Donna�s last name began with the letter �A.� During the commencement ceremony she was the first one called. Mother Speakeasy�s habit looked like a starched kite as she called Donna to the stage. The nun was a terminally embarrassed lady who, although clothed from her throat to her ankles, always felt naked. She fiddled with a loose button on her habit as she spoke, losing it halfway through the alphabet. It rolled to the edge of the stage, where Donna eyed it now and then, as the rest of her classmates were called for their diplomas.
Later, that was all Donna would really remember about commencement. She was glad to be done with Catholic high school. She wanted to burn her plaid skirt and trade it in for short shorts. They all did.
�Donna,� her father said at the dinner table that fall, �why don�t you stay here? Get a secretarial job. You�re bound to meet someone and fall in love one of these days. You�ll want to get married and have children.� Even the sugar bowl on the table, with its tedious and angry little rose pattern, mocked him. It wasn�t impossible that she would want to get married and have children, but she did think it was impossible that that was all she�d ever want to do. That and secretarial work. Her father opened the sugar bowl, plucked a bright cube from the top, and popped it in his mouth. He chewed hard, as though to destroy.
�But you�re going to need me to fix your teeth, Dad.� She patted the top of his balding head as she walked away. He still had most of his hair but it was thinning in the region of the North Pole. That and the sugar cubes made her want to cry. He flicked the angry roses with a fingernail. She left the room. All their conversations ended like this.
The summer had passed like a dandelion dream that arranged in ragged green and gold through all practical matters. She read, and the dandelions grew around her, she worked and they were trodden underfoot, she went to the movies with her girlfriends, and they were forgotten. The weeks weeded themselves thinner and thinner until one day it was September and time to leave for college.
All her Catholic school girl uniforms were now at the Salvation Army. The first day of dental school she wore short shorts, a terry cloth top, and platform shoes. Out of a hundred and fifty students matriculated in their first year of dental school at Honorah in 1972, she was the only female. None of the letters from school had prepared her for this eventuality. She got looks everywhere she went, as she left the bursar�s office, as she navigated the cafeteria. She felt like Mother Speakeasy. She found things to fiddle with.
In a large lecture hall stacked top to bottom with stadium seats, she sat chewing her pinky nail and waiting for the uproar of fifty or so young men around her to quell. She was situated very near the center of the room, a conspicuous girl-spoon in thick male soup.. The professor, an elderly man in a suit and bowtie, flicked off the ceiling track lights and returned to the overhead projector. He ruffled through the pages of a magazine. Donna, thinking that his hands were overly effeminate, wished he were a woman. She watched him arrange the magazine on the projector and play with the focus knob. The guys sitting in the seats near him looked to the front of the room. One of them smirked. Another�s eyes grew large and esurient. A palpable quiet moved from the back to the front of the hall, like a lost button rolling in little coils. Erratic giggles erupted at various arcs. Donna turned back around in her seat to see.
A naked lady the size of King Kong was projected on the wall above the stage. Recumbent in white satin pillows, on a white bearskin rug in front of a fireplace, her pinky trailed at the edge of her lustrous half-parted lips. She had long brown hair and deep pink areolas. Donna�s hands began to sweat. She jerked her eyes back down to the notebook on her desk.
�Well, I see that got your attention!� The bow-tied professor said jovially. �Now let�s talk about teeth!�
Donna remembered the dandelion dream of summer, so dense and comforting. She remembered her father and his wanting her to be a secretary, so certain she could be happy at home.
No, she�d just stick around here and see what happened. She might not wear short shorts or makeup for four years straight, but she�d wait and see what happened.
What happened was that Donna got used to the professors whistling and winking at her every day, whether she dressed like a nun or not. She got used to the centerfold projections every morning. There was Miss October with auburn hair. Miss December dusted with Christmassy glitter. Miss Black May with two black tulips tucked between her breasts.
But by the next year, six more girls had enrolled in the dental program at Honorah. They clung together like crystals in a snowflake. They tried to remain cool in the heat. And after awhile, they decided that fair was fair. They brought a copy of Playgirl to school.
�Why don�t you put this up Dr. Ristlebau?� Donna asked the professor. The girls gathered around him as he stood by the projector at the back of the room. Suspense and mirth lay over them like the gloss on a magazine page.
The first man they showed him had red hair and green eyes. He was fair and muscular, and the way his hand hung down, it was almost touching his penis. The next man they showed him was swarthy and dark-haired. He was an all oiled-up Mr. July and he was so hot Donna could hardly touch the page. But she did. She put her finger down at a stiff right angle to the
paper, right on top of Mr. July�s penis.
�How about this one?� she asked. Half-blind with anxiety, she looked at Dr. Ristlebau, somewhere very near the vicinity of his watery eyes.
She did it for dental school. She did it for all her future patients and their teeth. She did it because she knew she had the right chair-side manner and the gentlest touch of anyone in the room. And of course part of it was because she had to prove her father wrong.
She was way too smart to be a secretary.
BIO: Phoebe Wilcox lives in eastern Pennsylvania. Some of her favorite things are John Banville novels, sushi, salamanders (they have cute hands) and picking blueberries. Her novel, Angels Carry the Sun, is pending publication with Lilly Press, and an excerpt from a second novel-in-progress has been published in �Wild Violet.� Recent and forthcoming experiments may be found in �The Chaffey Review,� �The Big Table,� �Shoots and Vines,� �The Battered Suitcase,� �The Linnet�s Wings,� �Calliope Nerve,� �Bartleby-Snopes,� �The Black Boot� and others. Her story, �Carp with Water in Their Ears,� published in �River Poets Journal� was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.