was the summer after the spring that I had fallen from grace. Fallen was
my mother's word, though there was an actual fall. I pushed aside the ivory lace
curtains and shoved myself out of my bedroom window, barely looking at my Cambridge
neighborhood with the houses sprinkled, tucked, dotted by the clear mint green
of trees and the windowed squares of light. I tried to descend down a trellis
where my mother grew lilac. It was perhaps unfortunate or perhaps purposeful to
choose the night when the lilac was so in bloom that its perfume rose in the violet
dusk and filled me with the will to climb down it.|
The whole trellis came down when I was near the ground, when my high top sneakers had tapped the side of the wall, right by the study where my father was probably just then, revising the latest draft of his very important treatise on what he called that gift, democracy.
When I fell from grace, it felt as if only a tiny snap had come undone, as if the trellis hadn't ever held the house that closely and could come off, clearly, popping like the pulled sides of a wishbone.
I went off to be with the other girls. That night I was going to some smoky basement in Central Square where the latest of the latest bands was playing so loudly I would never have to notice I wasn't changing like the world, not like the lilacs blooming, not like my other friends, who had found boyfriends, or thinness, or excelled at lacrosse. There, leaning against a wall, I would cradle cigarettes between two fingers, swinging them back and forth, as if I were conducting, as I watched girls in leather jackets with shiny zippers go by me to each other.
I was able to forget the trellis and the towering trains of lilac that scattered on the lawn like small boats of light, glowed in the shining, beacon-like security lights my parents had gotten for the outside of the house after neighbors were robbed. Nowhere in the noise of the place or the occasional shout of a friend about how cool it was to be there, just there, not anywhere else, did a thing remind me of the clumsy escape I had made.
When I got back, after midnight on a school night, my father was sitting at the piano, thumbing through my old piano books. My mother was sitting on her rocker, rocking so fast she looked as if she might suddenly hurl herself forward onto the plush tapestry of the rug.
She hugged a velvet pillow as she spoke above the crisp earnest voice of the spring birds that came through the open window. "Amy, I don't know what's gotten into you. Coming and going like you do. Wearing a dog collar. I don't like it one bit. You've fallen," she stopped there, without explaining from what I had fallen.
"Your mother's right," my father plucked a chord on the piano, and then the chord's minor.
"I shudder to think what you're doing, whom you're with, what is up with you." She had long, eloquent hair, the sort that one might associate with a goddess if she didn't keep it braided and twisted, like a Dutch doll. Her eyes shot out of her, mottled green. She swung back on the rocker. "But we won't put up with it anymore. You aren't going out till we leave for the summer house, and that's final."
"We were worried sick," my father contributed, which may have been the real point but was lost when he ran his hands along the keys, making a spook-house, symphonic chord go off in our house.
"You ruined the lilacs," my mother said, finally. "You really did. My beautiful lilacs."
"I'm sorry," I said, "That's something I'm sorry about...." I meant it, really, but she got up and went outside. I watched her through the window as she tried to salvage the lilacs that had fallen. For days, they glistened in glass bowls around the house, floating on shallow water.
We arrived at our summer house in Maine the day after school ended. The Graves, my parents' best friends, came the next day. Skip was a prep school teacher in New Hampshire. Sunny had been my mother's roommate in college. I was the first to hear the spit of the gravel as the Volvo wagon soared out of the pines. "They're here!" I shouted. A cloud of dust rose around the Graves' car as it shook down the unsteady road.
It stopped slowly. Mr. Graves got out first. "Well, well," he said. Sunny came out next, sporting a pink cardigan with only the top button buttoned and dressed already for a game of tennis down on the sandy court that was lousy to play on because if you lost a ball it went off into the woods and you never found it again. "Where's Sophie?" I asked.
Slowly Sophie, my summer friend, whom I never saw during the year, not once ever, emerged. Her head was shaved and a series of pierces went up her ear. My heart leapt.
"She got run over by a lawn mower," Skip tried with a dazzling grin, rubbing his stomach through the lemon yellow polo. But I knew what had happened to her because it had happened to me, and we took hands immediately, giggling down to the beach, to tell each other as quickly as possible about what rules we had broken, what we had drunk and smoked, how awful our parents had been, as if that would be telling how we had changed.
Sophie slept late every beautiful morning. I waited for her on the Graves' front porch, which was closer to the ocean, so that sometimes the sizzle and hiss of a wave hitting the rocky beach beneath us would rise up. Sunny sighed each time she heard it. She moved around the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as I sat gripping the splintery arms of the Adirondack chair. Once in awhile I heard the plop of a puzzle piece falling. "I wonder where my sleepyhead is," Sunny would say. "How did you say school was?"
