Annie on My Mind: Chapter 12


It started slowly, so slowly I don’t think either of us even realized what was happening at first.

I remember Annie’s face when we first went into the house. All the delight from her special laugh went into her eyes. I showed her all over the first two floors; it didn’t occur to us to go upstairs—somehow that seemed private. Annie loved everything: of course the plants and the gardens outside and the cats most of all, but also the brickwork, the books, the records, the paintings. The cats took to her right away, rubbing against her and purring and letting her pick them up and pat them. She took over the feeding job without our even discussing it.

That first day, I stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter watching Annie feed the cats, and I knew I wanted to be able to do that forever: stand in kitchens watching Annie feed cats. Our kitchens. Our cats. There she was, with her long black hair in one braid down her back, and her blue shirt hanging out around her jeans, and her sneakers with the holes in them and a cat at each one, looking up and mewing.

So I went over and put my arms around her and kissed her, and it became a different kind of kiss from any between us before.

I remember that she still had the cat-food can in her hand and that she nearly dropped it.

After a while, Annie whispered, “Liza, the cats,” and we moved away from each other and she fed them. But when she finished, we just stood there looking at each other. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure Annie could hear it. I think it was partly to muffle it that I put my arms around her again. We went up to the living room …

I remember so much about that first time with Annie that I am numb with it, and breathless. I can feel Annie’s hands touching me again, gently, as if she were afraid I might break; I can feel her softness under my hands—I look down at my hands now and see them slightly curved, feel them become both strong and gentle as I felt them become for the first time then. I can close my eyes and feel every motion of Annie’s body and my own—clumsy and hesitant and shy—but that isn’t the important part. The important part is the wonder of the closeness and the unbearable ultimate realization that we are two people, not one—and also the wonder of that: that even though we are two people, we can be almost like one, and at the same time delight in each other’s uniqueness.

… We can be almost like one …

They were wonderful, those two weeks of spring vacation; it was as if we finally had not only a place but a whole world all our own. We even bought instant coffee and food for breakfast and lunch so we could stay at the house all day every day till we both had to go home for dinner. The weather was warm and hopeful, and every morning when I arrived I would fling open the windows and let the sun and the soft spring air pour in. I’d put water on for coffee and then settle down to wait for Annie, sometimes with a newspaper; sometimes I’d just sit there. And pretty soon I’d hear the door latch turning. We had only one key, so I always left the door unlocked in the mornings; Annie could just come in, as if she lived there.

One morning during the first week, I sat at the kitchen counter on one of two tall stools watching the sun give the black cat’s fur highlights like those in Annie’s hair. Then I heard Annie open the door and come down the stairs to me. I smiled, because I could hear her singing.

“Hi.” She kissed me and wriggled out of her lumber jacket, which by then I knew she had gotten secondhand from a cousin. “I got us some more of that Danish,” she said, putting a paper bag on the counter.

“But you haven’t the money!” I got up and began breaking eggs into a bowl.

“It’s all right,” she said, giving me a quick hug and then spooning instant coffee into mugs. “Mmm. Coffee smells good, even raw!”

I laughed. “Have some,” I said, beating the eggs.

Annie shook her head and opened the refrigerator. “Juice first. I’m starved. I woke up at five-thirty and the sun was so pretty I couldn’t go back to sleep. I wanted to come right down here.”

“Maybe I should give you the keys,” I said, thinking of how wonderful it would be to arrive in the morning and find Annie there waiting for me.

“Wouldn’t be right,” Annie said. She poured herself some juice—juice makes me feel sick on an empty stomach, and Annie already knew that and never asked me any more if I wanted any. She drank the juice and then scooped up the black cat. “Good morning, puss, where’s your brother?”

“Chasing his tail under Ms. Widmer’s desk when last seen. Butter, please.”

Annie handed me the butter with a bow, saying like an operating-room nurse, “Butter.”

I caught her mid-bow and kissed her again, and we stood there forgetting breakfast in the early-morning sun.

We finally did eat, though, and washed the dishes. I remember that morning we were especially silly; it must have been the sun. We had the back door open, and it streamed in through the screen, making both cats restless.

“‘There was an old woman,’” Annie sang, drying a coffee mug, “‘who swallowed a fly …’ Come on, Liza, you sing, too.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t carry a tune.”

