SILENT GIFT

Last chapter of this story.

X-X-X-X-X

5-24-04, Monday.

"I had the most peculiar dream last night." Sarah Polonsky announces.

"I noticed that you were restless. Was it a bad dream?" her husband asks.

"No, just very odd. I dreamed I was talking to God."

Grace Polk, who normally pays little attention to her parents' morning banter, pauses midway to her doughnut. "God…?"

"Yes Gracie, but it wasn't anything 'religious'. I was in the park across from Arcadia High when one of the students began talking to me. He was one of those horrible Goth kids – you know the type: black clothes, weird hair, lots of piercings…"

Rabbi Polonsky asks, "When did God appear?"

"That's the odd thing. Somehow I just knew this strange boy was actually God. He started by congratulating me on my sobriety…"

Grace's mind whirls. Months ago, after getting advice from God on redefining her relationships, she broached the ultimate taboo subject with her father: Sarah Polonsky's alcoholism. It was a difficult and tearful conversation during which Grace convinced her father they must stop being enablers of the family's secret shame. Their secret was openly revealed, dear friends and family gathered in an intervention and Sarah admitted her problem, resulting in 28 days in a rehab facility. Since Sarah's drying out and return home, the Polonskys have had the closest thing to a normal family life in years. But now…? Sarah's dream reminds Grace that the first time she spoke to God it was the Goth version in the park across from the school!

Sarah continues, "Then this…Goth God said it was time to stop ignoring my gift."

"Gift?" Grace squeaks out.

"Dreams and visions. According to this Goth deity, He has been sending me messages for years and it was time to start paying attention to them."

Rabbi Polonsky looks at his wife with the tiniest bit of wonder on his face. "Sarah…?"

"No dear, I'm not turning into some sort of prophet. It's just my subconscious playing with me. After a dozen years of non-stop intoxication of course I've had all kinds of weird dreams and…hallucinations, but I'm not taking this dream seriously. After all, it ended when the Goth character 'morphed' (if that's the right word) into Grace, saying our daughter is his favorite chosen instrument."

The Polonskys glance at Grace and mutually chuckle.

X-X-X-X-X

Joan Girardi walks silently alongside her brother as they approach Arcadia High. Luke notices his sister's level of distraction because by now she usually insists they separate so she will not be seen walking with a geek.

"Joan, are you okay?"

"Huh? Yeah, sure."

"We're almost to school. Remember, you declared it a brother free zone?"

Joan shrugs. "It's the last week of school. Who cares?"

Luke is surprised by the response. All year her social standing has been upmost in Joan's mind. "Well, I see Grace over in the park so I'm going that way."

Joan continues walking, too obsessed with whatever is bothering her to respond. Luke watches for a few moments, concern on his face. Since breaking up with her boyfriend Dax Hibbing back in February, Joan has been on a slow downward spiral due to her loss of social standing. Even though she is still a cheerleader, being without a top rung boyfriend has lowered her social ranking. Now, added to that, Joan has begun to act odd and secretive. Luke turns toward the park a block away and wonders why Grace is in deep conversation with some Old Lady…

"So why are you suddenly going after my Mom?" Grace asks.

"I once told you Grace that I speak to everyone in one form or another, but most people choose to ignore me. I have been communicating with your mother for years, but her constant drunkeness caused her to miss my messages."

"But now she is sober – thank you for that, so you're doing what with Mom?"

"Your mother has a great capacity to help others. If she chooses to heed my…hints, she can cause good ripples in a lot of lives."

Grace frowns. "I don't like this. Mom is in a delicate state and her nerves might not take it if you start messing around in her life. If she relapses…"

Old Lady God sighs. "Grace, after the year we have had, why do you still doubt me?"

Grace follows Old Lady God's gaze and she sees across the street her friends Adam Rove and Steve Ramsey greeting each other by the school entrance. The guys are accompanied by their steady girlfriends: Iris with Adam and Bonnie with Steve.

