Oct/Nov 2005  •   Fiction

From The Diary of Ethel Muggs

by Susan O'Doherty

Thursday, September 6: The first day of school. Wore my new plaid skirt and purple sweater from JC Penney. It looked great in the catalogue, and, like everything else, fine on me until the moment I walked into homeroom. Veronica wearing sage green cashmere. She said, "Nice outfit, Ethel—you look just like a big, shiny eggplant." The other girls laughed. (Not Betty.) Considered making a crack about tumbleweed, but what is the point. She wouldn't get it, and everyone else is afraid to make her mad. (Again: not Betty.)

2 classes with J: Chem and history, back to back, right before lunch. He let me be his lab partner. A whole semester of sitting next to him, measuring solutions, cleaning up his explosions. I was in heaven. But then, when the bell rang, he took off with A.A., as always, even though I offered to carry the books.

Lunch: No room at their table, of course. Didn't expect it. But also didn't expect Reggie's foot to stick out just as I was passing their table, making me trip and cut my arm on broken soup bowl. They thought it was hilarious. (Not Betty. Not J., who didn't seem to notice; he was concentrating on his food.) Ended up in nurse's office, bleeding & crying. She wanted to send me home. I said, no, I was fine. Then had to act fine all afternoon. When Reggie said (big surprise), "Have a nice trip?" I laughed, so I wouldn't cry and end up back in the infirmary. "You're such a good sport," Betty said.

3:00: Didn't feel up to Pop's—knew Reggie would be at me again—so sat in the school library as long as decently possible with no assignments yet. When the school year gets rolling I'll be able to spend more time there—trying out for cheerleading (of course I won't make it, but it's somewhere to go), French club, etc. Today I read through an old book on French cooking, not that anyone I cook for would eat prawns, but it was interesting, until Mrs. Lundeen started turning out the lights: "Honestly, Ethel, don't you have anywhere else to go?"

5:00: "Home." He was slumped in his easy chair, false teeth slipping out, making him look like a storybook troll. I tried to tiptoe past, hoping he was too far gone to notice me, but no such luck. Should have walked around the block a few times. Yelled at me about dinner—why wasn't it ready; then, when it was, what was this garbage, why couldn't I make ordinary American food (??? It was meat loaf! Just a little watercress on top), and so on. I escaped to my room right after washing dishes, set the chair against the door, but he was too drunk to bother me tonight, thank heaven for small favors. Wanted to make brownies for J, but that will have to wait until morning.

September 7: Overslept, no brownies. Dreamed about her; the usual first day of school dream. Kindergarten, hanging onto her legs, crying, as she pulled my hands off and walked away. Soft, red dress, smell of soap and flowers, and tobacco. So tired of this dream, and I can't remember if it really happened. That day I went with Jug (okay, followed Jug, and then he let me come) to drop Jellybean off at day care and she screamed and wouldn't let him go, so he sat down on the floor and held her until she calmed down and was able to say bye-bye—I cried & cried, couldn't stop even for J., so there must be something to it. Was that my last glimpse of her? Today Miss G. said, "My dear, you're starting to look just like your mother." Does that mean I will be beautiful? Or just that I looked ready to run away?

No chem., and he sat with Archie in history. Volunteered to help Mme. Lazar collate during lunch. After school went to the public library. Online. More French recipes. Guy in a dirty sweatshirt came up behind me: "Gonna make me some of that?" Mr. Irving came over to see what the commotion was. Sweatshirt guy moved away.

Home late. He was already passed out. I left meat loaf sandwiches on the counter and went upstairs. Then the phone rang. I grabbed it but he woke up anyway, started yelling for me.

It was Midge Klump, inviting me to a sleepover tomorrow night. I thought it was another joke and hung up. The phone rang again, and it was Betty. "We really want you to come, Ethel. We'll be doing makeovers." He was stomping up the stairs, so I said yes just to get off. Not sure I'll go; V. is sure to be there, and they all do whatever she says. Nice to be asked, though.

He came in and started pulling at my nightgown. I pushed back, but he's too big; went to Paris in my head. Too drunk to do much.

Up early this morning, made those brownies. Will make more tomorrow for the sleepover. (If I go.)

