Nothing To You
In the afternoons, before our mothers came home, I was in charge of Lizzie. I taught her to long-divide and which vegetables were scientifically proven to make your skin glow and that off-brand cereal was as good as Chex and more frugal. Still, I wasn’t always in the mood to be responsible. Especially after I became Will’s girlfriend, the temptation was too strong to meet him at the river outside town. The river was technically forbidden to us because you had to bike on the highway to reach it and there were sometimes strong currents – even one drowning, frequently cited. But Lizzie swore not to tell. I secured her ponytail and my bikini with its purposefully tenuous bows. She wore the pilly green one-piece that had been mine, and never crossed a street until I gave permission. At the river’s edge I stood with an arm around the litter-strewn beech tree. I ventured a pointed toe in the water, which was tepid, and said it was too cold to go in.
“Poor baby,” said Will, who liked to play the part. He grabbed my ankle with a pruny hand, dribbled water on it.
“It’s not cold,” said Lizzie, sprinting in gamely. “Come on.” She wanted to look for minnows and she had no time to cajole me in; that kind of thing only interested Will. I shook my head and flexed a foot in and out until he dunked me under the water like I’d wanted him to all along. And after I’d made such a fuss, it did feel cold. I had happy goose bumps and I clung to Will’s back and smiled at Lizzie who stood waist-deep, watching us. Observing.
Adolescence, they told us in health class, commences with the onset of various biological processes, but mine had nothing to do with that; it began the year I turned fourteen and Lizzie’s father finally left Aunt Linda, moving to an apartment in Pennsylvania that we saw once and then to Delaware where the taxes are lower, and quietly losing touch during his next change of address. “He still loves you,” I told Lizzie, but only half-heartedly, because my mother said I had to. Anyone could tell it wasn’t true; he didn’t even send a postcard like bad fathers in the movies. In any case, no matter how careful I was Aunt Linda had a habit of wailing in everyone’s hearing that he didn’t even care about his own daughter, so that Mom motioned me to take Lizzie out of the room and Daddy said, “Pull yourself together, Linda.” She was his little sister but he had no patience with crying over someone who had seemed to him so obviously no good from the start. I had been through many boyfriends in my imagination but none in real life, so I too was disgusted.
Only Mom could stand it, and it was she who made tea and broke it to Linda she’d have to get a real, full-time job and who said, “Anne will watch Lizzie,” without consulting me at all, and reiterated the promise even when I said furiously I would not. I was an only child. Having arrived when my parents had almost given up on the idea, I was used to being the miracle in the house, the object of all their considerations. Now there was someone else always there, demanding that I comfort instead of being comforted. Who, when I snapped, did not sigh imperviously like my mother but cried and made me feel like I was not a nice person.
But Lizzie, everyone agreed, was a very good girl. She was nothing like the kids at the church camp where I reluctantly volunteered, always spilling things on each other and falling off swing sets in the most obnoxious way possible. Subdued by her father’s disappearance and the tearful, confusing mother whose arrival home loomed over every evening, Lizzie was quiet and anxious to be loved. If it would win her my affection she was happy to read old issues of Seventeen magazine on the couch or lie prone for hours watching reality TV. She was so meek that soon I was worrying over her, picking her up from school even though she was allowed to walk home. I carried her Cinderella backpack over one shoulder and reminded her to look before she crossed the street. “What did you do today?” I asked, and she said, “Nothing.” She asked about high school with a wildly exaggerated idea of its glamour to which I catered in my stories, although I was an ignominious freshman to whom nothing glamorous ever happened.
At home I painted her nails to match mine and showed her how to use a curling iron. When we wanted to feel inspired we played my Kelly Clarkson CD. When we wanted to feel sexy – or to pretend we knew what sexy felt like – I put on Britney Spears and told Lizzie to wiggle her hips. The house smelled like the baby shampoo Lizzie still used and like the creams and scrubs with which I plastered us daily. I needed them – my skin was dry, hair greasy, chin aching with pimples – but with Lizzie it was just for fun. She was perfectly crafted the way only children are, the way I had been a few years ago. It was a pleasure to keep her clean, to rub lotion on her already smooth elbows.
