Small Maine Towns Can Mean Big Problems
I had seen Jennie McCafferie around town from time to time. She was a friend of Meg’s, but she was different from Meg in a lot of ways. Meg is peacefully happy living in Grand Seal Island, hanging out on the docks or the handful of shops on Main Street during the summer, taking the ferry to the mainland sometimes for shopping or dinner, and generally enjoying being the daughter of the Mayor. But Jennie is younger and a lot more restless. Her light blue eyes jump around like the swallows that dart and cut through the air by the eastern cliffs. Her hair, so light brown that it is almost blond, is always a bit frazzled, as though Jennie can’t stand the thought of brushing her hair in a town this dull.
I caught up with Meg today — the first chance I’d had to talk with her, alone, in a long time. She was sitting on the porch of the Coffin Castle, doing some kind of needlework. I had just eaten lunch at The Larboard — bratwurst on a hot-dog bun, side of slaw, large dill pickle, and a slice of blueberry pie — and I saw her when I stepped back out into daylight.
I scampered up the porch in no time. Picture that: I was so happy to see her that I actually scampered. I almost forgot the pain in my hands, my knees, and the rest of my entire body.
Meg was on the porch swing. It might have been fun to squeeze in next to her, but the needlework she was doing was splayed out all over the passenger seat. I chose the rocking chair nearby.
That’s the kind of town GSI is. The Mayor has a rocker on his front porch. In addition to the classic wooden porch swing, hanging on chains suspended from enormous eyescrews twisted firmly into the ceiling, the Coffin Family has a stereotypical, bentwood rocker with a puffy fabric cushion. I eased myself gently onto the overstuffed green padding, and I rocked back and forth in teeny little arcs.
Meg was clearly upset about something. She was embroidering the alphabet onto a white sheet of fabric, probably so her great-granddaughter could someday pull it out of a trunk in the attic and marvel at what a talented bunch those old-timers were. The work she had done so far was stunning, with flourishes and dragonflies and lilies — but her hands were moving with angry thrusts, and her grey eyes were tight with a scowl.
“What’s up?” I asked, hoping to sound sincere and caring.
“Jennie,” she said, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder.
Nothing else. Just her hands jabbing a needle into the white fabric. Burgundy-colored thread shaped a sullen, brooding “Q.”
“I’ve met Jennie,” I said. “Seems nice.”
Fuming silence. Then: “She was.”
“Was?” I stopped gliding. “Is she dead?”
The Q was finished, although it looked a bit wobbly to me. I’m guessing that for centuries girls have embroidered things in anger and ripped them out later in sorrow.
“She might as well be,” Meg said. “She’s — ”
Meg sighed. She put the fabric and the thread and all the other needlework stuff into a wicker basket at her feet. Then she turned sideways a bit to face me better.
“She’s leaving the island,” Meg said.
I offered words of encouragement. Leaving the island seemed like a reasonable move. But then Meg explained to me what “leaving the island” means. Every close community, like every family, develops euphemisms that allow them to speak about things that ordinarily would require ugly words or taboo concepts. When I was a kid, the bathroom in my house was referred to as “the library.” “I’m going to the library,” my father would announce, magazine tucked under his arm. We’d lose him to “reading” for the next half hour or so.
So Meg told me what “leaving the island” is all about. It’s not a reference to catching the ferry, or moving to Eastport, or getting a job on the mainland and buying a small starter home somewhere. But all those things might lie in Jennie’s future. “Leaving the island” means that she is pregnant.
It’s hard enough being a pregnant teenager in any community. But in a town as compressed and dense as GSI, surrounded on all sides by the cold, unrelenting ocean, such events can be devastating. Meg told me the drill. It’s happened a few times before. As soon as a girl suspects that she’s pregnant, she talks to her mother. You can’t just pick up a little pee stick from Chrysanthemum’s store, because everyone in town would know you were potentially pregnant even before you got the box open. Hundreds of people would find something to do just outside your house — raking leaves, dusting walkways, admiring the unique view that only your yard can offer — as they listen for the gasp that means “yes” or the sigh that means “no.”
So instead, you have to go to Eastport. With cheerful smiles and carefree attitudes, Mom and proto-Mom announce that they are going shopping for sweaters or nightgowns or something, and they catch the ferry to the mainland. There, they creep into a pharmacy, buy some lipstick and other diversionary items, slip a pregnancy-test kit in among the toothpaste and conditioner, and stroll casually to the counter. They feel like they’re shoplifting or something, even though they pay for everything. Then, with the pee sticks buried deep among the decoy goods in their bag, they head off to the Howard Johnson’s or the Holiday Inn to get a room.
A moment later, one of two things happens. Option A has mother and daughter buying a sweater or a nightgown and heading back to GSI on the next ferry, having parted with a fair bit of cash but flushed and relieved nevertheless. Option B has the Sweet Young Thing suddenly deciding to move in with Aunt Becky and Uncle Matt somewhere in the depths of the state of Maine, never to be seen on the island again.
Meg was clearly anxious, worried that Jennie will not return from Eastport. But she also was angry because she knew the truth.
“Jennie is pregnant,” she whispered to me. “She did that just to get off the island. A lot of girls do.”
She turned back to her needlework.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — WomynFire982: oh, please. like she’s the first teenage girl to have sex. shockers! what about the boy she had sex with? why isn’t he moving to the new england outback?
Comment — Gemstone: Neither one of them should have to leave. You make decisions, and sometimes you make mistakes. But you adapt and move on. You don’t flee and hide your own humanity in the name of some stuffy morality. But she did it on purpose to get off the island. So I guess she wants to go.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.