I knew Angela from eleventh grade on. My parents divorced, and my brother and I moved with our mom to her hometown, where I had to finish school in a place with no history and few friends. Not that I had so many before; I was who I was, shy, unhappy, judgmental. I was drowning in meaning while everyone around me flitted in the shallows. Angela was on the dance team and the soccer team. She wore too much make-up and had a burly, boneheaded boyfriend named Steve. Unlike others in her circle, she never seemed confused or put off, never pretended not to see me if we ran into each other in town. She would shove her gum into her left cheek and give me a little swat with the back of her hand and say, “Hey! How’s it going?”
I did not dislike her. For me, then, that was high praise. It was 1998 and I hated everyone. Especially the volleyball team and the cheerleaders, who said “God” with two syllables and had this weird elaborate fantasy wherein their calculators were cell phones. An outsider and a loner, I had no choice but to hate the football players. I also hated the nerds and the punks. I hated the school newspaper and the pretty, funny girl who edited it. I hated nearly all my classes, which I found tedious. There were a few teachers that I liked. I graduated at the top of my class and gave a valedictorian speech where I read from Catcher in the Rye and told all my classmates they were fakes. That was all I had.
Then one of those teachers, one of the ones I liked, yelled at me with tears in his eyes, out in the sunny hall at the back of the field house.
By 2003 I had graduated from the University of Chicago. I took my BA in English and a shattered heart and moved back to my mother’s hometown. At a cash register at Target I sold condoms to the former football team, who pretended not to know me. I sold condoms to the current football team and got written up for telling one of them to have a good night with, my team lead said, a certain tone in my voice.
On a slow day in winter I watched the aisle dividing soft and hard lines. Two customers, pushing carts, accidentally fell into step with each other, then moved faster in an attempt to separate. I leaned backward against a stack of oversized shopping bags and waited to get yelled at. A little placard, labeled Ergonomics, described in stick figures the positions we were allowed to stand in. One foot up on the little ledge under the cash drawer. Arms folded behind the back. Hands firmly on hips.
A small child in a shopping card slid into my field of vision, and Archer Farms frozen pizzas landed on the register. The boy, Alexander, was a baby the last time I saw him. There was no reason for me to know him now, but I did. Weak and surprised, I smiled, and he hunched his shoulders as if drawing his head into his body.
Angela unloaded her cart. “Hi,” I whispered. She asked for paper bags, if I had them (I did not, and I was continually amazed by how people seemed to think Target was a full-on grocery store, simply because aisles A7 and A8 contained food).
She wore less make-up now, had put on some weight and gone loose around the edges. I hadn’t changed at all, but she didn’t know me.
Why was I surprised, why was I hurt. It had been more than four years. She was a frazzled mother and I was a cashier in red and khaki, the last obstacle between her and home and a napping child.
I pressed F3 to conclude the sale, and a little prompt popped up on the screen. I wanted to die. “Would you like to save ten percent today,” I mumbled. “Open a Target credit card save ten percent.”
Her face lit up in a lipstick-cracking smile. “Oh hey! Hi! How are you? I’m so sorry, I’m just out in space today.”
I sighed heavily. “I’m all right. I just got back in town in the fall. From Chicago.” “Out in space. I can’t believe I said it like that. Did you hear about those astronauts?” She yanked a tag off a cheap, hard plastic rocket and handed it to her son. “Sandy wants to be an astronaut. We get on Internet Explorer to learn about the missions.” She dug around for a credit card. Our transactions were timed, and even in that, even here, I was obsessed with being the best. I had been at 100% all morning. I had already failed this one by a long shot.
I hadn’t heard anything about any astronauts. I asked her how Steve was doing.
She wore a sedate silver ring.
She carried a big purse with a taunting cityscape on the pockets. It was a mess in there, cards floating loose. She came up, in the end, with a shaggy ball of Kleenex. “I feel like I knew them,” she said, and she rubbed at her son’s gummy wet face. “We’d make up stories about them before Sandy went to bed.”