"Okay, things turned out great for those four. You're the best at pairing up unlikely couples who turn out to be good for each other. And speaking of couples, I see my boyfriend politely standing over there waiting for our conversation to end."

"Luke is such a nice boy. You should give him a gift."

"Luke gave me that pretty rock awhile back, but we're not really a gift giving type couple. Neither of us are particularlly into material things."

"Grace, give Luke a gift – something he will value."

Old Lady God stands and begins to walk away. Grace asks, "What about my Mom?"

The backhanded wave.

Luke approaches and asks, "What was that all about?"

"Oh, you know old people. They sit next to you, start talking and the next thing you know every other sentence begins with: Back in my day…"

"It was nice of you to listen to her."

"Hey, I can be nice."

"You can be very nice." Luke says as he leans in for a kiss.

Grace returns the kiss even though P.D.A.'s still bother her. They are far enough from the school that not many will notice. The kiss ends and Grace asks…

"What would you like?"

Luke chuckles. "Considering we are in public…"

"Cool it, horndog. I was thinking I'd like to get you a gift. Don't say sex."

"Aww."

"Seriously, what would you like?"

"Grace, I can't think of any particular 'thing' I'd want. My parents provide me with whatever is within reason. Why do you suddenly want to give me a gift?"

"I just do. Think hard, and remember the sex stuff is off the table."

Luke furrows his brow for a moment and then replies, "Well…there is something. Except, you wouldn't want to do it."

"Try me."

"It's really awkward having my sister and girlfriend being bitter enemies."

"We're not actually enemies. We both just realize that we are too different to ever get along."

"Be that as it may, if you are truly offering me a gift of whatever I would like, then this is it. Become friends with Joan."

"Friends? You couldn't settle for polite indifference?"

"Grace, she needs this. This year Joan has been hooked up with a crowd who encourage her most shallow inclinations. Joan needs an honest, no-nonsense friend to help her get grounded. Grace, please be that friend."

Grace sighs as she contemplates the enormity of this 'gift'. "Me, friends with Joan Girardi…"

X-X-X-X-X

His hand moves hesitantly to her breast and begins a light caress. It is pleasurable but Joan gently guides his hand away. He accepts the mild rebuke without complaint and their kissing continues. A small moan of pleasure escapes Joan's lips even as she worries about the two of them getting caught. Every morning for a couple of weeks now they have met in this supply closet (he bribed a janitor for a spare key) and their make out sessions have grown in duration and intensity. Joan has been enjoying herself in an illicit sort of way, but she has doubts about the wisdom of being with this boy.

"Oh Joan..."

"Shh. No talking. Kissing."

"But we never talk."

"We only have five minutes left before homeroom. Choose: talk or kiss."

The kissing resumes but Joan can sense a deep shift in his mood.

Joan sighs. "Okay fine, you want to talk - let's talk."

"I want to take you out on a real date."

"Not this again. NO times infinity. We only keep doing this as long as it is a secret. You swore..."

"I remember. You even made me put it in writing."

"And I'm holding you to it. No one can know!"

"You're ashamed of me."

"Duh."

"Joan, I really like you, and not just because we make out. I was hoping you were starting to like me...a little."

Joan sighs again. Why can't guys separate emotions from the physical stuff? "Maybe I do...a little, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to commit social suicide by being seen with you. Look, I'm enjoying our time together, and maybe we could start meeting after school too, but it has to stay a secret. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but that's the way it has to be, okay?"

"Yes, of course. It's not a problem." he replies, almost hiding the sadness in his voice.

"Thank you, Friedman."

