Annie on My Mind: Chapter 5

I told my parents about the suspension Friday night while they were in the living room having a drink before dinner, which is always a good time to tell them difficult things. My father was furious. “You’re an intelligent person,” he thundered. “You should have shown better judgment.”

My mother was sympathetic, which was worse. “She’s also an adolescent,” she told my father angrily. “She can’t be expected to be perfect. And the school’s coming down a lot harder on her than on Sally. That’s not fair.” My mother’s a quiet person, except when she thinks something’s unjust, or when she’s defending me or Chad. Or Dad, for that matter. Dad’s terrific, and I love him a lot, but he does expect people to be perfect, especially us, and especially me, his fellow “intelligent person.”

“It’s fair, all right,” Dad said into his martini. “Liza was in a position of responsibility, just as Mrs. Poindexter said. She should have known better. I wouldn’t expect that little twit Sally Jarrell to know how to think, let alone how to behave, but Liza …”

That’s when I got up and left the room.

Chad thought the whole thing was funny. He came out to the kitchen, where I’d gone, on the pretext of getting a Coke, and found me leaning against the refrigerator, fuming. “Pretty cool, Lize,” he said, flapping one of his ear-lobes and wearing his isn’t-life-ridiculous look.

“Oh, shove it.”

“Think she’d do my ears? One gold hoop, like a pirate?”

“She’ll do your nose if you don’t shut up,” I snapped.

“Hey, come off it.” He pushed me aside and reached into the refrigerator for his Coke. “I’d give anything to be suspended.” He popped the ring into the can and took a long swallow. “What are you going to do next week, anyway? Three free days and then Thanksgiving vacation—wow!” He shook his head and then brushed the hair out of his eyes. “They going to make you study?”

I hadn’t thought of that and realized I’d better call school on Monday to find out. “I’ll probably run away to sea,” I told Chad. Then, thinking of the Cloisters and Annie, I added, “Or at least go to a lot of museums.”

School seemed very far away the next day at the Cloisters with Annie, even though at first we were the way we’d been on the phone—not exactly tongue-tied, but not knowing what to say, either.

The Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art and architecture, is in Fort Tryon Park, so far uptown it’s almost out of the city. It overlooks the Hudson River like a medieval fortress, even though it’s supposed to look like a monastery and does, once you get inside.

I was early so I decided to walk from the subway instead of taking the bus that goes partway into the park, but even so, Annie was there before me. As I walked up, I saw her near the entrance, leaning against the building’s reddish-brown granite and looking off in the opposite direction. She had on a long cotton skirt and a heavy red sweater; I remember thinking the sweater made the skirt look out of place, as did the small backpack strapped to her shoulders. Her hair tumbled freely down over the pack.

I stopped for a few seconds and just stood there watching her, but she didn’t notice me. So I went up to her and said, “Hi.”

She gave a little jump, as if she’d been miles or years away in her thoughts. Then a wonderful slow smile spread across her face and into her eyes, and I knew she was back again. “Hi,” she said. “You came.”

“Of course I came,” I said indignantly. “Why wouldn’t I have?”

Annie shrugged. “I don’t know. I wondered if I would. We’re probably not going to be able to think of a thing to say to each other.”

A bus pulled up and hordes of students with sketchbooks, plus mothers and fathers with reluctant children, had to go around us to get to the door. “All week,” Annie said, watching them, “I kept, um, remembering that guard and the two little boys, didn’t you?”

I had to say that I hadn’t, so I told her about the ear-piercing incident to explain why.

“Because of ear piercing?” she said incredulously when I’d finished telling her the story. “All that fuss?”

I nodded, moving aside to let some more people through. “I guess maybe it is a little harsh,” I said, trying to explain about the fund-raising campaign, “but …”

“A little harsh!” Annie almost shouted. “A little!” She shook her head and I guess she realized we were both getting loud, because she looked around and laughed, so I laughed, too, and then we both had to step back to let a huge family pass. The last kid was a stuck-up-looking boy of about nine with a fancy camera that had hundreds of dials and numbers. He looked more like a small robot than a kid, even when he whirled around and pointed his camera at Annie. Annie held out her big skirt like a medieval damsel and dipped into a graceful curtsy; the kid snapped her picture without even smiling. Then, when Annie straightened up into a religious-looking pose that I’ve seen in a hundred medieval paintings, he became a real kid for a second—he stuck his tongue out at her and ran inside.

