One night Celia bolts upright in bed. A vision has just passed through her mind of her childhood friend, Nadine. In the dream, Celia and Nadine, along with the other girls in their group, Lynna and Helen, await the start of a walkathon, twenty miles, for cancer research. It isn’t a race, it’s an activity, an act of charity, really. It isn’t a race, yet when the town selectman, Mr. O’Connor, raises his hand, signaling that the walkers are free to begin, Nadine shoots forward, running, leaving Celia and the rest behind.
It’s this image of Nadine taking off, inappropriately racing, that startles Celia. She hasn’t seen nor heard anything of Nadine in close to twenty years. Like herself, Nadine would be thirty-five now, but in Celia’s mind she sees her as she was that morning of the walkathon: fourteen, slim, bright eyed, her legs strong, her gait as elegant and athletic as a gazelle’s. Celia watches as Nadine stares at the lake, off to their right, its surface shimmering in the morning sun. Then Nadine fixes her gaze on the lakeside roadway before them, lifts onto her toes, sets off.
How strange to see Nadine after all this time so clearly. And it seems just as plain to Celia—this is what shocks her so—that Nadine is still out there, somewhere at large, racing furiously. But toward what, Celia cannot tell.
The next day Celia calls Helen, the closest of the childhood friends, the funniest as well as the most sympathetic one, the only with whom she’s still in touch. She tells her the dream.
“Nadine! My God, she was so beautiful. Have you heard from her?” asks Helen.
“No,” Celia answers. “I don’t know why she came to mind. But I could just see her, running at the takeoff of the walkathon. Remember the walkathon?”
Helen yelps, a quick laugh. Of course. She couldn’t walk again for the entire next week.
“Me too,” Celia says. “I thought I was about to die, and we’d only gone halfway. Remember when we were all alone at one point? Couldn’t see anyone ahead and behind? We could have bowed out gracefully, no witnesses. I didn’t dare admit it, but I wanted to quit. But not Nadine. She was running, almost from start to finish. She came in first. But she ought to have walked. That’s what it was, a walkathon.”
Helen laughs again. “Celia, you sound angry with her.”
“I’m not angry. It strikes me as kind of tragic, that’s all. She could have been taking her time. She could have been with us.”
“She was destined for greater things.”
“Weren’t we all,” Celia retorts, not without sarcasm.
Celia then hears Helen’s sigh, heavy and sad. “Yes, yes,” Helen says in a tone slightly cynical, not unlike Celia’s the moment before. “Destined for greater things. You’re so right. Weren’t we all.”
That year, the year of the walkathon, 1976, they each loved a different teacher. Celia’s love was the science teacher, Mr. Winters, athletic and bearded, soft-spoken like she was, and, like herself—if such a thing is possible at fourteen—philosophically inclined. He’d paper the walls of his science lab with quotations from Einstein such as, In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Celia would stare at these sayings, trying to soak in their wisdom, drawn to the notion that she’d be a philosopher or scientist someday. Or, glancing at the dashing Mr. Winters—his wavy hair, his broad shoulders, his lovely beard—perhaps the wife of one. For now, she liked poetry.
Helen, who was small and pixiesh, a soccer star and a dancer, loved Mr. Davis, the curly-haired, also small and pixiesh music teacher with the adorable, spirited laugh. A laugh just like Helen’s. Weren’t they, therefore, made for each other? Didn’t the matching laughs say it all?
Lynna, the naturalist, with light brown ringlets and bright green eyes—the coloring of mallards and pines and grassy fields, she liked to note—chose Mr. Spalone, the urbane and moody English teacher who dressed always in a subdued blue or gray double-breasted suit. A strictly blue-jeans girl, Lynna rationalized the pairing as one of opposites attracting, and it was as natural, therefore, as the formation of atoms, positive and negative, into molecules.
Okay, whatever. The point was love. The point was that they each had one.
Nadine’s was Mr. Ludlow, the Vietnam vet with a pony tail nearly as long as her own, the reserved, even shy, Spanish teacher. Like Lynna’s, this seemed another odd choice, given Nadine’s outgoing nature. She, more than the others, was the performer, the singer. She was the one to lead the pack onto the stage.