"Fine." I had been instructed by Sophie to say as little as possible to her mother.
"That's a good school for you. The best.... I wish we could send Sophie somewhere else."
"She's not good at school. Are there drugs at your school?"
"Some," I said.
"Do you think Sophie's on drugs?" she asked.
"Do you think Sophie has a secret boyfriend, maybe a college boy?" Her voice weakened as she said the words.
"No," I said again.
Sophie would come down finally, eyes red, groggy, in the same jeans and T-shirt. "Hey," I said.
"Orange juice," she replied.
Sophie took her glass down to a large rock by the water where we often looked out at the easy stretch of sails. "What'd she say?"
"Asked me about drugs and college boys."
"Jesus. I hope you didn't say anything."
"Course not," I said.
Sophie threw her orange juice glass straight into the water. She said we were running out of beach glass with people not littering any more.
"We are not," I laughed, rubbing my hand gently through her snarled hair.
"Are to...what? Can you see under the water?" But she was laughing too, and sometimes, we just jumped onto the beach and looked for the smallest pieces of glass, yelping when we found a blue slice, hugging then, as if, really, that was all we ever hoped for.
Summer nights started when our parents played Scrabble. Their gathering would begin with a phone call. The phones were old-fashioned and the ring would rattle the shells on the shelves and the Scrabble game pieces, permanently set up on an old table.
"Come right over," my mother would exclaim to them. I barely had to look through the window at the pines and the clear lawn and the purplish blush of the sky before I heard the screen door pop like a bullet shot. Sophie's bald head glowed in the night and she headed straight to the beach.
I would look over at my mother. "Don't go far," she would say to me.
Sophie and I went as far as we could get. Sometimes we drank a beer and it was tremendously exciting to suck a half a box of mints into our mouths to cover our breath before we went home.
Really, mostly we walked and talked. We talked about the bands, the smoke, the way when we got older we would never go back home. We criticized our parents until the fear of how far we were getting from them seemed less, appropriate.
We always timed it just right, getting back as our parents finished their Scrabble game. They'd exclaim about the words they linked, the high scores. The big, old dictionary would be out and open, moths clambering over its light tissue pages.
Skip would recite a Longfellow poem from heart as Sophie squirmed. We would all walk them home with the yellow emergency flashlight. Through the dark among the twist and flash of the fireflies, the flashlight sent a solitary headlight path ahead of us. The stars seared and fell and sometimes we would cup our hands as if to catch them.
Every week, Sophie would tell me that her boyfriend, Les, from down the coast was to visit. She would tell me about how he was her father's student, how she sneaked into the prep school dormitory, past the sleepy, startled, 21 year old dorm parents, into his room at night. She told me he was the son of a politician from Maryland, but he didn't care. He had started an underground newspaper and read Sartre in French.
Every week he did not come, Sophie grew listless and chucked her empty orange glass into the sea. "I'll go see Les," she said.
"Will your parents take you down?" I asked.
"Please, what do you think? Do you think they even know?"
Then, one night, I woke up to Sophie sitting at the end of my bed, her face glaring with shadow, her arms white with moonlight.
"What?" I somehow wasn't surprised to see her there.
"I'm going to hitchhike down the coast. I'm gonna go see him."
"You can't just go," I said. "What will your parents think?"
"They won't know -- you won't tell, will you?" her voice was whispery, slumber party soft. I remembered when we were little, she and I would have slumber parties on each others' porches, sleeping on the hard, splintery floor, insisting on it, in sleeping bags, trying to squelch our laughter until someone cried, "Girls!" It wasn't when we were little, I corrected myself slowly. It was just last summer.
Sophie stared out the window. I could guess the view she had: cool blue night rocks, the glimmer of moon on the ocean. "Amy, it's a girl," she whispered.
"Who?" I murmured back.
"Les isn't a boy, she's a girl. I'm in love with a girl."
I sat up, punching the down pillows.
"Don't tell," she said. "Promise me you won't tell." She breathed heavily. I could see she was shaking a little, as if she were afraid of what I might say. Something inside me fell open, a trapdoor, a way out of the smoky basements back home. I leaned up towards her, could feel my body casting a shadow across the white, crisp sheets my mother hung out to dry in the rush of mid-day sun. I could feel myself having to catch myself, having to hold on to the fuzz of her grown-in hair, the curve of her earlobe.
"I can't," she said, "with you. I've got to go to Les. I promised. Haven't you ever promised anything?"
