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Authors: Anna Godbersen

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Adolescence, #Love & Romance, #Historical, #United States, #20th Century

Bright Young Things

BOOK: Bright Young Things
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BRIGHT
YOUNG
THINGS

ANNA GODBERSEN

For the Coven

Something bright and alien flashed across the sky … and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams. Maybe there was a way out by flying, maybe our restless blood could find frontiers in the illimitable air. But by that time we were all pretty well committed; and the Jazz Age continued; we would all have one more.

 — F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,”
The Crack-Up

PROLOGUE

IT IS EASY TO FORGET NOW, HOW EFFERVESCENT AND free we all felt that summer. Everything fades: the shimmer of gold over White Cove; the laughter in the night air; the lavender early morning light on the faces of skyscrapers, which had suddenly become so heroically tall. Every dawn seemed to promise fresh miracles, among other joys that are in short supply these days. And so I will try to tell you, while I still remember, how it was then, before everything changed—that final season of an era that roared.

By the summer of 1929, when the weather was just getting warm enough that girls could exhibit exactly how high hemlines had risen, Prohibition had been in effect for so long it had ceased to bother anyone much. The city had a speakeasy per every fifty souls, or so the preachers liked to exclaim on Sundays, and sweet-faced girls from the hinterlands were no longer blinded by wood alcohol, for the real stuff had become plenty easy to get. The Eighteenth Amendment had converted us all to grateful outlaws.

We did whatever we liked and dressed in whatever we thought smart and broke rules for the sport of it—diving into public fountains, mixing social classes as casually as we mixed cocktails. There were no longer exclusive balls given for a few people with old money and good names, and even if there were, no one would have cared to go. Nice girls wore the kind of makeup that thirty years before would only have been seen on actresses, and actresses were escorted publicly by the scions of shipping fortunes, and some of them did not even bother to disguise their Bronx accents. Girls took to dressing like boys, and though women had obtained the vote, we had swiftly moved on to pursuing flashier freedoms: necking in cars and smoking cigarettes and walking down city streets in flesh-colored stockings.

New York was the capital of commerce and joy, and young people sought us from every direction. They came in droves, to join the kind of party only a great metropolis can host. They came from wealthy families and farming families, from the north and south and west. They came to avoid kitchens and marriages, to a place where they could reasonably claim to be eighteen forever. Or for the foreseeable future, anyway, which seemed to us the same thing. They came, mostly, for the fun—especially the young things, especially the girls.

I can‧t remember very many now—although there are three, from that last incandescent summer, whom I resist forgetting. They were all marching toward their own secret fates, and long before the next decade rolled around, each would escape in her own way—one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead.

That is what I want to tell you about: the girls with their short skirts and bright eyes and big-city dreams.

The girls of 1929.

1

THE HANDFUL OF WEDDING GUESTS WERE ALREADY assembled in the clapboard Lutheran church on Main Street, and though they had been waiting for a quarter hour, any stray passerby might have noticed a lone girl still loitering outside. It was past four o‧clock on that sleepy Union, Ohio, Sunday, and the dappled afternoon sun played on her high, fine cheekbones and on the strands of her loosely braided honey-and-bark-colored hair. The girl was just eighteen, and had graduated from Union‧s one-room high school two weeks earlier. If that passerby had bothered to ponder her eyes—which were the sweet, translucent brown of Coca-Cola in a glass—he might have recognized in them a brewing agitation.

She let those eyes drift to the glaze of sun between the tree branches overhead; her lips parted, and she let out a breath. The homemade dress she wore was of simple white cotton, and though the style was not entirely appropriate for the event—she had tried, but mostly failed, to sew it in the shorter, sportier fashion now worn in cities—the color marked her as the bride.

Through the narrow windows she could see the guests in their pews and the tall figure of the only boy in Union who had ever paid her any attention, standing patiently at the altar. He was wearing his father‧s black suit, and his sand-colored hair was a little overgrown and rough around his face, which was big and pleasing but not yet a man‧s. The sight of him made her agitation worse, and she drew back a little and closed her eyes. Everything had happened so quickly. She hadn‧t really believed there would be a wedding until that morning, when she woke up and it suddenly dawned on her that her situation was quite real.

