Annie on My Mind: Chapter 17


I remember very little about the next few days. I know I saw Annie only twice, and both rimes we were stiff and silent with each other, as if all the fears, all the barriers, were back between us.

The long thin white envelope came on Saturday when Chad and I were home watching a Mets game. Chad went down for the mail during a commercial. I was sitting there, idly wondering if they were ever going to rewrite the stupid beer ad I was suffering through for the millionth time, when I heard his key scraping in the lock and then his voice saying, “Liza, I think it’s come.”

He handed me the envelope—from Foster—and I swear he was more scared than I was. He hadn’t said much about what it had been like at school for the past couple of weeks while I hadn’t been there, but I got the impression it hadn’t been any picnic for him. Sally, he’d mentioned casually, wouldn’t speak to him. Even though she was a senior and he was only a sophomore, they’d always been friendly enough to say hi in the halls and things like that. Sweet wonderful Chad! One afternoon he came home late with a bloody nose and blood in his sheepdog hair. He ran straight to Dad; he wouldn’t speak to me. Neither he nor Dad ever told me what happened, but I’m pretty sure I know, and it still makes me sick, thinking about it.

“Aren’t you going to open it? You want me to go away? I’ll go back to the game,” he said, and turned toward the TV set.

It’s funny, but I didn’t feel much of anything, staring at that envelope before I opened it. Maybe it was because by then I really didn’t want to go back to Foster anyway, even if they said I could—and so in a way I was dreading not being expelled as much as being expelled. The only thing I was conscious of worrying about was MIT, and whether the trustees would notify them if they expelled me and what reason they’d give.

There was a roar from the TV set—the Mets had just gotten a run. Chad didn’t roar, though, and you can usually hear his shouts halfway down the hall outside our apartment.

I stuck my finger under the flap of the envelope and it opened so easily I hoped it hadn’t come unglued on the way and that the letter hadn’t fallen out in front of everyone in the post office.

Dear Ms. Winthrop,

The Board of Trustees of Foster Academy is happy to inform you …

“Chad,” I said. “It’s okay.”

Chad threw his arms around me and shouted “Hooray!” Then he stepped back, and I must have looked pale or something because he sort of eased me down into Dad’s chair and said, “Hey, Liza, you want some water or an aspirin or something?”

I shook my head, but he got me some water anyway, and after I’d drunk some of it, he said, “Aren’t you going to read the rest of the letter?”

“You read it,” I said.

“Sure?”

I nodded.

So Chad read out loud:

“Dear Ms. Winthrop,

“The Board of Trustees of Foster Academy is happy to inform you that, after due deliberation relative to the disciplinary hearing held on April 27 of this year, we have found no cause for action of any kind in your case, disciplinary or otherwise.

“Mrs. Poindexter has agreed that you will continue in your position of Student Council President. No account of the hearing will appear on your record and none will be sent to any college to which you have applied or at which you have been accepted.

“With all good wishes for the future,

Sincerely,

John Turner, Chairman”

“There’s a separate little slip, too,” Chad said, holding it up, “saying you can go back to school on Monday.”

“I can’t wait,” I said dryly.

“Lize?”

“Umm.”

He looked very puzzled. “Liza—does it mean—you know. Does it mean you aren’t—weren’t …? But I thought—you know.”

“Oh, God, Chad,” was all I said, all I could say. And then I went out of the room to call Annie, leaving my poor little brother even more bewildered than before.

After I called Annie, I tried several times to call Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer but wasn’t able to reach them. I tried again on Sunday and Annie and I even talked about walking over there, but Annie pointed out that it might be more sensible not to let anyone, especially Ms. Baxter, see us there at least until everything had died down a bit.

Monday was the first really hot day we’d had, almost like summer, but I knew that wasn’t why I was sweating by the time Chad and I arrived at school. I wanted to walk in confidently, looking as if nothing had happened, but as we went up the steps, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.

“If you want us to go in separately, it’s okay with me,” I told him.

“Are you crazy?” he said. And then he actually held the door open for me, and stared hard at a couple of sophomores who sort of snickered.

