I'll Stay, page 6
I must have been out for a longer time because when I woke sunshine was pouring through the windows and Ducky and Sarah were dressed in T-shirts and shorts. The shower was on again, and Lee was missing from the bed. I bolted upright. Sarah was pacing in front of the window. Ducky sat cross-legged on the bed, weeping as she fiddled with her pearls.
“Clare, oh, my God, Clare, you’re finally awake, oh, God, I feel so awful!” Huge tears rolled down Ducky’s cheeks. “Sarah told me what happened. I’m so upset. I’m so upset! Those bastards!”
“Have you talked to her this morning?” I looked at the clock. 9:05.
“I fell asleep for a few minutes and when I woke up she was in the shower again,” Sarah said.
“What are we going to do?” Ducky asked. “What are we going to say to her?”
They looked at me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“This is Donny’s fault,” Ducky cried. “Those guys were total creeps. He should never have suggested that you go over there.”
“Why’s it his fault?” Sarah asked. “We partied all night at his house. He didn’t make Clare and Lee go.”
The shower turned off. We jerked our heads toward the bathroom door but it stayed closed.
“I’m just saying that he had an obligation to us,” Ducky whispered.
“Shut up, Ducky,” Sarah hissed. “You were so drunk that you don’t even remember what happened.”
“That’s not true. I remember most of it. Except at the end.” Her face reddened and then her eyebrows, so blond I could barely see them, dipped into a frown. “If we’re assigning blame, then what about you, Sarah? We should’ve never gone there in the first place. They were all low-life, white trash drug addicts!”
“Oh, God, they were not all drug addicts,” Sarah said.
“Yes, they were. And Donny’s a drug dealer!”
“So this is my fault?” Sarah yelled. Ducky and I shushed her. “I didn’t see anyone forcing you to drink all of those beers, Ducky.”
“Stop it, both of you.” I’d never heard them argue. Ducky sniffled and with her palm, wiped tears off her face. She began fingering her pearls again and moaning.
Sarah turned to me. “You have to tell us what to do. You know her best.”
I was the sounding board. The counselor. The lifeline in the middle of the night. The only one I’ve ever talked to. Now there was so much pressure behind my eyes, thundering in my ears. I gulped for breaths, a crushing sensation in my chest.
Lee opened the bathroom door. She was dressed in the same sweatpants and T-shirt. A towel wrapped around her hair and rested on top of her head. The swelling had gone down slightly on her lip but the red welt on her cheek was darker, angrier. Was it a rug burn? She walked, gingerly, to a chair but didn’t sit.
“This isn’t anyone’s fault,” she said.
“Those fucking bastards!” Ducky cried.
Lee tilted her head and stared at something out the window.
“I still think we should go to the police,” Sarah said.
“And say what? Clare and I went there. I stayed. But look, the swelling has already gone down on my lip. See?” Lee’s voice was suddenly high-pitched, teary. “And it doesn’t hurt as much. It doesn’t look so bad? Right? It’s okay now, right?”
I stayed. The words stung in my ears. I squeezed my hands into fists, waiting for their questions and condemnations.
“Lee!” Ducky said. “You are not okay!”
Sarah shook her head. “Your lip is still swollen. What do you want to do, Lee? Just tell us.”
I glanced at her and then Ducky. Had they not heard what Lee said?
Lee tilted her head and stared at Sarah as if she suddenly didn’t recognize her. Then she said, “What?”
“Oh, Lee.” Ducky started to weep loudly again. “I’m so, so sorry!”
“We should go to the hospital,” Sarah said.
“No,” Lee squeaked.
“If we go to the hospital, will the doctors call the police?” Ducky asked. “Because I seriously hope so. I seriously hope those bastards get arrested.”
Sarah and Ducky looked at me. They wanted me to weigh in, maybe convince Lee to go to the hospital, but I was too afraid to speak. What if I didn’t sound sincere? What if they saw through me? Because truth was, I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I didn’t want some doctor questioning us. I didn’t want to talk to the police.
