In the fall when her mother began dying, Rachel joined the year book committee at her Catholic high school and met her first boyfriend. His name was Rand and he was from Germany. Rand’s Northern complexion, blond hair, and Arctic blue eyes were strange and out of place in Tucson, all red dirt and asphalt grids, big parking lots and little adobe houses. On the first meeting of the Our Lady of Lourdes Year Book Committee, Mr. Marcosian, the U.S. History teacher and Year Book Committee Coordinator, stood up and said, “It’s our job to catch the personality of this year. Okay, people. Any questions?” Rachel hated being called “people,” hated the sound of that “job,” and thought about dropping out right then. But she needed something to do in the hours after school in order to avoid too much time at her dying mother’s bedside in the late afternoons. Besides, she had seen Rand, one of the boys on the layout committee, and knew she’d want to come back and look at him again.
It would take months for her mother to die. Months and months. Carol was her name, and she’d been sick for years. She’d recently given up on treatment and decided that she wanted to be at home now surrounded by her family. Her family wasn’t much–Rachel and Rachel’s father, Peter. And in the afternoons when Carol called Rachel to her bed and they talked, Rachel felt both scared and shy. Her mother’s bed was huge and bloated with white comforters because she could become unbearably cold. On the bedside table her father always made sure a vase was filled with fresh-cut flowers, so fresh that at times ants from the garden outside still climbed their stalks. On the wall opposite her mother was a small oil painting done by her mother’s mother, a woman whom Rachel had never met because she’d died in her fifties from the same kind of cancer that was killing Rachel’s mother. In the painting, a small boat sailed out to sea. “I wonder where the boat is going. I wonder what my mother was thinking when she painted that boat,” Carol said one afternoon.
“I don’t,” Rachel said. This question didn’t bother her because the painting was so poorly executed that it had no perspective, no illusion of distance or space, no place to go. You just saw the flatness of the canvas and the obvious fact that the boat was going nowhere, that the boat was stuck forever in a bad painting.
“I sometimes make up stories about where it’s going. I sometimes imagine that I’m sailing in it, that I’m twenty years old again, and that I can only take three or four of my most valuable possessions with me to a deserted island.”
“Oh,” Rachel said, “that scenario.”
“I’d take you along,” she said, smiling. “You’d be one of the three.”
“You said possessions,” Rachel said. “I’m a person.”
“You’re a difficult person,” her mother said. Then her mother looked at her with a familiar expression which meant she had some motherly advice. “Why don’t you try wearing a little lipstick sometime. You’d be really pretty with a little color.”
“I’m only fifteen,” Rachel said. “I’m too young to worry about being pretty.” She wished they weren’t having this discussion. Her mother, as Rachel could remember and could still see from photographs, had been a beautiful woman before the treatment had mostly destroyed her looks. Her face had caved in, her hair had fallen out. She wore a scarf over her yellowing skull and had a woman come every Wednesday and Friday to draw eyebrows on her face and do her eyes. “Besides,” Rachel added, “the nuns at school don’t allow it.”
“Nuns,” Carol said, shaking her head. “I wasn’t so easily dissuaded when I was fifteen. We used to put lipstick on right after school and wipe it off just before getting home so that our parents wouldn’t know.”
“I don’t care about being pretty,” Rachel said.
“You know,” her mother said, “teenagers are allowed to be a little bad sometimes, to be a little rebellious.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need to act like that,” Rachel said. But she became suddenly curious about her own mother then. “Did you smoke and stuff as a girl? Cigarettes, I mean. Behind the school building?”
Her mother smiled. “I don’t think I should say.” Then she took a drink of water and seemed to change her mind. She was still looking at the boat in the painting. “It was the Sixties when I was a girl and all the fun was just beginning.”
“Maybe I don’t want to hear this,” Rachel said.
“Well,” her mother said, “let’s just say that maybe I smoked a little. Just a little. I didn’t do anything dangerous.”
“You had boyfriends?” Rachel asked.
“Sure,” she said. “I had a few in my time. I was a pretty girl and very vain. No one was good enough for me. You know the type?” her mother said. She was studying Rachel again, examining her face. “If you ever want to borrow some lipstick, Rachel, you’re welcome to go into my bathroom and take some.”
“No,” Rachel said. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s in the second drawer down. People like pretty girls. They get away with an awful lot, you know.”
“No,” Rachel said again.
Her mother closed her eyes then for a long while in order to concentrate. It was pain, Rachel knew. It sometimes sneaked up on her and made her incapable of anything other than feeling it, fighting against it. Her mother’s hand reached out of the covers and grabbed onto Rachel’s arm, as if holding on, and Rachel, not wanting to see the inwardness, the aloneness of her mother’s face, looked away and out the window where the sunlight was broken into leafy patches by the orange trees in the back yard. She heard the roar of a Weed Eater. A bird. Someone shouting in Spanish. Her mother’s grip tightened, then released. “Gone,” her mother said. “Better.” She and Rachel looked at each other as if nothing had happened. They never spoke of the cancer, of the pain. “So what three things would you bring to your deserted island?” her mother asked.
Rachel thought about that question, and when not one thing occurred to her, she said, “I’m fifteen. How am I supposed to know?”
Rachel was on the photography staff for the year book and had been given the duty of following the sports teams, which she hadn’t volunteered for. At the assignments meeting, Mr. Marcosian had just looked up from the piece of paper in his hand and directly at Rachel, and said, “How about you, Rachel, for sports teams?”
Matt Lieberman, a senior who had done sports for the last two years, made noises of complaint. “That’s my job,” he said.
“Let Matt do it,” Rachel said.
“I’d like a girl to do it for a change,” Mr. Marcosian said.
The only girl on the photography staff, Rachel wanted to turn it down. She hated all the cruelty and prestige associated with sports, and all the big, stupid boys who did them. But she also hated to be the center of attention, and twenty other people were staring at her then. “Okay,” she said.
Her first assignment was the cheer leading squad, fourteen girls, mostly Juniors and Seniors, whom she found one rainy day after school building themselves into a human pyramid in the Our Lady auditorium with blue mats spread out beneath them. “Who are you?” Julie Turly asked. Julie Turly was the squad captain and had just attained the peak of the pyramid, balancing herself carefully on the backs of a dozen other girls. She was a beautiful blonde who drove a white convertible Rabbit and whose father was a plastic surgeon. He did breast enlargements, Rachel had heard. And Julie herself was rumored to have performed group sex with Jeff Montoya and Tony Green, two linebackers on the football team. Cruel. So cruel what people said about others. Group sex. What would you do with more than two people? What would just two people do with each other? Rachel hadn’t even kissed a boy. At the same time, she didn’t like these girls and almost hoped the rumor was true. “I’m from the Year Book,” Rachel said, pointing to the camera around her neck.
“Smile girls,” Julie said.
As soon as she got behind the camera, Rachel began to enjoy herself. This was one of the strangest objects she’d ever photographed: a living pyramid of the school’s most beautiful and popular girls dressed in red and gold, the colors of Our Lady, all smiling fakely, bulging eyes and stretched facial muscles betraying their real strain. “Hurry up, please,” Julie said through her smile.
“A few more,” Rachel said just when Christi Howard screeched, then screamed from the bottom of the pyramid, and the sky rained red miniskirts and white sneakers as the girls, Humpty-Dumpty like, came tumbling down.
Two days later when Rachel developed her first roll of black and white film, these last pictures, she felt, were small masterpieces. They showed the girls broken down over the blue mats, on their stomachs, their backs, or on all fours, hands cupping the places that hurt most. Rachel over-exposed their faces a bit, making them glow a bone-colored white, and touched up the dark backdrop of the auditorium until it became primitive and sepia colored, until it shone black like night against a pane of glass, and Rachel’s squad of cheerleaders transcended their stupid teen-aged vanity in a ghostly chromatism in which the viewer could barely see that Julie Turly was Julie Turly, that Christi Howard was Christi Howard, that Samantha Woolsey was Samantha Woolsey. They were all just black and white figures wearing miniskirts, hobbled and apparently in terrible pain. It was spooky, very spooky, and Rachel was pleased.
“Look at these,” she said to Rand, who was still in the Year Book office working on the computer when she’d emerged from the dark room. This was the first time she’d spoken to the quiet, skinny, blond boy with tender acne and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, who for some reason had caught her eye again and again.
“Ouch,” he said. “Das schmerzt.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that it hurts them.”
“Funny way to talk,” she said.
“I am coming from Germany,” Rand said, his face flushing red.
“I didn’t mean funny. I meant different. I meant,” she felt herself straining, “nice. I’m going to start off the sports section with this one and call it: The Agony and the Ecstasy: Girls Feel Pain, Too!”
“What’s agony and ecstasy meaning?”
“Extreme pain and extreme pleasure,” Rachel said.
She saw from his eyes, watery and magnified behind his thick lenses, that he was thinking. “Die Qual und die Ekstase.”
“Sure,” Rachel said. “I guess.”
He wrote the words down in a small notepad. “Thank you,” he said, as if Rachel had genuinely given him something. “Agony and ecstasy,” he repeated.
“Agony and ecstasy,” Rachel repeated after him.
He looked at her picture again. “Why ecstasy?” Rand asked. “I don’t see ecstasy. I only see agony.”
Rachel looked for herself and could only concede. “Yep,” she said.
Mondays and Wednesdays were gory, bloody days. They were Drivers Education days. After school let out, Rachel would sit in a darkened room with other Sophomores and Juniors, including the German boy, Rand, and view the graphic footage of car accidents that was supposed to scare her into driving safely for the rest of her days. She saw bodies decapitated by steering columns, heads bashed into red mush by dashboards, limbs shorn and oddly laying in shattered glass on the road side. “Hamburger films,” she’d heard one girl call them. “Fast food.” They showed survivors, too: Mothers screaming and holding their faces in the white halls of hospitals, a boy weeping into the camera that zoomed in on the burn scabs on his face, then on the bandaged stump of his right arm as he said, wiping away the tears with his remaining hand, “I was drunk. I never, never should have been driving.”
