Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 7]

 


CHAPTER- 7

Ten years later it had still not come undone. Years passed. Boys went to war; men went to the moon; presidents arrived and resigned and departed. All over the country, in Detroit and Washington and New York, crowds roiled in the streets, angry about everything. All over the world, nations splintered and cracked: North Vietnam, East Berlin, Bangladesh. Everywhere things came undone. But for the Lees, that knot persisted and tightened, as if Lydia bound them all together.


Every day, James drove home from the college—where he taught his cowboy class term after term after term, until he could recite the lectures word for word—mulling over the slights of the day: how two little girls, hopscotching on the corner, had seen him brake at the stop sign and thrown pebbles at his car; how Stan Hewitt had asked him the difference between a spring roll and an egg roll; how Mrs. Allen had smirked when he drove past. Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have friends to say, Don’t be an idiot, Stan, how the hell would she know? She would be poised and confident; she would say, Afternoon, Vivian, and look right at her neighbors with those wide blue eyes. Every day, the thought grew more precious.


Every day, as Marilyn unboxed a frozen pie or defrosted a Salisbury steak—for she still refused to cook, and the family quietly accepted this as the price of her presence—she made plans: Books she would buy Lydia. Science fair projects. Summer classes. “Only if you’re interested,” she told Lydia, every time. “Only if you want to.” She meant it, every time, but she did not realize she was holding her breath. Lydia did. Yes, she said, every time. Yes. Yes. And her mother would breathe again. In the newspaper—which, between loads of washing, Marilyn read front to back, metering out the day, section by section—she saw glimmers of hope. Yale admitted women, then Harvard. The nation learned new words: affirmative action; Equal Rights Amendment; Ms. In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.


Every day, at the dinner table, Nath sat quietly while his father quizzed Lydia about her friends, while his mother nudged Lydia about her classes. When they turned, dutifully, to him, he was tongue-tied, because his father—still seared by the memory of a smashed television and his son’s slapped face, did not ever want to hear about space.And that was all Nath read or thought about. In his spare moments, he worked his way through every book in the school card catalog. Spaceflight. Astrodynamics. See also: combustion; propulsion; satellites. After a few stuttering replies, the spotlight would swivel back to Lydia, and Nath would retreat to his room and his aeronautics magazines, which he stashed under his bed like pornography. He did not mind this permanent state of eclipse: every evening, Lydia rapped at his door, silent and miserable. He understood everything she did not say, which at its core was: Don’t let go. When Lydia left—to struggle over her homework or a science fair project—he turned his telescope outward, looking for faraway stars, far-off places where he might one day venture alone.


And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within. Years passed. Johnson and Nixon and Ford came and went. She grew willowy; Nath grew tall. Creases formed around their mother’s eyes; their father’s hair silvered at the temples. Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long. Yes. Yes. Yes.


(What about Hannah? They set up her nursery in the bedroom in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept, and even when she got older, now and then each of them would forget, fleetingly, that she existed—as when Marilyn, laying four plates for dinner one night, did not realize her omission until Hannah reached the table. Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.)


A decade after that terrible year, everything had turned upside down. For the rest of the world, 1976 was a topsy-turvy time, too, culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines: Snow Falls on Miami. Lydia was fifteen and a half, and winter break had just begun. In five months she would be dead. That December, alone in her room, she opened her bookbag and pulled out a physics test with a red fifty-five at the top.


The biology course had been hard enough, but by memorizing kingdom, phylum, and class she’d passed the first few tests. Then, as the course got tougher, she had gotten lucky: the boy who sat to her right studied hard, wrote large, and never covered up his answers. “My daughter,” Marilyn had said that fall to Mrs. Wolff—Doctor Wolff—“is a genius. An A in a college class, and the only girl, too.” So Lydia had never told her mother that she didn’t understand the Krebs cycle, that she couldn’t explain mitosis. When her mother framed the grade report from the college, she hung it on her wall and pretended to smile.


After biology, Marilyn had other suggestions. “We’ll skip you ahead in science this fall,” she’d said. “After college biology, I’m sure high school physics will be a snap.” Lydia, knowing this was her mother’s pet subject, had agreed. “You’ll meet some of the older students,” her father had told her, “and make some new friends.” He’d winked, remembering how at Lloyd, older had meant better. But the juniors all talked to each other, comparing French translations due next period or memorizing Shakespeare for the quiz that afternoon; to Lydia they were merely polite, with the distant graciousness of natives in a place where she was a foreigner. And the problems about car crashes, shooting cannons, skidding trucks on frictionless ice—she couldn’t make the answers turn out. Race cars on banked tracks, roller coasters with loops, pendulums and weights: around and around, back and forth she went. The more she thought about it, the less sense it made. Why didn’t the race cars tip over? Why didn’t the roller coaster fall from its track? When she tried to figure out why, gravity reached up and pulled down the cars like a trailing ribbon. Each night when she sat down with her book, the equations—studded with k and and thetaseemed pointed and dense as brambles. Above her desk, on the postcard her mother had given her, Einstein stuck out his tongue.


Each test score had been lower than the last, reading like a strange weather forecast: ninety in September, mid-eighties in October, low seventies in November, sixties before Christmas. The exam before this one, she’d managed a sixty-two—technically passing, but hardly passable. After class, she’d shredded it into penny-sized scraps and fed it down the third-floor toilet before coming home. Now there was the fifty-five, which, like a bright light, made her squint, even though Mr. Kelly hadn’t written the F at the top of the page. She’d stashed it in her locker for two weeks under a stack of textbooks, as if the combined weight of algebra and history and geography might snuff it out. Mr. Kelly had been asking her about it, hinting that he could call her parents himself, if necessary, and finally Lydia promised to bring it back after Christmas break with her mother’s signature.