“You’re welcome,” Annie called after him, sticking out her tongue, too. “The public,” she sighed dramatically, “is so ungrateful. I do wish Father wouldn’t insist that I pose for their silly portraits.” She stamped her foot delicately, the way the medieval damsel she was obviously playing might have. “Oh, I’m so angry I could—I could spear a Saracen!”

Once again I found myself catching her mood, but more quickly this time. I bowed as sweepingly as I could and said, “Madame, I shall spear you a hundred Saracens if you bid me, and if you give me leave to wear your favor.”

Annie smiled, out of character for a second, as if thanking me for responding. Then she went back into her role and said, “Shall we walk in the garden, sir knight, among the herbs and away from these rude throngs, till my duties force me to return?”

I bowed again. It was funny, I wasn’t nearly so self-conscious this time, even though there were crowds of people around. Still being the knight, I offered Annie my arm and we strolled inside, which is the only way to get to the museum’s lower level and leads to the herb garden. We paid our “donation” and went downstairs and outside again, where we sat on a stone bench in the garden and looked out over the Hudson River.

“It just seems ridiculous, Liza,” Annie said after a few minutes, “to make such a fuss about anything so silly.”

I knew immediately she meant the ear-piercing business again.

“In my school,” she went on, sliding her backpack off and turning to me, “kids get busted all the time for assault and possession and things like that. There are so many security people around, you have to remind yourself it’s school you’re in, not jail. But at your school they get upset about a couple of infected ears! I can’t decide if it’s wonderful that they don’t have anything more serious to worry about—or terrible.” Annie grinned and flipped back some of her hair, showing me a tiny pearl earring in each ear. “I did mine myself,” she said. “Two years ago. No infection.”

“Maybe you were lucky,” I said, a little annoyed. “I wouldn’t let Sally pierce mine.”

“That’s just you, though. I can’t imagine you with pierced ears, anyway.” She buried her face in a lavender bush that was growing in a big stone pot next to the bench. “If you ever want it done,” she said into the bush, “I’ll do it for you. Free.”

I had an absurd desire to say, “Sure, any time,” but that was ridiculous. I knew I didn’t have the slightest wish to have my ears pierced. In fact, I’d always thought the whole custom barbaric.

Annie broke off a sprig of lavender and I could see from the way she pushed her small shoulders back and sat up straighter that she was the medieval damsel again. “My favor, sir knight,” she said gravely, handing me the lavender. “And will you wear it into battle?”

“Madame,” I said, getting up quickly so I could bow again. “I will wear it even unto death.” Then my self-consciousness returned and I felt my face getting red, so I held the lavender up to my nose and sniffed it.

“Good sir,” said Annie, “surely so gallant and skilled a knight as you would never fall in battle.”

I’m not this clever, I wanted to say, panicking; I can’t keep up with you—please stop. But Annie was looking at me expectantly, so I went on—quickly, because the huge family with the obnoxious shutterbug was about to come through the door that led out to the garden. “Madame,” I said, trying to remember my King Arthur but sounding more like Shakespeare than like Malory, “when I carry your favor, I carry your memory. Your memory brings your image to my mind, and your image will ever come between me and my opponent, allowing him to unhorse me with one thrust.”

Annie extended her hand, palm up, for the lavender.

“Hold it!” ordered the robot kid, peering at us through his viewfinder.

“Then return my favor quickly, sir knight,” said Annie, not moving, “for I would not have you fall.”

I handed the lavender back to her, and the kid’s professional-sounding shutter clicked and whirred.

It was as if the sound of the camera snapped us back into the real world, because even though the kid and his family were obviously not going to stay in the garden long, Annie picked up her pack and said matter-of-factly, “Are you hungry for lunch? Or should we go in and look around? The sad virgin,” she said, looking dolefully down at the ground, imitating one of my favorite statues; “the angry lion?” She made a twirling motion above her mouth and I knew right away she was impersonating the wonderful lion fresco in the Romanesque Hall; he has a human-looking mustache. “Or”—she stood up and glanced nervously around the garden, one wrist bent into a graceful, cautious hoof—“or the unicorns?”

“Unicorns,” I said, amazed at the speed with which she could go from one character to another and still capture the essence of each.

“Good,” she said, dropping her hand. “I like them best.” She smiled.

I got up, saying, “Me, too,” and we stood there facing each other for a moment, not saying anything more. Then Annie, as if she’d read my thoughts, said softly, “I don’t know if I believe any of this is happening or not.”

But before I could answer she gave me a little push and said, in a totally different voice, “Come on! To the unicorns!”

