Annie on My Mind: Chapter 13

It was nearly the end of vacation—Thursday morning of the second week—that I couldn’t find the orange cat, so when Annie got to the house, we both hunted in all the places we knew he usually hid. Finally Annie said maybe he’d gone upstairs, and she went up to the third floor to look for him.

It’s funny, since we were practically living in the house by then, but neither of us had yet been up there. I think we still felt it was private; that it was okay for us to take over the rest of the house, but not where Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer slept.

After Annie had been upstairs for a few minutes, she called to me in a funny voice. “Liza,” she said, sort of low and tense. “Come here.”

I went up the narrow stairs and followed her voice into the larger of the two bedrooms. She was standing beside a double bed, the cat in her arms, looking down at the books in a small glass-fronted bookcase.

I looked at them, too.

“Oh, my God,” I said then. “They’re gay! Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. They’re—they’re like us …”

“Maybe not,” Annie said cautiously. “But …”

I opened the glass doors and read off some of the titles: Female Homosexuality, by Frank S. Caprio. Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, by Abbott and Love. Patience and Sarah—our old friend—by Isabel Miller. The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall.

The cat jumped out of Annie’s arms and scurried back downstairs to his brother.

“It’s funny,” Annie said. “I never met them, but from everything you told me, I—well, I wondered.”

“It never even crossed my mind,” I said, still so astonished I could only stare at the double bed and the books. Certainly at school Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer never gave any hint of being gay—and then it hit me that the only “hints” I could think of were clichés that didn’t apply to them, like acting masculine, or not getting along with men, or making teacher’s pets of girls. True, once Ms. Stevenson got mad when a kid made a crummy anti-gay remark. But I’d heard my own father do that, just as he did when someone said something anti-black or anti-Hispanic.

Annie picked up one of the books and flipped through it. “Imagine buying all these books,” she said. “Remember how scared we were?”

I nodded.

“God, some of these are old,” Annie said, turning back to the books in the case. “Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer must go back quite a long time.”

Then she closed the bookcase and came over to me, leaning her head on my shoulder. “It’s terrible,” she said, “for us to have been so scared to be seen with books we have every right to read.” She looked up and put her hands on my shoulders; her hands were shaking a little. “Liza, let’s not do that. Let’s not be scared to buy books, or embarrassed, and when we buy them, let’s not hide them in a secret bookcase. It’s not honest, it’s not right, it’s a denial of—of everything we feel for each other. They’re older, maybe they had to, but—oh, Liza, I don’t want to hide the—the best part of my life, of myself.”

I pulled her to me; she was shaking all over. “Annie, Annie.” I said, smoothing her hair, trying to soothe her. “Annie, take it easy, love; I don’t want to hide either, but …”

“The best part,” Annie repeated fiercely, moving out of my arms. “Liza—this vacation, it’s been—” She went back to the bookcase, thumping her palm against the glass doors. “We can’t close ourselves in behind doors the way these books are closed in. But that’s what’s going to happen as soon as school starts—just afternoons, just weekends—we should be together all the time, we should …” She turned to me again, her eyes very dark, but then she smiled, half merry, half bitter. “Liza, I want to run away with you, to elope, dammit.”

“I—I know,” I said; the bitterness had quickly taken over. I reached for her hands. “I know.”

Annie came into my arms again. “Liza, Liza, nothing’s sure, but—but I’m as sure as a person can be. I want to hold on to you forever, to be with you forever, I …” She smiled wistfully. “I want us to be a couple of passionless old ladies someday together, too,” she said, “sitting in rocking chairs, laughing over how we couldn’t get enough of each other when we were young, rocking peacefully on somebody’s sunny porch …”

“On our sunny porch,” I said. “In Maine.”

“Maine?”

“Maine.”

We were both calmer now, holding hands, smiling.

