Shug Page 2

And of course there was Kyle Montgomery, the best-looking boy in our grade. All the girls like Kyle Montgomery. Even the teachers like Kyle. Us girls pretend-swoon when we see him in the hallways. The one time he caught my best friend Elaine Kim and me doing it, he winked at us, and then he turned bright red. We like Kyle because he’s out of our league; he’s out of everybody’s league. Plus he’s fun to giggle about. I don’t know of any girl who wouldn’t die for a chance to walk down the hallway with Kyle Montgomery.

Kyle Montgomery is tall, and he has nice eyes. You know the kind of eyes that always look like they’re smiling? Well, Kyle has them, and he really does smile an awful lot. His jeans always fit just right, and he is the best basketball player our school has ever seen. So like I said, everyone likes Kyle, and I did my fair share of liking him too a few years back.

But this is different; this is Mark. This is Mark Findley who knows my favorite ice cream flavor (Rocky Road) and how I like my pizza (extra cheese, pineapple, and mushroom); Mark who pulls splinters out of my feet when I go barefoot in the summer; Mark who helped me bury my gerbil, Benny, when he died. This is Mark who was sitting next to me on the bus that time I threw up in third grade. He didn’t even say a word when some splashed on him; he just wiped it off and asked me if I was okay.

One of the things I like best about Mark is his family. The Findleys are the kind of family you only see on black-and-white reruns late at night. At Christmastime, Mrs. Findley makes cinnamon cookies out of piecrust and real whipped cream to put on top, and Mr. Findley used to take Mark and Celia and me sledding at Clementon Park. (This was before Celia decided she was too grown up to have fun.) Mrs. Findley always says that she wishes she had a daughter just like me, and that my mother is the luckiest woman alive for having two lovely daughters. Mrs. Findley thinks I am lovely. When we were little, I secretly wanted the Findleys to adopt me, but now that I’m older, I suppose I would settle for being their cherished daughter-in-law.

Chapter 2

When I get home, I go straight to my bedroom and call Elaine. Elaine Kim moved to our neighborhood last December. Everyone wanted to be her best friend because she was new and from New York City, but she chose me.

I say, “Elaine, I have some news.”

“What?” she says, and I can hear the TV in the background.

I pause. “I think I’m in love … with Mark.”

“Yeah, I know,” Elaine says. I can tell she is watching TV and not paying attention to me, and I am annoyed.

“I said, I think I’m in love with Mark,” I snap.

“I said, I know!” Elaine snaps right back. I love that about her.

“How did you know? You couldn’t have known. I didn’t even know.”

“Come on, Annemarie. I’m your best friend. I know stuff about you that nobody knows, not even you.”

“But how did you know?”

“Because it’s a total cliché; of course you like Mark. He’s the boy next door, the boy you’ll measure every other boy against. It was only a matter of time.” Just because Elaine’s father is a psychiatrist, she thinks she knows everything.

“Mark doesn’t live next door,” I mutter.

“Down the street, whatever. Same thing.”

“Okay fine, if you know so much, what am I going to do about it?”

“What are you going to do?” she repeats. “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

“I want him to like me back. I want him to look at me the way he looks at Celia,” I say, lying back on my pillow and staring at the ceiling. There is a massive spiderweb in one corner.

“Hmm, that could be hard. Celia has, like, actual br**sts, remember?”

“No, I forgot, but thank you for reminding me.”

Elaine decides that I should talk to my mother. According to her, while other mothers are clueless, mine understands these sorts of things. Elaine idolizes my mother, maybe because hers is so unlike mine. She is the only one of my friends Mama can stand, because she is from New York and because Mama thinks she has “moxie.” But I think it’s because Elaine acts like Mama is a movie star, and Mama loves it when people are smart enough to know she is something special.

I know better than to ask Mama about Mark because I know exactly what she will say. She will say that Mark is sweet in a prosaic sort of way, but I can do better because I am extraordinary. And then I’ll start to think that maybe Mark really is sort of prosaic, and I’ll never be able to see him in the same way ever again.

I don’t tell Elaine this though. I like the way Elaine looks at Mama. I wish I still looked at Mama that way. Sometimes I do, but it’s getting harder and harder.