X-X-X-X-X

Lunchtime in the cafeteria is always noisy as the din of hundreds of students in conversation fills the packed room. Grace sits with Luke and the other subdefectives at their usual table. The group has grown to include Ramsey and the two new girls, Iris and Bonnie. Grace isn't particularly fond of either girl: Squeaky Voice and Easy Lay, but she has made an effort to be semi-friendly to both for the sake of her friendships with Adam and Steve. Bonnie was especially difficult to accept since Steve ended up in at least a dozen fights defending the 'honor' of his new girlfriend. Wisely, he has learned his lesson and all fights are now conducted off of school grounds. It finally sank into the cro-magnon brains of the guys at school that making fun of Steve Ramsey's girlfriend - especially her past, meant a bloody beating. Now, at the end of the school year, everyone keeps their snickering comments to themselves.

Grace is distracted from the conversation around her as she is watching Joan over at the cool kids' table. Joan's lessened status is subtly proclaimed by her being at the end of the table instead of being at the center the way she was when she was still dating the wrestling team captain, Dax Hibbing. As Grace wonders how she will complete her assignment of becoming friends with Joan, it occurs to her she has never been successful in forming friendships with other girls. Maybe it goes back to when her only girlfriend, Becky, ended their friendship after seeing Grace's mother passed out drunk on the kitchen floor. She never really trusted another girl again. Now, she is suppose to become friends with a cheerleader? It's enough to make you gag.

"Earth to Grace - are you with us?"

"Huh?"

Ramsey says, "We were asking if you wanted in on Adam's plan for a trip to Mercer's Creek next week."

"Sure, sounds like fun."

Iris adds, "Remember to bring plenty of insect repellant. The first time 'A' took me there I forgot and I was bit by practically every kind of bug there is - everything from mosquitoes to ticks."

"I'll remember. Say, why don't we invite Joan to join us?"

Silence. The subdefectives look back and forth between each other aware of what an awkward moment this is with Luke sitting right there. Finally Adam clears his throat before responding...

"It's not like she wouldn't be welcome to come...uh, maybe 'welcome' is too strong. I mean..."

Steve jumps in. "Joan doesn't like us, and hasn't been shy about letting us know that. If you want to ask her Grace, be prepared for a 'no'. But even if she agreed, none of us would feel comfortable having her along. Sorry Luke."

Another silence. Luke feels that he should be defending his sister, but he knows he is hearing an honest and accurate response. Grace glances over again at the cool kids' table and notices how phony Joan's laughs and smiles really are. For the first time Grace realizes that Joan is miserable.

Grace states, "I'm going to ask her. For the sake of friendship, with me and Luke, I'm asking you guys to give her a chance."

Friedman responds, "Since Luke is my best friend, I'm willing to give this a try. How about it, guys?"

Adam says, "Cha. Anything for you, Grace."

The others add their agreement and Luke leans over to Grace and whispers, "Thank you."

Grace whispers back, "That was the easy part. Now, getting Joan to agree..."

X-X-X-X-X

Late afternoon. Nearly all of the students have departed Arcadia High. Usually one of the first to leave, Joan slips out a side door hoping no one will notice. Her first afternoon make out session with Friedman was great - he is a surprisingly good kisser - and to make it up to him for hurting his feelings earlier in the day, this time she didn't guide his hand away when he began to caress her breasts. Joan smiles as she remembers how much she enjoyed the experience. This whole 'relationship' with Friedman has been a surprising delight.

It started so innocently. Friedman was with the other subdefectives studying for a Spanish test up in Luke's room while Joan struggled with Math at the desk in the kitchen. Friedman came down for a few sodas and saw how close to tears Joan was in frustration over stupid, freakin' Geometry! He automatically offered his help, and he was soon able to make it clear to Joan how to work the problem that had her stuck. Friedman went back upstairs while Joan sat there a bit stunned. She didn't have to ask for help, she didn't have to flirt with him, he just offered because underneath that typical teen horndog exterior, Friedman was a genuinely nice guy. It was like discovering a diamond amongst lumps of coal.

After that, Joan secretly sought out Friedman's help with her studies and he agreed to be her tutor, and sure, he wouldn't tell anyone. As they began to work together, and as her grades improved, Joan began to notice that Friedman was actually kind of cute...in a geeky sort of way. Then, after she got the best grade of her life on a math final, Joan sought out Friedman to thank him and that impulsively turned into a very, very good kiss...

