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CHAPTER TWO – MRS. CONROY
I don’t know what Mom thought when we met Mrs. Conroy for the first time. We had all just met Jackie at Morris Hills the day before and on this day Tommy and Jackie and I convinced Mom to let Jackie come home with us until dinner. Jackie told Mom she was sure it was okay and after a call to Mrs. Conroy at work, the plan was set.
It was getting late and Mom was inside making dinner. Jackie and Tommy and I were sitting on the front steps waiting for Mrs. Conroy when a metallic blue Chevy Camaro pulled up the driveway to our house. The car windows were rolled down and music was blasting on the radio. I wasn’t thinking that this could possibly be Mrs. Conroy pulling up to our house in a shiny sports car. I was expecting her to be driving a station wagon like all the other mothers I knew. And even when the driver stepped out of the car and walked towards us I still wasn’t sure this was Jackie’s mom. She was tall and thin and looked like she could have been an older sister. She wore cut-off shorts and a white peasant blouse with tiny colorful beads sewn into the front and her long blond hair hung loose. I could see the sparkle of her dangling silver earrings as they shone from within her hair and her silver bangle bracelets that were lined up on both arms made a pleasant clinking sound as she moved towards us. I looked at her and I suddenly wished that I had those bracelets and that they were jingling on my arms. Tommy and I stared at her as she walked up our driveway.
“Well, you must be Emily and Tommy,” she said to us and then she turned to Jackie and said, “Hey Jack! Have a good day at the pool?”
Jackie smiled and said, “Yeah, Denny.”
Tommy and I looked at each other. Did she just call her mom ‘Denny? I thought maybe this wasn’t Mrs. Conroy after all.
Just then Mom opened the front door and came outside and we got up from the steps to make room for her. I don’t think Mom could have been much older, but today, looking at what she wore, I wondered. Mom came out in a bright green golf skirt with a matching green and white striped top. Even her socks tied into her outfit, with little green pom poms sticking out of the backs her tennis shoes. Her short brown hair was cut into a neat shag that framed her face. I always liked the way Mom looked. She was slender and fit and what you would call put together. But on this day when I looked at the two mothers, they looked liked they had come from different worlds. And I’m ashamed to admit that I liked the way Mrs. Conroy looked and wondered why Mom didn’t try to look like that.
I sighed as I realized maybe for the first time that Mom looked just like every other mother in our neighborhood. I wondered if Mom realized this too, if it suddenly bothered her, seeing Jackie’s mother there in front of her, clearly younger and clearly so different from Mom. In that brief second of seeing the two of them together before Mom spoke, I felt a tenderness for Mom, for if there had been a competition to see whose mother was more hip, she surely would have lost.
If it bothered Mom, I never knew. She looked over at Mrs. Conroy and for an almost imperceptible second, she stopped and took in the image in front of her. Then, without missing a beat, she moved on and said, “You must be Jackie’s mother.” And she stuck out her hand like she was at a business meeting and said, “Hi, I’m Anne Kingston.”
I got the feeling that Mrs. Conroy wasn’t really a hand-shaker and would have been more comfortable giving a wave and saying ‘Hi,’ but she extended her hand anyway and smiled a broad, charming smile. “Hey Anne. I’m Denise.”
Denise I thought. That broad smile stayed on her face just long enough for me to see that Jackie had the exact same smile. And when I thought back on it, I realized that Jackie’s whole personality was displayed in this same powerful and mischievous expression. It was the kind of smile that made you stop and forget about whatever else was running through your head and just stare at the face looking at you.
“Well, thanks again, for bringing Jackie home with you. I appreciate you letting her hang out here until I got off work.”
Mom smiled. “It’s no problem. Emily and Jackie have really hit it off these last couple days.”
“That’s great. I heard all about Emily yesterday. Sounds like they’re already tight,” agreed Mrs. Conroy. “Sometime on a weekend when I’m home, the girls can hang out at our place, if they want.”
Mom hesitated just a moment, a barely noticeable pause like before when she was checking out Mrs. Conroy. I could tell Mom was trying to figure out how old and what kind of mother Mrs. Conroy was. Mom preferred to have us here at our house or at a neighbor’s house so she could keep close tabs on me and Tommy. “Well, that’s such a nice offer…,” she said. She trailed off as if that were the end of it and then she changed the subject. Mom may have been less hip than Mrs. Conroy, but she was adept at conversation and gathering information.