Even though Mama messed up that one time I told her about Sherwood Brown, that doesn’t mean she won’t come through this time. You never know. People can surprise you. And I mean, life is all about second chances, right?

After Elaine and I hang up, I go to Mama’s room.

My mother is reading in bed, with her feet propped up on a silk pillow. It is turquoise with little orange tassels. “Shug, don’t slouch,” she says, not lifting her eyes from the page.

I roll my eyes and sit on the edge of the bed, at her feet. “Mama, when’s dinner?” I ask. I know full well she hasn’t cooked any.

She looks up, surprised. “You know your daddy’s away on business, and your sister’s at Margaret’s, so I didn’t bother with dinner. You fix something up for yourself; I’m not hungry.”

“Mama!”

“What?” she says absentmindedly. She reaches for the wineglass on her nightstand and turns the page of her book.

“Mama, I need to talk to you. I need some advice.”

Mama takes a long sip of wine. “Okay, Shug,” she says. “You have my complete and undivided attention. What’s going on?”

“Well, the thing is, I like someone. A boy,” I say. “But I don’t think he likes me.”

Mama nods. “Who is this boy?”

I hesitate. “Mama, you can’t tell anyone.”

“All right.”

“You have to promise, Mama.”

“I promise. I shan’t tell a soul.” She crosses her heart.

“Well, okay. It’s Mark.” I watch her hopefully.

Mama finishes her wine, and says, “Mark Findley … Hmm … yes, he is a charming boy.”

Hope begins to flutter in my chest like a little bird. See, all she needed was that second chance. Mama knows all about men, maybe she really could help me decide what to do.

“But, Shug, I sure hope your babies take after our side of the family and not his. His mama is just as common as coal.” She winks at me and goes back to her book.

Sometimes I hate my mother so much I can’t breathe.

“At least Mrs. Findley makes dinner,” I spit out.

“Why, Miss Annemarie, are you mad at me?” She’s mocking me, and it only makes me madder.

“You’re just jealous of Mrs. Findley; that’s why you say ugly things about her. And coal isn’t common. It’s a precious resource.”

“Shug, I was only joking. You know I’ve always been fond of Mark, and I think his mama is really very sweet,” Mama says. “If you want Mark, you go and get him. I didn’t raise my daughters to be pacifists. Make love or make war, Shug, but make somethin’ happen. And you’ve got hands; you can fix your own dinner.”

“Fine!” I leap off the bed and storm out.

As I stomp down the stairs, as loudly as bare feet on carpet will allow, I hear my mother call, “Love you too, baby mine.”

My mother has never forgiven Mrs. Findley for being the kind of mother I have always wished for.

Chapter 3

Elaine once asked me why Mama calls me Shug. I said, “Have you ever read The Color Purple?” She said no, and I said, “Well there’s this character named Shug, Shug Avery …” I tried to explain, but I guess I didn’t do a very good job because she looked at me like I was crazy.

So I said, “Never mind. It’s just Shug, Shug like sugar.”

The Color Purple is one of Mama’s favorite books. Mine too. It’s all about living free, on the inside. The main character’s name is Celie (like Celia, see) and she’s had a real beat-down kind of life. She thinks she’s nothing. Then Celie meets Shug Avery, and boy, is Shug Avery a force of nature. That’s what Mama calls her, anyway. Shug Avery doesn’t take crap from nothin’ and nobody. She’s a singer and a temptress, too. When Shug Avery blows through town, she shakes the whole town up. Everyone’s enchanted by her: Celie, Celie’s husband, Mr._____; everyone. My mama, too.

That’s why she calls me Shug—well, that, and it’s short for sugar. Plenty of mamas call their babies Shug, but for Mama, I know it’s more than a sweet way of talking. She wants me to be like Shug Avery, to squeeze every last drop out of life and be special, the way she and Shug are. And to be beautiful, the way she and Shug are. I think Mama’s still waiting for that part, for me to grow up and be beautiful. I think she might be waiting for that part forever.

