After the funerals, when we finally got back to school, I’d run into Teri in the hall and each of us would look away. Whispers swirled around us in the cafeteria, in our classes. His dad, they said, her mom.
It was the longest January of my life. A wind came down out of Canada the day after Christmas and the temperature dropped below freezing and stayed there until after Easter. Frost lay down on top of frost so that the trees, the streets, and power lines were glazed. His dad and her mom. In a truck, out on the flats by River Road. Carbon monoxide.
One day in chemistry my lab partner was out with the flu and Mr. Eichelberger put us together—he was probably the only one in town who hadn’t heard the whispers—and we were heating some compound in a test-tube over the Bunsen burner—we were supposed to end up with blue crystals like salt but instead of solidifying the mess melted and turned green, and we looked at each other and laughed and it was like a spark had passed between us and I saw her changing eyes, gray to blue and back again and I didn’t think anyone had ever looked at me so—carefully.
His dad and her mom, my dad and Teri’s mom, were found in his truck parked out on the flats by River Road, both of them dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. The truck had run out of gas in the parking lot of Kirko Plastics, the engine was cold, their half naked bodies bright pink, healthier than they ever looked in their gray lives. On Christmas Eve, can you believe it?
We’d had separate funerals, of course, but one town, one funeral home, so that while the priest was trying to find something to say about my dad in the Eternal Rest Suite, across the hall in the Remembrance Room strangers were shaking the cold out of their dark clothes, sitting down on the folding chairs to watch Teri hold her father up as he muttered to the visitors filing past her mother’s casket.
We saw each other at the funeral home that night, out in the hall between the ancient umbrella stand and the long mirror; she was wearing a black dress I could tell was new because it had the creases that come from hanging on a rack too long, and she had lipstick on and that startled me because I had seen her every day of her life in school, eleven years, and I had never seen her wear makeup at all.
My suit was new, too; Mom insisted I buy the black pinstripe so I could wear it again for graduation. I knew when I carried it out of the store I would never wear the suit again after the funeral. If I had to skip graduation to avoid putting that suit on again, then that’s what I would do.
We didn’t look at each other, even then, but instead talked to each other in our reflections in the hall mirror.
How are you doing? I asked her.
I want to throw up, she said.
I know what you mean. The priest was reading stuff from a card.
My dad hasn’t slept since, she said.
At least we don’t have school for another week.
She looked directly at me then. I was startled when in the mirror she broke eye contact, and looked at me sideways. I turned to her slowly. Her eyes were lighter than they’d seemed in the mirror and then she was kissing me, her eyes open, her mouth opening beneath mine, her tongue flicking.
There was a blast of cold air as the front door swung open and we pushed away from each other. Miss Windau, our typing teacher, closed the door behind her, shaking the snowflakes from her dark coat and blinked at us in the uncertain light. Teri, Jim, she said, I’m so sorry.
I watched Teri in the mirror as she spoke to Miss Windau. Without another word to me, Teri steered her into the Remembrance Room, and I went back into the Eternal Rest Suite where my mother sat like a zombie in a chair in front of the coffin. The priest was finished and passed me on his way out. He put a hand on my arm and whispered that he would see me in the morning. The room was silent. I didn’t know why he was whispering. Everybody in the room was going to see me in the morning. It’s not like the funeral was a secret. Knowing what we all knew then, it seemed like nothing about our lives would ever be secret again.
But, of course, there are always secrets. One secret is revealed, another one is born. Like reincarnation. After that day in Chemistry, Teri and I stopped looking away from each other when we passed in the halls. I started meeting her at her locker before school—it was a small town, a small school, and that’s what kids did—and I would walk her to her homeroom. Neither of us mentioned kissing that night in the funeral home; it was like we put that memory away with all the other memories of that time and started over as strangers—if you can be a stranger to someone you’ve known since kindergarten. We knew people were whispering about us, but my friends mostly left me alone and it was easy to tune out everything else.
My days were like sleepwalking through a tunnel, like the long cold sidewalk between my house and school; some mornings the snow blew straight across the road, so thick I couldn’t even see the streetlights overhead; and in the evenings, after basketball practice, it was already dark and the stars were out and the cold rolled in across the lake like a steamroller.
