On the Brink but Not Over the Edge, Yet – by Mary Pauer

I work with my father in his woodshop; the last touches of the Formica slab desk that will hang cantilever against the wall in my room; sultry August afternoon air exudes the tang of pine sap, wood glue, and our sweat. For the first time, he speaks to me as if I were an adult.

I am surprised but not really. Last month he let me steer the boat through the channel; I calculated the strength of the tidal pull, throttled back and floated into the slip. Not even the bumpers touched. He smiled and jumped to tie the lines to the cleats on the dock.

I begin seventh grade in the fall. I know I am not a kid, still his new appreciation of me, although a compliment, feels squishy, like how a grandma clucks and hugs and pinches your cheeks.

This afternoon he turns on the blower to suck the dust from the shop and says, out of nowhere, “you are going to be good-looking, and boys will want things from you.”

His shop, a room created by the addition of a long skinny wall in the far corner of the basement, is where we’d be safe from an atomic bomb, a threat often discussed in the news. But fear of nuclear disaster pales in comparison to my concern and worry about the pressure of seventh grade with my boob-less body.
Plus, I have a history of awkwardness in large groups, in new groups, in any group larger than six or seven. In a month, students from all over town will converge in the new building. The odds of a cataclysmic interpersonal catastrophe loom far greater than a Communist Russian invasion or a Korean attack. Junior high school! Junior high school!

Somehow, he recognizes my trepidation.

I am not ugly, nicer looking than average, although I’m self-conscious about an almost complete uni-brow – I don’t know about Freda Kahlo yet, so I want pencil thin arches. Hairy eyebrows lend themselves to unfortunate nicknames.

I think women should be smooth, slick, able to slice through air without disturbing the atmosphere or tripping, unless they want to make an entrance, or do a prat fall on stage. No one tells me this: our family wears hand-me downs, values hard work, good grades, and boasts great Slavic cheekbones, but seems unconcerned about but what I want almost as much as a bust. I want to glide.

I am kinesthetically challenged, a nicer word than clumsy. A word I will learn almost too late for my self-esteem. I can’t balance on a two-wheeler; trip on steps; but in the workshop, I am graceful, use tools skillfully; I never hit my thumb with the hammer; I never forget righty tightie and left loosie; I can dado a joint and hold a miter box steady to cut precise angles. My father does not allow me to use the drill press, or the band saw without supervision, which makes me feel safe, so when he offers an observation, I tend to listen.

This afternoon feels as if he wants me to learn something important about myself. His idea that I could be good-looking seems a stretch, the kind of thing a parent should say.

I mentally assess my body: slender, with one public hair and no need for a bra. Actually, I will never wear a bra except as an accessory for special occasions, but I don’t know that yet either.

I stop collecting the curled shavings from planed wood to attend more carefully. I still have that plane; now a paperweight on a pile of papers in a long and skinny room built for me and my books. The similarities between his shop and my library do not go unnoticed. Both worlds designed for privacy: rooms entered by invitation only.

He continues, “. . . make up your own mind. . . don’t be a copy-cat. You don’t need to do anything unless you want to.”

I stare in amazement because already girls are whispering about going to boy-girl parties, going steady, going all the way, going to hell for French kissing. Going going gone.

“You mean like making out?”

He nods. “Yeah, not only kissing and all that, but never take them too seriously.” Then he walks around the shop returning tools to their proper place, lining up his rulers, putting nails by size in empty baby food jars.

I laugh and point. “Were they mine?”

“Where did the time go?” His face looks teary and wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt; I don’t know why. I do know he means boys.

“OK,” I shrug, and think of Suzie Jo, the most popular girl in school. Blonde hair, clothes that match, and fit, and a stride the boys watch when she crosses the room, yes, at a glide.

I’m fairly certain no one watches me. My father is worried about nothing, but I don’t want to make him feel bad. I repeat, “OK, I know boys are silly.”

“Maybe they are now.” He shoves the long-handled shop broom into the corner. “But not always.”
Later that week as I pluck the hair from the bridge of my nose, I think about what comes after silly and boys and their silliness, and how often I will need to tweeze. I promise the face in the mirror that by the end of seventh grade, I will figure out why they are not to be taken seriously. I sneeze and my eyes tear from the pricks of pain.


Mary Pauer, a Pushcart nominated author, is the recipient of 4 literary fellowship awards from the Delaware Division of the Arts, as well as several awards from the National Federation of Press Women. Her work can be read in Southern Women’s Review, Delmarva Review, and Best of 2023 Potato Soup Journal to name a few. Her hybrid book, Traveling Moons, has won an award from the Delaware Press Association as well as National Federation of Press Women. Her best critic is her Chow-chow dog who will walk away if she thinks a piece is not ready to look for a home. She approved of this one.