“That’s good.” The only thing dumber I could have said was what I wanted to say, which was that I was off on Thursday, and maybe we could meet downtown and have coffee. As if we were old friends or had anything in common. The register kicked out her receipt. Immediately after she left I requested a fifteen-minute break and went outside. They probably lived just north of the mall, Angela and Steve and the baby. The kid. In one of those ranch houses built in the seventies, on a blacktop street with no sidewalk. Near enough to the country to see deer in their backyard. Angela would keep a clean kitchen, with a little TV on the counter for Sandy to watch while they waited an interminable twenty-three minutes for the pizza to bake. In a way, I was jealous. Sitting on an icy bench outside my minimum wage job, watching fat men squeeze into sedans, I would have given a lot for a settled, independent life. I had tried to find something better, something bigger than this town, and I’d ended up right back here, almost wishing that I’d been the one to get knocked up in high school.
It was in the fall of senior year. Angela and Steve were broken up by the time anyone knew, and the story was that one of his football friends approached him in the locker room. “Your girlfriend’s pregnant,” he said. “Is it yours?”
It was. Angela was really not a slut although, of course, she was called one. They got back together, Angela and Steve, and he gave her a promise ring from JC Penney, which she wore throughout her pregnancy on a thin chain around her neck.
I had lunch most days with a young actor named Caleb and a little person named Sylvia, who could scream like an eagle and would whenever Caleb or I asked her to. Unlike the high school punks, she was a genuine freak. Caleb was not part of any real group, yet he was well liked and friendly with everybody. That he hung out, by choice, with me confirmed what I suspected: that I was special. That I was lonely because most people couldn’t understand me and wouldn’t think to try.
Angela was not showing yet, but everybody knew. At a table a short distance from ours she sucked gum and laughed at something Steve said. He had a bloated cinnamon roll that looked pretty much exactly like his fist, and he waggled it in front of her face.
“Is she really pregnant?” I said. I was only seventeen and couldn’t believe a thing like that might happen to another seventeen-year-old, especially one who was regularly nice to me.
“She has her own house,” Caleb told us, and Sylvia laughed in disbelief. “It’s like a little house behind her parents’.”
The point being that she could have sex anytime she wanted. In my family we were not religious, but my mom was old – forty-one when I was born – and somehow so profoundly sexless that by early high school I had still mostly believed, hoped, that you could get a baby without actually doing it.
Steve thrust the cinnamon roll. Angela shook her hoop earrings and tweaked his arm. He was serious, even upset, his forehead rolled like a sharpei’s, but she smiled above her promise ring, under her white-blond hair, all lit up around the edges.
“She’s rolling with it,” Caleb said. “She’s happy.”
Caleb had a white mother and a black father. He was thin and bright and terribly pretty. We would date a little that year, attending prom arm in arm, kissing miserably in his car. He came out before I did, before he’d turned twenty, but not until after high school.
Sylvia said she didn’t want a baby. Being pregnant would be like having an alien inside you. I laughed stupidly, cruelly, believing she couldn’t have a baby anyway.
Angela approached our table, so happy that her eyes shone. “Hey Claire,” she said, her invisible baby only inches from my elbow, somewhere under one of those grommet-laden belts that were all the rage among dance girls and volleyball girls in 1998. “Do you have your Palmer and Colton? I forgot mine.”
Palmer and Colton was the history book, and I had it in my locker. Angela and I were very rarely in the same classes, but that year we did take European History together in seventh period. She never seemed to have the reading done and was forever asking someone to borrow their book during lunch. I abandoned my food to get it for her. She looked at it for a minute or two, but by the end of lunch it was a coaster for her orange juice. She returned it in class with a note under the front cover. Thanks!! it said. Your the best.
It was an honors class, and she probably hadn’t realized that honors history was about study, essays and facts and ideas, not about the romance of kings and queens. I sat always in the back right corner, Angela near the front, taking notes with a pink pen. By Christmas her condition was obvious even to the very most oblivious, the nose-pickers, the romance novel readers. I waited for her to suddenly go into labor and get carried out of the room by the young man who taught us. In those sunny, snowy days I didn’t hate that town. I stared at the pregnant girl without much shame or worry, believing I was invisible. I watched her into the new year. I watched her until she was gone.