“Okay,” Annie said. “And we’ll rock and rock and rock and remember when we were kids and were taking care of somebody else’s house and they turned out to be gay, and how tense we were because we knew we’d have to spend the next four years away from each other at different colleges, not to mention that very summer because I had to go to stupid camp …”

We pulled ourselves out of that room, we really did. We went into the other bedroom, because we had to do something and because we were curious, and it was just as we expected; the other bedroom didn’t count. All the clothes were in the two closets in the big bedroom and in the two bureaus there, and in the bureau in the other room there were only what looked like extras—heavy sweaters and ski socks and things like that. The bed in that room was a single one and the sheets on it looked as if they’d been there for years. It was just for show.

“We won’t do that,” Annie said firmly when we were back downstairs in the kitchen, heating some mushroom soup. “We won’t, we won’t. If people are shocked, let them be.”

“Parents,” I said, stirring the soup. “My brother.”

“Well, they’ll just have to know, won’t they?”

“You going to go right home and tell Nana you’re gay, that we’re lovers?” I asked as gently as I could.

“Oh, Liza.”

“Well?”

“No, but …”

I turned down the gas; the soup was beginning to boil. “Bowls.”

Annie reached into the cupboard. “Bowls.”

“And if you’re not going to run home and tell them now, you probably won’t later.”

“They won’t mind so much when I’m older. When we’re older.”

I poured the soup into the bowls and opened a box of crackers I had bought the day before. “It won’t make any difference. It’ll be just as hard then.”

“Dammit!” Annie shouted suddenly. “Speak for yourself, can’t you?”

My soup bowl wavered in my hand; I nearly dropped it. And I wanted to carry it to the sink and dump the soup down the drain. Instead I poured it back into the pot, reached for my jacket, and said as calmly as I could, “I’m going out. Lock up if you leave before I get back, okay?”

“Liza, I’m sorry,” Annie said, not moving. “I’m sorry. It—it’s the bed—knowing it’s there when the sofa’s so awful, and knowing it’s going to be so long till we can be together again, really together, I mean. Please don’t go. Have your soup—here.” She took my bowl to the stove and poured my soup back in it. “Here—please. You’re probably right about my parents.”

“And you’re right,” I said, following her into the dining room, “about the bed.”

We ate lunch mostly in silence, and afterwards we went up to the living room and listened to music. But Annie sat in an easy chair all afternoon and I sat on the sofa, and we didn’t mention the bed again, or go near each other.

The next day, Friday, the day before Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson were due home, we cleaned the house and made sure everything was the way we’d found it, and then we went for a long, sad walk. My parents and Chad were going out for dinner that night, and for the first time in my life I was really tempted to lie to them and say I was spending the night at Annie’s and ask Annie to tell her parents she was spending the night at our apartment, so we could both spend it in Cobble Hill. But I didn’t even mention it to Annie—although I think I lived every possible minute of it in my imagination—until the next morning, when it was too late to arrange for it to happen.

“Oh, Liza,” Annie said when I told her. “I wish you’d said. I thought the same thing.”

“We’d have done it, wouldn’t we?” I said miserably, knowing it would have been wrong of us, but knowing it would have been wonderful, too, to have a whole night with Annie, in a real bedroom—to fall asleep beside her, to wake up with her.

“Yes,” she said. Then: “But it wouldn’t have been right. It—we shouldn’t have been doing any of this. In someone else’s house, I mean.”

I filled the cats’ water dish—we were feeding the cats for the next-to-last time and they were wrapping themselves around Annie’s legs, expectantly. “I know. But we did—and I’m not going to regret it. We’ve put everything back. They don’t have to know anything.”

But I was wrong about that.

It rained on Saturday, hard. We’d planned to go for another walk after feeding the cats, or to the movies or a museum or something. Without talking about it, we had decided to avoid staying in the house any more. But the rain was incredible, more like a fall rain than a spring one—biting and heavy.

“Let’s stay here,” Annie said, watching the rain stream darkly past the kitchen window while the cats ate. “Let’s just listen to music. Or read. We—we can be—oh, what should I call it? Good isn’t the right word. Restrained?”