“Let’s go back to school,” I said. “We’ll drive north a bit and stay another night in a hotel. I can pay with my dad’s credit card again. Then we’ll get up tomorrow and finish the drive. The house doesn’t open until Sunday but I bet we can get in.”
“How will you explain this to your dad?” Ducky asked.
“I’ll think of something,” I said.
“But what about the hospital?” Sarah asked, her voice less sure now.
“Lee, what do you want to do?” Ducky asked. “Lee?”
Lee was staring out the window again.
“I think she’s in shock.” Sarah glanced at me and then at Lee.
“Clare said that we should go back to school. What do you want to do, Lee?”
Finally, she nodded, unwound the towel, and let her long black hair fall behind her. Then she crawled into the bed and pulled the sheet and blanket up to her neck. But she didn’t close her eyes. She stared at the ceiling, barely blinking.
I could do this. Make a decision. A plan. Get people moving. Pay for it. I said, “I’ll go get gas in the car and maybe some food. Is anyone hungry?”
“I am,” Ducky said. “I’ll go with you.”
I brushed my teeth and splashed cold water on my face. I’d get something good for us to eat, something healthy. Bananas, apples, maybe pancakes and eggs. And coffee, lots of coffee. Sandwiches for later and cans of Lee’s favorite, Diet Dr Pepper. When we filled up the car I’d check the oil, too, and ask about a good town, with a good motel, to stop in tonight.
A warm, gentle breeze floated into the room when I opened the door. Seagulls gathered in the scrubby grass under the palm trees next to the parking lot. Giant puddles speckled the cement. A dumpster, overflowing with garbage, stood next to a small pool enclosed in a chain-link fence. White lounge chairs were scattered along the pool’s edges. The sun, climbing in the bright blue sky, danced across the water’s surface, making the pool seem as if it were filled with hundreds of small silver flying fish.
Ducky rolled up the sleeves of her sweatshirt, exposing her arms. She said, “Maybe we can eat by the pool.”
Her eyes were still bloodshot but she’d stopped crying. She was thinking of her tan. Maybe she wanted to grab a few moments of sun before we left for school.
School. The house. Ben’s face flashed before me and I felt something catch in my throat. A lump. A knot. A rock. I imagined telling him about all of this and what I’d done and watching the corners of his mouth fall in disappointment. But I shook my head because there were other things to think about. Ducky and I got into The Travelodge and drove across the service road to the gas station.
We drove all day and through the night, stopping only for gas, food, and bathroom breaks, with an unspoken yet collective desire—I was sure we all felt it—to get back to school as quickly as possible. No one really slept, especially Lee, who rested her head against the passenger side window, her lip puffy and purple, the mark on her cheek red and raw, her eyes fixed in a dreamy, faraway look. We didn’t talk or listen to the radio or our boom box. And because one of us stayed with Lee at all times, there was never a chance for Sarah, Ducky, and I to talk alone.
It wasn’t until we drove into Bloomington at five thirty in the morning, the streets deserted and sky dark with angry storm clouds, that Lee finally seemed to sleep. Her mouth was open slightly and her chest rose and fell in steady motion. When Sarah pulled into the empty Donut Delite parking lot, we were careful to get out of the car without waking her. Then we stood outside the driver’s side, shivering in our sw
“I am so totally freaking out!” Ducky said. Sarah shushed her and I peeked in the window but Lee still seemed to be asleep. “I just want to go to sleep and wake up and have this all be a nightmare or something.”
“Well, it’s not a nightmare and we gotta deal with it.” Sarah looked at me. “So you’re still good with talking to Mom Tolliver? Because I can’t do it. There’s no way. She scares the shit out of me.”
“And she thinks I’m a space cadet!” Ducky said.
