Authors: Beth Nugent
—Wasn’t that great? She nods her head. —That was great. She stares back at the swingset for a moment, then abruptly rises and walks away. I follow her home, but all along the way I try to imagine what it must be like to be on the swing-set when it’s burning, the heat rising through the metal seat and me in the middle, rising and falling back to earth, surrounded by flames.
—Well, Annie says when we reach our street. —My mother said you can come for dinner tonight. If you want. She glances at my house. —If it’s all right with your mom. Without waiting for me to answer, or even consider her invitation, she leads the way into my house and stands stiffly in front of my mother while I ask for permission.
My mother smiles brightly at Annie.
—Of course, honey, she says, then turns back to her puzzle. Annie looks around at our kitchen. —We can watch TV until dinner, she says, and goes into the living room to turn on the television.
For dinner, Annie’s family has carrots and potatoes and chicken and bread, all piled onto the plate at once. I sit next to Annie, across from Tommy, who eats in a steady, fixed rhythm: each time he takes a bite, he looks around at the food on the table; as he chews, he stares at Annie and me. The faces of Annie’s parents are like plastic; their skin is smooth and light and their expressions hardly change at all. Each of us has a tall glass of iced tea sweating by our silverware, but no one seems to drink any of it.
—It’s nice that Annie has a new friend, her mother says to me. —Annie doesn’t have many friends.
Annie keeps her head down and eats her carrots, putting bite after bite into her mouth until the side of her cheek is swollen.
—Annie, her mother says, —stop that. Slowly, Annie begins to chew; her brother stares at her but says nothing, and by the time she has swallowed all of the carrots in her mouth, I have finished most of the food on my plate.
—You have a very good appetite, her mother says to me.
—I wish Annie had as good an appetite as you.
At this moment all activity stops, and everyone looks at my plate. I try to think of something to say but nothing comes to mind, so I take a drink of my tea and the others return to their food. Next to me, Annie crams her mouth with food until her cheeks are full, then brings her napkin to her mouth. Like this she clears her plate, and it is amazing to me that no one notices. When she is finished, she takes her napkin with her to the bathroom.
—Don’t you get hungry? I ask her when dinner is over and we are in her bedroom.
—No, she says, and opens a drawer, from which she takes a bag of caramels. —I don’t like that food, she says. —I only like candy.
She unwraps a caramel and eats it quickly, hardly chewing it before she swallows, already unwrapping another as her jaws pop in and out; then she eats that, then another, all with a kind of desperate look, as though this is something she must accomplish in a certain amount of time. I hardly know what to do while she eats, so I collect the wrappers and smooth them out, flattening one on top of another.
I have a perfect little pile when Tommy comes in and sits on the corner of his bed. He stares at Annie while she eats. A
glaze of sweat shines across his forehead, and when he pulls his shirt up to wipe it, his stomach is white and thin. I look away when he drops his shirt.
—Why don’t you eat like normal people? he says, and she swallows the candy in her mouth and closes the bag.
—Shut up, Tommy, she says and turns her back on him. He watches us for a moment longer, then throws himself back on his bed and reaches for a comic.
Annie closes her candy drawer and leans back against the headboard of her bed. —You can spend the night if you want, she says. —My mother says it’s okay.
I can feel Tommy shift on his bed to listen, and I try to imagine what it is like in this room at night, Annie’s thin body pressed against the wall while Tommy pulls the sheets up and down over his aching flesh, turning over and over on his comic books.
—I can’t, I say. —Not on a school night.
—Okay, she says, and leaves the room. I follow her, and Tommy watches us as we go.
Downstairs in the family room, Annie’s parents sit side by side on the couch, watching television. All the lights are out, the room is full of shadows, and the cold light of the TV plays against the walls like something moving under the paint. We sit in front of the television and Annie stares at the screen. I can hardly hear her parents move or breathe behind us, so intently do they watch. At the commercial, Annie gets up, and again I follow; her parents smile mildly at us as we leave, then look back at the television to watch the rest of the commercial.
