by Kim Magowan
What I mean to say is, “Can I help you?” Julie’s on a step-stool, stretching to reach the cabinet over the fridge. But what comes out is, “Help.” Like I’m the one in need.
Her tee-shirt rides up to expose a wedge of back. She’s gotten so damn thin: her vertebrae remind me of knots on a rope.
“Can I help?” I try again. Julie hands me a bottle of bourbon, then scotch.
“Thanks Beth,” she says, then louder, for everyone to hear, “Libations!” Descending the stool, she bumps into me. Her fingers dig into, then release my shoulders. “Whoops!” She gives me her brightest smile, the one Heather calls “photo-op.” I haven’t seen it since the night before she was supposed to get married.
That was June. It’s the beginning of September now, and we’ve gotten together at Julie’s house in Newport for Labor Day weekend. By “we” I mean mostly a crowd of us who went to prep school together: Ian Saltonstall, Ginny Kanute, Meriwether Burns, Sam Pitzer, Lawrence Stone, Joy Wiley. There’s also Becky Ferris, Julie’s roommate from Princeton, a tall, intense woman I’ve met a couple of times, once in Boston at the Head of the Charles and once at Julie’s wedding. She sits on the porch by herself, playing Leonard Cohen songs on her guitar.
This weekend was Ian’s idea, though I made most of the phone calls. We had a beer two weeks ago and he said, “I’m worried about Julie.”
“She seems okay,” I told him. “I talked to her last week. She's taking a ballroom class.” I snapped my fingers, cha cha cha, but he didn’t smile.
“I got a letter from her yesterday, and all she talked about was her vegetable garden. She's doing that Julie thing, donning her mask.”
That’s Ian, always the first to send flowers to hospitals. Julie went out with Ian for about six months junior year. He can push her further than I can. I used to tell her, “You should marry him,” and she would laugh and say, “I know, I know, that’s exactly why I won’t.”
“Off” is how Ian described her that night we had drinks, making me picture a light switch. I was a little drunk: I’d worked through lunch that day, so my stomach was empty. In the bar I had to restrain myself from scarfing the bowl of peanuts. Now, thinking about Julie stumbling off that step-stool, I imagine it in another sense. Off-balance. I feel as if I’m on the deck of a boat: tilted. Through the kitchen window I see Julie’s garden, the tomato plants tied to bamboo stakes.
Ginny has been sitting on the swing, smoking a cigarette. Now she puts on her sweater. “I’m going for a walk on the beach. Beth, come with?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Be back for lunch,” Julie tells us. “It’s saffron rice, and gazpacho―”
Ginny says. “We’ll be back.”
We walk a quarter of a mile down the beach and sit on a large piece of driftwood. I take off my flip-flops to feel the sugary sand on my feet. Near the water, a little way from us, Sam, Lawrence, and Meriwether are throwing a frisbee.
Ginny lights another cigarette and we watch them for awhile. Then Ginny says, “So, have you heard from Heather?”
I hug my knees. “I got a postcard from Amsterdam in July, a picture of someone smoking a roach. Nothing written on it. I figured it was from her.”
Ginny smiles. “Yeah, sounds like,” she says. “Well, she’s back.”
“I got a call from her Tuesday.”
Tuesday. Was I working late? “What did she have to say?”
“Oh, you know Heather,” Ginny says. “She’s been traveling all summer, Holland, Italy, Greece. She sounded pretty burnt.”
Tuesday unrolls back: no, I was home, making lentils. Opening the window to release furls of steam. The phone never rang. It’s an old, dull hurt that only being with these friends produces. I remember sitting on my bed in high school, staring out the window, then swiveling to the door when Heather opened it. “Hey Beth. Why weren’t you at the dance? Why are you sitting in the dark, you goon?” Completely forgetting we were supposed to walk over together.
“I told her we were all coming here this weekend,” Ginny says.
“You did? Do you think that was a good idea?”
“She wanted to know how Julie was doing. She feels really bad.” Ginny buries her cigarette in the sand. “Well, what should I have said? I’m not shunning her. This is between her and Julie.”
“I know, but―”
Ginny motions with her head. Sam, Lawrence, and Meriwether have stopped playing frisbee and are walking over. “Later.”
We all walk back to the house. Joy has set the table and is arranging daisies in a vase. Ian is making his special dressing: Dijon, olive oil, lemon juice, chives, kosher salt.