All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor. She wanted this so much, Lydia knew, that she no longer needed to say it. It was always there. Lydia could not imagine another future, another life. It was like trying to imagine a world where the sun went around the moon, or where there was no such thing as air. For a moment she considered forging her mother’s signature, but her handwriting was too round, too perfectly bulbous, like a little girl’s script. It would fool no one.


And last week, something even more terrifying had happened. Now, from under her mattress, Lydia extracted a small white envelope. Part of her hoped that, somehow, it would have changed; that over the past eight days the words would have eroded so she could blow them away like soot, leaving nothing but a harmless blank page. But when she blew, just one quick puff, the paper quivered. The letters clung. Dear Mr. Lee: We thank you for your participation in our new early admission process and are very pleased to welcome you to the Harvard Class of 1981.


For the past few weeks, Nath had checked the mail every afternoon, even before he said hello to their mother, sometimes before he took off his shoes. Lydia could feel him aching to escape so badly that everything else was falling away. Last week, at breakfast, Marilyn had leaned Lydia’s marked-up math homework against the box of Wheaties. “I checked it last night after you went to bed,” she said. “There’s a mistake in number twenty-three, sweetheart.” Five years, a year, even six months earlier, Lydia would have found sympathy in her brother’s eyes. I know. I know. Confirmation and consolation in a single blink. This time Nath, immersed in a library book, did not notice Lydia’s clenched fingers, the sudden red that rimmed her eyes. Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say.


He had been the only one listening for so long. Since their mother’s disappearance and return, Lydia had been friendless. Every recess that first fall, she had stood to the side, staring at the First Federal clock in the distance. Each time a minute ticked by, she squeezed her eyes shut and pictured what her mother might be doing—scrubbing the counter, filling the kettle, peeling an orange—as if the weight of all those details could keep her mother there. Later she would wonder if this had made her miss her chance, or if she had ever had a chance at all. One day she had opened her eyes and found Stacey Sherwin standing before her: Stacey Sherwin of the waist-long golden hair, surrounded by a gaggle of girls. In Middlewood’s kindergarten class, Stacey Sherwin was the kingmaker, already adept at wielding her power. A few days earlier, she had announced, “Jeannine Collins stinks like garbage water,” and Jeannine Collins had peeled away from the group, ripping her glasses from her tear-smudged face, while the other girls in Stacey’s coterie tittered. Lydia, from a safe distance, had watched this unfold with awe. Only once, on the first day of kindergarten, had Stacey spoken to her directly: “Do Chinese people celebrate Thanksgiving?” And: “Do Chinese people have belly buttons?”


“We’re all going over to my house after school,” Stacey said now. Her eyes flicked briefly to Lydia’s, then slid away. “You could come, too.”


Suspicion flared in Lydia. Could she really have been chosen by Stacey Sherwin? Stacey kept looking at the ground and wound a ribbon of hair round her finger and Lydia stared, as if she might be able to see right into Stacey’s mind. Shy or sly? She couldn’t tell. And she thought, then, of her mother, her face peering through the kitchen window, waiting for her to arrive.


“I can’t,” she said at last. “My mom said I have to come straight home.”


Stacey shrugged and walked away, the other girls trailing behind her. In their wake came a swell of sudden laughter, and Lydia could not tell if she had been left out of the joke or if she had been the joke herself.


Would they have been kind to her or mocked her? She would never know. She would say no to birthday parties, to roller-skating, to swimming at the rec center, to everything. Each afternoon she rushed home, desperate to see her mother’s face, to make her mother smile. By the second grade, the other girls stopped asking. She told herself she didn’t care: her mother was still there. That was all that mattered. In the years to come, Lydia would watch Stacey Sherwin—her golden hair braided, then ironed flat, then feathered—waving to her friends, pulling them toward her, the way a rhinestone caught and held the light. She would see Jenn Pittman slip a note to Pam Saunders and see Pam Saunders unfold it beneath her desk and snicker; she would watch Shelley Brierley share out a pack of Doublemint and breathe in the sugar-spearmint scent as the foil-wrapped sticks passed her by.


Only Nath had made it bearable all that time. Every day, since kindergarten, he saved her a seat—in the cafeteria, a chair across the table from him; on the bus, his books placed beside him on the green vinyl seat. If she arrived first, she saved a seat for him. Because of Nath, she never had to ride home alone while everyone else chatted sociably in pairs; she never needed to gulp out, “Can I sit here?” and risk being turned away. They never discussed it, but both came to understand it as a promise: he would always make sure there was a place for her. She would always be able to say, Someone is coming. I am not alone.


Now Nath was leaving. More letters were on their way. In a few days we will send a packet of information and forms should you choose to accept your place. Still, for a moment, Lydia allowed herself to fantasize: slipping the next letter out of the mail pile, and the next, and the next, tucking them between mattress and box spring where Nath couldn’t find them, so that he would have no choice but to stay.


Downstairs, Nath riffled through the pile of mail: a grocery circular, an electric bill. No letter. That fall, when the guidance counselor had asked Nath about his career plans, he had whispered, as if telling her a dirty secret. “Space,” he’d said. “Outer space.” Mrs. Hendrich had clicked her pen twice, in-out, and he thought she was going to laugh. It had been nearly five years since the last trip to the moon, and the nation, having bested the Soviets, had turned its attention elsewhere. Instead Mrs. Hendrich told him there were two routes: become a pilot or become a scientist. She flipped a folder open to his printed-out transcript. B-minus in phys ed; A-plus in trigonometry, calculus, biology, physics. Though Nath dreamed of MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, or Caltech—he’d even written for pamphlets—he knew there was only one place his father would approve: Harvard. To James, anything else was a failing. Once he got to college, Nath told himself, he would take advanced physics, material science, aerodynamics. College would be a jumping-off point for a million places he had never been, a stop-off at the moon before shooting into space. He would leave everything and everyone behind—and though he wouldn’t admit it to himself, everyone meant Lydia, too.


