Ill stay, p.34

I'll Stay, page 34

 

I'll Stay
 



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  “Good luck,” I said.

  He smiled, relieved. “Thanks. Have fun!” And then he was gone.

  I turned my head and looked out the window. I thought about a morning during junior year of college when Lee and I went running together. She had long, muscular legs and moved so fast, so efficiently, that she barely seemed to break a sweat. I, on the other hand, struggled just to put one foot in front of the other. It was a joke, the idea that I could keep up with her, and we didn’t run together often.

  “I just can’t believe it!” she said as we started up the hill toward the library. “It had an amazing cast. Twelve nominations. It took a year to shoot in five different countries. It chronicled the Russian Revolution. What’s more important than that?”

  She was talking about the Academy Awards, broadcast the week before, and Reds, directed by Warren Beatty, her favorite mainstream movie of the year. It had lost the best picture honor as well as best actor and actress. She’d seen it three times, no small feat as it was more than three hours long, and I’d gone with her to one of the showings. I liked it. I just didn’t feel as strongly about it as she did.

  “Instead, they honor sappy sentimental bullshit? Who votes for these things? I’ll tell you who. The establishment. They should know better. Reds wasn’t an easy film. It was maddening, at times, and too long. But think of what it was trying to do!”

  Halfway up the hill, I was trying not to die from lack of oxygen. Lee had turned around so that she was running backward. Her long hair bounced on her back and her breathing was steady and easy.

  “You know. That all these. Awards things. Are fickle. Right?” I sucked in breaths and thought about my mother, complaining over the years about the book awards that didn’t go to her. I didn’t like that Lee was so focused on winning, too.

  She began shaking her head. “When that first witness came on the screen, I nearly launched out of my seat. How did Warren Beatty think to do that? The lighting was what made it. Did you see that? How the people seemed to bounce off the screen with that black background? It was ingenious.”

  We’d talked about this for hours already. She wanted to do the same thing in her film about Patricia. Witnesses talking to the camera. Bold lights. A black background. Just light and black. Black and light. I started to relax, even though the run was killing me, because I realized that talking about the awards was simply a segue to what really interested her. Technique. Substance. How films are made. Those were always the kinds of things about which she liked to talk.

  We were only twenty-nine years old but of course she’d already made a documentary. Lee was the real deal, as my dad liked to say, and I was sure there would be more documentaries and what could she possibly want from me? What had she learned?

  I reached up and turned off my bedside lamp. Out the window and across the street, an office building was waking up. Lights popped on. People moved in and out of cubicles. The window was at least eight feet tall by six feet wide. Had I been able to open it, had we not been on the fortieth floor, I imagined it was a window that a person—no, two people, easily, side by side—could walk through. Maybe run through.

  I felt a sob rise through my chest and into my throat and I thought of that terrible abduction I saw on the news last night. A nine-year-old boy, the same age as my students, was taken as he walked to school. How horrible for him and his parents. And what the hell were they doing when this happened? I squeezed my eyes closed so tightly that I saw wispy white stars.

  She hadn’t yelled at me in her letter, not this time. She said she’d learned some things that had given her some peace. And she had a favor to ask.

  I stood and went to the window. I put my palm on the thick, cold glass and leaned closer. I tried to see down to the street, but I was too far up and the angle wasn’t right. I’d done everything that I wanted to do yesterday. I’d begun Christmas shopping and had lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant on Fifty-Eighth Street. After Central Park and the Met, I’d taken my time in the bookstore on Madison and found a great present for my dad: a hardback collection of World War I photographs. The store had all my mother’s books, too, including the new reissue of Listen, Before You Go.

  I picked up my pocketbook and took out Lee’s letter. I didn’t have to call. I could go home and that would be that. But Ben would ask later today about it, and what would I say? That I’d been too afraid to call? That I was a coward? Would I lie and say that I’d called but she didn’t call me back?

  When was I going to stop lying to him?

