One of the worst things that happened in that first week was that Mrs. Poindexter questioned Chad.
After school on Wednesday, Chad didn’t speak to me; he seemed to be avoiding me, and I had no idea why. He didn’t say much at dinner either, but later, when Mom and Dad were watching TV, he came into my room, shut the door, and without sitting down or really looking at me said that Mrs. Poindexter had called him into her office that morning. He said she’d asked him in not very thinly veiled terms about me and Annie and other girls—whether I had more girlfriends than boyfriends, if he’d ever seen me touching a girl, especially Annie—things like that. And, still without meeting my eyes, he told me he’d said “No” to all the questions about girls and “I don’t know” to the ones about boys; in other words, he managed to do his best to save my skin without actually lying.
Neither of us said much after that, but he did finally look at me, scared and hurt and embarrassed and full of questions, and I remember thinking: This is my little brother in front of me, the kid who’s always trusted me, and I knew I couldn’t lie to him the way I had to Mom and Dad.
He said, “Liza, I’ll go on saying the same things to Poindexter, but I saw you and Annie holding hands once, and you sure spent a lot of time with her at Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s house. Is it true?” So I said, “Yes,” and then I tried to explain. After I finished, he was quiet a long time again, and then he asked, “Do you think you have to be like that?” Then it was my turn to be quiet, but after a minute I said, “I think I am like that.” Chad nodded sadly, but not in any kind of disparaging way, and then he hugged me and left.
Later that night, I heard him crying in his room.
And then there was Annie—the hurt I’d seen on her face. She never talked about it. I remember she cut school and came down to Brooklyn the afternoon of the day I saw Sally on the steps, not even calling first, because she was afraid I’d tell her not to come. Mom had gone to the store, and when I answered the door and saw Annie standing there, all I could do was cling to her, especially as soon as I saw her eyes and realized that the hurt was still there. I didn’t want to think about what it had done to her to have Ms. Baxter barrel up the stairs and find her the way she had, to have Sally and Ms. Baxter stand there looking at her as if they thought she was a whore.
“Liza, Liza,” she said, stroking my hair, “are you okay?”
“I think so,” I said. “Annie, are you?”
“No one knows for sure that I’m gay except you and Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer,” she said softly, touching my face. “I don’t even count Sally and Ms. Baxter. Nobody’s doing anything to me. Maybe I should tell my parents—I just wish I could share this with you.”
“I’m glad you can’t,” I said. “And I’m glad you haven’t told your parents.”
“Liza—don’t let it make any difference. It won’t, will it? With us, I mean?”
“Of course it won’t,” I told her.
But I was wrong. Six months of not writing—that’s a difference.
And so I lied to Annie. On top of everything else, I lied to Annie, too.
Friday afternoon, just about the time when the rally was supposed to be held at Foster, Mom practically dragged me out of the house to the Brooklyn Museum. I couldn’t tell you a thing we saw. It wasn’t so much that I cared about the rally any more; I didn’t, at least not very much. But I did care about my speech. Even though I’d have been nervous giving it, I’d worked on it with Annie, and so it was partly hers.
“The speech was okay, Liza,” Chad said when Mom and I got home at about six-thirty. “Sally wasn’t as good as you’d have been, but it was okay. Two newspaper people were there, and one of them said he thought it was a good speech. Should raise a lot of money, he told Mrs. Poindexter. I don’t think Sally changed it much, either.”
After I’d thanked him, I ran into my room and slammed the door.
Saturday I got a letter from Mrs. Poindexter telling me the trustees’ hearing would be the following Tuesday evening, April 27.
Sometimes I think the trustees’ hearing was worse than when Ms. Baxter barged in; sometimes I’m not sure.
The Parlor looked different that Tuesday night with the trustees in it—maybe because it was night. The hearing had to be then because most of the trustees had jobs during the day.
The only people there I already knew were Mrs. Poindexter, Ms. Baxter, and of course Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. They had a lawyer with them, a tallish woman in a gray dress with a bird pin on the collar. I don’t know why I noticed that pin, but I kept staring at it almost the whole time we—my parents and I—were waiting to go in.
My parents didn’t bring a lawyer. I think they were embarrassed to. Mom said she didn’t think we needed one, because after all I hadn’t done anything, had I? Dad just looked away when she said that. After the hearing, he said he’d get a lawyer if the trustees actually expelled me or decided to put anything on my record.
