Tessie is a strange girl. Everyone knows it but no one says it out loud. When she engages in one of her outlandish antics, people just say, ”Well, that’s just Tessie.” It’s different with her older brother, Marcus. He is watched closely by anyone in his sphere; people were expected to make verbal reports back to the children’s mother, Romania.
Romania thinks boys need to be reigned in, constantly in need of social restraint. Her own brother did whatever he pleased whenever he wanted; he was never scolded or made to own up to his countless misdeeds. Her mother often noted that boy’s free spirits needed nourishing so that they would grow up to be adventurous men, leaders and not followers. Girls, she would remind Romania, needed to be trained in the arts of self restraint, emphasizing their many feminine traits and tendencies, ever ready to run their households, raise their families, and help their husbands succeed in everything they endeavored to do. Everyday little thing. Watching her mother tend to her father’s every want, made Romania cringe.
Romania, realizing the faulty logic and predispositions of her mother and her many mistakes and misguided opinions, was clear as well as correct in her own child rearing opinions. She had two children and knew how to raise each one. Raising children was a woman’s job and she would do it well.
Tessie was christened, Contessia, a most unfortunate name for such a child. At this telling, Tessie is eleven. How to describe her? Her appearance is appealing to those viewing her, but appalling to herself, Take her hair. Tessie herself is responsible for her latest hair doo, having cut it with mother’s sewing scissors a few days ago. She was aiming for what she has heard described as being a pixie cut. Romania had to take her to a barber that same day to try and salvage her hair, so at least she had straight edges all around. Tessie had wanted a short cut so she could stop brushing her hair. It is unkempt but her mother thought it was still cute to behold.
No one quite knows the color of the girl’s eyes. Green or hazel or even one of each at times, or gray with flecks of colors. Her large eyes are almond shaped and are constantly blinking, but what everyone stares at are the girl’s thick dark lashes. Anyone not knowing her, would swear she was wearing her mother’s false eyelashes. They appall Tessie (“appall is presently one of her favorite words) and she wonders how she could thin them out, maybe with a smaller pair of her mother’s scissors. Her full lips are usually cracked with dryness. Her flawless skin gives her the look of one of those Korean pop singers in a boy’s band. Many have commented she looks overall like one of those boys, the one singing in the middle.
Tesie is tall and lean, with embarrassing buds popping up on her chest. She would not give in to her mother’s wanting to buy her first bra. Tessie hates her hair and her face and her body, but she loves herself, her Tessiness. She has decided she will insist her mother buy her a corset should her chest decide to develop any larger. If she just had the right kind of willpower, actually a super power would be needed, she could will her body to stay the perfect way it is. She has written a secret poem about it:
Dreams are just schemes.
Tricks you play on yourself.
Words you write down to make them seem real.
Words that slip off the page and fall to the floor, to be stepped on.
Reality is what life gives you.
Change floats in through window cracks.
Is it fate or is it me?
I think it is both, but mostly me.
Young girls write poetry.
If her mother were to observe Tessie for a day, she would recognize in her daughter her own free-spirited brother, he of the countless misdeeds, and she would be appalled. Thankfully for Tessie, her mother does not know her daughter very well. Her uncle considers Tessie to be his favorite relative.
Let us move ahead to the day when Romania enrolled her pre adolescent daughter in Cotillion dance lessons, preparing her for her religious coming-out in the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Virgin Mother Mary. Cotillion dancing taught the pre-teens the waltz and the fox trot as well as proper etiquette and demeanor, over a period of three months. Tessie was signed up to start her lessons on Friday evening, two days from now. Romania would allow no objection from her now red-faced daughter when she told her what was in store for her. Tessie knew better than to carry on, knowing her implacable mother would only become more insistent. Tessie decided she needed a plan.
In her room Tessie did not cry or pout. She was not that kind of girl. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be any kind of girl, and especially one learning to dance Cotillion type dances. Who danced that way today? Who cared which forks go with what foods? Who else had to go to Cotillion, certainly not her friend, Theresa, or even her last-year’s friend, also named Theresa. Yet both of them were enrolled in Tessie’s religious school classes preparing pre teens for confirmation.
On Thursday after school, Tessie asked her mother to sit down with her at the kitchen table. She served her mother and herself tea, in china cups she had taken from the buffet in the dining room. Her mother smiled pleasantly, both of them adding a level spoon-full of sugar, each stirring her tea, then each putting down her spoon and Tessie began to talk, looking her mother in her blue eyes. Her mother stared into her daughter’s eyes and noticed with surprise that her daughter had hazel or blue or green eyes, she couldn’t be exactly sure, and she thought, “How extraordinary and how pretty my little Tessie was becoming.”
Tessie had had this conversation in her head a hundred and seventeen times so she knew exactly what she wanted to say to her mother. The fifth conversation was different from the fourth which was different from the first three. By the eighteenth time, she had everything clear in her mind and played out how the talk would go, what she would say, what her mother would say, her counter, her mother’s redirection. She had no trepidation; she had lost her fears by the time the tea had been drunk.
The conversation was briefer than Tessie had imagined. She started off sharing with her mother, for the first time, her fears of growing up and losing her childhood and her self. She realized children grew each year and that she was about to do a whole lot of growing up as she changed into a teen-aged girl. She did not know who she would become and if she would like that girl. Her mother listened to the first mother-daughter discussion she had since years ago when she and her mother had what her mother described as their “little talks” during which her mother set Romania straight about how things would go and how her life should be.
This felt so very different that Romania felt tears fall from her eyes. She looked at her beautiful and smart child, so conflicted with herself and so fearful of losing the essence of who she was. She told Tessie she needed to attend three Cotillion dance lessons, and then could decide for herself whether to finish them or quit them. She added that there would be as many boys there as girls, and she was quite sure most of them were conflicted about going, likely even more so than the girls, for boys were fragile in their boyhood at this age.
Later that night in her bed, Tessie had most remembered her mother talking about boys and their fragile boyhood feelings. She realized she was also fragile about her girlhood feelings and felt a sadness for her coming loss. It seemed to fill the room.
Tessie continued her Cotillion dance lessons for two months. Her mother was proud Tessie had decided for herself . She wore a radiant taffeta dress, the color of her eyes, to her confirmation dance. The girls danced all the dances they had learned from television while the boys drank punch and stood in small groups or in lines around the edge of the dance floor. Toward the end of the evening, the girls and boys who had attended Cotillion were called to the center of the dance floor, boys standing across from girls. The music started and the boys and girls became couples and they danced first the waltz and then the fox trot.
Late that summer, Tessie was looking forward to seventh grade, the start of middle school. She and her friend, Theresa III were hoping to be in many of the same classes. Tessie and Theresa lll told each other everything and shared all their clothes. It was simply amazing how alike they were. Tessie did not tell her best friend how eager she was to see the boy she had danced with during the Cotillion dance. He had such dreamy eyes. She tried to remember their color.