Annie opens the icebox.
—Do you want some ice cream? she asks. She swings the door open and closed. —Cookies? she says. —Pepsi?
—No, I say. —My parents will be worrying about me pretty soon.
—She moves some bottles around on the top shelf. —Well, she says, —I’ll come get you for school tomorrow.
When I leave, she is still in front of the icebox, and does not turn to watch me go. Outside, it has grown dark. My parents will still be having cocktail hour, and from Annie’s driveway I can see my father move around the kitchen, cracking ice, pouring drinks. Although my mother is out of sight, I know she is sitting at the table smoking and watching him.
Here in the dark, the houses look the same as they always do, but inside, nothing–dinner and homework and television–seems familiar. I am the only person not tucked behind a safe, lighted window, and for a moment I am frozen here, surrounded by a strange world, unable to go back to Annie’s, unwilling to go home. Finally I cross the street to my house, and at my door I make a noise and wait, to give my parents a chance to assume their usual polite expressions. When I come in, they smile and have another cocktail, but when I am in bed, I listen carefully, and over the rattle of ice in their glasses I am sure I can hear the sound of skin peeling away from their faces.
Annie and I walk past the swingset on our way to school, and she pokes me with her elbow. A boy and girl are kissing, pressed back against one of the slanted metal legs, but Annie pays no attention to them, only to the burnt-out grass at their feet.
—We did that, she says and laughs, an odd brittle giggle, as she pulls me away. The boy and girl look up as I glance back at them; it is hard for me to believe we are responsible for the big patches of black grass under the swingset. Annie dawdles as we approach the doors, waiting until the last minute to go in.
It is new for me to start school with a friend. Usually I move quickly to the outskirts of a crowd and form my friendships
with those who are already there; then we watch the others and try to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are smart and do well in school.
Annie has mentioned no school friends, though I feel sure she must have some. Her brother goes to our school, too, a grade ahead of us, but when we pass him, part of a pack of boys outside the doors, he does not look at us. All of the boys wear dark T-shirts with pictures on them. Annie and I walk down the hall together and she speaks to no one. Every now and then she takes my elbow and whispers hotly in my ear what she knows about the people we pass.
—That’s one of the other Sallys, she says, or, —See that boy? He tried to kill himself.
When we separate to go to our different classrooms, she digs her nails into my palm. —Meet me right here, she says. —For lunch.
As my new teacher lists the major exports of Brazil, which I learned at my last school, I watch the other students and pick out my new friends. The classroom configurations are the usual ones: smart, anxious students sit attentively in front; bored angry boys stare out the windows from the back row; the girls who, it is already clear, are going to be pretty and popular sit in a knot of energy near the door. The ones who will be my friends are scattered around where there are available seats, considering themselves lucky if they can sit on the side rows or in the back, near no one in particular. They seldom raise their hands, but take notes earnestly. Outside, cars pass on the street beyond the schoolyard fence. After a while I too begin to take notes.
, I write,
Annie is standing in the middle of the hallway staring at the door to my classroom when I come out. Two girls with
glasses and thin brown hair glance at me, but when they see that I have a friend waiting, they go on ahead down the hall. Their light blue sweaters fade into the crowd.
Annie and I walk with our trays through the lunchroom, toward the empty end of a table; no one speaks to us and we speak to no one. Tommy sits at a table full of boys. He eats steadily and looks up at us as we pass. For a moment there is silence; then Annie smiles at the boys and their faces grow cold; nothing moves above their necks, even as they continue to unwrap food and wad up the paper. When we walk on, they turn their eyes to follow us, but Annie does not look back.
We take the two seats at the end of a table, and no one looks up at us as we sit down. All Annie’s bought for lunch is chocolate pudding, and as she removes the plastic wrap from the bowl, she points at a girl sitting at a table full of people whom I would feel comfortable with. The girl’s hair is cut unevenly across her forehead, and she has a long, reddish birthmark running down her cheek.