I wanted to go over and talk to Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer while we were all waiting to go in, but Dad wouldn’t let me. He apologized, but he said it wouldn’t be a good idea. Both he and Mom smiled at Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer, though, and then we all hung around stiffly in the hall, waiting. Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer and their lawyer were sitting on the wooden settle. Mrs. Poindexter and Ms. Baxter were already inside.
The whole thing felt the way being caught in quicksand must feel, when you know you’re not going to be able to get out, especially if you struggle. I also felt as if I were watching my own dream. I was there at the hearing, but I also wasn’t there; I said things, I heard what other people said, but as if from a great distance. The only thing that seemed truly real to me was the one thought that wouldn’t let go in my mind: It’s Annie and me they’re all sitting around here like cardboard people judging; it’s Annie and me. And what we did that they think is wrong, when you pare it all down, was fall in love.
“Steady,” my father said, walking into the Parlor between my mother and me when we were called. Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer started to follow us, but the woman who’d called my parents and me waved them back to their seats.
I must have looked pretty meek, walking in there with my parents; I know I was more scared than I’d ever been in my life. Mom had made me wear a dress, and had tried to get my hair to stay in place by making me use conditioner, which I’d never done before, so I didn’t even smell like myself, at least my hair didn’t. Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer were wearing dresses, too, but at least they did most of the time—skirts, anyway. But it did occur to me that it was as if all three of us were trying to say, “See—we’re women. We wear dresses.” Oh, God, how ridiculous!
As I walked in, I touched Annie’s ring for luck, and tried to remember the words to “Invictus.” The first person I noticed was Ms. Baxter. She was sitting there looking very solemn and proper and righteous, as if she’d just been canonized. She was near the end of one side of the same long table that everyone had sat around at the student council hearing. The trustees sat along both sides of the table, also looking very solemn but not quite so holy, and there was an empty chair for me opposite Ms. Baxter, and chairs for Mom and Dad behind mine. I remembered Sally whispering last fall in the same room, “It’s like court on TV,” and this time it was even more like that. “The Inquisition,” Annie called it later.
Mrs. Poindexter, with a yellow note pad, was sitting under Letitia Foster’s portrait, at the head of the table. Ms. Baxter was sitting next to her but on the side, at right angles to her. At the other end of the table, opposite Mrs. Poindexter, was a fat, silver-haired man with tight-fitting glasses that sort of sank into his face. His name, he told me, was Mr. Turner, and he was the head of the Board of Trustees. I know there was a Miss Foster, who was a distant relative of Letitia’s. Miss Foster was very old and didn’t say anything; I’m not sure she could even hear. There was a woman with reddish hair and a pale face—the youngest of them, I guess, even though she looked middle-aged. She was the only one who smiled at me when I walked in. Next to her was a man in a green corduroy sports jacket and a turtleneck. There were one or two others, but they faded into a blur.
Then it began.
Mr. Turner asked Ms. Baxter to tell in her own words what she’d seen, and told me to listen carefully. She said something like, “Yes, of course, but—oh, dear—you do understand how difficult it is to talk about such things,” and the red-haired woman said, sort of dryly, “As I remember, you were the one who lodged the original complaint with Mrs. Poindexter,” which made me like her right away. Then, while Mrs. Poindexter put on her glasses and looked down at her notes, Ms. Baxter—Ms. Baxter with the lace handkerchiefs, Ms. Baxter who always went around saying one should believe the best of everyone, Ms. Baxter who said it takes all kinds and the Lord made us all—Ms. Baxter gave this incredibly lurid account of what she’d seen. It was awful. It made us sound like monsters, not like two people in love. That was the worst thing, another thing I’m never going to be able to forget even though I want to. It was as if everyone were assuming that love had nothing to do with any of this, that it was just “an indulgence of carnal appetities”—I think Ms. Baxter actually used those words.
Ms. Baxter also said I was “half-naked” when I came to the door, and that Annie had “scurried guiltily” out of the bedroom, “wearing nothing but a red-and-black shirt”—her lumber jacket, which, of course, was as big on her as a coat.
“What else did you see?” Mr. Turner asked; Mrs. Poindexter smiled at Ms. Baxter over the tops of her glasses.
“Well,” said Ms. Baxter, “of course I felt I had to conduct a search, because of my long-standing suspicions about the two older women. It saddened me to do it—but of course I had no choice. I had no idea but what there might be other—young persons of—of similar persuasion somewhere—so I went upstairs. I must say the place was a shambles.”