One day in the darkened room, Rachel grabbed Rand’s hand and held on. He had hands after all–fingers intact–and so did she. He seemed to stiffen, then relax, and Rachel felt him turn and look at her. But she stared at the screen, captivated, disgusted. “He was my son, my only son,” a woman said, suddenly unable to speak for grief. Paramedics pounded a needle into the bloody sternum of an accident victim. They beat at his stopped heart with fists. The camera fled upwards, away from the scene and into a darkness gouged with the strobing shadows of red and blue from the emergency vehicles below. The lights came on and Mr. Bobs, the Drivers Ed. instructor and one of the assistant football coaches, stood in front of the class with his football whistle around his neck and his small, flinty eyes shining black in the too sudden fluorescent brightness. He blew on the whistle and Rachel and Rand and forty or so other students gripped their ears. “Stupidity is death,” he said. “If you think you can outsmart death by being stupid on the road, then you really are stupid.”
“Jesus,” somebody whispered behind Rachel.
Everyone seemed to agree that Mr. Bobs was more or less despicable with his whistle and his red coach’s pants and his super short haircut through which his pale scalp shone. He had a bony, blade-like face and wore the sort of small goatee that was popular now with the Our Lady boys and made the Juniors and Seniors who could grow one look slick and a little Satanic, though it just made Mr. Bobs look boyish: A 45-year-old adolescent with a pointy spot of hair on his chin. He was horny, too. Rachel was sure that he stared at her breasts during her Wednesday driving lessons, though he pretended to be looking at her hands on the wheel, her feet on the pedals. “Good,” he’d say. “Excellent.” Adjectives that had really been meant, she knew, for her tits.
“All right, people,” Mr. Bobs said now, “close your eyes. Eyes closed and heads down on your desks. Every last one of you.” Behind him was a huge chalky blackboard, above which the bland white face of a wall clock with a red second hand sweeping slowly around was the last thing that Rachel saw before sealing her eyes. “Now,” he said, “I want you to imagine your own funeral. The guests, the priest who christened you, the family friends, the aunts and uncles.” He paused, then said in a fierce whisper, “Your mother. I want you to take a good long look at her. I want you to see exactly what she’s wearing. Maybe the earrings you gave her one Christmas. Maybe the silly necklace you bought her for Mother’s Day, the one she wears once or twice a year just to be polite or just because she loves you. I want you to be inside her head and feel exactly what she feels as she weeps over your coffin. Do it, people!”
He paused and Rachel could hear his breathing, heavy and persistent as if he’d just climbed a flight of stairs. The fact was, Rachel told herself, that Mr. Bobs was just sharing his torment with them. He was a freshly injured man and not the loud, hard soldier he pretended to be as he stood in front of the class. His wife, Mrs. Judy Bobs, a former English teacher at Our Lady, had fallen in love last spring with Mr. McGuan, the then Our Lady principal. They had fled the school in a bustle of controversy and were said to be living together in California somewhere. Now he was a small, hurt, horny, abandoned man whose only solace in life was to stare at girls’ breasts and to torture and frighten the kids in his Drivers Ed. class. “One stupid, selfish prank from you means a life of loss for her,” he said. Rachel refused to think of these things. Instead, she pictured inside the warm, velvety interior of her head absolutely nothing, a dark void over which she saw the needle of the clock sweeping round and round as she tried not to let Mr. Bobs’ words–dead, mother, funeral, coffin–puncture that deep, black covering. But finally she could not resist seeing herself at her mother’s funeral, herself in a baggy white T-shirt and a pair of over-sized jeans, looking a little formless in her too-big adolescent clothes, which her mother hated so much. Rachel wouldn’t even look pretty at her own mother’s funeral, though Carol wouldn’t be there anymore to say what she always said: “You’re hiding yourself. You have a nice figure. I can tell you do behind all those clothes. But nobody else can. Nobody can see how nice you are, Sweety.” It would be raining, of course, and her father would stand beside her in his dark suit sobbing in the sloppy and terrible way that men do when they cry, loud and snotty and gasping for air. Rain water would fall from his matted bangs. “Daddy,” she’d want to say, but wouldn’t. She would not cry. Not one tear. Not one, she promised herself.
“Okay,” Mr. Bobs said. “Open your eyes now.” When Rachel did, she had to squint at the brightness and all she saw was Mr. Bobs, stupid Mr. Bobs, saying, “I hope you learned something. I hope you all now have a small idea of the pain you could cause.”
After the gory films and after the stupid lecture, Rachel and Rand walked outside Our Lady and sat over the grass still holding hands. “Gross,” Rand said. “Those films. I’m feeling sick in my stomach.”
Gross was a word Rachel had taught him just yesterday. Rand was a fast learner. “You didn’t really imagine it, did you? What Mr. Bobs told us to imagine.”
“I couldn’t not,” Rand said.
“Your coffin and everything?”
Rand was picking clumps of grass out of the ground. “Not a coffin. I want to be burned and put in a jar. What is it called in English?”
“An urn,” Rachel said, hating this conversation.
“An urn,” Rand said. “My mother was crying over my urn. And you?”
“I was just in a coffin,” Rachel said, lying. “A big, black, stupid coffin. It was raining.”
“Yeah,” Rand said, “I know.”
“Were there flowers at yours?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. Then he seemed sure. “No. No flowers. Just my parents and two really old grandmothers that I don’t know very well. And yours?”
“Sure. Lots of flowers. I hate that man,” Rachel said. But she was already thinking about something else. “What if you could watch those hamburger films without being scared? If you could just do that, you might learn something. Not about driving, but about death.” She was thinking about a boy in one of the films who had been cut out of a VW bug with the Jaws of Life. He’d emerged bathed in blood with his eyes wide open, glazed, and just looking at the world, seeming, Rachel thought, to have apprehended something beyond the mess of bent metal and screams and pain. Calm, hugely round eyes.
“You are not scared at the films?” Rand asked.
“Yes,” Rachel said, “I’m scared. Definitely scared. But if I weren’t. . . .” Then she said, “Do you believe that God exists?”
“I believe that the man can’t know this,” Rand said.
“That’s a funny kind of faith,” she said. A hot wind that smelled of rain and fresh asphalt rose up. In the distance a thunderstorm darkened the sky. Fall in Tucson often meant sudden, violent afternoon storms. “I hate people,” Rachel said. “I don’t think I can hate people and still believe in God, can I?”
“Maybe not,” Rand said. “But I don’t think you are hating people, really.”
“Mr. Bobs,” she said. “I hate him. He’s a horny bastard, you know. He looks at me in the car during driving lessons.”
“Horny?” Rand asked.
“That means he wants it all the time?”
“It?” Rand asked.
“It,” Rachel said.
“Oh,” Rand said.
Rachel unzipped her backpack and took out a small black canister of Mace she’d taken from her mother’s bathroom drawer the other day. Her mother had always worried about certain kinds of men and had carried this when she was still well enough to leave the house. “This is for Mr. Bobs,” she said. “It’s tear gas or something. If he tries anything. . . .” She pretended to spray it into the air in front of her. “Bang,” she said. “I hate him.”
“God,” Rand said. “I’m not sure. Tear gas. That seems. . . .” His English failed him and Rachel saw that he was worried, maybe even a little scared.
“I probably won’t ever use it,” she said, putting the black canister away. Poor, worried Rand, she thought, lifting his hand and placing it on her cheek where its warmth seemed immense. His hand smelled of pencil led and wood shavings. A school-room smell. The smell of a smart boy, a fast learner. A boy who could never die, who could never just be ashes in a jar. Never. She kissed him right below the knuckles then–their first kiss–and felt the small, rapid panic of her heart.
“See,” Rand said. His face was red and he was smiling. “You aren’t really hating people, are you?”
“Maybe not,” Rachel said. They felt the first large rain drops–one, two, three–big and wet and warm before it began to pour all at once and they had to run for shelter.
But Rachel did hate Mr. Bobs. She hated him for his black mind and for undressing her with his eyes as she drove. There were always three student drivers in the car, but the other day–the day after which Rachel had decided to carry her mother’s Mace–he’d dropped these students at their houses first so that Rachel and Mr. Bobs were alone together. “Signal now,” Mr. Bobs ordered. He had a deep robotic voice. “Good,” he said. “Now ease into the turn.” He wore large, state-trooper sunglasses with mirrored lenses that hid his eyes behind icy glass so that Rachel could only feel his gaze on her and not see it. At times, when she knew he was staring at her, Rachel would look right at him until he said, “Eyes on the road, Rachel. Eyes on the road.” As they turned on to Presidio that afternoon, one of Tucson’s busiest streets, Rachel felt them again, Mr. Bobs’ eyes probing deep inside her lose T-shirt while cars rushed by on both sides of the little Ford Taurus. A huge purple Cadillac in front of her said AMJAM on the license plate and the pulsing bass of hip-hop reverberated from its insides. “What’s AMJAM mean?” Mr. Bobs asked her. “That a rock group? A kind of music?”
“I don’t know,” Rachel said, still feeling him, his slimy, wet eyes inside her shirt.
“You like music? The Clash?” he said. “Nirvana? The Stones?” He turned on the radio then. “How ‘bout this new guy, Kid Rock?”
“No,” Rachel said, watching the driver of the Cadillac bob his head to the music. “I don’t like that stuff much.” And this was the truth: all that distortion and screaming had never done anything for her.
He turned the radio off. “Oh,” he said. He moved in his seat. Something was strange, something was wrong, and all Rachel could do was look at the road, watch the light change from red to green, and think Please, please just let him go away as she accelerated through the intersection.
“You’re a quiet girl,” Mr. Bobs said. “You’re a loner, aren’t you?” Rachel glanced over at him and saw that he was tapping his fingers on the dash and that one of his knees was motoring up and down, up and down. He was nervous. “Could I tell you something?” he asked. Rachel didn’t say anything. She just drove. “I’d like to tell you that I think I understand how difficult it must be for you right now.”
“Nothing’s difficult,” Rachel said.
“With your mother’s illness,” Mr. Bobs said. He cleared his throat, a terrible, snotty racket. “My mother died some two years ago.”
“My mother,” Rachel said, “is not ill.” This was her secret and she had told no one, no one at Our Lady about it.
“She died of cancer, too,” Mr. Bobs said. “My mother did.”
“My mother is not dying,” she nearly shouted.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Bobs said. “I just wanted you to know that if you needed to . . . to talk. . . .” He touched her shoulder then, softly, and Rachel turned and saw herself doubled in the bright silver plates of Mr. Bobs’ glasses where she gripped at the steering wheel with both hands. “Okay?” Mr. Bobs’ mouth said. She did it then–slammed the brake pedal to the floor with all her might. Mr. Bobs screamed. His glasses flew off and hit the windshield. Cars roared by honking and a huge Tucson Transit Authority bus screeched to a stop right behind them. The bus driver shook his fist at her. “Jesus God,” Mr. Bobs yelled. Rachel started to drive again while her teacher took deep, steadying breaths. “Why’d you do that?” he asked.
