The last time Fonda Miller's mother made breakfast on a school day was, well, who knows?
Joan, a feminist studies professor, believed in her daughters' right to choose when it came to their bodies. Yet, on this November Friday morning, Joan insisted they sit at the kitchen table and eat chia pudding, of all things.
Meanwhile, she was at the counter, grinding coffee beans and humming, like it was perfectly acceptable to give someone the right to choose and then not let them choose anything.
Fonda wanted to press for an explanation, but that's what older sisters were for. Winfrey was sixteen, Amelia was fourteen, and Fonda's age didn't matter. She didn't matter when they were around; neither would her questions.
"It's one of the three D's, isn't it, Joan?" Winfrey finally asked. The waves were epic, her friends were at the beach, and her FOMS (Fear of Missing Surf) was intensifying. She clearly wanted out.
"Three D's? I have no idea what that means." The mess of crimson curls around Joan's face bobbed as she sat.
"Death, divorce, disease," Amelia explained, pink mirrored sunglasses already on. "So, which one is it?"
"Divorce?" Joan scoffed. "I'd have to be married first, and I'll never, ever—"
Amelia gasped. "You have a disease?"
"No, Amelia, I don't have a disease, and I haven't died either. I'm speaking at the Freedom of Expression dinner in Los Angeles next Saturday."
"Sounds like death to me," Winfrey mumbled.
"The topic is Stand Up to Gender Bias, in case anyone was wondering."
"How long?" Amelia asked.
"Saturday afternoon until Sunday morning."
"You're going to stand the entire time?"
Fonda giggled because, come on. Amelia was a high school freshman. She should know that Standing Up meant speaking out in support of something. Not anti-chair.
Winfrey's bright expression clouded over. "Um, quick question for you, J."
Joan folded her arms across her chest, ready but not prepared for whatever Winfrey was about to ask.
"I refuse to be babysitted by Sari Poppins."
"Babysitted is not a word, and your nanny's name is Sari Sullivan."
"Joan, when a cheery British lady brings crafts and uses an umbrella when it's seventy-two and sunny, she's kind of asking for it."
Joan looked at her daughters, like, really looked. Then she said, "You're right. It's time."
"Time?" Fonda asked, heart beating. "For what?"
Joan took a deep breath and turned to Winfrey. "You're going to be seventeen in January, and—"
"You're finally buying me a yellow MINI Cooper convertible?"
"No," Joan said.
"A yellow MINI Cooper convertible with surf racks?"
"A convertible with surf racks?" Fonda laughed. "How would that even work?"
"This isn't about a car," Joan said. "It's about next Saturday night."
"No way, uh-uh, I am not going to that lecture." Fonda took the napkin off her lap and stood.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm Standing Up for my freedom."
Amelia removed her sunglasses. "I thought you didn't have to stand."
"This has nothing to do with standing," Joan insisted. "I was thinking of letting you girls stay here alone while I'm gone."
Winfrey jumped out of her seat. "YOU'RE LEAVING ME IN CHARGE?!"
"Yesssss!" Amelia jumped up too, and the two girls enveloped Joan in a suffocating hug.
"Wow. Someone's happy to see me go." She tried to lift her arms and hug them back, but their grip was too tight.
"I'm not," Fonda peeped, because Winfrey was going to be a tyrant.
If only they had a dad who could step in and take over. But no. Their father was a mysterious sperm donor who, according to the West Coast Cryobank catalog, loved Greek mythology, med school, and his maternal grandmother.
Joan finally managed to wiggle free from her daughters' grip and told them to take their seats. "This is not a free pass for you to go wild. It's an opportunity to prove how mature and responsible you are."
"Fear not, Joanie. I'll make sure Amelia is home by nine o'clock and that Fonda is in bed by eight thirty."
"What? No!" Fonda turned to her mother. "My bedtime is ten!"
"If you have a problem, talk to me," Winfrey said. "I'm the boss now."
"No, you're not," Joan insisted. "No one is. You're each responsible for your own actions, but you must look out for one another and work together so everything runs smoothly."
Fonda sank in her seat. Look out for each other? Work together? Ha! According to Winfrey and Amelia, together isn't one word. It's three. To-get-her. And they always did.
The only way to save herself was to leave. "I'll probably spend the night at Ruthie's, or Drew's, so—"
Thunk! A bird flew into the sliding glass door. The girls screamed.