“Good luck, Sis,” he whispered. “Yell if you need me. I’ve got a left jab that packs quite a wallop.”

I suppose I embarrassed him by doing it, but I hugged him right there in the hall.

Foster felt like a place I’d never been before when I walked through the hall that day and downstairs to my locker. I guess it was mostly that I didn’t feel I could trust people there any more, and somehow that made even the familiar shabby walls look potentially hostile.

There were the same rooms, the same people, the same staircases, the same dark wood and stuffy smell, the same dining room with little vases of violets from the school garden on each table, the same bulletin board on which Sally had put her ear-piercing sign a hundred years ago, my same old battered locker …

Would there be another note?

There wasn’t.

A couple of kids came to their lockers when I was putting stuff back into mine, and I said hi and they said hi back, but of course it was a little stiff and embarrassed on both sides. Valerie Crabb, who was in my physics class, tried, though. She held out her hand to me and said, “Welcome back, Liza. You want any help making up stuff in physics, say the word.” That was really nice.

But then I went into the girls’ room and that wasn’t so nice. No one said anything specific—but one kid said hi loudly, like a warning: “Hi, LIZA!”—and she and another girl who’d been combing their hair left immediately and someone who’d just gone into a booth flushed right away and hurried out without even washing her hands or looking at me.

I told myself it would be great to have the john to myself every time I wanted to use it, but I didn’t convince myself.

Then, on the way to chemistry, I ran into Walt.

He stopped right in the middle of the hall when I was still a few feet away and held out his hand to me. “Liza, hello,” he said, all smiles. “Hey, it’s really good to see you back. I mean that—really good.”

I tried to shift my books around so I could shake his hand, since he was holding it out so persistently. “Hi, Walt,” I said, and started walking again as soon as the handshake was over.

He fell into step beside me. “Hey, listen, Liza,” he said. “I hope you’re not going to let any of this—well, you know—affect you at all. I mean, well, sure Sally was upset, but I want you to know I’m behind you all the way—I can understand Sally’s reaction, but—well, I’m not going to desert a friend just because of a little—sex problem or anything. I mean, the way I figure it, it’s just like any other handicap …”

Luckily we’d just about reached the lab by then, and luckily Walt’s first period class was Latin, not chem.

I didn’t really notice in chemistry that the only people sitting near me were boys, especially since, when we broke to do an experiment, my lab partner, who was a very intense, brilliant girl named Zelda who was going to be a doctor and who hardly ever smiled, began asking me questions. She started innocently enough, saying, “Welcome back, Liza. I mean that sincerely.”

I thanked her, trying not to make as big a thing of it as she was, and started trying to figure out how many pages to skip in my lab notebook to allow for experiments I’d missed and would have to make up.

Zelda was setting out apparatus, not looking at me, but then she said in an odd, sort of choked voice, “If you’d like to talk about it any time, Liza, I’ll be glad to listen.”

I looked up then and when I saw her face the icicles started coming back to my stomach. “Thanks,” I said carefully, “but I don’t think so.”

Her face seemed very serious, but her eyes didn’t. “Liza, may I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said reluctantly.

“Well—I think you know me well enough to know this isn’t out of any prurient interest or anything, right?”

The icicles in my stomach got colder; I shrugged, feeling trapped.

“Well,” Zelda began, “since I’m going to be a doctor and all …”

It was at this point that I realized there were several other kids, mostly girls, but a few boys, too, clustered around our table, as if they were all suddenly coming over to borrow a test tube or ask a question—but there were too many of them for that.

Zelda went right on talking as if they weren’t there, but I could see she was very aware of them. “I just wondered,” she said smoothly, “if you could tell me, from a scientific standpoint, of course, just what it, is that two girls do in bed …”

It did get better, although it took a while for some of the girls to sit next to me again in class. That was funny, in a way. At Foster we didn’t have assigned seats, and as I said, I really didn’t notice it in chemistry that first morning, but by afternoon it had become pretty obvious. When I realized what was going on, I purposely arrived a little late to my classes so I’d get to choose who to sit next to and could maybe show the girls that I wasn’t going to rape them in the middle of math or something. I don’t know; I’m probably exaggerating, but it did seem a little grim at first.

