Eleventh grade and Margot had been a newbie six times. Sheesh! Margot never expected to get used to being the ‘new kid.’ Once high school lay in the rear view mirror, she could get on with her life.
Her immediate task was breaking into a group, so she wouldn’t spend the next two years alone. Margot knew too well, gaining social traction after school started, sucks, big-time. By week two, the cliques have gelled. Breaking into anything but your own locker is a pitiful pipe-dream.
The kids gathering tonight were lifelong friends. Breaking into a tight-knit group was Margot’s lifelong goal. If she could do it.
Grace dropped her purse next to Margot. “Where is everyone? Some people are such wanks,” said Grace as she checked her phone. “Nobody texts. No one calls.” She looked at Margot. “Sorry about this…”
Margot shrugged. “No pressure. Really.” Grace softened. “By the way, no matter what happens today, I love your hair.”
Grace beamed. “Thanks, Margot.” She looked around.
A couple of young women entered the café and waved. A guy came in and headed toward them. He offered his hand to Margot. “I’m Ted. Glad to meet you.” He told Grace when he came in, Gwen had parked.
Grace introduced Margot to May and Tammy. Gwen joined them at the big corner booth. The waitress brought their usual orders.
Grace loved holding court. She addressed everyone, but kept focused on Margot. “You know the rules, except you, Margot. I don’t want to bore everyone, so I’ll keep it short.” Grace explained that to gain trust, each member had to share a family secret.
Margot nodded. The rest paid superficial attention. Old news. She looked for connection.
Ted put down his Rubik’s cube and grinned at her. Margot smiled back, taking care no one mistook it for flirting. She hadn’t yet divined how Ted fit into this constellation of young women.
May smiled. Her manner gave Margot the sense this meeting was a mere formality for a done deal. She was the only one Margot knew at all.
She’d approached May the first week of school and casually asked directions to their Biology class. Margot got her laughing about their teacher, Mr. Knox’s, attempts at humor.
Sitting on Grace’s right, Tammy stared at her coffee cup and stirred. The rhythmic clinking of spoon against cup distracted Grace. She gently touched Tammy’s hand. She came out of her reverie, and set her spoon onto the saucer, but continued to stare at the swirling coffee.
Sitting to Grace’s left, Gwen couldn’t take it seriously. She mimicked Grace’s attitude, moving her mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Everyone tried to stifle their laughter.
Grace concluded, “…you know the secret needs to be more scandalous than…” She feigned shock. “…‘Jenny got a used pony for her birthday, not a new one.’ Got it? This isn’t gossip. Embrace the nitty-gritty.” Everyone murmured assent. Grace relaxed. “We’ll introduce ourselves to Margot by sharing our secrets, one-by-one. I’ll start.” Her gaze settled on Margot. “Everyone knows this… Margot, I’m a real bastard.”
They all roared with laughter.
Ted pounded the table. “She is! She really is…”
Grace continued, “Margot, you should know my parents never married. My Mom shacked up with my Dad, abandoning her marriage when her husband was stationed in Iraq. Though she never got around to getting divorced, here I am… Ted, you’re next.”
Ted cleared his throat. “It’s always hard to follow an act like yours Grace, but here goes. Back in the last century, during Prohibition, my Grandfather got rich, bootlegging liquor from Kentucky to New York and Chicago.”
Margot interjected, “You mean like the…?”
Ted finished her question. “The Kennedy’s? Exactly. Only my Grandfather stayed out of politics. But he did get richer…”
Grace added, “These days, that’s hardly scandalous. Pretty tame, though the picture of him with Al Capone is cool. Talk to us, May…”
Margot listened while searching her memory for a family secret. Her Dad said she’d make new friends. ‘Tell me again, exactly how many times that’s necessary?’ Saying ‘hello’ to strangers and ‘good-bye’ to best pals were well-honed skills. ‘Enough already.’ Margot had more friends, never seen again, than most people have all their life. She kept in touch with some, of course. ‘Facebook is a great depository of people you stood next to for a photo.’