The “shambles,” I realized, was because of the umbrellas and saucepans. And part of me wanted to laugh at that absurd line—“persons of similar persuasion”; it sounded like the equally absurd “persons of the Jewish persuasion”: “I am of the lesbian persuasion.” But it wasn’t funny. Even later, when I tried to tell Annie about it, it wasn’t.
“Ms. Baxter, please confine your remarks to what you saw involving the two young women only,” Mr. Turner said, which I thought was pretty fair.
Mrs. Poindexter leaned over and whispered to Ms. Baxter, pointing to something on her note pad. Ms. Baxter stumbled a bit as she said, “Well, they—Liza, when she answered the door—seemed very flustered. She was clutching her shirt closed across her—her bosom, and it was clear she had nothing on underneath, and she was blushing. Then later she kept looking at the other girl—what was her name?”
Mrs. Poindexter took her glasses off and looked right at me, and suddenly there wasn’t a drop of saliva in my mouth. I’d already made a promise to myself not to mention Annie’s name, on the grounds that the Board of Trustees had nothing to do with her, and Mom and Dad had both agreed with me. Dad leaned forward, but the red-haired woman said quickly, “The other girl doesn’t concern us, since she’s not a Foster student.”
“Well,” said Ms. Baxter, “she kept looking at her, Liza did, and poor little Sally Jarrell said something like, ‘Oh, my God,’ for which I certainly do not blame her—I mean, what a terrible shock it must have been, especially since she and Liza are friends and since Sally is already deeply and maturely involved with a young man …”
“Ms. Baxter,” said Mr. Turner tiredly, “please confine yourself to what actually happened, not what you thought about it, or thought someone else thought about it.”
Ms. Baxter looked hurt. “Eliza ran to the stairs,” she said, whining a little now, “and forcibly tried to keep me from going farther, which of course made me certain something else was going on.”
I almost leapt out of my chair, but Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “You’ll get your turn, Liza,” he whispered. “Stay loose.”
Ms. Baxter went on. “But since of course I felt it was my duty to—to expose those women once and for all for what they are—of course at that point I only suspected—I went on and—and, well, the rest does have more to do with the women than with the girls, though how one can call people like that women, I’m sure I don’t know.”
Ms. Baxter sat back, not smiling, but piously, as if she felt sure no one could possibly disagree with her. Mr. Turner looked disgusted, though, and the red-haired woman looked as if Ms. Baxter was something she’d like to squash under her heel. Mrs. Poindexter was smiling nastily. “I would like to add,” she said, “that I am grateful to Ms. Baxter for having the courage to bring this entire appalling matter to my attention. I of course did not hesitate …”
The man in the corduroy jacket leaned forward, his pencil poised over a yellow pad. “Ms. Baxter,” he said, ignoring Mrs. Poindexter, “am I right in deducing that you were far more concerned all along about the women than about the girls? About confirming your”—he consulted his pad—“your ‘long-standing suspicions’ about the two teachers?”
Mr. Turner looked a little uncomfortable, but he didn’t say anything.
“I told you,” said Ms. Baxter, “that I have been disturbed for years by my feeling that all is not as it should be between those women, that there is a—a sad, unnatural relationship between them. If two young girls, one of them a Foster girl, were—well, being immoral …” Here I almost jumped up again. “… in their house, and if I actually saw one of them running half-naked out of the bedroom, I could only assume that there were perhaps more young people, perhaps Foster students, also using the house lewdly, with, I had to believe, Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s sanction. I felt it my duty to clarify that point.”
Mrs. Poindexter nodded emphatically.
The red-haired woman muttered something sardonically that sounded like “A very orgy,” but I’m not absolutely sure that’s what she said.
“And when I did go upstairs,” said Ms. Baxter, “I found the—er—the bed unquestionably mussed, and I did at the same time just happen to see the books I mentioned in the—er—complaint—horrible obscene books …”
“Ms. Baxter,” said the red-haired woman, “did you actually see the two girls touch each other in a sexual way?”
“Well,” said Ms. Baxter, “they stood there holding hands while I was …”
“I said in a sexual way. In an overtly, unmistakably sexual way. Holding hands, especially under stress, doesn’t seem to me to be particularly significant.”
“Well,” said Ms. Baxter, glancing uncomfortably at Mrs. Poindexter, “well, in—er—that kind of way, overtly, perhaps not, but after all, it was plain as day what they had been up to. As I said, the bed was rumpled, and there were …”
“I see,” said the red-haired woman. “Thank you.”
“Any more questions for Ms. Baxter?” asked Mr. Turner, looking around at the members of the board.