For a few weeks in the spring it was just me and Sylvia at lunch. Caleb had play practice. We were too isolated to gossip and talked instead about the Unabomber. Or I did. I was reading Industrial Society and Its Future, or trying too. I never read past the first three pages or dislodged a wrong title (Industrial Society and Its Implications) from my brain. Truly, I never wanted or intended to hurt anyone, but I did dream often of running away.
A car pulled into the turnaround outside the fieldhouse. It was dim and blue and I never saw the driver, but Angela got out in jeans and a big, dramatic sweater that hid any signs of a recent pregnancy. She closed the passenger side door with her hip and opened the rear.
The fieldhouse doors were gunmetal black, their little rectangular windows reinforced with thin wires in a diamond pattern, so you couldn’t put a fist through the glass. Sometimes the blank winter sky cleared just enough, at just the right moment, for the sun to sear through the doors and briefly blind anyone who happened to be watching the outside. In that moment Angela stepped through the door with a baby carrier. My heart set up a sick thudding. Despite all evidence I’d never entirely believed there would be a baby at the end of this.
She caught me looking and grinned, gave a quick, twinkling wave and strolled over to our table. “Hey guys! How’s it going?” She set her child next to my cafeteria tray, but there was nothing much to see. A sort of rug, something that would fit better in that dim blue car, covered over the entire thing. She had to go get something from Mr. Olson’s room. Could we watch him for a minute? She called him Alexi then. She strolled up the ramp toward the lockers and the classrooms.
People were cruel. I was too self-obsessed to register all the stares and whispers, all the girls who said they couldn’t be her friends anymore because she was a bad influence. Caleb, who had a way of knowing everything that went on, even intimate details from after the three o’clock bell, said she cried at night.
Maybe she left her son with us because she knew we didn’t judge her. Or Sylvia didn’t. And I may judge her brain, her appearance, the sports she played. I might judge her choice of boyfriend, but I would never think to judge the things she did with him in the house behind her parents’.
Sylvia stood on the table and gently lifted a little square flap in the baby rug, exposing his face. He was asleep, all scrunched under a knit cap, swaddled so thoroughly that you wouldn’t even know he breathed.
“You should do it,” I said.
Sylvia giggled. “We’d scare him.” “Come on. I want to see what he’s like.”
It had been a while since she’d done it in a public place, and after a little more goading she flung back her shoulders and howled wide at the fieldhouse ceiling. The cafeteria shuddered into silence. The baby screamed without opening his eyes, enough to show me that he was vital, he was real. There was no profit in disbelieving. Sylvia, pale, sat cross-legged on the table. She liked shutting up the cafeteria but would have never, on her own volition, made a baby cry. His eyes sliced open for an instant, and he grasped my hand as babies do. By the time one of the teachers came, angry and mystified, he was quiet. By the time Angela returned he had my finger in his soft alien mouth. “Aren’t you the sweetest thing?” she said.
After my shift that day I sat in my bedroom in my mom’s house, which wasn’t my bedroom anymore. Mom was turning it into some sort of library for trashy science fiction. I slept on a couch. In and around a giant black desk from St. Vincent de Paul I kept my clothes and a healthy stash of letters to my ex-girlfriend. I sat in the Target stink of my red shirt and khaki pants and began to write another.
Her name was Shara. Sharon, everyone said, or Cheryl. We met at a history department party that we both happened to be crashing, even though neither of us was a history major. We laughed together, drinking illicit beers. “It’s Shara, right?” I said, meeting her later that week at the Medici Bakery. Her eyes lit. I, alone in all the world, had gotten it right. I had meant to say Sharon, but my voice caught. By then, before I even had a handle on her name, I’d already had several dreams of sex with her. Nothing symbolic. No candles burning on a counter, no strange birds or trees that somehow, indisputably, pointed to her. I dreamed of that girl from the history party naked in my bed.