“Cordelia!”

She turned at the sound of her name and saw her best friend, Letty Haubstadt, whose eyes stood out like two pure blue planets against the white oval of her face. Her dark hair was parted down the middle and pinned back, and her petite body was clothed in the same black dress and black tights and black shoes her father always insisted she wear. The sight of Letty reassured Cordelia some, even if her garb was a little funereal for a wedding, and she managed to almost smile.

“I‧m sorry it took me so long,” Letty told her, smiling more broadly. Then she untucked the folded yards of mosquito netting that she‧d been carrying under her arm, shook it out, and stood on her tiptoes to arrange it over the taller girl‧s head. “I know your aunt says you don‧t deserve one, but I just think it wouldn‧t be a wedding if the bride wasn‧t wearing a veil.”

There was a sharp rapping on the windowpane, and both girls looked up to see Cordelia‧s aunt Ida, her thin lips set in a hard grimace, looking down at them expectantly. Cordelia gave her aunt a curt nod and turned back to her friend.

Letty handed her a bouquet of yellow wildflowers, which she must have picked on the way there, and then asked, “Are you ready?”

Cordelia glanced up to make sure her aunt had returned to her seat, and then pulled the netting away from her face so that she could look directly at her friend. She swallowed hard, and said, “Let‧s go tonight.”

Letty‧s smile fell, and her face grew pale. “Tonight?”

“You‧ll never be a star if you stay here.” Cordelia fixed her friend with an intense gaze. She was merely saying out loud what they both knew to be true. “The train leaves at six fifty-two from the Defiance Station.”

There was only one train a day in that part of the state that would carry you all the way to New York City—a fact Cordelia had known for years. She knew the timetable by heart, for running away was an obsessive fantasy that had carried no special urgency until the dawning hours of that particular day, when the notion that she was to be married had ceased to seem absurd and faraway, and she had begun to apprehend it with a kind of dread. By the time she‧d risen to help her aunt with breakfast, the plot to leave had taken on a decided shape, and though her mind had pulsed with it all morning, Cordelia had not imagined she might be brave enough to go until she said it out loud to Letty.

There was no discussion. Letty repeated the train‧s departure time and nodded. Then Cordelia replaced the netting over her face and followed her friend up the creaking wooden steps to the church. She glanced back once, at the little gabled structures—houses and storefronts and churches—that constituted Union, where she knew everyone by name, and everyone knew her as the parentless girl with the perpetually scraped knees. In a few hours she would be on a train, and all this would be lost to her. By then the dusk would have settled in and the darkness would be soon to follow—and in that part of the world the darkness could go on and on forever, as though there would never be light again. She hadn‧t ever been able to tolerate that very well.

Moving up the aisle, toward the head of the church, she could barely feel her own feet. It was almost as though she were floating; her movements had become automatic, beyond her control. A greenish light filtered in through the narrow windows along the sidewalls, beneath the high, peaked ceiling with its unfinished wood beams. John‧s parents and younger brothers were situated on one side of the aisle, and on the other sat her aunt, with that same grimace, in an old flowered dress with a large white lace collar, and Uncle Jeb, in his overalls, with her cousin, Michael, between them. In the pew behind her aunt and uncle sat Letty‧s two sisters, Louisa and Laura, wearing the same tight, old-fashioned bun.

In Union, the Haubstadt family was known for their dairy farm, for their austerity and religious reverence, and for having worn all black since the death of Mrs. Haubstadt, during the birth of Letty‧s youngest sister, six years ago. She was remembered by her children as a saint, and Cordelia couldn‧t argue: Any woman who withstood the tempers and severe expectations of old man Haubstadt deserved some kind of deification, although it seemed to Cordelia like a dubious achievement, not to mention a questionable use of one‧s time on this Earth. In the family photographs, Mrs. Haubstadt appeared almost comically small when situated beside her husband. Of the five siblings, only Letty was petite like her mother. “The little one,” the others called her, and they treated her as though her size made her invisible.

