Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
Once, she introduced her mother, who'd come up for a game. I grew nervous, as if her mother would divine my naked baby-sister crush, pity me. I shook her hand, then blurted, “How long have you known Abigail?” Abigail burst out with the coarse, rowdy laugh she usually shared with teammates. I was hot and foolish beyond foolish. The mother lifted a tight eyebrow, smiled emptily. Abigail never teased me about this, which meant a lot to me, a sweetness and sign of care, I thought. Probably, though, she forgot it happened. She did not dwell on discomfort, or much else to do with me.
She turned eighteen, which impressed us. She shrugged it off, left the dorm in a hurry with her lacrosse stick, walking with other players, all of them dressed in pastel shorts and docksiders, grosgrain headbands, gray phys ed T-shirts stamped in blue with the school crest. I wanted these things, these tokens of unity. I wanted to love a flat birthday cake in the common room with a dozen girls in pajamas and nighties, to honestly enjoy that, as if it could be enough.
In May, of course, Abigail would graduate and I would not. This ally would go, erased from school life. All year she'd let me tag along, so I knew a good portion of the senior class, towering boys with visible Adam's apples, girls with Audis they parked in a special lot, who walked across campus paired in sly adult conference. I hoped they'd boost my status, carry me off when they left,
too, but the opposite happened. The seniors cleared out their gear and their trunks and departed in their blaze of valedictions. Quiet was left behind, distant mowers, slammed doors from across the quads, the
of tennis balls. The rest of us hurried to get through exams. I had few good friends in my own grade. My second year went badly.
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For junior year I transferred to a different boarding school, and by chance I followed Abigail to Colorado Springs. I'd have my big sister again. My mother even phoned her and said, “You'll be a love and keep an eye on Susy?” “Sure,” said amenable Abigail, who'd always thought my mother's affected style was a hoot.
My affair with the English teacher started midway through the year. I was sixteen and a virgin. He was married, thirty-four. He was risking much more than his job, he said, as he pressed shut the door of his office with one hand and stared down at me for our first talk “as equals.” “You must tell no one,” he said. How unimpeachable, uncontestable he was. Papers from the Shakespeare class waited on his desk to be graded, mine among them. We had just kissed, I was triumphant and astonished. The month beforeâjust a few weeks!âhe'd teased me about my crush on him. He
but I turned my horrified exposure into a game, a magnificent challenge, and every week he came closer, our held glances pitched with danger. I drew him. In the last recent days, our silent, mutual certainty had kept me constantly aroused, unable to work, far-sighted and distracted at the dining table with my silly friends.
In spite of my teacher's dire command and the way he trusted me, I had to discharge the sensation of knowing so much, and I called Abigail at her college dorm to whisper from the phone booth in mine. “I have to tell you something, promise not to tell,
promise?” Abigail said “Yup,” unconcerned. I could picture the shrug. She'd crack up at scandal without caring, she wouldn't ask for details. If she didn't approve, she never said, and, besides, I wasn't looking for an honest reaction. I was lookingâor my teacher, after I admitted to him I'd told, was having me lookâfor an accomplice, and I asked to use her name for lying, for fake overnights and trips off-campus. If we had an hour, after the dorm mother signed me out to Abigail's on the permission slip, my teacher would whisk me to a remote campsite, or to a motel scattered with miniature cabins for an afternoon. “Sure,” she said again. “That's a good friend,” my teacher said, and I thought so, too.
Not everything was a lie. I still worked hard at school. Well, at my English class assignments. I divided the lie, my spectacular secret, from all else. I saw Abigail for real, too. We'd grab an early dinner of nachos or go to a weekend matinee. One Saturday, she invited me to spend the night, and I found myself back in dormland with her, a reassuring happiness. We had inhabited another long hallway, been surrounded by these same sounds of high, fast voices, the clatter of fire doors, the muffled flight of feet on industrial carpeting. The place reeked of synthetic scent, the fruited chemicals of so much perfume, shampoo. But I couldn't settle, and we were not the same as before. Abigail was no longer charged with my well-being, and our yearlong separation had exposed the absence of connection. With her college friends, she was preoccupied with ski weekends, car keys borrowed and returned; she spent money. She had a fake ID. She was not engrossed in petty duties, of which I had been one. I thought we'd talk about romance and sex, my consuming new interests. Answer my questions, Abigail. I need the big sister.
