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Across the Atlantic
Everyone in the class knew all the details about the coach’s social and personal life during his college years, or back in the sixties and seventies, as he himself called the period. Meanwhile, during his everyday speeches and stories, kids in the class had learned to use the time. Girls either lay on the grass to get tanned or touched their smooth legs and exchanged shaving and waxing tips. “You just need to exfoliate,” someone advised Joyce about an ingrown hair on her knee.
“To be honest, I’ve never been a real hippie,” the coach said. “But each year, summer reminds me of the summer of love.”
He finally blew into his whistle announced the plan: running for fifteen minutes, stretching for three minutes, and playing soccer.
Sweat gradually formed a layer on Joyce’s skin as the game progressed. She set her arms apart from her body allowing her armpits to dry. The goddamned deodorant wasn’t working that day.
“Holy s***,” shouted Bryan as she ran into him for the fifth time. “Why don’t you—” He was frowning and laughing simultaneously. “Why don’t you use your eyes?”
“Why don’t you get out of my way?”
Her new skort was now being noticed by everyone and she was glad about it. She kept ignoring the question she had been wondering about yesterday in the shop: what if the skort wasn’t as sporty as she believed it was; what if it was just blondely pink, as Bryan once had described her bandeau tube top? The top was in fact blue, and Joyce, with an exception of a few hairs, wasn’t blonde at all.
“Did you play soccer in your school?” a girl asked Joyce while they had been switched as substitutes with some other kids.
Joyce didn’t take her eyes off the field. “What?”
The girl repeated, “Did you play soccer in your school?”
“Yeah we did. Goal!!” she shouted. “Good job Nicole! Yoo Hoo!” She turned toward the girl and smiled apologetically. “Sure we did. But we called it football.”
“Then what did you call football?”
“American football, we said.”
After the block was over Joyce and Bryan helped with collecting the pinnies. For the second time that day Joyce congratulated Bryan on the game he had played yesterday with a team from Maine.
“Those big big bulky guys,” he said. “They scared the hell out of us when we saw them first.” He paused. “Do you want to watch the video? Of the game?”
Joyce breathed in relief. “Sure! I’d love to!”
They sat on the shadowed part of the spectators’ bench. Bryan gave a minute-by-minute description of the game, and repeated everything all over again while showing the video.
“It was a tough one,” he concluded.
They bought two iced teas from the vending machine nearby. Joyce asked if she could try Bryan’s tea, just to make sure that it was not any different from hers. She spit the drink out of her mouth.
“Yuck!” she said. “Your saliva has so much acid into it.”
They switched their cell phones and logged into each other’s Facebook profile. Bryan posted on Joyce’s wall that she declares herself to be an a*****e, and Joyce posted that he confesses that all his muscles are implanted.
Joyce moved herself to the forward half of the chair. “I’m done. Playing baseball on my PS3,” she posted.
“I’m nothing but a blondely…oops.” He handed back the cell phone to Joyce.
“What?” she asked. “You wanna go?”
A voice came out of the phone, “Hello! Hello? Joyce?”
Her mother’s smiling photo was on the screen and the stopwatch under it was counting the eighth second.
“Joyce, are you there?”
Joyce looked up at Bryan. “Mom?” she said on the phone. “Did I just call you now?”
“No dear. I’m calling you! Hurray!”
Bryan was already out of his seat. “I accidentally pressed accept.”
“Wait,” Joyce said.
“How are you Joyce darling?”
She didn’t move her legs to allow an exit for him. “Wait,” she said. “I’ll tell her I’ll call later.”
“Well, you’d better not.” Bryan said, shifting all his weight to one foot. “She’s your mom.”
“How are you Joyce darling?”
“In a minute,” Joyce said and covered the receiver. “No, honestly, I can call her later on.”
Bryan passed over Joyce’s legs. “She’s your mom Joyce.” He bent down to hug her. “Have a nice weekend.”
He was halfway through the field when Joyce brought the cell phone up to her ear again. “Mom?” she said. No sound. Bryan opened the gym’s giant door and disappeared inside. “Mom?” she repeated. Nothing. She widened her eyes to dry her tears before letting them smudge her eyeliner.
High School Musical and some other American high school movies were the prompts: “I’ve decided to live with Dad.”
“I don’t say you shouldn’t,” her mother said at that time, “but, be honest with me; please enlighten me—why? What’s the advantage of it?”
“To broaden my horizons and see more of the world.”
“It’s all boring here. For the sake of adventure.”
“To break out of everything familiar and have a change.”
“And gain new experiences.”
All dazzling answers she had found from Rotary Youth Exchange website.
“Just a childish fancy,” her step-father said, “in my opinion.”
“I’m at school,” Joyce said to her mother when she called again. “I was…in the bathroom. And the bathroom was so crowded I couldn’t speak.”
“You take a shower at school?”
“What? Oh no Mom. I mean, what is it called—toilet.”