Lydia was fifteen now, taller, and at school, when she tied her hair up and put on lipstick, she looked grown up. At home, she looked like the same startled five-year-old who had clung to his hand as they crawled back ashore. When she stood near, the little-girl scent of her perfume—even its name childish, Baby Softwafted from her skin. Ever since that summer, he had felt something still binding their ankles and tugging him off balance, fettering her weight to his. For ten years, that something had not loosened, and now it had begun to chafe. All those years, as the only other person who understood their parents, he had absorbed her miseries, offering silent sympathy or a squeeze on the shoulder or a wry smile. He would say, Mom’s always bragging about you to Dr. Wolff. When I got that A-plus in chem, she didn’t even notice. Or, Remember when I didn’t go to the ninth grade formal? Dad said, “Well, I guess if you can’t get a date . . .” He had buoyed her up with how too much love was better than too little. All that time, Nath let himself think only: When I get to college— He never completed the sentence, but in his imagined future, he floated away, untethered.


It was almost Christmas now, and still no letter from Harvard. Nath went into the living room without turning on the lamp, letting the colored lights on the tree guide his way. Each blackened windowpane reflected back a tiny Christmas tree. He would have to type new essays and wait for a second or third or fourth choice, or maybe he’d have to stay home forever. His father’s voice carried from the kitchen: “I think she’ll really like it. As soon as I saw it, I thought of her.” No need for an antecedent—in their family, she was always Lydia. As the Christmas lights blinked on and off, the living room appeared, dimly, then disappeared again. Nath closed his eyes when the lights came on, opened them as they went off, so that he saw only uninterrupted darkness. Then the doorbell rang.


It was Jack—not yet suspicious in Nath’s eyes, only long distrusted and disliked. Though it was below freezing, he wore just a hooded sweatshirt, half-zipped over a T-shirt Nath couldn’t quite read. The hems of his jeans were frayed and damp from the snow. He pulled his hand from his sweatshirt pocket and held it out. For a moment, Nath wondered if he was expected to shake it. Then he saw the envelope pinched between Jack’s fingers.


“This came to our house,” Jack said. “Just got home and saw it.” He jabbed his thumb at the red crest in the corner. “I guess you’ll be going to Harvard, then.”


The envelope was thick and heavy, as if puffed with good news. “We’ll see,” Nath said. “It might be a rejection, right?”


Jack didn’t smile. “Sure,” he said with a shrug. “Whatever.” Without saying good-bye, he turned home, crushing a trail of footprints across the Lees’ snowy yard.


Nath shut the door and flipped on the living room light, weighing the envelope in both hands. All of a sudden the room felt unbearably hot. The flap came up in a ragged tear and he yanked out the letter, crumpling its edge. Dear Mr. Lee: Let us once again congratulate you on your early admission to the Class of 1981. His joints went loose with relief.


“Who was it?” Hannah, who had been listening from the hallway, peeked around the doorframe.


“A letter”—Nath swallowed—“from Harvard.” Even the name tingled on his tongue. He tried to read the rest, but the text wouldn’t focus. Congratulate. Once again. The mailman must have lost the first one, he thought, but it didn’t matter. Your admission. He gave up and grinned at Hannah, who tiptoed in and leaned against the couch. “I got in.”


“To Harvard?” James said, coming in from the kitchen.

Nath nodded.


“The letter got delivered to the Wolffs,” he said, holding it out. But James barely glanced at it. He was looking at Nath, and for once he was not frowning, and Nath realized he had grown as tall as his father, that they could look at each other eye to eye.


“Not bad,” James said. He smiled, as if half-embarrassed, and put his hand on Nath’s shoulder, and Nath felt it—heavy and warm—through his shirt. “Marilyn. Guess what?”


His mother’s heels clattered in from the kitchen. “Nath,” she said, kissing him hard, on the cheek. “Nath, really?” She plucked the letter from his grip. “My god, Class of 1981,” she said, “doesn’t that make you feel old, James?” Nath wasn’t listening. He thought: It’s happening. I did it, I made it, I’m going.


At the top of the stairs, Lydia watched her father’s hand tighten on Nath’s shoulder. She could not remember the last time he had smiled at Nath like that. Her mother held the letter to the light, as if it were a precious document. Hannah, elbows hooked over the arm of the sofa, swung her feet in glee. Her brother himself stood silent, awed and grateful, 1981 glistening in his eyes like a beautiful far-off star, and something wobbled inside Lydia and tumbled into her chest with a clang. As if they heard it, everyone looked up toward her, and just as Nath opened his mouth to shout out the good news, Lydia called, “Mom, I’m failing physics. I’m supposed to let you know.”

•   •   •


After dinner, Lydia had found Nath in the living room. The letter from Harvard lay on the coffee table, and she touched the seal where it said 
VERITAS.That night, while Nath brushed his teeth, the bathroom door creaked open and Lydia appeared, leaning against the doorjamb. Her face was pale, almost gray, and for a moment he felt sorry for her. Over dinner, their mother had moved from frantic questions—how could she let this happen, didn’t she realize—to blunt statements: “Imagine yourself older and unable to find a job. Just imagine it.” Lydia hadn’t argued, and faced with her daughter’s silence, Marilyn had found herself repeating that dire warning again and again. “Do you think you’ll just find a man and get married? Is that all you plan for your life?” It had been all she could do to keep from crying right there at the table. After half an hour, James said, “Marilyn—” but she had glared so fiercely that he subsided, prodding shreds of pot roast in the separating onion-soup gravy. Everyone had forgotten about Harvard, about Nath’s letter, about Nath himself.