Have you ever done this,
I needed to say, or
should it feel like this?
I would have loved to confide in my mother, share with her the world she'd split open to me so early, but I didn't dare.
I had too much to lose. Abigail, however, curated other topics instead. “You should really learn to ski,” she said. Sports, grades, she focused on those. She'd never revealed the personal; I didn't know her. Our friendship had been an assignment.
We left my stuff, and she took me to a frat party, an off-limits basement dangerous for anyone, especially a sixteen-year-old girl, up late. But I didn't know to worry, made newly stupid by my unsupervised leap into the adult world. I got beer, let reckless boys squirt it into red plastic cups, someone passing one over to me. The beer tasted of rancid water, thin and wrong, but I gulped. The room was overhot. At the ceiling, through the transoms, lamplight shined the nighttime grass a bleary orange, and lit the concrete paths that rimmed the frat house. Things got louder, harder to manage. People yelled over the pool table, cues hoisted. Across the dim room, out of reach of the neon cast from the Coors sign, Abigail traded whatever with the roaring men and the other girls, lacrosse sticks propped, face masks on the floor. I waited on a sprung couch, holding the rest of my beer, shaking my head no to the guys. Their saliva burst into the air as they shouted, as their shoulders and chests flexed, puffed, wrangled. I wanted my friend to take me back, get ready for bed with me and talk, and we'd sleep and get up in the morning and go to brunch, but, nodding wildly, Abigail was backed against the wall as she cajoled and hassled the boys.
was her element?
I willed her to want to leave, but she didn't. I willed her to worry and come over to me, but she didn't. She'd forgotten I was there. She wasn't aware of the affection I'd pinned on her, how I willed her to be worthy of it, and how I hoped she'd notice the care I hadn't yet had.
laudia gave me the number of a pay phone in the Safeway parking lot. That's the thing that made me concerned, seemed the tip-off that things weren't fine. She was living with roommates for the summer, didn't want to use the joint phone. I could picture her holding a grimy receiver, Mick's truck idling beside her. She sounded excited, or happy, some emotion that didn't fit. She had to get an abortion, she said. She was always enthusiastic.
I said I'd fly out to be with her, because that's what friends do. She'd been my best solace at boarding school. We'd just graduated. We relied on each other for reflection, company, mealtime allegiance. After curfew I sometimes left my dorm and snuck over to hers. I'd sleep over, our two bodies crowding and comfortable in her bed. I needed to be held that way, sistered. Claudia had a familiar manic looseness, let me laugh big and whisper big, and she seemed to greet me as a long-awaited permission. But she could also unbolt, threaten to break apart, and I worried. She left notebooks behind, screamed at her coach, seethed too readily when the riding instructor admonished the group after a lesson. “It doesn't matter,” I'd say. “I love you.” I offered her steadiness, perspective. “You're right, Sue,” she often said, and I liked that.
I was planning to fly to Colorado anyway for a reunion with our English teacher. Claudia didn't know this. For the two years
I'd been sleeping with him, was in love with him, I'd hidden it from her. I'd lied to her, deflected, invented alternate scenarios as cover with such precision I nearly believed them. In the solemn minute after our first kiss, the teacher grabbed my chin, forced my gaze, and said, “You most certainly cannot tell our friend Miss Claudia.” She loved him, too, though not the way I did, not with such a desperate need to be chosen. She loved his guardianship and approval, made manifest in the high grades he assigned her. “You're involved in something now she will not understand,” he said. He knew the girl-world trait of wrecked secrecy, and every few weeks he'd check if I'd told her. I never did. I didn't think that deception affected our friendship. I told her everything
. It didn't seem that I was living inside his mean ideas, shadowing his habits.
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I first met Claudia the morning I started junior year at my second boarding school. The office assigned her to give me the tour, and she said, “It's a pleasure to meet you” in a formal voice. Then she released a peal of laughter, took my arm, and settled her own in the bend of my elbow. She was a confident guide, known by everyone. Here's the clay studio, the pool, the theater, here's your mailbox, the dining hall. We came to the stables, and she marched us in. “I just got this,” she said, star pleasure, showing me a shiny saddle. Someone called her name, and she wheeled around. Another girl leaned out from a stall.
