Going for the Orange Julius
Failbetter, Summer 2001
It’s not only about looking good. If you’re only looking good, you’ll probably be able to get a cone or a soft pretzel, but definitely not an Orange Julius.
“Carrie,” Grandma says to me as we walk into the mall, “are you feeling like a real lady?” The ceiling of the mall when you first walk in has mirrors on it, so you can look up and see yourself and whoever you’re with.
“Yeah, Grandma,” I say back. “I’m feeling like a lady.”
Then we both look up at the ceiling so we can see each other and Grandma says, “Well, here we are, two ladies going out to see the world.”
Grandma only wears real gold and keeps her cigarettes in a genuine leather cigarette pack holder. She always wears dresses and panty hose and heels high enough to show she’s got class and low enough to show she’s no tramp. When we go out in her Caddy she lets me sit in the front, which is one of the things I don’t tell Mom. Grandma never wears a seat belt, but she always makes me wear one, which I pretend bothers me but which I don’t really mind. With Grandma it’s air conditioning and no open windows because a lady must always look her best. At stoplights, Grandma looks to the car next to her and gives her best smile. Mom says it’s the cigarettes that make Grandma’s teeth yellow.
First thing in the morning, Grandma wakes me up and we go to her Beauty Chamber. Grandma puts her face on first, then mine. It’s easier to look at Grandma once she’s drawn in her eyebrows. When I ask why Mom doesn’t shave her eyebrows too, Grandma says it’s because Mom doesn’t care enough to make the best out of what she has, which is why she can’t keep a man and lives in a dump. Unless you watch Grandma put on her make-up, you won’t know that the beauty mark above her lip isn’t real. She says that when I’m older I’ll have to pick a permanent place to put my beauty mark, but for now she lets me pick a different place every time. I have to hold very still when Grandma does my face. Sometimes the eyeliner brush tickles, but if I squirm it messes her up and we have to start all over again. I’m allowed to put on my own lipstick, which is pink instead of red like Grandma’s because some things just aren’t appropriate.
At McDonald's, I get hot cakes and hash browns and Grandma gets coffee, which she drinks with extra milk to keep her complexion creamy. Before we get back in the car, we go to the ladies room to refresh our make-up. I have my own purse to carry it in. In the beginning I lost the purse a lot, but I am much more mature now.
Grandma's favorite store is Lord & Taylor's, which she says if I ever manage not to walk like a cripple for a whole day she will buy me a present from, which is something I haven't managed to do yet. When we walk in, we go right to the perfume ladies, who squeeze their hands together and say,
“Why if it isn’t Eleanor and her granddaughter, Carrie. How long has it been since we saw you last, Carrie?” and I tell them,
“A month,” which I’m not really sure is true, but which is about how often Mom needs a break and calls Grandma to do the trade-off.
“Any longer and I’m not sure I’d be able to undo the damage,” Grandma says, which I wish she wouldn’t say, but the perfume ladies laugh like it’s a big joke so I pretend that it is.
The perfume ladies are extremely nice and definite ladies. Their hair is always perfect and their faces are on exactly right. I’ve never seen their feet, but I bet they wear heels the same height as Grandma’s. Grandma won’t buy me heels because I’m pigeon-toed and she’s afraid I’ll fall all over myself in heels. When we walk anywhere together I have to concentrate on walking toes pointed out. It's hard to walk just right, most of the time I am either walking like a cripple or like I'm wearing a diaper according to Grandma, who knows these things. The perfume ladies spritz me with something that smells like baby powder, which I definitely like better than smelling like flowers but not as much as smelling like peppermint.
We get to the Food Court around 2, after the serious lunch-eaters have gone because Grandma says it’s important to make clear that this is not about being hungry. She always makes sure I eat really good before she sends me off so that it’s the lady in me talking and not my stomach because men can always tell the difference. Today I get the number #3 special at China Wok. I try to get my mouth around the egg roll in a way that won’t mess up my lipstick but Grandma makes me stop because she says it makes me look like a tramp.
