I was watching TV. The only English-language station played reruns of The Partridge Family, Gilligan's Island, M*A*S*H, and All In The Family every afternoon. For me, at 15, living in Qatar, that was my so-called life.
We'd been in Qatar only since January - three months. We moved from Taiwan. Before Taiwan was Indonesia. Before that Kenya, Latvia, New Zealand... We moved a lot. No, my dad wasn't in the military - it was his business.
Taiwan had been pretty good. We'd lived there for almost two years. My sister, Janet, was sure she was going to be able to finish high school there. No luck. At Christmas, Dad called a family meeting and announced that we were moving in 3 weeks. The color drained from my sister's face. "No, no, no!" she shrieked.
Janet screamed. She cried. I seriously thought she was going to murder Dad. She begged to be able to stay in Taiwan. She pleaded. She slammed doors. She broke plates.
Really, I could understand. Qatar would be her fourth high school on the third continent. And she'd have to leave behind her friends (again), and her boyfriend - her first serious boyfriend - Dan. And going to a new high school just for second semester of senior year was going to be tough.
But my father was implacable, and my mother, who didn't like Dan, backed him up. "We were all going to Qatar and that's that!"
Actually, though, I pretty much felt Janet was carrying things a bit too far. She always hated moving because she always had to leave behind her friends, because she'd always made friends wherever we'd gone. After the first day of school in whatever new country we were in, she'd announce that she had a new friend, or two, or three.
Me - I usually could predict when we were due to move next. Usually, it would be just as I began to make my first attempts at friendship with someone. Since that took me about a year-and-a-half on average, it coincided pretty well with the next move. And put any thought of a girlfriend for me right out of your mind. I'd never even kissed a girl, and I had no prospects for a date ever, as far as I could see.
Yes, Janet would make friends anywhere, at the drop of a hat, and I wouldn't.
Until we got to Qatar. Not that I suddenly started picking up friends left and right. Quite the contrary. No, the trouble was that Janet hadn't made any friends either.
Now, you might think that, what with moving every one or two years, that my sister and I would be pretty close. Hah. Though less than three years apart in age, and despite having so much shared history in so many strange places, we'd never bonded with each other. For Janet's first rule about friends is that they didn't include her younger brother. I was the pile of dirty socks that somehow was always in her closet. I was the ugly portrait that always hung on the living room wall. I was the annoying sound she couldn't get out of her head. In short, she detested me, and had detested me non-stop ever since I interrupted her perfect life by having the audacity of being born.
So when she sat down at the extreme other end of the couch to watch TV with me, I paid her no mind and expected the same in return.
There is little in the world more inane than an episode of The Partridge Family. After a particularly inane moment, I looked over to Janet, wanting to roll my eyes at someone. I was kind of surprised to see that Janet wasn't even watching the TV. She was watching me, or at least staring off into space in my direction.
I went back to watching Susan Dey, wondering for the hundredth time if I thought she was cute or not. As usual, I came to the conclusion that she wasn't all that good looking, and that she looked altogether too much like Janet.
At the next break, I glanced over at Janet again. She was definitely staring at me.
"Whaaat?" I asked her, rather defensively. As in "whaddaya-lookin'-at-huh?"
She looked down into her lap, and said quietly, "I miss Dan."
What? My sister confiding something to me? That was a first.
"Yeah - and now were stuck in this oven-baked prison where even you can't find a friend," I blurted out without thinking.
I looked back at the TV and Janet suddenly stood up and went to her room. As she passed, I noticed that she looked like she was about to cry. Her door slammed and I was left alone with Danny Bonaduce.
Life did suck here. An hour long bus ride each way to school. Classes full of total idiot kids from Texas that talked funny. Almost everyone from school lived in one of three American Compounds with swimming pools and movie theaters, but not us. We lived in an apartment downtown - the only Americans there. Janet and Mom were not even allowed to leave the apartment without being all covered up. No social life, and no hope for a social life.
