Nina sat cross-legged on her bed in her underwear staring into the closet. Surrounding her on the bed were the cast-off clothes she had tried on and rejected for one reason or another. If she sat there long enough maybe she would be seized with sudden inspiration and be able to choose just the right outfit for the party at Josie's house tonight. Not that it mattered what she wore. It wasn't like she had a big date or anything. She knew that Ethan was going out with Hope that evening so the liklihood that she would see him was slight. Not that seeing him would influence how she dressed. She should have invited Tommy to be her date for the party but her mood had been so black since school had let out for the holiday break that she hadn't called him. She never should have made a spectacle of herself kissing him like that at Wyn's two weeks ago, and she couldn't help but compare that very public, calculated kiss with the kiss she and Ethan had shared at the cabin. Nina hadn't been kissed a lot or by many but she had felt something with Ethan that was so primal and erotic that even now she had to stop and close her eyes and let the feeling wash over her. She just knew that she would never feel that way over anyone else and he had been treating her like she had the plague so it was probably all over with anyway. She wished she could be Hope for just five minutes and have him want her. She sighed heavily and wearily and was resigned to the fact that her life was more or less over.
Poor Tommy, she had given him the totally wrong impression and he had been following her around like a puppy ever since. She had consented to go with him to the movies just before Christmas but it hadn't been an evening that she had enjoyed. She had made him promise not to give her anything for Christmas, they had agreed not to exchange gifts and then he had gone and sent flowers to her mother. Belle had been impressed and had queried her incessantly about him for the last week. Nothing was working out the way that it should, nothing.
It dawned on her that she and her mother had lived in this apartment for a year. Tomorrow was the first anniversary of the day they had moved in. Sighing in disgust over her inability to get dressed she put on her bathrobe and went out to the kitchen. A year ago I was miserable, she thought, here I am miserable again for completely different reasons. I must be doomed to be miserable. She poured herself a large glass of milk and set it on the table and found a bag of cookies on the counter. Store-bought cookies even at Christmas. Josie's mother was a manic- depressive alcoholic but at least she baked cookies for her kids. Snap out of it. Maybe you'll have fun tonight. Josie's parents had okayed her use of their home for the New Years party but she had to promise to limit the number of guests and turn away anyone who brought alcohol. DeeDee and August were conveniently going out for the evening to the party at the Glades so they wouldn't be back till who knew when. Josie and Wyn were going to prepare a spaghetti dinner for their boyfriends. They had invited Nina for dinner, too, but she had decided to wait
and arrive with the other guests at a later time. So here she was with no date, nothing to wear, and four hours to kill before she went to Josie's.
Nina was surprised to hear her mother's key in the lock. "Hi," she said, "you're home early."
"We stopped working about an hour ago because Marjorie brought in a bottle of champagne." said Belle. "Things were slow, anyway so the four of us in the judge's office had a little drink together. Can you imagine! Opening a bottle of wine right there in his chambers!"
"Why, Mom," said Nina with surprise, "Does this mean that you're really going to cut loose tonight? I don't think I've ever seen you drink before."
"Oh, Nina, you really must help me." Belle sat down across the kitchen table from her daughter without bothering to remove her coat and nervously lit a cigarette. "I don't know what to do, I think I have a date tonight and I just don't know what to do."
"You think you have a date? When will you be sure?"
"Oh, I feel so foolish, I never really said yes but I didn't say no either so I think He took it as yes and now it's too late to turn him down without being horribly rude."
"Who is it?" Nina was immediately shaken out of her foul mood with this very interesting development. "Where did you meet him, who is he?"
"Of all places I met him in the laundry room downstairs. He lives up on the third floor and he's a little older, he's retired from the army. I think I met him when we first moved in but then we kept bumping into each other when we did our laundry. Nina, he bakes the most wonderful cheesecake and a couple of months ago we started having a little coffee break together when the clothes were in the dryer and now I'm going out to dinner with him!"
"Mom, what's his name?"
"Stanley Watford, Stan, he lives up on the third floor."
Nina was seeing her mother in a whole new light. Drinking champagne and going out on a date on new years' eve. Pretty impressive. She had seen this Stan in the hallway and thought she remembered him helping her mother carry in groceries more than once. "Well, where's he taking you, we have to dress you and get you ready. When's he picking you up, do I get to officially meet him?"
"Nina, I'm terrified. Petrified. I haven't been out on a date for twenty years. I don't have date clothes, you'll have to help me."
Nina jumped up from the table and hugged her mother. "Don't worry, Mom, you go take a nice, long bath and then I'll do your nails for you. There must be something in your closet that will
work. How about your dark green dress? Or your black one?"
"That black dress is so old, it's my funeral dress!"
"Right. Definitely the green, it even shows a little cleavage!"
"Nina! It's a first date! I want to look nice, not like a tart!"
"Okay, okay, everything will be fine. This will be fun." Nina spent the next two hours fussing over her mother and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could have a real conversation. She also had to reassure her that she would be fine, she'd find something to eat and that she was going to spend the night at Josie's anyway. She even managed to get the use of the car. She was so used to Josie and Wyn giving her rides everywhere she hadn't thought until now how she would get to the party herself.
Stan arrived at precisely seven o'clock to pick up Belle. He seemed nice and looked like he bathed regularly, a good habit that her mother was sure to appreciate. He had kissed Nina's hand when they were introduced. He was kind of cute. Fiftyish. Balding. At least he accepted that he was losing his hair and hadn't adopted that tacky comb-over look. Nina had no objections. She did insist that he have her home early as they left. Her mother had giggled. Her mother! Giggling and blushing. Yup, thought Nina, this was a whole new side to her mother she was seeing. She felt warm toward her and happy for her, feelings that were alien to their day to day relationship.