"Joan Girardi!"

Joan gulps and turns, feeling like she has been caught. To her surprise, she only sees another student - a very handsome boy...Clay Fischer! Yeah, she remembers now. He works at the school's radio station.

"Oh, hi...Clay."

"Hi yourself. I just finished my shift on the radio, but it's odd to see you here so late. Did you get detention?" he asks with a charming smile.

Joan blushes as she so often does when talking to a really good looking guy. "No, I was just...talking with a friend, and time sort of slipped away from me."

"Well, I'm glad I ran into you. Here it is the last week of school and I'm reminded that I forgot something very important."

"What?"

"To ask you out."

Joan blushes again, but she also smiles. Clay Fischer is a senior and definitely a Big Man On Campus. Dating him would have raised her social status as high as it was when she was with Dax. Maybe even higher. Drat, why did he have to put it off to so late in the year?

"I see you're speechless. Understandable." he says with another grin.

Joan grins back. "Someone has a high opinion of himself. Now why would any girl want to start up with you the last week of school? You're a senior and won't be back next year."

"True, but that doesn't mean 'any girl' wouldn't gain advantages from dating me, that is if she is interested in raising her social standing."

The two of them lock eyes and an understanding is formed. He understands how important it is to Joan to regain her social standing with the popular kids, and he expects...well, what every guy expects. Ever since Dax dumped her, Joan's reputation has been in tatters. She is now a 'goer' and everyone of the guys she has dated since Dax has expected sex as a given. All were disappointed. Joan has been thoroughly turned off of sex by her lousy relationship with 'minute man' Dax. (Her short make out sessions with Friedman have more foreplay than all of the times she was with her clueless ex-lover.) Clay will just be another of the disappointed.

"And what can you do for my social standing in less than a week?"

"Thursday is senior skip day. Every senior at school will be going to a series of parties at various people's homes for the blow out of the season. Only a handful of the super cool juniors get invited, and no one has ever invited a sophomore...until now."

A little gasp of excitement escapes Joan's lips. To be an invited guest to senior skip day would raise her status to the highest levels. Next year, when she was a junior, she would be legendary. Every popular kid at school would want to be her friend, would make sure she was on the list for every cool party and she would have her pick of any guy at school! (For a brief moment a twinge of guilt crosses Joan's soul as she remembers Friedman, but it passes. It's not like they are in a real relationship.)

"Clay, I'd love to go with you."

Clay grins. There is a twinkle in his eyes that all the girls found so charmingly irresistable. "Cool. I'll pick you up Thursday morning, and be sure to bring a bikini. Some of the houses have pools."

"I'll be ready, but maybe you should pick me up around the corner from my house."

"Gotcha. We wouldn't want the 'rents to know you are going to have the most fun day of your life."

They laugh, and after firming up their plans, a smiling Joan walks away happier than she has been in a long time. Clay watches her leave, admiring Joan's figure. Oh yeah, he definitely is going to enjoy this. He heard the rumors about Joan after Dax dumped her the day before Valentine's day (an especially cruel twist on his part). Every guy that dated Joan since Dax has bragged about getting into her pants, but Clay knows what liars his classmates are. He has guessed the truth. At a party a month back, Dax referred to his ex as a 'frigid bitch'. Clay figured that meant Dax was never able to satisfy Joan, and when she finally admitted that to her boyfriend, his fragile ego couldn't take it. So, Joan has never been satisfied by a man. Well, lucky for her, he is around. And just in case she really is too frigid to try...he has a certain drug he can slip into her drink.