When Grandma is driving, she puts her hand on my knee and says My knee. If I disagree she squeezes tighter and explains it really is her knee because I'm part of Mom and Mom is part of her, so I'm part of her too. When things get to be too much for Mom, she calls Grandma and they meet half-way for the trade-off at the Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey and I go from Mom's sticky-seats to Grandma's cushy red leather.
We’re sitting at the far corner of the Food Court by the Roy Rogers because that’s where the best view is. The Food Court tables are on a raised platform with fake potted plants. The platform has six sides and reminds me of a musical jewelry box I have with a ballerina that spins when you open the lid. Grandma says the music they play in the Food Court is trashy. The Food Court plays Journey, Air Supply, Billy Joel, and Hall & Oates. I pretend the songs have been picked out especially for me. That way, it’s like the whole Food Court is rooting for me.
Grandma's Caddy has electric power windows and electric locks. I’m allowed to play with the windows, but under no circumstances may I play with the locks because what if I'm leaning against the door and it flies open or what if we're driving through a dark neighborhood and someone sees us and gets ideas? For a long time I thought dark meant no streetlights.
After I finish eating, I throw out my tray except for the soda and then I go to the bathroom to check my face. Grandma used to come with me, but now checking my face on my own is part of the whole thing. The Food Court bathroom isn’t cleaned very often and smells like smoke. When I walk in, the girl from Candy World pretends like she’s tucking her hair into her visor when the bag of jumbo malted milk balls is sitting right on top of her purse and her fingers have melted chocolate all over them. I can tell she’s waiting for me to leave, but after I don’t go anywhere she finally picks up her purse and leaves.
Even though I don’t think I have to pee I make myself try because going to the bathroom in the middle of sitting with a guy is a sign and Grandma would get mad if I did it only because I had to pee. Since the Candy World girl is gone, I can turn on the water in the sink, which helps. Grandma doesn’t like me to sit on public toilet seats, so I don’t because I know she’s going to ask me when I come out and she can always tell when I’m lying. I do my best not to sprinkle, but it’s hard and, besides, there was some already there anyway.
To check my face, first I stand really close to the mirror and then I back up three steps. Close for the details and farther away for the full effect. I have to stand on a toilet with the door open to see my whole reflection, which is another reason I waited for the Candy World girl to go. Today everything looks pretty good except for my lipstick, which is smeared because of the egg roll. Just to be safe, I also spray on a little more hair spray, which I do using Grandma’s special method which she says is one of the dividing lines between ladies and tramps. Only tramps spray hair spray directly onto their heads, which gloms the hair together. Glommed hair is one thing men notice without knowing they’re noticing it when they first peg someone for a tramp. So, I spray the hairspray next to my head and then step into it, sort of like I’m stepping into the shower. That way all the hairspray molecules settle evenly around my head and hold my hair without a single glommy spot.
Grandma says my skin is clear enough that I don’t need to use foundation yet, but she’s bought me my own bottle so that it’ll be there for me when I’m ready. Grandma uses one a little darker than her own skin to make her look sun-kissed, but she never puts it on her neck, which makes her face a different color than the rest of her.
When I walk out of the bathroom and go back to the table, Grandma is waiting. She says,
“Are you ready?” in the same voice she uses when I’ve picked out something to wear that she doesn’t like. Except for once, Grandma always finds something that needs fixing when I come out of the bathroom. Letting Grandma look me over and knowing she’s going to find a mistake is the hardest part, harder even then actually going up to a guy.
“I think so,” I say, trying to sound all calm and sure of myself.
It’s like Grandma is the sun through the magnifying glass and I’m the bug. The side of my head will burn a little and Grandma will tell me that my barrette is out of place, or my cheek will burn and Grandma will say that my blush is uneven. Even though she never says it, I know Grandma is doing this so that I can do better in life than Mom, who can’t keep a man and lives in a dump.
At Howard Johnson's I always get fried clam strips with French fries and extra tartar sauce and bubble gum ice cream for dessert. The great thing about bubble gum ice cream is saving the gum balls in your mouth until the ice cream is all gone and then chewing the gum, which there's so much of by then that it takes up your whole mouth. Grandma says that gum chewing is not lady-like and that it makes me look like a cow.