Nina surveyed the mess in her room and went about hanging up her clothes. She went into the bathroom to plug in her hot rollers and apply some make-up. You're such an idiot, she said to herself in the mirror, even your mother has a date tonight and you're just going to a boring old party that you'll have to leave before midnight to avoid the kissy stuff with whoever might be there that you're not interested in. Familiar old misery was setting in again. This time dressing was remarkably simple. The black corduroy pants. The cream colored sweater with the little ribbon tie at the neckline that she left open. If her mother was showing cleavage she could, too. Taking out the now cooled rollers she ran her fingers through her hair to break up the curls a little but not so much that it pulled the curl out. Satisfied with how it fell to just below her shoulders she tucked the sides loosely behind her ears and inserted the big gold hoop earrings through where they were pierced. A final application of lip gloss and she declared herself ready. Ready for what, besides being bored to death, she didn't know.
Nina debated whether to park in the driveway or on the street, she had slowed to an idle in her indecison and was taking inventory of the cars that were already there. She didn't want to block anyone in or prevent access to the garage so she parked on the street. Wyn must have picked up the boyfriends when she came over, her little yellow Honda was parked in the driveway nosed up to the closed garage door behind which Mr. Parker's Jeep was normally parked. Josie's parents must have taken the Caprice to the party at the Glades. The third car that Josie normally had free access to was not in its normal space in the driveway, Nina assumed that Ethan must have taken it for his date with Hope. She felt a little sad, even a little regretful over the way she had treated
Ethan from their very first meeting. She didn't mean to be abrasive and difficult, it just came out that way as a natural defense for what she was feeling on the inside. That was the first lesson she had learned at her mother's knee, just keep it inside, hide your feelings. But how. Nina had never mastered any of the life instuctions her mother had decreed over the years. All Belle did was tell her what she should do, not how she should do it, and it all ran counter to her instincts. Nina wanted to trust, longed to make attachments, yearned for something to fill the dark space inside of her, but she didn't know how to go about it. The one saving grace that she naturally possessed was her ability to quietly observe others in a situation unfamiliar to her, she picked up nuances of behavior and habits that to the average person would go unnoticed. Instinctively she would file this information away in her head and in her journal writing so it could be retreived and used later on. That was where she failed with Ethan. Somehow she over examined her every move, her every word with him. All that thinking interfered with her intuition and she found herself reacting to him in just the opposite way that she wanted to. I need to apologize to him, she thought, I need to make things right with him and start the new year in a positive way. There's my New Years Resolution in a nutshell, I resolve to stop being a jerk with Ethan and if I can I'll talk to him before the evening is over. Nina rang the doorbell. She felt a little better already.
Josie answered the door and hollered over her shoulder to the dining room that it was Nina. The pungent smells of garlic and oregano filled the air. Josie took her coat and motioned her into the living room. "I'm just going to toss your coat on the couch in the den, we were just going to have dessert so go on in the dining room. We're having carmel apple pie that my mom made this afternoon."
Nina entered the living room and stopped to admire the Christmas decorations that still graced the mantelpiece and the magnificent tree that must have been seven feet tall. Josie caught up with her and gave her a hug. "My mom goes in for Christmas in a big way. It's pretty crazy if you ask me. It takes her three weeks to put everything up and nearly a week to pack it all away again." The dining room was lit only by candles, Nina estimated there must be a couple dozen on the table alone with maybe ten more on the sideboard. Greetings went all around and Wyn emerged from the kitchen bearing the aformentioned pie, dessert plates, and a can of whipped cream.
"Hi, Neen. Do you want some pie, I'll get another plate if you do." Wyn said.
"Sure, it looks really good, but just a half piece, okay?" Over the last year Nina had been exposed numerous times to the results of DeeDee Parker's excellent culinary skills and wasn't about to pass up what was likely to be a treat. "Extra whipped cream for me, please," she said as she sat down.
The pie was delicious and Justin and Kirby had seconds. Nina helped to clear the dishes and was astonished at the condition of the kitchen. "Josie, your mother is going to kill you," she observed.
"I know," said Josie, "I'd better get to work on it right away before everyone shows up. Wyn
helped me make dinner, but she's not that good at it and I didn't inherit my mom's cooking gene. I didn't mean to make such a mess." There was tomato sauce on virtually every surface and apparently the first batch of pasta had not come out quite right and had been left to solidify in a colander in the sink. The aftermath of salad-making begged to be sorted out and either thrown away or be properly stowed in the refrigerator.
"Good thing your mom made the pie. I'd hate to see what happened if you'd tried to make dessert, too. Can I borrow a shirt or something to wear while we clean up? I don't want to mess up my sweater." Nina said indicating her new cream-colored sweater that her mother had given her for Christmas.
Josie stepped into the adjacent laundry room and returned with a freshly laundered black and brown plaid flannel shirt. "It's my brother's, but he won't mind. He won't even know, it'll go straight back to the laundry room when you're done with it."
Nina wordlessly took the shirt. She knew whose it was. She went to the half-bath in the breezeway to change. She removed her sweater and folded it carefully. Buttoning the worn shirt around herself she rolled up the sleeves for the work ahead. She looked in the mirror and frowned as she fingered the fabric at the neckline. This was the shirt he had worn when he kissed her more than a month before. Seeing her own face and tumbling hair above the familiar plaid was peculiar and she felt her face warm up with an invisible flush. Snap out of it, she reminded herself.
She returned to the kitchen and took on the task of removing the dried, cooked-on tomato sauce from the top of the stove as Wyn loaded the dishwasher and Josie put things away. They discussed who else was coming over and what board games would be played and who shouldn't be allowed to stray from the party and possibly end up in a bedroom. Giggles ensued and a Virgins Club meeting was scheduled for after the party to share any gossip or developments they might aquire in the course of the evening. Their party guests began to arrive and Josie left the kitchen to act as hostess and instructed Kirby to put on some music. Wyn had gone upstairs to comb her hair and left Nina to attend to the last few details of kitchen clean-up. She was rinsing out the sponge and looking for a clean towel on which to dry her hands when to her surprise Ethan came into the kitchen.
"Nice shirt," he remarked.
"Thanks. It obviously belongs to someone with refined taste in clothing." Nina took on an exaggerated modeling pose. "Josie got it for me, I didn't want to mess up my sweater while we were cleaning up."
"No problem, I don't have a great attachment to it or anything."