X-X-X-X-X

Joan walks along Euclid Avenue feeling like she is floating on air. The first sophomore ever invited to senior skip day! There will be parties, dancing, astonished looks as people realize just how cool Joan Girardi is and most of all, she will be in position to seize the top spot in popularity next year. This almost makes up for the crappy time she had this year. Of course Joan knows she must be careful - there will be lots of drinking (don't get TOO drunk) and of course, drugs (Just say no.), but Joan is sure she can handle it. Of course Clay will be making his moves on her, and he is very cute and charming, but it would be unwise to start anything with a guy who won't be back next year. No, she will have to turn Clay down - with face saving sad regrets, of course.

"Hey, Girardi."

Joan snaps out of her reverie and realizes Grace Polk is walking beside her.

"What do you want?"

"I'm headed toward your house. Luke and I are going to join some of the others at Sal's to play video games. You should see how good Friedman is. He has top score on almost all of the games."

"I am not interested in anything having to do with Fr...with the subdefectives."

"So, you wouldn't be interested in an excursion to Mercer's Creek next week? Good food, lots of swimming, games and goofing off - stuff like that."

Joan briefly hesitates. It actually does sound like fun, but... "Why are you bugging me with this? I thought you hated me."

"I never said that."

"It was implied in all of the insults you've hurled my way."

"Okay, I'll admit we got off on the wrong foot."

Joan shakes her head. "I apologized about that. I wasn't really interested in...which choir you sang in."

"Yeah, I get it. Those girls you were hanging with at the start of the school year put you up to it. Forgive and forget, okay?"

"Is Luke putting you up to this?"

"Well, Luke and God."

"Oh, so this is like a part of your religious practice? Forgive thine enemies?"

"Are we enemies, Girardi? I never set out for it to be that way. You and I are different, very different, but does that mean we have to dislike each other?"

"It's the pattern we have fallen into. I guess for Luke's sake, and who knows - even God's, I guess we could make an effort to be civil to each other."

"So...you'll consider coming with us to Mercer Creek?"

"I guess. It seems unlikely I'll run into any of the other kids from school."

"Would it be so bad if you did?"

"See Grace, this is where you and I will never get along. Unlike you, I know that kids in high school judge you by who you hang with. I've worked hard to gain standing at our school, and it wasn't easy being a new kid from another city. It's important to me to keep that standing."

"Hey, it may surprise you but I get that. You hang with the 'cool' kids, but every group has their own standards of how to dress and how to act. I sometimes go to these anarchists' meetings and the other girls there dress almost as much alike as the cheerleaders at Arcadia High."

"Lots of leather jackets, boots and ripped jeans?"

"It's like a uniform."

"Then maybe you can understand why I have to be careful in how I act and who I hang out with, at least when other kids from school are around. How do your anarchist friends feel about you dating a geek like Luke?"

"I've never told them. Most of them think...I'm gay."

"Them too? Grace, it's your business but why are you so militantly anti-feminine? Considering how many times I've seen you and Luke in a clinch, I know you're not gay."

By now they have reached the Girardi home.

Grace says, "Privacy?"

Joan shrugs and leads Grace to the family's garage. Once inside, Grace begins to pace nervously.

"The thing is...guys have always scared me."

"Scared you? Is that why you've always dressed so...militantly?"

"Mostly, and the thing about fitting in with the anarchists. I always assumed I'd never fall for any guy, and I dressed in a way to keep them from being interested in me. I...let them assume I was gay as a defense mechanism."

"But then came Luke. I'll admit I was surprised when he became so fascinated by you. Like everyone, I assumed he was wasting his time, but somehow he got through to you."

Grace blushes and grins. "He's just the nicest guy I've ever met, not to mention persistant. I kept throwing roadblocks in his path and he kept pursuing. Finally I had to admit that Luke was cute and smart and charming and..."

"Eww."

"Okay, I get it, he's your brother. But, I really care for him...more than I thought I could ever feel for a guy." Grace says as tears begin rolling down her cheek.

"Grace, what's wrong? Has Luke...?" Joan hesitates. There are a lot of negative things she could speculate, but she doesn't want to say them about her own brother.