“Where’s the drug paraphernalia?” Lawrence asks Julie, and she points to the coffee table, where a hookah is lying in several pieces.
“I took it apart to clean the pipe. You’ll have to put it back together.”
Lawrence and Sam start reassembling it.
“Is this real brass?” Sam asks.
“Yeah, I got it in Nepal, summer after eleventh grade. Beth, you remember it, don’t you?”
“Sure,” I say. “How could I not? You hid it in my laundry bag all senior year.”
Julie comes out of the kitchen with a platter of bread, laughing. “Well, we knew if there was a room inspection, they’d never look through your stuff. It was the safest place to keep it.”
“Thanks! Your hookah in my laundry bag, Heather’s Smirnoff’s in my underwear drawer. I’m lucky I didn’t get expelled.”
Ian comes out, puts his arm around Julie. “We all are.” He shoots me a completely legible look: don’t mention Heather.
We sit down to lunch, but now that getting kicked out has been brought up, everyone wants to talk about their close shaves.
“Do you remember how we’d keep gin in the Vidal Sassoon bottle, and every time when we drank it, it tasted like shampoo?” Joy asks Meriwether. They were roommates junior and senior year.
“Or smoking a joint in the shower stall before chapel, and then singing the hymns so loudly Mr. Boardman kept giving us weird looks?” adds Meriwether.
“I don’t get you all,” Becky Ferris says, in her scratchy voice. “If you hated that school so much, why do you go on about it all the time?”
There’s a pause. I say, “Well, it’s a shared experience. Like war. You hate it but you never forget it. All the rules― table wipes if you walk across the precious grass, dish washing if you skip chapel― we were in it together.”
“You talk about high school like it was a mystical experience. High school was something I just had to get through.”
Sam says, “We learned a lot there, though. I don’t mean academics, those Catullus poems we memorized, Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus, or how to write a three-part thesis sentence, all that crap. But we learned to do anything you could for a friend, hiding them when they were drunk, writing their papers when they were hungover. Anything.”
The thing I learned in boarding school was how to be aesthetically unhappy. We weren’t depressed; we were melancholy, we were angst-ridden, we carried the weight of the world, we read Letters to a Young Poet and thought Rilke was talking to us. That narcissism now seems bizarre. It’s been a long time since I thought my problems were relevant or interesting to anyone besides myself.
“Not to interrupt this trip down the lane,” Julie says, “But I forgot to tell you guys, I’m going into town tonight to have dinner with Catherine. We made plans weeks ago and I can’t wiggle out. So you’re on your own tonight, but the fridge is full, and I’ll give you numbers for take-out pizza and Thai.”
“Who’s Catherine?” asks Joy.
“His sister? Seriously? You still see her?” Ginny says.
“Well, I’m not thrilled about dinner, believe me. But she’s been making an effort, and I feel bad blowing her off. After I called off the wedding, she came over, so upset, and said that she hoped she and I could still be friends. So what could I do?”
“Say, ‘No,’” says Ian.
Julie turns to him. “Catherine’s sweet, though. It’s hard to be rude to her. Porter’s girlfriend before me was a real wreck, a speed freak. Porter’s family was so happy he was going out with someone normal that they all loved me. Catherine especially.”
Ian snorts. “Julie, you have no obligation to be nice to Porter’s sister. Porter is an asshole. Why dredge up crappy memories?”
“Oh, Ian, you never liked him,” Julie says, smiling.
Last night, after everyone went to bed, I came downstairs to get a glass of water, and I saw Julie and Ian on the living room couch. They were sitting very close together, talking. It occurs to me that they might have slept together last night. Over the years I’ve seen Ian with other girlfriends― I remember a twitchy woman he dated at Columbia― but part of him never got over Julie. I try to catch his eye but he’s looking at her. It’s like when Julie was on that step-stool: I’m watching everyone through the wrong end of a telescope.
“Who wants to get stoned?” Lawrence says.
Ian helps Julie clear the table. Lawrence, Sam, Becky, Ginny, and I crowd around the coffee table and take turns with the hookah. I take two good hits and stop when the smoke burns my chest. I walk out on the porch to see the ocean. The water looks flat as a grave stone. I watch it for a minute. Then I see Joy and Meriwether sitting on the swing, looking at photographs.
“Whose pictures?” I ask them.
“Oh, hi, Beth,” Joy says. “Jeez, you sounded like Julie.”
