978-0-385-72135-6

After the accident, I became less visible. I don’t mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see. In my memory, the accident has acquired a harsh, dazzling beauty: white sunlight, a slow loop through space like being on the Tilt’o’Whirl (always a favorite of mine), feeling my body move faster than, and counter to, the vehicle containing it. Then a bright, splintering crack as I burst through the windshield into the open air, bloody and frightened and uncomprehending. The truth is that I don’t remember anything. The accident happened at night during an August downpour on a deserted stretch of highway through corn and soybean fields, about twenty miles outside Rockford, Illinois, my home town. I hit the brakes and my face collided with the windshield, knocking me out instantly. Thus I was spared the adventure of my car veering off the tollway into a cornfield, rolling several times, bursting into flames and ultimately exploding. The air bags didn’t inflate; I could sue, of course, but since I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t inflate, or I might have been decapitated, adding injury to insult, you might say. The shatter-proof windshield did indeed hold fast upon its impact with my head, so although I broke virtually every bone in my face, I have almost no visible scars. I owe my life to what is known as a “Good Samaritan,” someone who pulled me out of the flaming wreck so promptly that only my hair was burned, someone who laid me gently on the perimeter of the cornfield, called an ambulance, described my location with some precision and then, with a self-effacement that strikes me as perverse, not to mention un-American, chose to slink away anonymously rather than take credit for these sterling deeds. A passing motorist in a hurry, that sort of thing. The ambulance took me to Rockford Memorial Hospital, where I fell into the hands of one Dr. Hans Fabermann, reconstructive surgeon extraordinaire. When I emerged from unconsciousness fourteen hours later, it was Dr. Fabermann who sat beside me, an elderly man with a broad, muscular jaw and tufts of white hair in both ears, though most of this I didn’t see that night–I could hardly see at all. Calmly Dr. Fabermann explained that I was lucky; I’d broken ribs, arm, and leg, but had no internal injuries to speak of. My face was in the midst of what he called a “golden time,” before the “grotesque swelling” would set in. If he operated immediately, he could get a jump on my “gross asymmetry–” namely, the disconnection of my cheekbones from my upper skull and of my lower jaw from my “midface.” I had no idea where I was, or what had happened to me. My face was numb, I saw with slurry double vision and had an odd sensation around my mouth as if my upper and lower teeth were out of whack. I felt a hand on mine, and realized then that my sister, Grace, was at my bedside. I sensed the vibration of her terror, and it induced in me a familiar desire to calm her, Grace curled against me in bed during a thunderstorm, the smell of cedar, wet leaves…It’s fine, I wanted to say. It’s a golden time. “If we don’t operate now, we’ll have to wait five or six days for the swelling to go down,” Dr. Fabermann said. I tried to speak, to acquiesce, but no moving parts of my head would move. I produced one of those aerated gurgles made by movie characters expiring from war wounds. Then I closed my eyes. But apparently Dr. Fabermann understood, because he operated that night. * * * * * After twelve hours of surgery, during which eighty titanium screws were implanted in the crushed bones of my face to connect and hold them together; after I’d been sliced from ear to ear over the crown of my head so Dr. Fabermann could peel down the skin from my forehead and re-attach my cheekbones to my upper skull; after incisions were made inside my mouth so that he could connect my lower and upper jaws; after eleven days during which my sister fluttered by my hospital bed like a squeamish angel while her husband, Frank Jones, whom I loathed and who loathed me, stayed home with my two nieces and nephew–I was discharged from the hospital. I found myself at a strange crossroads. I had spent my youth awaiting the chance to bolt from Rockford, Illinois, and had done so the moment I was able. I’d visited rarely, to the chagrin of my parents and sister, and what visits I made were impetuous, cranky and short. In my real life, as I thought of it, I had actively concealed my connection to Rockford, telling people I was from Chicago, if I told even that. But much as I longed to return to New York after the accident, to pad barefoot on the fluffy white carpeting of my 25th floor apartment overlooking the East River, the fact that I lived alone made this impossible. My right leg and left arm were sheathed in plaster. My face was just entering the “angry healing phase”: black bruises extending down to my chest, the whites of my eyes a monstrous red; a swollen, basketball-sized head with stitches across the crown (an improvement over the staples they’d used initially). My head was partly shaved, and what hair remained was singed, rank smelling and falling out in bunches. Pain, mercifully, wasn’t a problem; nerve damage had left me mostly numb, particularly from my eyes down, though I did have excruciating headaches. I wanted to stay near Dr. Fabermann, though he insisted, with classic Midwestern self deprecation, that I would find his surgical equal, or superior, in New York. But New York was for the strong, and I was weak–so weak! I slept nearly all of the time. It seemed fitting that I nurse my weakness in a place I had always associated with the lame and the useless. And so, to the bewilderment of my friends and colleagues at home, to the pain of my sister, whose husband refused to have me under his roof (not that I could have borne it), she arranged for me to move into the home of an old friend of our parents’, Mary Cunningham, who lived just east of the Rock River on Ridgewood Road, near the house where we grew up. My parents had long since moved to Arizona, where my father’s lungs were slowly dissolving from emphysema, and where my mother had come to believe in the power of certain oddly shaped stones, which she arranged on his gasping chest at night while he slept. “Please let me come,” my mother pleaded with me over the phone, having assembled healing pouches full of herbs and feathers and teeth. But no, I said, please. Stay with Dad. “I’ll be fine,” I told her, “Grace will take care of me,” and even through my croaking stranger’s voice I heard a resolve that was familiar to me–and no doubt to my mother. I would take care of myself. I always had. Mrs. Cunningham had become an old woman since I knew her as the lady who used a broom to chase away neighborhood kids trying to scoop the billowing goldfish from her murky backyard pond. The fish, or their descendants, were still there, visible in flashes of white speckled gold among a snarl of moss and lily pads. The house smelled of dust and dead flowers, the closets were full of old hats. The lives of Mrs. Cunningham’s dead husband and her children who lived far away