I was smart today. Told J. about the brownies first thing, but didn't give him the tin until we were in the lunchroom. Kept him with me all morning, and he sat with me at lunch. Afterwards we had no classes together so we went our separate ways, but—progress?

Felt good enough to go to Pop's after school. Betty not there; Midge not there (preparing for sleepover?). Jug & Archie in a booth with V. & Reggie. J. didn't see me. Ronnie did; she said something to Reggie about how I looked like "Jughead in drag." Left. Felt too good to let V& R ruin it. Went to public library again. Homework today. Hard math. Smelly sweatshirt guy there. "I can help you with that." Changed seat. He said, "No, really. I used to teach this." I didn't believe him at first. Mr. Irving came over and watched to make sure everything was OK. Sweatshirt guy worked a problem for me. Mr. Irving said, "He's got it down." So he actually does understand functional equations. Can't say I do, even now, but he showed me how to get the answers. I thanked him, but then when I got ready to leave, he left, too. Started following me on the street. I turned into Pop's. All the kids were gone. Pop: "This guy bothering you, Ethel?" Sweatshirt guy left. Pop: "Got a boyfriend, Ethel?" I said, Pop, don't you start teasing me. He said, "You're a nice-looking girl, Ethel. No reason why the boys shouldn't notice. You just picked the one boy in Riverdale who doesn't like girls." I said, I don't think he's like that, and Pop said, "Time will tell."

He was awake, waiting for me. "Hi, doll." Asked me about school. I should have just told him, fine, we had some hard math but I think I figured it out—but I get so mad when he starts acting like some regular dad, like he has the right to ask me about school. Plus I wanted to think about what Pop said, that I was nice looking. So I said, "As if you cared," and kept walking, started to go up the stairs. He grabbed me by the shoulder. "I asked you a question. You answer me." I pushed him off. He slammed my head against the newel post. I fell onto the floor, but I didn't pass out. Got up. Figured I'd better do what he wanted. Started to say about math but he'd forgotten the question by that time, thought he was yelling at me to make dinner, which I did, hamburgers. Told him I felt sick and went to bed without eating. He felt a little bad about the head, I think; let me go up and didn't bother me.

So here I am. Sleepover is tomorrow. Should I go? Could I be beautiful with a makeover?

Sunday, September 10: Okay. Start from the beginning.

Saturday morning: Decided to go to sleepover. Figured it would get me out of the house overnight, plus curious about makeovers. Okay, honestly, thought it might be fun, even with V there. The ones in grade school, when we were all still friends, were fun, staying up late, telling scary stories.

Baked brownies. Went to library to do homework. Sweatshirt guy not there—found myself looking for him. Finished homework. Math easier now.

Went home to get my stuff. Fixed stew for him from yesterday's leftover hamburgers and vegetables, then told him I was spending the night at Midge's. He grabbed me by the shoulders, said, "So you say." I said, let go of me, I have to leave. He said, "Who's waiting for you, bitch?" Slapped me, hard, in the face. My lip started bleeding. I didn't answer him. He stepped back. I think he was ashamed of the hitting, and the bad name. Hard to believe, but I don't think he has ever called me that before. He thought I had a boy waiting for me. Pop Tate thought I had a boyfriend, too. I am changing. I am starting to look like her.

Grabbed my bag and ran out the door. When I hit Oak Lane, Sweatshirt Guy was sitting on the grassy part, smoking. He got up and walked with me. "Thought you might be passing this way."

I couldn't look at him. I knew I should be mad or afraid of him, and I was feeling both. But it also felt nice that someone was interested. "What made you think that?" I finally said, looking at the sidewalk.

"I know a lot about you. I see you," he said. But not in a scary way, more like a conversation. So I let him walk with me.

"I'm going to a sleepover at my friend's house," I told him. It felt good to say. I felt like a normal high school girl who was pretty and had friends and went on sleepovers. The other nice thing was he didn't look surprised. He just said, "Where does your friend live?"

"Cedar Lane," I told him, and he whistled, because it's such a nice part of town. That felt good, too. These things shouldn't matter, I know, but they do.

When we got close to Midge's house, I said, "Here we are. See you."

