Learning to Sew

Linda Boroff

Of all Deirdre’s classes, sewing is far and away the worst. Here, she and Karen the Freak share a table — easy targets for the teacher. Mrs. Grady, a living needle of a woman, has shrunk and sharpened with age, unlike Mrs. Maxwell the cooking teacher, who is plump, creamy and pleasant, like one of her own white sauces.

The class is learning how to get dressed: Mrs. Grady stands before them in a navy blue suit. Fixing her audience with a vulturous stare, she leans into a white Playtex bra suspended between her talons.

“Now girls, bend forward and let your bust faaaaaallllll into the cup,” she commands, evoking for Deirdre a suicide plunge from a skyscraper, or the apogee and perigee of Wile E. Coyote. Deirdre thinks about her own “starter” bra, whose empty cups gape before her each morning like the excavation sites for two sports stadia. It is a struggle to even imagine the substantial, pendulous weight, the swelling, supercharged mystery of real breasts.

At twelve, Deirdre is a tall, sallow girl with large brown eyes and dark, truculent hair. She dreams of someday replacing her bony nose with a pert, inclined plane like that of Sandra Dee.

On Friday night, Deirdre attends her first dance, spending four unbroken hours seated mutely in the shadows of the school gymnasium on a folding chair. Beside her, as usual, sits Karen the Freak. Stocky and flat-chested, Karen has the short arms, thick neck, and round head of a kindergarten sculpture. Coarse brown hair hangs in uneven rags from a wobbly center part, revealing low-set ears with heavy lobes. Gappy front teeth protrude in an overbite. She is wearing a wrinkled white blouse, plaid pleated skirt, and dirty white sneakers with no socks. Frankly staring, Deirdre feels perversely grateful. At least she is not a certifiable freak. Her compassion, triggered easily enough by squashed birds and rodents, arises much more slowly for people and often requires prodding.

Before them, couples move hesitantly through the reverberating twilight in clumsy unison, like lame animals. Above loom basketball hoops and fluorescent tubes suspended from aluminum girders. The floor is painted with yellow, green, and blue lines; mysterious boundaries for unknown games played by incomprehensible rules. The music is a dirge of adolescent despair: Why was I born too late? You've gone from me, oh woe, tragedy. Are you somewhere up above and are you still my oh-wone true love? Rising stiffly as the dance ends, Deirdre realizes that a dull, yearning ache deep within her is not destined to go away soon.

Their semester project in sewing class is to make a skirt, a task as daunting for Deirdre and Karen as a successful satellite launch appears to be for NASA.. Cutting out her pattern, Deirdre recalls a recent Vanguard launch, the rocket soaring aloft on a portentous gush of flame, only to crumple back seconds later and lie sillily on its side, writhing and spurting like a fizzled firecracker. Even NASA isn’t perfect, she thinks. But NASA does not have to answer to Mrs. Grady.

Dully apprehensive, the girls labor away, dreading the inevitable blunder — the fabric marked on the wrong side, a seam pinked too close — that will bring down the celestial wrath. Deirdre hardly dares to glance up from her demon of a sewing machine, pursuing her hands with its single sharp tooth, insatiably gobbling up yards of cloth as if intent on reaching Deirdre herself, piercing bone, flesh and gristle as punishment for her clumsy basting.

Karen’s skirt is bright yellow, with a print of red flowers in orange flowerpots. Deirdre can tell by the way she holds it to her body that she is proud of it — crooked seams, wavy hemline and all. Mrs. Grady, noting her enthusiasm, treats Karen a little more kindly, leaving her reservoir of malice proportionately fuller for Deirdre.

In fact, Deirdre’s only refuge is the dressing room, where she is reading a smuggled copy of Marjorie Morningstar Whenever she dares, she brings her skirt into the curtained room for a “fitting,” the book secreted beneath.

William Tecumseh Sherman Junior-Senior High has expanded hurriedly to accommodate the avalanche of postwar babies. Masses of them now scurry about the green and pink “new school” chattering in high, uncertain voices. Their sheer numbers overwhelm the senior high students, confined like an afterthought to the khaki stucco old school. As if aware that they have missed some demographic boat, the older kids slouch against the walls, surveying the newcomer hordes with disdainful, put-upon sufferance.

Deirdre's home room teacher, Mr. Buchelman, also teaches science. His sparse crew-cut resembles the posterior of Deirdre’s old teddy bear and he wears black-rimmed mission-control eyeglasses. Like many men in the early nineteen-sixties, he is thirtyish but seems middle-aged. An ample stomach diverts his forward motion into a mild sideways lurch, as if demonstrating some scientific principle of mass versus momentum.