I guess if I add it all up, though, I’d have to say that for every kid who was rotten—and there were really only a few—there were at least two, like Valerie and all the kids who just said hi to me in an ordinary friendly way, who counteracted it. Mary Lou Dibbins, for instance, came up to me and said, “Thank God you’re back—Angela can’t even begin to stand up to Mrs. Poindexter at council meetings.” There was a girl in history class who just smiled, came over to me, and as if nothing had happened asked if I had an extra pen. And then there was Conn, and what he told me.

It was later in the afternoon of that first day before I got around to reading the bulletin board in the main hall. A notice had gone up, dated noon, from Mrs. Poindexter, canceling the next two council meetings—which meant that, despite what Mary Lou had said, there’d probably only be one more I’d preside at, since finals were coming up soon. Seeing that notice was like having the last bad thing happen on one of those days when everything goes wrong. Conn came up to me when I was standing there and he obviously figured out what I was going through, which made it partly worse and partly better. “Life,” he observed, looking at the bulletin board instead of at me, “is a crock of you-know-what, with all the wrong people falling into it. Still—you hear about Poindexter?”

“No,” I said through the damp haze in front of my eyes. “What about her?”

“Leaving at the end of the year. Some order from the Board of Trustees. It’s not around school yet, but there was this official-looking letter in the office that I just happened to see Baxter weeping over. Something about ‘frequent demonstrations of poor judgment and overreaction to trivial incidents.’ And ‘continuous overextension of authority to the point of undermining democratic principles.’ Also, you might like to know that Friday afternoon, Mr. Piccolo announced that the pledges are really starting to come in now.” Conn put his hand on my arm, still looking at the bulletin board. “Liza,” he said, “listen, MIT’s going to be great, you know that, don’t you?”

I managed a nod, and Conn patted my arm and said, “Don’t forget it,” and then he even had the tact to go away—and I still stood there. Right at that moment it didn’t matter to me very much how good it was that Mrs. Poindexter was leaving. It did matter that it was obvious she’d been kicked out by the Board of Trustees, and that even though the disciplinary hearing was clearly not the only reason, it certainly must have been one of the reasons. The trouble was, all I could think was I did that, too—because right then I didn’t want to have an effect on anyone’s life, not even Mrs. Poindexter’s. I just wanted to be as anonymous and unimportant as the newest freshman, from then till graduation.

But I decided, since this was my first and only free period that day, to go ahead with what I’d been on my way to do when I’d stopped at the bulletin board: go to the art studio to see Ms. Stevenson and find out how Ms. Widmer’s and her hearing had gone—I didn’t have English till last period, so I hadn’t seen Ms. Widmer yet.

But there was a strange woman rummaging in Ms. Stevenson’s supply cupboards. She looked up blankly when I went in, and said, “Yes? May I help you? I don’t think there’s a class here this period—is there?” The woman laughed in a friendly way as she went to Ms. Stevenson’s drawing board and picked up a schedule. “I wonder how long it’s going to take me to learn what’s when … Is anything the matter?”

Ms. Stevenson’s got another cold, I told myself as I ran out; she’s just absent.

I think I ran all the way to Ms. Widmer’s room. There was a class going on, but Sally was right outside the closed door, at the water fountain.

“If you’re looking for Ms. Widmer,” Sally said with a little smile, “I’m afraid you won’t find her here.”

“But she should be back today,” I said, still stupidly bewildered. “The way I am. I mean, I got my notice Saturday, so she must’ve …”

“I’m sure she got hers Saturday, too, Liza,” Sally said almost sympathetically. “That’s why she’s not here.”

I think I said, “Oh, God,” and started to walk away.

But Sally came after me.

“Liza,” she said, “listen. You may not believe me, but—well, I’m sorry I had to do what I did. I’m sorry I was mad, too, and—well, I’d like to help you, Liza; Walt knows of this really good doctor, a shrink, I mean …”

I tried to brush her away and I probably said something terse like, “I don’t need your help,” but she hung on. All I could think of was getting to a phone and calling Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer.