“They’re of Julie’s wedding,” Meriwether tells me. “Or whatever you call it. Aborted wedding. I know it’s in bad taste to bring them here, but a lot of the photos are really cute.”
“Let me see.” I squeeze between them.
Joy passes me a picture of the rehearsal dinner. All the bridesmaids group around Julie. It was one of those huge weddings: eight bridesmaids, eight ushers. The theme was blue, and the bridesmaid dresses were in eight different shades, lightest to darkest. The ushers had blue bow ties and cummerbunds and were to wear forget-me-nots in their button holes. We were supposed to walk down the aisle with the ushers in matched pairs. I was the first bridesmaid, sky blue.
“Look at this one,” Meriwether says, and hands me a photo of Heather, holding a glass of champagne and laughing.
“Wow,” I say. I stare at Heather, wearing a gold dress that looks like a slip, her dark blond hair in a french braid, her eyes red points from the flash.
“That was some night,” Meriwether says. “Julie in hysterics, and Heather just vanishing. I looked for Heather everywhere, I thought she might have drowned herself. I finally found her sitting on the beach, eating a snow cone. Where the hell did she get a snow cone at two in the morning? She said, ‘Oh, here come the furies.’”
“I slept through it all,” Joy says. “The next morning I heard Julie fighting with her mom in the kitchen. Her mother kept saying, ‘You can’t just call it off,’ and Julie told her, ‘Watch me.’ Then Mrs. Howe ran into the hall, and said to me, ‘The wedding’s off.’ And the first thing I thought was, Shit, I just spent two hundred dollars on these shoes.”
“Did you hear what happened with Becky?” Meriwether says. “She didn’t know. She was dressed in her gown wondering where the rest of us were when Julie came into the church and made that announcement.”
We fall silent, thinking about Julie’s announcement. The wedding was supposed to start at three o’clock, and at exactly three Julie marched down the aisle and stood at the altar. She was wearing jeans and an Indian shirt. Meriwether, Joy, Ginny, Julie's cousin Serena, and I waited outside the church. We could hear Julie say, in a loud, clear voice, “Can I have your attention, please?” Everyone― there must have been three hundred people there― got quiet. Then Julie said, “The wedding is canceled. Last night I found my groom having sex with my maid of honor. So you can all go home now.”
“Can you imagine, all those faces?” I say. “I’m almost sorry I didn’t go inside.”
“God, I’m not,” Meriwether says. “Do you know Porter’s parents were in the church? I guess Porter was hoping Julie would change her mind. They were just sitting there, waiting to see their son get married.”
“Ouch,” Joy says. “That was kind of mean of Julie, not to warn them.”
“They’re Porter’s parents,” says Meriwether. “It’s not Julie’s responsibility to tell them, ‘Your son’s a dick, I’m not going to marry him.’”
“Still, they must have felt so ashamed,” Joy says. Soft-hearted Joy: in high school we used to give her crap for seeing every side of a situation.
“Heather’s lucky her mother wasn’t there,” Meriwether says.
Sam comes out on the porch. “What are you three doing? Conspiring?”
I look up and he smiles at me. When I was sixteen, Sam gave me my first kiss. We were running across the grass to our dorms, late for curfew, and I tripped and fell. Sam pulled me up, and, almost as an afterthought, kissed me on the lips. That was nine years ago. I don’t know if Sam even remembers. But when I think of sex, I think not of the handful of guys I’ve slept with, but of that kiss: the pressure of Sam's hand on the back of my neck.
Joy and Meriwether follow Sam back into the house. I stay on the swing, looking at the picture of Heather Katchadourian in my hand.
I am amazed by how present Heather is in her absence. I feel her all over this house. I remember Heather sitting on this swing, letting her varicolored hair dry in the sun. I remember her in the kitchen, eating cocktail onions straight from the jar.
Meriwether, Joy, Ginny, are all friends of Heather’s, but they didn’t live with her for a year. I know, for instance, why Heather’s parents weren't at Julie’s wedding. Heather’s mother was in Monte Carlo with Nicolo, whom Heather calls, “The Gigolo.” Heather’s father is dead. When Heather was ten, her father lost his job in the state department for “health reasons”― a euphemism for “too drunk to work.” He tried to kill himself a few weeks later and mishandled even that. He shot himself in the head, but it took him a year to die.