"Oh," Joan cried. "That's the third finch this month!"
Fonda's eyes filled with tears. Poor little guy. She knew what it felt like to be cruising along and then slam! Something unexpected stops you in your tracks and knocks the wind out of you. Winfrey's new promotion to "sister in charge" being the perfect example.
Joan grabbed her dishwashing gloves and hurried outside. Once the door slid shut behind her, a devilish smile spread across Winfrey's face.
"What's more mature and responsible?" she whispered to Amelia. "Starting our party at seven or at eight?"
"Probably seven," Amelia offered.
Winfrey drained her mother's coffee mug and slammed it down on the table. "Eight it is."
"You're having a party?" Fonda whispered. "While Mom's gone?"
"Well, we're not going to do it while she's here."
Fonda's stomach dipped. "What if she finds out?"
"There's only one way she will, and it's currently wearing my old denim romper and thinking I won't notice."
"You think I'm going to tell?"
"No, I think you're going to invite a bunch of your friends and wear something that doesn't make you look like me two years ago."
"Wait." Fonda drew back her head. "I can go?"
Her sisters nodded.
"And invite people?"
They nodded again.
Fonda jumped to her feet so suddenly, her chair fell over. Ava G. may have thrown the first boy-girl party of seventh grade, but Fonda would be known for having the first boy-girl parent-free high school party. Her seventh-grade status would be locked and legendary. Yes, her sisters were only including her so that she wouldn't tell Joan. But a girl had to start somewhere, and this somewhere happened to be at the very top.
"Happy Friday!" Nurse Beverly smiled. Her teeth looked extra white against her too-dark-for-November tan. "Congratulations on completing the first week of our PuberTea." She lifted her great-grandmother's antique china teacup, pinkie out, and took a dainty sip. "Great job, young women. Great job."
The circle of fifteen Poplar Middle School girls lifted their old-lady mugs and politely slurped the tepid berry-flavored tea. The guest teacher was doing her best to take the cringe out of health class, but the only way a lesson about "breast buds," "peach fuzz," and "natural urges" would be less cringey, if not downright funny, was if Fonda had been in class with her next-door besties. But the nesties were out of luck. Drew had been placed in the afternoon class, and Ruthie's Talented and Gifted crew had their own thing going. Thankfully, Fonda had her boy-girl parent-free high school party to distract her from the "science of body odor" lecture. So she pretended to take notes and got to work on her guest list instead.
When Winfrey said to invite a "bunch of friends," how many did she mean, exactly? Five? Ten? Thirty? Because Fonda already had fifteen people, and that wasn't including Ruthie's TAG crew or—
"OUCHIE, MY BRA STRAP HURTS!" a boy shouted as he passed the classroom's open door. "I NEED A TAMPON!" He used one of those high-pitched girly tones, but Fonda knew exactly who it was.
No matter how hard Henry Goode tried to disguise his voice, the deep squeak that Nurse Beverly blamed on an adolescent boy's growing larynx was unmistakable. Or maybe Fonda recognized it because Henry, Owen, and Will had been hanging with the nesties ever since their field trip to Catalina Island three weeks earlier. Which explained why fourteen giggling girls were looking at Fonda as if she was partly responsible for Henry's drive-by hooting.
Cheeks burning, Fonda focused on her party list, willing the embarrassing redness away. Clearly, everyone assumed she and Henry were a thing. But were they? Sure, the group went to Van's Pizza and Fresh & Fruity after school a few days a week. And yes, Henry and Fonda usually sat near each other and flirt-debated topics like Twizzlers versus Red Vines, thin crust versus thick, and whether dogs from different countries bark with accents. But a thing? Didn't people in "things" have to agree that they were a "thing"? Didn't they do things together, without the group?
Not that Fonda minded being mistaken for Henry's other half. It made her feel mature and brave, admired and respected. Like she was part of a secret society, made up of experienced girls who somehow knew what was what when it came to boys. When really, the closest Fonda ever got to Henry's body was when she grabbed his leg on the Catalina Island rock-climbing wall to keep him from falling. And then they both fell.
Still, she didn't plan on correcting the giggling girls. Why not let her reputation have some fun for a change?
"Enough about bacteria and underarm protein molecules," Nurse Beverly said. "It's time for AwkTalk."
Fonda winced. The most awkward thing about the nurse's talks were her titles.
