Annie on My Mind: Chapter 18


It comes back in clouds, in wispy images. I remember walking with Annie to Cobble Hill late in the afternoon of that first day back at school, the day Sally told me Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer had been fired.

It was raining again; I remember that, too, and there was no one at home in the little house with the gardens front and back.

I remember Annie looking up at the doorway, saying, “I can’t hate it, Liza, can you?” I didn’t understand what she meant, so I asked her, and she said, “I’ve been afraid that I’d hate this house. But I can’t. I love it. So much of what happened here was beautiful.”

And Annie kissed me then, in the rain in the dark doorway.

The front door was open when we went back on Saturday and there were cardboard boxes all around and suitcases and Ms. Stevenson’s “masterpiece” from the art studio was propped up in a corner, and the cats were in carrying cases so they wouldn’t run outside in the confusion and get lost. The little house in Cobble Hill was being stripped of all the things that made it look warm and loved and lived in.

Ms. Widmer was out in the back garden, digging up a plant and obviously trying to look braver than she felt. Ms. Stevenson, in a pair of old jeans, was packing the last of their books. “Hi, you two,” she said—she even smiled—when we came in.

What I did then was something I’ll never regret: I hugged her. We held each other for a very long minute and then she pushed me away, smiling, and said, “Oh, look, it’s not so bad. We’re lucky. We have this place in the country—we were going to retire there anyway. I’ve been talking about doing some serious painting, and Kah—well, she’s always wanted to have a big vegetable garden and some chickens, and to write poetry of her own instead of reading other people’s. Now we can …”

“You’re teachers!” I remember saying. “You’re such good teachers, good for kids …”

“Well, we’ve had more than twenty years of that. Lots of people change careers these days.”

But I looked at Annie and Annie looked at me and we both knew that what really mattered was that probably neither of those two brave and wonderful women would ever teach again

Annie, today I went outside and in the snow in the courtyard outside my dorm I built a replica of my childhood monster and wished you were with me. My snow monster was pure and white and guiltless, and I looked at it, Annie, and it struck me that it can never turn black and ugly like the monster of my childhood, because what is guiltless about it is what it is, not necessarily what it does. Even if sometimes what it does is bad, or cowardly, or foolish, it itself is still okay, not evil. It can be good, and brave, and wise, as long as it goes on trying.

And then, Annie, I tore the monster down, and wished again that you were with me …

Annie and I went out that last Saturday to get lunch for all of us, roast beef sandwiches and Cokes. It was so much like an indoor picnic, among the boxes and the suitcases, that we all tried to be cheerful—but that only worked a little.

“I hope everyone likes roast beef,” Annie said.

“Mmmmm.” Ms. Stevenson bit into her sandwich. “Super!” She waved her sandwich at us. “Eat up, you two—oh, do stop looking like a couple of frightened rabbits. It’ll be okay. There are a lot of unfair things in this world, and gay people certainly come in for their share of them—but so do lots of other people, and besides, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the truth of loving, of two people finding each other. That’s what’s important, and don’t you forget it.”

Annie smiled at me, and I felt her hand squeeze mine, and I think we both realized at the same time what a comfortable feeling it was to be able to sit there with other people like us, holding hands. But even so, I still felt crummy inside. “I—I know you’re trying to make us feel better,” I said, “but to think of you not—not being allowed to teach …”

Ms. Widmer stuffed a used napkin into a paper bag. “We should tell them, Isabelle,” she said, “about when we were kids.”

“When we were kids,” said Ms. Stevenson, nodding, “and our parents found out about us—well, suspected—they told us we could never see each other again …”

“God!” said Annie.

“Yes, well of course we did anyway,” said Ms. Widmer.

“We did a lot of sneaking around,” said Ms. Stevenson, “for more than a year—it was rather horrible. And we got caught a few times—once almost the way you two did, as Kah very rightly reminded me when I was too angry to remind myself.”

“So we know what that feels like,” said Ms. Widmer softly. “How dirty it makes you feel at a time when you want to feel wonderful and do feel wonderful, new and pure and full of love, full of life …”

Ms. Stevenson got up and went to the window. Then she stooped and touched the orange cat’s nose affectionately through the grating in his carrying case. “Look,” she said quietly, “I can’t lie to you and say that losing our jobs like this is easy. It isn’t. But the point is that it’ll be okay; we’ll be okay. And we want to know that you will be, too.”

