F F F F F F F F F F F F F F FA Short Story
Copyright 1989 by Aya Katz
Folded green leaflets were starting to sprout on the trees down the lane. The smog was less thick today, and traffic was sparse, since it was half past ten in the morning. Virginia wasn't playing hookey -- never had, never would. Nurse Reinheit had sent her home with a note. Except that nobody would be home for hours, so she went to the park instead.
The park was never empty. Little old ladies with baby carriages and strollers filled almost every bench. Virginia watched one stuffing a two year old, pushing tiny bits of banana into the chubby little cheeks. I wonder where all those babies came from, Virginia thought, surely not from the old ladies. She laughed. Only someone who had just failed Sex Ed would ask a silly question like that.
The old woman looked up and smiled at her. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
Virginia nodded and strolled on. Finding an empty bench, finally, she sat down and opened her book. She peered around. All was calm. Taking out the microdisk that was serving as marker, she began to read. For a while, she forgot.
"Virginia, what are you doing here?" The high pitched childish voice might have belonged to a girl. But it was Johnny, her eight year old brother.
Virginia put down the book. "I have a note from the nurse." She narrowed her eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Johnny smiled, revealing a missing front tooth. "I'm playing hookey. I was down at the spaceport and everything. Wanna go see?"
She shook her head. "Momma's gonna whip you," she said.
"No, she won't," Johnny slurred distractedly, examining her book. "Are you still reading JANE EYRE? You've been reading that the whole year, haven't you? Why don't you read something interesting, like HAVE SPACE SUIT WILL TRAVEL, for instance."
"I've already read all of Heinlein. In Honors English. And I'm not really reading JANE EYRE, I'm just looking at the good parts."
Johnny scrunched up his nose. "But there are no good parts."
Virginia wasn't listening. "I hate Heinlein," she said. "This is all his fault."
"Don't you want to know how I got past the spaceport security?" Johnny asked.
"No," Virginia said. "'Cause you didn't. It's all your imagination, that's all. Socially maladjusted is what you are."
Johnny smiled. "Look who's talking."
Virginia stiffened. "There is nothing wrong with me. I've always done exactly what I was supposed to. But I just couldn't ..."
Johnny peered at her. "Say, aren't you supposed to be sick? What have you got? Leprosy, black death or AIDS?"
"I'm not sick."
"But you said you had a note from the nurse ..."
"I said I had a note from Nurse Reinheit. She co-teaches Health, you know ... She and Coach Lehrer."
"Oh, the one you had a crush on last semester," Johnny said knowingly.
"I did not have a crush on him," Virginia corrected, her voice cold. "I merely remarked on his manly physique."
"'Manly physique'"," Johnny mimicked. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"That means that I admired his body, but not his mind," Virginia explained, somewhat pedantically.
"Isn't that what a crush is?" Johnny asked.
Virginia stood up from the bench. "I don't know what a crush is, since I've never had one." She gathered up her books.
"Where are you going?" Johnny asked.
"Home. Where it's quiet."
"But don't you want to hear about my adventures with the Martian smuggler?" Johnny called after her. Virginia didn't even look back.
"Pass the salt, please, will you Virginia?" Daddy said.
She reached for it, but Johnny pulled it aside. "Johnny!"
"Now simmer down," Daddy said, looking straight at Johnny. Johnny put down the saltshaker. Virginia passed it.
"I have a friend from Mars," Johnny said.
"That's nice, dear," Momma said. "Virginia, you haven't touched your soya beans."
"Don't you feel well, honey?"
"She has a note from the nurse," Johnny said. Virginia cast him a murderous stare. He continued unperturbed. "She got sent home from school."
Virginia set her teeth. "Johnny played hookey, today."
"That's what I was trying to tell you, Daddy," Johnny said. "I went to the spaceport and I made friends with a Martian smuggler. Did you know that on Mars they have all the meat they want? Why, they can have steak for breakfast, if they like."
"That's enough from you, Johnny." He turned to Virginia. "Now, why were you sent home from school?"