were still in that house, asleep in the cedar filled attic, which is doubtless why she, an old woman with a bum hip, was still living there, struggling up that flight of stairs when most of her widowed, bridge-playing friends had decamped long ago to spiffy apartments. She tucked me into bed in one of her daughter’s rooms and seemed to enjoy a renaissance of second motherhood, bringing me tea and juice which I drank from a baby cup, slipping knitted booties on my feet and feeding me Gerber Apricot Puree, which I lapped down lustily. She had the lawn boy carry the TV up to my room, and in the evenings would recline on the twin bed beside mine, her waxen, veiny calves exposed beneath the hem of her padded bathrobe. Together we watched the local news, where I learned that even in Rockford, drug gangs had come to rule the streets, and drive-by shootings were the norm. “When I think what this town used to be,” Mrs. Cunningham would mutter as she watched, alluding to the postwar years when she and her husband, Ralph, had chosen Rockford above all American cities as the ideal place to make their home. “The most prosperous community in the nation,” some erstwhile pundit named Roger Babson had apparently anointed it; Mary Cunningham went so far as to heft a musty tome onto my bed and jab her bent, trembling finger at the very quotation. I sensed her bitterness, her disgust at the grave miscalculation that left her now, in her solitude, obliged by memory and experience to love a place she had come to despise. * * * * * It was four weeks before I left the house to do anything more than herd my various limbs into Grace’s car for visits to Dr. Fabermann and his associate, Dr. Pine, who was tending to my broken bones. When he implanted a walking plug in my leg cast, I ventured outside for the very first time in zebra striped sunglasses Mary Cunningham had worn in the sixties, Mary herself at my side, to walk gingerly through my old neighborhood. I hadn’t returned to this part of town since Grace had left for college, at which point my parents had bought a smaller place on a bit of land east of town, near the Interstate, and a horse, Daffodil, whom my father rode until he was too short of breath. By now it was late September; I had tracked the passing days in the obsessive belief that if I measured the time, it wouldn’t really be lost. We stepped through a warm breeze toward the house on Brownwood Drive where I had lain in bed for several thousand nights, staring into a cat’s cradle of Elm trees that were slowly expiring from Dutch Elm disease, where I’d listened to record albums in a basement with orange indoor-outdoor carpeting laid over the concrete, where I’d stood before a mirror in a prom dress, my mother plucking at its petals of rayon–and yet, for all that, a house I’d thought of hardly ever since I’d left. And there it was: flat, ranch style, covered with yellow bricks that must have been pasted on from outside, a square of crisp green lawn tucked like a napkin under its chin. So indistinguishable was this house from tens of thousands of others in Rockford that I turned to Mary Cunningham and asked, “Are you sure this is it?” She looked puzzled, then laughed, no doubt reminding herself that my vision was worse than hers at the moment, that I was doped up on painkillers. And yet, as we were turning to go, I had what I guess was a memory: this house against a dawn sky as I jogged toward it from my best friend Ellen Metcalf’s house, where I’d spent the night. The feeling of seeing it there–my house, with everything I knew inside it. The experience of that memory was like being hit, or kissed, unexpectedly. I blinked to recover from it. The next week, I made my way on crutches to the Rock River, where a park and jogging path meandered along the water’s eastern edge. I gazed hungrily at the path, longing to visit the rose garden and duck pond further north along it, but knowing I didn’t have the strength. Instead, I used a pay phone in the parking lot beside the YMCA to call my answering machine; Mrs. Cunningham’s phones were all rotaries. It had now been seven weeks since the accident, and the outgoing message I’d instructed my sister to leave on my machine explaining my plight while not revealing that I’d left my apartment–lest it get robbed, which would really have finished me–had provoked a rash of messages from worried friends that Grace had been dutifully collecting. But there were a couple she hadn’t retrieved yet. One from Oscar, my booker, who yelled through a polyphony of ringing phones that seemed otherworldly to me now, “Just checking in, Sweet. Call when you’ve regained the gift of speech.” He’d been calling every day, my sister said. Oscar adored me, though it had been years since I’d earned my agency, Femme, any serious money. The second call was from someone named Anthony Halliday, who identified himself as a private detective. Grace had taken two messages from him already. Having never spoken with a private detective before, I dialed his number out of curiosity. “Anthony Halliday’s office.” A wobbly, almost childish female voice. Not a professional, I thought; someone filling in. “He’s not here right now,” she told me. “Can I take a message?” I wasn’t giving out Mary Cunningham’s phone number, in part because she was a kind old woman, not my secretary, and because there was something perverse and incompatible in the notion of New York and its inhabitants storming the mausoleum of her house. “I’d rather call him,” I said. “What’s a good time?” She hesitated. “There’s no way he can call you?” “Look,” I said. “If he wants to reach–” “He’s ah…in the hospital,” she said quickly. I laughed–my first real laugh since the accident. It made my throat ache. “Tell him that makes two of us,” I cackled. “Too bad we’re not in the same hospital, we could just meet in the hallway.” She laughed uneasily. “I think I wasn’t supposed to say that, about the hospital.” “There’s no shame in hospitalization,” I assured her heartily, “as long as it’s not a mental hospital…” Dead silence. Anthony Halliday, a private detective with whom I’d never spoken, was in a mental hospital. “Maybe next week?” she said timidly. “I’ll call next week.” But even as I began my halting journey back toward Mary Cunningham’s, I felt the notion slip from my mind like those lists you make as you’re falling asleep. * * * * * Grace visited that night, pulling a chair between the twin beds where Mary Cunningham and I were ensconced as usual, watching “NYPD Blue.” When a man was pummeled in a restroom, his face beaten bloody, Grace covered her eyes and begged me to change the channel. “You change it,” I retorted. “I’m the invalid.” “Sorry,” she said, going sheepishly to the TV–apparently one of the last in the world to be controlled manually. “I shouldn’t be the one crying.” “You’re crying for both of us,” I said. “It just seems bizarre that you would come to Rockford without telling me,” she fretted, flipping channels. She’d said this a dozen times, apparently in the belief that, had she but known I was on my way, I would have arrived without incident. And much as I disliked this line of questioning (or