It’s ironic, because Celia’s already beautiful, and she was the one named for Celie, the plainest girl alive. I think maybe I should’ve been named Celie. Instead I am Annemarie, named for Mama’s sister who died when she was little. Mama says she was somethin’ special, wild and freer than anybody Mama knew. That must be pretty darn free.

I think that first Annemarie would’ve been worthy of a name like Shug. Not me, though. I’m like Miss Celie on the inside, scared of everything. But in the end, even that old scaredycat Celie finds out how to live, how to be. She shows everybody what she can do; she shows them all. I want that too.

Chapter 4

Celia comes home early the next morning and goes straight to bed. She is always cranky after a sleepover with Margaret, and then she sleeps till noon. When she finally emerges, I am sitting at the kitchen table, reading.

Our kitchen is one of my favorite places in the whole house. There are lots of windows, and the sun shines through all day. Mama has Marc Chagall prints on the wall. They used to scare me, but I have come to admire them.

“Hey, Shug. Where’s Mama?” Celia asks, pouring herself a glass of orange juice. She rumples my hair and sits across from me.

“She went to the art museum with Gail,” I say, taking her juice before she can have the first sip. Gail is Mama’s friend from work. Mama is the part-time activities director at the Rosemont Retirement Community, and Gail is one of the nurses.

Celia snatches it right back. She drinks some, and hands it back to me.

“What did you and Margaret do?” I ask, finishing the glass.

“We just hung out with some of the guys,” Celia says vaguely. “You want lunch?”

I say yes, and Celia cooks us cheddar omelets and bacon. As we eat, I watch her and think about how much she looks like Daddy. She has Mama’s green eyes, but the rest of her is all Daddy. Her hair is soft and brown like a puppy’s, and she has Daddy’s smile. Her hair hangs down her back in soft curls, and she is wearing her old Snoopy T-shirt. I’m so busy thinking how pretty she is that I almost forget to tell her my big news.

My mouth full of bacon, I say, “Celia, guess what.”

“What? And don’t talk with your mouth full; it’s gross.”

I open my mouth wider and stick my tongue out, bacon bits and all. Celia shakes her head in disgust. “I like someone,” I say.

“Who?”

And then, in that moment, I know I can’t tell Celia. Not this time. Not before I get him, and not until he’s mine.

The lie comes out before I even have time to think it through. “Kyle Montgomery.”

“Kyle? Didn’t you have a crush on him in fourth grade? I thought you were over Kyle.”

“Yeah, but that was kid stuff. I didn’t really know what love was back then. This is the real thing,” I say. It is the real thing too. It’s as real as anything I’ve ever felt, and when I am old, people might try and tell me different, I might even tell myself different, but I know that at this moment, I love Mark Findley.

“I see him in a whole new way now. I see him … as the boy he is today, and the man he will one day be.”

Celia laughs. “You’re still such a kid, Shug. What you’re feeling right now is just puppy love. But don’t worry: Kyle’s sweet. He’ll make a good first boyfriend.”

Ha! What does she know? Celia, who’s had more boyfriends than I’ve had socks. She doesn’t know the first thing about true love.

“First of all, I’m not a kid anymore,” I say coldly, ignoring Celia’s smirk. “And second of all, that’s the whole problem, Miss Expert on Love, always thinking you know everything! He doesn’t like me.”

“Why not?”

“He likes someone else.”

Celia’s eyes narrow, and she looks just like Mama. “Who?”

“Just some girl at school,” I say. “She’s a bit more womanly than me.”

Celia snorts. “You, Shug? A woman?” She throws her head back and laughs like one of those crazy hyenas from The Lion King.

I glare at her. “Oh ha ha ha, poor pathetic Shug. I come to you for advice about this—this harpy, and this is what I get.” We learned about harpies during the Greek mythology unit at school last year. Harpies were monsters who were part woman, part bird, and they had talons and they would shriek and laugh at people. Sounds like Celia to me.

“Look, Annemarie,” Celia says, sighing. “Forget about this other girl and worry about yourself, if you really want to be a contender. You’ve got to get in the game before you can knock out your opponent. So quit feeling sorry for yourself, dummy. Take action. Do yourself up; flirt with his friends. Make him notice you. Make him work for it.”

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