“Oh yeah. Then why are you at school? I thought you had a non-instructional day.”
“I thought you were in the Canary Islands.”
“Well I am! I'd decided not to call you because of, well, ashamed to say, roaming fees. But I just woke up from dreaming about you and, as you see, gave way to temptation!”
“Sweet,” Joyce said.
She sat back and pulled the peak of her cap down over her sunglasses, leaving her outstretched legs to remain wide open. How highly photogenic, she thought.
“How are you?”
“Fine,” Joyce said. “How are you?”
“I’m very good. Oh, hang on,” she lowered her voice. “Guess I need to get out of our hotel room. Darrel won’t be very happy if I wake him up.”
Joyce stared at the hills and gave her eyes the grieving expression of someone whose prime days are past. She murmured, Bryan is gone. And then she murmured some more grieving lamentations. She even would have made some grieving gestures if she was assured that no one was around. She was awesome; why hadn’t she thought of taking drama—or at least, of joining the drama club?
“Are you enjoying your holiday?”
She squinted to identify the brown dots on the hills; were they a herd of sheep or just some trees?
“Oh yeah. It’s fantastic. I’m really jealous of you for having sun all the time. If I didn’t come here twice a year I would’ve turned to rain myself.”
Joyce gave a giggle.
Her mother resumed, “So, you aren’t at home. But I remember you telling me that September 23rd is a non-instructional day there.”
“It’s September 26th today,” Joyce said, “Mom.”
“Oh gosh,” she said. “You’re right. When you are on a beach holiday you forget all about real life.”
Joyce squeezed her iced tea can till it became flat and then shoot it to the other end of the bench. One by one, she picked up all the leftover cans and checked the loads of their calories.
“And it’ll be past midnight. It’ll be the 27th in an hour!”
Joyce expressed astonishment. The huge Burger King cup didn’t have a food label, but, with all the chocolate foam gathered at its bottom, it probably had amounted to the highest calorie count—even more than the vanilla cream soda.
“Ok. Here I am. At last in the lobby. So, tell me, are you careful when crossing the street?” her mother asked. “Because of the driving directions. They drive on the right there, you know.”
“Yes Mom. I am,” she said. “Thanks, though.”
She walked over to the baseball court while her mother inquired whether she could remember the Scotts, once their neighbors, who moved to the States a couple of years ago. Their son Syd got a very high GPA there, not because he was smart or anything; first of all, because he was very good at memorizing, and secondly, schools in America are very easy. He was accepted into apparently a very good university. Certainly though, he couldn’t get into, say, Cambridge, if they hadn’t moved.
“I can’t remember where, but it’s not Harvard he’s going to. It starts with P.”
Joyce leaned on the fence and hugged her knees.
“Harvard isn’t the only good university Mom.”
She could see Bryan in front of her if she wished, thanks to the creative mind that she had. She imagined him batting and she moved her head to follow the direction that the ball would have taken after being hit. She imagined herself asking him his best ERA and sluggish average, or whether he had ever hit for the cycle in a real game. “Twice with Alabama and once with New Jersey,” he would have answered proudly.
“Do you have theology?”
“No,” Joyce said. She brought her hair to her shoulder. Just as usual it smelled of salt water—as if salt had penetrated into her skin after three months of beach-going. “Nobody has. Public schools don’t even offer it as an elective.”
“But Syd had. I remember her mom saying that.”
“He probably went to a Christian school.”
“Oh yeah that’s very possible. They are very religious. What was their church called? The dad didn’t even let the kids go trick or treating or his daughters to wear make up. Ah, unbelievable,” she paused till Joyce made a reaction. “Normal school doesn’t have theology then?”
“I don’t know Mom. It’s different in each state,” Joyce said, touching the newly-grown hairs she had plucked out of her eyebrow at the beginning of the week.
“What?” she said suddenly. “He doesn’t let them wear make up?”
“Nope. No boyfriend. No school dance. Nothing.”
“Exactly. That’s what it is. He doesn’t let them wear anything other than skirts. No jeans and trousers. I remember their bare legs always froze in the winter. He even makes them wear skorts in gym. You know those skirt-like things that are actually shorts?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “I know them.”
She crawled to an “I love boobies” bracelet left on the ground and put it on. She pressed her arms to her breasts and looked down at the line they made. She was definitely disobeying the four-finger rule for low-cut tops. She was also disobeying the fingertip rule for mid-thigh shorts, as the coach had informed her earlier.
“We don’t have A Level tests here,” she answered and then explained everything about IB and PSAT and SAT.
“AP has many subjects—” She poked her hand into her skort’s pocket and two-fingered out a tag she hadn’t noticed to remove. “That’s it. I don’t know any more about it.”
“You need to find out Joyce! That’s all about your future!”
Joyce chewed the tag and put it back into her pocket. “In grade 11 maybe.”