any line of questioning, for that matter), I vastly preferred it to the topic Grace didn’t dare broach: What would I look like when all this was done? And what would become of me? “I wanted to surprise you,” I said. “My, and you still don’t remember what happened!” Mary Cunningham marveled. “Was it an animal in the road, dear, or were you feeling sleepy? Could you have dropped off at the wheel for a minute?” “I don’t remember. I don’t remember,” I said. For some reason, I covered my ears. “Her memory’s always been lousy,” Grace said. It was true–my memory was lousy, and Rockford was the place I remembered least. And yet the boredom and stasis of my present circumstances were driving me to retrospect in the desultory way that a person cooped up in an old house will eventually make her way to the attic and upend a few boxes. In moments, I found myself drenched in early childhood impressions of Rockford: a lush, sensuous world of sticky green lawns and violent thunderstorms, mountains of glittering snow in winter. In early adolescence, I’d done a school report on Rockford’s industrial achievements, reading at the public library about a self-tying attachment for grain binders, a knitting machine that made seamless socks, the oil lubricated “universal joint,” whose purpose I’ve forgotten; the “side by side,” a bookcase and desk combination; about lathes, reapers and their component parts. I remembered reading in a state of keen anticipation, awaiting the moment when Rockford would burst forth in triumph, the envy of the industrial world. I sensed this glory approaching with the invention of cars, for eleven Rockford companies had designed them, and one, the Tarkington Motor Company, built a prototype that was warmly received at an auto show in Chicago in the twenties. But no–the investors backed out, the car was never produced, and with this failure, my excitement began to congeal into something heavier. There was to be no limelight; Rockford remained a city known for its drills, transmissions, joints, saws, watertight seals, adjustable door bumpers, spark plugs, gaskets–“automobile sundries,” as such products are known–for its agricultural tools; in short, for dull, invisible things that no one in the world would ever know or care about. After two days of reading, I had tottered from the library into the empty husk of “downtown,” across the river from our house, nearly all of whose commerce had been leached away by malls far to the east of the river, out by the Interstate. My mother beeped her horn from the parking lot across the street. But I held still for a minute, clutching my bookbag, letting the smallness and meagerness of this forgotten place pour in around me. Rockford, I now saw, was a city of losers, a place that had never come close to being famous for anything, despite the fact that again and again, it had tried. A place revered among mechanics for its universal joint was not a place where I could remain. This was clear to me at age twelve: my first clear notion of myself. I was not Rockford–I was its opposite, whatever that might be. I decided this while standing in front of the public library. Then I crossed the street and got in my mother’s car. Our father was an electrician, a man who pushed through walls to the hidden circuitry behind, who braided wires between his fingers and made the lights turn on. As a child, I had ascribed magical powers to his work, and arrayed myself in necklaces he made me from bolts and washers and colored wire. But after the library, I began to imagine a perspective from which my father’s life–and my mother’s, too–were small, earnest, and futile, too deeply touched by this place where they both had spent their lives. I grew up waiting to leave. And Grace grew up cleaving to me, knowing that I would go and she would stay. Now here I was, back in Rockford, fighting with my sister over who should change the TV channel, my head full of titanium bolts and screws invented here, for all I knew. I found this funny in a dark way, one of life’s little ironies. “The girls are dying to see you,” Grace said, reviving our ongoing debate over my nieces. “Please let me bring them.” “They think they want to see me,” I said. “Charlotte, will you get over it?” she said, and pressed my hand. “They love you so much!” “Not yet.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see Allison and Pammy. In fact I hungered to snuff their mussed up hair and feel them bump against me the way kids do without thinking. But to them, I was Glamorous Aunt Charlotte, the fashion model whom they sometimes found grinning, hand on hip, inside catalogs that arrived on their doorsteps unwonted (for that was the level I’d sunk to) or wandering through the background of a Tampax commercial. That was me hawking deodorant on the Coney Island Cyclone (“Now this. Is stress.”); that was me in waders, wielding a fishing rod and declaiming the merits of antifungal foot powder. That pixie-faced brunette sprawled atop a Buick as if she’d fallen from a tree? The one in glasses, blushingly recounting the trauma of passing gas during a board meeting? Urging fortified granola upon her freckled son? Those were me, too. It was far short of the transcendent existence I once had envisioned for myself. But to my young nieces, I embodied a mythical ascension. I would let them believe in me in peace, I told myself, unencumbered by my present grotesqueness. I was ashamed to be seen. * * * * * One afternoon, I walked to the Cedar Bluffs Cemetery and parked my rear on a gravestone that was as near as I could recall to the spot where I used to sit with Ellen Metcalf. I lit up a Merit, my first since the accident, thus flouting Dr. Fabermann’s warning that smoking impeded the healing of bone. Before dinner and after, too, sometimes, Ellen and I would lean against these stones among the legions of dead Swedes, Olsens, Lofgrens, Larsens, Swensons like myself, and smoke Kools, which we believed were a cure for the summer heat. We talked about losing our virginity–not losing it, though, with all the haplessness that word implied, but yielding it up in a blaze of ecstasy that would leave us permanently altered. I tried to recall the sound of Ellen’s voice. I couldn’t, as if she’d been an imaginary friend, a projected figment of myself. Once, we had walked from East High School all the way to the pharmacy beside the Piggly Wiggly, then stopped before the section of plastic children’s toys. Only to find, as we looked at each other inquiringly, that neither one of us knew what we were doing there; we had each been following the other. After my next doctor’s visit, I asked Grace to drive past East High School. A rather grand building, it seemed to me now, large and mustard tinted, hundreds of canted windows juggling the sunlight. As I stood before its broad, empty steps, I had another jab of memory: seeing Ellen Metcalf for the first time outside that school, an olive skinned girl with long black hair. Watching her there, exotic, alone, and wanting to become her–the feeling sprang from my fingers to my throat. Later, Ellen said, of spotting me that day, “I could tell you didn’t belong