“Listen, Liza, the trustees had to do it, don’t you see? Even if there hadn’t been a fund-raising campaign going on, they’d have had to fire Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. Having teachers like that—it’s sort of like my causing ear infections, isn’t it? Only this is so very much worse. I mean, it just ruins people for—for getting married and having kids and having a normal, healthy sex life—and for just plain being happy and well-adjusted. The thing is—well, think of the influence teachers have.” She smiled sadly. “Oh, Liza, think of yourself, think of how influenced you were by them! You always liked Ms. Stevenson especially; you almost idolize her …”

I swear it was all I could do not to shake her. “I do not idolize her!” I shouted. “I like them both—the way most other kids in this school do. I didn’t even know they were—I mean, I didn’t …” I sputtered for a few seconds more, thinking it might still be risky to say outright that they were gay. Instead I said, “Sally, I’d have been gay anyway, can’t you understand that? I was gay before I knew anything about them.” Then I heard myself saying, “I was probably always gay—you know I never liked boys that way …”

“Gay,” Sally said softly. “Oh, Liza, what a sad word! What a terribly sad word. Ms. Baxter said that to me and she’s right. Even with drugs and liquor and other problems like that, most of the words are more honestly negative—stoned, drunk out of one’s mind …”

I think it was at that point that I did take hold of Sally’s arm—not to shake her, but just to shut her up. I remember trying to keep my voice from breaking. “It’s not a problem,” I said. “It’s not negative. Don’t you know that it’s love you’re talking about? You’re talking about how I feel about another human being and how she feels about me, not about some kind of disease you have to save us from.”

Sally shook her head. “No, Liza. It isn’t love, it’s immature, like a crush, or a sort of mental problem, or—or maybe you’re just scared of boys. I was too, sort of, before I knew Walt.” She smiled, almost shyly. “I really was, Liza, even if that sounds funny. But he’s—he’s so understanding and—and, well, maybe you’ll meet a boy like him someday and—and—oh, Liza, don’t you want to be ready for that when it happens? A shrink could help you, Liza, I’m sure—why, they said at the hearing that …”

I stared at her. “Were you at the hearing?”

“Why, yes,” she said, looking surprised. “At Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s. I thought you knew—I came in just as you and your parents were leaving. I was going to speak at your part, too, but then they thought I shouldn’t, since I’m in your class and we’ve been friends and all, and I agreed. But Mrs. Poindexter wanted me to talk about what kind of influence Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer had on the students, on you, especially.”

“And you said?”

“Well, I had to tell the truth, didn’t I? I told them that you idolize them, because it’s true, Liza. I don’t care what you say, you certainly idolize Ms. Stevenson. And I said that maybe you thought that anything they did was fine and that you sort of—well, want to be like them and all …”

“Oh, God,” I said. Running through my head …

It’s snowing, Annie, Liza wrote—but the echo of Sally’s words and of her own stalled thoughts interrupted: Running through my head—running through my head was … what?

She wrote again, groping:

The snow here on the campus is so white, so pure. Once when I was little—did I ever tell you this?—I saw a magazine picture of a terrible black and twisted shape, a little like an old-fashioned steam radiator, but with a head on it and stubby feet with claws. Someone, maybe my mother, said jokingly, “See, that’s what you look like inside when you’re bad.” I never forgot it.

And that’s what I’ve felt like inside since last spring.

Running through my head—running through my head now is …

Annie, if I’d been at their part of the hearing, I could have told the truth. I probably could have saved them—well, maybe saved them—if I’d been there. And even at my own hearing I might have been able to help them; I could have said—I wanted to say—that they’d had no influence, that I’d have been gay anyway …

Liza put on her jacket; she went outside and stood on the deserted riverbank, watching the snow fall lazily into the Charles.

If I hadn’t been gay, she thought as her mind cleared; if nothing had happened in that house, in that bedroom …

“But dammit,” she said aloud, “you are gay, Liza, and something did happen in that house, and it happened because you love Annie in ways you wouldn’t if you weren’t gay. Liza, Liza Winthrop, you are gay.”

Go on from that, Liza, she told herself, walking now. Climb that last mountain …

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