Not that her Dad was around much lately. He and Mom were ‘on a break,’ as they say. If she read things right, it looked like this time would be permanent. How many lawyers does it take to screw up a family? How much money do you have? Margot figured they had plenty.
Yup, just her and Mom these days. ‘Too much fun. But not to worry. Dad said he’d ‘always be her Dad.’ If only. Take a number, Pops. What’s your name again?’
Not that Margot thought herself cynical. But she had limited capacity for false hope. ‘Let’s get real. Please? Even once?’
Laughter brought Margot back to the present. Grace spoke again. “You have to update your scandals, May. Something more current. Within the last century? Pirates are romantic. But, come on… who wasn’t a pirate, or Cleopatra, in a past life? Step up, May. You can’t coast on being a Biology genius forever.”
May laughed, “I’ll try. But my parents are so boring!”
Gwen said, “It’s true. I’d stick with the pirates, May.” Everyone laughed.
“So, what’s your secret, Gwen?” said Grace. “Lay it on us.”
Gwen looked at Tammy. “You want to cut in, Tam?”
Looking up from her cup, Tammy seemed to awaken from a dream. “My turn, already? Okay. When my Dad was in high school, he came home one day and found a note from his Mom. She’d taken his sister and moved to Florida. His father was traveling on business, and Dad had to tell him when he got back. He saw his sister after college, but never spoke to his Mom again.”
“Wow!” Margot couldn’t believe it.
Gwen said, “It’s okay, Margot. You don’t have to top that.”
Grace kept it moving. “You’re next, Gwen.”
Gwen made a show of trying to think of something. Everyone laughed and nudged each other.
Losing her patience, Grace spoke up. “Stop stalling, Gwen.”
Gwen settled and waited for the laughter to subside. She put her hands on the table and smiled at Margot. “Everyone but you knows this so, I’ll cut straight to the punch line, okay?” Margot nodded, not knowing what to expect. “My parents are cousins.” She paused for effect. “As in, ‘their parents, my grandparents, are siblings.’” Margot tried to grasp the implications. Gwen leaned in to whisper, “That explains my odd number of toes. I’ll show you later.” The laughter grew. Gwen gestured for silence. “But the bigger surprise… they aren’t from Appalachia.”
Hilarious laughter exploded at Margot’s expression. She had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“Wait a minute,” she said, “Is this real?”
Everyone assured her of the truth about their families.
Grace stopped the chatter with a raised hand. Ted did an impromptu drum roll on the table top. “You’re on, Margot. Whatcha got?”
Margot’s brain revved into high speed at the opportunity now within reach. With each change in schools, Margot enjoyed inventing a new persona. Who could say she wasn’t herself? Kids are supposed to ‘stretch their horizons,’ exploring their ‘identity.’ How many teen magazines and child-development texts sing that song in three-part harmony? Margot needed an extra closet to store her discarded personas.
Some of those books identify being the ‘new kid’ as harder on girls than guys. Because girls are more relational, and all that. Maybe so. Observing her mother’s behavior gave Margot valuable insight on the distinction between ‘relational,’ and garden-variety promiscuity. Purely anecdotal, of course.
“Margot...?” Grace waved her hand. Everyone watched.
“Sorry. Pretty overwhelming. I’ll try to explain things. Not used to entertaining… But you guys will understand, I’m sure.”
Gwen gave her a thumbs up. “Relax. You’re amongst friends.”
Margot nodded. “Here goes. My folks have split up. That’s not fun, but these days it’s hardly a scandal. But after we moved here, Mom told me she’d slept with so many guys, she isn’t sure he’s my Dad anyway.” Margot looked around. Everyone stared. She looked to Grace. “Should I explain more? Is that what you want…?”
Grace shook her head. “That’s fine, Margot. I’m sorry to hear that. We all made fun of each other because we know the stories. But what you told us isn’t funny. We support our friends.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure… when no one reacted… Who knows? But that’s what she said. You must know how divorcing parents…”
Tammy reached across the table. “Are you close with your Dad?”
“Yeah… We’re cool… Thanks.”