I’ve often thought that Heather sleeps around because of her dad. When I first met Heather, she was fourteen, and the most exotic person I ever encountered. She had grown up in Geneva, and she spoke French, Italian, and English. She smoked clove cigarettes. She wore lipstick and spicy perfume.
Even then, Heather was sexy. The guys didn’t know what to make of her. On the one hand, she was beautiful, if someone can be beautiful without being especially pretty. On the other hand, Heather scared them. She was the only girl in my freshman dorm on the pill. Heather once told me that she lost her virginity when she was twelve.
At first, the girls were wary of Heather, too. Most of us still had stuffed animals and posters of horses. We didn’t know what to think of Heather and her silk underwear.
Then Julie adopted her, promoting Heather to Brahman status. Julie and Heather became best friends, despite the fact they were so different. Heather had lovers, Julie had boyfriends. Heather was the authority on sex. When Julie finally decided to lose her virginity to Ian― a complex, orchestrated event that involved sneaking off campus to a Bed-and-Breakfast― Heather took Julie to Boston to get fitted for a diaphragm.
I sometimes think that Julie and Heather asked me to room with them senior year because they needed someone to mediate their fights. They fought constantly. Julie would become exasperated with Heather’s flakiness, Heather's theatrics. It was at these times, when they were pissed at each other, that I was closest to them. Julie and I would ride our bikes into the hills. Heather would climb into my bed and, while we ate entire tubes of processed cookie dough, tell me things. During one of their fights Heather told me the whole story about her father.
But in the end they always made up. Heather and Julie did their yearbook pages together. I did mine with Ginny Kanute.
So I am used to being a pinch hitter, Julie’s friend when Heather is out of favor, and I am used to regarding their fights with skepticism. Even that awful night in June, when Julie caught Heather and Porter having sex in the pool house, I found Julie’s assertions hard to credit. Julie came to my room just after midnight, crying. “Beth, you’re the only person I can talk to,” she said, while I searched my makeup bag for a Valium. “I never want to see Heather again.” I wondered, how long will that last?
I got very little sleep that night. Julie stayed in my room for hours, while Ian, Ginny, Meriwether and I huddled around her. At one point, Porter tried to come in, to explain, he said, but Ian made him go away. “Julie doesn’t want to see you,” Ian said. (Her exact words were, “Tell him to fuck off!”).
Then, at about four in the morning, after Meriwether and Ginny left and Ian and Julie had gone for a walk on the beach, I heard my door shut. I opened my eyes and looked up at Heather.
“Hey Beth,” she said. “Did Julie talk to you?”
She sat down on my bed. “What’s happening with the wedding? Is Julie still going to marry him?”
“Wow,” Heather said. “I guess if I were her, I wouldn’t marry him either.”
We sat in silence.
“Will Julie talk to me?” Heather said, finally.
“I think you better wait for her to calm down.”
“What do you mean, wait?” Heather said. “Wait for ten years?”
“God, I don’t know, Heather,” I said. “I mean, you slept with the guy she was going to marry tomorrow.”
“So you hate me too.” Heather closed her eyes. “Can I have a kleenex?” I handed her the box, and she blew her nose. “Well, I guess I better bail before morning.”
“Where are you going?” I asked. She looked so desolate. But then she stood up, shook her head, and pulled herself together.
“Oh, where I always run from the law. Europe. I have a ticket to Amsterdam in July, but I’ll try and fly tomorrow instead.” She bent down, kissed my forehead. “Bye, Beth. Don’t think too many bad thoughts about me.”
I haven’t seen Heather since.
The afternoon unrolls languorously. Lawrence naps on the living room couch. Sam and Ginny play backgammon on the porch. Julie begins a new project: spooning a tureen of her homemade blackberry jam into small jars with cork tops. I know each of us will get a jar when we leave. I try to talk to Julie, but she is stubbornly jovial: chipper, my mother would call her. Once Ian walks into the kitchen, toting a grocery bag of beer, and Julie presses her palm to his cheek. I realize this is the first gesture of real tenderness she has made all weekend.
If I were with my friends in New York, we would always have a fall-back topic: our jobs. But here work is something to forget, mostly because it sucks. Sam works for his father, who owns a chain of antique stores in New Hampshire and Vermont. Ian has deferred law school for the second year in a row. Ginny takes illustration and graphic design classes at Parsons, and works part time in the Metropolitan Museum bookstore. Lawrence teaches an SAT prep course. Joy and Meriwether waitress in Boston in the fall, then after Christmas fly to Sun Valley to spend the winter skiing.