Virginia looked down at her plate. "I failed the Sex Ed final," she said.
Momma frowned. "But, why, Virginia. You've always gotten straight 'A's'. Didn't you study for it?"
Virginia nodded her head emphatically. "Yes, I studied for it. I just couldn't, that's all."
"Couldn't what?" Daddy asked.
She didn't look at them, but continued to study the soya beans. "You see, it wasn't the written test that I failed. I made a 99 on that. But the practical counts for half the grade. And now I can't graduate, because Sex Ed is a required subject. That's why Nurse Reinheit wants you to come speak with her." She handed the note to Momma.
Johnny frowned. "You mean, you failed the part where you're supposed to make out with somebody?"
"Johnny, we do not say 'make out,'" Momma snapped. "The correct term is 'sexual intercourse.'"
"You mean, you couldn't figure out how to have sexual intercourse with somebody?" Johnny asked.
"Who was your partner?" Daddy asked. "Did he hurt you?"
"It was Billy Langsam. And no, he didn't hurt me. He didn't touch me. I just couldn't."
"Billy Langsam!" Johnny said. "Is that the pimply guy with the thick glasses, who's always hunched over?"
Momma shook her head. "Now, Virginia, you shouldn't let appearances get the better of you ..."
"How'd you get stuck with him?" Johnny asked. "You're no beauty, but there are at least three uglier girls in your class. Like Nancy Johnson, for instance, with that funny nose of hers."
"They were all pairing off at the start of the semester. Billy and I were the only ones left. But that's not it, Momma. I've got nothing against Billy. I just couldn't, that's all." "What do you mean, you just couldn't?" Daddy asked.
"Well," she said slowly, twisting a lock of her hair, "it was in the teacher's lounge, you know. Because they have that couch there, you see. And Nurse Reinheit would call out the names, and the couple would go in. And then they would come out. So they called Billy and me in, and there was Coach Lehrer on the one side and Nurse Reinheit on the other, and we're supposed to demonstrate two positions and two methods of birth control and Johnny was taking his pants off and Nurse Reinheit said I should hurry and ... and I just ran out of there..." She played with her hair, not looking at them. "I'm sorry."
There was a short silence. "Stop messing with your hair, Virginia," Momma finally said. "You'll tie it in knots."
Virginia looked up. "Daddy, I'm doing all right in all my other classes and I don't intend to drop out. So, I want to stay in the month that's left till graduation. But I can't graduate, you see. So, I suppose that means no college."
Daddy just stared at her.
"It's not a question of college or no college, Virginia," Momma said. "You can't get a work permit without a high school diploma. You know that, girl. And we aren't planning to support you any longer than we have to. So you can forget about not graduating."
"On Mars, they don't have work permits," Johnny said. "People can do whatever they want to on Mars."
"Now, that's enough out of you, young man," Momma said. "The Marsmen are an immoral, uncivilized lot. And they're bleeding us to death, just 'cause they've got more mineral resources than we have. And then they go and flood our cities with illegal weapons. If you must have an imaginary friend, why can't it be a policeman or a fireman?"
"But he's not imaginary ..."
"John Michael Normer, I'm warning you," Momma said, pointing her finger at him.
Johnny shut his mouth quickly, the lower lip jutting out comically.
Daddy shifted in his seat. "Just what exactly is the problem, Virginia? Why don't you want to take that test?" he asked.
Virginia bit her lip. She started cautiously. "It's got to do with ... love." The last word was almost inaudible.
"What did she say?" Momma asked.
"Love," Johnny boomed, a big grin on his face. "You know, like JANE EYRE and stuff."
"Well, what about love?" Momma asked.
"Are you in love with someone?" Daddy asked. "Did you want a different partner, is that it?"
Virginia shook her head. "I'm not in love with anybody. But I might be someday. And even if I never am, I don't want to have sex with anyone I don't love."
Momma shook her head. "Now where did she get a fool notion like that?"
"In her books," Johnny said. "'Cause she reads such dull ones."