The song is Carol King’s “Tapestry,” from her hit album. They all know the words. The singer is Nadine, who stands center stage, her slim figure erect, her head thrown back, her mouth open. She’s beautiful, Celia notes, envying Nadine’s tanned complexion, her wide eyes, her wavy, bronze hair, a long enchanting mane. Facing the stage, Celia sits beside Helen. Lynna is at the piano, on accompaniment. Behind them are their four male teachers. This is not the first time these eight have gathered. This April, after school, it’s happened nearly every day. Nobody plans it exactly, but somehow these two groups form then find each other.
The song finished, Celia and Helen clap, as do the four teachers. Helen then rises from her seat. Lynna, her curls hiding her face, remains at the piano, while Helen, leotard clad, tiny and muscular, begins some kind of modern dance routine. She leaps, bends, stretches. Dramatically, she falls to the floor. The dance done, she lifts her head and bursts out in her loud, idiosyncratic laugh. As if on cue, small Mr. Davis, her crush, bursts out in his. Helen blushes.
Again, they all clap. Nadine whistles then shouts, Encore!
“Sorry, that’s it,” says Helen, and she leaps from the stage, rushes into a cotton jumper, dashes off as she often does to the girl’s room (“a bladder like a peanut,” she’s explained), returns in what seems a flash, and resumes her seat beside Celia’s.
Celia has yet to perform. She’s the poet, and hers will be a reading. But not of her own work. Oddly, she picks something out of time, out of season.
“Robert Frost,” she begins, looking at her page, yet the rest she says from memory. “O hushed October morning mild, thy leaves have ripened to the fall . . .”
She glances at Mr. Winters briefly. With his height and beard and sorrowful eyes he looks like Cat Stevens, her favorite songwriter, a congruence that makes her heart swell all the more. For a moment it seems completely possible that like herself, like Helen and Lynna and Nadine, Mr. Winters, too, wants to linger here in the junior high auditorium as long as possible, to take time, a lot of time, before heading, finally, regretfully, home.
If you were to ask her, Celia would explain that her home, as she recalls it, was very quiet. The year of the walkathon, for example, not much happened there except a lot of absence. Her mother and father didn’t get along, and rather than be caught together in their large country house, they found ways to occupy themselves outside of it, and outside of town. That year, of her eighth grade, her brother had left for college. Their old cat, Sprinkles, had left too, presumably to go to the woods to die. When she was home alone, which was often, which was how it was to be home, Celia tended to eat, read, or watch TV.
Helen, she knew, didn’t have it much better. Her father, an erudite, witty man, but a drinker, never could hold a job, and her mother, a sculptor, was endlessly, angrily, sacrificing studio time for paying work. That year she’d taken a job at J.C. Penny’s selling women’s apparel. At least the position offered the family a discount, Helen had once told Celia. Then she burst out laughing. “Yes, we are so fashionable,” she declared in something like a British accent. What made it funny was that they all knew how Helen could care less about something as trivial as fashion.
Lynna’s parents, as oriented toward nature as she was, lived in a small cottage on the shore of the town’s lake, a body of water they endlessly circled: father in sailboat, mother in canoe. But did they ever ride together? “Not in million years,” said Lynna, the last time—and that was so many years ago already—that she and Celia and Helen had hashed it out.
Oh, how they used to hash it out.
It. Meaning the world of these mysterious adults, these parents, these caged animals who never found their way to freedom, their way out of their pain. These mothers, their mothers, whose anguish, whose loneliness, bled into the daughters as directly as nutrition had once flowed from the umbilical cord. How did Helen the tiny dancer with a loud laugh understand her artistic mother’s frustration and loneliness? “Completely.” How did Lynna the naturalist feel about her mother, the psychologist turned housewife, canoeing all by herself? “Incredibly sad.” How did Celia feel about her mother, homemaker extraordinaire—great chef, great decorator, great gardener—who always found a way to avoid her beautiful home? “I wish I could help her,” is what she’d always said. But the best way to help her, she explained to the others, was to stay out of her way, let her be away, if that made it better for her. And so even though she looked forward to her mother’s company—when she was home would all but attach herself to her mother as she made her way from room to room—when she was absent Celia found suitable enough substitutions: the reading, the eating, the watching, watching, watching of TV.
The only normal home, it seemed, was Nadine’s. Situated near the outskirts of town, surrounded by state-owned forest, Nadine’s home was a modest two story affair, no front porch, but a nice back deck overlooking a lawn that trailed off into the woods. There were no parents at this home, but there was an aunt and an uncle, Rita and Phil, who, had they not adopted their niece Nadine, would have otherwise remained childless.
