Once and Again...Once Again
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Summary of The Scarlet Letter Jacket
by Angela Stockton
edited by Elizabeth Angela
Fetching the Chicago Tribune from her front walk, Lily is surprised and delighted to see Rick across the street in his SUV, apparently having nothing better to do on a weekday morning than to wait and hope to catch a glimpse of her. She runs to him, and they kiss. Rick makes a joking proposition that he knows Lily won't accept, even though she can hardly tear herself away from him. But it's a school day and she must get Grace and Zoe off to school before going to the bookstore.
In the kitchen, Lily overhears Grace on the telephone, lamenting that she can never show her face at school again. Reluctantly, Grace explains that rumormongers have spread and distorted gossip about Rick and Lily's second date, when Jake, Grace and Zoe walked in and found Lily shirtless. Now the rumor is that the couple was Eli and Grace, and that Lily caught them having sex.
Remorseful Lily offers Grace platitudes about not worrying what other people say and living her own life. Exasperated, Grace retorts, "Mom, that doesn't apply to high school." [In an interview, Grace complains that she can't talk to her mother because everything she says upsets Lily.]
That afternoon, while Lily works at the bookstore, her friend Naomi keeps her company. When Lily describes her recent "disastrous" date and mentions Rick's name, Naomi shrieks, "RICK SAMMLER was the one undressing you in your living room?" She explains that Rick's ex, Karen, is one of her best friends. Imagining the potential complications, Lily is overwhelmed.
At school, Grace and Eli attend an organizational meeting for the booster-club carnival to benefit Upton Sinclair High School athletics. Self-conscious Grace is stunned when Eli, whom she idolizes, is assigned to help her make posters. Leaving the meeting, Grace is greeted by two older girls who say, "Nice blouse!" She thanks them warily.
Lily's chagrin after her talk with Naomi is compounded when she and Grace return home, where Jake has been watching Zoe. Jake mentions that he heard about her dating fiasco from Don Lipson, a carpool buddy. When Jake brags that he challenged Lipson to a duel in defense of Lily's honor, the joke is lost on Lily, who snaps that there's nothing wrong with her honor. Lily is mollified when Jake declares that he wants only what's best for her, and she can do whatever she wants.
That evening, Lily has dinner at Rick's apartment. Over their sea bass, he entertains her with anecdotes about his eccentric clients. They've been dating such a short while, she isn't sure what he expects of her, or she of him; but when he kisses her, she admits that ever since she arrived, all she's thought about is how soon they can make love.
Their eager dash toward his bedroom is halted by Karen's voice on his telephone answering machine, announcing that she's coming over to pick up some schoolwork of Jessie's. Unnerved at the prospect of meeting Karen in such an intimate setting, Lily won't listen to Rick's assurance that it's no big deal. Her first impulse is to leave, but the sound of the elevator bell in the hallway announcing Karen's imminent arrival nixes that idea. Cornered, Lily runs upstairs to Rick's bedroom. For her sake, Rick tries to conceal the evidence of their dinner, but succeeds only in starting a fire with the candles and table linens he dumped into the kitchen sink. Karen realizes that she has barged in at a most inopportune time and, flustered, leaves without seeing Lily or even learning her name.
On the eve of the carnival, with Grace almost giddy alongside Eli, their "work" on the signs turns into goofing off. From freshly printed fliers they learn that at the carnival they will be working together again, at the popcorn stand.
[In an interview, Grace derisively refers to her mother as a teen-age "Miss Perfect," popular and involved in numerous school activities, according to her old yearbook. "So it's hard for me to believe she has any idea of what my life is like at all."]
Outside the school, Lily and Naomi help two other mothers set up a display of booster-club souvenirs and school supplies for sale at the carnival. They talk about an acquaintance whose marriage is in trouble, and another whose plastic surgery went terribly awry. Appalled by the meanness of their gossip, Lily asks Naomi, "Is that what we sound like?" Naomi wisecracks, "No, we only show care and concern when we talk about other people." Naomi tells Lily that the gossips are not yet talking about her relationship with Rick, but assures her that they will: "They don't have lives, so they have to eat other people's."
[In her own interview, Lily recalls adolescence as a busy time, but lonely and far from idyllic.]
Lily spots Rick across the playground and, communicating through clumsy hand signals, they slip away to kiss and talk in the empty school building. "Who made you so handsome?" she teases him. "I'll bet you say that to all the fathers," he teases back. "That's me--school slut," she agrees, and Rick replies, "Thank God!" She asks him to keep their relationship private for the time being, for fear of how gossip might affect Grace.
While preparing dinner in their respective homes, Rick and Lily read the fliers to learn their carnival work assignments. Both are aghast when they see that Lily and Karen are paired up; as Eli says, "Our mom is working with THE mom." At Rick's urging, Eli agrees to ask Miss Hughes to reassign Karen. But when Lily demands to be reassigned, Grace pleads that she doesn't dare ask that of Miss Hughes. Lily calls Naomi and begs her to take her place while Grace calls a friend and crows, "Guess who I'm working with!"
On carnival day, Lily reports to the balloon booth and is so dismayed to find Karen there, she has to compose herself before they make their introductions. Lily does not mention that she is dating Rick. Naomi passes by and explains that she can't work at the balloon booth because she's allergic to latex. As lame as this sounds to Lily and Karen, they shrug it off and continue chatting amiably about their children as they work.
In another part of the playground, Rick sets up the dunking tank. Jake, either deserting his own post or having no work assignment in the first place, wanders over to help. When Rick's own partner no-shows, Rick and Jake work together with surprising camaraderie, even cracking jokes about Rick's disastrous date with Lily.