Translated from Latin, the motto of my high school was, “To serve is to rule.” A generation ago, you could predict the pedigree of a Massachusetts Senator: Harvard Law School, Harvard College, the Hasty Pudding Club, Phillips Academy at Andover, a chain whose links extended as far back in time as the Mayflower. No one warned us that we would have to compete for what we thought would be handed to us. I remember Joy describing her interview at Random House to me. “All the editor wanted to know was if I knew Excel,” she said.
I find Meriwether and Joy in one of the bedrooms, talking about orgasms.
“I never had one until I was twenty-two,” Meriwether says. “One day Roger― did you guys ever meet Roger?”
“He's the one with the funny ears?” says Joy.
“Did he have funny ears? I was going out with him senior year at Amherst, then for a bit after graduation. So one day he decided, We’re going to make Meriwether have an orgasm. We spent the whole day in bed, trying this, trying that. I felt like he should sell tickets at the door.”
I smile, remembering something. “You know, Heather has never had an orgasm,” I tell them,
“Despite all her lovers― sixty last count. One guy told her an orgasm was like a sneeze. So after every time they had sex, Heather would say, ‘Ahchoo.’”
Joy says, “Sixty lovers and she never had an orgasm? I wonder why she likes sex so much.”
“I wonder if she does,” Meriwether says.
At half past six, Julie gets ready to leave. “I should be back by nine at the latest,” she tells us. “Take-out menus are in the drawer under the kitchen phone, Ben and Jerry’s is in the freezer.”
“Tell Catherine you’ve become a lesbian,” Ian says. “Spill red wine on her. Chew with your mouth open.”
“Oh, Ian, grow up,” Julie says, smiling.
After she leaves, Sam takes command. “Who wants a refresher?”
“Here we go again,” says Ginny. We group around the hookah and everyone takes a hit. Lawrence turns on the TV. A Charlie Brown special is playing, and we watch for a while.
“One time I got really high and watched Saturday cartoons with my little brother,” Lawrence says. “And I developed this theory: Scooby Doo and Shaggy are stoned.”
“Come off it,” Sam says.
“No, seriously, listen to the evidence,” Lawrence says. “Think about what Shaggy looks like: that goatee, those pants he wears. And think about that car they drive: the Mystery Van. Shaggy and Scooby Doo always have the munchies. They’re always paranoid. And here’s the coup de grace: they’ll do anything for Scooby Snacks.”
“That reminds me,” Ginny says. “Me and Rachel― she was my roommate at Wesleyan, you guys remember her― we’d always have these great thoughts when we were stoned. We could never remember them when we sobered up. So one time, we were really high, Rachel got all excited and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this one down.’ So she put this folded-up piece of paper with her amazing thought in a drawer. We looked at it the next morning. And you know what it said? ‘There’s a bad smell in this room.’”
“Fine, ridicule me,” Lawrence says. We all laugh.
“Okay, troops, what should we do?” Ian says. “How about poker?”
“Not poker,” Meriwether says. “I can never remember what counts more, a full house or a flush. How about charades?”
“No,” I say. “Not without―” I stop, and Ginny looks at me and nods.
“Then how about Truth or Consequences?” Meriwether says.
“God no,” Lawrence says.
“Come on, it’ll be like the olden days.”
“How do you play?” asks Becky Ferris.
Meriwether explains. “We used to play in high school. Everyone sits in a circle and takes turns being the questioner. You ask someone, Truth or Consequences? If they say ‘Truth,’ you ask them a question, and they must answer honestly. And if they say, ‘Consequences,’ you tell them something, maybe something about themselves, that they don’t necessarily want to hear.”
“It’s an evil game,” Lawrence says.
“You’re outvoted,” Sam tells him.
Becky turns off the TV and puts Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks on the CD player. Ian goes into the kitchen to order pizza and brings back two six packs of Anchor Steam. We all take a beer and arrange ourselves into a circle.
“Becky, if you get how to play, you go first,” Meriwether tells her.
“All right,” Becky says. She thinks for a bit. “Joy, Truth or Consequences?”
“What’s the story with your hair? Do you dye it?”
“I get highlights in the winter,” Joy says.
“Winter starting in June,” Meriwether says, then smiles at Joy. “Teasing.”
Sam goes next. “Lawrence, Truth or Consequences?”
