"A Cool Dry Place"—part 2

read part 1 It is not winter Mandy dislikes. She doesn’t mind the cold. She actually prefers it to the feverish humidity of July and August. She likes the feel of the cold on her skin, the red nose, icy toes and fingers. Likes the scarves and hats and boots and snow. Likes to warm the backs of her legs at the wood stove her father keeps cranking hot.

It is winter. Mandy is twelve. Seventh grade.

“What’re you gonna ask for for Christmas?” Lara asks her.

christmas_decoration The house is decked-out. They have boxes and boxes of Christmas stuff to decorate the tree, the walls, every surface, every room. Mom has the touch to pull it all together and it is so nice and homey.

They listen to Mom’s vinyl LPs—Perry Como and Andy Williams. The Carpenters. Every year, unpacking the decorations, they forget about much of it, so the things in the boxes feel like Christmas presents themselves.

“Oh! The crescent moon Santa!”

“I love that one.”

“Where did we get this one?” Mom says every year about one or another.

Now the lights twinkle on the tree as Mandy and Lara discuss their Christmas wishes. It is dark by four-thirty in the afternoon and they turn on the tree lights as soon as the sun drops below the horizon. Every day one of them says, “Can we turn on the tree, Mom?”

“When it’s dark,” she calls from wherever she is in the house.

“Is it dark now?”

A pause. “I guess it’s close enough.”

christmas_lights The girls have discussed many times what they each want for Christmas, but never tire of the conversation. So when Lara asks Mandy what she wants for Christmas, Mandy doesn’t acknowledge she has told Lara many times already, she simply answers.

“Well,” she says, “the new Barbie is nice, but maybe one of the dolls.” She means Cabbage Patch. They are the craze of this Christmas season.

“Yeah,” Lara breathes. “Me, too.”

Lara is in fifth grade. Most of the girls in her class are asking for the doll. Mandy knows what the girls in her class will be getting. Or at least she has an idea. (And it’s not a doll.) Things like sweaters, curling irons, records, the right jacket. She knows the girls would laugh about the doll. She even knows a doll is babyish. But she still wants to play with Barbies and baby dolls. She and Lara play every day after school, after homework. This is nothing she would ever tell the girls at school. She has learned the hard way to go along with them and keep her own secrets.

But she can’t help but want one of the dolls.

“Renee and Sherry know exactly which ones they want,” Lara says. The thing about the dolls is they are all different with their own unique names.

“They showed their mothers and everything. I bet their parents went back to the store and got them,” Lara says. “I don’t even care which one I get. I’d be happy with any one of them. They’re all so cute.”

“I know,” says Mandy. She wishes she could want this doll with the same abandon Lara does. The want sticks inside her—coats the inside of her chest and throat thickly. She wants to be excited and careless. But the want weighs on her.

Still, she requests the doll when their mother asks them what they want for Christmas.

They are in the car. It hasn’t been running long enough yet and coolish air pours from the vents. Yet it feels warmer than the frigid air outside. Christmas songs play on the radio. They’re on their way to the Mall to do some shopping. Mandy feels happy. She loves Christmastime.

“What do you want for Christmas?” says their mother.

“Cabbage Patch!” Lara says. “Cabbage Patch, Cabbage Patch, Cabbage Patch!” She tosses her head back. Mom watches her in the rearview mirror and laughs.

“Are you sure?” Mom asks.

Lara squeezes her eyes shut and turns her head back up at the ceiling. “Yes, yes, yes!” She smiles broadly. They all laugh.

When Mom turns to Mandy and asks, “What about you, honey?” Mandy hesitates. “Do you like the dolls, too?”

Mandy nods. “Yeah.” Some knotted thing sits in her stomach. “I do like them.” In the end, her desire for the doll eclipses the worry.

Too soon it is the first day back at school after Christmas vacation. The girls in Mandy’s class show off their presents in the schoolyard. The air is raw and stinging. Their breath puffs out in fluffy plumes around them. Nicole got a pink and navy jacket, the most popular kind. The one with the hood. The pink is a deep raspberry. It’s not warm enough to wear it, but she begged her mom. (This is something to which Mandy knows her own mother would never give in.)

“She said I’d have to wait ‘til Spring to wear it again. But isn’t it so cool?” Nicole says. Everyone agrees.

Tara got a real angora sweater, powder blue. “Shows off my you-know-whats. I’m totally wearing it to boys basketball on Friday night. Plus, I got some awesome jeans—designer. I think they were really expensive.” Her eyes widen, her voice drops.

Mandy listens, keeps her eyes slightly averted, her exclamations subdued—enough so they won’t notice, enough so they will. She blends. It is one of her cultivated skills. A necessity in her arsenal. Sometimes it works. Other times she forgets to use it. And sometimes it’s not enough.

Then it is her turn.

“So,” Nicole says, turning on Mandy. “Mandy, what did you get?”

A look passes between some of the girls, their smiles suppress giggles.

She is not prepared. This is shocking because she has been unprepared so many times before she’d think it impossible to find herself in this very position again.

“Um, some good stuff. Some clothes. A new sweater. It’s pretty.” Comes out in a great rush.

The eyes.

“But what was your big gift?” Tara says.

“I don’t know. I got lots of things.” She stops, her minding whirling. Then! “But I guess the necklace.” She feels triumphant. And relieved. And large yet light.

Nicole’s eyes narrow. Through Mandy’s coat, she eyes the top of Mandy's chest where a necklace would be. “What necklace? Show us.”

gold_heart “Oh,” Mandy touches her collarbone with her mitten-covered hand. She is protected by her coat and scarf now, but knows she’ll have to take her winter stuff off as soon as the bell rings and they all line up, file inside, stand in the coat closet and hang their things on the designated hooks. The coat closet will smell of wet heated wool, hot air from the registers, bananas and lunch boxes from now and all the years past, the gloom and heaviness of a long new day. Mandy can smell it now, here. She can call the scent to mind at any time. Home in her own safe bed. She doesn’t like to recall it. Sometimes it comes on its own.

But right now she is still outside with her hand at her throat.

“It’s too nice to wear to school,” she says quickly.

“Can you wear it to the basketball game?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my mom. It’s really nice,” she says. “And really expensive,” she adds.

“I can’t wait to see it on Friday,” says Tara. She sneaks a look at Nicole. Not sneaky enough that Mandy misses it. (Of course not.) They walk away together, arms locked, heads close. They giggle. Mandy thinks it could be anything at which they laugh.

“What kind of necklace is it, Mandy?” Sara asks. She is one of the nice girls. But she’s fringe, like Mandy. Even more so than Mandy.

Mandy thinks. She remembers the one Dad gave Mom for their anniversary. It is a solid gold heart, the size of a quarter. Fat and gleaming.

“It’s a heart,” she says. “Solid gold.”

“It sounds pretty.”

“Thanks.” She feels a little badly lying to Sara who is always nice to her. “What did you get?”

She shrugs. “A few things. Nothing like the other girls got. Or you,” she says.

“Yeah, well, it’s nice and everything, but I’ll bet your stuff is nice, too,” says Mandy.

The bell rings.

It is Monday.

All week she thinks about the necklace.