Sometimes Mom eats with us. I like it better when she doesn't because it's easier for me to think of her being a part of Grandma when they're not sitting across a table from each other not talking.
“Your blouse isn’t tucked in right,” Grandma says, and I look and she’s right. “Show me how a lady’s blouse should be tucked in.”
I re-tuck in my blouse so that the creases are slanting toward each other in the front. Grandma once described it as the creases coming toward each other like roads converging at the Promised Land. I say,
“Is that better?” and she looks me over again.
“Much better,” she says and I know that it’s time to get started.
Grandma has taught me that the right way to put on a bra is to place each bosom inside the cup like you're scooping up a baby chick. Mine are so small that it's impossible scoop up anything yet, so what I do is I pretend there is something to scoop, which Grandma says I do so well she can almost see my young bosoms. Grandma is the only person I know who says bosoms, which for a long time I didn't know was the same as titty. I have matching bras and undies that Grandma keeps special for me in a drawer at her house that I can only wear when Grandma and I are going out to see the world.
Grandma starts looking for my assignment, and we both sip our sodas like we’re taking a break from shopping. Love is a Battlefield, by Loverboy, is coming through the Food Court speakers, which makes me feel totally prepared and like the songs really aren’t a tape that plays over and over. I sip my soda by holding the cup with one hand and casually putting my lips just at the very tip of the straw and sucking on the straw until only the slightest bit of soda comes up and then taking the straw out of my mouth and starting all over again. Grandma and I are experts at looking around the Food Court like we’re not looking at anything in particular when we’re really noticing everything.
At first glance it seems that there are lots of ladies around, but mostly the Food Court is full of tramps. I can tell a tramp by their make-up or their clothes, or by the way they eat their food. Even when I think I’ve found a lady, Grandma usually points out something I’ve missed that makes her a tramp, like the way she wears her hair, or the kind of purse she has. It’s incredibly difficult to be a lady. I don’t really blame Mom for not being able to do it.
Mom always asks me, when I come back from Grandma’s, How was your stay and I always say Fine. Then she says Don’t let her turn you into something you’re not, and I say Okay. Once, I forgot to take off my nails with the fake tips and Mom started crying in the Howard Johnson’s parking lot and saying She's only a baby and You promised you wouldn't do this to her and Grandma said I’m not doing anything, it was only a little manicure and Mom made me peel the nails off before getting into her car. I knew after that it would be better not to tell her about the matching bras and undies. Or about Grandma showing me how, when I got hair down there, it should be a nice, neat triangle with no Goody Trail, which is the hairs that lead from under the belly button to the Promised Land.
I’m watching the girl at Candy World and counting up all her tramp qualities when Grandma says, “There’s someone who looks like he could use the presence of a lady,” and she’s pointing at a guy in line at China Wok. When I first started out, Grandma would only assign me guys my age, but now that I’m more advanced, she’s starting to give me guys who are a little older. I was really shy at first about going to older ones, but they usually end up being easier because they have more money. This guy looks maybe three years older than me and I’m surprised that he’s the one Grandma picked because he’s wearing parachute pants, which Grandma says are trashy. I actually have a pair of parachute pants that I never take to Grandma’s because she would probably throw them away. Then I realize that Grandma might not be able to tell that they’re parachute pants because they’re black and China Wok is all the way across the Food Court.
Grandma says in order to keep a man it is important to act interested and to give him a little taste and that the reason Mom can't keep a man is because she gives him the whole seven course meal, but I never see Grandma using her advice on Grandpa who's always watching golf in his recliner with the volume turned up really loud. Grandpa has the hairiest arms I've ever seen, which I'm glad for that reason he's not the hugging type. He and Grandma say as little to each other as Mom and Grandma, which makes me think that Mom must have had the quietest childhood in childhood history.
Instead of going in a straight line from our table to China Wok, I walk around the outside of the whole platform so it will look more like I found the guy in the parachute pants by accident and not like I’ve got set plans. By the time I get to China Wok, he’s actually leaving with his tray, so I follow him to where the napkins and plastic forks are.