  I picked up the phone and punched in the numbers before I could change my mind.

  Lee answered on the first ring. “Hello?”

  “Lee,” I croaked. “It’s Clare.”

  She sucked in a breath, I heard it so clearly, and said, “I’m so glad you called!”

  Her voice—so full of excitement and optimism—was as I remembered it from the early days, before everything changed. I felt that rush of longing pull at my chest.

  “Are you paying attention to traffic lights?” I blurted.

  She paused and then laughed. “Yes, yes, of course.”

  “I’m here in Manhattan with Ben. And I just wanted to call. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. You know, after your letter.” I was so unsteady, so nervous, that I was afraid I might faint. I sat on the edge of the bed.

  “It’s okay,” she said. “Look, I have to switch some things around, but do you have time to meet for coffee?”

  After that, we talked just long enough to make plans to meet. Later, she had an appointment that she couldn’t cancel. My hand shook as I wrote the address to the café on the hotel notepad. After we hung up, I turned on the TV. Voices of local newscasters, strangers to me, filled the room.

  I stood and went back to the window.

  Once on a visit not long after Lee moved here, we were on Fifth or Madison or maybe Park when she stepped into the street after the light had changed. She wasn’t paying attention—she was still in such a fog—and I pulled her back onto the sidewalk just as a cab barreled toward us.

  For the next couple of months, whenever I talked to her, I often asked, “Are you paying attention to traffic lights?” Most of the time she laughed and I felt better. That was what I always tried to do in those days. Get her to laugh. Get her to forget.

  Now we were going to meet for the first time in five years, and she would tell me the story of what she’d learned about peace, and we were going to have to talk about what had happened in Florida. What would we say? How would we start?

  On TV the weatherman was telling me that it would be warm in New York today. Record warmth for December. Shirtsleeve warmth.

  I’d walk downtown to meet Lee. The hotel concierge would direct me and this would give me time, hours really, to think and remember and put together my own story of what I’d learned and what I’d been doing all these years.

  I would start at the beginning, when I was eleven and came here with my mother when she collected her North American Book Award prize. But I didn’t meet Lee until I was eighteen and a freshman in college.

  I became more and more unsure as I showered, dressed, and rode the elevator to the lobby. It was quite easy, the concierge showed me on a map, to get downtown. I clutched the map in my hand and walked outside. The air was brisk and cool and the sun was hidden behind the buildings. People hurried by me. Cars and cabs zoomed up to stoplights. I began to sweat as I walked.

  Finally, I stopped and stared at my reflection in a jewelry store window. I tried to see the color of my eyes and the whiteness of my teeth but the reflection wasn’t clear. It was more like an old-fashioned black-and-white photo. But then I saw my shoulders sink and realized that I didn’t have much of a story to tell—beyond the superficial—about what I’d learned and what I’d done these past five years.

  I turned away and kept walking.

  CHAPTER 28

  The coffeehouse, which also functioned as a bar, was small and intimate and reminded me of Lorenzo
s place. Lee and I met at a table in the back corner. She was still thin but her long black hair was cut to shoulder length. She wore jeans and loafers—no more clogs—a black peacoat that fit snug through the waist, small, tasteful silver hoop earrings, and no makeup. She looked completely familiar and yet utterly different. My heart pounded and my palms were damp. It was painful to look at her and yet I couldn’t look away, either.

  “It’s so nice to see you,” she said as she took off her coat.

  “It’s nice to see you, too.”

  Was she truly happy to see me? I shifted in my seat, trying to get comfortable, trying to find balance. My damp hands had turned cold despite how warm it was in the room. She smiled. She didn’t seem as nervous as I was.

  “How long have you been living back here?” I asked.

  “A couple of years.” She told me that she and Wallace met at a film festival and had been married for two years. I watched how her mouth moved and saw that the scar on her lip was still visible and thought how strange it was to be familiar with someone and yet know so little about her last five years.

  “Is Wallace a filmmaker, too?” I asked.