“I confused the brake for the gas, I guess,” Rachel said.
His face looked naked and smaller without the glasses. “We almost died,” he said. “Do you realize that we almost died? For crying out loud, kid, why are you smiling?”
She couldn’t help it. It was a combination of his fear, his panic, his smallness, and the fact that he was right–they had almost died. They’d come within a hair’s width, as her mother would say. “But we didn’t,” she said.
“Didn’t what?” Mr. Bobs seemed to be shaking.
“We didn’t die,” she said.
No one liked her pictures. It was true: their vision was dark and they seemed to record a large ratio of accidents and mishaps at the school sporting events. But Rachel could hardly be blamed. She’d simply and consistently found herself at the wrong place at the wrong time. At the first practice of the varsity basketball team, James Wood, the center, went up for a dunk and came down funny on his ankle. Rachel had been there behind the camera, so she snapped the picture of him cradling his right arm and hopping on one leg for the sideline. Then Blake Reems on the tennis team had been swatted so hard on the head by his double partner’s aluminum, graphite Prince racket that he’d hobbled to the fence and gripped to the little chain links in order to stay on his feet; finally, Linda Rose, a swimmer, had begun to climb out of the pool after winning the 200 Meter Free Style Event when she blacked out and oozed back into the water, her eyes closed and her face in utter and eerie peace. “Interesting,” Mr. Marcosian said, looking at her photographs at the quarter year meeting of the photography staff. “Hmmm.” Mr. Marcosian was a short man with thinning, ashy gray hair and small, quick eyes of a freakish, bunny rabbit blue. He wore brown corduroys and a brown cloth neck tie almost everyday, and said “interesting” and “hmmm” a lot in his history classes, digging his fingers into his slight beard. “Aren’t we winning?” he said. “Aren’t there pictures of cheering and victory and such to take?”
And such? Rachel hated words at times. “I didn’t make these things happen,” Rachel said.
“Of course not,” Mr. Marcosian said. “But isn’t photography about selection, about finding what we want to see and recording it?”
“I didn’t select these things. They were just there. They found me. They selected me.” These words scared her. They seemed true.
At home, she showed the photographs to her mother who felt well enough that afternoon to sit up in one of the living room armchairs and watch through the window as the afternoon storm darkened the sky. “Oh,” her mother said, holding up two of Rachel’s pictures. “What happened to this poor girl?” It was Linda Rose, the swimmer, her eyes closed, her face in that deep, strange peace.
“She passed out,” Rachel said. “It was kind of weird. She’d just won, and while everybody’s cheering she closes her eyes and sinks to the bottom of the pool. Her mother actually jumped in with her clothes on. It was scary. But Linda was okay afterwards.”
Carol said “hmmm” at the picture, just as Mr. Marcosian had.
“I want you to like them,” Rachel said.
“I don’t, I’m afraid,” she said, putting them down. “I like that you did them. But I don’t much care for them.”
“Great,” Rachel said. “Thanks.”
“Why would anyone take pictures like these?” her mother asked.
“God,” Rachel said. “Please don’t ask me that. That’s exactly what Mr. Marcosian thought.” She felt herself hating Mr. Marcosian then, the small man digging in his little gray beard for insights. She pictured spraying the tear gas in his blue rabbit eyes, making him claw at his face and weep. He wouldn’t be saying interesting then. “Mr. Marcosian wants pictures of victory and cheering.”
“Sure,” her mother said. “I can understand that.”
“Fatuous,” Rachel said, a word she’d recently learned from a novel she was reading in English class. “Empty high school rhetoric.”
“Nice word,” her mother said, putting her head down on the couch and looking out the window at the storm where a streak of lightening lit the sky followed by a delayed rumbling that seemed to get beneath the house and shake it. “I like a good thunderstorm.”
“You’re avoiding me,” Rachel said. “You won’t even have an argument with me.”
“I’m tired,” Carol said. She closed her eyes for a moment, then too slowly opened them again and turned to look at Rachel, who noticed the extreme thinness of her mother’s neck, the cords pushing against the white, white skin. “I wish you’d wear nicer shirts.” She pulled on a loose fold of Rachel’s T-shirt. “Don’t you have nice blouses? Maybe your father needs to take you shopping.”
“I don’t want to go shopping with Dad.”
“And a little make-up, too. You haven’t forgotten where my lipstick is.”
“You’re a broken record,” Rachel said. But her mother didn’t seem to hear her or care to hear her. More lightening flashed and the rain started coming down and Rachel’s mother closed her eyes again and seemed about to fall asleep. “What if I told you,” Rachel said, considering every word carefully now, “that one of my teachers at Our Lady wanted to sleep with me, wanted to have sex with me?”
Her mother sat up in her chair and looked at her. The shadows in the room were riddled by the downpour and fell in dark streaks down Carol’s face. “I’d say that either you’re choosing the wrong way to get my attention or that you’d better go get your father and set up an appointment with Father Kelsh right this minute.” Father Kelsh was the Our Lady Principal.
Rachel looked out the window. “I’m making it up, I guess.”
“Rachel,” her mother said in a tone that meant she’d better look at her. Rachel did this. “Don’t please do that. Don’t say that sort of thing.”
“I’m rebelling now. You said I was allowed to.”
“Ridiculous,” her mother said in a harsh, disciplinarian voice that Rachel remembered from her childhood and had not heard in years.
“You don’t think I’m pretty,” Rachel said.
Carol smiled. “Of course I do.” Then she said, “I’m tired, Rachel. I wonder if you’d give me some time.”
Rachel found her father in the kitchen. “Mom thinks I’m ugly,” she said.
“Your mother’s tired, kiddo.”
“Kiddo?” she said. “I’m not exactly a kid anymore.” She and her father hadn’t seen each other much lately. Last year, between working and spending time with her mother at the hospital, he’d almost never been home. And now that he worked only half-time at his bank and was around the house again, he’d call her things like kiddo, though he mostly just sat in his large chair in the living room or in his study with the lights off and said nothing. All the same, she loved him, his round, soft face and mostly bald head, loved him so much that it had been hard for her when she first went to high school to find the skinny, bony-faced boys with all their hair at Our Lady at all attractive. “Daddy,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. His neck tie was loosened and he’d just made himself a drink. But his eyes were red. He’d been crying in here, she knew, and he’d stopped for her and wouldn’t mention it. Everyone in this house did their crying alone, and Rachel guessed that she liked it best that way.
“How’s the bank?”
“The bank’s the bank,” he said.
“School’s school,” she said, even though he hadn’t asked. She dropped her photographs on the table in front of him. “Nobody likes my pictures.”
He tried to rescue her then. “I do,” he said.
“Not very convincing,” she said.
“They’re art pictures, I’d say. Not easy to understand. Challenging to the viewer.”
“Wrong,” she said. “They’re sports pictures. They’re for the Our Lady Year Book. I’m the sports photographer.”
“Sports photographer?” he said. He’d obviously assumed she was joking.
“Yeah,” she said. “Sports is my big hobby. I love sports.” There was a long silence between them. More lightning flashed outside and the kitchen windows ran with gray water and the rain came down still harder, a thousand million tiny explosions pummeling the roof overhead, and they didn’t know what to say to each other. “You told my teachers about Mom,” she said. “You told them and you didn’t tell me you were going to. Why’d you do that?”
“We thought it might be easier on you that way. We knew you wouldn’t want us to, but we thought it best.”
“Well,” Rachel said, “it’s not easier.”
Her father took a sip of his drink and stared into it as he spoke. “We’d like you to see someone, Rachel.”
“A shrink?” she asked.
“Why doesn’t Mom ask me?”
“Your mother’s sick.” His voice became almost angry.
“What if I said no?”
“We’d rather you not say no.”
Rachel looked down at her feet, at her big blue Nikes. “No,” she said.
When Rachel needed to cry, she retreated after school to the far stall in the basement girls bathroom, which was almost always empty. Once locked into her stall, she cried out loud and heard her voice, mournful, hollow, angry, amplified in that strange, cold echo chamber. After blowing her nose and calming herself, she’d start again, this time louder, more ferociously until she had exhausted herself. Sometimes, she’d flush the toilet beneath her so that the roar of the water would muffle the moans of her own voice. Rachel hated public rest rooms, but they seemed like the right place for grief: dirty, semi-private, shameful places smelling of chemicals and urine.
Afterwards, she’d sit on the toilet and read the graffiti, which was especially graphic because only three years ago Our Lady had been an all boys Jesuit school, and due to limited funding many of the girls rooms had been left as is with the arcane and mostly disgusting signs of boys everywhere. Along the walls, a row of urinals, rusted and now dry, remained, the strange presence of which always summoned in Rachel’s mind a line of boys facing the wall, legs spread execution style, the seats of their pants baggy and hitched on their skinny hips as they held their penises like water pistols and aimed at the little silver latticed drains and maybe spit or pulled a pen from their crotch pocket and wrote, “Keep your eyes up here, hand master!” Hand master. She didn’t know exactly what one was, but the dark suggestion of greedy and obsessive masturbation didn’t escape her and made her giggle through her drying tears.
And on the scratched, aqua blue door of her stall and the dividers on both sides of her, she read dozens of other disgusting predatory markings naming girls who were either fictitious or had come from the then sister school, St. Mary’s High, across the street from Our Lady, where Rachel’s mother had been a student. “Linda Crotch likes it up the butt,” she read. She studied a small illustration of a jovial penis, a large grin drawn across its snake-like face that thought to itself in a balloon drawn above, “Boy would I like some pussy.” “Kindra lets me come in her cunt,” another message read, accompanied by a faded sketch of the cunt itself, an inky hole surrounded by curly hair. And as Rachel sat on the toilet urinating or as she stood, her panties pulled down around her knees, changing her pad, she felt a little sick to her stomach. Surrounded by pictures of erect penises and open vaginas, she’d wipe herself and pull her panties up with the tips of her fingers, not wanting to touch her own messy self and thinking of Mr. Bobs, his glasses, his thin, sucked-in cheeks, the fact that he had touched her, if only on the shoulder. Did he think of Rachel’s vagina, her cunt, her hole? Even her mother, her dying body now shrunk to almost nothing, had smiled at her, a memory, a confirmation of a certain kind of pleasure, and said, “Sure. I had a few boyfriends in my time.” Rand had a penis, a scrotum, and must, behind his sweet smile, his funny and pure foreign accent, have felt this way. And Rachel herself, reading these strange messages, had wondered what it would be like to sit down on a cock and hold it deep inside her. She’d hurry to leave then, exit the stall, wash her hands thoroughly, at least twice with too much pink soap from the dispensers, and rush outside where, trying to forget her thoughts, she’d board a city bus home or, on Wednesdays, get into Mr. Bobs’ car.