The unicorn tapestries are in a quiet room by themselves. There are seven, all intact except one, which is only a fragment. All of them, even though they’re centuries old, are so bright it’s hard to believe that the colors must have faded over the years. Together they tell the story of a unicorn hunt, complete with lords, ladies, dogs, long spears, and lots of foliage and flowers. Unfortunately, the hunters wound the unicorn badly—in one tapestry he looks dead—but the last one shows him alive, wearing a collar and enclosed in a circular pen with flowers all around. Most people seem to notice the flowers more than anything else, but the unicorn looks so disillusioned, so lonely and caged, that I hardly see the flowers at all—but the unicorn’s expression always makes me shiver.

I could tell from Annie’s face as she stood silently in front of the last tapestry that she felt exactly the same way, even though neither of us spoke. Then a woman’s voice shrilled, “Caroline, how often do I have to tell you not to touch?”—and in came a big crowd of people along with a flat-voiced tour guide: “Most of the unicorn tapestries were made as a wedding present for Anne of Britanny.”

Annie and I left quickly.

We went outside and walked in silence away from the Cloisters and well into Fort Tryon Park, which is so huge and wild it can almost make you forget you’re in the city. There’d been more rain during the week and it had washed the last of the leaves off the trees. Now the leaves were lying soggily underfoot, but some of them were still bright in the chilly fall sunshine.

Annie found a large flat rock, nearly dry, and we sat on it. Her pack got stuck when she hunched her shoulders to take it off, and when I helped her get it free, I could feel how thin her shoulders were, even under the heavy sweater.

“Egg salad,” she said in an ordinary voice, unwrapping foil packages. “Cheese and ketchup. Bananas, spice cake.” She smiled. “I can’t vouch for the cake because it’s the first one I’ve ever made, and my grandmother had to keep giving me directions. There’s coffee, too. You’d probably rather have wine, but I didn’t have enough money, and they don’t always believe I’m eighteen.”

“Are you?”

Annie shook her head. “Seventeen,” she said, and I said, “Coffee’s fine, anyway.” Oddly enough, it had never occurred to me to have wine at a picnic, but as soon as Annie mentioned it, it sounded terrific.

Annie carefully unwrapped two big pieces of cake and put them on neat squares of foil. Then, with no transition at all, she said, “Actually, sir knight, this plate is from my father’s castle. I had my maid take it this morning for this very use. The sliced boar,” she said, handing me an egg salad sandwich, “is, I’m afraid, indifferent, but the peacocks’ tongues”—this was a banana—“are rather nice this year.”

“Best boar I’ve ever had,” I said gallantly, taking a bite of my sandwich. It wasn’t bad as egg salad, either.

Annie spread her skirt neatly around her and ate a cheese-and-ketchup sandwich while I finished my egg one; we were quiet again.

“The mead,” I said, to make conversation after I’d taken a sip of coffee, “is excellent.”

Annie held up a couple of packs of sugar and a small plastic bag of Cremora. “Do you really take your mead black? I brought this in case.”

“Always,” I said solemnly. “I have always taken my mead black.”

Annie smiled and picked up her cake. “You must think I’m an awful child,” she said with her mouth full. “I forget most people don’t like pretending that way after they’re much older than seven.”

“Did I look,” I asked her, “as if I didn’t like it?”

She smiled, shaking her head, and I told her about how I’d acted out King Arthur stories up until I was fourteen, and how I still sometimes thought about them. That led to both of us talking about our childhoods and our families. She told me she had a married sister in Texas she hadn’t seen for years, and then she told me about her father, who was born in Italy and is a cab driver, and her grandmother, who lives with them and who was born in Italy, too. Annie’s last name hadn’t started out as Kenyon at all, but something very long and complicated in Italian which her father had Anglicized.

“What about your mother?” I asked.

“She was born here,” Annie said, finishing her cake while I ate my banana. “She’s a bookkeeper—supposedly part-time, but she stays late a lot. The other day she said she’s thinking of working full-time next year, when I’m in college. Assuming Nana—my grandmother—is still mostly well, and assuming I get into college in the first place.” She laughed. “If I don’t, maybe I’ll be a bookkeeper, too.”

“Do you think you won’t get in?” I asked.

Annie shrugged. “I probably will. My marks are okay, especially in music. And my SAT scores were good.”

Then we talked about SAT’s and marks for a while. Most of that afternoon was—how can I put it? It felt a little as if we’d found a script that had been written just for us, and we were reading through the beginning quickly—the imaginative, exploratory part back in the museum, and now the factual exposition: “What’s your family like? What’s your favorite subject?”—hurrying so we could get to the part that mattered, whatever that was to be.