here.” The highest compliment. Her father owned a company that made fertilizer, and her mother was a quasi-invalid, cloistered in a darkened master bedroom, consumed by some malady whose exact nature no one seemed sure of. They lived in a sprawling house just a few blocks from my own much smaller one. Ellen existed in a state of lonely hauteur, like the last surviving member of a royal family; her brother, Moose, had left the previous year for the University of Michigan. I knew about Moose. He was one of those high school boys whose athletic and romantic feats inspire the teenage equivalent of epic poetry, recited longingly in their absence. I had encountered him once, briefly, thrillingly, on a summer afternoon when I was practicing my golf swing on our front lawn and hit a sprinkler head, sending a geyser of water into a red Mustang convertible that happened to be driving past. The driver got out, shaking water from his longish hair: an older boy, tanned in a spotless white T-shirt, ambling over the grass like a person who had never hurried in his life. As I stammered my apologies, struggling to tamp the foaming crescendo of water with my foot, he scanned our yard and said, “Handle’s where, behind that hedge? Turn it off and let me take a look.” By the time I’d returned from that errand, he had removed the sprinkler head and was rattling its rusted parts in his hand like dice. His absorption allowed me to study him; a charmed, confident boy whose appeal was compounded, somehow, by the Neanderthal cast of his head. Twenty minutes later he had repaired the sprinkler, sauntered back to his car and driven away with a wave, and it was only then that an older girl from across the street stampeded over to tell me, breathlessly, in whose rarefied presence I found myself. But Moose was gone. Ellen was alone, marooned in a place that felt as desolate to her as it did to me. Everything good was gone from this crummy city, this home of reapers and ball bearings, and there was nothing for it but to plunder what few excitements remained. We talked about our lust–where exactly it resided within us; our stomachs, we thought, though Ellen said she felt it, too, in the back of her mouth. * * * * * By October, Dr. Pine had removed the last vestiges of plaster from my body. As Mary Cunningham raked her yard, I trailed behind her with a tube of green poison whose proboscis I shoved into the eye of each weed I spied, and pumped. Rockford was in the grip of a mania for Jack o’lantern leaf bags; at least one grinning orange sack squatted on every lawn, fat with leaves. Stalking weeds, I tried to recall each one of my sexual quarries that sophomore year with Ellen. Jeff Heinz: a shy and statuesque football playing senior, the sheer grace of whose movements set him apart from the sludge of players on the field. Jeff and I were in chemistry together, and I managed to insinuate my way into the role of lab partner, standing close, brushing his wrist as we puzzled over beakers full of colored liquid. Nothing. Meanwhile, Ellen had a boyfriend, Michael Ippen, with whom she expected to do it shortly. So I relinquished Jeff Heinz, who proceeded to Brown University (an unusual step for a Rockford boy), whence filtered back the electrifying news, a year or two later, that he was a fairy. I would have loved to snicker over that one with Ellen, but by then we were no longer speaking. Benji Gustafsen: blond, sweet, rippled muscles on his belly, the whole of whose intelligence, it seemed, was compressed into a knack for restoring small antique appliances: can openers, toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners. This was a boon for Benji’s friends and neighbors; less so for anyone trying to hold a conversation with him. But conversation wasn’t my goal, either, and I lost my virginity to Benji in his squalid basement workroom only two days after Ellen lost hers to Michael Ippen on his older brother’s squishy bed. We brushed snow from our respective gravestones and perched in the early dark, down parkas pulled tight around us, looking west toward the lights of the expressway that snaked alongside the Rock River. “The bed had a scratchy blanket on it,” Ellen remarked. “There were tons of McDonalds wrappers on the floor,” I said. “It smelled like catsup.” “Did it hurt?” “Killed. Plus I bled.” “With all the catsup around,” she said, “he probably didn’t notice.” We passed our last Kool back and forth. Ellen slipped off the gravestone and lay on her back in the snow. “Doesn’t that freeze your head?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said, “but the stars.” I lay down beside her. She was right, the stars. After I’d done it with Benji, an awful sensation had come open in me–who was this guy, stretching like a dog so his spine cracked? But then I’d thought of Ellen, telling it to her, strategizing, and the feeling had melted into a kind of sweetness. Marcus Sealander: a tattooed motorcyclist whose menacing black leather vest concealed, of all things, a potbelly. We did it standing up. Marcus had a nasty habit of shoving my shoulders against the wall as if it excited him to think of snapping my spine, so he got no second chance. Meanwhile, Ellen did it twice with Luis Guasto, a strange boy who’d pasted hundreds of beer cans to the walls of his parents rec. room with a glue gun. They did it downstairs, among the cans, and the first time Ellen thought she might almost, just barely feel something, but then Louis rolled off her and moments later was in the bathroom pissing loudly, so that was that. The second time was even worse–over in four minutes flat. Tom Ashlock. Lenny Bergstrom. Arthur Blixt. Stephen Finn. By spring we were sluts, sirens, alarming to girls and boys alike as we scoured in vain for someone to satisfy us. When Moose came home at Christmas, Ellen abandoned me for his sacred compass: a brutal disappointment, since I’d hoped to be included. For three lonely weeks I hardly saw her. Moose’s departure left her listless, but soon the alchemy of our union was back at work, plotting our rescue from the crushing banality that surrounded us like those shrinking rooms full of water from which TV heroes must escape. The streets, the sky, the lousy moon. What was wrong with these boys? Boys. We rolled onto our sides, staring at each other amidst the gravestones. The snow had melted, exposing a paper mache of last year’s soggy leaves. A revelation was upon us: the problem was boys–too young, too inexperienced to make us feel what we longed and deserved to feel, whereas men, with their years of practice–men would know exactly what to do! And finding men wouldn’t be so hard; Mr. Polhill, Ellen’s Driver’s Ed. teacher, was constantly leaning over her desk and sniffing her hair, and as for me…how old did he have to be? “Old,” Ellen said. “Thirties.” There was a man I’d caught watching me by the country club pool the summer before. A foreign guy–French, I thought, who’d worn a tight little bathing suit like boys on our swim team wore. I’d found him creepy at the time, but now I revised my opinion: he was French, he was a man, he was perfect. Mr. Polhill gallantly proffered the use of his personal car when Ellen asked him for extra driving practice after school, then suggested a small detour. That was all she would tell me. There was a blankness about her that I’d never seen before; I waited in the cemetery but she didn’t come, and when I chased her down at school she refused to elaborate. Meanwhile, through a friend of my mother’s who knew Mrs. Lafant, the Rockford girl who was married to the Frenchman, I managed to procure a Friday night babysitting job at his house, where two brats drizzled ice cream down the front of the tight, low-cut dress I’d worn for Mr. Lafant’s entertainment. Afterward, as he drove me home, I moved close to him in the front seat. He went still, as if in disbelief. “You are a very lovely girl,” he breathed carefully, in his marvelous accent. When I moved closer, he stroked my hair and I shut my eyes, opening them only when I noticed that Mr. Lafant had begun driving rather wildly. He screeched to a stop somewhere off Spring Creek Road, killed the engine and turned off the headlights. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust, and when finally they did, I discerned Mr. Lafant’s erect penis groping from his pants like a mole emerging from a tunnel. His hands, which moments before had been delicately stroking my hair, now were guiding my head most assertively toward it. I was frightened. His obvious hurry made it worse; when I squirmed my resistance, he seized the back of my head and shoved me toward his groin while also (I noticed) glancing at his watch, no doubt calculating how much longer he had before his wife began to wonder. A wave of revulsion roiled through me. “No!” I shrieked, “No, no!” at which point my employer began to panic. “Shut up,” he implored, shoving the inquiring penis out of sight. He drove me home in urgent silence, an angry muscle jumping in his face. I leapt from the car and he roared away without a word, his tires barking on our quiet street. I would have sprinted straight to Ellen’s house, but my mother had heard the car and padded onto the dewy lawn in her slippers and robe. “Well, that wasn’t very nice,” she remarked. “He should have waited until you went inside.” The next morning, Ellen met me at the back door of her big, empty house and led me upstairs with the same indifferent look she’d worn all week. “I Love Lucy” was on in the TV room. “So, did you do it?” she asked, her eyes not leaving the set. “He didn’t want to,” I said. “He wanted me to suck it.” Ellen turned to me with interest. “I couldn’t,” I confessed. “It was just too disgusting.” Then I asked, instinctively, “Did Mr. Polhill…want that?” Ellen began to cry. I had never seen her cry before, and I hovered near her, on the verge of hugging her as I would hug Grace when she cried, but hesitant. Ellen wasn’t like Grace. “Did you do it?” I whispered. “I tried,” she said, “but after about three seconds, he–you know, he–” “No! No!” “In my mouth,” she sobbed. “Oh my God!” “And then I threw up. All over him and on the bed.” I was quiet, stilled by my horror at the scene she’d conjured, and at the same time, tickled by some creeping mirth that seemed lodged within it. My mouth, of its own accord, twitched into a smile, at which point Ellen’s crying swerved into laughter, outright hysterics, tears still running from her eyes. By now I was laughing, falling with Ellen into aching hilarity until I, too, burst into tears. “He must’ve died,” I sobbed. “He ran in the bathroom and locked the door,” she said, and then we doubled over, both (as it turned out) helplessly wetting our pants. Later, having showered and changed, stuffed our jeans and underwear in Ellen’s washing machine, we put three Old Styles in a bag and carried them to the cemetery, along with a pack of Kools. “Forget the men,” Ellen said. “They’re perverted.” “The good ones wouldn’t do it with us,” I agreed. “They just want to do it with their wives.” We sipped the dry, cold beers. It was so warm, we no longer needed our jackets. We were fresh and clean, yet from somewhere within us–below us, it almost seemed, down among the dead Swedes–came a weight that was palpable. The weight of our boredom, our impatience. “I have the answer,” Ellen said, but without any of the jollity that had accompanied our prior inspirations. “What?” “Moose.” Moose. Who within the month, she informed me, would return from the University of Michigan for summer vacation, three friends in tow. Who would party and waterski with these friends for a couple of weeks, relubricating the vast machine of his social life before he commenced a summer job at his father’s factory. Whose friends would doubtless be the finest specimens the University of Michigan, or any university, had to offer. Not men, not boys. Experienced, but not perverted. And yet, for all the epic allure of Ellen’s brother and those within his hallowed ken, the very thought of another sexual undertaking exhausted me. I feared losing Ellen again after Moose’s return, as I had at Christmas. On his first Saturday home, we peeked down through the country club’s chain link fence at the river directly below, where Moose and his friends–Marco, Amos, Todd–stuttered over the brownish water at intervals presaged by the roar of Moose’s boat. Even at this distance, the sight of Ellen’s brother was arresting: a taut, athletic-looking guy in neon green swim trunks, the best waterskier of the four, by far. But he skied the least, preferring to cheer on the others from the wheel of the boat. “Which do you want?” Ellen asked. “Including Moose?” She looked at me oddly, then shook her head in adamant refusal. “Marco,” I said, crestfallen. “I’ll take Todd,” Ellen said, which mystified me; he was the palest of the three, angular and trim in a way that reminded me of my father. Moose’s destination that night was a party in one of the vast houses on National Avenue, just north of Downtown; our plan was to show up there, do it somewhere in the house with our respective choices, and afterwards, meet back at the country club beside the swimming pool. The party was disappointingly routine; Tom Petty straining some dad’s stereo, a throng of drunk, roaring guys older than our classmates, but otherwise identical. At last I observed Moose again at close range–in the kitchen, where he and another guy were scrimmaging with sponge mops for a can of Tender Vittles on the sticky linoleum. A towering presence, was Moose, big shoulders flicking under his white T-shirt like keys on a player piano as he wrested the cat food from his opponent with some fancy mop work, forearms buttery with tan, his appearance a winning amalgam of beauty, thuggishness, and faint embarrassment. And something else: an awareness on the part of Moose and everyone else, a crowd of admirers thronging the room for a glimpse of his folly, that he was special. Famous. At the sight of us–of Ellen–Moose abandoned the game. “Sis,” he said, discarding his mop and slinging an arm around her shoulders. Thus encompassed, Ellen looked childlike, serene–bland in a way I couldn’t have pictured. The crowd curled around her like a smile. I watched it all with jealous fascination. Later, across a patio