For her afternoon with Eli, Grace has donned a dressy plum-colored blouse and applied extra makeup. At the popcorn stand, Grace is intimidated by the giant popcorn popper and asks Eli to read the directions. Rather than admit to his reading disability, Eli tosses aside the manual and pours in oil and kernels without regard for the popper's capacity. Inevitably, the popcorn overflows the popper faster than the two teens can scoop it into boxes. But Grace is so thrilled to be with Eli, she refrains from saying "I told you so," and they laugh off the mishap.
Eli's girlfriend, Jennifer, approaches, along with the same girls who had insincerely complimented Grace days earlier. With a frosty glance at Grace, Jennifer demands that Eli come with her on an errand. Once he's out of earshot, one of Jennifer's friends makes catty comments (which she attributes to Eli) about Grace's figure, and mocks her transparent crush on him, sneering, "You're a ninth grader." In tears, Grace flees the booth.
Karen is puzzled when the gossipy souvenir sellers pass by and stare at her, then ask if she's all right. Naomi returns to tell Lily that Grace has deserted the popcorn stand and was seen crying. At Karen's urging, Lily leaves to look for Grace. When she sees Lily and Naomi whispering, Karen buttonholes Naomi and demands to be told why she has been attracting worried stares all day.
[Addressing the camera, Lily recalls a high-school love triangle in which she was unwittingly entangled. During senior year her best friend, Deb Mulligan, was dating Robbie Howard, a boy with a wandering eye. Deb became obsessed with suspicion -- unwarranted, according to Lily -- that Lily was trying to steal him. Eventually Deb made a never-to-be-forgotten scene in the locker room, screaming epithets and accusations at Lily, after which she never spoke to Lily again.]
At the dunking tank, Jessie -- coached by Jake -- gleefully dunks Rick. Deserting the balloon booth, Karen stalks over to the tank where Rick is toweling off. Still chuckling over Jessie's pitching arm, he is dumbfounded when Karen snarls, "You can do whatever you want with your life. But if you put me in a situation where everyone on the entire planet knows my business before I do, and makes me the subject of general conversation, then the least you can do is let me in on the joke."
Following Karen to her SUV, Rick stammers that he was going to tell her, but that he has only just started to date Lily. Karen accuses him of avoiding difficult conversations because he doesn't want to hurt anyone or have anyone mad at him, and stalks away in a huff.
Searching for Grace, Lily wanders the school building, where Grace huddles in an empty classroom, not answering when her mother calls her name. Only when Grace tries to slip out does Lily see her. Under Lily's prodding, Grace pours out her story of being humiliated by the catty girls and feeling like a fool for letting her interest in Eli show. Although Lily vehemently insists that she is not a fool, Grace is inconsolable. When Lily urges her to return to the popcorn stand, Grace adamantly refuses, and seeing how distraught her daughter is, Lily relents.
[Lily continues her story: Ironically, within months of the Lily-Deb fracas, Deb and Robbie broke up. At summer's end, Robbie telephoned Lily and then showed up on her doorstep, declaring that he loved her and wanted to make love with her right away. Despite her gut reaction that this "didn't make any sense," her own feelings compelled her to say she would meet him the next night.]
Grace leaves, but Lily stays inside the school, where Naomi finds her and announces that an angry Karen is now her "ex-best friend." When she asks about Grace, Lily replies, "She was hiding in shame, like her mother."
Sardonically, Naomi explains that single, sexy Lily with her handsome lover is an affront to all the mothers who have given up their own romantic illusions for the sake of "domestic bliss" with their families. When Lily reminds her that it was Jake who walked out and she didn't choose to be in her current position, Naomi replies that it doesn't matter. It was bad enough that "you broke away from the herd, and God forbid that you should actually be thriving out there in the wild," but Rick is another mother's ex-husband. That Rick is also an innocent party, Karen having thrown him out, doesn't matter either.
Seeing Rick approach, Naomi leaves. Rick is still shaken over his encounter with Karen and asks plaintively, "What have we done that's so wrong? We're divorced and we're sleeping together."
Alone with him in the dimly lit hall, Lily wonders if their relationship isn't moving along too fast. She doesn't really think so, nor does Rick; but she does suggest that they might be "immature" for not taking into consideration the effects of their affair on other people. "How can we have considered them -- had a six-month waiting period?" he retorts. "I think the other people can damn well take care of themselves."
Lily says he should know that she worries about people, and she needs time to deal with the "ripples" their relationship is causing. When Eli comes looking for him, Rick tells Lily to take all the time she needs. As he leaves, he caresses her shoulder.
[Lily finishes her recollection: On the night she was to meet Robbie, she could not shake her fear of the gossips who would fault her for dating him. "It didn't matter how good I had tried to be, because they were just going to hate me anyway," she recalls, her voice breaking. Although she watched the clock all night, in the end "I just never went." Tears streak her face as she sniffles, "I don't think about this all the time, you understand. But...I never went."]
Having emerged from the school building, Lily looks around and spots Rick collecting tickets at the dunking tank, his back to her. Love and longing are in her face, but at first she is hesitant. Then she blinks, tilts her head almost imperceptibly, and she is transformed. She has dealt with the "ripples" and resolved that she will have no more might-have-beens, no more I-never-went regrets.
With head held high and her back erect, she strides across the playground, the crowd parting as if the sheer force of her newfound determination has willed them out of her way. Karen, Grace, Naomi, Jake, and the gossipy moms all watch her, and their reactions range from the scandalized frowns of the latter to Naomi's "You go, girl!" grin. Unfazed, Lily walks directly up to Rick.
Her left hand reaches out and rests on his right shoulder. He turns at her touch and smiles when he sees it's Lily. His left hand with its bent pinky finger covers hers. She smiles back. No longer "hiding in shame," Lily is aglow.
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