The crisp fall air matched my brittle anxieties when I began my senior year in high school. Everything was monumental. I crackled, like the first bite of an apple, with excitement. While savoring the excitement, I found the taste bittersweet. My moods were as varied as the colors of autumn's palette. I had begun to grieve over anticipated losses, feared change, and relished it at the same time. I tried to keep my goal in focus, which was to become a nurse. The immediate roadblock was getting into nursing school. I looked out my bedroom window trying to quell my anxiety. In the distance I could see the illuminated First Presbyterian Church steeple brighten the early morning sky. Although comforted by its familiar glow, I had little idea what other corners of my life it would illuminate.
The current spotlight was on an entrance exam for Muhlenburg, which I was scheduled to take this afternoon. While getting dressed, the conversation I had with Buddy Williams rang through my mind. Buddy was a real predictor of doom. He owned and managed an up-scale fast food place. During the summer, I had worked evenings for him as a waitress. Buddy had a reputation of being difficult to get along with; I just tried to stay out of his way. Buddy's words left their mark like a bruise you'd find without remembering having been hit. He confided in me that his secret ingredient for tuna salad was nutmeg, and claimed that I would never become a nurse. He said I was too shy to succeed. I was amazed that he thought himself helpful by telling me that, when in reality his words hung over my head like a guillotine. I tried to placate myself with the truth, that Buddy was mean and cantankerous. But his words pealed repeatedly giving sustenance to my own doubt.
I tried not to allow my doubt to take precedence today, although my confidence was waning. I had a lot on my mind. I was also scheduled to take Helene Fuld's entrance exam the coming weekend. I had to get into one of these nursing schools. I couldn't remember ever wanting to do anything else. My soul felt a connection to the art of healing. The desire to use my hands to develop the craft had expanded into the proportions of a feast.
My anxiety, glutton that it was, couldn't be satisfied. It involved more than just the entrance exams; there was the issue of money. I had overheard my parents talk about their finances; I didn't need to be reminded about the importance of scholarships. I knew how tight money was, how hard my parents worked, but recognizing our financial situation didn't help. It added to the burden. I felt grateful and guilty. I felt guilty about the application fees, guilty about the tuition, guilty about their sacrifice, and worried whether I was worth their investment. It was more than just the investment of money. It was their time and energy, their expectant faces.
I carried the good luck look on my mother's face with me to the bus stop. As I climbed on board, I felt tethered by her words and my own thoughts. I struggled to loosen the reins of doubt but they grew tighter when I remembered I also had a chemistry quiz today. I needed to review in first period study hall. So preoccupied coming off the bus looking for my notes, I neglected to see my best friend, Diane, until she bumped into me. "Hey," she said, pushing her hair back. Diane had dirty blonde hair, parted on the side, allowing it to sweep across her forehead covering one eye. It gave her a mysterious look.
"Oh, sorry. My mind is a million miles away."
"Not necessarily a bad thing," she smiled revealing her crooked front tooth, "What are you and Marc doing this weekend?"
"I'm not sure. I have the entrance exam for Helene Fuld to take on Saturday."
"Yeah, tell me about it." I hoisted up my bag of books, freeing one hand to open the door. I let Diane go in before me.
"Are you going to Smutzie's later?" she asked. Diane's mother had purchased "Smutzie's," a luncheonette, after her Dad died. It was where all the kids hung out after school. They had the best cherry-coke. Diane had decided to work for her mother after graduation; I envied the simplicity of her decision.
"No, I have to baby-sit my little brother."
"Well, call me. Good luck this afternoon."
I flinched a nod in reply. After putting my books in my locker, I headed to study hall. Once there I couldn't get my mind to concentrate on chemistry. Instead, I kept thinking about Marc. We had been dating for over a year. I knew from the very first moment I saw him that we would marry. It was more premonition than love at first sight, although I was attracted to his good looks and jaunty gait. Our relationship had intensified, despite our limited time together since Marc was in college. Weekends were full of stolen moments for knowing gazes, longing gestures and lingering kisses. Vulnerable moments of intimacy where dreams once exposed are so caressed with acceptance, they meld together making it difficult to identify his from mine.
Later that afternoon, as I stared at the sealed test packet for Muhlenburg, I felt solitary. It was so ironic that a few simple pieces of paper could wield so much power. My whole life seemed dependent on the answers. I felt nauseous, and inadequate. Buddy was right. I was never going to become a nurse. I was stupid, had limited finances, and felt ambivalent about leaving home. The proctor advised us to begin. I felt sick. I broke the test seal, picked up my pencil and began the test, wondering if anyone else in the room felt the same.