The Partridges sang whatever stupid song-of-the-day that would make life sweet again, then the show mercifully ended. But Gilligan came on next, and it was a truly dumb episode that I'd seen several times already, and which I just couldn't suffer through again. I shut off the TV and went to my room, passing Janet's room on the way. I paused and listened at her door. I thought I heard sobbing, and something was squeaking. I shrugged, and went to my room to study History.
Just before six, the phone rang. I thought Janet would get it. In Taiwan she was always getting phone calls, and the rest of us had pretty much gotten used to every call being for her. The phone rang the fourth time and I realized she hadn't gotten it, so I hopped off my bed and ran to get it.
It was Mom. Mom worked at the one English-language newspaper - a weekly - and something had gone wrong with the production, and she was going to have to stay late. She wouldn't be back before 9:30 or maybe even 10, when Dad would be getting home. She wanted to talk to Janet about dinner, so I put down the phone and went to Janet's room and knocked on the door. "Mom wants to talk to you," I shouted through the door. I could hear the soundtrack to "Grease" playing in her room. I hated that album. Janet and Dan listened to it for hours on end. Even if they hadn't, I would have hated that album. "Hopelessly Devoted to You", in Olivia's painfully thin, high voice... Uggh.
Janet didn't answer, so I knocked louder. When she still didn't answer, I slowly, cautiously, opened her door. Entering Janet's room without permission was a mortal sin in her book. And permission was never granted. I peered in and saw Janet just getting up from the bed. She looked awful, with her clothes rumpled, her hair messed, her eyes red from crying. "I'm coming," she growled at me, and pushed past me to get to the phone.
Mom wanted her to make dinner, which turned out to be Swanson TV dinners imported from the U.S., with two pieces of fried chicken in the main part of the tray, and three little dimples above, one with peas, one with corn, and one with a little blueberry muffin for dessert. When they were cooked (one of the very few things Janet could cook), we sat across from each other and ate in silence. When we were done, she finished her glass of milk and just sat there staring at the empty foil tray.
"I miss Taiwan too," I said quietly. "It was way better than here. They should have let you stay."
Janet still looked down at the table. It looked almost like she was going to start crying again.
"I mostly miss Dan," she said, barely audibly.
I waited for her to say more, and when she didn't, I got up and cleared the table, even clearing her stuff. I washed the glasses and forks (no dishwashers in Qatar) and threw out the trays. Janet had gone from the table while I was washing up.
I headed back up to my room, but stopped as I passed her door at the sound of her voice.
"Jimmy, come in here." It was an order.
I pushed open the door and went to sit in her big wicker chair.
"Close it," she said, indicating the door. Odd, since nobody was home except us, and nobody would be home for almost 3 more hours.
I closed the door and took my seat.
Janet had changed clothes, and was wearing purple sweat pants and a matching purple sweatshirt. She was sitting on her bed, her back against the wall, her legs stretched out towards me.
"I saw you jerking off yesterday," she announced.
"So? Why didn't you knock before you opened the bathroom door anyway?"
"I did, but you were too busy," she cut back nastily. "You're not as big as Dan," she added, "... down there..."
Whoa. That was the first sexual comment she'd ever made in my presence. I sat in stunned silence, not knowing what to say, not knowing why she was telling me these things, not knowing why I was there at all. My befuddled brain latched on the thought that I'd had no idea she and Dan had gotten to the point of knowing what their privates looked like. I'd always thought of Janet as asexual - maybe even antisexual. But I guess even someone as cold as ice as Janet...
"I bet you've never even kissed a girl, have you?" She was almost, but not quite, taunting me.
After a second, I shook my head, "no", not trusting my voice.
"You ever see a pussy? No, of course not. You wouldn't know the first thing about pleasing a woman, even if you could find a girl who would let you kiss her." She was dismissive in her tone.
.... There is more of this story ...