"Yesterday, I asked you to submit a question you're too embarrassed to ask. Now, who's ready for answers?"
The girls sat up a little taller. Fonda sank a little deeper. She had initially written I'm ready for my period, but it hasn't come yet. How do I speed things up? But she was afraid everyone would know who wrote it because most of the girls in her grade already had their periods. So she changed her question to: Do you think period purses are helpful?
Fonda hoped that Nurse Beverly would say, "Why, I've never heard of a period purse."
To which Fonda would reply, "It's a cute zipper-pouch filled with menstrual essentials."
"Yes, Nurse Beverly. Or messentials, as I like to call them. Sanitary pads, a change of underwear, ibuprofen, Reese's Pieces . . . that kind of thing." Then Fonda would reach into her backpack and wow the class with her own period purse.
Only, none of that happened. Instead, the nurse pulled an index card out of an Asics shoebox and read: "'I can't breathe when I'm kissing a boy. Should I be inhaling through my nose or my mouth? Sometimes I hold my breath, but that feels like drowning. What should I do?'" She crumpled the card and sat on the corner of her desk. "Great question, Anonymous."
Best friends Ava G. and Ava H. exchanged a low five. Of course, this was their question. And double of course, they had already kissed boys. Apparently, everyone had, because all around Fonda, girls began whisper-swapping opinions.
"No nose," muttered Kat Evans, a peppy gymnast with an enthusiastic ponytail. "Hold your breath and take tiny fishlike gulps."
"Yes, nose," Ava R. whispered back. "Nose breath smells better than mouth breath."
Toni Sorkin, VP of the student council, said, "It's the same breath. Trust me. Noah Suture's nose air smells just as eggy as his mouth air."
Fonda sank even lower. Had all these girls really kissed before?
"If anyone wants to know what a trained professional thinks, just ask," Nurse Beverly said in that patient, not-patient way.
No one did. For starters, no one wanted to picture Nurse Beverly kissing. For enders, she probably hadn't kissed anyone since the 1900s, and everything was different now.
They did, however, look to Fonda, who they assumed had something valuable to add. After all, she and Henry were a thing, right? They'd already kissed, right?
They'd never even hung out alone. And Fonda had no idea how to kiss-breathe, but she certainly wasn't going to admit that. Instead, she lifted a silencing finger to her lips like a girl who didn't kiss and tell.
Nurse Beverly began offering some gross advice about falling into a rhythm with one's partner and breathing together. Fonda immediately thought of Henry and how hard they laughed when they fell from that rock-climbing wall. How they rolled around on the mat in hysterics and gasped for air at the exact same time. So, technically, they had the rhythmic breathing thing down. Which meant they'd probably be good at kissing too. Which also meant they could try it and then weigh in on the nose-versus-mouth debate for real. But did Henry even want to kiss her? And if so, how would she know? They could start by having the talk, but then what? Who would make the first move? Once they started, how would they know when to stop? What if Fonda forgot to breathe and she suffocated? She couldn't breathe just thinking about it.
Not only was she behind on her period, but she was also behind on kissing.
Something had to be done.
Friday afternoon. Overcast. Ruthie Goldman's bedroom. Snacking on dried fruit. Elton John spinning on the old-timey record player. Propped up on pillows from her reading nook. Sitting beside her intellectual soul mate, Owen Lowell-Kline. Time magazines dating back to 1987, everywhere. If life got any better than this, Ruthie didn't want to know about it. She might explode.
On Monday, just one week after he applied, Owen had been welcomed into the Talented and Gifted program at Poplar Middle School, and much to Ruthie's delight, he was thriving.
To help the class get to know him better, Rhea, their TAG teacher, asked Owen to create an Inside My Brain board so she and the Titans could understand what makes him "tick." All he had to do was draw an outline of his head and fill it with pictures of the things he thinks about. But it wasn't that simple. His mother only read romance novels, and his father ran a paper-free household, so the Goldmans' tower of Time magazines saved him.
"Looks good," Ruthie said as she took in his collage. It included, but was not limited to, photos of Girl Scout Cookies, Audrey Hepburn, Brooks Brothers suits, French landmarks, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a trumpet, Earth, and Wonder Woman.
Owen held the board in front of his face and proudly examined his work. "I might be the most interesting guy in the class."
"TAG brag!" Ruthie said, punching his arm. It was a term she used every time someone in the program flexed their fabulousness.