How they adored Nadine. How they came to every softball game, every school choir concert, every spring play. How present they were. How fun it was to see them dancing together—husband and wife happily together!—as they chaperoned each school dance. How they paid for Nadine’s voice lessons, invested in her huge natural talent. A voice as strong as Carol King’s. . . .
So long as the teachers didn’t mind—and, not surprisingly, they didn’t—she would sing “Tapestry” again, the next day, Friday’s performance. Lynna had a dentist appointment, so this time the tune was performed without her piano accompaniment. The lyrics were sad, haunting, and Nadine, going a capella, offered them up slowly. When she finished a tear streamed down her left cheek.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, more to her crush, the pony-tailed, shy Mr. Ludlow, than to anyone else. Her leap off the stage, Celia noted, was as elegant and effortless as the tune she’d just sung.
Celia’s Mr. Winters, fairly reserved himself, was the one to break the silence. He tugged at his beard. “You girls ought to take this thing to Broadway.” Celia turned in her seat to glance his way. Was he actually looking back at her?
She and Helen began to giggle a bit, but Nadine looked wide-eyed at Mr. Winters, nodding in a matter of fact way, as if to indicate she’d already considered the point. Broadway. Well, yes. Yes, of course.
“Broadway, Shmoadway,” said Helen’s Mr. Davis. “You girls ought to stay right here where you can belt it out every day of the week if you want. You’ve got something going here. A little bit of freedom.” For once, he didn’t finish his sentence in a fit of laughter. “You girls don’t need to be in a hurry for anything,” he added, nodding. To Helen’s dismay, Celia noticed, he glanced at Nadine.
“Yes, I agree,” Mr. Ludlow, Nadine’s man, quickly noted. Turning his way, Celia saw him locked in a gaze with Nadine. He was quietly, as if secretly, smiling, and she was doing the same.
Celia glanced then—an automatic, nervous comparison—to Mr. Winters, her man. He was picking at a fingernail. He had turned away.
They were gifted, those four girls. That’s what Celia recalls being told. She even recalls hearing the word spoken in a kind, masculine voice: gifted. And how remarkable it was that the four of them should by sheer chance have come together—a dancer, a singer, a naturalist, a poet—when they lived precisely nowhere, in a little town in the center of Connecticut—two tiny grocery stores, a
hardware store, several package stores for liquor, a Catholic, a Congregationalist, and a Lutheran church. A lake and a lot of state-owned forest. A town the boys, ever-wasted on dope, called Goon City. A town where most kids didn’t attempt to go to college. Because, frankly, what was the point? A town where many, upon adulthood, stayed pretty close to town. And, yet, to the degree you were inclined, bizarrely enough by local standards, toward reading and the arts, wasn’t it a perfect town?
“What if we’d grown up in Manhattan? Went to the performing arts school? Lived in a place where the stuff we did was actually valued? Where others did this stuff too?” This, another question from Celia to Helen, a follow-up, two days later, to their discussion of Nadine.
Helen, who in her adulthood has become, like her mother, a visual artist, pauses. “I think about that,” she says, “and always it’s with mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s the sense of not quite fitting in. Not at school, anyway. Probably because we liked it so much! On the other hand, everything creative we did, we did ourselves. No one telling us what to do.”
“Yes,” Celia agrees, nodding into the phone. “It’s all fertile ground to me. For that very reason. I cherish it. I wouldn’t want it any other way. You have to make your life—isn’t that what it taught us?”
Helen pauses. “That,” she says, and her voice is now heavy, burdened, the way it was at the end of their previous call. “But we learned other things too. Like how to stay alive in a loveless marriage. I guess I learned that. And you, so utterly single, Celia. You learned how to hang in there, girl, all alone.”
These days Celia works in retail. She’d come to Portland, Maine to write poetry, to publish, to teach, to be true to her dreams, her rather ambitious dreams she has to admit, but for now—a now that has dragged, mysteriously, monotonously, into ten years—she works retail. But not your average retail. Retail in a gallery specializing in hand-made crafts: pottery bowls, woven rugs, gorgeous silver earring, which, with her store discount, she has plenty.
Today she chooses a pair with a pink stone inlaid in each one. She wears a matching pink mohair sweater and a short, black skirt. She ties a bright blue scarf through her long, wiry hair. She slips her feet into worn clogs.