“I would just like to remind the board,” said Mrs. Poindexter huffily—she had not once looked at me or my parents—“that Ms. Baxter has been in the employ of this school for ten years, and that her record is impeccable.”
“Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer have both been at the school for fifteen years, am I right?” asked the red-haired woman.
“Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “especially Ms. Stevenson, have become increasingly permissive as the years have passed. In fact, Ms. Stevenson …”
“Please,” said Mr. Turner, “we are not discussing the teachers now.” Then he turned to me, and I guess the twitch at the corners of his mouth was his attempt at a reassuring smile.
“Eliza,” he said—and I felt my stomach almost drop out. “Unconquerable soul,” I tried to say to myself; “bloody but unbowed,” and I touched Annie’s ring again and took a deep breath to make myself calmer—but none of it really helped. “Liza, rather. Thank you for coming. I know this is going to be difficult for you, and quite possibly embarrassing. I have to tell you, however, that we would prefer that you speak instead of your parents—of course they may assist you—and if at any time the three of you feel you cannot proceed without counsel, we will adjourn until you can obtain same.”
I was a little confused, mostly because of being so nervous, and I guess Dad must have sensed it because he moved his chair next to mine and said, “May I explain to my daughter, sir, that what you mean is that if she wants a lawyer, or we do, the hearing can be stopped until we get one?”
Mr. Turner did smile then, and said, “Certainly, Mr. Winthrop, and I thank you for doing so with such economy. I shall try to use—er—plainer language.”
Of course then I felt like a dummy, which didn’t help at all.
“Liza,” said the red-haired woman, “mostly we’d just like your version of what happened when Ms. Baxter knocked at the door. Can you tell us?”
I didn’t know what to say at first, so I licked my lips and cleared my throat and did all the things people do when they’re stalling for time. I didn’t want to lie any more, but I didn’t want to tell them everything either. But finally I realized she hadn’t asked me about what had happened before Ms. Baxter arrived, so I relaxed a little.
I told them that it had been more or less the way Ms. Baxter had said, except that she’d started to go upstairs before she’d seen Annie and that I didn’t think I had “forcibly prevented” her from doing that, although I had tried to stop her. But the more I talked the more I realized it was obvious that I was leaving a lot out—and I also felt more and more that whatever I said wasn’t going to make much difference anyway. It was what we were that Mrs. Poindexter and Ms. Baxter were against, as much as what we’d done. As soon as I realized that, I thought it was all over.
“Liza,” Mr. Turner said delicately, “Ms. Baxter mentioned that you seemed—er—not quite dressed. Is that so?”
“Well,” I began; I could feel my face getting red. “Yes, sort of. But …”
“What were you wearing, hon?” the red-haired woman asked.
“A shirt and jeans,” I said.
“As Ms. Baxter pointed out,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “that was obviously all she was wearing.”
“Mrs. Poindexter,” said Mr. Turner angrily, “this young woman let Ms. Baxter speak without interruption. I think the least all of us can do is extend her the same courtesy.”
Mrs. Poindexter grunted. But unfortunately she’d made her point, and I could see the pencils scribbling.
“And your friend?” asked the red-haired woman. “What was she wearing?”
“A—a lumber jacket,” I stammered.
“Is that all?” asked the man in corduroy. He sounded surprised.
I felt my throat tighten and I looked desperately around at my mother, who I think tried to smile at me. But, oh, God, that was worse; it was horrible, looking at her and seeing the pain on her face—seeing also that she was trying to be brave for my sake.
I couldn’t speak, so I nodded. I could feel my father squirm in his chair next to me, and I thought then that he must at that moment have realized I’d lied to him even if Mom hadn’t realized it, or wouldn’t let herself.
Mrs. Poindexter got up, walked to the other end of the table, and said something to Mr. Turner. He shook his head and she said something else. Then the whole group of them, except Ms. Baxter, who stayed put, started whispering. My mother glared at Ms. Baxter, and my father reached out and took my hand. “Steady on,” he whispered, even though I knew what he must be thinking and feeling. “Just remember that whatever happens it’s not going to be the end of the world.” But then he and my mother looked at each other and I could see that they pretty much thought it was.
“Liza,” said Mr. Turner softly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you why you and your friend were—er—partly undressed.”