I never thought I was gay. I was blindsided and scared and angry, thinking how dyke would sound in the raspy mouths of cheerleaders, but she was lovely. She had long, demure eyelashes and a silver stud through her tongue. She spoke German and played viola.
Her hair was straight and dyed jet black. I lost hours of class, thinking of her hair. By the end of that first semester I helped her re-dye her roots, then got in the shower with her and watched the dark ink course down both our skins.
I never told my mom about her. In fact I lied outright. I said I had a boyfriend. There was no reason for the smoke screen; Mom never visited, but I wanted to announce.
When Shara and I broke up and I slunk back to my mother’s hometown, I wrote to her constantly. We were all about letters, too cool for e-mail. I wrote several times a week, whenever a Target customer fought a price with me, whenever I got in trouble for bringing a Thermos of tea to my register. She wrote back sporadically. By Christmas she was seeing someone else.
I continued to write but didn’t always send the letters. I missed talking with her about the little mysteries of my life, like why it was that babies were presented as miracles when millions of them were born all the time. Stranger still, I myself regarded them as incredible, despite having no illusions. I found Sandy shocking, though he had existed for four years.
I wrote about senior year, when Steve was called the man and Angela was called a slut. It was true to a degree. As far as Caleb had reported. Though he also said that Steve quit the football team because of certain things that were said in the locker room. I kept it all a little more one-sided, a little more political.
Snow bloomed from the purple sky and clogged the alley behind the house. On the shelves in my former bedroom beautiful women with greenish skin rode dragons under titles like To the Dark Planet and A Deepness in the Sky. I thought about going downstairs to look up Angela’s astronauts online, but space travel, the smothered stars, never had much hold on my imagination. I wondered what had happened to Angela to make her feel it as she did, and if a boy that small could really want to be something, and if it was crazy to be jealous of a four-year-old.
Shara had known since high school that she wanted to manage a help center and shelter for battered women. She was now an administrative assistant at a women-owned temp agency, and on the weekend she helped homeless women do their hair and pick out nice clothes at Good Will, so they could go to job interviews.
I lowered the pen. What was I supposed to do without her.
At the end we fought a lot. We had been together more than three years. She, as it happened, had a girlfriend when we started dating. She was from a place where girls sometimes dated girls while they were still in high school. But we were very nearly each other’s first. Neither of us had been to bed with anyone. I had never kissed anyone and meant it. We were young. We were eager and inexperienced and overstressed and unkind. And yet: when we broke up I remained hotly in love. I loved her and I admired her, her
red-faced frustration when debating the war in Iraq, her reckless ventures onto rooftops of university buildings.
Breathing again was its own horror. I didn’t want to heal. But the trees scratched the houses and the snow hugged the trees. I developed a lazy interest in a straight coworker. I sat writing a letter to Shara but forgot to think of her. It took several minutes, took forever, to call up the color of her mouth and the taste of her fingernails.
Mom thunked the door with the back of her hand. We almost never ate together, but on occasion she got the idea that we should. Tonight there was microwaved broccoli and chopped up hot dogs in Rice-A-Roni. I picked at the dry old tabletop and nudged the hot dogs to one edge of my plate.
“When I was your age, I had a job at Weinbrenner’s,” my mother said. “I worked sixty hours a week and I was lucky to do it. I had to pay my own way.”
One room above Mr. and Mrs. Mueller’s garage. Cooking on a hot plate. Walking through the yard to the main house to use the restroom. She firmly believed that I needed her help hating myself. She worked backward in time, through the teenage years at the cranberry bog and all the way back to her mother, who at my age had worked sixty-five hours a week at the telephone company and been lucky to do it.
On cue, the phone rang. And rang, because my mother did not believe in taking calls during meals. I gritted my teeth and at last spoke through them. “Will you just get it.” Mom pursed her lips and stabbed a hot dog nub. I slammed my fork down and sent it skittering off the table.
At first there was silence. A telemarketer who had given up, a machine.