This is a typical work outfit, but today she’s not going there, but to the library, the one at the nearby college, her alma mater. There, she’ll read and checkout books of poetry. On this, her day off from the gallery, she’s going to invest in herself, fill herself up with the stuff of words just as she fills the car, en-route, with the stuff of unleaded gasoline. This day will make a difference, she tells herself. It will.
The library has been updated since her time there as a student. Now new computers sit atop long tables and library visitors can have all the internet access they want. Celia isn’t so sure she likes all this convenience. A sudden longing for the card catalogue of yesteryear seizes her heart. Despite her nostalgia, she sits before a computer screen and types in a search for the poet Elizabeth Bishop. She knows all her work already, but today she wants to read what others have to say about her. She’ll hole up in a carrel somewhere and spend the day reading about the poet’s childhood in Nova Scotia, her mother’s illness and absence, the child’s subsequent move to relatives in Worcester, Massachusetts, a horror of dislocation if there ever was one. Perhaps she’ll jot a few words of her own down, and one word will lead to the next. . . .
Several books answer her search and she notes them. For a moment she sits at the computer, her mind and hands idle. It’s late April and a cool breeze from an open window slides past, carrying a scent of newly cut grass. Ah, she thinks, spring, the beginning of earthly care, of lawns and gardens. Her place, the second floor of an old house, has a porch upon which she grows herbs and flowers in window boxes. Perhaps this is the week to buy the season’s impatiens, she muses. Then she sighs, already a little bored.
When Nadine comes to mind Celia can almost hear her friend singing that old song, “Tapestry.” The song’s somber tone resonates with her own mood, a wish really, so heartfelt, so constant these days, for some kind of change in her life. A better job. Someone to marry, to settle in with. Lots and lots of notepads filled with her own delicate words. Her fingers begin twitching. Soon she’s accessed the Google screen. She types Nadine Armstrong.
Any number of citations come up, but as she scrolls through them she knows none of them are the Nadine Armstrong of her childhood, of her recent dream. Still, compelled, she reads on.
Nadine Armstrong, M.D., she examines, shaking her head. M.D. Such a fate was impossible; Nadine always hated science class. That year, the year of the walkathon, rather than write about electricity, as Mr. Winters had asked them all to do, hadn’t she written about electric eels? And wasn’t her end of the year science project a story about a family who invented a wondrous fertilizer and grew eight-foot daisies? “Science fiction,” she’d snapped when Mr. Winters handed the paper back to her, marked A for effort, C- for scientific substance. “Oh, well,” was all Nadine had said.
Next Celia reads, “Funeral Services for Beth Nadine Armstrong, 84, were on Monday . . .”
She shakes her head again, then sighs, considering the chances. Nadine’s probably married, she figures. She’s changed her name. She’ll never find her.
She rises from her seat, goes to the stacks, pulls some books, then settles by an open window, by that fragrant breeze, to begin her lengthy, solitary read.
No one ever said orphan.
Celia looks up, unsure whether the thought refers to Elizabeth Bishop, whom she’s reading about, or Nadine. But it’s Nadine, of course.
Celia and Helen and Lynna knew, technically speaking. But the term didn’t seem to bear any relation to Nadine’s happy life. At school she was like the Connecticut River, sliding through the system, wending over and around the bumpy parts—her hatred for science, for example—never a problem student, always well-liked, a soft spot in everyone’s heart for the beautiful bronze-haired girl who could sing like a bird and run, as if flying, so very fast. And at home what Nadine had with Phil and Rita sounded like the essence of normal, the epitome of “family.” The long meals and evenings of family games that Celia heard about bore no relation to the swells of silence, the lengths of absences, the black holes of neglect, that Celia, Helen, and Lynna ever-swirled in.
And they didn’t only hear about the attention Phil and Rita lavished on Nadine. They witnessed it too. For it was Phil who drove her to and from her voice lessons, no problem. He simply hooked a “be back in an hour” sign on his shop window, a general repair shop in their snug downtown. Likewise, Phil never missed a softball game, and that spring of the walkathon his constancy earned him the position of head ump. And at the junior high school dances the aunt and uncle were as predictable as the cluster of four girls—Celia, Helen, Lynna, Nadine— sipping ginger ale in a back corner, ignoring the bodies of classmates meeting and twisting and touching on the cleared cafeteria floor. Instead, heads locked together, the girls discussed their loves, their men who never happened to be at these affairs, who were in fact home with their wives and new babies, though the foursome never acknowledged this. Their take, Celia recalls, was straightforward: their guys were too sophisticated for these childish hops. These soda pop and potato chip bashes. They were simply too mature, like them. That was their problem. That’s why they never felt comfortable dancing out there along with their peers. That’s why not one of them had a junior high boyfriend. Lynna described Mr. Spalone, his double-breasted essence, ever-so-accurately as “way too debonaire.”