So it was hard for Rachel to understand why she did what she did on that Wednesday afternoon after her father had asked her to see a shrink. First, she flushed away the toilet’s yellow contents, then asked out loud, just to make sure, “Is anyone in here?” before she leaned off the seat and, thinking of Mr. Bobs’ black mind, of Mr. Marcosian’s dislike of her pictures, of her mother’s eyes half-closed before Rachel’s dangerous words had brought her back to life, she scribbled out her own dirty contribution: “Julie Turly sucks Mr. Bobs’ big dick.” She scratched “dick” out and wrote, enjoying the improvement, “cock.” She read it back to herself, feeling now that this minor accomplishment would be her secret, her small, disgusting deed that she would keep from everyone else. She left the girls room in a hurry then, without looking back and without washing her hands.
That afternoon, Rachel kept the small, black canister of Mace close at hand in her right front pocket during Mr. Bobs’ driving lesson. She remained attentive and always aware of where Mr. Bobs’ eyes might be, though in the last weeks since their near accident, Mr. Bobs’ gaze no longer seemed to wander towards her. He had been all business since then, as he was that afternoon, repeating his usual axioms. The best offense is a good defense and Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate and Always keep two car lengths between you and the driver ahead and, in conjunction with that last one, Fences make good neighbors, people! and finally, his favorite it seemed, Stupidity on the road is death on the road. He’d even taken to dropping Rachel off first or second so that they were never alone in the car.
“Signal at least five seconds before turning,” Mr. Bobs told Rachel, who had just made a sloppy turn in front of a tailgating Mustang. She saw his foot poised over the brake pedal on his side of the car. He was cautious, maybe even scared when she drove now.
“I’m out of it,” Rachel said. “I’m a little sleepy today.”
“Well then,” Mr. Bobs said, “you’re on your way to becoming a statistic.”
“Sorry,” Rachel said, feeling satisfied that she had annoyed him a little and feeling also the unfamiliar power of her secret over him, even imagining it as he sat next to her reciting his stupid platitudes: Mr. Bobs making the sounds of a sick animal as Julie Turly blew him, as Julie Turly reached up and grabbed the little silver whistle around his neck and pulled on its yellow chord until he came.
“Signal. Check your blind spot. Observe the five-second rule.” They were driving towards Rachel’s home now, up her quiet street. “A little sloppy today, Ms. White.” She hated the fact that he’d just used her last name, the implication of her smallness ringing in the tone of his voice. She stepped out of the car and Jason Brown took her place. “See you next Wednesday.” The stupid man didn’t even look at her as he said this, as the car pulled away and Rachel thought about going inside, though she didn’t. She couldn’t sit at her sick mother’s bed just then. So she stood on the curb and watched the blue Ford Taurus with the funny yellow beacon on its cab that said Student Driver turn the corner and drive out of sight. Male slut. She’d heard a girl say that in the hall at Our Lady once. Mr. Bobs is a male slut. She thought about crying till exhausted and then writing those words on the dirty bathroom wall in letters so large and crooked that they’d make the bathroom scream with what Rachel felt inside her now. But everything was silent. It was four o’clock and the sun was full in the sky and Rachel’s neighborhood was sleeping. The houses were shut up behind their lava rock front yards and no one walked on the sidewalks. Rachel had a secret. At least she had that. She wondered, though, when Mr. Bobs might drop her off last again, when he might ask her about her taste in music, her quietness, her loneliness. She almost hoped he would ask her these things. And if he did, Rachel would be ready for him. She’d be ready for him because she hated Mr. Bobs, every disgusting, horny inch of him.
One day after school, Rachel went to Rand’s house for dinner without telling her parents. Rand’s mother and father talked rapidly to each other and to Rand in German, and it was a disappointing discovery for Rachel to hear Rand speak so easily, so proficiently in a language she could not understand. She missed his accent, his awkward speech rhythms, his dependency on her as a sort of dictionary. Now she was dependent on him. “What’s that word mean?” she asked him.
“Kartoffeln,” he said, “means potatoes. Reichen Sie mir bitte die Kartoffeln,” Rand said, trying to teach her how to ask for the potatoes to be passed.
But Rachel didn’t want to learn. She wanted to understand things. “I can’t say that,” she said.
Rand’s parents didn’t look foreign at first. They just looked like people, like Americans to her. Mr. Taub still wore his work suit with his tie loosened, just as Rachel’s father did after work, and a pare of fine wire spectacles that made his face appear angular and refined, maybe a little more European than American. Mrs. Taub wore blue jeans and a funny T-shirt with a pelican on it saying something in a language Rachel didn’t recognize. “What’s the Pelican saying?” Rachel asked.
“That’s Arabic,” Mrs. Taub said. “It’s saying: Learn languages so that you can learn the world.” Her accent was very strong and Germanic as if the vowels were climbing up little slopes in each word she said. “It’s an advertisement for the private language school I worked for in Tunis for some years back.”
“Oh,” Rachel said. She’d never heard of Tunis and felt very alone and ignorant in her inability to see that strange city where Rand had once lived when something terrible happened at the table. Mrs. Taub reached over with her napkin and wiped a bit of food from the corner of Rand’s mouth–a typical motherly gesture. All at once, Rachel could not help but imagine this woman broken down and crying over her son’s urn, his little jar of ashes. It would be raining, drizzling on two very old ladies. And there would be no flowers. Just Rand’s jar. Mrs. Taub and all she knew would count for nothing then. Rachel looked at Rand, his soft, smart eyes, wet and bent funnily beneath the lenses of his glasses, as he forked a bite of potatoes into his mouth. She mourned a little bit for him. She wanted Mr. Bobs and his darkness out of her head.
“We are hearing many good things about you from Rand,” Mrs. Taub said. “You are a photographer, Rand is telling us.”
“No one likes my pictures,” Rachel said. It somehow made her feel more secure to demean herself in front of Rand’s European parents.
“Art is a matter of taste,” Mr. Taub said. “There will be some who like your pictures, I’m sure.” He spoke perfect English with a surprisingly crisp British accent.
“Thank you,” Rachel said, though she wasn’t sure why she’d said that. To make things worse, she repeated it in German. “Danke,” she said.
“Very good,” Mrs. Taub said, and Rachel felt incredibly stupid.
After dinner, Rachel called home and her father answered. “It’s Rachel,” she said.
“Hi,” he said. He sounded tired and far away as if he’d forgotten to speak directly into the receiver. Behind her, Rachel heard the clattering of plates and the strange sounds of German being spoken, and right then she felt that she was thousands of miles away in a foreign country; she missed her father, missed him terribly. “You don’t know where I am,” she said.
“I thought you were working on the Year Book or having your driving lesson.”
“It’s almost nine o’clock,” Rachel said.
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“Are you there?” Rachel actually said this and it confused her, the way it had just come out like that. “Dad?” she said, and she felt her throat choking, her eyes tearing up, thinking about how, years ago, they used to play a game called Mr. Boo, a silly version of hide-and-seek. Where is Mr. Boo hiding? she’d call out as she searched for her father in the closets, under beds, in bathtubs until she’d find him and scream, There’s Mr. Boo!
“What?” her father said. “Sure I am.” Then he finally realized what he should have already asked, “So where are you?”
“I’m at Stephanie’s,” Rachel said, feeling immediately disappointed by her lie. She’d wanted it to feel deceptive and maybe even a little malicious. But it was a useless lie. Rachel had nothing of any value to conceal from him, nothing that could make her seem as remote as her father now seemed to her. “Stephanie’s a friend of mine,” she said, though Stephanie didn’t exist and her lie was clearly pointless. “What are you doing now?” she said. “Are you still in your work suit?”
He seemed to take a minute to look at himself. “I guess so,” he said. “I’m just sitting here.” Then he added, “Your mother’s sleeping. She’s fine.”
“Yes,” Rachel said, “I know. I’ll be home soon.” And then they hung up.
On the walls in Rand’s bedroom were pictures of Rand at various ages and in various parts of the world. Working in some capacity for the German government, Mr. Taub had taken his family everywhere, it seemed. In one of the pictures, a bare-chested toddler with huge blue eyes, Rand played with two older black boys on the dirt ground in the African Congo. In another, a little boy, he wore a funny colored hat and sat on a camel in the Sahara Desert. In another, still older, he brought a piece of octopus to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. Aside from the part of Mexico that bordered Tucson, Rachel had never been outside her country, and she found the images on Rand’s walls overwhelming in the unexpected vastness of the world they showed. She hoped she would never have to eat octopus. She hoped she would never be half-naked in the Congo surrounded by other half-naked children. But Rand had done these things. He seemed to know a great deal that she did not, and maybe somehow his knowledge could protect her.
But when she asked him one afternoon in his bedroom, “What’s the world like, Rand?” he looked at her as if he were totally stupid, as if he knew nothing about the smart, quick-learning boy she had always believed him to be.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Yes you do,” she said. “You’ve lived everywhere.”
“Okay,” he said. “You are familiar with that song It’s A Small World?” Rachel nodded her head, thinking about that song, the chorus of children’s voices that always sang it. “That,” Rand said, “is a stupid song. It’s not small. It’s big. It’s bigger than you could ever imagine. Nothing’s the way you think.”
“I didn’t really want to hear that,” Rachel said. Rand shrugged his shoulders and Rachel wished he were less truthful and more generous, more deceptive.
“It’s a good kind of big, though,” he said. “It shows you things you would never expect.”
“I know that already,” Rachel said.
That same afternoon, Rand and Rachel exchanged e-mails with a girl named Lisa who was spending the year with her family on a small island near the North Pole. Rand had a computer in his room and liked to e-mail German friends and other kids he’d met while living in far off places. “E-mail,” Rachel said. “I didn’t know they had e-mail on the North Pole. Ask her what she did over the weekend. Ask her about Polar bears and the animals there.”