I stand next to the guy in the parachute pants while he’s getting napkins and pretend I’m waiting for a napkin while I look straight at him. When he looks at me, I look away but not until after we’ve looked at each other for a split second.
“Hi,” he says, which makes him at least soda material because a lot of the time, I’m the one who has to talk first. I relax then, because chances are I’m going to get it on my first try and Grandma won’t have to find me another one.
“Hi,” I say back and this time I look straight at him without looking away. He’s pretty okay looking and I understand now why Grandma picked him irregardless of the parachute pants. I haven’t seen pictures of Grandpa before he got old, but I’m pretty sure he’d look a lot like this guy. The guy has Grandpa’s dark hair although, lucky for me, not on his arms, and also maybe Grandpa’s nose. He’s also built kind of big like Grandpa – not fat, but with big shoulders and arms and I bet he plays football. So that’s what I ask him next,
“Do you play football?” I say, because they like it when you ask them questions about themselves.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’m the only sophomore on varsity,” which makes him only the third high school guy I’ve ever done this with, which makes me a little nervous but also excited because it means I can definitely skip gum or candy or a soft pretzel.
Grandma says being smart or stupid doesn’t matter as much as motivation, meaning how hard will you work to get what you want, which it seems to me that being on varsity when you’re only a sophomore is a pretty good sign of that. It doesn’t surprise me, though, because Grandma has this special talent for picking out motivators, which makes sense since she says she picked Grandpa.
Grandpa used to be a doctor but he had to retire early on account of his heart. When he and Grandma met, he was only fifteen and the son of a grocer who drank too much, but Grandma says she could tell by the way he carried himself that he was someone to stick by. She got him to notice her at the five and dime and the rest, as she says it, is history. Grandpa has a Cadillac with brown seats that aren't soft like Grandma’s. Every time we drive to dinner he shows me the doctor's card clipped to his sun visor that proves he's got more important things to do than stop for a damn red light. Then Grandma says Watch your language, I'm bringing someone up to be a lady and Grandpa says Aw, shut up, what do you know about being a lady? which makes Grandma's lips crinkle like she's just sucked on something sour. If my knee is Grandma's, then I guess a part of me has to be Grandpa's too.
“Do you go to Larchdale,” the guy says, “’cause I ain’t seen you at Pulaski,” and I nod.
“You look a little young for high school,” he says, but with a grin which means he doesn’t really mind.
“Yeah,” I say. “I skipped kindergarten, so I guess I’m a little young. Look, you want to buy me some fries?” I say right off, because I can tell he’s the kind of guy who likes to get to the point.
I’m not ever supposed to ask for lunch, even if the guy looks like he can handle it. With lunch comes obligations, Grandma says, and I’m too young for that. Like, for instance, I know this guy with the parachute pants would have bought me a gyro. This is a guy who if I ask for a gyro, he’s going to buy it just so I won’t think that he can’t. And guys like that make me want to push them, just a little bit, just a little bit further than they were thinking they were going to go.
We walk to Boardwalk Fries and before I even tell him what size I want, he orders me a large, which is really huge, and more fries than I could eat even if I was hungry, which I’m not. I know that Grandma is watching this whole thing and I know that as soon as she sees the size of the fries she’s going to get annoyed because I’m only ever supposed to ask for a small because 1) it’s unattractive to eat too much and 2) I’m too young to ask for any one item costing more than $2.50 or multiple items costing more than $5.00. And a large fries costs $3.75, which messes up my plan because after the fries I was going to go for the Orange Julius, which costs $2.50 and is my favorite drink and the trademark thing I always ask for as the sign to Grandma that things have gone really well.
The guy’s tray is already full with his stuff from China Wok, but he insists on putting the fries on his tray too, and a couple of fries fall into his wonton soup.
“Your fries just fell into my soup,” he says, wiggling his eyebrows. “I think that’s a pretty good sign,” and I giggle because I know I’m supposed to.
At home, I have guys who are friends and who I would never let buy me anything. In fact, when we go to the arcade, we make fun of the girls who giggle at everything and wear pink all the time and are always changing their lip-gloss. But it worries me because I look at Mom and our dump of a house and at how unhappy she is all the time and I know I don’t want to be like that when I get old.