He kissed her. Mr. Ludlow did this to Nadine. Celia and the others found out the next weekend, after the walkathon. They were at Lynna’s, lying on her lovely old dock, their creaky wooden friend, dangling their bare feet into the lake. The water smelled just faintly of fungus, a funny lake smell that Celia loved. It was something like the smell of a wet towel, rolled and stuffed into a bag, left all day in the backseat of a car, say, and beginning to mildew. You had to grow up with it to appreciate it, she figured, thinking of August, when the whole town heaved with this lovely stench. But this was still late June. Sunday afternoon. Two days since eighth grade had let out. Temperature in the high seventies. Lake water still in the sixties. The girls’ bodies, in shorts and t-shirts, not yet scarred with summer’s tan lines. A cool breeze. A few gentle waves. A season’s stretch of lakeside swimming beckoning. A season’s stretch of girl talk, novels to swap, bikes to ride, only a few daily chores at home. Easy.
He kissed her.
“Friday. After school.”
“He kissed you?”
“Yes. That’s what I said. Yes.”
“On the lips? That kind of kiss?”
Nadine had gone to Mr. Ludlow’s classroom a few minutes after the last bell rang. He’d been erasing the board when she arrived. Stepping inside the doorway, she didn’t say hi. She didn’t say anything at all. She crept toward him, standing for a moment breathless and still behind his back. Then she reached up and tapped his shoulder.
“Did he say anything?”
He looked down and there she was, almost crying. She said something about missing him.
“What’d you say, exactly?”
“I don’t know exactly. I was teary. I said, ‘I’ll miss you.’ I think. I think it’s what I said.”
He said he would too. He tugged at his long ponytail. On his right arm he wore a silver bracelet, something he’d gotten as a soldier. He raised his arm, his bracelet slipping toward his elbow, and he pushed his hair back and cleared his throat. But he didn’t say anything. She was carrying a bag, a brown paper bag with her gym clothes in it and other locker room items.
“What’s in the bag?” he finally asked.
“Nothing. Stuff to bring home.” A pause, then, “I’ll miss you.”
It went something like that.
She put the bag down on top of his desk. He dropped the eraser beside it. She smelled chalk and wondered if he smelled her Johnson’s baby powder. The bag crumpled loudly as she pushed it away. She looked up again and he leaned toward her. He touched her wrist with his index finger. Just barely. She stared first at the silver bracelet, which she adored, then she gazed directly in front of her, into his chest, through his white polo shirt, into his heart.
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
She felt him press an inch closer. She arched her neck as she did when she was singing. He bent his. She raised her arms. He closed in on her, and finally—after seconds, minutes, years, it seemed—he enveloped her entirely. Suddenly she was held, behind her back and at her neck, and she circled his neck trying to hold him as best she could. Then he kissed her. Very much on the lips.
“Maybe a minute. Maybe two. It was really a bunch of kisses.”
She began to cry. “This is so sad,” she said after the kiss, after the bunch of kisses.
He agreed. “It is sad.”
“I have to go now,” she said, glumly, her head hanging, her mouth still tingling.
“Yes,” he said. “You do.” He grabbed the eraser and turned again toward the board.
They didn’t say goodbye. And that was perfect, too.
Nadine didn’t say goodbye to Celia either, later that summer, when Nadine left town, left the girls behind in a way that was more permanent than any racing of a walkathon, than any incredible, never-to-be-outdone kiss.
Weeks before, Celia had begged Nadine to live with her.
“You can have my brother’s room. He’s only home for school vacations. My parents say it’s fine. They’re never here anyway. See? Just like now.” She pointed to the empty driveway. “But they want you here. We do. I do. I really do.”
“OK,” she said at first. But three weeks later she moved two towns away, a school system away, a lifetime away. Her new family practiced a kind of Christianity Celia had never heard of, something evangelical. On Sundays she sang in the church choir. She quickly became a soloist. She liked the way her new family held hands and prayed before each meal. She liked the groupiness of it all, two brothers and a sister. She liked being part of a large crowd.
She told Celia this over the phone early that next September. By October their line was weak, barely connecting.