“Where do you work, Denise?”
Mrs. Conroy smiled “Oh, I work at a health food store in Chatham, Nature’s Way. Have you heard of it?”
“Sure, I know where that is,” answered Mom. Mom knew where it was, but I already knew she never would have shopped there. “That’s nice and close for you,” she added.
“Yeah, it’s a drag getting stuck in traffic. Before Jackie and I moved to Madison, I was driving from Morristown and it took me twice as long to get there.”
Mom asked, “Have you lived in Madison long?”
“No,” said Mrs. Conroy. “We only moved here last month, after Jackie’s dad and I split. Jackie’s going to St. Mary’s in the fall so everything will be close for us.”
Mom smiled what I was learning was one of her uncommitted polite smiles, usually displayed while she was fishing for useful information. I think, too, that Mom was getting what she needed for a quick assessment of Jackie and her mom. “St. Mary’s is a good school. I’m sure Jackie will be happy there.”
“Well, I hope she is. St. Mary’s is all my ex’s doing. He seems to think Jackie needs to be kept in check and away from the boys and other bad influences. I don’t know. Jackie’s spirited, but she’s a good kid. I don’t know what he’s so worried about. We all make it through those days, don’t we? Even when some of those days are a little wild, right? And then we look back on them and think those were the best days of our lives. I’m not going to let Jackie wake up one day when she’s thirty and wonder why she didn’t have fun when she was young and had the chance. Plus there’s nothing wrong with boys, is there? I always tell my ex to relax and just let things happen, but he’s too uptight for that. I guess that’s why we split.”
Mrs. Conroy looked at Jackie and me. “Don’t worry, girls, I’ll make sure you still manage to have some fun, even once school starts.” She kind of winked at Jackie and me and then she went over to Jackie and nudged her shoulder, like they were members of the same club. Jackie smiled back and I felt my face redden but I wasn’t entirely sure why. I looked over at Tommy, hoping to gain some comfort from my little brother and jump into his world, but he was busy ignoring the whole conversation, pushing a pebble around on the walkway with his sneaker.
I looked at Mom. Her guard had suddenly gone up. I saw that she had moved closer to Mrs. Conroy, so that she stood between Mrs. Conroy and us. I could tell she was trying to figure out what Mrs. Conroy’s definition of fun was and I was pretty sure it was different from hers. Mom didn’t worry all the time, but I was starting to think she had begun making list in her head of risky adolescent behavior, and was getting ready to issue warnings to me on various subjects.
Mom didn’t like when the power over me and Tommy shifted away from her, especially to an unknown, someone new like Mrs. Conroy, whom she could already tell was so different from her. “Well,” Mom said, trying to regain control, “they’ll have plenty of fun at the pool this summer. I’m there with Emily and Tommy every day.”
I’m not sure if Mrs. Conroy noticed this, or the fact that Mom put a little emphasis on the phrase I’m there with them every day, but she backed down a little and said, “Right, the pool sounds like a blast. I wish I could hang out in a beach chair all day. Those kids have it made, don’t they?”
Mom smiled. “They do,” she agreed. It was during that silence that I guess Mom had decided that Mrs. Conroy was someone she was going to have to be careful with. There was an awkward pause and then Mrs. Conroy spoke.
“Okay, Jack, we’d better be heading home. How do you feel about grabbing a pizza on the way? I don’t think there’s much else in the fridge for dinner.”
“That sounds great, Denny.” Denny, I thought to myself. I would have to ask Jackie about that later.
Mrs. Conroy said to us, “I guess Jackie will see you tomorrow at the pool. Nice to meet you and thanks again, Anne. Bye kids.”
Mom said, “You’re welcome Denise. We’ll see you later, Jackie.” And Jackie grabbed her tote bag with her towel and suntan lotion and she and Mrs. Conroy hopped into the Camaro. As Jackie’s mom turned on the engine, the radio started right up again and the two of them pulled out of our driveway and sped down the street. I could see Mrs. Conroy’s arm sticking out the window and some of her hair was blowing as they turned off our street. They looked free and easy on that summer night. I could already see how different Jackie and her mom were from us. Part of me wanted to be like Jackie and part of me wanted Mom to have long hair and dangling earrings and silver bracelets and wear cut-offs and ask me if I wanted to get a pizza for dinner and maybe she would know the words to my favorite songs on the radio and we would sing them together as we spun out in anything but our station wagon.