"What do you mean by that?" Nina bristled at his remark. It didn't occur to her that he wouldn't remember what he had been wearing when he kissed her, or even if he did that he would place any special significance on it. It's a curse, girls remember everything.
"Nothing," he replied, wondering what he had said to set her off. "Keep it, I have ten more, I won't miss it."
"I'd rather burn it and bury it." she said acidly.
"Whatever makes you happy." Ethan turned away from her and opened the refrigerator in search of the bottle of champagne he had placed in there to chill that afternoon. Meanwhile Nina was tearing angrily at the buttons and removing the shirt. When he closed the refrigerator door and turned back he was met full in the face with the shirt as it flew across the room.
"Just keep your old shirt," she spat as she stormed out of the kitchen. She's a psychopath, he thought. The fleeting glimpse of her shirtless had left a pleasant impression on him, though. She may be nuts but she looks good in her underwear. Just as she left Wyn returned and looked quizzically at Ethan where he stood in front of the refrigerator with a bottle of wine in one hand and the shirt hanging over one shoulder and one of the sleeves draped comically over the top of his head.
"Interesting look. I think it works for you." she said.
"Hurricane Nina strikes again." Ethan shrugged and tossed the shirt on top of the washing machine on his way through to the back door. This night just keeps getting better and better. Dinner with Hope hadn't been unpleasant but he was tiring of his role as her sensitive shoulder to cry on. He was hoping for things to progress a little. Maybe she would promote him to sensitive sex object or at least sensitive necking partner. Climbing the stairs to his abode above the garage he remembered how he had placed the champage in the refrigerator anticipating sharing it with Hope later on. He must have misread the signs because she just wanted to go home. And Nina just now. He wondered if she was mentally unstable or just a normal teenager. She was nothing like Josie temperament-wise. Teenage girls had been something of a mystery to him when they had been his contemporaries and his knowledge hadn't expanded lately. He was now convinced that he didn't want it to. He left the bottle of champagne outside the door so it would stay cold. He didn't know why he'd taken it along, he didn't especially want to drink it alone. Just as well, though, the kids down in the house wouldn't have to resist its temptation now that it was gone. Once inside he shed his jacket and tie and settled into some old, comfy jeans and a sweatshirt. Irritated by what he thought was a chunk of spinach between his teeth he went into the bathroom in search of dental floss.
There were fifteen teenagers gathered in the Parker living room. Consuming potato chips and Fritos with bean dip and downing Coke-a-Cola they were destroying their hearing with Bachman-Turner Overdrive blasting away over the stereo. Josie and Kirby were cuddled together on the sofa before the fire. Wyn and Justin were facing off over the chessboard with various kibitzers cheering them on. Oliver, who was there on his own, was strolling about dangling a chunk of mistletoe on a string over every female's head with no results other than groans and laughter. Taking another tack he sat down and dangled it over his own head. Still no takers. He stowed the mistletoe in his pocket and from another pocket produced a deck of cards.
When he couldn't interest anyone in a game of strip poker he launched into a series of card tricks. Now entertaining instead of obnoxious he gathered a few interested onlookers. Everyone else was dancing.
Nina tried not to but she kept returning to the kitchen to refill the bowls of snacks and fetch more cokes. She didn't feel like talking to anyone so if she kept moving it didn't appear so much that she was feeling anti-social. Seeing Wyn in the kitchen she confessed that she was tired, maybe she was coming down with a cold or something and maybe she would just go up to bed soon. Her circuit from living room to dining room to kitchen to dispose of trash and bring out food eventually led her to tie off a couple of garbage bags and take them out the back door to the garbage cans beside the garage. She looked up at the light in the windows above the garage and lamented her earlier behavior. She was such an idiot. Maybe she should go up and apologize to him right now. Oh, great, I'll interrupt him and Hope swilling their champage in preparation to diving into bed together. Then she noticed the bottle sitting outside the door. Well, at least they weren't drinking yet. Maybe he was up there alone. Her foot was on the first step. It was either up the steps or back in the house before she froze to death. Up the steps it was. This would only take a minute and she'd be back at the party where she would say goodnight and go upstairs to Josie's room and get settled for the night. She just didn't feel up to spending the rest of the party toting chips and coke bottles around. She shivered and knocked. He opened the door. He gestured her in from the cold and closed the door behind her.
"Can I help you?"
"No. Yes. I mean, ... I'm not bothering you or anything, am I."
"Not yet. I'll let you sit down if you promise not to throw anything at me."
"That's okay, I don't need to sit down, I just wanted to tell you something. I'm really sorry Ethan, I just act so stupid around you and I don't mean to. I just wanted to apologize to you for everything, from throwing the shirt at you, throwing myself at you, generally for being such an ass. I don't belong down there with all those kids but it's pretty clear that I don't belong up here, either. Anyway, happy new year, I guess I'll see you around." Nina turned to leave but stopped when she felt his hand on her arm.
"Don't go. And you don't have to apologize to me, I'm the one who's been a jerk. I've been through so much in the last couple of years and I'm having some problems with getting my life in order. That's not your fault. I don't know what to do with you or about you, you're just a little terrifying, especially when you do that."
"Do what? What do I do?"
"What you're doing right now, the way you look at me, like you're examining me, looking for any weakness so you can move in for the kill. It's a little unnerving."
"I do that? I had no idea. Well, maybe a little. My mom says that I throw daggers with my
eyes. I've alway liked the sound of that, you know, like I have a built in defense. I'll try not to do that to you. Unless you really bug me." She smiled at him. "So can we call a truce, try to be kinder to each other?"
"Sure. Truce." He extended his hand. "Shake on it?"
"Truce." They shook hands in pretty much the same way as they had last summer, only this time it was Ethan who experienced the lightening bolt. Energy never is destroyed it simply is passed along conduits of the least resistance. Sometimes it can be stored, like in a battery, but it escapes again once the proper contacts are established. Some people are just hard-wired to be compatible whether they like it or not.
"Champagne?" he offered. "It's almost midnight. Dick Clark's in Times Square on channel eleven and there's a scary movie on channel five."