Teri said her days were like an endless bus ride, the cold plastic seats, jolting over the potholes, the frozen roads, the black ice. She was not as lucky in her friends at school. Ruth Richardson and a couple other girls cornered her in the bathroom. What’s wrong with you? they hissed at her. What would your mother say? What are you thinking?
It was in February, we’d started holding hands in the halls, kissing quickly before she ran to catch her bus home, the things kids in our school did. She had tears in her eyes when she told me about Ruth and the things they’d said, but then she looked at me, her eyes dark and steady, and said, Where can we meet after school?
In Ohio in February, warmth is just as important as privacy. The first time we had sex was in the bathroom of the public library. I had to ask the librarian, Mrs. Knott, for the key, and then go downstairs and down a short hall and turn the heavy key in the lock. Actually the room was unheated, but we weren’t in there that long. Teri met me at the bottom of the stairs and started pulling my sweatshirt over my head at the same time I was trying to unlock the door. The first time I saw her breasts was in the mirror above the tiny sink. She was like five girls, ten hands and five mouths, and she still never closed her eyes when we kissed. I would watch her, watch the light come and go in her eyes, until I realized I’d been staring so long my own eyes were burning.
Once she slapped me. I had said something stupid about all the mops and brooms and cleaning supplies that surrounded us in the tiny room, and then she started to cry. I tried to calm her at the same time I tried to get her back into her clothes. Mrs. Knott came down and rattled at the door knob and after that we weren’t allowed in the library any more.
Through the long winter and the bitter spring, it became a game for us. The shack where they stacked the wooden picnic tables down at the park; the Quonset hut where the Jaycees sold coffee and hot chocolate during football season; boats hauled up for drydock in the marina. Unlocked doors and empty places. I never knew how many empty places there were in our town, until I started searching them out. It was winter, that was why so many places were empty, but we didn’t think about that then.
My mom never wondered why I was spending so much time away from home. I quit the basketball team, but never told her, so I guess she figured I was at practice or at road games. Through the rest of that winter she spent most of the time in her room, watching the TV with the sound off. Sometimes I would walk past her door and on the screen would be one of those animal shows, Wild Kingdom or something, a man wrestling an anaconda, waist deep in dark water, and Mom would just be staring at the screen, not really seeing it, the only movement in the room the flicker of light and shadow from the TV.
Teri’s dad, I doubt he ever wondered anything at all. Teri told me he spent all his time down at Kaferly’s tavern, hanging off the bar and insulting every woman who came in the place. Bitches, he would yell at them, you’re all bitches. Half the time he’d get the crap beat out of him, and come home with a split lip or a black eye. I’d see him around town occasionally, pale like all of us in the winter, but with a haunted look, and too much nicotine yellowing his skin. He aged forty years in the three months after the funeral. Funerals.
Teri caught a cold in February and kept it until spring, we passed it back and forth between us along with hickeys and bruises and bites and scratches. She got paler too, with dark circles under her eyes, and I could feel the skin stretched tight over her ribs as she lost weight through the winter. When spring finally came, after an Easter snow that forced us for the first time into the back stairwell to the basement of the EUB church, neither warmth or privacy mattered any more. We had sex everywhere.
I never thought about if I loved her, and I doubt she loved me. We were like a disease each other had, like leprosy, so that everybody else in school left us alone and we scratched each other’s sores. But we never really talked about it, we never really talked much at all. There were empty spaces that we weren’t going to go into. We just went on scratching.
We were suspended from school in May, two weeks before graduation, when Miss Windau came back to retrieve something from the typing room and caught Teri showing me the two-piece bathing suit she’d worn beneath her clothes. Miss Windau marched us straight down to the office. Teri didn’t say a word when Principal Barton lectured us. He told us we would have to bring our parents in for a conference before we would be allowed to graduate. Then he corrected himself, “I mean, your dad, Teri, and your mother, Jim.” Teri stood up and walked out of the room.
I met her out in the hall. “What are we going to do?”