At home with Lizzie I was free of the darting anxiety that gripped me at school, where I had to observe every girl that brushed by, cataloguing her as prettier than me or less so. Where I tried and failed to catch boys in the act of checking me out. I was supposed to be on the Honors track, but I knew that my friends would quickly forget me in the event of such a separation, so I rearranged my schedule and signed my mother’s name on the forms. When my parents came home from work they were tired of everything, including me. They posed annoying questions, wanting to know why I hadn’t done my homework and why I was repeating a math course, when my teachers had been telling them how bright I was. The afternoons were the core of my life, long hours of hibernation from the rest of the day.
But as soon as my mother reluctantly conceded I could leave the house in the afternoons I zipped up Lizzie’s jacket and warned her, unnecessarily, not to embarrass me. We met my friends – the ones for whom I’d forsaken Honors English – at the drug store, where we experimented with diet lunch milkshakes and trawled giggling through the family planning aisle. We read the labels on boxes of condoms – intimate feel, her pleasure – as if memorizing these phrases would convince anyone that we had a use for them. When this became boring we walked to the supermarket, where someone’s boyfriend worked and shoplifted us ice cream sandwiches. Guilty, counteracting the milkshakes, we ate them on the too-warm curb, trying to catch the attention of the older boys who smoked in the parking lot and were unmoved by our presence.
In florid yearbook scribbles and birthday posts on Facebook I had sworn to love these girls forever, and I really did think I would. We talked exclusively about boys: ferreting out the meaningful subtexts lurking in the uninspiring texts they sent us, deciding which ones we had a chance with, scorning our friends whom they had scorned. With the rest of us Lizzie very seriously digested hundreds of pages of magazine advice on how to acquire and keep and satisfy and provoke boys. It suited us to have her there. She made us feel wise with her complete confidence in our pronouncements; but at the same time she seemed beautifully empty, untouched yet by the petty meannesses and the worries that accrued inside us with each afternoon we spent in those parking lots.
At five o’clock I took Lizzie home and enjoyed how she held my hand, asked me to fix her ponytail before she went inside. Aunt Linda had pulled herself together as instructed, but Lizzie was still suspicious of her, never satisfied she wouldn’t start crying again. Now she looked for me to open her cheese sticks and to hold her hand at crosswalks. She had become mine.
Before dinner I always took stock of myself in the mirror. Every few months I made up a new diet in hopes of striking on some combination of foods that would solve the problem of my enormous hips. I could total the calories of any meal in my head except Chinese food, which was inscrutable. I brushed my hair, tested the heft of my breasts. Their weight in my hands was always a good feeling – as if I was a boy, enjoying myself. To motivate myself to eat moderately I craned my neck to examine the cellulite on my thighs.
So I considered myself well-prepared for love when I acquired Will. Or, more correctly, he acquired me. He was a very cute boy – the definition, at school, of what a cute boy was. And he’d already dated one of my friends for a month and a week, which meant that I knew how he was at kissing before his wet mouth ever touched mine. We didn’t like it when Will was with Christine. We agreed tacitly that unlike him she was not cute; she wore unflattering dresses and it seemed wrong that she should be chosen over the rest of us, who put real thought into what silhouettes were appropriate for our bodies. We rubbed her shoulders when they broke up, but it only confirmed that the world really did operate the way we thought it should. And when he started leaning over the desk in Drivers Ed to tell me how cool he thought I was and how he wanted to know me better, I knew that the other girls would view me as a better match. Christine would have to get used to it. When we first kissed I thought, without much guilt, about how apt her description of his technique had been. He asked me if I would be his girlfriend and in my acquiescence my hair felt heavier, my hips mitigated, my hands which he had held and turned over in his seemed elegant.
I told Lizzie about it on the walk home from school. “Did he use tongue?” she asked.
I laughed, feeling old. “You don’t even know what tongue is.”
She blushed, caught in the embarrassment of being twelve years old. She thought she was good at pretending to be sixteen, although I was always fondly aware of the special sibilance of her child’s voice, which lingered even as she tried on my training bras.