Then Mom said, “Dad will be home soon, kids. Dinner will be ready in about a half hour, so stay close.” She went inside and I looked at Tommy and said, “Do you believe Jackie calls her mother Denny?”
“So you call your mom Denny?” I asked Jackie the next day. We were sitting on the edge of the pool at Morris Hills, our feet dangling in the water. Jackie had just come out of the pool and was dripping wet, but I was still dry, waiting for the sun to warm me enough to go in.
Jackie stood up. She shook the extra water from her head and ran her fingers through her hair. “Yeah,” she said. “She’s not big on being called Mom so Denny’s what we came up with. Some people don’t get it, but too bad for them.”
I stood up too, unconsciously following Jackie’s lead. “Oh,” I answered, not really sure if I got it either. “That’s cool,” I said, looking over at my new friend. Jackie was looking down at her feet and for a second I thought she looked a little sad. I couldn’t see her whole face, though, and then suddenly she turned toward me with a mischievous grin, erasing any other look that could have been there. “Hey! How come you’re not wet yet?” she demanded and before I could answer her or plan my defense, Jackie grabbed my hands and jumped into the pool, pulling me into the water with her.
We had been over by the deep end and when I went in the water, my whole body went under in a reverse dive, my feet leading the way. Had I been given a choice, I would have chosen just that move, but in the split second of being pulled into the water, my surprise and anger came together in a jolt as my head went under and the coldness surrounded me with the muffled sounds of the underwater. The first face I saw when I popped back up was Jackie’s. She was laughing at my expression. “You should see your face, Emily! Ha Ha! I bet you didn’t expect that!”
This was Jackie. I liked her but I was mad about being pulled into the cold pool water and I jumped out of the water and ran to grab my towel while I tried to decide whether or not to tell her. I had just met her two days before and I did not expect her to trick me like that. At twelve, I had begun to form my own ideas about the rules of friendship. I had a few good friends. Amy and Rena were two of them. We three had known each other since kindergarten and there was a certain level of comfort between us. We fooled and joked with each other, but we weren’t the kind to trick each other. Already Jackie wasn’t the same kind of friend.
I might have played that trick on Tommy, but he was my little brother after all. When I really thought about it, it was more likely that he would have pulled me into the water. I might have gotten mad at Tommy for doing that, but we would have laughed about it later. I loved my brother and we had always been compatible playmates. Tommy was the mischievous one, but he was also kind and most likely, he would have pulled me in on a sweltering hot day and the water would have felt good.
While I was thinking about this, Jackie pulled herself out of the pool and walked over to me. She grabbed her towel from the grass and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Hey, you’re not mad, are you Emily? I was just joking around with you. You knew you were going to go swimming today, right? I mean, we are at a swim club and you are wearing your bathing suit!”
“Well,” I stalled. I wasn’t good at getting mad and the truth was, I was a little bit afraid of Jackie. I saw her as one of the cool girls, the kind who set the trends, who made the big plans. I was a little bit flattered that she was making friends with me and had already begun to think of ways I could be a little bit like her.
So my answer to Jackie was, “No, Jackie. I’m okay. I was surprised and the water was cold. I wasn’t ready to go in, but it’s fine. Like you said, I am wearing a bathing suit.” Then I spread out my towel and sat down. Jackie did the same and we sat there on our towels, feeling the sun dry the glistening drops of water off our bodies. So in the end on that day, I decided not to get mad at my new friend. Not getting mad was something I was pretty good at.
“You’re so good natured,” my mother always told me. I would smile and think, Yes, I am, but there’s an effort behind it and always a price. I almost always chose the path with the least amount of outward disagreement, preferring instead to let the conflicts collect inside my head, where I would file them away into different categories and by levels of intensity. That is what I did on this day, my conflict with Jackie falling into one of the less intense kinds, I decided, one that I may never think about again.
Thank you for reading.
Just jumping in? Click below to read:
Chapter 1 – “Meeting Jackie”
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