Annie put out her hand for my banana skin. “My first choice,” she was saying—the factual part of the script still—“is Berkeley.”

“Berkeley?” I said, startled. “In California?”

She nodded. “I was born there—well, in San José, which isn’t that far from Berkeley. Then we moved to San Francisco. I love California. New York’s—unfriendly.” She stuffed the empty skin into her pack. “Except for you. You’re the first really friendly person I’ve met since high school—the whole time we’ve lived here.”

“Oh, come on,” I said, flattered. “That can’t be true.”

She smiled, stretching. “No? Come to my school next week while you’re suspended. You’ll see.” She sat there quietly, still smiling at me, then shook her head and looked down at the rock, poking at a bit of lichen. “Weird,” she said softly.

“What is?”

She laughed, not a full-of-delight laugh this time, but a short, troubled one. “I almost said something—oh, something crazy, that’s all. I guess I don’t understand. Not quite, anyway.” She shouldered her pack and stood up before I could ask her to explain. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I’ve got to go. Are you walking to the subway? Or taking the bus?”

The next day—Sunday—started out horribly. It was drizzling out, so we all sat stiffly around the apartment with the Times, trying not to talk about suspension or earrings or anything related. But that didn’t last long. “Look, George,” Mom said from her corner of the sofa as soon as she opened the paper. “The cutest pair of gold earrings—do you think Annalise would like them?” Annalise is her sister and had a birthday coming up.

Dad glared at me and said, “Ask Liza. She knows more about earrings than anyone else in the family.”

Then Dad found an article about discipline problems in high schools, which he insisted on reading aloud, and Chad, who was sprawled out on the floor at the foot of Dad’s big yellow chair, found a court case involving a kid who’d broken into his school’s office safe in revenge for being expelled.

When I couldn’t stand it any more I got up from my end of the sofa and went out for a walk on the Promenade, which is also called the Esplanade. It’s a wide, elevated walkway that runs along one side of Brooklyn Heights, above New York Harbor and the beginning of the East River. It’s nice; you can see the Manhattan skyline, and the Statue of Liberty, and the Staten Island ferry chugging back and forth, and of course the Brooklyn Bridge, which links Brooklyn to Manhattan and is just a few blocks away. Only that day the weather was so dismal I couldn’t see much of anything except my own bad mood. I was leaning against the cold wet railing, staring out at a docked freighter, but really going back and forth with myself over whether I should have tried harder to stop Sally, when a a voice at my elbow said, “Don’t jump”—and there was Annie. She was wearing jeans again, and some kind of scarf, and her cape.

“But,” I stammered, “but—but how …”

She pulled out the notebook from when we’d exchanged addresses and waved it at me. “I wanted to see where you live,” she said, “and then there I was at your building so I rang the bell, and then your mother—she’s pretty—said you’d gone for a walk, and then this kid—your brother, Chad, I guess—came out after me and said he thought this was where you’d probably be and told me how to get here. He seems nice.”

“He—he is.” It wasn’t much to say, but I was still so bewildered and so happy at the same time that I couldn’t think of anything else.

“Nice view,” said Annie, leaning against the railing next to me. Then in a very quiet, serious voice she said, “What’s the matter, Liza? The suspension?”

It was as if the script that had been written for us had suddenly jumped way ahead.

“Yes,” I said.

“Walk with me,” Annie said, stuffing her hands into her jeans pockets under her cape.

“My Nana says,” Annie told me, “that walking helps the mind work. She used to hike out into the countryside from her village in Sicily when she was a girl. She used to climb mountains, too.” Annie stopped and looked at me. “She told me once, back when we were in California, that the thing about mountains is that you have to keep on climbing them, and that it’s always hard, but that there’s a view from the top, every time, when you finally get there.”

“I don’t see how that …” I began.

“I know. You’re student council president, but you’re really just a person. Probably a pretty good one, but still just a person. Because you’re student council president, everyone expects you to be perfect, and that’s hard. Trying to live up to everyone’s expectations and being yourself, too—maybe that’s a mountain you have to go on climbing. Nana would say”—Annie turned, making me stop—“that it’ll be worth it when you get to the top. And I’d say go on climbing, but don’t expect to reach the top tomorrow. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect for other people.”

“For a unicorn,” I think I said, “you’re pretty smart.”