I shook my head. Sophie turned away, ran through the door, loudly. This promise made her different than me, I thought. She was already out there, somewhere in the world, had landed in someone else's heart when she fell. She hadn't gotten tangled on her mother's rose trellis.
Her hands it the walls as she went down the stairs, so that next day, when the Graves called to ask if we had seen Sophie, my mother was scurrying around the corners of the walls and crawling through the attic, convinced she'd heard a bat the night before.
"I've had quite enough of your antics," my mother said to me. She was washing raw scallops in a tinny basin that was warped, bent years old. It clattered in the porcelain sink. Her face was flushed from spending the day going back and forth between our lawn and the Graves' for updates. "Are YOU planning to run away too? Do you know what you are doing to us? To all of us? Do you know what it's like not know where your daughter is?"
I sat at the table, running my hand over the laminated Maine map placemats, tracing my fingers where Sophie had gone to be with another girl. I thought, maybe, when Sophie got back, maybe that night, we'd walk over the tar-crusted pavement, along the road, maybe we'd even hitchhike, which we did only rarely, when we wanted to get into town early. I thought maybe we'd have Italian ices. Maybe we'd sit there, together, on the stoop outside the store with wooden spoons and dig till the tiniest sliver of cool, sweet red would come up.
"Really, I half expect you to be next! Are you going to run away to be with your boyfriend?"
"I don't have a boyfriend," I pointed out. I thought maybe I'd lean into Sophie's shoulder. The soft squareness of it. Maybe she'd run her hand along my back. Maybe, there, in the woods, we'd kiss. We never had, but we came close, those nights they shuffled Scrabble pieces, forming words, one ear always aimed towards the sound of our steps coming back.
Sophie called them from Portland, apparently. Les had already left. There were solemn voices in the kitchen, and then a few nights without Scrabble when the Graves drove down to Portland to bring Sophie back.
I waited for her to come over. Then I walked over in the morning, like I used to, but Sophie refused to come downstairs. After a week, I wrote her a long letter and walked all the way into town to mail it. I got a postcard of a lighthouse back, which she must have slipped into the wicker mail basket on our porch during the night. There was no postmark. All it said was Don't bother.
She didn't speak to anyone for the rest of the summer, not even the last night, when my father cooked lobsters in a long pot over a bonfire by the broken boulders and we all watched the sunset. She sat in a hooded sweatshirt, hood up, and stared out to the water.
We left early in the morning, to beat the Labor Day traffic. We could see the Graves going in and out of the house as they loaded their car.
"Do you want to say good-bye to Sophie?" my mother said. "We'll wait, if you want to."
They had been nice to me suddenly. "Sophie's got all sorts of problems," my father explained. "We're glad that we have some sort of communication in our family."
I walked across the lawn, dragging my feet a bit.
"Hello there, Amy!" Skip cried. "Sophie's on the porch."
I mounted the stairs gently. She was sitting in a black T-shirt and jeans, rocking gently in the rocker. The sea below us flicked and foamed.
Once her face rolled towards me, slowly, as if it were really coming from farther away.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out with Les."
There was a long moment. The horn blared, accidentally knocked on, no doubt, when some canvas bag was tucked in the front seat.
"She had someone new," Sophie said. "It was so not worth it. Now my parents know."
"They'll get over it," I said. "Parents do."
"They do not," she said. I shoved my hands in my pockets and looked out at the water. "Have you told your parents?"
"No," I said. "No, I mean, I'm not sure about, you know, boys," I lied.
Then I felt myself fall. This was something quite different than climbing out a window. This time I fell into nothing. This was walking by a glass wall so quickly the mirrored reflection seems like someone else's. This was cupping your hands for stars, and then lying, just saying that you caught one, just to say. This was the soundless plunk of another piece of glass into the sea.
"My parents wouldn't let me spend time with you," Sophie said, "because my mother thought we were, you know, lovers."
"No way," I said. "We weren't."
Sophie rolled her eyes up at me. "I know what we were," she promised.
"Did you tell them?"
"Haven't you learned, Amy," she sighed, "what's true is true no matter what you say?"
I went back to Cambridge and did my homework. I played field hockey that fall. My mother came to every game. I watched the leaves turn gold and fade behind her.
I went back to Maine less and less as I got older. Skip and Sunny were always there, and as they settled down for Scrabble, which I now played with them, I would say, "How's Sophie? Is she coming up this year?"
Letters would be shuffled. The kettle would shriek. Tea would be poured. Finally, someone would say about Sophie, wherever she was, she couldn't get away.