Ms. Widmer leaned forward. “Isabelle was a WAC for a while,” she said. “Between high school and college. Someone found some of my letters to her. Talk about Inquisitions—the army’s a good deal better at them than Foster, I can assure you! But you know what? Even though Isabelle was discharged and even though it looked for a time as if no college would take her, one finally did, and after a while, once she’d gotten her first teaching job and held on to it for more than a year, it hardly mattered any more, not in a practical way, anyhow. And …” Ms. Widmer smiled lovingly at Ms. Stevenson. “The important thing is,” she said, “that we got through that time, too, and we’re still together.”

Ms. Stevenson patted Ms. Widmer’s hand, and then she came over to me and put her hands on my shoulders. “I should also tell you”—she glanced at Ms. Widmer, who nodded—“that Kah almost left me after my discharge. She went through more hell than I did, Liza, because she blamed herself for writing those letters to me—even though I was the one who’d left them around. She kept thinking that if she hadn’t written them …”

“… if I hadn’t been gay,” said Ms. Widmer softly.

“… then nothing would have happened. No court-martial, no discharge …”

“It took me a couple of years to realize,” said Ms. Widmer, “that it wasn’t my fault—that it wasn’t my homosexuality that had gotten Isabelle discharged, it was what people wrongly made of it.”

Annie’s hand tightened in mine and she whispered, “See?”

“I think,” said Ms. Widmer, “that I had to accept I was gay before I could realize that it wasn’t my fault about the discharge.” She chuckled. “That’s why I like that quote so much, the one about the truth making one free. It does, you know, whatever that truth is.”

Ms. Stevenson—I know she said something then, but I can’t quite remember the words.

I think I said something lame about their teaching jobs again.

And I can sort of remember the way Ms. Stevenson looked at me, as if she were trying to get inside my mind.

She put her hands on my shoulders again, still looking at me the same way—looking right into me.

And she said—

Ms. Stevenson said—

“Liza, Liza, forget about our jobs; forget that for now. This is the thing to remember: the very worst thing for Kah and me would be to be separated from each other. Or to be so worn down, so guilt-ridden and torn apart, that we couldn’t stay together. Anything else …”

“Anything else is just bad,” said Ms. Widmer. “But no worse than bad. Bad things can always be overcome.”

“You did nothing to us,” Ms. Stevenson said gently.

“If you two remember nothing else from all this,” Ms. Widmer said, “remember that. Please. Don’t—don’t punish yourselves for people’s ignorant reactions to what we all are.”

“Don’t let ignorance win,” said Ms. Stevenson. “Let love.”

Liza pushed back her chair, her eyes going from the last part of her long fragmentary letter up to Annie’s picture, remembering as the snow fell outside her window how the snow had fallen on the Promenade nearly a year earlier when they’d given each other the rings.

She looked at her watch; it was only six o’clock in California. Dinnertime.

I’m not going to think about it, she said to herself, getting up. I’ve thought enough already. I’m just going to go ahead and do it.

She found Annie’s first letter from Berkeley and copied down the phone number of her dorm; she counted out all the change she had and borrowed four quarters from the girl across the hall. By the time she got to the phone booth on the first floor of her dorm, her mouth was dry and her heart was racing; she had to say “Annie Kenyon” twice to the woman—operator? student?—who answered impersonally at the other end.

And then there was Annie’s voice, from thousands of miles away, saying with mild curiosity, “Hello?”

Liza closed her eyes. “Annie,” she said. “Annie, it’s Liza.”

A pause.

Then: “Liza? Liza, oh, my God! Is it really you? Liza, where are you? I was just …”

“I—yes, it’s me. I’m at MIT. I—Annie, I’m sorry I haven’t written …” Liza heard herself laugh. “Oh, God, what a dumb thing to say! Annie—Annie—are you coming home for Christmas?”

A laugh—a slow, rich, full-of-delight laugh. “Of course I am. Liza—I don’t believe this! This guy I know—he’s from Boston, and there’s someone in New York he wants to see. He just offered to switch plane tickets with me—I told him about us, a bit—he offered to switch plane tickets if I wanted to, well, try to see you. I said I didn’t know, I’d have to think about it. Our vacation starts tomorrow. I—I was trying to work up the courage to call you. Liza—are you still there?”

“I—yes. Annie—sorry. I—I’m crying—it’s so good to hear your voice again.”

“I know, I’m crying, too.”

“Switch tickets—please. We can go home together—my vacation doesn’t start for a couple of days. I’ll meet you at Logan Airport, just give me the flight number. Annie?”

“Yes?”

“Annie, Ms. Widmer was right. Remember—about the truth making one free? Annie—I’m free now. I love you. I love you so much!”

And in a near whisper: “I love you, too, Liza. Oh, God, I love you, too!”


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