Authors: Jennifer Weiner
Instead, her uncle sighed and bowed his head. After a minute, he opened the top drawer of his desk. He wrote out a check and put it in an envelope with his name—Dr. Melvin Kaufman—and his office’s address embossed in the upper-left-hand corner, and put it into Bethie’s outstretched hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said . . . and, to Bethie’s horror, he did sound genuinely sad. Whatever else he’d been, whatever he’d done, he had been her father’s little brother. As much as she hated to think it, he had lost someone, too. She tucked the check into the zippered pocket of her purse. Jo stood up, and the two of them left Uncle Mel without a word. Bethie was hurrying toward the door, planning on leaving without even a “goodbye” to Aunt Shirley, but as she passed the dining room, she saw the Negro girl humming as she stood in front of an ironing board with a stack of white napkins piled on one end. Bethie stopped, so suddenly that her sister almost walked into her back. When the girl looked up, with her face immobile and her eyes wary, Bethie thought she’d used up all the courage she had for that day, for that week, maybe for the rest of her life. Then she remembered her uncle’s hands on her, the horrible stink of his breath, and that her sister was standing behind her. It made her brave enough to step forward.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Coralee, ma’am,” said the girl. Up close, Bethie could see that she was older than she’d thought, in her twenties at least. Her face was small and heart-shaped. Her two front teeth overlapped slightly, and her eyelashes curled up at the tips.
“I’m not a ma’am,” Bethie said, and shook her head. Her eyes were stinging. “I’m just a kid.” She stepped close to the young woman, lowering her voice. “Does he ever touch you?” she whispered. Coralee’s eyes got wide. She shook her head. “If he ever does . . . if he ever tries anything . . .”
Bethie didn’t know what to say next, but her sister did. “We’re his nieces. Jo and Bethie Kaufman.”
Coralee nodded. “I remember.”
“We live on Alhambra Street. Our number’s UNiversity 2-9291. Call us if you need us.”
The girl nodded, and Bethie turned again toward the door. In the living room, there was the heavy glass paperweight with its piece of coral inside. When she was little, Bethie had loved the heft of it, the smooth curve of the glass against her palm. On her way out, she fell a few steps behind Jo and picked it up and slipped it in her pocket, next to the check. She walked out the front door and she and Jo hurried down the gentle slope of her uncle’s front yard, to where the car was waiting.
o and Lynnette looked at each other across the microphone in the school’s front office that would broadcast their voices over the PA system. Smiling, Jo mouthed the words “Three . . . two . . . one,” and Lynnette bonged out the introductory notes of “Mister Sandman” on the xylophone they’d borrowed from the music room. The two of them leaned forward and sang, in credible harmony, “Fellow classmates . . . bring us your dues. / We need your money, for our senior cruise. / A night of dancing, and plenty to eat / Will keep us out of all those car back sea-ats / Classmates, our savings are low / Can’t throw a party, without any dough / So please, don’t make us have the blues . . . / Fellow classmates, bring us your dues!”
Mrs. Douglass glared at them, the way she glared at everyone, before allowing herself the tiniest smile and saying, “Not bad, girls.” Jo and Lynnie made it through the door, with its wire-reinforced glass window, and were out in the hallway when they thrust their hands in the air in triumph and collapsed against each other, laughing.
“Oh my God, I was sure you were going to do it!” Lynnette said.
“Do what?” Jo asked, her face innocent. The previous week, Jo had proposed all kinds of lyrics, from funny to disgusting to obscene, with increasingly offensive rhymes of “dues” and “Jews,” until Lynnette begged her to stop, leaning against the bedroom wall with tears on her cheeks, saying, “I’m going to pee my pants!” As class secretary, Jo was responsible for collecting the class dues of five dollars apiece. The money would pay for a double-decker boat that would take the kids on a post-prom cruise along the Detroit River in May.