Claudia cried, “I love you!”
“I love you
!” the girl cried back.
We returned to our path. Claudia rolled her eyes and said, “That's Julie.” This girlish cartoon seemed a waste of powers. It
was just two sentences, a moment, Claudia exposed as a little less secure than I'd thought. I intended to conduct myself as a woman for junior year, and I wanted friends who would do the same. But still, I liked her giant welcome. Julie, it turned out, lived in my dorm as the senior RA, and by Thanksgiving she was my other best friend. We had privilege in common, childhoods of foreign vacations, winter sunshine. Claudia was intriguingly earthy, someone who could come up with a crude lesson on unions or women's rights, certainly more than I knew. In real life, separate from the performance for my benefit, Claudia and Julie didn't care for each other, masking dislike with pretty fakeness, but I could have both girls, move in two worlds. In the spring, when I was boiling with the terrific joy of my mighty secret and lost virginity, I confessed the affair to Julie. My teacher hadn't said I couldn't tell
and she was involved with a faculty member, too, he thought. She's special, he said, the same way you are.
After graduation the parents left, the seniors drove away in their own cars, and I pretended to go home, tooâ“Bye, Claude!”âbut went to Denver. My teacher drove us, knew the outskirts motel where we stayed parked for two unaccounted days. I was going to college back East, and we didn't know when we'd next see each other. He told me with love like this, we had no choice,
we had to
. In the airport he tightened me against his body. “Over winter break, at the latest,” he whispered. I eyed the departure board behind him, restless as any teenager leaving familiar adults behind.
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I'd already lied to my mother, told her I was flying to Colorado to see Claudiaâwe missed each other
. I had to lie bigger nowâlies stacking up on top of one another, needing close attention to stay organizedâthat Claudia wanted me earlier. I changed
my ticket, arrived sooner than my teacher and I had planned. Out of the jetway, I saw Claudia tearing up the corridor, and I felt the eagerness I always did with her. Breathless, she hurtled into my arms. Her new boyfriend, Mick, came up and stood near, and I tried not to examine him directly. I didn't want it to seem like I was spying. He was a lot older than we wereâolder than our teacherâwhich I hadn't trusted in description, and I didn't like him here. The skin on his face was pitted, spots peeling with sunburn. She reached behind herself for his hand and leaned her forehead against mine. In a stage whisper she said, “I had it today!”
“But I was going to be with you,” I said.
“It's okay. It was fast.”
It impressed me that Claudia had actually been pregnant. True, my affair and its power to devastate, these spoke of the adulthood we were fiercely courting, always inspecting, but she had entered a maturity vaster and more purely female than sexual accomplishment, had surpassed me.
Mick walked ahead to the car lot. Claudia squeezed my arm and gushed nonstop, the way we used to come into the dining hall, our torrent of ideas, pretending to be oblivious of the boys, but we were so very, very attuned. She was talking about Mick, telling me things he'd built, personal philosophies he'd explained to her.
“We're going straight to the root cellar,” she said. “I can't wait to show you.” I tried to muster enthusiasm, although I didn't know what “root cellar” meant. She kept using it to refer to where we'd stay, and I pictured us climbing over potatoes to find a perch. I didn't want to get into Mick's truck; I knew I didn't want to leave the city. My teacher had my itinerary, and, aware I'd landed, he'd be pacing for me, dying for me, like I was for him. We were going to stay in a bed-and-breakfast. But first this. Claudia believed she was my reason for being here, so I had to make that look true.
We drove out of the city a way I'd never been and more than an hour up a sandy highway, higher and higher. My ears popped. I gripped the door's metal handle, was bounced in the cab as Mick took the curves with speed. Was he trying to get a reaction, did he mean to scare? He smoked a joint, spit out the window sometimes, showed no interest in our talk. Claudia was listing her family's Cincinnati summer habits, gleeful that she wasn't home. Mick's right hand played between the steering wheel and Claudia's thigh. She rested most of her weight against me.