Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Two Nice Girls"

I received my copy of "Still More Stories for Girls." It has been a rush reading the old stories that I used to read over and over. They were written in the early 1970's, mostly published in Seventeen magazine. (An early dream of mine was to win the Seventeen annual fiction contest. They had published Sylvia Plath's first short story, so there was a built-in cache perfect for a girl in her angst-ridden teens.)

I remember being slightly scandalized at the subject matter in some of the stories, although maybe it's because I was 10 or 11 reading them, not 15 as expected. (17-year old girls didn't read Seventeen, it was for their younger sisters who aspired to be as cool as a 17-year old. I believe that's still the target audience.) In one, a girl is protesting against her school's dress code, which has announced that "No boy shall wear jeans or work pants to school." It never crosses the Principal's mind that a girl would attempt to do so, so the story's heroine shows up in jeans in support of her male classmates. When the principal accuses her of breaking the code, she replies, "It says 'No boy.' I'm a girl.'" And she sticks out her chest. Shocking, for me who didn't yet have her own breasts, so was unfamiliar with that power, and couldn't believe how cavalierly she used it.

The other story that has stuck with me concerned two freshmen women in a southern college. One is white and the other black, the first student to be accepted into the school under a new affirmative action program, (although they don't call it that. In fact, the girl is offered a full scholarship, but her family turns it down as they are well off and don't want the favoritism.) The two discover they have much in common, wind up having tea one afternoon in the white girl's room (drinking from her family heirloom china), and talking about all kinds of subjects: religion, dating, family, philosophy, poetry, clothes, and eventually, racism. They have similar feelings of superiority - the black girl refused to participate in a protest outside a five and dime lunch counter because she would never want to eat there anyway, no matter that they wouldn't serve her. The white girl laughingly repeats something her father said about her family housekeeper, but hesitates before referring to her as a "servant," something the other girl picks up on and questions. The white girl admits he'd said "negro," but claims she didn't repeat it because she has been taught that it's not a term you use in polite society, not because of whom she was talking to.

At the end of the story, the black girl leaves, but turns back to say something and notices the white girl picking up the tea cups to wash them, then stoppping and lifting them up to the light to determine (by the faint lipstick color) who had used each. She sets them down far apart, looks up and sees her friend. Immediately she realizes that the other girl knows that she is doing this because she intends to wash the dishes separately, and both are horrified. The story ends with her chasing after the other girl, neither addressing the incident directly but sharing a "moment" where they recognize in each other remains of their traditional southern upbringing and all of its faults, and a desire to act differently. And they go off to the black girl's room together.

The image of those teacups held up in the light comes back to me again and again, over 30 years later. I think I connected it to my own budding-liberal white guilt, my hope that I never do anything inadvertently that would be misinterpreted or offend anyone. Like when I'm walking down the street and pull my shoulder bag closer to me because it's annoyingly bumping up against my leg, and look up to see I've just passed a black woman who gives me a dirty look. Teacups, teacups.

I wonder what would have happened to those girls, if the story continued. I can't seem to find any other writings by that author. Maybe I can find a way to tell the next part of the story, my own way, without feeling like I'm plagiarizing. Because it never felt right to me that the girls just looked at each other a certain way and all the obstacles to their friendship fell to the wayside.


Blogger ProudTexasWoman said...

Thanks for writing about this collection. I picked up my copies from a junior-high classmate in the '80s, and just now was trying to find the title -- I'm not at home right now -- for "Two Nice Girls." I'd searched the characters' names without success. Finally I hit on the strategy of searching on "No Boys. I'm a Girl!", whose title I recalled from the time I read it in elementary school. It's interesting to see that I'm not the only one on whom "Two Nice Girls" has had a lasting impression.

3:54 AM  

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