“You know you’re still my favorite,” I said, trying to make up. “Sisters before misters.” They were always tossing that phrase around, my girlfriends, but I only really meant it when I said it to Lizzie. I told her she would love Will and I kissed her before superintending our afternoon ab workout. Now more than ever, maintenance of my beach body was a grave concern.
Lizzie did like him, because I said she should, and Will liked her because I made him. “Do you really have to watch her every day?” he asked, but I told him piously that Lizzie was the most important person in my life, and he let her come swimming with us. This made me feel better about unceremoniously locking my door when we wanted to make out, and displayed what I thought was my mastery of him.
Will’s bed was ugly, pillaged by pits and stains. Nice furniture, I thought, should be smooth and white. But I was grateful that it did not creak when we first had sex in its embrace. Its silence was conspiratorial, assuring me I was doing the right thing. Will’s parents were out and the only sound in his house was the long rumble of the air conditioner but we were still hushed, worried about getting in trouble. It was much less bad than I thought it would be, and what I remembered most was the quiet and the almost anesthetic quality – as if I were watching, rather than participating in, some kindly rolling together of bodies on a muted TV. Will was much more excited than me, the way I thought it should be. As I watched the tops of his ears, always pink, grow pinker, and took in his jagged breathing and the look on his face as if after thinking very hard he had just figured out his trigonometry homework, a feeling came over me of almost maternal competence, like when Lizzie was worked up over something I could easily fix. I wrapped my arms around what seemed to me his especially finely curved shoulder blades and put his sweaty forehead against my calm one. I felt very near to Will then, pressed between his body and the stolid mattress as he was overcome by some confluence of things in his body that I apparently facilitated. I was not overcome at all, but my dreamy removal, my infinite capacity to soothe, was novel and satisfying enough.
Later he ran his fingers up and down my back. “I really like you,” he said.
“I like you too.” In fact I loved him. I was ready to say so at any moment, as long as he did it first. I wished he would now. But still I felt lucky, thinking of my friends who said in whispers how it had hurt, things had been weird afterward. Besides that it felt like a very complete day.
I stayed too late at his house. When I got home my mother, slumped in her nightgown at the kitchen table, asked why I couldn’t at least answer her calls if I was going to be out in the middle of the night. She looked at my rumpled hair and said, “You’re not having sex, right? Because you’re way too young to have sex. And when you do, it should be with someone who really loves you, who really cares – “
“Ugh, Mom, no, do you think I’m a slut?” I did not like the implication that Will did not really care about me. For days I behaved haughtily to my mother, as if she had made an insulting and unfounded accusation.
A year after I started dating Will (thirteen months if you counted from our first afternoon at the movies, which I did), a case of strep throat incapacitated me for all of Halloween weekend. While I lay in bed looking at my sexy butterfly costume forlorn on its hanger, Will made out with Alexandra Anderson, a girl in my biology class whose lab results were always held up as an example. He was too drunk in someone’s dusky basement to be discreet. Other girls saw and told my friends, who enjoyed the dramatic procedure of breaking it to me. Alexandra had a hickey to prove it, they said. She had reportedly told her friends that Will was going to dump me. I felt myself becoming Christine, imagined everyone looking at me like I did her, my hair losing luster and my body the pleasing shape into which I felt prodded by his gaze. In my dreams my stomach spilled over the waistband of my jeans until they left red marks on my overabundant skin.
When he presented himself sheepishly at my beside, I told him he never could’ve cared about me at all. He just wanted me to look like shit in front of everyone else. I would never touch him again. I drew breath to tell him to leave me alone.
Then he said that of course he cared. In fact, he loved me. It had happened one time, and he barely remembered it. If he were thinking straight why would he ever look at Elena? She was nothing to me. He probably delivered this speech without thinking. Its text came to him prefabricated by friends who had weathered the same storms. That’s what it should’ve sounded like, an incantation on its trillionth repetition, but instead it seemed like the truest thing I’d ever heard. How silly it seemed, to give up this boy whose hands clutched my knee under the quilt, all because of Alexandra Anderson. She still had a backpack monogrammed with her stupid matching initials, although this had long fallen out of style. “OK,” I said, “but you have to tell her that too.”