Lawrence looks mournful. “Truth, I guess.”
“Senior year, when you told everyone that you screwed Missy Enright. Was that true?”
“No,” Lawrence says. “God I hate this game.”
“Okay, my turn,” Joy says. “Ian, Truth or Consequences?”
“Tell us about the most romantic time you ever had.”
“Look at him, he’s blushing!” Meriwether says.
“Shut up, it’s nothing racy,” Ian tells her. “It was this night with Julie. We were at this Bed-and-Breakfast in Concord. It was the first time― well, you get the point.”
“Dude, I thought this wasn’t going to be racy,” Sam says.
“I haven’t gotten to it yet. So, we were both really nervous. And we started talking about all the words there are in the English language to express affection. Love, care about, et cetera. And Julie started saying, ‘Do you like me? Do you cherish me? Do you desire me? Do you adore me?’ I kept saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And I saw my life in front of me like a road, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it: keep telling Julie how I loved her.”
“That’s so sweet.” Joy beams at him.
Ginny is next. “Ian, Truth or Consequences?”
“Why’s everyone picking on me? Consequences.”
“When are you going to learn that you’re not going to end up with Julie? If she wanted to be with you, she would. You can’t spend the rest of your life trying to revert to sixteen. Julie will keep letting you down.”
Lawrence says, “Maybe we should play something nicer. Like guerrilla warfare.”
Ian says, “That’s okay. Ginny was being fair,” and we keep playing.
I steel myself when Meriwether asks me, Truth or Consequences. But I say “Truth,” and her question is harmless: she asks if I ever fooled around with Todd Miller, this creepy, little guy who used to follow me around in high school. I say, “No.”
We’re on the third round when someone knocks on the door.
“Pizza,” Ian says. He opens it and stands there.
It takes me a second to recognize Heather. She’s cut off all her hair. It's a pixie, like Mia Farrow's in Rosemary's Baby.
“Can I come in?” Heather says. Ian doesn’t say anything, so she walks into the house. She has a tense smile on her face. “Hey, everyone.”
“Heather!” we say, like an idiot chorus.
“What happened to your hair?” Joy asks.
“I got sick of Italian men hassling me. It’s a pain to be blond in Italy.”
“Tell me about it,” says Joy.
“Well, how are you guys?” Heather says. “Don’t everyone jump up and down in delight at once.”
“We’re glad to see you, Heather,” Meriwether says. “You just surprised us.” She gets up and kisses Heather on the cheek.
Ginny gets up too, hugs Heather. “Welcome back,” she says. I look at Ginny, trying to figure out if she knew Heather was going to show up. But her face is, typically, inscrutable.
I collect myself and stand up, kiss Heather’s cheek.
“Hey, Pop-Eyes,” she says, hugging me. “You got to work on that poker face.”
“Nice entrance,” I tell her.
She smiles, the Heather smile, almost a smirk.
“You look gorgeous, Gorgeous,” Sam says behind me, and Heather reaches for him.
While Sam, Joy, Lawrence, and Ian hug her, I study Heather. She is wearing a sleeveless dress, slate gray, and her skin looks paler than ever, almost colorless. Her haircut makes her features too large for her face: enormous gray eyes, hooked nose, wide mouth. Becky says “Hi” to Heather, tersely, and turns away.
“So where’s Julie?” Heather says.
“Oh, Julie’s out...” says Joy, and falters.
“In town,” Ginny says.
“How was Europe?” Meriwether asks.
“Strange.” Heather rubs the back of her neck. She has shadows under her eyes that seem more than just tiredness; she looks frayed. “There’s this district in Amsterdam where the prostitutes wear lingerie and sit behind plate glass windows. When they get a customer, they close the curtains. One time I was sitting in a cafe across the street from one of those rooms. I was only there for an hour, but I saw the curtains open and shut three times.”
“I hear there’s a real AIDS problem in Amsterdam,” Sam says.
“That’s because half the prostitutes are heroin addicts,” says Heather. “So what have you all been up to? I see Julie’s hookah.” Last spring, we smoked hash that Heather brought to Newport. I can picture the bars of hash: brown, thin, like slivers of chocolate.
“We’ve been playing Truth or Consequences,” Meriwether says. “Want to play?”
“Oh, that game.” Heather smiles. “What the hell. Can I have a beer?”