"You'd be contributing to my delinquency, I'm not eighteen yet. Then I'd only be legal if we drove ten miles to the state line." She smiled again as she made herself comfortable on the sofa. "Okay. I'd love to have some champagne. And the spooky movie on channel five."
Ethan stepped out on the landing to get the bottle and popped the cork without spilling a drop. He poured up two glasses, he had borrowed two goblets from his mother's vast array of crystal that afternoon in anticipation of a different guest. Midnight came and went as Godzilla rampaged his way through some anonymous metropolis and the glasses were refilled as the terrified citizenry fled from his path. Nina liked the champagne, it was sweet and dry and the bubbles made it seem as guileless as soda pop. She also liked the way that something so cold could make her feel warmer inside. They cheered the monster on because the story was pointless and impossible to follow and at least his lines didn't have to be dubbed. Some things are universal. It was nearly one o'clock. The movie was over, the champagne was gone.
"They didn't come looking for me. They must not really be my friends." Nina giggled and then went on with feigned seriousness. "I took out the garbage and they were having such a good time they didn't even notice I was gone. For all they care I could be locked out in the snow suffering from hypothermia. Sure, I can see them at my funeral, sad over me dying so young, barely beginning to taste what life had to offer, dying a virgin." Nina meant to laugh again but the way he was looking at her made her stop short. She felt so warm, it was too warm in here and much too quiet. First he touched her hair and was pushing it back from her face, then kissing her forehead, then her closed eyes, then her lips. He caught her up in an embrace that was so all encompassing and compelling she felt as though she would never need to eat or breathe again, that all she required could be taken in through her skin and senses.
Ethan relaxed and held her at arm's length. His voice wasn't completely steady, but low and calm. "I want you to stay. God knows how I want you to stay. But it's up to you, if you don't want to be here you can go."
"I want to be here. I want you." Nina steadily met Ethan's gaze and shivered involuntarily.
Reaching down and locating the band at the bottom of her sweater she clutched it and pulled it over her head. Tossing her hair back she took a deep breath. Ethan removed his sweatshirt and dropped it on the floor She wasn't aware of the single tear gliding down her cheek until she felt his finger catch it and wipe it away. She took his hand in both of hers and kissed it slowly and repeatedly before guiding it around her to back to the closure on her bra. His fingers remembered what to do. Then his hands went to her shoulders and slid the unresisting straps down her arms until the garment fell free into her lap. Being on familiar terms with her body and assuming correctly that Ethan had seen a naked woman or two Nina was unprepared for his reaction to her state of partial nudity.
"You are so beautiful, so beautiful." he said, his voice catching with emotion.
Nina was fearing that he might cry or worse, whatever worse would be she didn't know but her first response was to move closer and carefully wrap her arms around him and kiss him, first gently, then with a ferocity that belied her lack of experience. Moving to the bed across the room they silently watched each other remove the rest of their clothing. Nina was intrigued and amazed by Ethan's engorged genitalia as well as the wetness and swelling she felt between her own legs. The mystery of how this worked was revealed to her degree by degree as they lay skin to skin in ecstatic unity. She was somewhere else, transported from the corporeal world to some other place where emotion and energy chased around in a whirling, frenzied circle that reduced her entire being to nothing but the synaptic firing in the pleasure center of her brain. She nearly forgot that there was another person involved. Reaching the not entirely mythical simultaneous climax they collapsed in a tangle of extremities, sweat, and the aching sweetness of something longed for and finally consummated. Falling into a blissful, sound sleep Nina and Ethan welcomed in the new year together. The future had arrived.
Three a.m. and all's well. At midnight an awkward atmosphere had descended over the living room. The four steady couples were slow dancing in the candle-lit dining room and took advantage of their separation from the rest of the party guests to engage in some serious lip lock. The other six gave them five minutes before storming the dining room by way of the kitchen with ice cubes and two cans of whipped cream. At Josie's insistance they cleaned up the resulting mess and then settled in for a boisterous round of charades. At one-thirty the Parkers had gotten home and hung around the teenage party until they sufficiently dampened the mood enough to make their daughter's guests look for their coats and say goodnight. Josie and Wyn had found the monster movie marathon on channel five and decided to stay up and watch. They dug sleeping bags out of the closet in the breezeway and made themselves comfortable on the living room floor. This was a routine they had followed since they had been in grade school, sleeping on the living room floor was so much more adventurous than sleeping in a bedroom. Checking on Nina's whereabouts had not occurred to them, they assumed that she had gone up to bed and didn't want to disturb her. Their club meeting could wait until morning, they had nothing much to report from the party, and judging from Nina's lack of participation in the festivities she wouldn't have anything to add, either.
Nina awoke slowly as if she were regaining consciousness after surgery. Swimming up through a hazy fog of semi-wakefulness she surfaced to find that her head hurt a little. Not a full-blown
headache but just a nagging little tightness behind her eyes. Her left leg had escaped from the covers and was cold to the touch. She located a towel that was draped over the chair beside the bed and wrapped it around herself and got up to go to the bathroom. Her legs felt peculiar, the cool temperature of her left leg against the warmth of her right made her feel split up the middle. Ethan lay sprawled on his stomach, hugging a pillow as he slept.
In the bathroom Nina turned on the light and opened the medicine cabinet hoping to find a bottle of aspirin. The towel began to slip and she grabbed at it, clutching it to her chest she felt a stab of pain. Pushing the towel down she noticed a bluish bruise on the side of her right breast, touching it hurt and she didn't remember how it got there. Letting the towel fall to the floor she inspected the rest of her body for evidence. No more bruises but her nipples were sore and there was still a swollen feeling between her legs. Finding the aspirin she closed the medicine cabinet and looked at herself in the mirror as she opened the bottle and took two tablets. She didn't look any different. Aside from the bruise she looked pretty much like she had hours earlier when she had stepped out of the shower at home. But she felt different. She ran the water in the sink until it was cold and filled the glass she found in the toothbrush holder. Popping the pills into her mouth she drank the entire glass down and caught her breath. She wanted to do it again. She smiled at her reflection as she wrapped the towel around herself once more.