“I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”
“No. I don’t want you to talk to her. I want you to tell her. While I’m there.”
And he did, while I held his hand. I decided that the announcement should take place after school, because Alexandra had to wait for the bus and Will always drove me home. I felt very tidy and correct in my red blouse and scarf, righteous in my vindication. She saw me coming, our hands, and looked meekly away, but Will drew to a slow stop in front of her. He said, “Alex, I just want you to know that Annie and I are always going to be together. You can’t think you’re ever going to come between us, because I love her. And because you’re nothing to her.” He spoke with real feeling, although I’d told him exactly what he had to say. Nothing to you. It was recycled from his speech to me, which itself was recycled from some older drama. It rang in my ears as something very true. People looked at us as we walked away, Alexandra looked, but I didn’t need to say anything to them. She was Christine, and she was nothing to me. I slid carefully into the passenger seat of his car. I looked at my boots. They were clean, even the soles.
Afterward we drove to the notorious back alcove of the park where people had sex, and had sex. I was pressed into the ground because we had no blanket.
“You’re the hottest girl on the planet,” he said, and removed from the scene of my triumph I saw immediately how sad and fake it was, this flattery. If I were really that hot I could’ve kept better hold of him. I wanted to cry but since he was making an effort, trying to appease me, I had to concentrate on staying calm and on relaxing so it wouldn’t hurt. At home I discovered mosquito bites everywhere, on my face and breasts and the backs of my thighs. I dabbed toothpaste on them and carefully arranged myself in bed. Although I had forgotten to pick Lizzie up at school she walked straight to my house and I told her about everything except the twigs grating against my back in the park.
“Are you still going to date him?” she asked.
“That’s what I just told you, have you been listening?”
“But he cheated on you.”
“He was just a little drunk, he couldn’t help it,” I said. “Alexandra wasn’t drunk. And Will told her he’s not into her at all.”
“Mom said that if a man goes bad once he’ll always do it again.”
“Your mom’s just pissed because she can’t even find a boyfriend on eHarmony.” Lizzie nodded and accepted this. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, alright?”
“OK,” said Lizzie. She brought me a banana but I had recently learned that bananas were actually a hundred whole calories, so I declined
I applied mostly to colleges Will was considering, since by attending the same parties as him I could ensure his fidelity. But to everyone’s surprise I got into a very good college, good enough that no argument could be made against going. My parents said they were proud of me. Will said he was proud of me. I tried to remember that people were proud of me while I walked bewildered around the campus of my very good college. I had always vaguely imagined myself as a teacher, but my adviser informed me that Education was not a major here. There were no pre-professional tracks. “You might find an English course illuminating,” she said, and signed me up for a modern poetry seminar.
We read The Waste Land, which was not a poem I liked. It seemed like cheating, to always talking about other poems in your own. When the professor asked who Tiresias was I was astounded to discover that the kids slouching extravagantly around the table not only knew the answer but could trot out fluent interpretations of his blindness. I liked one passage, the one about the typist and her lover. I could see what was happening, I could imagine the canned food, the underwear hanging limply to dry. In my head it looked like my own house in the hour after dinner when Will might come over, with all the still calmness attendant on that time. I thought of raising my hand and making a tentative remark about the imperfections in most relationships.
“It’s a horrifying scene,” said the bespectacled boy who always sat next to me, emanating such a strong smell of soap that I felt dirty. “The characters experience sexuality totally mechanically, without any connection or unity or fulfillment. And the woman just clearly feels nothing – it’s so demeaning to her, it really jars your feminist sensibilities.”
The class concurred that the scene was a disastrous vision of romance in the modern world. I thought better of speaking. The typist seemed serene to me, not mechanical. Although I loved him I didn’t really want to be like Will, who really seemed to think about nothing but sex. I had never before seen a boy call himself a feminist. That was the thing to be embarrassed about, I knew, but he just pushed his glasses up his nose. I wondered if I was demeaned.