“Congratulations,” she said softly. “I knew you’d get in.” Nath had been too angry to speak to her and fixed his eyes on the television screen, where Donny and Marie were singing in perfect harmony, and before the song was over Lydia had run upstairs to her room and slammed the door. Now there she stood in the doorway, ashen and barefoot on the bathroom tiles.


He knew what Lydia wanted now: for him to offer reassurance, a humiliation, a moment he’d rather forget. Something to make her feel better. Mom will get over it. It will be okay. Remember when . . . ? But he didn’t want to remember all the times his father had doted on Lydia but stared at him with disappointment flaring in his eyes, all the times their mother had praised Lydia but looked over and past and through him, as if he were made of air. He wanted to savor the long-awaited letter, the promise of getting away at last, a new world waiting as white and clean as chalk.


He spat fiercely into the sink without looking at her, swishing the last bit of froth down the drain with his fingers.


“Nath,” Lydia whispered as he turned to go, and he knew by the tremble in her voice that she’d been crying, that she was about to begin again.


“Goodnight,” he said, and closed the door behind him.

•   •   •

The next morning, Marilyn thumbtacked the failed test to the kitchen wall across from Lydia’s seat. For the next three days, from breakfast until dinner, she plopped the physics book in front of her daughter and sat down beside her. All Lydia needed, she thought, was a little encouragement. Momentum and inertia, kinetic and potential—these things still lingered in the corners of her own mind. She read aloud over Lydia’s shoulder: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. She worked through the failed test with Lydia again and again until Lydia could solve every problem correctly.


What Lydia did not tell her mother was that, by the third time through, she had simply memorized the right answers. All day, while she huddled over her physics book at the table, she waited for her father to intercede: That’s enough, Marilyn. It’s Christmas break, for God’s sake. But he said nothing. Lydia had refused to speak to Nath since that night—as she thought of it—and she suspected, correctly, that he was angry at her as well; he avoided the kitchen entirely, except for meals. Even Hannah would have been some comfort—a small and silent buffer—but as usual, she was nowhere to be seen. In actuality, Hannah had planted herself under the end table in the foyer, just out of sight of the kitchen, listening to the scratch of Lydia’s pencil. She hugged her knees and sent soft and patient thoughts, but her sister did not hear them. By Christmas morning, Lydia was furious at them all, and even the discovery that Marilyn had at last unpinned the test from the wall failed to cheer her up.


Sitting down around the Christmas tree felt sullied now, too. James lifted one ribboned package after another from the pile, handing each around, but Lydia dreaded the gift from her mother. Usually her mother gave her books—books that, although neither of them fully realized it, her mother secretly wanted herself, and which, after Christmas, Marilyn would sometimes borrow from Lydia’s shelf. To Lydia, they were always too hard no matter what age she was, less presents than unsubtle hints. Last year, it was The Color Atlas of Human Anatomy, so large it wouldn’t fit on the shelf upright; the year before, she had received a thick volume called Famous Women of Science. The famous women had bored her. Their stories were all the same: told they couldn’t; decided to anyway. Because they really wanted to, she wondered, or because they were told not to? And the anatomy had made her queasy—men and women with their skin peeled off, then their muscles stripped away, until they were nothing but skeletons laid bare. She’d flipped through some of the color plates and slammed the book and squirmed in her seat, as if she could shake off the feeling like a dog shook rain off its fur.


Nath, watching his sister’s eyes blink and redden, felt a twinge of pity cut through his anger. He had read the letter from Harvard eleven times now and had finally convinced himself it was real: they had actually accepted him. In nine months, he would be gone, and that knowledge took the sting out of all that had happened. So what if his parents cared more about Lydia’s failure than his success? He was leaving. And when he got to college—Lydia would have to stay behind. The thought, finally put into words, was bittersweet. As his father passed him a present wrapped in red foil, Nath flashed Lydia a tentative smile, which she pretended not to see. After three comfortless days, she was not ready to forgive him yet, but the gesture warmed her, like a gulp of tea on a cold winter day.


If she had not looked up at the ceiling just then, Lydia might have forgiven her brother after all. But something caught her eye—a Rorschach of white above their heads—and a tiny memory ballooned in her mind. They had been quite small. Her mother had taken Hannah to a doctor’s appointment and she and Nath, home alone, had spotted a huge spider crawling just above the window frame. Nath had climbed the sofa and crushed it with their father’s shoe, leaving a black smudge and half a footprint on the ceiling. “Say you did it,” he’d begged, but Lydia had a better idea. She fetched the bottle of Liquid Paper from beside their father’s typewriter and painted over each spot, one by one. Their parents never noticed the dots of white against the cream of the ceiling, and for months afterward, she and Nath would glance up and share a smile.


Now, looking carefully, Lydia could still see the faint tread of their father’s shoe, the bigger splotch where the spider had been. They had been a team. They had stuck together, even in this small, silly thing. She had never expected a time when that would not be true. Morning light splashed across the wall, making shadows and spots of glare. She squinted, trying to distinguish white from off-white.


“Lydia?” Everyone else had been busy, unwrapping gifts: across the room, Nath fed a roll of film into a new camera; a ruby pendant on a gold chain gleamed against her mother’s robe. In front of her, her father held out a package, small and compact and sharp-edged, like a jewel box. “From me. I picked it out myself.” He beamed. Usually James left the Christmas shopping to Marilyn, allowing her to sign each tag Love, Mom and Dad. But he had picked this gift out himself, and he could not wait to bestow it.