Nina stood leaning against the footboard of the bed. Watching Ethan sleeping she relived what had happened just two hours before. She felt a tingling that ran from the base of her spine as she recalled the process of him applying the condom before he entered her. She wondered if there were more condoms in the drawer of the nightstand as she tossed the towel back onto the chair and slipped under the covers and cuddled up to Ethan's back. Wide awake now she wondered how deeply asleep he was as she touched his hair and kissed the back of his neck.
It was a stand-off that defied resolution. Weary from tugging the sandal back and forth in a furtive tug-of-war, Peri and Maddy stood with eyes locked, each of them holding the disputed shoe in a death grip. Observing the deadlock status of her daughters' dispute Wyn knew she would need to intervene or lunch would never get eaten. On her way across the stone patio to where the hedge parted and gave way to rolling lawn Wyn picked up the remaining three sandals and stopped a few feet shy of where Peri and Maddy stood unmoved. Wyn had known since she had been ten years old that she wanted to be a lawyer but she had learned more about conflict resolution and compromise since she had become a mother than she had ever learned in law school or in a court room.
"Okay, munchkins, hand over the shoe," she said as she took hold of the shoe in what little space remained between the girls' hands. "I will count to three and both of you will let go on three. Ready?" Peri and Maddy nodded in agreement without taking their eyes off of each other. "One, two, three, give!" The girls let go and Wyn held the disputed shoe up in the air to admire it in the midday sun. Wyn continued as her daughters looked up at her through furrowed brows. "When school was out and we went shopping for sandals I warned you to choose different colors but each of you insisted on the white. This sandal was available in four colors but both of you had to have the white ones. So we wrote your initial on the soles and this one appears to belong to Maddy." Wyn handed the shoe to the daughter on her right and inspected the soles of the other three sandals and distributed the two marked with the letter "P" to Peri and the remaining one marked with an "M" to Maddy. "Put on your shoes and come in to wash your hands for lunch. Auntie Neen will be here anytime with baby Isabella and the dirt must be cleaned from your hands before you can hold her. In the house now."
"Okay, Mommie," they chorused as they sat down on the grass to buckle their sandals. Wyn marveled as she watched them put on their shoes and then skip toward the house holding hands, best friends once more, their flaxen hair bouncing in the breeze. These twins were such a mystery to her, at once mortal competitors and closest confidantes their fluid interactions shifted back and forth in the blink of an eye.
To see herself reflected in this split image of a mirror was at times unnerving. Peri was older by seven minutes but not entirely dominant over her sister. She possessed a darker temperament than Maddy but was quick to apologize over the slightest of injuries she may have inflicted upon another. Maddy had a bright disposition but was stubborn to a fault. Wyn was surprised that the disputed sandal belonged to Maddy, she had expected it to be Peri's based on their past behavior. Just when you think this whole parent thing is making sense they turn the tables on you. She thought that the rivalry between her daughters would be clearer to her if she hadn't experienced such a solitary upbringing. Despite the fact that Wyn had three sisters she had pretty much been raised as an only child. Hope was the closest to her in age but was still ten years her senior and Greta and Thea had always seemed more like adoring aunts than sisters to her. By the time she was in second grade she had served as flower girl in both of their weddings and couldn't really remember them living at home. Wyn was filled with gratitude that she had found Josie at such an early age, they had been inseparable since preschool despite their obvious dissimilarities. And when Nina had shown up halfway through their junior year in high school she had made their symbiotic triangle complete. For the first time in eighteen years all three of them were together again in Walsh River but the unpleasant reality of their reunion had settled in gradually over the last five weeks.
For the five weeks since Josie had taken up residence at the hospital her condition had stabilized but had shown no improvement. There was discussion as to whether she would be moved into a long-term care facility, a nursing home, if she didn't regain consciousness soon. Comatose but breathing on her own she was kept alive by the feeding tube that had been inserted through her nose and kept limber by the range of motion therapy and deep muscle massages that were administered daily by a physical therapist. Wyn and Nina and their mothers and a number of volunteers kept Josie company on a rotating basis, they brought books and CD's and played cards while the music provided a soothing background. They read stories and novels and turned on the TV to catch reruns of Silicon Valley Girls. Any activity or stimulation to remind Josie that she was still among the living, however tenuously, was imperative. It was their collective mission to help her find the way back from wherever she had retreated to inside the deep recesses of her being.
Members of Josie's own family were conspicuously absent from the flow of visitors that passed through the doors of her hospital room. Her parents had come the day that she had been admitted and her mother had called a couple of times to check on her condition but that was it. When Ethan had finally returned Wyn's phone call he had been obviously upset but unable to get away. They had called back and forth weekly since then and he had been making arrangements to leave for up to a month, he had been in the middle of preparing for a gallery opening but had promised to come back home as soon as he possibly could.
The tabloid press had exploded into supermarket display racks the week following Josie's suicide attempt. The entire city of Walsh River in general and Nina and Wyn in particular were jolted into the realization that Josie might belong to them but that Adara Adams belonged to the world. On the grassy boulevard in front of the hospital a peculiar shrine had sprung up overnight after the news had broken. There was a guest book to sign and all variety of memorabilia from Josie's television show and her earlier undistinguished film career. Fresh flowers, daisies mostly,
appeared daily, and sometimes there were as many as a dozen people holding vigil. They lit candles when it became dark and sometimes sang softly. Josie had been moved out of the ICU and into a bright, south facing room with a large window and whoever was keeping her company at the time described the scene outside to her.
Distracted by the sound of a vehicle coming up the drive Wyn walked toward the garage and saw Nina's mini van making the last curve around the house. She waved and walked past the faded lilac blooms at the edge of the lawn to meet her. Nina hopped out from the driver's seat and stood quiet for a moment after she closed the car door. Wyn frowned at her. Something was going on. Nina broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
"What? Tell me." demanded Wyn.
"I found them. I have them in the diaper bag." answered Nina.
"Found what?" asked Wyn as she followed Nina around the van to the passenger side.
