Through 8th grade I have trouble keeping my knee socks up. I struggle as they sag. Wormlets of rubber spring from the wilted band. It could have been the shape of my growing calves or more likely, the quality of the hosiery and my mother’s less than careful laundering.
Everyday, I wear a navy jumper with a gold emblem over a Peter Pan blouse. The emblem on the uniform is tacked on, drooping at the top like the lid of a lazy eye. Scuffed saddled shoes complete the outfit.
“We’re going to vote for the May Queen,” intones Sister St. Bernard in early April after recess. I take a quick glance at the frontrunner, Sandra Millione, object of my sinful envy. She has perfect posture, straight brown hair and a large collection of hair ribbons which she attaches to her high pigtails. The part in the back of her head is so straight it looks like it was sliced with a knife. My hair color is somewhere between dishwater and tarnished brass. It’s plastered straight to the side of my head, except for an errant wave three inches from the btoom. That’s the way it looks on the days when I bother to brush it. I’m prone to fever blisters.
“Back to your seats, boys and girls. We are going to take a vote. Keep your eyes on your own paper,” Sister tells us. “We will vote on the girl in our class who will get the chance to win the title of May Queen.” The folded ballots are collected and sister takes a quick tally. There is a hush in the room. I take out an English book and begin to diagram a sentence to pass the time.
Sister looks up, clears her throat and smiles at me. “The majority of votes go to Patricia Lawler. She is the candidate for our class.” As every head turns to look at me, Sandra bangs her fist on her desk.
Realizing what Sister just said, my face burns, but I’m flattered, especially when I realize that some of the boys voted for me. Sister smiles and seems pleased that I was voted as runner-up among my classmates. I will now be vying against two girls from the other 8th grade classes in a random lottery. All I need is luck.
I am not terribly disappointed when it turns out that I will remain a runner up—a Blessed Mother bridesmaid so to speak. Patricia Tortino in the next classroom wins the lottery. Perhaps she is more deserving and that is why God allowed her to win. Still, Angela Salerno, the other runner up, and I will flank the May Queen in the procession.
“May I see you for a moment,” Sister St Bernard whispers while my class is burrowed into workbooks. I walk to her desk. “The May Procession will be in one week,” she says and lowers her chin. “Perhaps you can speak to your mother about a new uniform.” I look down. My jumper is archipelago of stains: black ink, mustard, dried glue and underarm sweat crescents. The uneven hem, stitched with black thread, slopes at a forty-five degree angle. A belt loop is missing. The sleeves on my blouse looks like balled up pieces of paper that someone had smoothed out. Whenever I complain, my mother says, “Your body heat will take out the wrinkles. It doesn’t need ironing. It’s permanent press.”
When I arrive home from school, my mother’s friend Marie Pecora (Toots’ sister), a tidy woman who smokes Salems and can slam a quart of Schlitz as fast as my father, is sitting at our dining room table.
“Hello, Patrish,” she says as I walk in. I like Marie. She’s soft spoken and always has a wise word.
“The kids in the class voted me as runner up for the May Queen.”
“That’s great,” Marie says with a smile more gum than teeth.
“Oooh,” my mother says. “The Blessed Mother. You’re the May Queen.”
“Almost,” I correct her. “Patricia Tortino is the May Queen. I follow her.”
“You’re not the May Queen?”
“No. My class voted for me but there were three runners up and they picked Patricia Tortino out of a hat.”
“Son a bitch,” Marie spits. “You should ‘a won.” I shrug my shoulders and wait a moment.
“I need a new uniform,” I whisper. “Sister St. Bernard says this one is too old.”
“We’ll take it to Bambi Cleaners,” my mother suggests as she counts the booty from the raffle tickets she sells for the church.
“Katie, get her a new uniform. She’s almost a May Queen for Christ sake,” Marie pipes in. In the end, Marie persuades my mother to buy a new uniform even though it’s the end of May. It is dark blue with a belt and an emblem is lovingly sewn with matching thread by Marie. Although it’s two sizes too big, I look neat and clean for the Blessed Mother.
The crowning of Mary goes well as I flank the true May Queen who climbs a stepladder and places the ring of mums over the Virgin’s bowed head. Did I see Mary wink at me? She knew that I was the better choice—the one who never missed the Novena of the Immaculate Conception. Patricia Tortino may have carried her crystal cut rosary beads in a plastic case, but I was the one who sat in a dark closet with my green glow-in-the-dark set and repeated the prayers.
“I can’t understand why your daughter doesn’t want to go to St. Maria Goretti.” Sister’s chin wags. We are standing in the basement auditorium after the crowning.
“You don’t want to go to Goretti?” my mother asks. I’m angry that she’s asking me this again in front of Sister. She already knows I’ve decided on Girls High.
I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’m the one who had jumped on the Broad Street Subway and took a three-hour entrance test in January for a chance to be accepted and now that they said yes, it’s final. I feel my two feet, like roots inside my droopy knee socks, planted on the linoleum floor. I have made up my mind.
“I think Sister really wants you to go to Goretti. Shouldn’t you do what she says?” my mother asks, one last time.
“No.” I say. I shake my head. It is my first goodbye and I will never forget how thrilling it was to let go.