Five minutes later, they received her response: “We saw the polar icecaps yesterday and even had a freezing cold picnic on one. The seasons are way extreme here. Right now, it’s eleven o’clock at night and the sun is still shining bright. But in about a month, it will be pitch black all day long. There are no penguins or white bears here. All that stuff’s a lie.”
“Oh,” Rachel said. “I was sure there were at least penguins.”
“I think that is the South Pole,” Rand said.
“Maybe,” Rachel said. She was picturing now the vast, white emptiness in which Lisa and her family had picnicked, the plane of ice as far as you could see, the dead, colorless space there, and was realizing that Rand would eventually, sooner than later, leave again and live somewhere else, maybe even the North Pole. He would be swallowed up, and Rachel hated the world.
In the late fall, Rachel combed the sidelines at a football practice one day with her camera. The boys on the Our Lady football team had names like Billy Bat, Rat Swank, Bob Knight, Mark Sword–names of animals and weapons and warriors. She expected to laugh at them in their funny tight pants. But she was awed instead by the persistent, repetitive violence they endured as they grouped off in separate packs along the field and ran what were called drills–passing drills, blocking drills, tackling drills, formation drills–most of which consisted of sprinting and foot work, and ended by one boy or several boys obliterating another. Leading these strange exercises, coaches in red pants shouted at the top of their lungs. At the end of one side of the field, Rachel was surprised to see Mr. Bobs not merely shouting, but screaming, haranguing his group. “Ladies!” he shouted at them. “A bunch of ladies!” His boys faced off and exploded into one another. “Hit him! Hit him good! I want to hear it when you hit each other.” Their helmets cracked again and again, and some boys tumbled backwards and wriggled grotesquely in the grass before getting to their knees, then crouching and colliding again. Rachel prepared herself to see another accident, a boy who would not rise, a bloody nose, a pinched nerve, though none of this happened. Finally, it was Mr. Bobs who fascinated Rachel most. Mr. Bobs who had spent, in his other capacity, most of the semester warning them against collision and who now blew his whistle to send whole columns of boys into a strange, controlled orgy of brutality. “Get down! Get down! And explode out of it!” His face was red and scribbled with bright streaks of sweat. Veins popped from his throat as he clamped down on the whistle, and Rachel turned her camera on him thinking about how Mrs. Judy Bobs, a pretty blond woman who had taught Dickens and Jane Austin and Shakespeare in Rachel’s English class last year, had driven off to California with Mr. McGuan, a better looking man than Mr. Bobs, how she had left this poor furious man to grow a stupid little goatee, to stare at his girl students, and to scream at his football players. He was alone now, alone and yelling into thin air at the top of his lungs. Rachel wanted to do that. She wanted to scream like that at the top of her lungs. Scream and scream and scream. She snapped his picture again and again. She didn’t know at first what she felt then for Mr. Bobs, this helpless, grown man raging into nothing, though she thought it might be pity.
For a boy who had sat on camels in Tunisia and ridden on the roofs of train cars in India, for a boy who was supposed to know the world and would, Rachel knew, leave Tucson behind, Rand was terrible at love. He was slow and uncomprehending when Rachel finally made him sit on his bed, bent over him and kissed him on the lips. He wouldn’t close his eyes and he wouldn’t take his glasses off, the cold, thick rims of which gouged at Rachel’s cheeks. “I need them to see,” he said, holding them on with both hands. When she blew in and nibbled at his ears, he could only giggle and squirm and struggle out of her arms. And he seemed completely baffled by Rachel’s tongue. “It’s what you do,” she tried to explain to him. People kiss with their tongues.”
“I don’t know,” Rand said.
“Of course you do. Everybody knows that.”
These were Rachel’s first kisses, her first embraces, and she wanted them to count. She wanted to feel desired, ravished, and one afternoon, sitting Indian style opposite Rand on his bed, she finally insisted. She pulled her T-shirt off and lifted Rand’s hands to her breasts and put them over her bra. “Go ahead,” she said. “Do it.”
“Do what?” he asked. He didn’t move his hands. They seemed stuck to her smallish breasts, glued there.
“Feel me up,” she said.
“Feel up?” he said.
He didn’t even understand the English, so she had to make it simple. “Love me,” she said, after which Rand went mute and just stared at her. “Take your glasses off, Rand.” His eyes looked so pathetic and worried behind his thick lenses that she finally reached over and removed them herself and hid them under the bed. He must have been frozen with fear because he’d been unable to take his hands from her and defend himself.
“Please,” he said. “I can’t see.” He squinted at her and finally did lift an arm and touch her face, softly, the way the blind do, trying to see with his fingers. “Where are my glasses, Rachel?”
“Kiss me,” Rachel said, leaning into him, digging into his lips with hers, pushing a hand down and beginning to pull his belt lose.
“No please,” Rand said. Spit came from his mouth, and when she kissed him now she felt only his teeth. But her eyes were closed and she was reaching for his crotch, his cock, when he put his hands down and pushed her so forcefully away that she hit the wall behind her with a thud. Her chest felt hollow, as if the force of the impact had emptied her. He shouted out a word in German, a word full of panic and shock. His blond hair was a mess now, as if he’d come in from a wind storm, and his eyes shone with rage and tears and blindness. “Where are my glasses hiding? My glasses!” he shouted.
She got them for him, and when he put them on and could see her again, he seemed to hate her. “Leave,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel said.
“Out,” he said. “Out.”
When she got up to leave, he threw something at her. It was her shirt, and she picked it up from her feet, put it on, and left.
In the weeks before Christmas, Rand did not speak to her or even look at her at school. In the Year Book Office, he’d sit staring at the computer screen even when she would pull a chair up next to him and say, “Hi, Rand. It’s me, stupid. It’s Rachel. Remember?” He’d just type away or maneuver the mouse. “How’s Lisa on the North Pole?” she asked him. When he said nothing, she just sat there and noticed how the chilly blue light from the monitor seeped into Rand’s face and made him look frozen and cruel as if he’d already gone to one of the poles, to the farthest Arctic regions. “Happy holidays and stuff,” she said before going away.
One evening Rachel fell asleep in the dark of her room feeling sick to her stomach, feeling that she’d lost everything, feeling that hunkering down into darkness, into sleep was her only way to find comfort now. When she woke the next morning, she looked out her window and saw what seemed to be a storm of purple confetti falling from the dark sky. She walked outside in her T-shirt and bare feet, shivering, seeing her breath turn to smoke in the cold air and tasting a crystal of ice on her lip. Snow. Snow in the desert. She’d never seen it, not in Tucson, and she ran down the hall to her mother’s bedroom and woke her. “It’s snowing,” she said. Her mother, dressed in a simple white night gown, woke very slowly, as if even this simple act hurt her, and Rachel seemed to have to wait a long time before her mother was ready to hear and understand what she now said again. “It’s snowing outside. Look.”
When Carol turned around and looked out the window behind her, she said, “Am I dreaming?”
“Do you want me to pinch you?” Rachel asked.
“Please don’t,” she said. Then her mother said, “Oh . . . oh,” and pointed to her pills on the bedside table.
Rachel poured her water from a pitcher and her mother slowly swallowed three blue gel caps and closed her eyes, concentrating now on the terrible thing inside her. “Is the nurse coming soon?” Rachel asked. A nurse came now every day.
“In an hour,” her mother said. Then she said, her eyes still closed and her head resting on her pillow, “Tell me about something.”
“What?” Rachel hated herself for having nothing to say.
“Anything,” her mother said. “Say anything.”
“I have a boyfriend,” Rachel said. “My first boyfriend.”
Her mother actually smiled. “You’ve been keeping secrets from me,” she said.
“His name is Rand. It’s a funny name, I know, but it’s German. He’s German from Germany. He speaks German and everything, and his father’s a diplomat, which is why they’re in Tucson instead of in Heidelberg. I guess I didn’t want to tell anybody right away. I thought he might drop me.”
“Why would you think that?” her mother asked. “I bet he really likes you.”
“Vielleicht,” Rachel said. “That’s German for perhaps.”
“He’s teaching you German?”
“I like him and everything,” Rachel said. “But he’s maybe a little pushy sometimes. He wants to do things that I don’t want to do yet.”
“Things?” her mother said. She opened her eyes and kept them open. “What things?”
Rachel looked outside at the snow, each flake about the size of a grain of rice, and hated the particular way the truth had worked itself into her lies. She didn’t want to hear this truth, but she said it anyway. “You know, sex things. But I’m not ready for that and I told him so and he seems to like me still.”
“Good,” her mother said. “Good for you. Do we need to have a talk? Would you like to ask me some questions?”
“Not right now,” Rachel said.
Her mother closed her eyes and smiled. “You’re a strong girl, Rachel. Very strong.”
Rachel looked out the window again at the strange snow that disappeared as soon as it hit the red dirt ground, the desert in which it shouldn’t have been snowing in the first place. Lies have long legs, her mother had always told her. They run away from you, they chase after you. But she’d never told Rachel how lonely lies were, how friendless and loveless they made you feel.
Her mother said, “I’m sure he’ll be very nice once he calms down.” Then she said with mock disgust, “Boys.”
“Boys,” Rachel said, agreeing.
On the last Wednesday before the semester break, Rachel put a small black tube of lipstick in her backpack and dressed in one of her mother’s blouses, which she’d borrowed without asking and which fit her more snugly than anything Rachel owned. In the mirror, she saw that her smallish breasts took on shape and she could just make out the white straps of her bra, the fine lattice of which made her feel both interior and exposed. As she walked through the brown hallways of Our Lady and took in their familiar smells of stinky tennis shoe leather and pencil erasure, she felt herself distinctly being seen as if the eyes of boys–glancing quickly towards her and just as quickly away–had coated her in a second skin, a sheath of light and uncertain thoughts.
After school, she retreated to her stall in the basement rest room, peed, then wept as loudly as ever, after which she scrawled out an especially graphic message about the Our Lady principal and the Director of Religious Studies. “Father Kelsh does Sister Mariam Anne doggy style.” Does seemed to her even more offensive than the word fuck, and she was pleased with what Mr. Cummins, her English teacher, would have called her word choice. But neither her cry nor her message seemed to do much for her that day. She stood from the toilet, pulled her panties up and her skirt down. She had just finished her period and so felt more solid now and less self-conscious in that murky, confused way. In front of the mirror, Rachel took out the black tube of lipstick, the name of which–Secret Rose–had made her think of dew, mists, and light, grainy rain fall, of moister climates than Tucson’s. But there was nothing floral about this thick, substantial red, and as she stroked the color on, she seemed to be cutting into her own skin, exposing a soft, wounded depth that she had not guessed at. “Ouch,” she said to herself in the mirror.