"Now don't be silly, Virginia," Momma said, ignoring Johnny, "why if everybody believed they couldn't have sex unless they were in love, no one would ever have sex, and then where would we be?"
Virginia stared at her for a moment. Then turning toward Daddy she asked: "May I be excused. I'm not very hungry."
"Gee, Virginia, I bet you're the only person in the whole wide world to fail Sex Ed."
He was in her room, lying on her bed with his head hanging upside down off the side, his fingertips barely touching the floor. Virginia sat on the bed, her arms folded round her knees. "I bet I am."
"On Mars, they don't have Sex Ed."
Virginia laughed. "Sure they do. They have Sex Ed everywhere."
Johnny shook his head. "Well, maybe you can take it if you want to. But they don't have it mandatory. See, on Mars, you don't even have to go to school if you don't want to."
"You mean, there are no schools on Mars?" she asked, teasing.
"Well, yeah, there are schools, just there's no law says you have to go, that's all."
Daddy stuck his head in the door. "Virginia, I'd like a word with you."
She set her feet down on the floor. "Okay."
"Johnny, do you mind?" Daddy said, pulling a chair to her bed.
Johnny left, dragging his feet. Daddy sat down.
"Virginia, some things just aren't worth it."
She didn't answer, but stared at the embroidered picture of Little Bo Peep above her bed.
"This isn't worth it," he said. "Choose your fights where they can count for something."
"I'm not picking a fight, Daddy. I'm not doing this to make a fuss. You know I'm not like that. I just can't, that's all."
He smiled, bitterly. "Sure you can. You can't imagine all the things you can do, if you're desperate enough. Do it now and it will barely touch you. Later, you'll be happy to, and it will be too late."
She turned to look at him, her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"You're a smart girl, with good grades. You've got a chance to go to college. You can make something of yourself ... But if you don't graduate, you won't even have the right to work. Do you know what happens to people without a work permit? Do you know what they end up doing? Living on the street, panhandling, stealing, whoring. Why, a nice young girl like you, chances are that's what you'd end up doing. And why? Because you wouldn't submit to some pimply boy one time. One time. You never have to do it again."
Virginia's voice was hard, but the tears were welling in her eyes. "I won't do it. You can't make me!"
Daddy got up. "Nobody's going to make you do anything. You're a big girl. You'll make your own decisions. And live with them." And Daddy walked out.
"There's a pipe that runs right under the alley on Commerce behind the trade building and it leads all the way to the spaceport. I've snuck in there lots of times. You could come some time, now that you're going to graduate and all and won't have to be in school all day," Johnny said.
"I'm not going to graduate," Virginia said.
"Sure, you are," Johnny assured her. "Mom and Dad are at the school right now, working something out with Coach Lehrer and Nurse Reinheit. They don't really want to flunk you. They've never given you an 'F' yet, now have they?"
"I've never deserved one till now," Virginia said.
They were sitting in the livingroom. Johnny was bouncing a little rubber ball off the video screen. "My Martian friend leaves tomorrow night. I'm gonna go see the blast off."
There were noises outside, a fumbling at the door and Momma burst in, followed more sedately by Daddy. "We got it all settled, Virginia," she said brightly. "Everything's going to be okay. Seems that Langsam boy already took his test with Nurse Reinheit the other day. So it's all set for a make-up for you, tomorrow morning at nine-thirty. And guess who your partner will be? Coach Lehrer. Isn't that wonderful. You always did admire his build, now didn't you?"
"Momma, I don't love him..." Virginia said.
"Well, of course you don't. Fine pickle we'd be in if you did. He's a married man, you know. But anyway, that's all straightened out and you'll keep you 4.0 average and graduate with your class, and this little problem won't even appear on your record. That was awfully nice of them, don't you think?" Momma put her purse down on the coffee table and hurried down the hall to the restroom. "Thank goodness that's all over," she said.
Virginia met Daddy's glance, then turned away.