"If you ever want to, you know, go out," he said, and I said, "I'm only seventeen. I'm not allowed to date an adult." (I thought that sounded very normal, very much like a girl who would go on a sleepover.)

"Right," he said. "But we could have a Coke or something. I could help you with your math."

"Who are you?" I said. I didn't mean it to be rude. I just meant, I don't know anything about him except he understands math and hangs out in the library. And probably he doesn't live anyplace that has a washing machine.

"I'm nobody," he said. "I'll see you around," and he walked away.

I thought about going after him, but Betty opened the door, waving her cell phone, and called to me: "Do you want onions on your pizza?" Okay. I didn't want them to see him. I wanted to be that high school girl on a sleepover with my friends.

I went inside and Betty, Midge, and I set up a card table in Midge's basement, for the pizza and to use afterwards for the makeovers, and we put sheets and blankets on the floor to sleep on. Her basement is nicer than the "good" parts of my house; it's got finished wood walls and thick carpets, a cute little kitchen and a bathroom, plus plasma TV and all sorts of computer equipment she told me belongs to her brother. We talked about high school things—homework, how much everyone hates the gym teacher, Ms. Leakey (well, I don't hate her, but I pretended to, and she does have a funny name), and so on. Even after Veronica got there (driven by her dad's chauffeur, natch) it was OK—the pizza came, and afterwards we ate my brownies, which were terrific and put everyone in a good mood toward me.

Then Veronica said, "Makeover time!" They decided to split into pairs, with Midge doing Betty and Veronica doing me, and then we were supposed to switch. I tried to move it around so I got Betty, but Veronica and Midge both insisted Betty and I were the most in need of makeovers, which I had to admit was true—neither of us has a lot of glamour. But I was afraid of what Veronica would do to me.

She said, "That bow has got to go," and yanked it out of my hair and threw it away. She dragged me into the little kitchen and washed my hair and put some special conditioning goop on it. Then she went after me with the scissors. I really, really didn't want that, but she kept saying, "Just wait—you're going to love this."

"Just do what she says," Midge told me. "She knows what she's doing. Relax." I tried to. She was rough with me—first pulling my hair while she chopped it off, and then I thought she was going to poke into my eye with the eyeliner pencil—but Midge and Betty gasped when she was done, and I could tell they meant it. I started to run into the bathroom to see, but she said, "Not yet." She fished in her overnight bag (monogrammed, of course) and came up with a low-cut, see-through black blouse. She made me take off my t-shirt and bra, and put the blouse on. "There," she said.

I don't know how to say what I saw when I looked in the mirror, except it was her. Veronica had given me a soft, layered look somehow making my nose seem to stick out less. The makeup brought my eyes out, and my cheekbones. Even my teeth looked smaller against the Plum Passion lipstick. The blouse—I looked svelte, as Betty said, not scrawny. I looked like her.

Betty looked great, too, but of course it wasn't as dramatic, since Betty always looks great. Midge didn't cut her hair or anything; she had set it in electric rollers and then fluffed it out, and used a lot of eyeliner and red lipstick, so that Betty looked like an actress. Betty laughed when she looked in the mirror. "Is that me?"

"You look like a movie star," I told her, and it was true. But they were all focused on me. "Amazing," Betty said. "We need to go clothes shopping."

"Aren't we supposed to do you now?" I said to Midge and Veronica. I thought that was the deal.

"Later," Veronica said. I should have known she wouldn't let me anywhere near her face. Not that I blame her—I might have made her look like (the old) me. "First, let's take a break." She opened her overnight case again. This time she pulled out a bottle of gin. Midge giggled and brought out glasses from the cabinet over the sink.

"Not for me," I said. I'd been through too much to want to start with that.

"Just a little one," Midge said. She poured half a glass and filled the rest with orange juice. She passed it to me.

"That's not little," Betty said.

"So drink it slowly," Midge said.

I passed it back and poured myself a glass of straight juice. "No, thanks."

Veronica shrugged. "What did I tell you? I can make her look right on the outside, but she's a dork through and through."

"Ronnie, cut it out. Just because she doesn't want a drink."

"She's got a stick up her ass. Even Jug thinks so."

I stopped.

"He said she'd be cute if she'd only loosen up a little," she went on.

Midge poured drinks for herself and the others.