“I said I’d do it.” I looked through the Donuts Delite window at a girl, dressed in a pink apron with her hair pulled back in a hairnet, behind the counter. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Donuts Delite was where we went for a good dose of grease after a night of drinking. Jelly donuts were also Mom Tolliver’s favorite snack, and I needed something like this to give her when I woke her up in a few minutes. She wouldn’t be happy. And she wouldn’t be happy that we wanted into the house, which didn’t officially open until tomorrow, either.
“Just sweet talk her,” Ducky said. “Tell her that we drove all night and we want to sleep and that we promise to be quiet.”
“Clare can do it,” Sarah said. “She knows how to talk to old people. She’s got Mom Tolliver wrapped around her finger.”
What was that supposed to mean? “No, I don’t.”
“What are we going to say to everybody?” Ducky asked. “They’re gonna ask about our trip. And Julie and those guys will wonder why we were in Florida but didn’t go to Fort Lauderdale to see them.”
“Shit, you’re right,” Sarah said.
“We can’t tell anyone what happened to Lee,” I said.
“I agree,” Sarah said. “This is Lee’s business. You have to promise, Ducky, that you won’t tell anyone. And we fucking mean it.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone!” Ducky said. “But what should we say we did?”
“Just be vague,” I said. “Say that we had a blast on the Outer Banks. And then ask them about their trip. No one will care about us.”
“What if Lee tells someone about Daytona?” Ducky asked.
“She won’t tell anyone,” Sarah said. We turned when a milk truck, the only vehicle on the road, passed by slowly. “And Clare, you’ve got to talk to her about explaining her lip and cheek. People are going to ask about it.”
“Come on, Ducky,” Sarah said. “Let’s get some donuts. You want anything?”
“No, thanks.” I watched them walk into the store and stand at the counter. Then Sarah stuck her head out and said it would be a few minutes for the coffee to finish percolating. I nodded and leaned against the car. The blinking yellow light threw ominous rays across the empty intersection. Beyond that the limestone buildings of campus stood solid and stately behind leafless trees. Tomorrow the streets would fill with students and cars and the lights would be on in the buildings and everything would be back to normal.
Would anything ever be normal again?
As I watched Ducky, arm linked with Sarah’s, pick out donuts from the glass case, I thought about our other friends from the house who would arrive tomorrow. This was my life now. These were my friends.
I glanced through the car window at Lee again and thought about Natalie Smith, my best friend in junior high. Confident, hilarious, and theatrical (tall and skinny with perfectly feathered brown hair and giant chocolate-colored eyes, too), she was the most popular girl in seventh grade, drooled over by every boy, pursued by every girl. She had a way of looking at you, with her eyes and her body, that made you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. And one day she set those big chocolate eyes on me.
Her full-court press was flattering: passing notes after class, calling me every night on the phone, shoving others out of the way so I’d sit with her at lunch, insisting I have the coveted sleeping space next to her at slumber parties. I was a quiet kid, more prone to following than leading, but I was liked well enough. I had friends. But Natalie vaulted me to the top of the junior high social hierarchy.
I was no dummy. I knew it was probably too soon to call each other “best friend” after only a few weeks of togetherness. I saw the way she ignored her previous best friend and belittled others. I wondered why someone as dynamic as her would be interested in someone as quiet as me. But then she’d turn to me with that all-engrossing look and I’d feel myself being sucked deeper into her orbit. I told her my secrets. My crush on Danny Handley. And how I’d intentionally broken my violin so I wouldn’t have to take lessons anymore. In our notes back and forth we made plans. Told inside jokes. Signed off with your BFF. It was official.
One day I brought her home after school. For weeks she’d begged to come over. But our apartment was small. My mother worked every afternoon in the living room and didn’t want to be interrupted. Natalie and I sat at the kitchen table, the door to the living room closed, and ate popcorn and animal crackers. Every time I suggested we do something—go upstairs to my room, go outside—she said no.