At this point my usually quiet mother jumped to her feet and said, “Oh, for Lord’s sake! My daughter has already told her father and me that there was nothing untoward going on! Liza is an honest girl, a painfully honest girl. She has never lied to us in her life. Don’t you know how teenaged girls are? They’re always washing each other’s hair and trying on each other’s clothes—things like that. There could be a million reasons why they weren’t quite dressed, a million reasons …”
“Teenaged girls,” shouted Mrs. Poindexter, moving around to our side of the table and walking toward my mother, “do not usually try on lumber jackets. And I’ve never felt that your Liza had any particular interest in her hair. As a matter of fact, I have often felt that your daughter Eliza …”
“Yes?” shouted my mother. She looked about ready to swing at Mrs. Poindexter. Dad reached out and grabbed her arm, but she ignored him.
“Ladies, ladies!” said Mr. Turner, standing up. “That will do! I realize how emotionally charged this is—I warned you, Mrs. Poindexter, what might happen if we handled this matter in this way. In any case, we absolutely cannot tolerate this kind of behavior from anyone.”
Everyone sat down again, fuming, Mrs. Poindexter included, and I was still left with the question.
“Liza,” said Mrs. Poindexter a little sulkily, “answer the question. Why were you and that other girl so incompletely dressed?”
I looked at Dad and then at Mr. Turner. I don’t know where it came from, but I said, “I guess this is where I say that I don’t want to answer without a lawyer.”
“May I point out,” said Mrs. Poindexter coldly, “that that statement in itself can be interpreted as an admission of guilt?”
Mr. Turner cleared his throat angrily, but before he could say anything, the red-haired woman threw her pencil down. “I think this is all perfectly absurd,” she said. “Not to mention very, very cruel, and downright twisted! What this young woman does on her own time with her own friends is her business and her parents’ business, not ours. I must say I might be concerned if I were her parents, but as a trustee of this school, I have more serious things to worry about.” She looked at Mrs. Poindexter and her voice dropped a little. “Frankly, Mrs. Poindexter, this—this near-vendetta reminds me of another incident a few years back, the one involving the boy and girl in the senior class. You will all recall it, I’m sure. Perhaps there was some small point in the school’s involvement in that, since, because of the girl’s condition, the students would naturally become aware of the situation—but I see no chance of that here, or of this incident’s getting to the public as you seem to fear it might, and damaging the fund-raising campaign. In fact, I see much more danger of its being publicized as a result of this ridiculously anachronistic hearing than because of the incident itself. The overriding point,” she said, looking around at the board members and then at Ms. Baxter and Mrs. Poindexter, “fund-raising campaign or no fund-raising campaign, is whether Liza’s conduct affected the other students adversely, or whether something wrong was done on school time or on school grounds. Obviously, the latter doesn’t apply, and as to the former—it is certainly unfortunate that Sally Jarrell may have been exposed to something that disturbed her, but she is no more a child than Liza is, and it’s clear to me that Liza did not willingly make Sally a party to her behavior. Most people nowadays are fairly enlightened about homosexuality and there certainly was no purposeful wrong here, no attempt to …”
“There are the teachers,” said Mrs. Poindexter softly. “There is the question of influence—the decided influence that teachers have over students …”
“That is a separate issue,” said the red-haired woman angrily, “and obviously one of much greater relevance.”
Mr. Turner said, “I think we should ascertain if Liza wishes to say anything further to us, and then, bearing in mind that she has requested counsel and that her presence here is voluntary, move to the matter of the two teachers. We can call Liza at a future date, I am sure, if need be, assuming she is willing to be questioned further.”
Mrs. Poindexter’s lips tightened, and she twisted her glasses chain angrily.
“I agree,” said the red-haired woman, “and I apologize for my outburst, Mr. Turner, but this has all seemed to me so—so terribly unnecessary that I couldn’t help speaking out. I simply don’t see that what the two girls did or didn’t do is of any importance whatsoever. What matters is the influence the teachers may or may not have had on them, and on other Foster students.”
I think I must have been staring at her, because I remember she gave me a sort of embarrassed and apologetic smile. It is important! I wanted to shout; it was as if she’d suddenly betrayed me—the one person on the board I’d really trusted and who I thought had understood. I knew she was trying to be fair to everyone, not just to me, but, oh, God, I wanted to stand up and shout: No one had any influence on us! Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer had nothing to do with it. What we did, we did on our own; we love each other! Can’t anyone understand that? Please—can’t someone? We love each other—just us—by ourselves.
But although most of those words were in my mind by the time Mr. Turner looked at me again and said, “Liza, is there anything else you would like to say?” all I could do was shake my head and whisper, “No, sir.”
And much, much later, I thought of what Annie had said about mountains, and felt as if I still had a whole range of them left to climb.