“Here’s to Margot!” Gwen raised her Coke. Everyone else chimed in and drank to Margot.
The conversation settled into chatter about the day and morphed into homework issues.
May spoke up. “Listen up, guys. I almost forgot. Mr. Knox, our Bio teacher, said those genetic samples you provided on the first day are being processed. Results will arrive soon.”
“What? I didn’t give anyone a urine sample.”
May’s eyes rolled. “You forgot? They got a grant to provide us with genetic profiles. Everyone signed a card and gave them a saliva sample. This is huge.”
Margot said, “I remember.” Her stomach tightened.
Soon after that, the group paid up and dispersed. Margot was in.
Over the next few weeks, things settled into some normalcy for Margot. She had people with whom she could share time, troubles, and laughs. The pending results of that genetic test haunted her.
Her Dad took her out for dinner every week. He made an effort to maintain their father/daughter connection shared her whole life. He asked about school, her studies, and her friends. He didn’t pry. She felt safe. And seen.
He supported her getting involved in extra-curricular activities. She told him she’d been cast in a play. He hugged her and said, “You’ve always been my favorite drama queen, Mar.”
But the secret she told Grace and company worried her. She’d been honest about what her mother said. But what if it were true? What if this genetic test made her a bastard? What if word got out about her Dad? She could never get over hurting him.
Whatever the outcome, he raised her. Whatever the technicalities, he was the only father she’d ever known. The best she could hope for.
She lost sleep, awaiting the results she discounted, but knew could be life changing.
And now she had no one to talk to about it. Her new friends, took her statement as fact. To introduce doubt could make her a liar. She’d be an outcast. And fatherless.
Her Dad called. “Still on for dinner tonight, kid?”
“Tonight? Yeah. I forgot.”
“Another night be better? School stuff?”
“No… No, I want to see you.”
They set a time and signed off. Margot could not sit still. She paced until he drove up.
She ran down and they left for their favorite restaurant. They bantered as usual fashion all the way. But Margot felt outside herself.
Once seated, her Dad pulled out a letter.
“This is for you. I started to open it, but then saw your name. Here.”
Margot took it and stared at the return address. It was the results to the genetic test. She stuffed it into her purse.
“Don’t you want to read it? It looks important.”
“No. It can wait. I want to spend time with you.”
“Okay. Let’s order. You want your usual?”
“Yeah.” Margot looked down.
“What’s up, Mar? You okay?”
She felt busted. Unsure.
He leaned in. “Margot, honey. Whatever it is, it’ll work out. Don’t let anything throw you off course.” She began to tear up. “You have a great future. You know how proud I am…”
She sobbed, pulled the letter from her purse and shoved it toward him.
Margot stammered, “It’s… I don’t know… I’m afraid.” She sobbed into her napkin.
Her Dad took the envelope with a scowl. He would have dismissed it as foolish but for Margot’s reaction.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.” He deftly opened the envelope and scanned the contents. Margot composed herself. “This… this is…?”
“It’s for school. A bio project… genetics.”
“This is yours?”
Margot nodded. He began to grasp the source of his daughter’s stress. He perused the genetic data and softened.
He leaned in and offered her the letter.
“Hey, kiddo… I don’t know if your mother has a ‘type,’ but unless she has a thing for Lithuanians, that’s me on the page.”
“Lithuania. Where my parents came from.”
“You mean it’s real?”
“Sure. I told you about it.”
“I thought it was another of your made-up words. You always joked…” He shrugged with a smile. “Where is it?”
“Eastern Europe. The Baltic Sea. Sandwiched between Latvia and Poland. Down the block from Estonia.”
Margot was incredulous. Tremendous tension flowed from her body. Eyes glistening, she ran to embrace her father.
“I love you Daddy.”
He hugged her back. “Of course you do, Mar. I’m your father. Always. I love you too.”
After a while, she returned to her chair. She giggled. “So, tell me more…”
Their dinner arrived.
Suddenly, everything her Dad said was hilarious to Margot. She laughed so hard, her milk shake came out her nose. Her Dad covered his eyes and she laughed even harder.
The truth didn’t hurt.