drenched in buggy light, Ellen and I tossed ourselves at Moose’s friends with an abandon verging on carelessness. Moose cast acid looks in my direction, but as the party ground on, he lost track of us. Eventually Marco and I crept up a narrow flight of stairs to a third floor guest room that reeked of mothballs. He peeled the clothes from my body and was just lowering himself on top of me like a crane setting an old car onto a pile of old cars, when I recoiled. “No,” I said. “Stop, wait!” stricken with the memory of Mr. Lafant. It was too soon, I didn’t know this guy; I’d forgotten what I was supposed to do with him, and why. Marco, bewildered by this seizure of modesty after my slatternly behavior downstairs, went to take a piss. I fled the room and bolted from the house, sprinting north along the river toward the country club, already revived by the thought of seeing Ellen and swapping our tales of woe, like always. Except, I thought, still running, what if hers was not a tale of woe? What if finally, after so long, she and Todd had found what we were looking for? The thought sickened me. The club’s iron gate was locked, a variable we hadn’t foreseen. I stood outside, wondering whether to scale it. Finally I shimmied over the fence and dropped to the ground inside the club, intensely quiet under the bright moon and torn clouds. The warm golf course grass bounced under my feet. I ran down the concrete steps to the pool, whose turquoise bottom caught the light of the moon, and I saw something move in the water and it was Ellen. I felt such a shock of happiness that I called out her name and she hushed me, laughing, and I saw her clothes by the pool and flung off my own and dove into the wet, heavy silence. I felt the water move as Ellen swam past, her long hair fluttering over my skin. We burst into the air, giggling. “So, what happened?” I asked softly. “With what?” I stared at her. “Todd!” “Oh, he couldn’t,” Ellen said, with an indifference that overjoyed me. “Too drunk.” But we were grinning. There was no sense of failure; only this giddiness, as if we’d broken free–finally, somehow–from an onerous fate. We swam to the shallow end and looked at the sky. The air and water felt identical in temperature, two different versions of the same substance. It was strange and good to be naked in the pool where normally you had to wear a bathing cap. Clouds floated past the moon, milky, mysterious, and I heard a boat on the river below and thought, I’m happy. This is happiness–why was I looking for anything else? Ellen floated on her back, water pooling around her breasts, and no one had ever looked more beautiful to me. I reached for her. It was as if she had known I would, as if she’d reached for me, too. We stood in the water and kissed. Every sensation of desire I had ever known now amassed within me and fought, demanding release. I touched her underwater. She felt both familiar and strange–someone else, but like me. Ellen flinched and shut her eyes. For once, I had some idea of what to do. She clung to me tightly, then collapsed, trembling, her arms around my neck. When she laughed, I heard chattering teeth. We moved to the pool steps and sat, our bodies underwater, just our heads and necks above, and I took her hand and put it on me. She was tentative, afraid, but I kept my hand on hers until my heart snapped and my head hit the concrete behind me. We lay there, my head pounding, a lump forming on my scalp that would hurt for a week, and when the water made us shiver we got out of the pool and dried ourselves off with our clothes and spread them on the grass and lay on top of them and began again, more slowly now. Still, the intensity was punishing–we’re killing each other, I thought. We’re killing something. Afterward, we lay half asleep, and finally Ellen said, “We could teach these assholes a thing or two,” and we laughed and got dressed and walked back to Ellen’s house, talking thoughtlessly, as if nothing had changed. We were best friends. We slept naked in Ellen’s single bed, pressed together with her hair everywhere, and again I had that sense, as when I’d first touched her, that she was less a separate person than a variant of myself–that together, we made one thing. I woke at dawn and had an impulse to leave, with it all still so nice. This was odd because it was Saturday, and normally we would have made Swedish pancakes and watched cartoons, probably spent the whole day together. But I left Ellen sleeping there and walked home in the May sunlight, and only as I approached my own house, the flat, unassuming yellow house bleached almost white by the bare morning sun, did what had happened with Ellen begin to seem pretty strange. I almost couldn’t believe it. But when I remembered the feeling of it, the physical feeling, I felt that warmth in my stomach and all I wanted was to see her again, to have that again. Am I a lesbian? I wondered, incredulous. No other girl had ever attracted me. I waited until that night to call her. Moose answered the phone (coldly, having surely been informed of my antics with Marco) and handed it to Ellen. I heard a guardedness in her voice that instantly provoked an equal guardedness in me, and our conversation had a weird, stilted feeling that was completely unlike us. It never went away. After that, seeing Ellen was like seeing one of the guys I’d done it with; she made me self conscious, aware of the passing moments and the need to fill them with something. In the pauses I would wonder, Is she thinking about it? Does she want to do it again? But I didn’t, anymore, because now Ellen seemed no different from a boy. It was a horrible summer; I had no other friends. I saw Ellen only once, at the movies. “Wait,” I gasped, yanking Grace into the shadows as Moose and his entourage spiraled from the theater into the carpeted lobby. The guys were sparring, tousling, and Moose leaned down and hoisted Ellen over his shoulder–so easily, as if she were a coat, and her clogs fell off but Moose wouldn’t let her down, he ran with her through the glass doors and into the parking lot, where I heard the shriek of her laughter. Someone collected the clogs and brought them to her. I watched, incredulous. To be coddled, protected that way–what must it feel like? To be at the absolute center, adored by the boy whom everyone loved, without trying. What could compete with it? That fall, I saw Ellen walking home from school ahead of me. She was alone, sadness closing back around her now that Moose was gone. I forced myself into a trot and caught up. “I feel so weird around you now,” I said. “Me, too,” she said. “We have to forget about that. We have to go back to how it was before.” “We have to!” she agreed. Then silence. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and we pushed terse, empty comments back and forth as I counted the minutes to my house. When finally it came into sight, I pretended my mother was waiting for me and ran ahead, leaving Ellen by herself. I had thought it would be hard to make new friends, but it turned out that Ellen and I were neutralized by our disunion to the same degree that we’d been empowered by our accord. Eventually we settled down with boyfriends and went to proms and even signed each other’s yearbooks–Good luck with everything!