Giddy and breathless, Jo walked down the hall with Lynnette, who looked extra-adorable in her maroon and cream cheerleading uniform, with its short, pleated skirt. The summer had been bittersweet, wonderful and strange. Jo spent her days in the sun, at the lake or on the tennis court, the hours so full that there was little time to grieve. At night, she and Lynnette would slip down to the beach and slip out of their clothes and skinny-dip in the warm lake water, sometimes with the other female counselors, sometimes alone. “I love you,” Jo had whispered, and Lynnette had said it back. But as soon as they’d come home, Lynnette had started right up again with Bobby Carver, as if the summer had never happened. Bobby Carver, football-team captain; Bobby Carver, who, someday, would own his father’s dealership, Carver Chevrolet. “The Saturday Night Fights,” Lynnie had taken to calling their dates, shaking her head as she told Jo about how every night ended with a wrestling match in the back seat of Bobby’s car. She’d describe Bobby’s wet kisses, his octopus-like hands, the way he was always attempting to grind his erection against her, without seeming to particularly care which part he was grinding against. “Is it even dry-humping if he’s, like, pushing it into my arm?” Lynnette wondered, and Jo told her, solemnly, “I believe that Plato and Socrates had debates about the exact same thing,” without letting her face show how it sickened her to imagine Lynnette and Bobby that way. She was brave enough to
tell Lynnette that she loved her, but not, it seemed, brave enough to demand that Lynnie end things with Bobby.
“Funny,” Lynnette said, elbowing Jo in the ribs and looking up at Jo fondly, in a way that made Jo’s heart do a flip-flop in her chest. “You’re so funny. You should have a TV show, like Lucille Ball.”
“Only if you’ll be my Ethel,” Jo said. Jo had no desire to be on TV. She dreamed of being a writer, or a lawyer, like Perry Mason. That wasn’t an ambition shared by many of her female classmates, and Sarah had scoffed the few times Jo had brought it up. Lynnette, meanwhile, didn’t even want to go to college. Jo thought that Lynnie wanted a life exactly like her own mother’s—a big house, a few kids, enough money to pay for help with the cooking and cleaning so that she could spend her afternoons playing bridge or mah-jongg or doing volunteer work. As much as she loved her Lynnie, as much as she wanted to believe that they could be together forever, Jo wasn’t so starry-eyed that she couldn’t see the truth. Making a life with a woman would be hard. And Lynnette, her sweet, slightly daffy, lazy friend, Lynnette of the strawberry-sweet lips and clever tongue, Lynnette who never read a book that hadn’t been assigned in class and never finished her own homework when she could get Jo to do it, whose knowledge of current events and the world did not extend past the campus of Bellwood High, was not made for the struggle. She would not try—or even want—to remake the world. The idea of turning down Bobby Carver’s marriage proposal and running away with Jo would be as alien to her as planning to live on the moon.
“What are you doing this weekend?” Jo asked as they walked down the hall, by which she meant,
What are we doing this weekend?
Most Saturday nights, the girls would double-date, the two of them plus Bobby Carver and one of his friends. Over the years, Jo had earned a reputation as a prude, a girl who wouldn’t even let her dates go up her shirt and barely had enough of a chest for a boy to bother. “A carpenter’s dream,” was the joke they
made, about her chest being flat as a board. Jo didn’t care. She hoped that, eventually, boys would stop asking, but the longer Jo held out, the more boys she pushed away, the more determined some of them became.
So every Saturday, she and Lynnie and Bobby and whoever was currently trying to break down her defenses would go to a movie, or a record hop, or to a football or basketball game at a rival high school, where the action would be enlivened by the flask that someone would invariably pass around. Bobby Carver would drive to the Bobecks’ house. Jo would go inside, and after Lynnette finally pried herself away from him, she’d join Jo in the kitchen for a snack, then in the bedroom. Jo would pull out the trundle bed, muss the blankets, in case anyone looked, and shuck off her clothes in ten seconds flat. Once she was in her pajamas, she’d spend half an hour watching Lynnette go through her pre-bedtime ritual. Lynnie’s saddle shoes had to be unlaced, wiped off, and put into their cubby in her closet; her nylons had to be unclipped from her garter belt. “Unzip me,” she’d request, and Jo would slowly pull her zipper down, sometimes planting a kiss on Lynnie’s neck or her shoulder. The dress’s sides would part, revealing a long-line bra and a panty girdle that left welts on the white skin of Lynnette’s hips. “Why do you wear those things?” Jo would ask, easing open the hooks, and Lynnette would sigh and examine herself in the mirror, turning from side to side, sucking in her stomach and her cheeks and saying things like “I wish I had more neck,” until Jo would take her by the shoulders and march her to the bathroom. There, Lynnette would commence a lengthy routine involving Pond’s cold cream, cotton balls, and witch hazel, and brushing her hair a hundred times. Jo would lie on her back in Lynnette’s bed, staring at the canopy, making appropriate sounds of assent or denial as Lynnette talked about the movie, or the dance, or asked if Jo had liked Allan Gross or Louis Ettinger any better than the boys she’d been out with before. Lynnette would still be chattering and patting her face dry when she came to bed, dressed in one of her peach or pale-blue
nighties. “Roll over,” she’d say, elbowing Jo out of the warm spot. Jo would wait for Lynnette to pull up the covers, waiting for her friend to issue the invitation. “Cuddle me?” Lynnie would ask in a babyish voice. Or, “Scratch my back?” She’d hum as Jo held her or ran her short fingernails over the satiny skin of Lynnette’s back, before turning to Jo, eyes half-closed, mouth open for a kiss.