At supper my mother asked, "How did you make out taking the test for Muhlenburg?"
"So, you did well then?"
"Well, how do you think you did?"
"What kinds of questions were on the test?"
"I don't know, same as SAT's."
"So vocabulary and math? Did you get to answer them all? Did you struggle at all? Gosh, Toni, why is it I have to ask you twenty questions to get anything out of you?"
"I don't know what you want me to say. Can I be excused?"
"Well! I am just trying to have a conversation."
My father nodded that I could go. As I was leaving the table to go up to my room, Mom added, "You are always in a hurry to go off some where. If you're not leaving the table, you're leaving the house. I also think you are too serious about that boy."
"Marc? What does he have to do with anything?"
"You have your whole life ahead of you, Toni. There is plenty of time for you to get serious about boys. Why are you always in such a hurry?"
Halfway up the stairs, I wasn't going to answer, and I didn't want to listen. I could hear her telling my father, "I was just trying to have a conversation," when I shut my bedroom door. I fell on my bed; my eyes started to tear. I looked out my window and saw the glowing Presbyterian Church steeple, and thought to myself, "God, I'll be glad to get out of this place."
A few weeks later, I woke and looked at my alarm clock. Discovering I had a few more hours of sleep left, I rolled over. Tranquilized by the soft rhythmic snoring of my father that came down the hall, I drifted back to sleep. A faint tickle crossed my chest. A minute later it returned. This time more distinct, near the shoulder straps of my nightgown. Annoyed, I brushed my hand across my chest. Something became tangled in my fingers. My mind struggled to concentrate as my fingers felt something smooth and hard. I was trying to focus when a movement, a light tickling flickered across my fingertips. The knowing was immediate. A bug! Oh God, a bug. Not a small bug but one unusually large and writhing, tangled in my fingers. Instantly I felt the creeps, the crawling sensation came in rapid convulsion. An unexpected sound was released from my throat. In reflex I shook my hand freeing the tangled bug. As my mind grappled with what had just happened, my eyes searched my surroundings. My heart was pounding so rapidly I felt as if I was choking. Then I saw it, black and shiny scurrying across my bed. It was huge! Locating the bug gave me a moment of control, and a scream rose from where it had been held captive. Released, it filled my bedroom. A purposeful cry, it resonated throughout the house. With my next breath came words, "Dad-dee, Dad-dee. Oh God. Daddy!"
I heard my father jump out of bed and stumble down the hall. He flicked on the light switch just inside my bedroom door, and found me sitting upright in bed. I saw him standing there in his underwear, first with an expression of bewilderment, then annoyance. " Jesus, what's wrong with you?"
It was his tone of voice, and the look on his face that sobered me. I knew that this had better be good. Every thing had suddenly taken on an element of seriousness. My mother and brothers had joined Dad in my doorway. Everyone was waiting for my answer. I couldn't just announce that a bug was on me, so I took a breath and said, "It was a large mouse, Dad. A large mouse was crawling on me."
"What? A mouse? Where?" he asked glancing around. My brothers snickered and returned to their beds. My mother fastened her robe and watched as Dad searched under my bed, and in my closet. " You frightened us to death, Toni," she said. Dad, finding nothing, added, "It was a dream, Toni, just a dream. There isn't any mouse." Mom had that exasperated look on her face.
"No, it wasn't a dream. I felt it."
"There's nothing here, no mouse," Dad said. To prove his point he started to remove my bedcovers. All of a sudden, the bug scurried out. It was the largest, ugliest black bug, about an inch and a half long, with large feelers and a hard shell on its back. "Jesus," Dad exclaimed, and stomped the bug, squishing its guts all over the hardwood floor.
I looked at what remained of the bug, and divulged, "That's it, Daddy. That's what was crawling on me."
He looked at me, surprised, as if asking me to repeat what I had just said. I covered my mouth with my hand. Mom reprimanded, "Toni!" Speaking through my fingers I said, "I'm sorry, Daddy. But if I told you the truth, you wouldn't have looked for it." I reached for his arm, "It was that bug, Dad. God, it gave me the creeps. It was crawling on my chest."
Still surprised he asked, "It was this bug?" Shaking his head in disbelief, "Jesus, Toni." Then we both looked down at the remains of the bug, its yellowish insides all squished out.
"What kind of bug was it, Dad?"
"Don't know," he said.
We took another minute to inspect it. Repulsed, I said, "It's a cockroach."
With that proclamation my mother perked up, "We don't have cockroaches, Toni." She was insulted. My mother considered her housekeeping a matter of great pride. Taking a tissue out of her robe pocket she wiped up what remained of the squished bug, and tossed it into the trashcan. "Now can we all get some sleep?"