“I’ve got my suit on, and an old blanket in my bookbag. Let’s walk out to Crow Beach.”
The cold was already pooling between us when I lifted myself off her. I looked quickly around Crow Beach, the sand still pockmarked from the heavy rain we’d had the night before last, gray wave following gray wave, a few kids a hundred yards away, running into the water, shrieking at the cold, running back. She sat up and shrugged into the top of her suit. She turned, lifted her hair.
“Fasten me,” she said.
I hooked the clasp. All its mystery was gone. I ran a fingernail down her back, slightly, just touching her. She shivered.
“Don’t,” she said. “It’s cold.” She leaned over for her bag, rooted around and pulled out her hairbrush, the one with the wooden handle, and started brushing the sand and tangles out of her hair.
“Do you think they saw us?” I asked her.
“I doubt it. We’re disappearing, you know, we’re like invisible.”
“Miss Windau didn’t miss us in the typing room.”
“Only because she was expecting the room to be empty when she walked in, and then there we were. Remember what she told Barton? ‘I wouldn’t even have seen them except I saw a movement in the shadows.’ That’s what we’re becoming. Flickers in the corner of the eye. Out here, we’re just two kids. We’re nobody.” She tossed the brush at her bag, missed.
I looked at her, trying to read regret or sadness behind what she was saying. Her face was still, quiet as a statue. Pale eyes, sometimes gray, sometimes blue. Today her eyes were the color of old nickels. High cheekbones, dimpled chin, thin lips. “It’s too cold to go in the water,” I said. “What do you want to do now?”
She leaned forward suddenly, like she’d been pushed from behind, reached both arms out and flapped down the corners of the old green blanket we were sitting on, looking for her flip-flops. I’d never seen anyone so limber. She stood up and slipped her feet into them.
“Why don’t you see if you can get your mother’s car? Don’t you think it’s time we went down River Road?” .
I had seen the picture in the newspaper, so I knew where they found the truck. There was a big snow bank where they had plowed the parking lot at Kirko Plastics, and the truck had been backed in crooked to one of the spaces. I pulled Mom’s Buick in, just as crooked. I turned the engine off. “This is it,” I said, “this is where they were.”
The snow was gone, of course, and we could look out across the river, the acres of reeds that grew in the flats on the other side like a silver-green mist, the brown river rolling and wide. A few men came out of the small cinder-block building, looked in at us, looked away.
“Shift must be over,” I said.
“It must have looked different at night,” Teri said.
“Yeah. There are lights everywhere, look, each corner of the parking lot, lights down the river at the limestone quarry. It was a clear night. Stars.”
Cars started pulling out of the parking lot, out onto River Road. We’d never talked about that night, that Christmas Eve. Now it seemed like something that happened to two strangers, in another world, not this one.
Or maybe we were the strangers. Maybe Teri was right, maybe we were starting to disappear. More men came out of Kirko Plastics, and none of them even looked our way. Teri was crying quietly, not the crazy hitting crying I’d seen her do, but crying so softly it was like she didn’t even know she was doing it.
“Did you ever wonder why they did it?” she asked me.
“What do you mean? It was an accident. They fell asleep, and exhaust fumes came up into the truck.” Now I was angry. “You know that.”
“No, I mean, did you every wonder why the two of them, you know, got together in the first place?”
“Who knows? You might as well ask why we got together.”
“Because we tried to do a lab in chemistry that bombed.” She was smiling, tears streaming down her cheeks, and she was smiling.
“Mr. Eichelberger.” I smiled back.
“Exactly,” she said. “He never made us do it over, do it right.”
“Maybe he figured that was as right as we were going to get it.” I touched her cheek, surprised that her tears were so hot.
She looked at me, her eyes darker than ever. She put her hand over mine, kissed my palm, and another spark passed between us. “Do you suppose they ever talked like this? Your dad and my mom?”
I lifted her hand, kissed her warm fingers. For the first time in months I wasn’t scared. For the first time in months I was sure that there was more in her eyes than hunger, that I could do more for her than just scratch her where she hurt. “I know that they did.”