Only months ago I would have been appalled at the way I spent that semester. I knew I needed extra reading and asked for it; I formed real opinions and started arguments in class. I was too busy to make friends but my roommates were unexpectedly kind and impressed with my ability to outdrink them.
“Switch drinks,” they’d say, when they’d had too much, and I’d hand over my empty cups. All of high school, a party trick now.
But sometimes it weighed on me, the sickly cast of people throwing themselves together under the green lights in the bars too trashy to card us. One night I put my drink down and left without telling anyone; it was cold outside and there were men loitering, so I called Will. “Can you stay on the phone while I walk home? I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“What’re you doing?” he asked. Louder than his voice was the noise behind him on the phone.
“I’m going home. I’m tired.”
“On a Saturday night?”
“Yeah, but – “
The noise swelled, Will shouted at someone. “Listen, I have to go, I’ll call you back later.” I folded my arms apprehensively but nothing happened to me. In fact, it was pleasant to unlock the door and peel off my damp clothes and be alone in the room. I was happy when Will didn’t call. I stopped going out on the weekends.
For breakfast I ate slices of toasted white bread with cream cheese; even when Will finally came to visit, Will for whom I had forsaken all carbs for weeks at a time, I didn’t give it up. He ran his hands over me like it was another body, so that I asked insinuatingly what was wrong. “Nothing, nothing,” he said. Startled, maybe, that there was no apology in my tone, that I almost demanded one of him. My roommate didn’t like him because he threw his coat on her bed and because I’d admitted that he’d cheated on me.
“I just think you deserve someone who’s going to be nice to you all the time,” she said sweetly after he left.
She had never had a boyfriend so I felt very knowing as I said, “No boy is nice to you all the time,” but I thought about it.
In the winter the roommates pulled out enormous lumpy sweaters that were apparently the thing, so I put away my strategically sheer blouses and bought a lumpy sweater too. During dinner we talked about the things with which they were deeply uncomfortable: unpronounceable ingredients, refugee crises, bad first dates. Everyone was uncomfortable with something, and very articulately so, except me. I had never learned how.
I called Lizzie and tried make her interested in poetry. She was unimpressed. “If I visit, will you take me to a party?” she asked.
Will was rushing a fraternity and he called me to say that “it’s not that kind of thing, really. They have a big philanthropy part.” Apparently, other pledges’ girlfriends were worried about what happened at the frats. I was supposed to be worried and then reassured, but I couldn’t get worked up. More and more I was waiting for him to call me, sometimes silencing the phone when he did. He’d never been ignored, didn’t like it, and eventually he broke up with me over the phone.
“I just feel like you don’t even care about me anymore,” he said. He sounded really hurt, as if he were fishing for me to say, of course I care. Of course I love you. It had never occurred to me that I could hurt Will the way he had me. That he might actually require my love.
“Are you mad?” he asked.
“Well, I guess so.” This was where I could’ve begged for another shot, but I didn’t.
After he hung up I looked at my officially un-beloved legs, spread out on the bed, and thought through his transgressions and mine. Alexandra appeared to me then, as if she’d been waiting all along. When her eyes flashed to my hand locked over Will’s, I remembered, I had noticed the clumps in her mascara. How was I a person who had done something like that? I couldn’t even say it wasn’t my idea. It was a bad way to be, a mean way, I knew that now. Still I missed it, missed the striving and the pervading surety where now there was nothing, no idea of what to do next. Just a sense, at last, of being deeply uncomfortable.
That night my roommates took me to a party. I said nothing about Will. They were avid readers of articles (not the kind of articles on which I’d grown up) and there would’ve been a discussion of how our relationship was influenced by my low self-worth and the standards imposed by my environment. I was anxious to avoid this. I grabbed a beer from a boy who was mouthing along to the Fergie album that pounded all the way down to the street: How come every time you come around, my London, London bridge wanna go down. It was ironic, the Fergie. Everyone had real interests in higher forms of music; this was a relic of our uncultured years, to be revisited only with eyebrows raised.