She got up to stretch her sore upper-body. The number of hours she had played tennis in the last three weeks probably exceeded all she had played in her life before—the word “overworked” was all within her, the feeling in every muscle of her body. And yet Bryan considered her to be embarrassingly indifferent and indolent. “Push it further” was all that he said the evenings they left the school courts together.
“What is your uniform like?”
Of course you know, she thought. That was what North American schools were famous for.
“You don’t have one? How come? Syd’s mom said girls dress just like you did here back home.”
That was extreme sarcasm. Here back home.
“That’s because he went to a private school. State schools don’t have any.”
She lost her control while stretching her thigh.
“But I don’t think any school has a dress code as strict as they have in the UK.”
“Not having uniforms just makes cliques and distractions. Here they say that girls wear their skirts so short that their knickers can be seen. Oh, Sweetie, why are you panting?”
Joyce threw herself down abruptly and sat in her former position.
“What are you wearing now?”
“Shorts and tank,” she said proudly. She dismayed her mother even more by answering that they didn’t have chemistry or physics. “It’s just science that we've got, Mom.”
“That’s ridiculous. Are you sure it’s not an elementary school you are going to?”
“Well, its name is Harrison Middle School. Whatever you may call it.”
From where she was sitting Joyce could see the owners of the two remaining cars in the student parking driving out. They weren’t students though, Joyce could recognize. One was her art teacher and the other was the grade 12 counselor who also taught French. Joyce lay on the grass to hide herself, her legs crossed at the ankle, the hand that wasn’t holding the phone under her head. It was rather awkward to be caught in gym clothes talking on the phone, even worse if it was after school.
“—not one of those super-expensive single-sex ones though, just a normal good private school. Yeah you must.”
“Did I go to a private school there?”
“Normal education is good enough here. I wouldn’t have neglected your education if it wasn’t.”
Joyce unlaced her sneakers and took each off with the push of the other foot. She felt an instant coolness in her feet. Her ankle socks didn’t match; one of them had thicker stripes and was grayer than the other one.
“Why don’t you go home?”
“I have a math extra-help appointment at four,” she lied. She wore one of her shoes halfway on and quickly took it off, as it was always sexier to walk in socks.
The gym doors were locked and she had to cross the building to get to the main entrance. With all the lights off and the classrooms’ doors closed the hallways felt shabby and emptier than they really were.
“What time is it now?”
“You’ve missed your appointment?”
“What? Oh. No. It’s…three thirty actually.”
Her mother reported the time in Spain and started calculating the time difference.
Joyce didn’t feel like going up all the stairs to the third floor just to fetch a science book. Even changing into street clothes seemed like an excessive bother. She grabbed her gym bag from the changing room, wore her flip-flops and headed to the bus stop.
“A good seven hours,” her mother finally announced. “Dear, what are the Yankees like?”
“They haven’t changed since the last time you asked this.”
Her mother went on to ask whether the Americans were rude and loud, if they were cowboys, if they had nice teeth, or if they got fat on McDonald’s.
“Don’t you see the Americans in those soaps that you watch?”
“Oh you are right. By the way, do you get your period just as usual? You know, the cycles sometimes get irregular after weather changes.”
“Can you use you electronic stuff there?”
“Do you still use your old cell phone and epilator?”
Her mother always, always, always, had more in her pocket.
“Mom,” Joyce said, “can’t you really remember repeating these questions a hundred times before?”
“What do you want me to repeat then?” her mother asked calmly. “Why don’t you repeat anything yourself?”
“What?” Joyce said. She dropped an ant from her hand and threw the remains of her granola bar to some birds in the other side of the street.
“I asked, why don’t you say anything yourself instead of yeah and oh and wow? Tell me the truth. Joyce, how do you like me?”
“I sure do, Mom. I do like you,” Joyce said automatically.
“No hurry. Think it out carefully. Do you?”
Joyce closed her eyes. “Yes Mom,” she said innocently. “Very.”
“Well, dear, remember, it doesn’t matter if it’s the last minute and all the cheap tickets are sold. Just tell me if you ever changed your mind about Christmas.”
“I can’t imagine December 29th passing without actually seeing you turn fourteen. I thought we were going to have a skiing party for you. You won’t ski this year will you?”
“Mom,” said Joyce, “you could come and get your tan here. And see me. But you didn’t. Couldn’t you?”
“I guess so. Well, then, Joyce, I’m dying of sleep now.”
Joyce was on the bus when she saw the hills again—the color brown was gone from them. She untied her headphone’s knots and wiped her ear’s sweat off the cell phone. She checked her eyes on the screen for discharged gunk and then opened her messages after seeing the little icon of an envelope.
“Have you ever been pregnant? I don’t mean to be rude but they say that the British get pregnant at 13,” Bryan had texted at 3:55. She was still on the phone at that time.
“I’m thirteen and not pregnant.”
She looked at the beach through the window and smiled—the same smile she had on when she saw the study permit on her passport.
“Have you ever considered becoming pregnant in the future?”
It took a long time for Joyce to find a cunning answer. She finally gave up.