"The letters." said Nina as she opened the side door to get Isabella. "You know, the letters we wrote to ourselves on graduation night? The ones we were going to open and read to each other at the tenth reunion but we couldn't find them and Josie wasn't coming home anyway so we just kind of forgot about them? The funny thing is, when I found them it came back to me why I hid them where I had and my first impulse was to get rid of my letter because I really didn't remember what I wrote in it and wasn't sure I wanted to open it up and read it after all this time but then I realized that if we're going to open Josie's and read it then it's only fair that we open ours, too."
"So where did you find the letters, you said you thought they were gone, that you hadn't come across them when you and Evan moved into the house so you assumed they had been thrown out.." said Wyn.
"I know," said Nina, "that's what's so funny. I was up in the attic last night looking for Evan's notes from his first draft of this play he'd started to write when we were still in college and there they were, tucked inside an old notebook along with the charter for the Virgins Club. I'd given up looking for them a couple of weeks ago but when I found them I remembered that I had intentionally stuck them in with Evan's play notes because I thought they were unfinished business, and that was the working title of the play. The connection was so obvious I thought I'd never forget it. But there they were, waiting for me to remember." Nina reached into the diaper bag and pulled out three #10 envelopes, each one bearing one of their names. Along with it was a sheaf of yellowed onionskin pages containing the typed and signed charter and by-laws of the Virgins Club. She handed the papers to Wyn and picked up Isabella and the diaper bag and deftly closed the door with her sneakered left foot.
"I remember what I wrote that night," said Wyn. She shuffled through the papers and held them with reverance. "Let's have lunch, Mom's waiting inside with the girls, we can read these later." She held up the envelope that was signed Josie Lynne Parker. There must be something in that
envelope she thought, knowing that the one with her name on the front held her own dark secret that even now she wasn't sure she was ready to share. Wyn had hoped that hers would have disappeared somewhere along the line but the moment of truth was at hand. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, if Nina was willing to share her letter her own girlish confession might not be nearly as juicy as she had thought it was at the time. And Josie's might be important. Or maybe not. Josie was given to going on about such inane things that the contents of her letter might be nothing more than a discourse on whether your eye shadow should match your eyes or your outfit.
Wyn held the door for Nina and they went into the kitchen. Miriam had set a lovely table with fresh flowers for a centerpiece. Wyn had asked her mother not to make such a big fuss over lunch but Miriam always did thing up just so. There were generous shrimp salads with a mustard vinagrette dressing for the three women and tall glasses of iced tea to drink. Fresh croissants were nestled warm in a cloth lined basket. Nina broke up a croissant into bite size pieces and placed them a few at a time on the high chair tray in front of Isabella. Izzie experimented with the bits of bread, placing some in her mouth and smashing others flat before eating them. The applesauce her mother fed her in tiny spoonfuls mostly ended up on her bib and fingers. Peri and Maddy declared that Grandma made the bestest grilled cheese sandwiches in the world and chomped loudly on their baby carrots while making horrible faces for Isabella's entertainment. Izzie laughed and pounded on the high chair tray in enthusiastic approval.
After lunch and a bottle Isabella was laid down for a nap while Miriam took the twins for a walk down to the river. Nina never ceased to be amazed over Miriam's energy and stamina. She only hoped to look and feel as well at seventy-five. Nina and Wyn settled in the gazebo with the letters and tried to remember if there was a specific manner in which they were supposed to do this little ceremony that was already twelve years late. They decided to first open and read their own letters and then exchange them for the other to read, leaving Josie's for last. Their eyes met solemnly as they tore open the envelopes and then they looked down and back in time.
* * * * * * *
I, Wynifred Wilhelmina Paxton, being of sound mind, do today set down on paper my present situation, thoughts, and feelings and a prediction of the future ten years from now.
Ten years hence I will be a practicing attorney having attained my bachelor's degree with a major in history or possibly a double major in literature and history. That sounds frighteningly like my father whom I never knew and scarcely remember but it must be his legacy showing up in me. I'm not sure where I want to go to law school but I'm determined to do well so that I can choose freely among the schools that I'm sure will court me as a student.
I feel kind of sad that I'll be leaving Mom alone here at the end of the summer. I could live at home and commute to school but I feel like I'll miss the real nature of campus life if I go home each day after classes. Maybe Hope will stay on after the summer, she's gotten quite involved with helping Mom running the Society office, other than that I don't know why she's sticking
around here. I don't think she and Ethan are getting along, and Josie and I had such great hopes for them to get together but I don't think it's going to work out. I love having her around, she really held me together when Grandma Winnie died two months ago. I guess we held each other together, and Mom was really broken up over it. I guess Mom and Grandma were best friends, unusual for a mother and daughter-in-law, but I hope to have such a relationship with my own mother-in-law if I ever marry.
We just held a meeting of the Virgins Club. Since two out of the three of us have fallen from that lofty status I guess we're just waiting for Nina to give in, but the question is, to whom? I used to think Tommy but lately I've wondered if Nina is the reason Ethan and my sister aren't getting along. I know it's ridiculous but I have this feeling that something is going on there. I need more time to observe them together but there is definitely something going on.
And since I may never share this with anyone I think I must at least be honest with myself. We were supposed to be truthful and tell all in the Virgins Club but there is one thing that I just can't share, even with my two best friends. I told the truth about Justin, we did sleep together, five times in all, and I did really care for him. He was sweet and kind but we just weren't meant to be together. And each time we made love I felt a little more detached from him, a little more distant. I guess the sex was okay, it isn't like I have anything to compare him to, but after a while I just didn't care anymore.
To be perfectly honest, I've always found the female more esthetically pleasing to look at and to be around. If I had to choose one person to be with the rest of my life I would choose Nina. And this is where it gets tricky. Nina and I are going to be roommates in the fall and I promise myself that I will look but not touch unless she makes a move toward me first. She is so beautiful and dark and sometimes when she hugs me I just melt inside. I know that I have a crush on her but I need to keep that to myself because I'm certain that she goes for the opposite sex.
I resolve that over the next four years that I will devote all my energy toward my studies and shut off the part of me that wants Nina, I will be content to settle for being with her as my friend. Maybe when I go away to law school I'll allow myself to explore the other side of the fence but I don't want to shut myself off from the possibility that I'll find my soul mate in a man. For now, I feel like Nina is my soul mate and maybe that's why I love her. I must never risk driving her away by telling her this, to lose her would leave such a gaping hole in me that I may never recover.