She never explained what happened. For some reason, she had to leave, and leave fast.
They were foster parents. That had something to do with it.
“Not aunt and uncle?” Celia asked during a final visit before Nadine left town.
“No. Never. Foster.” As Nadine tugged at her bronze mane, pulling her own hair, hurting herself, it seemed, Celia noticed for the first time the absence of any blond features, of any physical resemblance at all, between Nadine and Phil or Rita.
“Oh!” she cried, shocked at what seemed a stubborn, stupid, blindness, at how obviously things were not as they seemed.
That was a week before Nadine left. The girls were inside Celia’s home, sitting at the kitchen table. Her parents, as usual, were not there. It was Saturday, a day she didn’t typically see Nadine since Nadine worked Saturday’s in Phil’s shop. Cleaning and bills and odd jobs. Celia had always imagined the job as fun. He paid pretty well too, didn’t he?
“Are you insane?” Nadine leaned her head back as if to sing, but she burst out with a harsh cackle. “He just won’t leave me alone! Everywhere I go he’s right there! I just want to hide!”
Once more Nadine threw her head back and cackled.
The oddness of it is what Celia remembers. Never before had the sound of Nadine’s voice caused Celia’s ears to sting.
Nadine never explained her abrupt departure. But now Celia sees. Nadine was entirely, unbearably, controlled. She was a prisoner, Uncle Phil’s prisoner; all that attention was really too much attention, was relentless, controlling attention. Quite possibly, it was sexual attention. She was running for her very life. Days after the dream, this is what Celia, in the form of gut instinct, comes to know. That, and how nothing, really, was as it seemed.
“Helen, what is it?”
“It’s just that I was, well, am . . . bulimic. It’s really about panic. I’m still in a panic half the time and my husband wants out or something close to that, which makes me even more panicky—but I don’t blame him because I never believe he really loves me. I never believe it. I’m close to panic all the time. It’s such a burden.”
“It was easy. I’d raise my hand in class, go to the bathroom, quick, throw it all up. Run back. You know me. I was quick. Leaping along.”
Helen begins to laugh, sadly.
“Oh, Helen, I’m so sorry . . . I didn’t know!” An image of Helen racing in and out of the girl’s room—“bladder like a peanut”—comes to mind. “Can you forgive me? How stupid I was! How could I have not known?”
Celia hears Helen’s heavy sigh.
“Don’t be silly, Celia. Nobody knew. Not even me.”
Nadine had abandoned them, left in a flash without even a goodbye, but only because she needed to get away from the foster parents, Phil and Rita. The foster system, really, forced her to go. At the time that’s how the girls rationalized the occurrence, as if there had been some term limit that had come to an end, and that’s how they rationalized her going to Alabama the summer between her sophomore and junior high school years. She called Lynna to say she’d be moving down, to a better family, with more room and more money for her. And more kids. She really emphasized that, Lynna said in the days following the call. She liked the clubbiness of a big family, of not having all the parental attention on her.
“Was she happy?”
They were at Lynna’s again, sitting on the dock. Two years had passed since the walkathon, the kiss, the year of loving grownup men. Celia, Helen, and Lynna gazed toward the pair of islands in the lake’s center. A family of mallards drifted by and Lynna stopped talking in words to talk to them, in mallard talk, a language she was as fully at ease with as English.
“Very happy,” Lynna finally answered. She still leaned toward the mallards, which had drawn close as if to better hear. “Couldn’t wait to go. She made the all-state choir, by the way, and planned to sing her way into the future.”
“She probably will,” Helen said. “She’s irresistible. Remember how Mr. Ludlow couldn’t help himself from kissing her?”
“I always envied her that kiss,” Celia said. Two years, and she’d yet to stop dreaming of Mr. Winters, who quickly came to mind now. The tall frame, the dark beard, the walls of his room papered with wisdom. If only she and he had been the ones to kiss. Somehow, she was sure she’d be the better for it. A little happier, perhaps. Less lonely, even right then.
The phrase was often at the tip of her tongue.
“I envied her looks.” Helen and Celia stared at Lynna, surprised. Didn’t she love her coloring, the special earth tones that so matched her personality?
“I envied her looks and her height and the kiss and the singing.” Helen laughed hysterically as if her own implicit and total self-dissatisfaction were a big joke.