When she got into the back seat of the Taurus, Mr. Bobs, his sunglasses off, addressed her in the rear view mirror. “You’re first, Rachel.”
She told him right off that she had forgotten her house key that day and that her parents wouldn’t return home till later. “They’re at the hospital.” How easily that lie had come to her. “I thought maybe I could drive last today,” she said to the slice of eyes and nose in the rear view mirror.
The eyes looked at her, considered her. “Okay,” Mr. Bobs said, his face sliding out of the mirror where instead she saw a slanted section of the back seat and of her own lap where her hands, skinny and cut-off at the wrists, lay. Then he readjusted the mirror.
Stacy Wallright drove first. She was a little pudgy and drove fearfully, so that Mr. Bobs had to repeat the same stern advice he always reserved for Stacy. “Driving afraid can be just as dangerous as driving recklessly. At the end of the day, the old lady going thirty-five in her Buick on the Interstate and the teenager jumping train tracks in his Camaro end up in the same place.” He cleared his throat. “Fear kills, too,” he said.
Why did Mr. Bobs like to talk about death so often? Every time he mentioned it, he’d sit up straighter and puff with authority.
After dropping Stacy off, Jason Brown got behind the wheel. Jason Brown was what Mr. Bobs called an “over-confident” driver. His manner was lax and today he cruised with the fingers of one hand draped over the wheel so that Mr. Bobs had to say, “Two hands, Jason. Always two hands on the wheel. If you think you can avoid an accident with a couple of fingers, you’re wrong.”
Jason put his other hand on the wheel, though he was slow to do it and clearly felt that it clashed with his style.
Finally, after Jason Brown got out, it was Rachel’s turn. Rachel had been labeled a “careless” driver by Mr. Bobs ever since she’d confused the brake for the gas that day, and as she eased into her first turn she wanted to point out the care she’d just taken. “I followed the five second rule this time,” Rachel said.
“This is your last practice run,” Mr. Bobs said. “After this, you’re on your own.”
“You ever been in an accident, Mr. Bobs?” Rachel asked. “I mean, with Our Lady students.”
“No,” he said. “Never.”
“Probably the closest you came is with me that time.” Mr. Bobs said nothing and she felt herself achieving a nice hot contempt for this man who had been ignoring her now for weeks. “Guess what?”
Mr. Bobs didn’t say anything to this save for, “Take a right turn on Mesa Drive.”
“I took your picture the other day.”
“My picture?” Mr. Bobs said. Rachel looked over at him, expecting him to engage her now, though he didn’t. He faced straight ahead with his large, shield-like glasses on, as if it would be dangerous for him to turn and look at her.
“On the football field last week,” she said. “I’m the school sports photographer. You’re going to be in the Year Book.”
“All right,” he said, “we’ll take a few left-hand turns and then finish up.”
“You seemed angry, the way you were shouting at those boys to hit each other. Are you angry, Mr. Bobs?” He took a deep, irritated breath. “Anyway, the way you were shouting made me for some reason think about something. I thought about Mrs. Bobs, about the way she left and everything, about how furious you must have been when she did that.”
Mr. Bobs was looking at her now, though she couldn’t know what was in his eyes–rage, shock–behind those silly glasses. “We’re having a driving lesson,” he said. “Not a conversation.”
She hated the coldness, the indifference in his voice. She wanted him to be angry or hurt, to yell or cry. “The other week,” she said, “we were having a conversation. We talked about what music I liked, about how lonely I seemed, about my mother.”
“No,” Mr. Bobs said, his voice still calm and chilly. “We didn’t. I don’t remember any such conversation.”
“You touched me,” Rachel said. “You put a hand on my shoulder.”
“No,” Mr. Bobs said. “I didn’t.” Then he said, “Take a right at this light.”
“Sure,” Rachel said, pulling into the left lane and taking a left turn onto a quiet residential street.
“I said right,” Mr. Bobs said.
“No you didn’t,” Rachel said. “You said left. You said take a left turn at the light.”
“Take a right here and turn around,” he said calmly, as if none of this were happening.
Rachel turned left again and drove further into the quiet neighborhood of rock yards and chain-link fences. “You used to look at me,” Rachel said. “And every time you did it behind your glasses, I knew it. I felt it.”
“Are you threatening me?” Mr. Bobs asked. They drove past a Mormon church, where a man wearing a suit and tie and holding rolls of new toilet paper stacked in his arms struggled to enter the large front doors. One of the rolls toppled from the stack and sped over the sidewalk behind him. “Are you?”
“In the pictures I took of you,” Rachel continued, “you’ve got your mouth open because you’re shouting at the boys in front of you to bash their helmets together. And even though you look mad and crazy with anger, you look sad too because it seems like you’re too angry, if you know what I mean. Angrier than a football coach should be. I’ve got a title,” Rachel said. “It’s called The General or maybe The General’s Secret. It’s going to be the first photograph of the sports section.” Then she said, “I’m not threatening you. I don’t think I am, anyway.”
“Jesus,” Mr. Bobs said, laughing, though it wasn’t a pleasant laugh. And when Rachel turned to look at him, he had taken his glasses off and was wiping the sweat from his forehead. “First of all, I never looked at you. Not once. And if you’re planning to tell people I did, you’d better think again.”
He looked exhausted, run down, and Rachel suddenly remembered what she’d wanted to know from him. “What did it feel like,” she asked, “when your wife left you? Afterwards, I mean. When the house was empty? When you knew she was gone forever?”
“Stop the car,” Mr. Bobs said in a fierce whisper. “Stop the stupid car.”
“No,” Rachel said. Mr. Bobs was angry now. Thank God he was angry, furious. “We’re having a driving lesson, aren’t we?”
“You have two seconds to stop the car.” When Rachel kept driving, Mr. Bobs slammed the brake pedal down on his side and they came to a screeching stop. He reached over and began wrestling Rachel for the keys, their hands interlocking.
“You’re touching me. Stop touching me,” Rachel yelled. He withdrew then, jerking back as if stung, though somehow he’d ended up with the keys.
“I’m going to give you bus money,” Mr. Bobs said, digging in his pocket. “And you’re going to get out right here.”
“It must have hurt a lot,” Rachel said. “Or maybe you didn’t feel anything. Maybe you went around the house pulling all the empty drawers out, opening her closet and just looking into the space left by everything she took away while you tried to feel something.”
Mr. Bobs was holding money out to her, his hands shaking. “Get the hell out.”
Rachel didn’t really hate him anymore, but she had planned to hate him and she had wanted to hate him. So she said it. “You’re an asshole, Mr. Bobs. You’re a dirty, messy asshole.” She pulled the Mace out of her front pocket, pointed it at him, and watched Mr. Bobs’ face grow puzzled, then frightened.
“What?” he said.
“Bang!” she said, spraying him. He exhaled, as if all at once deflating, and folded up into his lap. Rachel felt her throat clench from the fumes and put her hand to her mouth as she looked down at his back. “Mr. Bobs,” Rachel said through her hand. “Say something.” He made a sound, a deep sound that did not seem human and that prompted her to touch him softly on the shoulder where she felt his muscles quivering, where she felt what must have been his suffering. She wanted to say his first name then, to call him out of his pain with something more familiar–Robert or Earl or Dennis. But she didn’t know it. She didn’t know anything about this man she’d just hurt. So she said again, “Mr. Bobs. Please.” He moved away from her touch and somehow let himself out of the car, dropping to the asphalt. She heard the noise of the keys he’d just snatched from her hit the ground and saw him roll over onto his back. His closed eyes streamed with tears. “Mr. Bobs,” she said, now standing above him. He had begun to breathe again and she wanted to call for help, but was too afraid of what she’d done. It was then that she noticed the children staring at her from the rock garden of the house directly in front of her. “I didn’t do it,” she said. They said nothing in return and she saw then that they were lawn ornaments–a little boy with a corn-cob pipe in his mouth and a fishing rod in his hand and a little girl with a red smile on her face, wearing a heavy winter coat, and supporting a satchel of school books on her back. “Oh,” she said to them. She looked at the house in front of her, a small adobe structure, and saw herself cut-off at the waste and reflected in the sun-plashed glass of its single front window. No one had seen. No one had been looking. Not even a single car was driving along this road, though Rachel could hear the rushing traffic of Tucson like the sound of a river somewhere beyond the houses, the sound of the whole world where people ate octopus, where Africans played in the dirt, where Arabs road off on camels into their strange, endless desert of sand dunes, where girls and their families picnicked on polar icecaps, the world at the quiet center of which Rachel now stood only to see that it was dead. The world was dead. It didn’t seem to care if you were a terrible person who did terrible things. It didn’t seem to care about anything. It was just there, inexplicably there.
Mr. Bobs had gotten to his knees, leaned his chest against the car’s front fender, fisting and un-fisting one of his hands. Rachel knew she had better be gone by the time he got to his feet. She picked up Mr. Bobs’ silver whistle on its yellow, nylon chord–it had fallen off his neck–and put it in her pocket. This small theft seemed to count for nothing now that she had done so much worse. And when she had walked a block and turned the corner and walked three or four more blocks, she put the whistle around her neck, held it between her lips, and blew on it long and hard. She blew on it until its shrill sound ripped across the sky. She blew on it until the houses in this dead, dead neighborhood came to life a little, until a small boy stepped out of a screen door in a pair of blue flip-flops and white underwear and stared at her, until an old man appeared behind the gray glass of his living room window and touched it with his hand, as if he were captive there and wanted out, until a housewife came out on her porch smoking a cigarette and drying a serving platter with a dish rag, looking unhappy, bored, and finally unimpressed by Rachel’s whistling, until a bare-chested Latino man with the word Amigo tattooed in red letters across his chest stood up from the porch steps where he’d been sitting and gave her a military salute, and until the neighborhood dogs threw themselves against the chain-link fences of their backyards and howled because it must have hurt them to hear the long, senseless scream of her whistle. She blew on it until she grew light headed and dark spots hovered in the air before her and she almost blacked out and fell into a soft oblivion that seemed to have opened at her shoulder ready to receive her forever, and until, finally, she did not black out and oblivion did not swallow her and no one did anything except look, then look away, which was when she stopped, put the stupid whistle back in her pocket, and walked on.