–and except in the most abstract sense, I forgot about that night. I did pay one last visit to Ellen’s house. This time with Moose, who graduated from Michigan and returned to Rockford to work for his father. I picked him up my senior year at a state championship hockey game, where he was watching teenage boys scramble over the ice. By then Moose’s aura of fame had shrunk; even the youngest siblings of the kids who had revered him were gone, and East High, where once he’d reigned, no longer knew of his existence. He was still living at home, and I followed him up the dark familiar stairs, past the master bedroom where his invalid mother spent her days, past Ellen’s empty room (she was a year older than I, and had already left for college), to his own attic lair: faded sports posters loosening from the walls, dusty trophies lining shelves. There was a seriousness about Moose that I hadn’t seen before. As we sank onto his bed, I pointed to a series of ropes and pulleys connected to a box attached to the ceiling and asked what they were. “Nothing,” he told me. “Some old stuff I outgrew.” When it was over Moose faded into a doze. I stared at him, the bulky shoulders and slightly purplish cast of his eyelids; this locus of so many years of cumulative envy and mystery, idolatry and myth, now prone, snoring lightly into a pillow. His eyes opened. “What?” he said, groggy. “You,” I said. He looked puzzled, and raised himself onto an elbow. “Just…Moose,” I said, and shook my head. “Moose. Moose Metcalf. I can’t believe it.” Now he smiled, uneasy. He knew what I meant. Wind filled the bedroom from his tiny window. “Actually, my name is Edmund,” he said. * * * * * I was not a nostalgic person. I didn’t save Christmas cards, rarely took pictures, felt mostly indifferent to the snapshots people sent me. Until the accident, I had always thought my memory was bad, but in fact I’d thrown the past away, a ream of discarded events–so that I could move, unencumbered, into the future. Now, as I made my limping way among the tall bare trees toward Ellen Metcalf’s house, it was not with the intention of losing myself in misty-eyed recollections of my old friend, but to see the house now. To learn what it, and if possible she, had become. The Metcalf manse was a rambling Tudor style that has always been popular among the Midwestern rich. The lawn still impressed me, wide and lush despite the scorching summer that had just passed. On the grass were sundry child-oriented items: a bat, a large plastic gun, a smallish fluorescent orange bike. What age child they denoted I had no idea. I touched my face, stuccoed with Mary Cunningham’s thick, flower-scented pancake. I was still badly bruised; rather than fading, it seemed, my bruises simply changed color, like fireworks whose finale won’t arrive. I felt darkly conspicuous; a dour visitor, a drug-ravaged starlet incognito. The area behind the house had been re-landscaped; flower beds shaped like Lima beans blossomed with wine colored begonias. I stood on the flagstone patio and listened to the silence. I went to the screen door that led to the kitchen–the door Ellen and I had always used–and gently tapped. I rang the bell. When it was clear that no one was home, I opened the door and went in. The difference shocked me; I remembered the kitchen as a dark room with greenish walls and high windows that made you feel you were straining to see the sky from the bottom of a well. Now the windows were wide and lower down, and the room had been opened up, cracked wide so you saw light and sky and green lawn spotted with piles of raked leaves. Very California, I thought, tapping my heels against the pizza colored floor tiles, and an impressive array of beaten copper pots dangling above the stove. And if someone comes home? I asked myself, ascending the front stairs after a glance at the living room, where modern art had commandeered the walls. But I wasn’t afraid. I felt shielded–protected, somehow, by my dark glasses and mask of makeup, the silk headscarf tucked into the top of my trenchcoat to hide the bruises on my neck. This isn’t me, I thought, rounding the stairs and emerging into the upstairs hallway, whose crisp walls and luminous floors effaced all traces of its former dreariness. How could I be caught, when I didn’t look like anyone? As a model, of course, I’d carried my face like a sign, holding it out a foot or so in front of me–not out of pride or vanity, God knew; those had been stamped out long ago, or at any rate, disjoined from my physical appearance. No, out of sheer practicality: here’s what I am. Calling card, handshake, précis, call it what you like; it was what I had to offer to the world where I had spent my life. I was heading for the master bedroom, a room I’d glimpsed only when Ellen would go in or out, a shadowy peek, a gust of scented air, her mother’s hushed, plaintive voice. Now the door was open. I went in. The room was immense and spare, bars of sunset angling through wood blinds that looked custom-made. There were big ficus trees and a modern looking bed with long delicate posts. The walls were yellow-white. In a plush adjacent dressing room I smelled one of the Chanels, but my damaged nose could not distinguish which. Long mirrors, walls covered with framed photographs. I went closer to look–I wasn’t yet allowed to wear my contacts–curious about the family who lived here now. Instantly I recognized Ellen, aged by many years but still beautiful, the bones even stronger in her face. She was standing on a beach with a man at her side, her husband, presumably, who looked ten years older and had the tanned skin and white teeth of a German. Ellen Metcalf. I was in Ellen Metcalf’s dressing room. Straining to focus my bleary eyes, I studied other pictures: Ellen lounging with her husband in some foreign clime; the squashed face of a newborn; some youthful photos of Ellen’s parents done in the manner of Hollywood stills; a montage of two children, the oldest a girl who–poor thing–looked nothing like her mother. I wondered if she’d been adopted. Ellen and this daughter in matching bathing suits, lying beside the country club pool. As I surveyed the whirling narrative of Ellen’s life, I began, for the first time, to feel anxiety at the thought of her coming home and finding me there. It wasn’t my trespassing that concerned me; more a basic sense that I couldn’t be seen this way. I decided to leave. But no sooner had I left Ellen’s dressing room than I heard footsteps in the hallway outside the bedroom door. Appalled, I yanked my sunglasses over my monster-red eyes, shot back into the dressing room and hunched in a closet, gently coaxing the door shut behind me. I hid there, panting in a darkness full of filmy dresses scented with more of that mysterious Chanel, until it occurred to me that the humiliation of being caught inside a closet would surely exceed that of simply standing in a dressing room, and I flung open the closet door just as a girl of about thirteen, with earphones on her head, wandered