  “He’s a producer. He finds the money and makes sure people get paid.”

  A waitress came by to deliver our drinks, cappuccinos for both of us, and I remembered the first time Lee had one. We were on the Vineyard and my parents had taken us to dinner. I was also with her the first time she tried Brie and lobster and drank Chateau Montelena chardonnay and now look at her. A documentary shown all over the country. A husband. An apartment in the city. I felt that familiar ping in my chest. Maybe it was envy. Or fear. Or that I suddenly missed her. Maybe it was all or none of the above. I began bouncing my leg under the table.

  “I’m sorry about your mom,” she said.

  “Thanks. And thanks for your card. I’m sorry I didn’t write you back.”

  She shook her head. “It’s okay. How are you doing about it?”

  I sighed. “Oh, okay.”

  I told her about the diagnosis, the chemotherapy, and the rough last couple of months. I told her about how sad my dad felt and how lovely the memorial service was on the Vineyard. I thought, suddenly, that I might share what Oliver had said. But it felt like such a long story and besides, it had been three months and I still didn’t know what I thought about it. It was hard to be curious about what he told me when no one else around me felt the same way.

  She leaned across the table. “But how are you feeling about it?”

  I glanced at her and then down into my cappuccino. Lee seemed so steady and I felt so unsteady. “It’s a loss. I guess I feel what you’re supposed to feel.”

  I looked up. Lee was staring at me, her eyes not blinking and her face so still. She’d changed. She was calmer, somehow, and more mature. Marriage did that to a person. I was more mature and changed, too, although at the moment I felt off balance in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. I didn’t like it.

  “Your parents were always very welcoming to me,” she said.

  “They liked you,” I said.

  She nodded and I shifted in my seat again. I was hot—my flushed cheeks had begun to throb—and my hands were so clammy. Did she feel how awkward this was, too? So much had happened in five years. How did a person explain those years? I couldn’t decide if I was happy or scared. If I wanted to leave or stay.

  “How’s Ben?” she asked.

  I told her about his job, my school, and the condo we’d bought. She told me that her parents and The Miracles were still on the farm. Her aunt, with whom she was estranged, moved to Tennessee. Lee had made the decision not to talk to or see her anymore.

  “That’s a shame,” I said. “She was such a role model for you.”

  “Well, she certainly introduced me to the world beyond the farm.” She nodded. “I’m grateful for that. It took me years to figure out the other stuff, the sibling rivalry that I was caught in the middle of. And the narcissism, of course.”

  Narcissism?

  I began turning my spoon over on the table. In the years after we graduated, I had worked so hard to make everything okay, to see that she was happy and not thinking about Florida. But now I felt as if that night was alive and well and sitting here at the table, demanding attention, and I had absolutely no defenses to fight it.

  Maybe I could tell her about the renovations to my parents’ Vineyard cottage. Maybe I could tell her about the antique tables I found at an estate sale in Weston.

  “Clare?” Lee folded her hands on the table and leaned toward me. “Can we talk about what happened?”

  “Are you going to yell at me?” I blurted. Then I laughed but not because this was funny but because I was terrified. What happened was the source of so many problems for me and for us. Why go through the pain of rehashing it? And yet that was why we were here, right?

  She watched me—she was certainly not laughing—and shook her head. “It was too bad that we argued at Amy’s wedding, but I think it was necessary. I was in a bad place in those years after college. I was depressed and confused and ashamed. I blamed myself for what happened with those guys, and I leaned way, way too much on you. It wasn’t fair to either of us. Especially you.”

  “Oh.”

  “I wasn’t my own person,” she continued. “I lost myself. I looked to you to take care of me and underneath I was angry. Do you know why I was mad at you about Florida? Do you know why I yelled at you at Amy’s wedding?”

  I sucked in a breath and held it. Let her go, I’ll stay. I nodded. “I left you.”

  “No.” She shook her head and then took a deep breath. “I was angry with what you said while we put down our sleeping bags. Before Charlie and the guys came over to us. Do you remember what you said?”

