Sitting in the backseatthe way-back, actually, this being the days before seat belt regulationsI felt a small, hopeful surge of promise, like a faint, thin shaft of light coming through the door, or the hint of breeze on a sweltering day. I loved to draw, a fact my mother hadnt seemed to notice.
My mother said nothing. Why would she want to pursue any activity that linked me closer to Val Dickerson? Even as my mother sought the woman out, she seemed so filled with judgment and reproach.
Theres a Howard Johnsons up ahead, girls, she said. Well get you each a cone. Just not chocolate. It stains.
Afterward, standing in the parking lot, licking my ice creamthe one person in our family who chose coffee, when everybody else favored strawberry or vanillaI thought about a picture Id seen on the wall at the Dickersons. It was a print by an artist who was popular at the time, an image of a thin girl with straggly hair and big eyes that filled up half her face. She was holding a flower. The feeling it gave you, looking at this picture, was that the girl the artist had painted was the only person in the world (and very likely this was the only flower). Nobody could be more alone than that girl. And the funny thing was that though I lived in a big familywith my four sisters, crammed into three bedroomsthis was how I felt, too, growing up in that house.
Not that she ever did anything so different, but I had a sense that in some odd way I could not understand, but registered in my heart, my mother never took to me as she did to my sisters. I would feel it when I saw her with one of the othersNaomi, whose hair she liked to braid, or Esther, for whom she had found the nickname Tootsie, or Sarah, known as Honeybun.
Whats my nickname?I asked her one time. She had looked at me with a blank expression then, as if the thought of coming up with yet another endearment was beyond her capacity.
Ruth, she said. Thats a fine name.
This was when my father stepped in. I think Ill call you Beanpole, he said.
I was different from my sisters. Different from my mother most of all. They didnt know this about me, but I made up odd stories, and sometimes, as I did, I drew pictures of the things I dreamed up, and sometimes these pictures were so strange, and possibly even shocking, I hid them in my sock drawer. Though there was one person I showed them to, when I had a chance. Ray Dickerson.
The second time we visited them in Vermont, I brought Ray a picture of the two of usRay and meon a spaceship, both of us in spacesuits but still clearly recognizable, with an image of Saturn out the window. At school wed just done a unit on astronauts and theyd told us about Ham, the chimpanzee they sent into spacean idea that had haunted me, because my teacher never mentioned any plans for bringing the chimp home, only launching himmeaning he was destined to orbit the earth forever, I guessed, until the food ran out and all that was left was a chimp skeleton. In my picture, I was half girl, half chimpanzee. Ray looked like a chimpanzee too.
Sometimes, I feel like that chimp they launched into space, he said, when I showed him my picture.
Only it wouldnt be so lonely if you had company, I said, thinking of how in the picture there had been two of us.
He just looked at me then. Maybe he was thinking, What am I doing talking to a little kid? He looked like he might say somethingan expression he often had, actuallybut he didnt speak. He just grabbed his unicycle and took off down the driveway, though not before stuffing my picture in his jeans pocket. This was another thing about Ray: he disappeared abruptly. One minute you were having the best conversation. Then he was gone.
Excerpted from The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard. Copyright © 2010 by Joyce Maynard. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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