Jo stayed at Lynnette’s house as long as she could every Sunday, doing homework, watching TV, dragging out the day until she couldn’t stall any longer and would have to go back to the grim, silent house on Alhambra Street. Before her father’s death, they’d all eaten dinner together every night. On Sundays, which Sarah called “the cook’s night off,” they’d order Chinese takeout, spare ribs and egg rolls, chop suey and egg foo yong. Jo’s father would pick up the food, and they’d watch TV in the den,
The Ed Sullivan Show
What’s My Line?
Now Sarah worked on the weekends and rarely came home before eight o’clock. It was the girls’ job to make dinner, and they ate by themselves, leaving a covered dish in the oven for their mother.
In the hallway, the late bell trilled. “Can you sleep over tonight?” Lynnette asked.
“Tonight?” asked Jo. “What about tomorrow?”
Lynnette held her books tightly against her chest. “It’s our anniversary,” she said, looking both proud and shy. “Bobby’s taking me to dinner, and dancing at Cliff Bell’s. And after . . .” Lynnette rattled her fingertips against the cover of her algebra textbook, mimicking a drumroll. Jo felt coldness creep over her skin.
“You don’t have to,” Jo blurted, feeling her chest get tight.
Why would you want to do anything with Bobby Carver when you have me?
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“We’ve been going steady for almost two years, Jo.” Lynnette’s voice was calm and matter-of-fact. She could have been reading the list of ingredients on a cereal box. “He says he loves me.”
I love you
, Jo thought. “Do you love him?” she asked.
Lynnette didn’t answer. “And the thing is . . .” Her voice
“What?” asked Jo. When she heard the sharpness in her voice, she made herself smile. “What’s the thing?”
Lynnette looked down at her saddle shoes. “Bobby says whenever we go out I spend more time talking to you than to him.”
“Well, if Bobby had any conversational topics besides football and himself—” Jo began.
Lynnette put her hand on Jo’s forearm, stopping her. Her voice was very soft. “He says I like you more than I like him.”
Jo’s chest felt tight, her head spinning with a giddy mixture of pride and fear. “Well, honestly, who wouldn’t?” she said, struggling to keep her tone light as her cheeks flushed.
Lynnette’s pretty face was troubled. “You don’t get it,” she said, shaking her head.
“What, Lynnie?” asked Jo. “What don’t I get?”
Lynnette grabbed Jo’s elbow, pulled her into the girls’ room, and walked her all the way to the last sink in the row, checking for feet under the stall doors along the way. Jo could smell disinfectant and the ghosts of a thousand cigarettes as they stood in the shaft of smoky light that came in through the single high window made of bubbled, milky glass. “He says that people are starting to talk about us,” Lynnette whispered. “They’re saying that we’re . . .” She dropped her voice to a hushed whisper. “Lesbians.”
Jo’s tongue felt frozen. “Well, isn’t that what they call women who love women,” she finally said.
Lynnette waved her free hand dismissively, making a face. “I don’t love women. I just love you. And it’s different. We’re not . . . you know . . . mannish,” she said. “We don’t cut our hair off and dress like boys.”
“Have you even seen me?” Jo touched her short hair, trying to keep her voice light, even as she felt icy bands tighten around her heart. Did people think she was mannish? Had they guessed her secret? Instead of seeing her as smart and sporty, a standout student and the managing editor of the school paper, did they think she was a deviant?
“Oh, but that’s just your style,” Lynnette said, waving her
hand again. “You’ve got the best legs of all the girls in the senior class. You’re pretty! You’d be even prettier if you’d let me pluck your eyebrows.” She stood on her tiptoes to brush the ball of her thumb over Jo’s left brow. “Seriously, your only problem is that you haven’t met the right guy yet.”