A present he picked out himself, Lydia thought, must be something special. At once she forgave her father for not interceding. Beneath this wrapping was something delicate and precious. She imagined a gold necklace like some girls at school wore and never took off, little gold crosses they’d received at their confirmations, or tiny charms that nestled between their collarbones. A necklace from her father would be like that. It would make up for the books from her mother, for all of the past three days. It would be a little reminder that said I love you. You’re perfect just as you are.


She slid her finger under the wrapping paper, and a squat gold and black book fell into her lap. How to Win Friends and Influence People. A bright band of yellow slashed the cover in two. Fundamental Techniques in Handling People. Six Ways of Making People Like You. At the top, in deep red letters: The More You Get Out of This Book, the More You’ll Get Out of Life! James beamed.


“I thought you could use this,” he said. “It’s supposed to—well, help you win friends. Be popular.” His fingers grazed the title on the cover.


Lydia felt her heart in her chest like a pellet of ice, sliding down out of reach. “I have friends, Daddy,” she said, though she knew this was a lie.


Her father’s smile flickered. “Of course you do. I just thought—you know, you’re getting older, and in high school now—people skills are so important. It’ll teach you how to get along with everyone.” His eyes darted from her face to the book. “It’s been around since the thirties. Supposed to be the best on the subject.”


Lydia swallowed, hard.

“It’s great,” she said. “Thanks, Daddy.”


There was no hope for the other presents in her lap, but Lydia opened them anyway. A fluffy Orlon scarf from Nath. A Simon and Garfunkel album from Hannah. Books from her mother, as usual: Women Pioneers in Science. Basic Physiology. “Some things I thought you might be interested in,” Marilyn said, “since you did so well in biology.” She sipped her tea with a slurp that grated all the way down Lydia’s spine. When nothing was left beneath the tree but balled-up wrapping paper and shreds of ribbon, Lydia stacked her gifts carefully, the book from her father on top. A shadow fell over it: her father, standing behind her.


“Don’t you like the book?”

“Sure I like it.”


“I just thought it would be helpful,” he said. “Though you probably know everything about that already.” He pinched her cheek. “How to win friends. I wish—” He stopped, swallowing the words back down: I wish I’d had it when I was your age. Perhaps, he thought, everything would have been different; if he’d known how to handle people, how to make them like him, perhaps he’d have fit in at Lloyd, he’d have charmed Marilyn’s mother, they’d have hired him at Harvard. He’d have gotten more out of life. “I thought you’d like it,” he finished lamely.


Though her father had never mentioned his schooldays, though she had never heard the story of her parents’ marriage or their move to Middlewood, Lydia felt the ache of it all, deep and piercing as a foghorn. More than anything, her father fretted over her being well liked. Over her fitting in. She opened the book in her lap to the first section. Principle 1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.


“I love it,” she said. “Thanks, Daddy.”


James could not miss the edge in her voice, but he brushed it aside. Of course she’s annoyed, he thought, at a present she doesn’t need. Lydia already had plenty of friends; almost every evening she was on the phone with someone, after she’d finished all of her homework. How foolish of him to have bought this book at all. He made a mental note to come up with something better for her next gift.


The truth was this: at thirteen, at her father’s urging, Lydia had called up Pam Saunders. She hadn’t even known Pam’s number and had had to look it up in the book, which lolled on her lap as she ticked the dial around. Aside from the phone in the kitchen, and the one in her father’s study, the only other phone in the house was on the landing, a little window seat halfway up the stairs where her mother kept a few throw pillows and a wilting African violet. Anyone passing by downstairs could overhear. Lydia waited for her father to head into the living room before she dialed the last digit.


“Pam?” she said. “It’s Lydia.”

A pause. She could almost hear Pam’s brow crinkling. “Lydia?”

“Lydia Lee. From school.”

“Oh.” Another pause. “Hi.”


Lydia wormed her finger into the phone cord and tried to think of something to say. “So—what did you think of the geography quiz today?”


“It was okay, I guess.” Pam snapped her gum, a tiny tsk of a sound. “I hate school.”


“Me too,” Lydia said. For the first time, she realized this was true, and saying it emboldened her. “Hey, do you want to go roller-skating on Saturday? I bet my dad would drive us.” A sudden vision of her and Pam, whizzing around the roller rink, giddy and giggling, flashed through her mind. Behind them, in the stands, how delighted her father would be.


“Saturday?” Sharp, startled silence. “Oh, sorry, I can’t. Maybe some other time?” A murmur in the background. “Hey, I gotta go. My sister needs the phone. Bye, Lydia.” And the clunk of the receiver being set back on the hook.


Stunned by how suddenly Pam had hung up, Lydia was still clutching the handset to her ear when her father appeared at the foot of the stairs. At the sight of her on the phone, a lightness crossed his face, like clouds shifting after strong wind. She saw him as he must have looked when he was young, long before she had been born: boyishly hopeful, possibilities turning his eyes into stars. He grinned at her and, on exaggerated tiptoe, headed into the living room.


Lydia, phone still pressed to her cheek, could hardly believe how easy it had been to bring that bright flush of joy to her father. It seemed, at the time, like such a small thing. She remembered this the next time she lifted the receiver and held it to her ear, murmuring, “mm-hmm, mm-hm—she did?” until her father passed through the front hallway, paused below, smiled, and moved on. As time went by, she would picture the girls she watched from afar and imagine what she’d say if they were truly friends. “Shelley, did you watch Starsky and Hutch last night? Oh my god, Pam, can you believe that English essay—ten pages? Does Mrs. Gregson think we have nothing better to do? Stacey, your new hairdo makes you look exactly like Farrah Fawcett. I wish my hair would do that.” For a while, it remained a small thing, the dial tone humming in her ear like a friend. Now, with the book in her hand, it no longer seemed so small.


After breakfast, Lydia settled cross-legged in the corner by the tree and opened the book again. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. She turned a few pages. Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems.