“Why don’t we get a table?” I say and lead the guy up to the platform so that Grandma can see everything. I can’t sit too close to Grandma or I’ll get distracted and start saying things too much in her direction so that she can hear what a good job I’m doing. So instead I pick a table right in the center of the platform, where she can see me but where I won’t be able to tell how she’s reacting to everything, which messes me up. I make sure to sit not facing her so that I don’t start looking at Grandma instead of this guy, who’s supposed to be the center of my attention.
I know that, because of the large fries, Grandma’s going to be paying close attention to make sure that this guy doesn’t get fresh and that I don’t do anything trampy. I’m extra-careful to bite the fries in a way that doesn’t mess up my lipstick, which means eating them one at a time and biting into them with my front teeth only and with my lips kind of raised up like I’m growling. The guy doesn’t eat his food at all while I’m doing this, he just stares and I get scared that I’m doing something wrong, so I peek over at Grandma to see if I can tell what she’s thinking, but her face is totally blank and I realize she’s not going to give me any hints.
“Man, you eat those fries sexier than any girl I’ve ever seen,” the guy says, which makes me blush real hard which I know Grandma is going to notice.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. “All girls eat fries like this.”
“Not where I come from,” the guy says and he laughs this low, heh-heh laugh that sounds a lot older than I thought he was and which makes me wonder if he’s been a sophomore more than once.
“So, do you play video games?” I ask, because it’s good to find something you have in common and, it’s a subject I’m pretty good at.
“Nah,” he says, sucking up a lo mein noodle real slow, “video games are for dorks.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I know.”
“You ever play poker?” he says. The song coming through the speakers is Man-eater, by Hall & Oates, which I use to remind myself to be brave.
“All the time,” I say, trying to come up with another way to eat my fries.
“You should come over to my house and play poker with me and my friends some time,” he says. “They would like you a lot,” he says, “but don’t worry. They’d know that you were with me and they wouldn’t mess with you.”
I can’t eat any more fries because I can’t think of another way to eat them without messing up my make-up. The guy reaches under the table and touches my knee.
If they touch me, I’m supposed to say I have to go to the bathroom and wait in there until Grandma comes in to tell me they’re gone.
I move my knee away. I say,
“Buy me an Orange Julius,” and he says,
“Sure thing, babe,” taking a few sips of his soup before he gets up.
I know if I looked over at Grandma now, we could get out of the Food Court and into her Caddy before the guy in the parachute pants had any idea what was happening. We would laugh like we do sometimes when a guy gets too fresh. Grandma would say, What a scoundrel he was! and I would say Oh, yes, a real scoundrel, and we would go back to Grandma’s house and get changed for dinner and by the time we got to the Italian restaurant, it would be like nothing had happened. But I know if I did that today, Grandma would blame it on me because of the fries. Even if I told her that I hadn’t asked for a large, she would tell me that I must have asked somehow because why else would a guy buy that many fries? But with the Orange Julius, which is my trademark, she would know that it went okay despite the fries and she might even decide I’m ready for lunches, because from where Grandma’s sitting, there’s no way she could have seen under the table. So instead of looking over at Grandma, I fix my lipstick, which I do so well and so fast that my mouth is perfect by the time the guy in the parachute pants gets back with an extra-large cup.
If I’d thought about it I probably would have been able to guess, but I suppose my eyes get a little wide because the guy gives the heh-heh smile and says,
“Only the best for you, babe,” and there’s no way I’m going to be able to drink all that. He puts it in front of me and sits down and pushes his own tray away and says,
“Show me how you drink through a straw,” which of course makes me blush real hard again.
By now, the Food Court is playing Hot-blooded, by Foreigner, and I know I’ve got to do this, at least sip a little of it because the Orange Julius is my trademark drink. I hold the cup with one hand and casually put my lips just at the very tip of the straw and suck on the straw until only the slightest bit of it comes up. The guy puts his hand on my knee under the table. I want to say,
“My knee,” but I know that it’s not.