Ian hands her one, and we all sit down again. We settle back into the game, because it is easier than talking about what everyone is thinking, and no one will mention: what Heather is doing in Newport, Julie’s wedding that never happened.
It’s Meriwether’s turn again. “Heather, Truth or Consequences?”
“How many guys have you slept with in this room?”
“Down to the dirt, huh?” Heather says, calmly. “Well, there was Sam...”
I remember that night: senior year, Julie was away for the weekend. I was rattling the locked door of our room. Heather opened it, wearing her coral bathrobe. “Hey, Beth, can you go somewhere else tonight?” she said. I glimpsed Sam behind her, lying in Heather’s bed. That was when I still had a crush on Sam, and seeing Heather’s quilt pulled over him made my stomach fall. I spent the night in Ginny’s room.
“And Lawrence. But you know about that. We actually went out for a week.”
“Two weeks, babe,” Lawrence says, and we laugh.
Heather pauses, takes a sip of beer. “And Ian, Graduation night,” she says. She looks at Ian, but he is looking at the floor and won’t meet her eyes.
To fill the silence, Lawrence says, “Sam, Truth or Consequences?” and we keep playing.
But I stop paying attention to the game. This is the first I’ve heard about Ian, but it makes sense. Ian avoids touching Heather, as if he wants to keep a cushion of air between them. I wonder how that feels, having someone you slept with be embarrassed to admit it.
Still: why didn’t either of them tell me? My close friends, supposedly.
Sometimes when I am stoned, I am subject to strange visitations, intuitions, as if I have answered “Consequences” to a voice in my head, and it tells me something I would rather not know. Last year, I was involved with a man I really liked. We were high, and Michael was comparing our relationship to his theory on how to grow healthy marijuana plants: not to nourish them, not to coax them into life with expensive artificial sunlight, bat guano fertilizers. Instead, he said, they should be left alone; this forces them to grow healthy and strong. And I realized that Michael was not directing me towards independence and self-sufficiency for my own sake, but rejecting all responsibility as a care-giver.
I have been friends with the people in this room for almost half my life, and I have seen them through periods of suffering. I was with Meriwether when her mother died. Ginny stayed in my apartment for a month when her boyfriend kicked her out of their Park Slope brownstone. And yet, and yet. We hurt each other so carelessly, pretending that we do so in each other’s best interest. The wounds we inflict are, by and large, not deep or obvious ones, not knives aimed at hearts, but many small splinters that embed themselves under our skin, that no tweezers can extract, that our skin grows over and encloses, until they are almost, but not quite, invisible.
A key rattles in the door, and Julie walks in.
We all turn. Julie is wearing a caramel suede jacket; she looks very pretty. She has a smile poised on her face, a hostess smile, that freezes and dies when she sees Heather.
“Guess who came to dinner?” Lawrence says. But no one smiles. I am afraid that Julie will walk back out the door, walk away.
“Hi, Julie,” Heather says, softly.
“Heather,” Julie says. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you.”
Julie takes off her jacket, starts to hang it up, then instead hugs it to her chest. “When did you get here?”
“Twenty minutes ago.”
“Well, this is a surprise.”
“I know.” Heather flushes. “I should have called first, but―”
“But I thought this would be better,” Heather says. “Julie―”
Julie shakes her head. Slower than usual, her face recomposes. This is what Ian calls Julie’s “Jane Jetson” mode. Her expression slides into place like a steel grate descending over a store front.
“Everyone’s looking at me like I’m going to spontaneously combust,” she says. “I’m just surprised, okay guys?”
“Do you want a beer?” asks Ian. I feel bad for Ian; there are such limits to what he can offer Julie.
“Sure.” Ian hands her one, and she takes a sip. “Well. Heather. Quelle surprise.”
“Did you get my letter?” Heather asks her.
“Let’s not talk about it now,” Julie says. “Let me just chill for a minute, okay?”
Heather falls silent. Julie sits by Ian on the floor, and says “What a weird night.”
“How was dinner?” Becky asks, touching Julie's arm.
“Weird. I ordered something disgusting.”
“What?” asks Ian.
“Borscht. I thought it was going to be something else. I confused it with Vichyssoise.”
“Borscht, yuck. I hate beets,” Meriwether says.
“Pizza's coming, if you want something else to eat,” Ian says.
“Good, I'm starving.”
“God, where is that pizza?” says Sam. “We ordered it ages ago.”
“Were there any calls for me?” Julie asks.