Across the living room, Nath put his eye to the viewfinder of his new camera, zooming in on Lydia, pushing her in and out of focus. He was apologizing for giving her the silent treatment, for shutting the door in her face when all she’d wanted was not to be alone. Lydia knew this, but she was not in the mood to make up. In a few months he would be gone, and she would be left alone to win friends and influence people and pioneer in science. Before Nath could snap the photo, she dropped her gaze back to the book, hair curtaining her face. A smile says, “I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.” That is why dogs make such a hit. They are so glad to see us that they almost jump out of their skins. Dogs, Lydia thought. She tried to picture herself as a dog, something docile and friendly, a golden retriever with a black smile and a fringy tail, but she did not feel friendly and purebred and blond. She felt unsociable and suspicious, like the Wolffs’ dog down the street, a mutt, braced for hostility.


“Lyds,” Nath called. He would not give up. “Lydia. Lyd-i-a.” Through the screen of her hair, Lydia saw the zoom lens of the camera like a giant microscope trained on her. “Smile.”


You don’t feel like smiling? Then what? Force yourself to smile. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy.


Lydia pulled her hair back over her shoulder in a slowly untwisting rope. Then she stared straight into the black eye of the camera, refusing to smile, even the slightest bend in her lips, even after she heard the shutter click.

•   •   •


By the time school started again, Lydia was relieved to escape the house, even if physics class was the first thing she had to face. She set the failed test—signed now by her mother—facedown on Mr. Kelly’s desk. Mr. Kelly himself was already at the chalkboard, drawing a diagram. Unit II: Electricity and Magnetism, he wrote at the top. Lydia slid into her seat and rested her cheek on the desktop. Someone had etched a dime-sized FUCK YOU into the surface with a pushpin. She pressed her thumb against it, and when she lifted her hand a backward FUCK rose on her fingertip like a welt.


“Good vacation?” It was Jack. He slouched into the next seat, one arm slung over the back, as if it were a girl’s shoulder. At this point she hardly knew Jack at all, though he lived just on the corner, and hadn’t talked to him in years. His hair had darkened to the color of beach sand; the freckles she remembered from their childhood had faded but not disappeared. But she knew that Nath didn’t like him at all, never had, and for this reason alone she was pleased to see him.


“What are you doing here?”


Jack glanced at the board. “Electricity and Magnetism.”


Lydia blushed. “I mean,” she said, “this is a junior class.”


Jack pulled a capless ballpoint from his knapsack and rested his foot on his knee. “Did you know, Miss Lee, that physics is required to graduate? Since I failed the second unit of physics last year, here I am again. My last chance.” He began to trace the tread of his tennis-shoe sole in blue ink. Lydia sat up.


“You failed?


“I failed,” he said. “Fifty-two percent. Below below-average. I know that’s a hard concept to grasp, Miss Lee. Since you’ve never failed anything.”


Lydia stiffened. “As a matter of fact,” she said, “I’m failing physics myself.”


Jack didn’t turn his head, but she saw one eyebrow rise. Then, to her surprise, he leaned across the aisle and doodled a tiny zero on the knee of her jeans.


“Our secret membership sign,” he said as the bell rang. His eyes, a deep blue-gray, met hers. “Welcome to the club, Miss Lee.”


All through class that morning, Lydia traced that tiny zero with her fingertip, watching Jack out of the corner of her eye. He was focused on something she couldn’t see, ignoring Mr. Kelly’s drone, the pencils scratching around him, the fluorescent light buzzing overhead. One thumb drummed a pitter-pat on the desktop. Does Jack Wolff want to be friends? she wondered. Nath would kill himOr me. But after that first day, Jack didn’t say another word to her. Some days he came late, then put his head down on his desk for the entire period; some days he did not come at all. The zero washed out in the laundry. Lydia kept her head bent over her notes. She copied down everything Mr. Kelly wrote on the board, turning the pages of her textbook back and forth so often that the corners softened and frayed.


Then, at the end of January, at dinner, her mother passed the salad and the dish of Hamburger Helper and looked at Lydia expectantly, tilting her head this way and that, like a pair of rabbit ears trying to catch the signal. Finally, she said, “Lydia, how is physics class?”


“It’s fine.” Lydia speared a carrot coin on her fork. “Better. It’s getting better.”


“How much better?” her mother said, a touch of sharpness in her voice.


Lydia chewed the carrot to a pulp. “We haven’t had a test yet. But I’m doing okay on the homework.” This was only half a lie. The first test of the term was the next week. In the meantime she stumbled through the assignments, copying the odd-numbered problems from the answers at the back of the book and fudging the even ones as best she could.


Her mother frowned, but she scooped up a piece of macaroni. “Ask your teacher if you can do some extra credit,” she said. “You don’t want this grade to sink you. With all your potential—”


Lydia jabbed her fork into a wedge of tomato. Only the wistfulness in her mother’s voice stopped her from screaming. “I know, Mom,” she said. She glanced across the table at Nath, hoping he’d change the subject, but Nath, who had other things on his mind, didn’t notice.


“Lydia, how’s Shelley doing?” James asked. Lydia paused. Last summer, at her father’s urging, she’d invited Shelley over once, to hang out. Shelley, though, had seemed more interested in flirting with Nath, trying to get him to play catch in the yard, asking him whether he thought Lynda Carter or Lindsay Wagner was hotter. They hadn’t spoken since.


“Shelley’s good,” she said. “Busy. She’s secretary of the student council.”


“Maybe you can get involved, too,” James said. He wagged his fork at her, with the air of a wise man delivering an aphorism. “I’m sure they’d love your help. And how about Pam and Karen?”


