally’s project. I wish I’d known about it in time to stop it.”
My feet were heavy as I went down the hall to Mrs. Poindexter’s office. I knew that Ms. Stevenson, even though she never made herself obnoxious about it, was usually right. And by the time the whole thing was over with, I wished she’d known about the ear piercing in time to stop it, too.