“Oh, Helen, please. What’s to envy? You’re wonderful. You have it all. Remember when they told us—we all have it all, they said?” Lynna kicked the water angrily, splashing one of her beloved ducks. In an instant, the whole family changed directions, paddling furiously out of harm’s way.
Gifted. But what did it mean? In a town such as theirs, in a bare-bones school system such as theirs, the concept, in any official sense, didn’t exist. Besides, it wasn’t what they thought of themselves, Celia notes. She’s on her bed in her apartment, the library books she took out days before splayed across the quilt. Her latest boyfriend, also a sales clerk at the gallery, might be calling or might not. She never knows. That’s how love relationships are for her: slow to arrive and when they do, unpredictable. She could think about that, as she often does, for hours on end, lying just as she is on her bed, until the longing for some kind of certainty in love almost knocks her unconscious with its power. At those moments her mind races with a series of sentences, each one beginning if only. For now, though, Helen’s anguish is still fresh in her ears. As is the news about Lynna. That she’s left her husband to live alone for a while in the Florida Everglades on yet another ornithology grant. “You can’t reach her,” Helen said. “It’s as if she’s hiding.”
About their minds, creative and quick, they might have said silly or goofy. About their bodies, taut and bursting with sexuality, they were usually too self-conscious, self-critical, to say anything at all.
If only, Celia thinks. If only even one of their parents, their mothers, say, the parent they knew and understood the best, hadn’t been so unhappy. If only they’d been available, able to show them a thing or two about the next step in growing up. Maybe then those three wouldn’t have turned out so lopsided, so bewildered by adulthood, or was it only by love?
No one ever said the word. Not in reference to Celia, Helen, and Lynna, too much by themselves, raising, it seemed, themselves. Fancying themselves in love even though their lovers—grown up men—only liked them back.
And what about Nadine? The singular one, the star of their shows, the one who had a certain, unusual confidence in her body. The one, incidentally, literally orphaned. The one who, at fourteen, wasn’t afraid to look a twenty-eight year old teacher, a Vietnam vet, in the eye. The one who was actually loved.
He kissed her. Once. Passionately. And all this came before, long before, they knew about things like anxiety, depression, or the psychic pit of severe loneliness. It didn’t matter that such things, and their fall-out, were actually taking root.
He kissed her. He held her in his arms. He crossed a line, tiny and large at once. She closed her eyes. He lowered his head. He agreed, “This is so sad.”
Later, imagining themselves in her shoes, following her lead, secretly more than a little envious, they had agreed, “Incredible!” “Perfect!”
A few days before that, they had gathered at the start of the walkathon. There had been a crowd of sneaker-clad folks, a helpful wind off the lake, a sunny-enough June day, a town selectman, Mr. O’Connor, clapping his hands encouragingly as they streamed past, eager to get started, because this was the first such event in their tiny, quirky town, a place, if you asked them that morning or even now, they would claim they loved, if only because they knew it so completely, this place, this home, with all its woods and its lake and its various and impossible limitations. A place where they each had a love, a special love, a handsome twenty-something, a teacher no less, a person specifically suited to each of them. A love who was willing to pay one dollar for every mile of the upcoming event. An offer which demonstrated, if you thought about it, a kind of commitment to them, like love.
They would use the time walking all those miles to discuss their loves.
“Mr. Winters sighed when I sighed.”
“Where were you?”
“By the Einstein poster on the back wall.”
“Mr. Spalone winked at me Thursday after he announced the pop quiz on Johnny Tremain. He meant sorry. It was a personal apology. But I understood. He was just doing his job. I smiled back and he saw.”
“That’s nothing. Mr. Davis saw my boobs. I was bending over to pick up my books—it was when music class let out Tuesday—and he tipped his head and I could tell.”
“Helen, it isn’t true! You don’t even have any boobs.”
For a moment they double over, laughing, even Helen.
“What do you mean?” she finally says, winking as she glances at her chest. “It definitely happened. You know how these things go. It was an accident. He laughed a little and looked away. He’s a perfect gentleman.”
“What about you, Nadine?”
“Did you see her?”
“Where is she, anyway?”
They stop walking and look around. Strangely, there are no other walkathon participants before or behind them. Woods, now on both sides of the street, block any view of the lake, and a strange quiet descends. Celia, her feet aching, wants to quit, but she’s too ashamed to admit it.
“I thought she was just one step ahead of us,” Lynna says, her voice confused.
Helen asks, “Is she lost?”
Celia answers, but of course it’s impossible, “Are we?”