“What a twink,” Steve Osby hisses to Billy Lefebre.

Billy holds his thumb and index finger together in a circle and waves his other fingers. “Flying asshole,” he replies. Staring numbly about like refugees, the students sprawl and squirm in graffiti-scarred wooden desks. Beyond the stern, narrow windowpanes mocks a deep blue Minneapolis sky.

“Hey,” hisses Billy to Steve, “check out the freak.”

Steve leans toward Karen. “’Scuse me,“ he says, “can I ask you a question?” Karen nods and smiles. “What planet did you come from?” Karen’s smile freezes, and she fixes both boys with a blank, blue stare.

Preoccupied with his bacteria cocktails, Mr. Buchelman benignly neglects his homeroom, which soon reverts to a preadolescent jungle, with Karen the chief prey. The moment she enters, Billy and Steve set upon her, arping like a couple of Brylcreemed sea lions. They then commence a free-associative heckling, trumping each other in jokes and puns. Sometimes they steal her notebook and read her clumsy homework aloud. For anyone feeling insecure or nasty, Karen is a convenient target. Incapable of defending herself, she waves her arms, as if at a cloud of gnats, and covers her ears.

Every day, Karen fades noticeably by third period, rubbing her eyes with chubby fists, resting her head on her arms. Their social studies teacher, Mr. Devlin, has a long stinger of a nose and narrow, yellowish eyes that land on student after student like wasps. He paces the room, pounding his fist into his palm: Did they realize that communist revolts were going on at this very moment in Indochina? He stabs with his finger at a small green country on the pull-down map: Vietnam. America must take a stand before communism crosses the Pacific — his palm sweeps through Micronesia, grazes Australia, and obliterates Newfoundland — to devour our way of life!

The students sit in three long rows before Mr. Devlin's desk. Karen, in the far right corner of the last row, is enviably situated for neglect, while Deirdre, in the front row, faces Mr. Devlin square-on. To Deirdre’s left lurks the two-headed monster, Billy-and-Steve. When the lunch bell finally rings, Karen leaps to her feet and charges first out the door.

In the teeming cafeteria, Deirdre and her friend Jill slide their trays down a tubular aluminum pathway to the cashier, then navigate the aisles to a table near the back door. Karen lurches past with her loaded tray, in search of a place to sit. Several tables wave her away.

Meanwhile, the popular girls have actually pushed two tables together to accommodate all their friends. Older boys join them, slinging their letter jackets across the backs of chairs. Jill and Deirdre stare like slaves at a royal coronation.

“How are the boys in your classes?” Jill pokes disconsolately at her pizza.

Deirdre thinks of Billy and Steve. “Appalling,” she replies, which for Jill is the final straw. She lays down her fork.

“Dizzy, speak English. How do you expect to be popular if you're always using words that nobody even knows what they mean?”

“Okay okay.”

But despite her efforts, Deirdre’s worst fears of social failure come to pass, and she finds herself paired with Karen any time choice is permitted the other students. Thus, they become dancing partners in phys. ed and seatmates in homeroom. They even lunch at the same table, along with Willy Mowg, a boy only four feet tall; an American Indian girl; twins with cerebral palsy; and Bruce Dilman the genius. Bruce is a chilly, obsessive boy with eyes the color of mercury. Whenever he achieves a perfect score, a wisp of smile fleets across his mouth, hovers uncertainly as if marooned in unfamiliar terrain, and vanishes.

The Cuban Missile Crisis arrives. Deirdre, her parents, and her younger sister Fran ride it out at a cousin's house, everyone eating “like there's no tomorrow,” her father jokes.

“That's not funny, Hiram,” snaps her mother.

“I hope,” Deirdre whispers to Fran, “I don't have to die a virgin.” After reading The Sun Also Rises, she has concluded that she really belongs in 1920's Paris, sipping absinthe at Harry's Bar and sleeping with matadors.

The family stares at the television, at a blurry photo of some whitish lumps circled with black crayon: Irrefutable Proof. For all they know, they could be looking at an X-ray of the descending colon rather than the impending demise of civilization.

The crisis ends. The world has formulated no monumental insights, achieved no catharsis, reached no spiritual epiphany. Like wildebeest that have managed to be ignored during a lion hunt, they are lucky this time, that is all.

Winter mornings, massive cars with names like Star Chief and Roadmaster lumber up and down icy, grimy streets to disgorge their carpools. Pupating in wool and fur, the students plod through smoky exhausts and up the stairs into superheated fluorescent classrooms. Deirdre trudges the halls in a gothic stupor, reflecting on her unsuitability to life in this culture. Her only comfort is English class, where the teacher has given her poem — about the emotions of a young woman watching a bullfight — an A.