The faces of each guest turned toward the bride, and though some of them tried to smile, their eyes seemed to say,
I know what you‧ve done.

Lest their looks cut her, Cordelia reminded herself that she was only half one of them. While her mother had been raised in Union, the other half of Cordelia came from some glittering, far-off place, and like Letty, she was too big for the town she‧d grown up in. Letty was right, Cordelia now realized with some relief, to have insisted on a veil. Not only to protect her from the guests’ stares and the judgment in their expressions, but also because of John, who was now reaching for her hands. His eyes were shining, but she could not meet them. She didn‧t want any memory of the happy, expectant way he was gazing at her.

She wanted to remember John Field the way he had been on the day after graduation, when they‧d gone down to the place where the creek gets deep, and she had declared she wasn‧t going to ruin a perfectly good slip by swimming in it, and that if she went naked, he was going to have to, too. John had swallowed hard and watched her as he pulled his own clothes over his head and followed her lead into the swimming hole, running in to the knees, diving headfirst after that. Later they had crawled onto the pebbly bank, shivering and breathless from the cold. In the sunshine it had been so hot, you might have burned the bottoms of your feet, but in the shadows there was a chill. Then she‧d kissed him, burrowing against him for warmth, and when she‧d gotten bored of that, she had told him not to hold back the way they usually did. At first he‧d insisted they shouldn‧t, but eventually he couldn‧t resist her. His eyes were green, and they had gazed into hers, impressed, a little fearful, full of wonder. What he‧d done hurt at first, but then it was over, too quickly, and she‧d wanted to go on feeling that new sweet, searing pain all over again.

And she might have too, without any real consequence, had her cousin Michael not been peeping and run all the way home to tell Aunt Ida. When Cordelia had returned to help prepare the evening meal, there was blood on her slip and her hair was a mess, so it was impossible to lie about what she‧d done. Not that she wanted to.

“Just like your mother,” Aunt Ida had said, pressing her furious lips together so that the deep, vertical wrinkles below her nose emerged.

Just like your mother
was what Aunt Ida always said, even when Cordelia was a little girl, whenever she was late for church or slow fetching water from the well, or when she became too happy or too sullen.
Just like your mother,
until young Cordelia began to wear the admonishment like a badge of pride.
Just like your mother,
Aunt Ida had repeated over and again as she bullied John, and Dr. and Mrs. Field, and Cordelia herself into agreeing to a private ceremony in the Lutheran church on Main, on the next convenient Sunday afternoon. Thus Aunt Ida secured two things she had always wanted in one fell swoop: her trouble-seeking niece out of her hair forever and the whole transaction sanctified in her favorite place, God‧s house.

Even standing with John now, at the front of the mostly empty church, all Cordelia could think of was escape. For though he was handsome and good, he would never be enough for her, and she could not help but anticipate the next fifty years of bleak winters and church picnics and screaming babies as no more than dreary distractions on the way to the grave. Not when she had that burning curiosity to see what lay beyond the straight-laid streets of Union, with its church spires and few lone telephone wires and its surrounding farms. Not when she knew for sure that her curiosity would scorch her if she didn‧t heed it. No, she wanted to see the world, and even as she promised to be John‧s forever, in her head she was planning how to steal away long enough to grab her case—already packed with the few things she would be taking to the Fields‧—and slip out the back window onto the alley, and make her way to the station for the 6:52 train that went all night to New York City, where she had been born.

When she heard her aunt clearing her throat, Cordelia realized that she had missed everything Father Andersen had said, including his prompting to her one and only line.

“I do,” she said, closing her eyes so John wouldn‧t see the dishonesty in them, and hoping he‧d forgive her someday.

Then Father Andersen pronounced them man and wife, and John moved toward her and folded the netting back over the crown of her head. She was almost shocked to look at him straight on, with no barrier between them, but when he put his mouth to hers, it was in the same soft, intentional way he‧d always kissed her before. Someone—probably her aunt—let out an audible sigh of relief. It was not until the newly married couple had turned to walk back down the aisle that Cordelia realized it was the last kiss John would ever give her.

BOOK: Bright Young Things
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