"When did he say that?" Betty asked, her voice even.

"You don't believe Jug would ever say I was cute," I said.

"I didn't say that," Betty said.

"The other day, at Pop's," Veronica said. "I was telling him about the makeover, and I said I thought she could be great-looking with a little help. I was trying to help you out," she said, in a hurt voice, like I was betraying her personally by drinking orange juice. "Midge was there."

"He did. He said she needs to loosen up, then she'll be cute." Midge and Veronica exchanged glances. "Something like that." Midge poured herself another drink.

"Fine," I said. I drank the juice with the gin in it, all at once. "You want loose, here's loose." I was angry. They were talking about me like I wasn't there, and Betty was acting like it was ridiculous to say Jughead could like me. Okay, I knew it was ridiculous. But I hoped.

"There you go," Veronica said. "Looser already." Midge poured me another one.

Betty put her hand on my shoulder. "Ah, Ethel? Could I talk to you a minute?"

I love Betty. Usually I am thrilled to talk to her. But I was starting to feel cheerful. The liquor made me feel at first like I was going to throw up, but then I got a warm sensation in my stomach, and Midge's basement and everyone in it was suddenly glowing, a friendly, happy golden color. For the first time since fifth grade, I was hopeful about being part of the group. I started to think maybe Jug really did think I was cute. I did not want a lecture from her ruining it all. "I'm fine," I said. I chugged the second drink. I wanted to keep the golden feeling going.

"Ethel," Betty started.

"She's fine, Bets," Ronnie said. "Leave her alone."

"And anyway," I said, "You're a fine one to talk. Considering how you run after Archie, when the only one he wants is—" I saw the hurt in her eyes and stopped. I looked at Veronica, who was smirking. "I didn't mean it," I said, but it was too late.

"No, you're right," Betty said. "And you're right about being an adult, too. Have fun, you guys. I'm calling my mom."

"Betty," I said. "Please."

"She'll be happy to drive you home, Ethel. Or you can come home with me, if you like."

I stopped for a second. Betty was the nicest person in the whole school. She had always been good to me. Not only was she trying to rescue me now, she was asking for support, from me. But she had to understand this was my moment. "I'm staying," I said.

"All right!" Ronnie and Midge offered me high fives. Betty gathered her stuff and went outside to call home. "Now we can really start the party," Midge said. She poured another round for everybody.

And we did. I don't remember all of it—the golden glow started to get kind of wiggly, and it was hard to get my balance or to understand what was being said. At one point, they announced they were going to teach me to dance. "Never," I said. "I trip over myself."

"Because you're out of touch with your body," Midge said. "Dancing is really sex, did you know that?"

"I don't think I'm good at that, either," I said. They laughed, like I was fascinating and witty. "You never know till you try," Veronica said. I didn't talk about him; I wasn't that drunk—and anyway, I knew that wasn't what they meant.

They stood me up in a corner of the room and put on some music. "Just sway a little," Midge said. That wasn't hard; I was already having trouble staying upright. But it wasn't the kind of swaying they wanted.

"Pretend," Midge said, "that Juggie is here. Right in that corner. Admiring you." I imagined him standing in the room, watching as I moved gently, to the music.

"That's it!" Veronica said. "Now—unbutton the blouse."

I covered myself with my hand. "I can't do that."

"Sure you can. It's just make-believe. But it could be real one day, if you pay attention. Pretend you're on your honeymoon. Juggie is waiting on the bed, right over there. He's naked. He's smiling at you, watching you. Just unbutton the top button."

I felt warm, and beautiful. I could almost see Jug, lying on the bed, waiting.

"It's practice," Midge said. "There's nobody here but us, you're perfectly safe."

"We do it in front of each other all the time," Veronica said.

So, I did. I started slowly, unbuttoning the top button, then the next one. Midge turned up the music, and they both started dancing, too, and calling, "Take it off! Your sweetie's waiting!" So, I did, first the blouse, then my pants and underpants.

"Now touch yourself," Veronica said. "It's Juggie touching you." I slid my hand down my body. I had always thought I couldn't get excited that way. I thought he'd ruined it for me. But this wasn't like when he does it to me. I felt warm and happy and very sexy. Jughead thought I was cute. Midge and Veronica were my friends. I couldn't remember ever feeling so good, so right. Midge and Veronica were cheering me on: "Come on! Come on!" And, I did, my body just took over and I could feel Jug inside me and I was ecstatic. Truly.