“I thought no one was home,” Shara said, her voice tiny and high, a paper cut across my ear.
“I try to stop thinking about you,” she said. “I can’t.”
I crouched on the linoleum of my mother’s kitchen. The waistband of my khaki pants cut across my hips. It was fully dark by the time I hung up, curled on the floor and cried out my relief. I told my mom that my college boyfriend Steve was a black-haired woman named Shara. She was on the phone, crying and screaming at Dad, when I tumbled into bed and got myself off and fell asleep. I didn’t bother to wake up in time for my shift at Target. It was the happiest morning of my life, lying on a shabby sofa, tangled in harsh sunlight.
Mom, still in her clothes from the night before, slammed the door into the wall. Two paperbacks sprang off their shelves. “Exactly how long have you been a lesbian?” she said. “Did it ever occur to you that I’d be more mad that you lied to me than that you’re a lesbian? You think you can just be here under my roof and lie to me? Lie to me through your teeth?”
I would have left anyway, but I gave her the satisfaction of kicking me out. I was an adult and didn’t want to be there and couldn’t join the ranks of gay kids ejected from their homes. My mother could become a parent who had no other choice. I left the letters for her to find, wanting to anger her further, or hoping she would understand. I left the house, and she was on the phone with somebody, slamming dishes into cabinets and saying that her daughter one day out of the blue turned out to be a lesbian who had a lesbian lover and lied about it for years. It wasn’t that it was the deceit.
We wrote our own vows. We had a ceremony on the lakeshore, and the officiant was a big dyke named Julia. It was Illinois, 2008. We were some years from having options, but we wouldn’t have done it any other way.
We played on the beach in blue cocktail dresses. I was willing only to take off my shoes and wade in up to my knees. It was not exactly pleasant, standing in the heavy cold tide with bits of shells scratching my feet. But it was amazing: even at that depth little fishes would come and nibble your toes. A small child in a bikini stood next to me, hugging herself, lips purple and teeth chattering.
“Why is it so cold?” she said.
The lake, I told her. It never stopped being cold. I told her there was still ice from the winter in there, that the summer didn’t last long enough for it all to melt. “Why aren’t you wearing a swimsuit?”
“This is my wedding dress. I just got married.” “That’s not a wedding dress.”
“I got married in it. So it’s a wedding dress.” We watched the boats, the Ferris wheel. At this distance you wouldn’t believe any of it moved. “I don’t know if that’s a swimsuit. You aren’t swimming in it.” I nearly told her that I had married a lady, that now in the world you could be a wife and also have a wife. But who knew. I might end up with another mother screaming at me.
“It’s a two-piece. I swam in it before.”
Shara charged past us and body-slammed into the water. She pushed her way back out, laughing and stumbling and choking. Soaking wet, she launched into me. The little girl raised her arms and screamed, “No! I don’t want to get wet anymore!”
We kissed. When I opened my eyes the girl was gone.
Most of our guests were Shara’s. My father came only to piss my mother off. My brother had become a Christian and was busy praying for my soul. But Shara’s parents ate hot dogs on the beach and cried every ten minutes and said they loved me like their own daughter.
Caleb had brought weed, concealed in his underwear, from New York. In the evening we moved the party to the roof of our building. Shara’s friend played the fiddle. The rest of us set to work getting drunk and high. I made out with my rumpled, sandy wife. I didn’t smoke – never had, never planned to – but I did love the way it looked. There was nothing quite as lovely as him, the only friend I had left from high school, expertly rolling a joint and exhaling smoke to the city stars.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You are one lucky little shit.” We sat on old plastic milk crates. Instruments kept appearing, a banjo and two guitars going, out of time.
I shrugged. “I have no perspective. I don’t even know if she’s any good or not.” “Fucking perspective. I’ll tell you something about perspective. I have been with lots of people, and they’re all good in bed, and in my mind they’re all one guy that keeps stepping on me.”
I scraped my milk cart closer to his and put my head on his shoulder. “Are you jealous?” I said it teasingly, flirtatiously, but I meant it too. We both knew he deserved it more than I did.