Lydia looked down at her plate, at the picked-over salad and the sad clump of beef and cheese beside it. The last time she’d talked to Karen was over a year ago, when her father had chauffeured them home from a matinee of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At first she’d been proud that, for once, her plans had not been a lie. Karen had just moved to town and Lydia, emboldened by her newness, had suggested a movie and Karen had said, “Okay, sure, why not.” Then, for the whole ride, her father had tried to show off how cool he was: “Five brothers and sisters, Karen? Just like the Brady Bunch! You watch that show?” “Dad,” Lydia had said. “Dad.” But he’d kept going, asking Karen what the hot new records were these days, singing a line or two from “Waterloo,” which was already two years old. Karen had said, “Yeah,” and “No,” and “I don’t know” and fiddled with the bottom bead of her earring. Lydia had wanted to melt and seep into the seat cushions, deep down where the foam would block every bit of sound. She thought of saying something about the movie, but couldn’t think of anything. All she could think of was Jack Nicholson’s vacant eyes as the pillow came down to smother him. The silence swelled to fill the car until they pulled up in front of Karen’s house.


The next Monday, at lunch, she had paused beside Karen’s table and tried to smile. “Sorry about my dad,” she said. “God, he’s so embarrassing.”


Karen had peeled the lid from her yogurt and licked the foil clean and shrugged. “It’s okay,” she said. “Actually, it was sort of cute. I mean, he’s obviously just trying to help you fit in.”


Now Lydia glared at her father, who grinned brightly at her, as if proud to know so much about her friends, to remember their names. A dog, she thought, waiting for a treat.


“They’re great,” she said. “They’re both great.” At the other end of the table, Marilyn said quietly, “Stop badgering her, James. Let her eat her dinner,” and James said, a little less quietly, “I’m not the one nagging about her homework.” Hannah prodded a pebble of hamburger on her plate. Lydia caught Nath’s eye. Please, she thought. Say something.


Nath took a deep breath. He had been waiting to bring something up all evening. “Dad? I need you to sign some forms.”


“Forms?” James said. “What for?”


“For Harvard.” Nath set down his fork. “My housing application, and one for a campus visit. I could go in April, over a weekend. They have a student who’ll host me.” Now that he had started, the words tumbled out in a breathless blur. “I have enough saved for a bus ticket and I’ll only miss a few days of school. I just need your permission.”


Miss a few days of school, Lydia thought. Their parents would never allow it.


To her surprise, they nodded.


“That’s smart,” Marilyn said. “You’ll get a taste of campus life, for next year, when you’re there for real.” James said, “That’s an awfully long bus ride. I think we can afford a plane ticket for such a special occasion.” Nath grinned at his sister in double triumph: They’re off your back. And they said yes. Lydia, making trails in the cheese sauce with the tip of her knife, could think only one thing: He can’t wait to leave.


“You know who’s in my physics class now?” she said suddenly. “Jack Wolff, from down the street.” She nibbled a shred of iceberg and measured her family’s reaction. To her parents, the name slid past as if she hadn’t spoken. Her mother said, “Lyddie, that reminds me, I could help you go over your notes on Saturday, if you want.” Her father said, “I haven’t seen Karen in a while. Why don’t you two go to a movie sometime? I’ll drive you.” But Nath’s head, across the table, jerked up as if a rifle had gone off. Lydia smiled back down at her plate. And right then she decided that she and Jack were going to be friends.

•   •   •


At the beginning, it seemed impossible. Jack hadn’t come to class in nearly a week, and she hovered near his car after school for days before she caught him alone. The first day, he came out of the building with a blond junior she didn’t know, and she ducked behind a bush and watched through the branches. Jack slid his hands into the girl’s pocket, then inside her coat, and when she pretended to be offended and pushed him away, he tossed her over his shoulder, threatening to throw her into the snowbank, while she squealed and giggled and hammered his back with her fists. Then Jack set her down and opened the door of the Beetle, and the blond girl climbed in, and they drove off, steam billowing from the tailpipe, and Lydia knew they wouldn’t be back. The second day, Jack didn’t show up at all, and Lydia eventually trudged home. The snow was calf-deep; there had been record low temperatures all winter. A hundred miles north, Lake Erie had frozen; in Buffalo, snow drowned the roofs of houses, swallowing power lines. At home, Nath, who had sat alone on the bus for the first time he could remember, demanded, “What happened to you?” and Lydia stomped upstairs without replying.


On the third day, Jack came out of the building alone, and Lydia took a deep breath and ran down to the curb. As usual, Jack wore no coat, no gloves. Two bare, red fingertips pinched a cigarette.


“Mind giving me a ride home?” she said.


“Miss Lee.” Jack kicked a clump of snow off the front tire. “Aren’t you supposed to be on your school bus?”


She shrugged, tugging her scarf back up to her neck. “Missed it.”

“I’m not going straight home.”

“I don’t mind. It’s too cold to walk.”


Jack fumbled in his hip pocket for his keys. “Are you sure your brother wants you hanging out with a guy like me?” he said, one eyebrow raised.


“He’s not my keeper.” It came out louder than she meant, and Jack laughed out a puff of smoke and climbed into the driver’s seat. Lydia, cheeks scarlet, had nearly turned away when he leaned over and popped up the knob on the passenger side.


Now that she was in the car, she didn’t know what to say. Jack started the engine and eased the car into gear, and the big speedometer and gas gauge on the dashboard flicked to life. There were no other dials. Lydia thought of her parents’ cars: all the indicators and warning lights to tell you if the oil was too low, if the engine was too hot, if you were driving with the parking brake on or the door or the trunk or the hood open. They didn’t trust you. They needed to check you constantly, to remind you what to do and what not to do. She had never been alone with a boy before—her mother had forbidden her to go out with boys, not that she had ever tried—and it occurred to her that she had never had an actual conversation with Jack before. She had only a vague idea about the things that happened in the backseat. Out of the corner of her eye, she studied Jack’s profile, the faint stubble—darker than his sandy hair—that ran all the way up to his sideburns and all the way down to the soft part of his throat, like a smudge of charcoal waiting to be wiped away.