  Was it too early to have a glass of wine? I glanced at the bar behind me. The early afternoon sun was just creeping into the room. The window that looked out on the street was clear, no smudges or scratches. I turned to Lee again. “I’m not sure.”

  “I told you that you were the only person who knew me, the only one I’d ever really talked to.” Her voice grew softer. “And you said that that was too goddam much responsibility and you didn’t want it.”

  I cringed and squeezed my eyes closed. Had I said that? I couldn’t remember. At the same time, something felt familiar about it. I opened my eyes. “I’m sorry!”

  “It’s okay, I’m not angry now. I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last couple of years and I want to tell you about it. Okay?” she asked. I nodded and stuck my cold hands under my thighs. She continued, “I’ve always had this sense that my parents, after the twins were born, abandoned me, emotionally, and left me way too much alone. Then when my aunt flaked out and wouldn’t talk to me, which echoed what they’d done, it created this neurotic worry that scared me to my bones. I was miserable but I didn’t know why. So much of it was unconscious. Anyway, I transferred this worry onto you. I worried that you were going to leave me, too. Remember how I had those dreams that you were ignoring me? Leaving me behind? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t really about you. And I drove us both crazy.”

  “But I did end up leaving you.”

  Lee nodded. “Yes, but my worries were about you leaving me emotionally. I think I’d made you into a kind of mother figure. I wanted you to take care of me. Anyway, I told you to leave that night, remember? I think I wanted to do this altruistic thing to save you because you were my best friend. I’d been having sex since I was fifteen and thought I could handle it. But to be honest, I think I was also trying to make you feel bad for what you’d said. I knew you’d feel guilty or maybe even indebted to me if I gave myself up. But I got in way, way too far over my head. What a messed up thought process, huh?”

  So she had wanted to be a martyr. But my relief was short-lived because I was confused and a bit shocked that she could admit this. I felt as if I were stumbling and spinning as I tried to understand. Did she really believe this? Was she really not angry? And how had she
figured this out? But then I saw Charlie’s face in my mind and sputtered, “I hate thinking about that night. It changed everything.”

  “I don’t like talking about it much, either.” Her voice became soft again, almost a whisper. “But maybe it might help to hear exactly what happened?”

  She’d never told me the details. My sour stomach began to churn again. I looked down into my cappuccino—I’d barely touched it—and nodded slightly.

  “So, first Owen took his turn and then Charlie.” Her voice was suddenly stiff and tinged with anger. “Those two bastards were, well, they were quick. But then it was Mikey’s turn and he couldn’t get it up. He was tripping and too high, I think. Somehow this was my fault and he punched me and split my lip. And then. Well, then. Well, this next part is always hard. To think about. And say.”

  She looked down at her cappuccino. Her words felt measured and detached, as if she were reading from a script she’d rehearsed. The longer she paused, the harder this was. I sucked in a breath, feeling as if these details and now this silence, this waiting, were nearly as excruciating as the night everything happened.

  She looked up at me. “Mikey was crazy. Or maybe it was the drugs. I don’t know. But he scared me after he punched me, there was so much blood and my lip hurt so much, and I started to cry really hard. I think this freaked him out because he became so, well, disturbed. He ripped the shade off the floor lamp, took the lamp by the stand and kept thrusting the hot bulb at me. Then he began talking about something he’d seen on TV, about a kid who went blind when he stared too long at the sun. He thought they should do that to me. He said they should blind me with the lamp so I couldn’t identify them to the police.”

  I felt a huge sob start from my chest and rush into my throat.

  She began rubbing her cheek. “They went back and forth about this but Mikey wouldn’t let it go. He had it all planned out in his warped, pathetic little mind. He said they should tie me down and hold open my eyelids and sear my eyeballs with the light bulb from the floor lamp. Then he lunged at me and pressed the bulb to my cheek until Charlie shoved him.”

 

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