—Look, Annie says. —That’s one of the other Sallys. She’s adopted.
Annie points directly at the girl, who glances at us nervously and looks away, but Annie gazes at her a moment longer, then goes back to her pudding, which collects in dark creases at the corners of her mouth.
After school, as children gather in groups. Annie pulls me to the playground.
—Let’s get out of here, she says. —I hate this place.
She throws a rock at the swingset when we pass it.
—Let’s go to your house, she says. When we get there, my mother looks up from her puzzle and smiles as we go up the stairs to my room.
—Is that all your mother does? Annie asks.
—No, I say. —She does a lot of things.
I try to think of other things my mother does, but the only way I can see her in my mind right now is bent over a puzzle, her head lifting to stare into a world of half-completed words, some needing only a letter or two to make sense.
Annie looks around at my room, carefully arranged by men whose faces I will never see. —What a boring room, she says.
She bounces on my bed and leans sideways, staring into the eyes of the doll that rests against the pillow.
—You still have a doll? she says, and picks it up by its leg. She rubs the doll’s stiff hair between her fingers. —This would go up like hay, she says. —This may even
She smiles and takes a pack of matches from her pocket.
—We can’t, I say. —My mother would notice.
—Right, she says, and laughs. She lights a match, and all I can do is watch as she holds it to the very tip of the doll’s hair. There is no flame, only a crackle, as each hair sort of fizzles crisply down to the plastic head and goes out.
—Well, Annie says, —that was disappointing.
The doll’s head looks cooked, and smells worse. I run my hand over the warm bumpy plastic, and Annie looks at me. —Well, she says, —I better go.
She turns at the door. —See you tomorrow.
My mother looks up when I join her at the table. —It must be nice to start school with a friend, she says, and looks down to fill in a word. The scratch of the pen across the newsprint is like something sharp moving over the surface of my own skin.
It takes almost no time for life here to assume the shape of lives we have led elsewhere, except that here Annie is my
friend. We go to school together and we leave school together and all around me new alliances are forming, while Annie and I move above them or past them or through them. The boys who are Tommy’s friends watch Annie with an odd kind of attention. They seem to know something about her—and, because I am her friend, about me- and even when I am away from her, leaning over the water fountain to get a drink, or standing in front of my locker, they look at me with something in their eyes; what it is they know they don’t understand, but it is enough to make them stare.
I watch the students who would normally be my friends; already they have found each other in the back rows and in the corners of the lunchroom, and I watch them with a kind of longing. I know what we would be talking about, the plans we would make, the television shows we would discuss. When Annie comes down the hall, she cuts through them like a flame and they pull away, but I long to be with them, fading into the green tiles lining the walls. Annie watches me as I follow their progress, and she points out their flaws.
The only empty table is near Tommy and his friends, and when we sit down they laugh and slap at each other. Just as Annie unwraps her pie, a piece of bread lands on her tray, splattering mustard and little shreds of lettuce. Annie stares at it as she eats her pie, and finally she stands and takes it to the table of boys.
—Tommy, she says, —I’m going to tell Dad.
She drops the bread in front of him and his friends all smirk and watch him, waiting. He looks around nervously, at his friends and at me and at Annie; as I watch his face I can tell a thousand words go through his head, but when he finally chooses one, it surprises even him.
—Cunt, he says, and I can see by the shock on his face that
this is the first time he has said it. It takes him a moment to adjust, and then he says it again: —Cunt. He smiles and his friends smile and they look at her, then over at me.
We are surrounded on all sides by innocence, except for this tiny knot of confusion here in the center of the lunchroom. Annie comes back to our table and everything goes on just as it did before, except that the boys have grown bolder and more sure of what it is they think they know. They jerk their shoulders up high and smile, but they are frightened and angry, and in their excitement they smash cans and toss potato chips at each other. In the middle of it all, Annie finishes her pie, staring straight ahead at nothing.