“I don’t really get the London bridge thing,” someone said. “Why is it going down instead of up?”
“It’s a shit metaphor,” I said, and it was the right thing, and everybody laughed. I thought of how they played Fergie at the Homecoming dance last year and Will pulled and pushed me all over his body, so the glitter came off my dress and onto his hands and his one nice jacket. I was happy to have everyone, even the disgruntled teachers, see his hands on my ribcage, almost to my breasts, to see how he wanted me. He told me he’d never seen anyone so beautiful; dry-eyed now, not wanting him at all, I still hoped he hadn’t said it to appease me.
“What’s wrong with you?” Pool water dripped from Lizzie’s hair onto my legs. She’d put this question to me many times since I came home for the summer. Last week she wanted to know if I was depressed. I understood her concern. To Lizzie, depression was a one-piece bathing suit and no lip gloss and a book at the pool.
“Nothing’s wrong, I’m just relaxing.”
“Did you see how Ben was hitting on me?” she asked. Her lips were blue from the sugar-free Popsicle she’d just finished and she stood hand on hip. She maintained herself in the diligent, exacting way she’d learned from me, but she was more perfect than I had ever been. I could’ve hated her waist if it didn’t belong to her. People were always saying she could model, and her mouth curved beautifully in a placid, continuous acknowledgment of this fact.
“I thought you said he was dumb.” She shrugged and adjusted my book and the towel around my legs as one might for an ancient, incapacitated relative.
“Are you sad about Will?”
I was not sad about Will. My friends at school advised me to take some time for myself in the summer. I said earnestly that I would, and envisioned having some original thoughts. Since few such thoughts came to me I went with Lizzie to the public pool and read book after long book with which my professors agreed I should already be familiar, alternating them with Aunt Linda’s cowboy romance novels.
Lizzie stretched out next to me. She thought college was very exciting but she pitied deeply the one-piece and the lack of a boyfriend. I looked at her delicate tan lines, her whole mind and body fashioned in my own discarded image. She was having what my mother called a difficult phase, mouthing off to Aunt Linda every chance she got. She was very sure now of doing everything correctly. But soon she would catch up to me, and realize I had not led us the right way. She would be angry.
I woke up to her shriek and although she was older now and no one needed me to watch her I looked up to see that she was still intact, found her perched on the edge of the deck with a limpid, soft-shouldered boy who must be Ben. She’d just been splashed, droplets beading on her thighs, and now he was pulling her in. “I can’t,” she said, smiling, just like me. “It’s so cold.”
The night was thick and alive with cicadas, out in force this year and fodder for excruciating small talk. But Ricky’s Italian, pressed for business since Olive Garden arrived in town and therefore serving drinks to the underage, was ferociously air-conditioned. I wore a lumpy sweater which my friends would despise. A year apart had made us benign toward each other. Everyone had her own territory, ensconced in various childhood education or administrative informatics programs, and we could have chatty margaritas at a varnished table without any of our old rancors. Someone was already engaged, to a boy none of us knew enough to cast aspersions on. I referred to Will as “my first boyfriend,” although there had been no subsequent boyfriends, and no one called my bluff. Christine said cheerfully that she’d gained fifteen pounds and I tripped over myself to tell her to shut up, she looked fantastic.
I was buoyed by goodwill until someone said, “Oh my God, Annie, isn’t that baby Lizzie over there?” I’d thought Lizzie would be at the movies, or watching TV in her fuzzy socks, but there she was, wearing a shirt I didn’t recognize, with a phalanx of boys arranged around Ben from the pool.
Everyone turned to inspect our old mascot. “Look at her, she’s so sexy now. Is that her boyfriend, Annie? How old is she?”
“She’s fifteen.” It couldn’t be her boyfriend because she didn’t have a boyfriend, but still his hand grazed her bared shoulder blades as if they were familiar territory.
“He’s hot, good for her,” one of them said. He was also, I noticed, not paying attention to her. He was the center of the group; they were lapping up the gestures of whatever story he was telling, and no one was giggling harder than Lizzie. He saw her, I was sure, but he was enjoying the phenomenon of everyone’s attention on him, comparing beers across the table and then slapping his neighbor on the shoulder and then abandoning him for a new conversation. It buoyed him, maybe, that although he barely glanced at her Lizzie stayed, angling toward him so it would be easy to slip an arm around her shoulder.