“I’m not sure I trust us,” I think I said.

“It’s not wrong, Liza,” Annie said firmly. “It’s just that it’s someone else’s house.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“My Nana should see you now,” she said. “You’re the gloomy one.” She tugged at my arm. “I know. I saw Le Morte d’Arthur in the dining room. Come on. I’ll read you a knightly tale.”

I wonder why it was that so often when Annie and I were tense about the most adult things—wanting desperately to make love, especially in that bedroom as if it were ours—we turned silly, like children. We could have gone out for a walk, rain or no. We could have sat quietly and listened to music, each in our own part of the room, like the day before. We could even have finished leftover homework. But no. Annie read me a chapter out of the big black-and-gold King Arthur, dramatically, with gestures, and I read her one, and then we started acting the tales out instead of reading them. We used saucepans for helmets and umbrellas with erasers taped to the ends for lances, and gloves for gauntlets, and we raced around that house all morning, jousting and rescuing maidens and fighting dragons like a couple of eight-year-olds. Then the era changed; we abandoned our saucepan helmets and Annie tied her lumber jacket over her shoulders like a Three Musketeers-type cape. With the umbrellas for foils, we swashbuckled all over the house, up and down stairs, and ended up on the top floor without really letting ourselves be aware of where we were. I cried “Yield,” and pretended to pop Annie a good one with my umbrella, and she fell down on the big bed, laughing and gasping for breath. “I yield!” she cried, pulling me down beside her. “I yield, monsieur; I cry you mercy!”

“Mercy be damned!” I said, laughing so hard I was able to go on ignoring where we were. We tussled for a minute, both of us still laughing, but then Annie’s hair fell softly around her face, and I couldn’t help touching it, and we both very quickly became ourselves again. I did think about where we were then, but only fleetingly; I told myself again that no one would ever have to know.

“You’ve got long hair even for a musketeer,” I think I said.

Annie put her hand behind my head and kissed me, and then we just lay there for a few minutes. Again I wasn’t sure which was my pulse, my heartbeat, and which were hers.

“There’s no need for us to pretend to be other people any more, ever again, is there, Liza?” Annie said softly.

My eyes stung suddenly, and Annie touched the bottom lids with her finger, asking, “Why tears?”

I kissed her finger. “Because I’m happy,” I said. “Because your saying that right now makes me happier than almost anything else could. No—there’s no need to pretend.”

“As long as we remember that,” Annie said, “I think we’ll be okay.”

“So do I,” I said.

It got dark outside early that afternoon, because of the rain, and it was already like twilight in the house. One of us got up and pulled the shade down most of the way, and turned on a light in the hall. It made a wonderful faraway glow and touched Annie’s smooth soft skin with gold. After the first few minutes, I think most of the rest of our shyness with each other vanished.

And then, after a very long time, I heard a knock, and downstairs the handle of the front door rattled insistently.

Dear Annie,

It’s late as I write this. Outside, it’s beginning to snow; I can see big flakes tumbling lazily down outside my window. The girl across the hall says December is early for snow in Cambridge, at least snow that amounts to anything. January and February are the big snow months, she says.

“Know the truth,” Ms. Widmer used to quote—remember we used to say it to each other?—“and the truth will make you free.”

Annie, it’s so hard to remember the end of our time in Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s house; it’s hard even to think of it. I read somewhere the other day that love is good as long as it’s honest and unselfish and hurts no one. That people’s biological sex doesn’t matter when it comes to love; that there have always been gay people; that there are even some gay animals and many bisexual ones; that other societies have accepted and do accept gays—so maybe our society is backward. My mind believes that, Annie, and I can accept most of it with my heart, too, except I keep stumbling on just one statement: as long as it hurts no one.

Annie, I think that’s what made me stop writing to you last June.

Will I write to you now—will I send this letter, I mean? I’ve started others and thrown them away.

I don’t know if I’ll mail this. But I think I’ll keep it for a little while …

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