Mom returned to bed, but Dad and I now awake, went downstairs for tea and coffee. We went over what had happened again and again. Each time we told the story, we added something, laughing at ourselves, exaggerating and miming each other's actions.
About six weeks later, I was sitting in a booth at Smutzie's waiting for Diane. I had asked her to meet me after school. Sitting there, I felt desperate for her company. I didn't have to wait for more than a few minutes when I saw her coming toward me. Smiling she asked, "What's up?" as she slid into the middle of the seat across from me.
"I think I'm pregnant."
"I think I am pregnant. I didn't get my period last month. I'm about two weeks late."
"Well, maybe it's something else."
"Like what? What else could it be? God, what am I going to do?"
"Well, calm down for one thing. You're never going to get it when you're so worked up."
"Yeah, maybe you're right. I'm just too worked up. That's all, huh?"
"Of course," Diane said sounding confident. The waitress approached us; Diane placed her order, "Cherry coke." We sat there, sipping our soda and talking until supper. Feeling relieved by Diane's repeated reassurances, I decided to head home.
Lying on my bed that night studying, I waited for Marc's telephone call. He would call a couple of times a week. I tried to push thoughts of pregnancy from my mind. Finally the phone rang and I rushed to get it. "Hello."
"Hey," the voice said at the other end. I recognized Marc immediately. "What are you doing?"
"Studying chemistry, how 'bout you?"
"I'm on my way to the student center. There's a protest meeting tonight." Rutgers's students had been having many similar meetings of protest against the Vietnam War.
"Listen, I wanted to tell you that I don't think I'll be home this weekend. There's a lot of things I have to do, and it would be easier if I just stayed here to get them done."
"Oh. Well," I sounded disappointed.
"I knew you were going to react this way. I'm sorry, Toni, but there are times when I'll have to stay here to get work done."
"It's not that, it's just," but before I could finish, Marc interrupted, "Look I gotta go, OK?"
"Yeah, sure." I heard a click at the other end. I went back to my bedroom, fell on my bed, and cried. I felt so alone. I didn't get the chance to tell Marc what I wanted. I didn't necessarily want to tell him I thought I was pregnant, but I did want to tell him that I loved him. I wanted to tell him I understood that he had work to do. But it hadn't worked out that way. Nothing was working out the way I had planned. I had yet to receive a notice of acceptance from any nursing school. I was late getting my period. I bombed my last chemistry quiz. I had cockroaches crawling on me in the night. Oh God, Buddy Williams was right. I wasn't going to become a nurse, not because I was too shy, but because I was stupid, unworthy and pregnant. While hugging my pillow and looking out my bedroom window, I noticed the church steeple had the gall to glow.
A few more weeks passed and still not getting my period I went to my mother. Feeling frightened and desperate I told her what I thought. We made an appointment to see a gynecologist. After examining me, the doctor said, "I can't find anything wrong, Toni. You are perfectly healthy and certainly not pregnant."
"Why have I missed my period?" I asked.
"Well, there could be any number of reasons," he replied, "Most commonly it's due to some emotional turmoil, perhaps something frightening. Has anything like that happened to you?"
I looked at Mom; I could read her mind. I said, "No, nothing."
"Well, I'm sure you'll get your period shortly. If not, then you let me know."
Once we were out in the car, I said, "It was that stupid cockroach."
"We don't have cockroaches, Toni."
"Well, whatever that bug was, it's responsible for me missing my period." We rode home the rest of the way in silence.
Later I confessed to Marc what had happened. He lifted his eyebrows and said, "But we've never had sex, Toni. You couldn't possibly be pregnant."
"I know. But I thought, I don't know, maybe we had been too close."
"Too close? Through our clothes? How could we have been too close?"
"I don't know. I just didn't know any other reason for missing my period. You know, maybe with love all things are possible."
"You're nuts, you know that?"
I did get my period shortly after, and received notice from Helene Fuld School of Nursing that I had been accepted on full scholarship. Buddy Williams had been wrong. I was going to be a nurse after all, although I could stand to brush up on my gynecological knowledge.
Dad and I continued our story telling, especially at night while doing the supper dishes. Whenever we acted out the cockroach story, we'd dance around the kitchen table, causing Mom to holler, "What's all the racket?"
"We're doing the La CucaRoacha, Mom."
"We don't have cockroaches."
As I finished drying the dishes, I looked up through the kitchen window and caught sight of the top of the Presbyterian Church steeple all a glow. It was reassuring to know that I could count on some things to never change.
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Antoinette's Story List and Biography