He transferred the joint to his other hand, draped an arm around me, kissed the top of my head. “You know what? No. I’m not jealous. Here’s the thing about New York. In New York there’s this incredible energy. That’s why people freak when they visit. But the city sucks it all from all the people that live there. So I go to a therapist and he tells me to make decisions, to think about decisions and then make them. Then wherever I am I can say, I got here with my own decisions.”
I hadn’t made any decisions that led me to Shara. I met her by accident and returned to Chicago because she wanted me. I lived the life I did because our early love had burned away, and somehow there was more behind it. In our apartment, in our crossword puzzles, there was a reason to wake up in the morning and go out into the city.
Neighbors we hardly knew wandered up, stealing our liquor, congratulating us as if we’d accomplished something. It was a clear city night, and a faded reminder of the Big Dipper floated above the horns of the Sears Tower. A satellite winked by. I had looked up all the astronauts but remembered only one. Laurel Clark, with the hair of an eighties mother and the spirit of a later age.
I told Caleb the story from Target, the pizzas and the boy in the shopping cart. Solid and grown enough to be unique from other boys, blond hair and brown eyes, tiny jeans and Velcro sneakers.
Then Caleb told me a story. It happened in the summer of that year, 2003, on a family vacation to Copper Falls State Park. They’d brought a picnic of roast chicken, crackers and cream cheese, chocolate cookies. They found a table near the river, in earshot of a tumbling waterfall. Steve and Sandy played with toy cars in the grass, and Angela sat for a while on a swing, where if she turned away from the parking lot, away from the snack bar, she could see an old log cabin and hear the whispers of the dead.
Steve, who was supposed to be watching him, screamed.
Angela pulled Sandy from the water with her own hands. His eyes were rolled back, his neck limp. She did chest compressions. She tried to breathe into his little wet heart.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. I asked Caleb for a hit and a drink, though of course I didn’t know how to smoke and sat choking while he told me that Angela and Steve had stayed together through their grief. Two more sons in the years since Sandy died.
“I can give you her address,” Caleb said.
In a letter I might say that I was well and happy and married. That I hoped it had happened too quick for the child to be afraid. I could see her in her dark living room, too broken to turn on the skinny black lamp, no longer afraid of death herself and desperate for the days when she was.
But in the end she rolled with that too.
I drank too much. If I had gotten pregnant in high school we would have been friends. We couldn’t not. My fury when my boyfriend left me. Her wedding. Our evenings in her kitchen, the children passed out on her living room couch. If I had been on the family vacation I would not have let him near the water. I didn’t understand why things had happened the way they did, and not some other way. Why I couldn’t, at least, have had her address years ago.
Shara yanked my arm, and I wobbled toward the edge of the roof. We were four stories up, near enough to Damen to see two rats trotting along the gutter. “You’re drunk,” Shara said. “You’re loud.”
“It’s our wedding night!”
“So dance. Everybody doesn’t need to know about high school.”
I shook my head violently. “It isn’t right. She should have seen him grow up.
They shouldn’t have had any more.”
Julia, concerned and gentle, said she would go downstairs and make coffee if we wanted it. Shara had tears in her eyes, my love. Not drunk, slick tears but the last cold drops of her patience. “I know you don’t believe this, but it’s actually okay to be gay. You don’t have to convene a fucking star chamber because you had a crush on a girl in high school.”
My stomach tightened around the alcohol. “I didn’t, though,” I whispered. But now I was dry and quiet, and Shara was crying. Arms and soft voices accrued around her. I drank another glass and found myself down in the street, sneakers rubbing over the bare grit of my feet. I walked to Margie’s, and even though I was drunk and alone all the high school kids in line believed me that I had just gotten married. They let me skip ahead of them and offered to pay for my sundae. But I returned to the street in search of a bum, any bum. I would buy my own sundae, and his too, because I was afraid I would never be kind.
Carrie Grinstead earned her MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University in 2010. Her stories have appeared in Saint Ann’s Review, Bone Bouquet, as well as online.