“So,” she said. Her fingers twitched, and she tucked them into her coat pocket. “Can I bum a cigarette?”


Jack laughed. “You’re so full of shit. You don’t smoke.” He offered the pack anyway, and Lydia plucked out a cigarette. She’d thought it would be solid and heavy, like a pencil, but it was light, like nothing at all. Without taking his eyes off the road, Jack tossed her his lighter.


“So you decided you didn’t need your brother to chaperone you home today.”


Lydia could not ignore the scorn in his voice, and she was unsure if he was laughing at her, or Nath, or both of them at once. “I’m not a child,” she said, lighting the cigarette and putting it to her lips. The smoke burned in her lungs and made her head spin and suddenly she felt sharp and aware. Like cutting your finger, she thought: the pain, and the blood, reminded you that you were alive. She breathed out, a tiny cyclone funneling between her teeth, and held out the lighter. Jack waved a hand.


“Stick it in the glove compartment.”


Lydia snapped open the catch and a small blue box fell out and landed at her feet. She froze, and Jack laughed.


“What’s the matter? Never seen Trojans before, Miss Lee?”


Lydia, her face burning, scooped up the condoms and tucked them back into the open box. “Sure I have.” She slid them back into the glove compartment, along with the lighter, and tried to change the subject. “So what did you think of the physics test today?”


Jack snorted. “I didn’t think you cared about physics.”

“Are you still failing?”

“Are you?”


Lydia hesitated. She took a long drag, imitating Jack, and tipped her head back as she exhaled. “I don’t care about physics. I could give a rat’s ass.”


“Bullshit,” Jack said. “Then how come whenever Mr. Kelly hands back an assignment, you look like you’re going to cry?”


She hadn’t realized it was so obvious, and a hot flush flared in her cheeks and trickled down her neck. Beneath her, the seat creaked and a spring prodded her thigh, like a knuckle.


“Little Miss Lee, smoking,” Jack said, clucking his tongue. “Won’t your brother be upset when he finds out?”


“Not as upset as he’d be to find out I was in your car.” Lydia grinned. Jack didn’t seem to notice. He rolled down the window and a cold rush of air burst into the car as he flicked his cigarette butt into the street.


“Hates me that much, does he?”

“Come on,” Lydia said. “Everybody knows what happens in this car.”


Abruptly, Jack pulled to the side of the road. They had just reached the lake, and his eyes were cold and still, like the iced-over water behind him. “Maybe you’d better get out, then. You don’t want someone like me corrupting you. Ruining your chances of getting into Harvard like your brother.”


He must really hate Nath, Lydia thought. As much as Nath hates him. She imagined them in class together all these years: Nath sitting close to the front, notebook out, one hand rubbing the little furrow between his eyebrows, the way he did when he was thinking hard. Utterly focused, oblivious to everything else, the answer right there, sealed inside his mouth. And Jack? Jack would be sprawled in the back corner, shirt untucked, one leg stretched into the aisle. So comfortable. So certain of himself. Not worried about what anyone thought. No wonder they couldn’t stand each other.


“I’m not like him, you know,” she said.


Jack studied her for a long moment, as if trying to decide if this were true. Beneath the backseat, the engine idled with a growl. The ash at the end of her cigarette lengthened, like a gray worm, but she said nothing, just breathed a thin cloud of fog into the frozen air and forced herself to meet Jack’s narrowing gaze.


“How did you get blue eyes?” he said at last. “When you’re Chinese and all?”

Lydia blinked. “My mom’s American.”


“I thought brown eyes won out.” Jack propped his hand against her headrest and leaned in to study her carefully, like a jeweler with a gemstone. Under this appraisal, the back of Lydia’s neck tingled, and she turned away and ashed her cigarette into the tray.


“Not always, I guess.”

“I’ve never seen a Chinese person with blue eyes.”


Up close, she could see a constellation of freckles on Jack’s cheek, faded now, but still there. As her brother had long ago, Lydia counted them: nine.


“You know you’re the only girl in this school who’s not white?”


“Yeah? I didn’t realize.” This was a lie. Even with blue eyes, she could not pretend she blended in.


“You and Nath, you’re practically the only Chinese people in the whole of Middlewood, I bet.”

“Probably.”


Jack settled back into his seat and rubbed at a small dent in the plastic of the steering wheel. Then, after a moment, he said, “What’s that like?”


“What’s it like?” Lydia hesitated. Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express—a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you’d been cut out and pasted in. You thought: Wait, what’s she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.


“I dunno,” she said. “People decide what you’re like before they even get to know you.” She eyed him, suddenly fierce. “Kind of like you did with me. They think they know all about you. Except you’re never who they think you are.”


Jack stayed silent for a long time, staring down at the castle in the center of the steering wheel. They would never be friends now. He hated Nath, and after what she’d just said, he would hate her, too. He would kick her out of the car and drive away. Then, to Lydia’s surprise, Jack pulled the pack of cigarettes from his pocket and held it out. A peace offering.


Lydia did not wonder where they would go. She did not think, then, about what excuse she’d offer her mother, the excuse that—with an inspired smirk—would be her cover for all her afternoons with Jack: that she’d stayed after school to do physics extra credit. She did not even think about Nath’s shocked and anxious face when he learned where she had been. Looking out over the lake, she could not know that in three months she would be at its bottom. At that moment she simply took the proffered cigarette and, as Jack flicked the lighter, touched its tip to the flame.









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