Sonya had wanted to take Elise to the mainland to shop for school clothes, but she got called in for a workshop the school board was hosting, for the teachers at all the island schools, on trauma-informed care.
“What do these sheltered kids know about trauma?” Elise asked.
But I knew that wherever there are people, there is trauma.
“Farming accidents, storms, fishing accidents,” I said, “not to mention domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual harassment, and bullying. Trauma’s everywhere.”
“I’ll just wear these clothes,” Elise said. “I only need t-shirts and jeans.”
But her shoes had holes, so she agreed to let me take her instead.
We left our car at the island terminal and walked on board, to the accompaniment of wolf whistles from workers on the dock.
“Those are for you,” Elise said.
I laughed. “I hardly think so.” It had been decades since anyone whistled at me, not since I’d perfected the self-assured stride that says, “Not available, not interested,” and certainly not since my hair turned white.
“They’d better not be whistling at me,” Elise said.
“Does it bother you?”
There had been a time, when I was around Elise’s age, and I was first feeling what it was like to inhabit a young woman’s body, with hips, a thin waist, breasts, when my best friend and I collected wolf whistles. We held a friendly contest. I never garnered more than thirteen a day, while she often racked up fifteen. We called a halt to the contest suddenly, after a saunter through a park filled with Hell’s Angels drew more than whistles. We stopped sauntering, kept our gaze on the path, and walked as quickly as we could without running back to our bicycles. As we raced off, our hearts beating, I realized I didn’t want that kind of attention, not from a biker, not from anybody.
Elise and I ordered coffee on board and sat looking out over the straights.
“What are the boys like at school?” she asked. “Are there many?”
“There are four,” I said. “They’re good kids. One’s the son of a fisherman. Another’s the son of the librarian. And you met Devon and Shire selling their mom’s honey and organic herbs at the farmers’ market.”
“Do they have girlfriends?”
The fisherman’s son did. I’d heard that dating for island teens was a slow affair–there simply weren’t enough kids living year-round on the island. Some of them met teens from other islands. Some held online romances. Some hooked up with summerers for short romances. But mostly, from what I’d heard, the kids waited to date until leaving the island for college or work.
“I think I like that,” Elise said. “Less pressure, right? Is it a clicquish school?”
It couldn’t be, with only seven, now eight, students in the entire high school. Besides, the school had been practicing its particular blend of Steiner/Reggio Emilia since before these kids entered kindergarten.
“It’s pretty egalitarian,” I said. “I think you’ll like it. When you’ve only got enough kids for one group, everyone pretty much gets along.”
“That would be different,” Elise said. “My old school was awful. There was this hall you walked down, in the math wing–it was called ‘butt-grab’ hall, because that’s what happened there. When you walked down it, the guys grabbed your butt.”
Elise nodded. “So we had a buddy system. We’d walk in a group, and the ones in front held their binders in front of their chests, and the ones in the back held them behind their… behinds. And we walked like that. Safety in numbers.”
“You shouldn’t have to do that. You should be able to be safe in school.”
“One would think. The system worked, though. Then, in April, my friends stopped being my friends, so I had to walk alone. I was always late for math, then.”
“Couldn’t you report that?”
“Yes. And the report asks for names, and when I put down the names, that’s when my friends stopped being my friends, but the behavior didn’t stop.”
I flashed on my student Sasha and her complaint against Denny, my friend and former colleague. I felt thoroughly relieved, grateful, even, that her claims had been acted on.
“I hope we can find some decent clothes,” Elise said as we approached the shoreline. “I hate girls’ clothes. They make me look like this.” She scrunched up her lips, cinched in the waist of her t-shirt, and stuck out her chest. “Like I’m a target.”
“We don’t have to buy off the girls’ rack,” I said.
We walked from the ferry terminal into town. The road was shaded, with mushrooms growing alongside it. We fell silent, after our long conversation on the crossing. My attention went to the birds singing in the forest, vireos, nuthatches, and chickadees. Elise seemed lost in her own thoughts.
We stopped at Starbucks and then hit up the discount retail stores. On the boys’ rack, we found skinny black jeans, relaxed-fit stonewashed jeans, and a pair of baggy brown cords. In a record store, Elise found GOT7 and BTS t-shirts. We bought black sneakers and brown canvas ankle boots. By the time we needed to catch the evening ferry, we’d filled four big shopping bags of clothes.
“I’m exhausted,” Elise said, as we boarded the bus to take us back to the ferry terminal.
We didn’t talk much on the ride back. I bought us veggie wraps for supper and we ate facing the front windows. The water danced with sun gems.
“I’m gonna look so cool,” Elise said.
She was right. In her new clothes, she looked confident and hip.
“This was fun, Elise,” I said. “I’m glad I got to take you shopping. Thanks.”
She nodded. “Yup,” she said. “I think it’s gonna be my best year yet.”
As the sun set, the ferry moved into the golden path. In June, when I rode the ferry out to the summer house, I knew that this time of year, at summer’s end, I’d be riding the ferry again. Only then, I thought I’d riding it the other way, away from the sunset path, back to my busy life of conflict and demand.
But here I was, riding it home, and not alone, but with a new friend who shared that home. So many changes, such a short time.
Change isn’t always bad. And sometimes, good things happen after bad. The college would get along without me. Bernard’s dad would get along without his family. And in our new lives, in our new home, we’d all get on just fine.