So, twenty-seven-year-old Wyn, when you read this I truly hope that you are happy and fulfilled with your work as well as your love life.
Signed, this 24th day of May, 1975,
Wynifred Wilhelmina Paxton
* * * * * * *
Last night I read through all of my journal writing from when I was first given the news that I would be moving to Walsh River. I wanted to get a sense of how coming here had changed my life and how the people I have met and the experiences I have had have influenced me.
I know I'm not an adult yet even though I will be eighteen in less than a month. If anything, I feel more dependent on others than I have ever felt in my life. Maybe it's because I've been here long enough to form real attatchments to others, a new but satisfying aspect to my life. Wyn and Josie are the best friends that I used to fantasize about, we do everything together and even when we fight about anything it's okay, I've learned that it isn't the end of a relationship if you disagree, that sometimes you can learn and grow from a difference of opinion. And sometimes that it just doesn't matter, that you can love your friends even if you're not exactly the same in every way.
My mother doesn't make me crazy like she used to. I guess that I've matured some and I think that she's changed, too. We both have boyfriends so now we have some common ground and she's opened up some about my dad, she's talked about him more and answered some questions for me, he seems like more of a person to me now. I have Stan to thank for bringing me closer to my mother, I think that he has changed her life for the better and in doing that has made my life better, too.
We're going to put away these letters we're writing along with the Virgins Club charter as a sort of time capsule. We have promised to meet at our tenth reunion and open and read the letters to ourselves and share them with each other if we wish. I have been chosen to be the keeper of the time capsule so it will be my duty to keep these papers safe for the next ten years. This dubious honor has been granted to me because the next Virgins Club meeting must be called by me, the only remaining virgin. The purpose of this meeting will be for me to describe my first sexual experience in detail. I'd better come up with something before the summer is over, maybe right after my birthday.
As for the Virgins Club, I think it was a good idea to create a forum where we could discuss certain matters without judging each other but as far as I'm concerned it was a failure. I look up and see my two best friends busily writing and wonder why I couldn't tell them the truth about me and Ethan. Sometimes I think that they know but choose to let me deal with it in my own way. But other times I could swear I see in their eyes how disappointed they are that I've spoiled their plans for getting Ethan and Hope together. We love each other but can't tell, partly because of his probation, at least when I'm eighteen we can start to see each other openly. I don't like lying and I will forever be sorry over how I involved Tommy and hurt him, I used him because it was expediant and that is unforgivable. He let me use him only because I led him to believe that I felt the same way about him as he felt about me. Sometimes I think that Ethan and I may be doomed because of the way that we started, deception and using others aren't a good foundation
to build a relationship on but because I love him so much I hope for the best.
As for the future, I don't know. Wyn and I are going to room together in the freshman dorms in the fall, I'm excited over college but I don't know what I want to study, maybe communications or advertising. My work-study job is going to be working part-time in the bookstore and I think I'll really like that. I wonder if in ten years Ethan and I will be married and maybe have a child. It's difficult to see myself as a wife and mother but I can close my eyes and see Ethan and me together forever. Que sera, sera, right? What will be, will be.
In closing, I would like to express how much Josie and Wyn mean to me and I hope we will be friends until we are little old ladies in rocking chairs on the porch of some rooming house, talking about what great lives we have had.
Very sincerely yours,
Nina Elaine Bradbury
* * * * * * *
Wyn finished reading first and when Nina looked up she couldn't decipher the expression on Wyn's face. "Want to trade? Or do you want to keep the deepest secret of your seventeen-year- old life to yourself?"
Wyn waited to answer, she knew that she wanted to trade letters and had been touched rather than mortified over the contents of her own, by now she knew she could trust in Nina not to overreact to what she was about to read. "Sure, let's trade," she said as she handed over her letter in exchange for Nina's.
They both fell quiet once more as they read. When Nina finally looked up there were tears in her eyes. Wyn looked up and met her gaze but looked down to finish the last two paragraphs. When she had finished reading she saw Nina had gotten up and had walked out onto the lawn. Wyn unfolded her long legs from under her and moved uncertainly toward Nina. Nina turned as Wyn approached.
"I didn't know, Wyn, I'm not surprised, though."
"I knew, well, I suspected about you and Ethan. Like I said in my letter, I thought something was going on before you called that last meeting."
"Yeah. Looking back I don't know how I could think that nobody knew, it was just too big a secret for it not to spill out one way or another. What about you and the other side of the fence?"
"Well, you can rest assured that I still love you but I'm no longer attracted to you. I got that out
of my system in law school. It was sort of trendy, actually. I'm convinced that it's a requirement for graduation that all female1L's have a lesbian love affair. I still think women are beautiful and I enjoy looking at them but Marc showed me the error of my ways." Wyn laughed out loud and Nina joined her. "Maybe I'm just a little more flexible in how I think about love. If you and I had slept together when we were twenty, who knows, we might be a couple today, things might be entirely different. Then again I might have horrified and disgusted you and lost you forever."
Nina hugged her best friend and they laughed together as they walked back to the gazebo arm in arm. "I have to admit that I have always enjoyed seeing you naked."
"No, really, I didn't ever think about you in a sexual way but I always wanted to be built like you and was sort of envious of how you looked."
"That's funny, because I wanted to be more like you. But what about you and Ethan, did you sleep with him when he came back for my wedding? I seem to remember the two of you getting pretty friendly with each other and I also remember that Evan was conveniently out of town."
"Is it too late to say that it's none of your business? Sometimes don't you feel like we know a little too much about each other?" Wyn shook her head in reply. Nina continued. "Yes, we did. And Evan knows about it. We hadn't broken up but we were fighting and Ethan has this effect on me. I'm not completely comfortable knowing that he's going to be here soon."
"What were you fighting about twelve years ago, I didn't think you and Evan fought at all."