In sewing class, she sneaks her book into the dressing room and discovers Marjorie Morningstar losing her virginity to her boyfriend Noel. Deirdre reads greedily, recklessly, trying to imagine herself that way with Bruce Dilman. Riveted by guilty fascination, she loses track of time and is thus discovered by Mrs. Grady, who sneaks up and yanks the curtain aside like a Victorian gumshoe.

“What’s going on in here?“


Mrs. Grady advances, seizes the book, and reads the open page.

“And what is this filth?“

“It’s not!“

Protesting her innocence, Deirdre is dragged from the dressing room by her arm. The book is confiscated and sent with a note to the principal. For her deception and depravity, she receives an automatic F on her skirt and is barred from the end-of-semester fashion show.

Face hot and flushed, heart pounding, hands icy, she faces the silent, gawking classroom. She is a criminal, and her life is ruined, almost as if she had lost her own virginity. She thinks suddenly of Mary, Queen of Scots. Like Mary, all that is left her now is to die well. Amid gasps of horror, she seizes her flowered skirt, wads it into a ball, pins sticking her hands, and hurls it into the wastebasket. Mrs. Grady, perched balefully on her desk, announces that since Miss Deirdre Fisch cares so little, her entire semester grade will now be an F.

“Don’t worry,” Karen tells her as the bell rings. “I get lots of Fs too.”

In social studies, Mr. Devlin turns on a film. This will run over into your lunch period, he warns, but if you care enough about your country, you may stay. Deirdre subsides gratefully into the dark. Oh Bruce, my fate, she whispers.

As usual, the film is about communism, beginning with the standard map of its spread across Europe, China and Asia. To Deirdre it looks as if the world is having a period: the red stain soaking East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia . . . a big blot on Cuba, over to Korea, oozing across Laos.

She thinks of her own period lurking in her womb, awaiting its hormone trigger to do her in someday in the white skirt it will be just her luck to wear. On the screen, Lenin harangues a crowd of babushkas; Stalin, a smug walrus, nods at his tanks rolling past. The lunch bell rings.

There is a stir, which quickly subsides as the class recalls the sacrifice asked of it. Karen alone leaps to her feet, notebook spilling papers, and begins to labor toward the door in the twilight. As she crosses the projector beam, her profile eclipses that of John Foster Dulles.

Slowly, Mr. Devlin rises, strides to the projector and flicks it off. Steve Osby leaps to turn on the lights. Karen freezes.

“Of all the people,” Mr. Devlin begins quietly, like a gourmet nudging a quail egg with his fork, “who need this film, you,” he points at Karen, “need it the most. Your grades are the lowest in the class . . . ” he pauses, eyes closed, “And you're the first out the door!” The detonation nearly lifts both his feet from the ground. The class flinches and ducks. Karen backs up, wheels and flees to her desk. The skirt she has been sewing falls from under her notebook and in her panic, she treads on it. Mr. Devlin twists the projector back on, Steve turns off the lights, and Khrushchev finishes pounding his shoe.

Huddled in her seat, Deirdre thinks suddenly of missile silos, and of affronts that are not to be endured, even if the world has to end. She rises, heart pounding like Russian artillery

“Mr. Devlin, Karen didn't understand.”

“She understands now. Sit down, Deirdre.”

But Deirdre remains standing. The class draws in its breath. Knees wobbling, Deirdre walks to the center of the room, picks up the skirt, shakes it out and folds it neatly in quarters. On the way to Karen’s desk, she bumps into the projector cord, jerking the plug from the wall. A whole cadre of Soviet guided missiles vanishes instantly, the voice-over decaying into silence. Karen looks up at Deirdre, takes her skirt, and bursts into tears.

Deirdre could never recall what happened next, just as she could not remember the fashion show or her sewing grade, or even what became of Marjorie Morningstar. High school seemed to fade away, like the roar of a crowd being left in the distance. Years later, she spotted Karen hanging around one of the malls, wearing a lot of iridescent blue eye makeup, a short, tight dress stretched over her ungainly body. Her hair had been teased into a conical croquette and bleached to a shade one could easily associate with nuclear Armageddon.

Linda Boroff's

. . . life has taken her from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, to Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and now to Silicon Valley. Her fiction has been published in Epoch, Prism International, In Posse Review, Cimarron Review, Pig Iron Malt, Eyeshot, The Fiction Warehouse, 24:7, The Pedestal, Outsider Ink, Storyglossia, The ShadowShow, Summerset Review, The Small Pond Magazine, Artisan, and others. She is now writing comedy spec screenplays.