They wanted me to do it again but I was so tired, and felt a little sick. I said, "Isn't it somebody else's turn now?"

Midge said, "I would never try to compete with an act like that!" and Ronnie agreed. They wanted to keep drinking, but I changed into my pajamas and went to bed. I dreamed about Juggie, not really sex dreams but just happy, loving ones. It was the best night of my life so far, though I hope there will be better ones to come, now that I know a few secrets.

When I woke up, it was after ten. I never get to sleep that late. I'm never the one who wakes up to the smell of coffee brewing and muffins baking; I always have to get up and make them. We had a delicious breakfast, and Midge wouldn't even let me clean up.

I took a nice, long bath (another luxury!) and got ready to leave. As I was thanking Midge, Ronnie said, "Hey, I have an idea! Why don't you come home with me? We could go for a swim! Then you could sleep over, and tomorrow I'll do you up again before school."

I said, "My father expects me home," but Ronnie said, "Oh, Daddy will take care of that."

So I'm writing this from a deck chair next to Ronnie's indoor pool. I feel like a completely different person now—like my fairy godmother waved a wand and all my wishes came true.

The only things I feel bad about:

1. Sweatshirt guy. He was standing across the street from Midge's when Ronnie and I came out. He waved, but I pretended I didn't know him. That wasn't right. I will try to explain it to him, how I just wanted to belong and be normal, if I can find a way to do it that won't hurt his feelings.

2. Betty. I wanted to call her to see if she's still mad, but Ronnie won't let me. "Let her stew in her own juices for a while," Ronnie said. "It will be good for her. Now she's the one who needs to loosen up a little." And I have to admit, Ronnie knows what she's doing. In fact, she turned off all the phones so we could have some peace after our wild night. We had a nice swim and sat in the Jacuzzi, then her maid served us dinner by the pool. In a little while, she's going to give me a facial, then we're going to turn in early.

So—good night to the best weekend of my life.

Monday night: We got up early and Ronnie did my hair and makeup and lent me clothes—some stretchy pants and a sweater, because, she explained, none of her tailored things would fit me, our sizes are so different. So when I got to school, and everyone started saying, "Here comes the movie star," it made me happy. There I was with a chic new haircut, expert makeup, and clingy, designer clothing, and of course they all noticed. Juggie wouldn't look at me, but I figured he was bashful around the "new me."

Then, at lunchtime, all the guys and some of the girls were gathered around Reggie's laptop. When I walked into the cafeteria, they started clapping and wolf whistling. At first I smiled, and took a little bow. Then they were yelling, "Come on! Come on!" just like Ronnie and Midge had done. Reggie called out, "Unbutton your blouse! You're on your honeymoon!" and they all started stomping and cheering. Then I saw what they were watching.

Oh, God. I can't talk about it anymore. I started to run out of the school, but Mr. Wetherbee said, "Ethel, you know you can't leave school grounds without permission." I went on to class. I did what I do when he's after me, I just pretended I was in Paris, and somehow the day ended. Somehow.

Afterwards I went to the library but sweatshirt guy wasn't there. I looked up recipes online. Discovered they are only fun to read if you imagine cooking for somebody. Left the library and just sat across the street from Juggie's for a long time. At first I watched him play in the side yard with Jellybean, wishing I was her, wishing I could be inside somewhere, safe, with a big brother to watch out for me. Then he looked up and saw me. He brought her inside and slammed the door. So I just sat and watched the house, imagined being safe and warm.

When it got dark, I went home. Looked for sweatshirt guy along the way, but he was nowhere. Got home, he grabbed me and said, "You whore, you‚ve had boys calling you all day and night, and look at you, made up like a tart. Wash that off your face." I did. He didn't hit me, though, maybe he's afraid, since he thinks I'm friends with Ronnie and her dad. He didn't bother me either, which is a blessing because I would have stabbed him.

Thought about how to get through tomorrow, the rest of the year, the rest of high school. No ideas. Maybe something will come to me.