"No, Luke is such a sweet guy and I want us to be closer, but...I'm going to lose him."

"Why?"

"S-sex."

"It's no good?" Joan asks, thinking of her disastrous relationship with Dax.

"We've never done it. Luke hasn't been pressuring me, but he's a teenage boy and no matter how nice he is..."

"Hormones. Gotcha. So, when the time is right..."

"I'm afraid."

"Oh. Well, ever girl is the first time. I know I was, but you don't have to worry. Luke is a nice guy and I'm sure he...oh gross, I can't believe I'm about to say this. I'm sure he would be...gentle. Eww."

"I know that. I trust Luke, and...I care for him deeply. But, there's a problem...with me."

Joan sees the misery on Grace's face and her empathetic nature rises. "Grace, what's wrong?"

Grace is softly crying now. She can't believe she is about to reveal a secret she has never told anyone. In many ways it would be easier to tell Joan about her relationship with God than this...

"You've got to promise - really promise to say nothing."

"I swear."

"Starting when I was four years old..."

And so Grace divulges the secret she has kept bottled up for most of her life. How she was molested by an elderly neighbor who use to babysit her, and how it continued for nearly a year. It is the source of her anger, her rebellion, her mistrust of authority, and most of all, her fear of being able to respond normally to the joys of a sexual relationship. Long before she is done speaking, Joan has Grace held in a supportive hug, and Grace feels an enormous release in finally being able to unburden herself. Both cry. Both feel the building of a trust that will lead to true friendship.

After a long time of leaning on each other, and after crying themselves out, they pause to wipe away tears, blow noses and share brief grins of embarassed bonding...

"I've been making out with Friedman."

The mutual laughter begins.

X-X-X-X-X

5-28-04, Friday.

The last day of the school year. It is a short day that ends with a party in the park across from the school. At the start some were surprised to see Joan walking hand-in-hand with Friedman, but the big news of the day has topped that bit of gossip. Yesterday, at one of the pool parties on senior skip day, Clay Fischer was caught about to rape a girl he had drugged. Members of the football team, before calling the police, gave 'Cool Clay' a thorough beating, and fortunately his intended victim recovered without harm.

As Joan walks with Friedman, she is just grateful that she wasn't the one who was dating Clay yesterday. It went back to her conversation with Grace. When she revealed her make out sessions with the guy, Grace good naturedly kidded Joan about 'dating' him. This led to Joan vigourously defending Friedman as a great guy, followed by the revealation that she had real feelings for him. It became a clear choice to Joan that she could repeat her pattern of dating for social standing, or date a guy she truly liked. She cancelled the date with Clay, and even though she is nervous about it, Joan is letting it be publicly known she and Friedman are an item.

Again, few people took notice as the second distraction of the day came when Iris - who was in a three legged egg and spoon race with Gavin Price - suddenly began ranting about the vice-principal being the devil. Iris passed out and now an ambulance has arrived...

"Is she going to be okay?" Grace asks as she sees she has been again joined by Old Lady God.

"Yes Grace. Despite her high fever and brief hallucination, Iris will make a full recovery. You might want to mention to the paramedic that the girl was bitten by a tick not long ago. It will help them make the correct diagnosis of Lyme disease."

"I will. So that stuff Iris was shouting about Price...?"

"Just the fever. Don't worry Grace, you won't be meeting the devil...anytime soon. And congratualtions on fulfilling your latest assignment."

"On making friends with Joan? Huh, as much as I thought it impossible, she and I actually can get along. I thought I was there to make sure she doesn't get away with a lot of her bullcrap, but...she calls me on mine as much as I do her. Maybe...I need a friend like that."

"You're welcome."

Grace smiles. "So that was your plan all along? The gift I gave Luke was just your way of quietly giving me the gift of a friendship I needed."

"One that is of mutual benefit, which makes for the best of friends."

THE END.

Please review.

Dedicated to the late Kathryn Joosten, fondly remembered as Old Lady God.