Cherry RedJohn Gravely was our neighborhood house painter. He was never John, or Mr. Gravely. Just John-Gravely.  He was always cheerful and whistled when he worked. Sometimes, while he scraped and painted,  I’d climb the creaky wood stairs to the attic, where my parents kept an old office typewriter on an old metal stand that made a clackety racket whenever I struck the keys. Pecking happily, I would make up stories about my little brother and our fourteen first cousins; report on close escapes from Lancer, the Doberman Pinscher who terrorized us neighborhood kids; or invent adventures for Nancy Drew and her pals.  I’d skip downstairs to read my stories aloud to anyone who’d listen. John-Gravely was always happy to put down his paint brush, wipe his hands on a stiff gray rag, and watch me intently with his crossed blue eyes. Those eyes made me a little uncomfortable, so I tried not to look too closely. I’d had surgery on my eyes when I was six, so they didn’t cross like his, but they weren’t straight either.  Sometimes kids made fun of me; it made me shy.  But I didn’t feel shy with John-Gravely. He always paid attention to me.  When I read him my stories, he laughed in the right places.  Each time he’d say, “You’re going to be a famous writer one day.”

The year I was eleven, I asked my mother if we could redecorate my room.  “I want a grown-up bedroom like Cherry Ames,” I said. Cherry Ames was the nurse-heroine of my favorite book series. Her bedroom was cherry red, and it had white curtains tied back with clusters of red cherries that matched her cherry red lips. She traveled everywhere and had thrilling romances.

Mom ordered red carpeting and picked out red and white paisley patterned curtains with  matching bedspread and bolsters. I didn’t like the fabric, but Mom did. “It’s chic and sophisticated,” she said.  “One day you’ll love it.”  She always knew things like that about me.

My mother asked John-Gravely to come remove my pink butterfly wallpaper and paint my bedroom crisp white. One afternoon I came home from school and Mom announced,  “John-Gravely’s here!”

I hadn’t seen him in two years. I flew upstairs. John-Gravely was standing in the center of my bedroom, holding a wooden tape measure. The overhead light was off; the room was shadowed with late afternoon sunlight.

“Hey! You’ve grown!” he said, grinning. “How old are you now?”

“Almost twelve,” I told him.

“And you’re going to have a new room,” he said. “A real young lady’s room. And what a lovely young lady you’ve become.” He clicked the segments of the tape measure closed. “You’ve really grown.” His crossed blue eyes looked shiny wet.

I blushed. I knew I had gotten taller, even though I’d spent the last year hunching to hide the breasts I’d grown before any of the girls at school. I was mortified that I’d just gotten my period; none of the other girls had that either.

“I’m already over five feet tall,” I said.

“Yes, you’ve really grown,” John-Gravely said again.  He stepped next to the radiator I was slouching against. He was wearing his usual paint-splattered overalls, and a painter’s white cap on his yellow hair. I’d never been so near him before. Up close his hair looked unnatural, as if he’d glued it on. Did men wear wigs?  And it looked as if he didn’t have any eyebrows. Or any lashes either.  It made me feel queasy.

John-Gravely moved  his hand up and down my arm. Then he leaned over and nuzzled my neck with his cheek.  My heart hammered.  But I was afraid to hurt his feelings, so I stood utterly still.  I felt his lips touch my neck.  Hot trailing kisses up the side of my face.

“Yes, really grown,” John-Gravely murmured. His voice was soft. Strange. Breathing hard.  His arm came firmly around my ribs. Then he pulled me tight against his side and cupped my small right breast in his grey-spackled hand.

The bedroom tilted; the air cracked with danger.

I pulled away unsteadily.  “Mom’s calling me,” I said. Then I tore down the stairs.

“Did you have a nice chat with John-Gravely?” my mother asked absently, putting down a plate of my favorite Vienna Fingers cookies on the kitchen table.

I sat and lowered my blazing face. I could never tell her.

“Do you want some milk?”

Really grown.

It must be my fault. My fault.  I’d been too happy to see him.

“How was school today? Do you have much homework?” she said.

Heart still racing, I gulped down cookies I did not taste, answering questions curtly, behaving as if my world hadn’t changed forever.

Liane Kupferberg Carter’s work has appeared in the New York Times parenting blog Motherlode, the Huffington Post, Babble, McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Parents, Skirt!, Literary Mama, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Mom Egg, Memoir(and), Onomatopoeia and Errant Parent, and is forthcoming in Ducts. She is a 2009 winner of the Memoir Journal Prize for Memoir in Prose, and a Glimmer Train finalist in poetry. She is working on a memoir, Love is Like This: A Family Grows Up with Autism.

Photo by Tory M. Taylor