“Everyone can carry a tune.”

“I can’t carry one right. I change key.”

“Demonstrate.”

I shook my head; I’ve always been self-conscious about singing.

But Annie went ahead with the song anyway, ignoring me, and by the time I was scrubbing the frying pan, I couldn’t help but join in. She pretended not to notice.

After we finished the dishes, we took the cats out and watched them chase bugs in the sun on the cobblestones. A heavyset woman in a print housedress and a man’s baggy sweater waddled over, peering at us suspiciously. “Katherine and Isabelle,” she said with an accent, “I thought they were on vacation? You friends of Benjy’s? He usually comes to feed the kitties.”

We explained, and she smiled and pulled up her garden chair and sat chatting with us for over an hour. We kept trying to signal each other to do something that would make her go away, but neither of us could think of anything, and she was too nice to be rude to. Finally, though, Annie said, “Well, I’m going in—I’ve got to do some homework,” and the woman nodded and said, “Good girl, never neglect your studies. I should get to the GD vacuuming, myself. If I’d have studied more when I was your age, maybe I’d have gotten myself a good job instead of just a husband and five kids and a stack of dirty dishes.”

“She didn’t sound as if she really minded,” Annie said when we were back inside, up in the living room, Annie with her history reading list and me with my half-finished solar-house floor plan.

We worked, mostly in silence, till lunch—and that day, because it was so warm, we risked meeting the woman again and took our tuna-fish sandwiches out into the back yard. She wasn’t there, so Annie went back for the bottle of wine we’d splurged on.

“I’d love to work in that garden,” Annie said when we’d finished our sandwiches and were lazily sipping the end of the one glass of wine each we’d allowed ourselves—no one else was outside, still.

“I bet they wouldn’t mind.”

But Annie shook her head. “I’d mind if I were them,” she said. “A garden’s special—more than a house. To a gardener.” She got up and knelt on the cobblestones, examining the few plants that were beginning to come up around the fading crocuses. The sun was shining on her hair, making little blue-gold strands among the black.

“I’m so lucky,” I said.

She turned and smiled at me.

I hadn’t even realized I’d spoken till she turned, her head tipped inquisitively to one side, her small round face and her deep eyes intent on me.

“So lucky,” I said, holding out my hand.

We went inside.

It was new every time we touched each other, looked at each other, held each other close on the uncomfortable living-room sofa. We were still very shy, and clumsy, and a little scared—but it was as if we had found a whole new country in each other and ourselves and were exploring it slowly together. Often we had to stop and just hold each other—too much beauty can be hard to bear. And sometimes, especially after a while, when the shyness was less but we still didn’t know each other or ourselves or what we were doing very well—once in a while, we’d laugh.

The best thing about that vacation was that we somehow felt we had forever and no one could disturb us. Of course that was an illusion, but we were so happy we didn’t let that thought touch us.

I’m afraid I didn’t think much about the rally or the fund-raising campaign. I had gone to both the meetings the “committee of three” had before vacation, and had reluctantly agreed to write a speech and rehearse it at our last meeting—the one during vacation—and give it at the rally. Nothing I said convinced Sally and Walt that I’d be terrible at it. Walt had gotten a newspaper reporter his older brother knew to say he’d “cover” the rally, which didn’t make me any more relaxed about my speech.

“Can’t you see it?” Sally had said at our last meeting, I suppose to entice me with dreams of glory. “‘Student Council President Tells What Foster Means to Her—Encourages New Students to Apply.’”

“With one of those smaller headlines underneath,” said Walt, “saying ‘Save Our School, Cry Students.’ Hey, that’d really get ’em, I bet! I wonder if we could get some kids to chant that—spontaneously, of course.”

“Don’t count your speeches before they’re written,” I said, trying feebly to be funny. “Or your chants, either.”

It’s not that I meant to avoid the speech; once it became clear I’d have to make it, I did try to work on it. In fact, Annie and I must have spent nearly all afternoon that first Friday trying to work out what I could say that wouldn’t sound phony. And by the time she got through going over it with me, I actually found there were quite a few reasons why I thought Foster was a good school.

But then came the second week, and Annie and I became more comfortable with each other, and the speech and the third meeting slowly slipped far from my mind.

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