in from the bedroom. She jumped, then gaped at me, startled and guilty, as if she were the one who’d been caught. It was the girl from the pictures, a sadly average looking girl with thin, drab hair and insect-like glasses on her face. She pulled off her earphones. “Who are you?” she said. “I’m an old friend of your mother’s,” I replied as casually as I could manage. “I was passing through town and thought I’d stop by. But I guess she’s not home.” This flimsy pretext seemed, bizarrely, to satisfy her. I saw how unlike her mother she was; Ellen would have been all narrow-eyed suspicion. But this was an open, curious girl. Thank God. “She won’t be back for a while,” she said. “Darn,” I said, and then, because it seemed only natural, “Where is she?” “Chicago, at the hospital.” “Nothing wrong I hope.” My ignorance clearly surprised her. “Ricky had leukemia? But now he’s in remission.” “Oh, that’s good,” I said. “That’s terrific. The house is beautiful. I haven’t seen it since your grandparents lived here.” “I’ll show you my room, if you want.” I followed her down the hall. She had a light, skipping step. Her room was Ellen’s old room, painted blue now and a little dark; she was one of those girls who pulls the shades and burrows in bed with a book (not the sort I ever knew well). Indeed, there was a pile of books heaped by the bed and even on top of it. The covers were mussed, as if she’d been underneath, reading. But the place where she led me out of pride or habit was a large rectangular fishtank. The water bubbled merrily. A chair was poised beside the tank, as if the girl spent time there, watching her fish. And they were beautiful fish, I had to admit, though I wasn’t fish-inclined. The two smallest were a phosphorescent blue, like peacock feathers. “Those are Damsels,” she said, seeing me notice. “Blue Damselfish.” “What’s that?” I asked dutifully, pointing at a fish with sharp prongs curved around its tail like a comma. “An Angel Flame,” she said, then added proudly, “This is a salt water tank.” Having no idea what difference that made, I kept quiet. The girl stood across the tank from me, eying my face through the percolating water. “Why do you wear sunglasses inside?” she asked. “I had an accident,” I said. “A car accident.” “I thought something happened,” she said. “Your face looks kind of strange. Does the light hurt your eyes, is that why you you wear the glasses?” “No,” I said. “They just look bad.” “Can I see?” “You don’t want to,” I said. “Really.” “Yes I do.” She did. She wanted to see my eyes, this girl, and came back around the tank for that purpose, slim, wiry, her head about the height of my chest. I’d been wrong about her age: she was older than thirteen. She seemed almost like an adult. “Believe me,” she said, “I can handle it.” I took off the glasses. The room wasn’t nearly as dark as I’d thought. The girl looked evenly into my eyes: the gaze of someone who has already seen her share of pain, and knows what it looks like. “How will you look after it heals?” she asked. “Like I looked before, more or less. These doctors, you know, they’re fantastic.” She nodded. I had the feeling she didn’t believe me. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Charlotte,” she said. I thought at first that I’d misheard her. I didn’t ask again–just let the surprise ricochet through me once, then dissipate. “No kidding,” I said. “Mine, too.” Right away I saw my mistake; she would tell Ellen, and Ellen would know what had happened to me. “That’s incredible!” she said. “I don’t know any other Charlottes. Only one Charlene.” “Charlotte is a better name.” “I think so, too,” she said. “It’s fancy.” There was a pause. To distract her, I asked, “And your uncle? Is he still called Moose?” The girl smiled, blood rising to her cheeks. Same old Moose, I thought. “You knew my uncle?” she asked, with excitement. “Before?” “A little,” I said noncommittally. “Before what?” “Everything that happened,” she said, and some memory grazed me, then, some disturbing thing I’d heard about Moose. I couldn’t call it back. “He’s still called Moose,” was all she said. I had been trying, in as relaxed a manner as possible, to steer us from her room in the direction of the front stairs. But just as I began my gimping descent, just as I was beginning to rejoice at having slithered from this potential debacle without having so much as roused the suspicions of my young hostess–just then, a shadow of prudence fell over her. “Don’t you…want to leave a message? Or a note?” she asked, pattering down the stairs behind me. “No, that’s okay.” I was struggling with the front door. “But I–I thought you–” Even as she helped me open it, I felt the beat of worry in her, which provoked in me a corresponding guilt, as if I’d nabbed the family silver and were about to make a run for it. “Tell your mom I’m sorry I missed–” “What’s your–” But I was out the door, loping across the lawn–a freakish sight that must have been–away from her. As I hurried back to Mary Cunningham’s, I was gripped by jealousy so sharp and unexpected that it felt like sickness. I wanted that girl. She was mine, she should have been mine; even her name was mine. I wanted that house, that life; even the kid with cancer–I wanted it. I wanted children, people around me. I wanted to send a young Charlotte into the world to live a different life from mine. Such feelings of envy and remorse were so alien to me that I hardly knew how to respond. There was a voice that spoke to me at times of internal duress in exactly the way I spoke to Grace: briskly reassuring at first, and if that didn’t work, brusque to the point of bullying. All my life I had heard that voice, and when its scolding was not enough to still the fear in me, I took action–walked, danced, made phone calls–whatever was required to stop the whining. I despised whining, my own more than anyone’s. But now I was too tired to move. I collapsed onto the day bed Mary Cunningham kept in her front room, unable yet to attempt the stairs, and decided I would inquire that very evening about the precise contents of that swank liquor cabinet I’d noticed in her living room. In the Midwest you could usually count on a decent stock, even at an old lady’s house. My face ached and throbbed; I’d stayed out too long. Upstairs, when I wiped off my pancake makeup with the special creams Dr. Fabermann had given me, my monstrous reflection looked more angry and swollen than it had in days. Like a newborn, I thought, exchanging looks with my frantic, scalded eyes–a newborn howling in pain and outrage. I soaked a cotton pad in vitamin E oil and gently swabbed my face. I spoke to it in tones that were uncharacteristically soothing. “There, there, come on now,” I said, “It’s not so bad,” dabbing the oil on my hot skin. Everything will be fine. This is the angry healing phase, that’s all. It will end and then you’ll have a new face–your old face but new again, like Ellen’s house. This is your Charlotte, I thought, looking at myself in the mirror. This is your Charlotte, and you must take good care of her so she’ll grow up to be a beautiful girl, and live an extraordinary life. * * * * * * * * * *