The teachers' lounge smelled of amonia. Coach Lehrer had his shirt unbuttoned at the top and Virginia couldn't help admiring his broad chest. She stared at the coach while she spoke to Nurse Reinheit. "Couldn't I make it up some other way, like extra credit, or something. I could write you a paper on multiple orgasm or, maybe, the history of venereal disease?" She turned her full attention to the nurse, her eyes pleading.
Nurse Reinheit smiled kindly. "Now, Virginia, we all know you can write good papers. But this is a practical exam, and it's just as important."
"But why ...?" Virginia faltered.
"You know that perfectly well. Should I read back your answer from the essay portion?"
"It's to ensure public health and safety, I know," Virginia began. "So we won't spread disease or have unwanted pregnancies. But I'm not going to have sex for a long time yet, I won't infect anyone or get pregnant or anything. So why do I have to take the test now?"
Coach Lehrer smiled. "Because it's our last chance to teach you anything, Virginia. Once you have that work permit, you'll be out there in the world and we can't make you go back. The whole purpose of this is to make sure that if and when you want to have sex, you will do it in a way that will not endanger others. The time to learn is now, not when you're hot and bothered."
"But most of the kids in my class had sex a long time ago," Virginia said.
"That's true," Nurse Reinheit said. "But any damage they may have caused is the responsibility of their parents, and there's only so much we can do. There are certain teacher-parent groups who are lobbying for institution of the practical exam in gradeschool, but this type of progress takes time. Anyway, this is much better than the dark ages when sex was outlawed. Or the late twentieth century when AIDS was rampant. You can't outlaw sex, people will do it anyway. The most you can do is make it mandatory, so it can be properly regulated. Takes the romance out of it, anyway."
Coach Lehrer began taking off his tennis shoes. "Don't worry, Virginia, I won't hurt you. I've had plenty of experience. And Nurse Reinheit will be right here, making sure that all is proper."
"Take off everything below the waist," Nurse Reinheit said. "You can keep your blouse on if you like."
Slowly, Virginia took off her penny loafers and her socks. She started to roll the socks into a neat little ball, then looked up to admire Coach Lehrer's manly physique. But something in her broke. She shook her head and tossed the socks at the coach. Wriggling back into the shoes, she addressed both of them: "You can give me an 'F', I don't care." And she ran out.
There really was a manhole under the alley on Commerce behind the trade building that led all the way to the spaceport. It took her three hours to get there, and when she came out she was in a hangar off one of the runways and it took her another hour to find her way into the terminal. It was noisy and busy and there were plenty of guards about, but nobody noticed her. It took thirty more minutes until she spotted Johnny, in animated conversation with two men. Both men were dressed in leather, the taller of the two sported a short black beard. "Johnny!"
He saw her. "Virginia!" He smiled and ran to her. "Are you playing hookey?" he asked.
She nodded. "Johnny, do you really have a Martian friend?"
The bearded man interrupted them. "Marsman. Brand Fowler's the name," he held out his hand.
Virginia shook it. "You were telling the truth," she said to Johnny.
"I never lie." He seemed very pleased with himself.
"I need a way to Mars," she said to the smuggler. "Can you help me? I don't have any money, but I can work for it."
"Why? What have you done?" he looked at her appraisingly.
She bit her lip. "I can't graduate from high school. They won't give me a work permit."
He played with his beard. "Is that so?" He looked her up and down appraisingly. "You'd have to sign a work contract. Two years, no wages ... then you're free. How about it?"
Virginia nodded. "It's a deal."
Johnny was bubbling with excitement. 'Boy, oh, boy, you're going to Mars, Virginia. Isn't that neat! Will you send me a postcard?"
Blast off was horrid and she was sick for days afterward, until the artificial gravity was finally functioning. Less than G, but still enough to ground yourself. She finally paid Fowler a visit in the control room.
"I'm ready now," she said. "What do you want me to do?"
Fowler eyed her, smiling. "Depends. What can you do?"
"Well, I'm very good at English and history," she said. "And I'm good at math, too."
"What was the course you failed?"
She frowned. "Sex Ed."
He threw back his head and laughed. "You failed Sex Ed!" he finally said, the laughter having subsided. "Well, no matter. That can soon be remedied."