During the three week Christmas break, Rachel waited for the police to come to her door with a warrant or for the phone to ring or for Father Kelsh to send a notice of her expulsion or for Mr. Bobs himself to pound at their front door and scream out her name. But days passed and no one came and Rachel woke in the dark mornings with a numb heart. The one time she had hurt another person, hurt him physically and without mercy, she hadn’t hated him. Now she was left feeling empty and abandoned just as she might have felt had she had sex with a boy who’d meant nothing to her. Maybe love and hate were the same in this respect. Maybe both were difficult to achieve.
Rachel’s mother was surprisingly alert and well for Christmas morning. Rachel received a red Land’s End light winter coat and toothpaste, toothbrushes, Maxi Hair Gel, Mabeline mascara and blush, three different shades of lipstick, and, the one concession to her fading childhood, a Duncan glow in the dark yo-yo that shone a milky white when they turned out the lights. Her father had done all the shopping, and the presents he gave and wrapped for himself were remarkably like the ones he’d received for years now: A neck tie with red unicycles on it, a bar of Old Spice Soap-On-A-Rope, three boxes of Spalding Ace 1 golf balls (one of the few gifts he would actually use), and the last, a large and totally unexpected item, a Build-A-Ship-In-A-Bottle Kit. “I always thought ships in bottles were sort of neat and mysterious,” he said. “So I thought what the Hell.” The box showed an old sailing ship, the sort that Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims had used, held inside a large corked bottle. “Mysterious,” her father said again, looking at the box.
Rachel’s mother opened presents last. She pulled Almond Kisses and chocolate caramels from her stocking, though they all knew she had lost her appetite for sweets long ago. “Thank you,” she said. She pulled out barrettes and combs for her hair that had been growing back thickly in the months since her chemo had stopped. Rachel’s father began crying very silently–the first time he’d cried openly in front of both Rachel and her mother. “Merry Christmas anyway.” He laughed as the tears came down. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said, trying to smile. Rachel’s mother pulled a huge feather pillow from a box. “Thank you,” she said, putting it in her lap and beginning to open another, which turned out to be a square of cloth with strange attachments and a pocket in it. “That’s a phone pocket,” he explained. “It attaches to the arm of your wheel chair and you put the cordless in the pocket. That way the phone’s always at your side.” Rachel was appalled. Her mother was not yet in a wheel chair and these things–the pillow and the phone pocket–were meant to help her die. Her mother just smiled. “Thank you both,” she said.
“Merry Christmas,” her father said.
“Merry Christmas,” Rachel heard herself say.
On New Years Day the door bell rang in the middle of the afternoon and Rachel knew it was them, the police had come to question her, the police with Mr. Bobs or Father Kelsh or both. But when she looked through the peep hole, she saw Rand, his smiling face warped and pulled into a cone by the glass. “You can’t be here,” she said through the door.
“Hi,” he said. “Happy New Year. Please open up.”
“Please,” he said, and she finally did open the door.
“You have to go,” Rachel said. She felt the presence of her mother just down the hall dying behind the half-open door of her bedroom. It was obscene. “I’m sorry.” He opened his mouth just as she closed the door and cut off the desperate sound of her name–Rachel! He knocked, then knocked again, and Rachel went around to the living room window and watched him, tall and skinny, stare at the front door and kick at the concrete with his tennis shoe a few times before he turned around and left.
The next day, the door bell rang again. “I told you that you couldn’t come here.”
Rand began to speak rapidly in German and the flow of that strange language on the long sorrowful thread of Rand’s voice kept her from closing the door. “I am sorry,” he finally said in English.
“You can’t come in,” Rachel said. “But maybe I can come out.” Rachel hadn’t left the house for days and she squinted in the bright light. The desert air seemed cold and raw. She had to hug her arms to keep warm and the crumbly sidewalk stung her bare feet.
“You maybe want to put shoes on,” Rand said.
“No. No I don’t.” She felt the sharp edge of everything then and she liked it. Even the grass on the front lawn of the nearby church–the only grass in Rachel’s neighborhood–felt individual and prickly when she sat down and leaned against her palms. Some cats came to bother them, slinking against their legs, and Rachel pushed them away.
“There is something mean about you,” Rand said.
“Yep,” Rachel said. “I know. So why did you come back to see me?”
Rand smiled, showing his teeth. He wore a T-shirt that said “Read Books” in large red letters, and Rachel thought she loved him then, his intelligence, his knowledge of the world, his taste for octopus, that ugly sea creature, the large, generous smile he directed at her now despite the fact that she was mean. “I am missing you,” he said. “I am missing our English lessons. Lisa on the North Pole is asking about you. I am wondering about your pictures, your dark photographs. I miss them too.” They were silent for a while and lay on their backs and looked into the cloudless, cold sky. “My family and I are going away at the end of the summer,” Rand said. “To Rio.”
“I thought so,” Rachel said, still looking into the simple blue sky that seemed to obliterate the drama of facing the funny, dangly-limbed, foreign boy whom she liked too much to ever let go. They were just voices speaking out of the air, and that made things easier to hear and say. “I need to tell you something,” she said. “But I can’t say it in my language. Would you teach me some words?”
“A German lesson?” he asked.
“Please.” She asked him the word for dying, the word for my, the word–the most difficult word–for mother. The German was strange and seemed to break apart in her mouth, and before she could finish constructing her crumbling sentence, Rand knew.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.”
“Yep,” Rachel said.
“Can I help you?” Rand asked. He had sat up on the grass and Rachel, who hadn’t moved, could make out from the side of her eyes his torso slanting hugely above her, taking up half the sky. She had to look away.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
When school started again in January something seemed different, though Rachel could not guess what it was. The shabby brown halls lined with gray, pad-locked lockers seemed unchanged. The stink of shoe leather and pencil erasure was the same. Perhaps her classmates had grown taller and more greasy faced; teenagers were always growing and sprouting pimples, and Rachel herself felt a new and painful constellation of zits coming in above her nose while her bra had somehow become snug; its little hook bit into her soft back and she would soon have to somehow ask her grieving father to buy her the next size up. How would she even begin to mention her growing breasts to him?
She and Rand spent more and more time together, though they no longer kissed really. They sometimes cuddled on Rand’s bed and gave each other brief squeezes and hugs. But they did not approach the terrors of first sex again. Rachel continued to enhance his vocabulary. And on Ash Wednesday, after the school mass, Rand approached her looking perplexed. He, like Rachel and all of the students at Our Lady, wore a cross of ashes–black charcoal–on his forehead like a burn mark that signified a commitment to sacrifice and a Christ-like life. During the mass, nuns and priests stationed at the end of each pew had dipped their fingers in a pot of black dust and marked the foreheads of students as they proceeded to the alter to receive communion. It was silly, Rachel thought, all these teenagers pretending to be disciples of the Son of God. “What is the meaning of the word retribution?” he asked her.
This word felt like a slap in the face to Rachel. She thought she’d been listening closely to Father Kelsh’s reflection on the Gospel that afternoon, but she had not heard him say retribution and she could not fight off the feeling that Rand’s ignorance was now trying to teach her something. “It means that God is punishing,” she said. “It means pay back.”
“God is cruel,” he said without much conviction.
“No,” Rachel said. “God is sleeping.”
Rachel would pass Mr. Bobs in the hallway now and then, but he would conspicuously–with a certain extravagance–pretend not to notice her, and this treatment made her feel smaller, diminished in the world. He wore a new whistle around his neck as if she had never humiliated him and stolen from him.
Rachel’s duties as a photographer continued, though as January moved into February she noticed that her work had settled into the sort of peaceful cliché that Mr. Marcosian had wanted. She showed the girl’s basketball team carrying Katie Lopez on their shoulders after their victory over Sonora High. She showed Marcus Ray goose stepping and holding aloft the pig skin in the end zone after a touchdown. Then, during the football state championship game in February, Rat Swank failed to rise from a pile up and Rachel raced down to the sidelines where she saw him, his fat linebacker’s gut spilling white and fleshy from his jersey and his face splattered with new, undried blood. She aimed her camera just as Mr. Bobs put his hand up in front of her lens and said, “For Christ’s sake, girl!” in a tone of utter disgust that left her stunned. She put the camera down and watched as Coach Bobs and two other coaches attended to the injured player. “How many fingers am I holding up, Son?” Mr. Bobs was asking softly. He held the back of Rat’s bloody head in one hand and put out three fingers with the other. “How many?”
“It doesn’t hurt. Not at all,” Rat said. He had that look in his eyes that she had seen first in the Driver’s Ed. movies, that look as if he saw beyond what Father Mannon, Rachel’s religion teacher that term, called the veil, and Rachel was afraid for him. Who knew what the poor, fat injured boy saw then? A bright light, a bottomless darkness? And what had he done to anybody? Just the week before, Rachel had written the worst homosexual message about him on the bathroom stall divider. “Billy Batt bones Rat Swank up his mousy butt.” All those Bs had been so compelling to pronounce that she’d read it out loud again and again to herself as she dried the stupid tears from her eyes. Thank God he recovered from his minor concussion and could be seen three days later walking through the halls of Our Lady without so much as a bandage, looking as dull-eyed and physically massive as ever.
Then, in early March on a Wednesday afternoon, the sleeping world began to wake and push back at Rachel. Just after she’d finished crying in the basement bathroom, someone walked in and stood in front of her stall. “Who’s in there?” this person asked. In the strange, cavernous acoustics of the bathroom, the voice speaking from the other side of the stall took on a God-like depth and solidity.
“No one,” Rachel said back. She had pulled her feet up onto the toilet seat and was hugging her knees, trembling and looking down between her feet at the pool of toilet water where she saw the icy edges of her own reflection. “Go away,” she said, though she somehow dropped her black felt-tipped marker then and watched it hit the tiles and roll out beneath the stall door into plain sight. A fist hammered on the stall door. “Open up this minute!” She obeyed and found herself looking up at Sister Mariam Anne’s chalky, old face framed in a baby blue habit. She held up the evidence of the black marker in a fist. “Evil girl,” the nun said, looking away from Rachel’s partial nakedness. “Fasten your pants, little lady. Fasten them this minute.”