"Well, we really don't. But we were having a major disagreement back then. When you and Marc got engaged Evan wanted us to get married, too. And I don't know why, I just couldn't and I told him that I loved him but that marriage was something I just couldn't do at the time. And now, especially since Isabella, I wonder if we should for her sake but I don't know. Evan is the love of my life and I can't imagine what it would be like without him, he's such a good father and I know he would never leave me. I don't know why I'm so terrified over getting married, I mean, we don't have the piece of paper but we seem married, I feel married. We should just do it because it would make Evan so happy but somehow I can't. Maybe I should find a good psychiatrist."
"Maybe you should tell Josie that if she wakes up she can be your maid of honor. That ought to shock her into consciousness!"
"That's not such a bad idea. I'm not above lying if it would bring her back. Let's read her letter, how should we do this, though, there's no alternate plan if one of us isn't here."
"I don't know, flip a coin?"
"No, you read it first,Wyn, then I will. You and Josie have always been closer, if she were here I
think she'd vote for you to read it first."
"Okay," said Wyn as she broke the seal of the envelope with Josie's name on the front.
* * * * * * *
Dear Me, ten years older,
Nothing matters anymore so God knows where and what I'll have become when I read this. I'm dirty and a liar and I'm not worthy of any man wanting me anymore. Kirby won't even look at me since the night we slept together. I led him on for so long and then I told him we would do it on my birthday. I thought we'd get married when he finished school next year and that it was time. I could still wear a white dress if he was my one and only but that's gone forever. I don't know what I did wrong but since then he won't come near me. Maybe he could tell that I wasn't a virgin anymore and he was angry about it. I cried when we were done but that's normal, isn't it? I'll never cry again, though, from now on I'll be in control where men are concerned. I saved myself for Kirby, at least I intended to but that bastard took from me the only thing that was really mine. And now Kirby doesn't want me. There's bad blood in my family and I tried to escape my destiny but now it's caught up with me.
From the beginning, I wanted to be good. It was so sad and scary when Annie left and then when Ethan went to prison I couldn't stand how sad mom and dad were. I knew it was up to me to be good but I just wasn't strong enough. That creepy bastard Walt Henderson saw through me and knew I was bad, the third Parker kid wasn't going to get away clean if he could help it. I shouldn't have let him give me a ride home, I should have known better but I made a big mistake trusting him. At first I thought it would be okay and then when he turned down Prospect Avenue I should have just jumped out of the car even if it was still moving. But it was so cold outside, I should have waited for Kirby to come and pick me up but then I was the last one there cleaning up after the meeting and I was so stupid to let creepy Mr. Henderson give me a ride. I know that nobody will ever believe me but I tried to fight him off. He was just so much bigger than me I finally just gave up. When he was finished I felt sick and he told me not to tell anyone and that nobody would believe me anyway. He said that I flirted with him and led him on and that finally he just couldn't control himself. It was my fault. My fault. He was a happily married man and it was my fault because if his wife ever found out she'd leave him and then I'd be a homewrecker. Then five days later he was dead. I figured that was his punishment, to die that way, after what he did to me and to Collette and who knows how many more. I'll just let my pain be buried with him because I can't tell anyone. I will never speak of this ever again.
Maybe Daddy will let me move into the apartment over the garage when I start college in September. Ethan sounds like he wants to find another place to live if he can find a decent job when his community service is over. I'll miss having him so close by if he moves but I don't feel
like I belong in my pink bedroom anymore. The privacy would be nice and I'll say that I need the quiet to study. I think I'll do okay in school, I really want to make the cheerleading squad for hockey but I'd settle for basketball. I might even pledge a sorority but not until sophomore year. I don't know what I want to study or what I want to do after I graduate. I don't know what I want to do if I drop out. I'm not good at anything and I'm not smart like Nina and Wyn. They're my best friends and I love them so much. But they're so focused, they know what they want to do and I'm just floundering. I need to find something that I'm good at and then find a way to get somebody to pay me for doing it. I guess that's my plan.
Now I'm thinking that I should just tear this up and start over. The beginning is so depressing and things really aren't that bad. I feel better after venting my rage a little. I'm even sleeping better, now, and I'm sure that soon I'll feel like my old self again, I just need to put these last few months behind me and get on with my life. I know I can survive this, as long as I have my two best friends and my family I know I'll be fine. Here's to the future!
Josie Lynne Parker
Me, ten years ago.
* * * * * * *
"Oh my God." Wyn said slowly, punching each word out emphatically. She handed the letter to Nina.
Nina read, looking up at Wyn after each paragraph, both of them shaking their heads in shock over Josie's confessional composition. Nina cried. She cried out in rage and anger and anguish. Wyn could only watch while she tried to make sense out of Josie then and Josie now.
"It wasn't just Collette and Josie." Nina's voice was ragged. "He tried to with me but I got away. He was pretty drunk so it wasn't that difficult to escape. I never babysat for them again. I could have helped Josie if I'd known but I kept quiet. She was right, who knows how many victims he left behind."
"I want to go to Riverside Cemetary and carve 'RAPIST' on his headstone. Everyone should know about what he did to those girls. We laughed about Candy Preston because she threw herself at him. But I wonder how many others there are."
"So is this it? Is this why she wanted to die? Is this why Josie tried to do herself in? She blamed herself when she was the victim. She came back to Four Pines Bend. That must be where he took her. Half of this county probably had their first lay there. I know I did."
"You and Justin, really?"
"MmHmm. In the back seat of his mom's Cadillac. So where and when did you and Ethan do it first?"
"In the apartment over the garage. January first, 1975. It was great. It became the standard I held all men to." Nina smiled through her tears. "What can we do, poor Josie, she didn't get to choose her first time like we did. He took that away from her and it meant so much to her. And she kept it all inside all this time. She's a better actress than I've ever given her credit for."
"I think that we need to go visit her, just the two of us, and tell her we read the letter and we know everything. She has to stop blaming herself for what happened, it wasn't her fault. And you have to tell her what he did to you. Maybe if she knows she can finally let go, maybe she'll find some peace if we get through to her. I don't think that she'll automatically wake up or die but I think if she knows that we understand then she can start to find her way back."
Nina felt a new hope spring up in her. Josie was right, here's to the future. It's the only thing we can change.