Carolina Potter might just be the prettiest girl I ever saw.
The first time I laid eyes on her, she was standing at the counter at McGee’s General Store trying to sweet-talk the poor sap behind the counter out of a ice cold Sun Drop.
“Come on, Dale. The old man’ll never miss it. It’s not like he’s gonna go in the cooler and count at the end of the day.”
Day-uhl. Cow-unt. We call that talking country. And there was more country in her talk than I’d ever heard.
She blew a big Pepto Bismol-pink bubble, popped it, then twisted the remnants around her index finger and studied it. She shrugged and stuck it back in her mouth, unimpressed.
I stood in the doorway. Listening. Watching. She was maybe fourteen years old, doing her best to look seventeen. She wore cutoff Levi’s with a hole, right across the butt. And a Bon Jovi tee-shirt twisted onto itself so it looked like a bikini top with sleeves. She had blonde hair with bangs that were teased up so high it made her look a good three inches taller than she really was. Her eyes were green.Her eyelids blue. And her lips were cherry red. I can’t say what it was about her I found so fascinating but I guess Dale noticed me staring.
“How about you, Carl. You buyin’ or beggin’?”
So right about now I’ve got you convinced that I’m a boy, right? Going on about how pretty this girl is and some guy is calling me Carl. Wrong. Carleen No-Middle-Name Parrish, at your service. When I started school, I came home whining to my mama about not having a middle name like everybody else and she explained to me that with a good, strong first name like Carleen, I had no need for a middle name. My friends call me Carl, for short. Which does tend to confuse people, especially since I tend to spend more time playing softball than playing dolls, but whatever.
“Buying. Mama sent me to get milk.” I walked over to the cooler and reached in for the milk, the money Mama gave me snug in my pocket.
“You got money?” Carolina was now in between the cooler and me, and I was stuck with my hand on the milk jug. She grinned and nodded at the Sun Drop.
“I’ll trade ya this whole pack of gum for a Sun Drop. I just bought it.Just one piece missing.”
I squeezed past her and freed myself from her trap.
“Come on, Carl.” I didn’t like how she said my name. I don’t even know her. “It’s perfectly good gum.”
“I don’t want gum.” I put the milk on the counter and she was beside me again, Sun Drop in hand.
She put the drink on the counter and cocked her head to the side. “What do you want?”
Now there’s a question. What do I want?
I looked past the braided bracelet she was wearing, then contemplated for a minute the Bon Jovi shirt.
Naa. I’m really not a band tee-shirt kind of girl.
My eyes met hers and just as I was about to refuse her a second time, I knew exactly what I wanted.
* * *
We walked up the hill toward my house, Carolina slightly in the lead.“Where are you going?” She stopped, holding the dark green bottle up to the sun.
“Home. What are you looking at?”
“Orange juice. Orange juice is the main ingredient in Sun Drop. If you hold it up to the light, you can see little bits of orange in there.”
“So why not just drink orange juice?” I’d had a Sun Drop before. I wasn’t entirely impressed.
She sighed. “I need the caffeine. I don’t sleep so good.”
I left it at that. I was getting the idea that Carolina was a bit of a drama queen and I wasn’t interested. We walked in silence for a few seconds, which I could tell made her uncomfortable. I personally don’t feel the need to say out loud every thought that comes to my mind, but whatever.
“I can cut ’em.” She hopped across in front of me and was walking backwards now. “Your bangs. I cut mine. Ain’t hard.” She keeps talking… going on about balancing points and face shapes. She lost me at “ain’t.”
“Don’t say ain’t.”
“Huh?”She was more annoyed by the interruption than she was interested in what I was saying.
“Don’t say ain’t. It makes you sound stupid, which you’re clearly not.”
So now you know. Not only am I a tomboy but I’m also kind of a nerd. At least that’s what Tracey Calhoun calls me. Tracey Calhoun is the most popular girl in my class. Everybody loves her. Except me, I guess. I can’t stand her and it would be all the same to me if she just changed schools. But that’ll never happen. She’s the queen bee of Canton Junior High. So full of herself she doesn’t have room for anybody else. Except her little worker bees. A couple of girls follow her around and carry her purse for her, attempting to be cool by association. I call them the Wannabees.
“Everybody says ain’t. This is Alabama.”
I thought about it a minute. She was right. “You don’t seem like the type who wants to be like everybody else.”
We topped the hill and I made a hard left into my driveway. Mama was out front, tending to her flowers. She saw us coming, turned off the water and came out to meet us. Relieving me of the gallon milk jug,she kissed me on the cheek. “Who’s your friend, Carleen?”