Up the two flights of stairs on the way to Father Kelsh’s office, Sister Mariam Anne held Rachel at arm’s length, gripping her earlobe and twisting it until Rachel hunched over and felt that side of her head blaze with a pain that shivered into her right arm and made her eyes fill with tears. “Evil girl,” Sister Mariam Anne said again as she stood her before Father Kelsh, who sat calmly at his desk as if he’d been waiting hours for this moment. Behind Father Kelsh stood a huge glass case filled with the gilded trophies of the school’s athletic state titles, trophies nearly as tall as Rachel herself. She cried out loud and choked a little on the strong aerosol odor of the old nun.
“What is the problem, Sister?” Father Kelsh asked.
“This little lady,” she said, “is our graffiti artist, Father.” She came down especially hard on the word artist, and Rachel understood now that she had been stalked, hunted, and captured. She was the graffiti artist. She was at the middle of a drama of justice and punishment.
“Oh,” he said. “You can sit down, Rachel.” His voice lacked a severity that seemed to disappoint Sister Mariam Anne.
“She’s the one,” the old lady said.
“Thank you, Sister.” His eyes told her to leave the room and she did. “So,” Father Kelsh asked, “did you write the graffiti?”
“No,” Rachel said. But then she changed her mind. “Yes. I did it.”
“Thank you for the truth,” he said. Father Kelsh’s slightly chubby face remained calm. “You upset people, you know. You used real names, names of students and teachers at Our Lady. Can you tell me why?”
“I don’t think I can,” Rachel said.
Father Kelsh smoothed down his plump mustache, thought for a moment, and seemed to accept Rachel’s silence. “You will stop now, won’t you?” She nodded her head. Then he said it outright without any anger in his voice. “We will have to suspend you for a few days.” None of this was the way she’d imagined it over and over again when she’d seen Father Kelsh and Mr. Bobs waiting for her with the police at the front door. Where were the Biblical curses, the black accusations, the fierce voices? In his masses, Father Kelsh evidently spoke of retribution. But here, in his office, he was just a person who seemed a little shy and hesitant over the phone when he said to her father, “We need to ask you to come pick up Rachel.” In less than ten minutes, her father showed up in his work suit and the red unicycle tie, which Father Kelsh actually complemented in passing. “Thank you,” her father said. “It was a Christmas present from my wife.” And this small, strikingly false statement would be what Rachel remembered most about that day. What bullshit. What terrible bullshit. Her mother, her father’s wife, was a dying woman, a woman who could give them nothing now, not even a tacky, stupid necktie.
In the car, her father tried and failed to be a disciplinarian. “I’m not exactly sure what to do about this,” he said. “But I don’t think we should tell your mother.”
“Okay. Sure. Let’s not tell her.” Then she said, “You lied to Father Kelsh.”
“Mom didn’t give you that tie. You gave that tie to yourself.”
Her father glanced at her, then watched the road again. “There’s something a little nasty about you right now, a little hurtful.”
She seemed to be demanding this sincerity from people lately, first from Rand and now from her father. “I know it,” she said. Then she made what she’d hoped would be a confession. “I lie too. I lie all the time.” To her surprise, her father let this go. He just drove on in silence and left Rachel alone with her secrets and her lies.
During the few days of her suspension, Rachel watched her father, who’d get off work at noon, spend long hours gluing his wooden ship together on a card table in the basement. How did a ship get into a bottle? It was just as everyone suspected. The bottom of the bottle was the last piece to be glued on.
On the same card table, her father had set up a small white speaker in which they could hear the sound–a little bit like a wind or the risings and swellings of the sea–of her mother breathing upstairs in her room. Rachel half expected it to stop at any time–the sea, the wind of her mother’s life. But it didn’t. Not yet. From time to time, they’d hear her rouse, painfully swallow or even moan, then fall back into that constant rhythm.
One afternoon, Rachel came downstairs to an empty basement and looked at the stupid white speaker as she listened to the voices of her parents speaking to each other. “I worry about you and Rachel,” her mother said.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” her father said.
“I hate to picture it–you two alone in the evenings. The father and the daughter at the dinner table. The father and the daughter without the mother. It seems terribly lonely.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I mean, it will be lonely. But Rachel and I will manage.”
“How?” she asked. “What will you do?”
“Please,” he said. “I’d rather not talk about this. Not now.”
And because Rachel could no longer stand to hear about it, she walked out of the room.
“I learned about that part of history last year,” she told her father one afternoon in the basement as he delicately sheathed the small cloth sails to the booms of his model ship.
“What?” he said.
“Christopher Columbus. The Nina, the Santa Maria, and the Pinta,” Rachel said.
“Falling off the edge of the world.”
“Yeah,” Rachel said. “But the real problem for them was scurvy. When they ran out of citrus fruit. No vitamin C. People got sores and scabs. They lost their hair, their fingernails. Their flesh just sort of fell apart. They’d kill each other for a wedge of lemon to suck on. But all they had was salted meat, and that didn’t help.” She remembered now how much pleasure Mr. Marcosian, her History teacher last year, had taken in describing the sort of deterioration Columbus’s crew had suffered. As much as he disliked her photographs, Mr. Marcosian had an appetite for darkness, imagining the worst. Everybody did, it seemed.
“That’s not the sort of voyage I picture,” her father said. “Blue seas, winds that ripple the water, the smell of sea air, dolphins at the bow.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “It’s not like that.” She thought of the North Pole–no bears, no penguins, nothing but whiteness, empty whiteness.
“Maybe it’s a little bit like that.”
Rachel didn’t know. She had never seen the sea, save for on TV where it was usually portrayed as a villain, harboring terrible, man-eating sharks and spewing storms at innocent people. That couldn’t be true either. “Maybe,” she said. “What will we do without her?” Rachel asked then.
“After Mom dies,” Rachel said, “what will you and me do?”
“Oh,” he said, still focusing entirely on the ship.
She just said it then. “I need new bras. I’m growing, I guess.”
Her father flubbed it and let the main sail fall. “Really?” he said, actually looking at her.
“Please don’t stare,” she said.
He looked away. “How will we do that?”
“Maybe you could drive me to the mall and give me some money. You don’t have to come in or anything.”
“Sure,” he said. “That sounds like a plan.”
And it seemed to Rachel then that she and her father would figure out how to be survivors, how to be stranded and left behind together. “It’s a plan,” Rachel said.
It was true. Rachel openly admitted it. She was mean. But it was also true that this meanness had been leaving her for some time now, seeping away a little bit every day as fall became winter, as the relentless light turned white and cold and more distant, as the rain of a Sonoran Spring returned and the days grew long and, a few weeks later, the sky became a vacuous hot sheet of blue in which the sun turned on again, bristled, beat down on everything and made the air warp and bend. The meanness was leaving her and she felt its gradual departure. Just as everything else left, just as everything else was only temporary, so was her hurtfulness. When the sales lady with large hair and drawn eyebrows who sold her three blouses at Nordstroms, winked at her and her father and said, “It’s sweet to see a man shopping with his daughter. We don’t get that often,” Rachel felt a little bit of the meanness falling away. When Rachel said carefully at the dinner table at Rand’s house, “Diese Kartoffeln schmecken gut!” which meant these potatoes taste good (and they did taste good), and Rand and his parents applauded her for her pronunciation, she felt a little bit more of it go. Even when the director of the Hospice where her mother would soon go to die, a woman who wore round wire spectacles and had close cropped hair like ruffled feathers, said, “Our central belief here is that death is part of life, that families and their loved ones should be made as comfortable as possible in a comfortable, natural setting,” to which Rachel thought, “What do you know, you bitch,” even then Rachel knew her meanness would leave, would go finally.
In the late spring, Mr. Marcosian allowed Rachel to place her two favorite photographs in the Year Book, the portrait of a fierce Mr. Bobs and the picture of the toppled cheerleaders called The Agony and the Ecstasy: Girls Feel Pain Too! He reluctantly agreed with Rachel that this work’s title had a feminist ring, even if the photograph itself showed a strange choreography of prostrated girls. No one, it was true, much liked her darker work. But it seemed to Rachel that suffering was more real, indisputably real, than anything else, so real that you had to tell people lies about your neck tie, you had to mark up the walls with insults, you had to vandalize the yearbook’s sports section with the shadows of loss and pain. You had to reach out and hate someone, or at least try to hate someone. You had to.
Before school let out for the summer, Rachel did one last thing. She cut out four words from a magazine article and glued them to an index card, as if she were a black mailer, a kidnapper, an extortionist, to construct the sentence, “I am very very sorry,” and put it together with Mr. Bobs’ stolen whistle in a manila envelop, which she sealed and left outside his office door. She felt it then, too, a little bit more of her meanness going.
She didn’t know why she spent so much time with Rand now that he would be leaving in a few weeks, and she told him so. “It just makes things worse,” she said.
He promised to write, to e-mail often. He said, “You can just know that I am out there. That’s a good thing to know.”
“Out there,” Rachel said, trying to feel better. She thought of Rand in a jar, the rain coming down, the old ladies and Mrs. Taub weeping and weeping. No flowers, not even one. She wept too. For the first time in she couldn’t remember how long, she cried openly. Rand looked a little scared. He was just a boy, after all. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll stop soon.” And she did.
In the afternoons, Rachel sat at her mother’s bedside wearing one of her new blouses from Nordstroms and a little lipstick, though her mother was too tired to notice now and wore no make-up herself, her illness finally having overcome her vanity. Now and then, she would wake and sit up in bed and stare at the bad painting of the little boat on the wall across from her and make simple conversation. “Tell me about the weather. How is your father? How is school? Tell me about your German boy.” Rachel would give her simple answers and watch her mother’s large eyes, which seemed less and less able to rise out of sleep, which seemed now to reflect a world submerged in pain and darkness. “Where are you going?” Rachel wanted to ask her, but didn’t. “Are you scared? How much does it hurt?” Instead, she said, “Dad has finished constructing his ship. He’s painting it now very slowly. You know what a perfectionist he is.” She half expected her quiet mother at any moment to ask her again that terrible question about the deserted island, that stupid boat that her mother kept staring at. And though she never did ask it, Rachel had settled on an answer. She decided that she would not wish to go to that island, that she would not submit to that strange fantasy’s conditions, its horrible limits–what three things would you bring?–and if she were forced to submit and placed in that simple white boat that her dead grandmother had painted and asked that question, she would answer in defiance, “Nothing. Nothing. I’ll take nothing.”
“Retribution” was previously published as the title piece in John Fulton’s first collection of short stories (Picador USA).