When my mother finally opened the door to the kitchen, Natalie jumped on her like a fly on raw meat. I love your apartment. I love your kitchen. I love your dress. I love your necklace. What was going on? But as I watched Natalie settle that familiar, all-encompassing look on my mother, I felt a chill up my spine. Wasn’t that the look she reserved for me?
When Natalie began talking about Listen, and the screenplay on which my mother was working (an article about it had appeared two months prior in the Boston Globe), and then about her own acting ambitions, I realized with razor-sharp clarity what had happened. Natalie had friended me to get to my mother. I was so angry that I left the kitchen and went up to my room.
Soon afterward, Natalie found me and tried to make up. She was no dummy, either, but the damage was done. I stopped sending notes and wouldn’t sit with her at lunch. I stayed angry, even after my mother told me that she’d never let Natalie play Phoebe in a movie version of her novel. Natalie was simply too old, “too perky.”
Although Natalie was the most popular girl for the rest of junior high, her light faded by high school. Still, she had a lasting effect on me. I was careful when people tried to friend me and dismissive when someone mentioned my mother’s books. I became hyperaware of how people looked at me, treated me, talked to me. There were many others who tried to get to my mother through me, especially as she became more and more famous. Eventually I learned to ignore them and by junior year I had several, separate groups of friends. We had fun. We laughed. We never went too deep. And although I was the sounding board whenever someone needed to talk, I always kept a large part of myself in reserve. Just to be safe.
I glanced at Lee again, her hair covering her face as she slept against the window. I’d told her about my mother on one of the many nights we sat up talking in the stairwell of our dorm. It had been a big deal for me to do this. But Lee had simply tilted her head, said she’d never heard of her or Listen, Before You Go, and then asked me how it felt to have a famous mother.
No one had ever asked this. And it was a relief to talk about it.
I turned my head and saw the top of my freshman year dorm, rising above the trees. I met Lee on my first day of college. She was late to our floor meeting—our RA had already started talking—and when the doors to the lounge flung open and Lee stood there, the lights from the hallway at her back, it was as if she were making a grand entrance. She looked different from most of the rest of us (so many blondes with blue eyes) with her olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes. But it was her legs that were most noticeable, so long and lean with perfectly sculpted muscles in her thighs and calves. She wore gym shorts, a tank top, and shiny wood clogs. Even I, so unfamiliar with sports, knew she was a runner.
Everyone watched as s
“We can form a flag football team, too,” Brenda said. “So you see, there are lots of ways the fifth floor can show team spirit. Any questions?”
Sarah, whom I’d met earlier, rolled her eyes at me. The girls on the plastic-covered couches whispered to each other. Several others looked out the window. The room had an institutional feel to it with bare walls and cold linoleum tiles. Except for weekly meetings, we wouldn’t spend much time in it.
“Can one of you come up and lead us in a cheer?” Brenda asked.
Someone groaned. Someone snickered. Volunteering was problematic, at best. If you went up there too serious, you’d be called a suck-up. But if you made fun of it, Brenda would be angry. I ducked behind Sarah as Brenda scanned the group.
Then Lee’s arm shot up. “I don’t know how to be a cheerleader but I’ll try.”
Brenda clapped, relieved. “Great!”
“That’s Lee Sumner,” Sarah whispered. “I ran track in high school and she’s this amazing runner from up north. She won the mile at the state tournament.”
Lee pulled her hair into a ponytail as she walked up and stood next to Brenda. Then her arms dangled at her sides and her eyes darted around the room. She licked her thick lips. “Okay, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That’s okay,” Brenda said. “What’s your name?”
“Lee.” She laughed, nervous. Maybe embarrassed. Brenda nudged her and Lee cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Gimme a five!”
“Five!” Brenda and a couple of girls said.
“Give me an F!”
“F!” A few more girls joined in.
“Give me an L!”
“Give me a double O.”
“Double O.” The voices began to trail off.
“Give me an R!”