“No,” Ian says.
There’s another pause. I am afraid someone will start talking about the weather.
“So what have you all been doing?” Julie says. “Getting more stoned?”
“Playing Truth or Consequences,” says Joy.
“What’s stopping you? Let’s play.”
“Are you sure?” says Ian. “Maybe we should―”
“Ian, stop treating me like I’m glass,” Julie says. “Yes I’m sure. Whose turn is it?”
“Mine,” Ian says, after a second.
It’s like we have been holding our breath and all exhale at once.
Ian says, “Meriwether, Truth or Consequences?”
“Truth,” Meriwether says.
“What’s your favorite sexual fantasy?”
“I guess the one where I’m at this party. I’m making out with this guy. I can’t really picture his face, but he’s good-looking. Kind of foppish. Anyway, he starts taking off my clothes. We’re on this stage, and everyone is looking at us. Watching, commenting.” She laughs. “I suppose I’m an exhibitionist at heart.” She looks at Julie. “Your turn.”
“Okay,” Julie says. She takes another sip of beer, then puts the bottle on the floor. “Heather, Truth or Consequences?”
Without hesitation, Heather says, “Consequences.”
“When you slept with Porter, I wasn’t surprised. I always knew you would fuck up something I loved.”
Heather and Julie stare at each other, not saying anything. I don’t know how to read the way they are looking at each other. There’s so much hurt in it, and challenge. I am afraid Heather will cry.
Instead, Heather leans over, puts her hand on Julie’s cheek, and kisses Julie on the mouth. The way they are looking at each other reminds me of a Giotto fresco I saw in Italy of Judas kissing Jesus. Jesus and Judas stare at each other, transfixed, as if they are the only two people in the world. Then Heather gets up and walks out of the house, closing the door behind her.
No one says anything for a minute.
Lawrence laughs, humorlessly. “One thing you have to say for Heather: she never fails to surprise you.”
Sam says, “God, Heather’s gone completely around the bend.”
“Oh, shut up, Sam,” Ginny says.
Julie stares at the door.
I walk out onto the porch. My hands are shaking. I am trying to make myself think, but a wind blows through my head. It’s like my old dream of taking a chemistry exam. I know exactly what page of my book the answer is on; I can visualize the way the columns of text look, where the pictures are laid out. But I can’t answer the question.
From the porch, I see Heather walking towards the ocean. She's five foot nine, but she looks so small and fragile.
An old memory surfaces. Sophomore year in high school in Heather's and Julie’s double, I asked them how to kiss. I remember that room so well: the beeswax candles that smelled like honey, the Klimt poster on the light blue wall. “It’s easy,” Heather said. “Like this,” and she kissed Julie on the lips. Julie pushed her away, laughing. Kidding around. One of those memories that the mind weeds as superfluous.
Images click through my head like slides: the fights they used to have. How Heather would complain about Ian: “He’s always here. And he’s such a puppy. Don’t you get bored?” Heather’s lovers she never fell in love with. The way they kept each other’s pictures in their wallets. How they kicked everyone's asses when we played charades. There never was a charades team like those two. I remember one time, Julie was guessing and Heather was performing, and Heather bulged her eyes and pursed her lips in a prissy way and blinked, and Julie shouted, “Arthur Hoffman! Arthur! Camelot!” Arthur Hoffman was this guy in our class who blinked in a distinctive way. So it took them all of five seconds to guess Camelot: that made the rest of us clap and cheer. Vulcan mind-meld, Lawrence called it: the way those two simply got each other. All the times I envied their friendship, tried to figure out why they were close― Julie so collected, Heather so emotional― and never could. Click, click, click: a montage of images that I never really saw.
I lived with Julie and Heather for a year, and I have known them for eleven. Yet what strikes me now is not what I understand about them, my two best friends, but how much I missed.
The back door of the house opens. I watch Julie walk out and cross the beach. Heather turns and looks at her. I can’t see the expressions on their faces, but I can tell they are not fighting. With perfect tenderness, Julie touches Heather’s hair. I imagine she is talking about it― It’s so short, why did you cut it― but they are too far away for me to hear. From the porch they look like lovers.
I look at them and look at them until I don’t know what I’m looking at anymore.
KIM MAGOWAN teaches in the English Department at Mills College and lives in San Francisco with her partner and two daughters. She has published fiction in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, and River City, and is currently working on a novel.