In the last few minutes, it had become hard to suppress thoughts about the unreliability of luck. I will not be the one it happens to - this is what we must believe to make our way in the world each day. Someone else. Not me. But every once in a while it is you, or someone close enough that it might as well be you. People to whom a terrible thing has never happened trust fate, the notion that what’s meant to be will be; the rest of us know better.
Archive for the 'Curtis Sittenfeld' Category
“I’m having fish sticks with tartar sauce.”
“Doesn’t thatr sound fancy,” I said.
As if comforting me, helping me not to be intimidated, Tanya said, “No, tartar sauce is like mayonnaise,” and I decided that I liked her even more.
We had neared the end of our second run-through of Madeline’s Rescue when Charlie Blackwell appeared in the archway of the living room. I looked up, made eye contact with him, smiled, and continued reading. It didn’t seem that what Tanya and I were doing required explanation, and besides, I believed that the secret of interacting with children – or it appeared to be a secret, based on the behavior of some parents – was that all you did was talk to them in a normal way. You didn’t let yourself be distracted by someone else, you didn’t perform above their heads, using them as a prop, nor did you coddle and indulge them. You paid attention, but not inordinantly.
The second time my grandmother caught me vomiting, she didn’t wait in the hall; she sat on my bed paging through the copy of The Rise of Silas Lapham that she’d found on my nightstand. Her voice was raspy with morning as she said, “Close the door.” When I had, she said, “That was very foolish of me before, wasn’t it? Thinking you were trying to lose weight.”
I stood by the bureau and said nothing.
“We’ll go to Chicago, and we’ll have it taken case of. Next week, likely. I need to make a few calls. You can do as you see fit, but I’d advise against saying anything to your parents. I just can’t imagine what purpose it would serve.”
I felt an impulse then to express incomprehension, except that I did comprehend. At night, when I listened to “Lonesome Town,” I knew. She was right.
“Isn’t it – ” I hesitated. “Isn’t it illegal?”
“Certainly, and it happens all the time. You can’t legislate human nature.”
“You don’t think that I should have it?”
Quietly, she said, “I think it would kill you. If the circimstances were different, I would say, ‘Go live at a girls’ home in Minnesota, go to California.’ But you don’t have the strength. You’ll be strong again, but you’re not strong now.”
As she spoke, I could feel my lips curling out, the tears welling in my eyes, I whispered, “I’m sorry for disappointing you.”
“Come sit by me,” she said, and when I did, she rubbed my back, the palm of her hand sweeping over the white cotton of my nightgown. After a moment, she said, “We have to make mistakes. It’s how we learn compassion for others.” She paused. “You don’t need to tell me whose it is. That doesn’t matter.”
How would you feel if you killed another person? And if, further, you were a seventeen-year-old girl and the person you killed was the boy you thought you were in love with? Of course I wished it had been me instead. Of course, I thought of taking my own life. Of course I thought I would never know peace or happiness again, I would never be forgiven, I should never be forgiven. Of course.
To open the oyster shell – it is an agonizing pain. I am haunted by what I did, and yet I can hardly stand to think about the specifics. There were so many terrible moments, a lifetime of terrible moments, really, which is not the same as a terrible lifetime. But surely, surely, the moments right after it happened were the worst.
If I said now that not a day passes when I don’t think of the accident, of Andrew, it would be both true and not true. Occasionally, days go by when his name is nowhere on my tongue or in my mind, when I do not recall him walking away from me toward football practice in his jersey, his helmet at his side. Yet all the time, the accident is with me. It flows in my veins, it beats along with my heart, it is my skin and hair, my lungs and liver. Andrew died, I caused his death, and then, like a lover, I took him inside me.
We both were smiling; every reference one of us made the other would get, every remark was a joke or compliment, and I suddenly though, Flirting.
Then – I couldn’t help it – I said, “Why did you go steady with Dena?”
“Because I was eleven years old.” He still was smiling. “I didn’t know better.”
“But you kept going steady with her. For four years!”
“Were you jealous?”
“I thought it was” – I paused – “odd.”
“When Dena was my girlfriend,” he said, “it meant I got to spend time around with you.”
Was he teasing? “If that’s true, it’s not very nice to Dena,” I said.
“Alice!” He seemed both amused and genuinely concerned that he’d displeased me.
I looked at the ground. What was I trying to express, anyway? The important thing I’d been planning all week to say when Andrew and I were alone – it was eluding me.
“What about this?” he said. “What if I try to be nicer from now on?”
Looking up, I said, “I’ll try to be nicer, too.”
He laughed. “You’ve always been nice.” There was a pause, and then he asked, “Is that a heart?” He reached forward and lifted the silver pendant on my necklace, holding it lightly, the tips of his fingers grazing the hollow of my clavicle.
“My grandmother gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday,” I said.
“It’s pretty.” He set the pendant back against my neck. “I should probably go to practice so I don’t get yelled at. If I don’t see you tomorrow after the game, you’ll be at Fred’s on Saturday, right?”
I nodded. “Will it be more a party where people come on time or later?”
“I’ll leave my house about seven-thirty. You should come then, too.” Andrew was unusually direct, especially for a boy in high school; I think it came from an understated confidence. When I got to college, the guys and girls seemed to play such games, the girl waiting a certain number of days to return a phone call, or the guy calling only after the girl didn’t talk to him at a party or he saw her out with someone else. But maybe, unlike those boys and girls in college, Andrew genuinely liked me. Then I think no, maybe he didn’t. Maybe, because of what occurred later, I invented for us a great love; I have been granted the terrible privilege of deciding what would have happened with no one left to contradict me. And maybe I am absolutely wrong.
After we said goodbye, I turned around, watching for a second as he walked toward the bleachers beyond which were the track and the football field: his light brown hair, his moderately broad shoulders further broadened by shoulder pads, his tan golden-haired calves emerging from those pants that stopped well before his ankles. When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy.
And despite my concern that I am manipulating the past, whenever I doubt that Andrew had feelings for me and that those feelings would have grown over time, that we had finally reached an age when something real could unfold between us, I think back to him examining my necklace, holding the pendant and asking what it was. That was obviously just an excuse to touch me. After all, everyone knows what a heart is.
I couldn’t understand the reason for our double deception – lying to my father about where we were staying, lying to Dr. Wycomb about canceling the reservation – but I knew that good manners meant accommodating the person you were with. My grandmother assumed my loyalty, and this, surely, is the reason she got it.
During the years Dena and Andrew had been together, I’d often marveled at both the swiftness and randomness of their coupling. Ostensibly, he’d had no interest in Dena, and hours later, he’d become hers. It seemed to be a lesson in something, but I wasn’t sure what – an argument for aggression, perhaps, for the bold pursuit of what you wanted? Or proof of most people’s susceptibility to persuasion? Or just confirmation of their essential fickleness? After I’d read Andrew’s note, was I supposed to have immediately marched up to him and staked my claim? Had my faith in our pleasantly murky future been naive, had I been passive or a dupe? These questions were of endless interest to me for several years; I thought of them at night after I’d said my prayers and before I fell asleep. And then, once high school started, I became distracted.
In my childhood, there was a relieved feeling that came over me when we drove away from one of my aunt’s or uncle’s houses, a feeling I tried to suppress because I knew even then that it was unchristian.