“Carolina,ma’am. Carolina Potter.”
“Pleased to meet you, Carolina Potter. Who’s your mama?”
“We ain’t—” She stopped herself, looked at me, and continued. “We’re not from around here ma’am. Just moved in down the street.”
Carolina smiled, pleased with herself. She grabbed me by the hand and started tugging. “We’re just going down to my house to watch some TV. Cable man came today!”
Mama started to protest, but I guess she thought better of it. Truth is,she was probably relieved at the idea that I had maybe made a friend. Truth is, so was I – bangs or no bangs.
* * *
Her house wasn’t that different from mine. Same black mailbox. Same concrete driveway. Same beige carpet in the living room.
“Hurry up!” She practically dragged me down the hall and into her room. “I don’t want to deal with my stupid brother right now.”
She closed the door and locked it behind us. If the rest of the house was unremarkable, Carolina’s room was anything but. The walls were covered in posters, not of Tom Cruise or New Kids on the Block, but of models. There was a bulletin board with pages torn from magazines,mostly models on runways in strange outfits. She had a canopy bed with twinkle lights strung from the corners and a makeup table scattered with lipsticks, eye shadows and half a dozen beauty products I had never seen before.
She pointed to the stool at the makeup table. “Sit.” Opening one of the drawers, Carolina retrieved a brush, a comb and a water bottle.But she was still digging.
“Where are my scissors? We can’t cut bangs with no scissors…” She opened another drawer and tossed its contents onto the floor. And another. No scissors.
“Take that elastic out of your hair and start brushing the tangles out. I’m going to find my scissors.”
I sat there, staring at myself in the mirror. As I pulled the brush through my hair I heard shouting coming from the other side of the door. “How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of my room?” A door slammed shut and hers flew open.
Something shiny flashed in her hand. “Got ’em. Let’s do this.”
* * *
I sat there in silence, staring at myself in Carolina’s mirror. Mama was not going to like this. It’s not that my bangs looked bad. Carolina had actually done a very nice job on my hair. It was my face that was going to get me in trouble. She had slathered my cheeks,chin and forehead with Max Factor pancake foundation. Meticulously applied eyeliner, shadow and mascara, lined my lips and stained them with the same cherry red she was wearing. I looked… like a girl.
Like a girl who was trying too hard, but whatever.
Carolina ooh-ed and aah-ed about how fabulous I looked as she made her way to her closet and started flinging clothes on the bed. Apparently she wasn’t done with me just yet.
“Where is it? Where is it?”
For a second, I think she’s talking to me.
“Come on, Carolina. Think.”
And she was gone again, undoubtedly searching for that one, perfect piece of clothing that was to complete my makeover. I leaned in toward the mirror, inspecting my makeup. Part of me pleased, the other embarrassed because I knew it was just a little too much. Mama would call this look “trashy.”
And she’d be right.
But I liked being here in Carolina’s house. I imagined us as best friends. The kind of friends who have sleepovers every weekend and go to The Mall together on Friday nights. In a couple of years we’d be driving and going to ballgames together. I wondered for a minute if Carolina had ever touched a softball. Probably not. I shrugged.
I was awakened from my daydream by the boom of a stereo from somewhere in the house. Just as I thought I’d go try and find the source,Carolina appeared in the doorway to her room, holding a pink cotton sundress.
“Oh no,” I protested. “I’m not putting that thing on.”
Carolina ignored me and pointed to my feet. ”What size shoe do you wear?”
* * *
As I walked down Carolina’s driveway toward the road, I began to imagine the look that would come across Mama’s face when she saw me in these clothes. With this hair. And this makeup.
It’s not like I’ve been out in public. I’m three houses down in the middle of nowhere. I’ll just sneak in the back door, get to my room and change. Maybe Mama will be in the back of the house and she won’t see. Maybe I can wash my face before Daddy gets home. Maybe they’ll like my haircut.
I reached the end of the driveway and smiled. It really didn’t matter.Today was fun. Carolina was fun. If I was being realistic, I’d say this is probably the only time we’ll ever hang out. She’ll start to school and make new friends and we’ll maybe sit together on the bus ride to and from school. But my BFF scenario isn’t likely to happen.
“Carl!”I turned to see Carolina hanging out her front door. “You can bring my dress back after school tomorrow. Maybe we’ll actually watch some TV this time.”
Or maybe it was. I smiled.
My friends call me Carl.