I said I was just going to go and say hello and picked my way over to her, feeling unutterably old in my sweater, no make-up, hair not blow-dried. She wouldn’t want to admit we were related.
“Anne, Annie! I didn’t see you before!” She threw herself into my arms. I was gratified that she wasn’t ashamed of me until I realized she was drunk.
“Annie, this is Ben,” she said, as if introducing someone very eminent. Ben was polite and uninterested and she looked confused that we didn’t have more to say to each other. I almost smiled, but there were goose bumps on her shoulders. Perhaps banking on Ben offering his jacket, she hadn’t brought her own. Her forehead was shiny and her lipstick so bright even a boy could tell it was lipstick. It was palpable, the effort she was exerting.
I bent to whisper that her lipstick was smudged, and she covered her mouth and led me to the bathroom. “Thank God, Annie, help me fix it.”
“Do you even know those guys?” I folded up a wad of tissues. “Bite down on that.”
She bit. The extra lipstick made a print on the tissue, a pair of pursed womanly lips, nothing like Lizzie’s real, babyish mouth. I threw it away.
“I know Ben. It’s a date,” she said blithely. “Well, he invited me to hang out with his friends but I think it could be a date. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
“I’m not sure he’s being very kind to you.” I untied her halter top and pulled it higher on her breasts, tied a double knot. Words like kind were something I had learned in college, not part of my language with Lizzie. Worse than any unkindness, to her, was my bringing it up.
“No, he’s a great guy, really. I think he could be the one for me.”
“Do you want to maybe go home and talk about it there?”
“No, I don’t want to go home, are you crazy?” She wriggled away from my arm which was tightening on her shoulder, desperate like a mother’s. “It was hard enough to get into this fucking bar. Why is it so bad to you that I want to have a good time?” She undid the halter so it scooped low again, made a loose bow. “Just because you got dumped by your boyfriend and want to sit around moping doesn’t mean I have to.” She walked out of the bathroom. One of the boys had taken her place next to Ben and with some difficulty she made him cede it and resumed her perch. Smiling, precarious.
“How’s Lizzie?” they asked at my table.
“I don’t like that guy she’s with.”
Christine looked over. “Oh, they all have to go through a bad guy at some point. We all did.” She looked at me wryly, not entirely sad to see me concerned. And although I’d made little progress on my margarita it all swam in front of me, her Will and my Will and this Ben, his eyes skimming without feeling over Lizzie’s breasts, exposed to the cold for him. Of course we all had to go through a bad guy, but it seemed there should be an exception for Lizzie. I hated my friends then. It was their fault there was no exception. But if theirs, also mine.
I watched for an hour. I wanted her to walk away, I wanted to give her my sweater so she wouldn’t be cold, I wanted him to put an arm around her shoulder so she would be happy. Finally, when the other boys drifted away, that’s what he did. As they got up to leave she blew me a kiss, affectionate again now that she had what she wanted.
I walked over again. “You’ll just call me if you need anything, right?”
“I’ll call,” she said, and walked out with Ben. They were holding hands.
My parents were already asleep when I got home, grateful I was grown up and they didn’t have to worry anymore. I sat by the window for a while, imagining that she would change her mind and force Ben to give her a ride, slam the door on his reproaches, and tell me everything. But she didn’t. Somewhere, in another driveway, she was swinging one leg out of the car at a time, trying to be graceful about it, shutting the door quietly so as not to wake some other set of parents. I washed my face and got into bed but then I got up again and put my clothes on. I poured water in the coffee machine and lined up my cellphone and the landline on the kitchen table and sat down, to wait in case she called.
About the Author
Irene Connelly is a recent graduate of Yale University, where her senior collection of short stories won the Field Prize, the university’s highest award for thesis work. Irene has worked as an English teacher and is currently freelance writing while backpacking through Europe and the Middle East.