Annie shook her head. We talked about it a little more, and then we went on walking along the dreary, wet Promenade, talking about responsibility and authority and even about God—no pretending this time, no medieval improvisations, just us. By the time we were through, I realized I was talking to Annie as if I’d known her all my life, not just a few days. Annie? I’m not sure how she felt. She still hadn’t said much about herself, personal things, I mean, and I had.

By about four o’clock we were so cold and wet that we went up to Montague Street, which is the main shopping street for the Heights, and had a cup of coffee. We started getting silly again—reading the backs of sugar packages aloud and imitating other customers and laughing. When Annie blew a straw paper at me, the waitress glared at us, so we left.

“Well,” said Annie, on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop.

“Their mead,” I said, reluctant for her to leave, “wasn’t half as good as yours.”

“No,” said Annie. “Liza …?”

“What?”

Then we both spoke at once.

“You first,” I said.

“No, you.”

“Well, I was just going to say that if you don’t have to go yet, you could come back to my apartment and see my room or something. But it’s almost six …”

“And I was going to say that if you don’t have to eat supper right away, maybe I could come back to your apartment and see your room.”

“Supper,” I said, looking up to see what color the traffic light was, and then crossing the street with Annie, “is sometimes pretty informal on Sundays. Maybe Mom will even invite you …”

Mom did, and Annie phoned her mother, who said she could stay. We had baked ham and scalloped potatoes, so it wasn’t one of our informal and easily expandable Sunday suppers, which usually was eggs in some form, cooked by Dad. But there was plenty of food, and everyone seemed to like Annie. In fact, as soon as Mom found out Annie was a singer, they began talking about Bach and Brahms and Schubert so much that I felt left out and revived a friendly running argument I had with Dad about the Mets versus the Yankees. Mom got the point in a few minutes and changed the subject.

Toward dessert, I started panicking about my room, which was a mess—so much so, I suddenly remembered, that I almost didn’t want to show it to Annie after all. It’s a fairly large room, with a lot of pictures of buildings fastened to the walls with drawing tape, and as soon as we went inside I saw how shabby some of the drawings had gotten and how dirty the tape was. But Annie didn’t seem to mind.

She went right to my drawing table—that was actually the best thing about my room anyway—on which was a pretty good preliminary sketch for my solar-house project. Right away she asked, “What’s this?” so I started explaining, and showed her some of the other sketches I’d done. Although most people get bored after about five minutes of someone’s explaining architectural drawings, Annie sat down on the stool by the drawing table and kept asking questions till nearly ten o’clock, when Mom came in to say she thought it was time for Dad to take Annie home. At that point I realized that Annie really seemed interested in architecture, and I felt embarrassed for starting that show-off argument at dinner instead of listening to her talk.

Dad and Chad and I all ended up taking Annie home on the subway, which turned out to be a longer trip than we’d expected. On the way I tried asking one or two questions about music, but it was too noisy for conversation. Just before we got to her stop, Annie gave my hand a quick squeeze and said, “You don’t have to do that, Liza.”

“Do what?”

“Talk about music with me. It’s okay. I know you don’t like it all that much.”

“Liza,” Chad called, “I can’t hold this door all night. Girls!” he said disgustedly to Dad when we were finally out of the train.

“I like music fine,” I said to Annie, falling behind my father and Chad as we all went up the stairs to the street. “Really. Why, I …” Then I stopped, because Annie was laughing, seeing through me. “Okay, okay,” I said. “I don’t know anything about music. But I—am—willing—to learn.”

“Fine,” said Annie. “You can come to my next recital. There’s one before Christmas.”

By this time we were up on the street, and for the few blocks to Annie’s building I tried again to ask her questions, nontechnical ones, about the recital and what kinds of songs she liked to sing and things like that. She seemed to be answering carefully, as if she were trying to make me feel I understood more than I did.

“Well,” said Dad when we got to Annie’s building—a big ugly yellow brick oblong in the middle of almost a whole block of abandoned brownstones—“why don’t we see you up to your apartment, Annie?”

“Oh, no, Mr. Winthrop,” she said quickly—and I realized that she was embarrassed. “I’ll be fine.”

“No, no,” Dad said firmly, “we’ll take you up.”

“Dad …” I said under my breath—but he ignored me, and we all rode silently up to the fifth floor in a rickety elevator that seemed to take long enough to get to the top of the Empire State Building.

Annie’s front door was near the elevator, a little to the left down a dark shabby hall, and I had to admit that Dad was probably right to have us all go up there with her. But I could see she was still embarrassed, so I said, “Well, good night,” as loudly and as cheerfully as possible, and practically pushed Dad and Chad back into the elevator.

Annie waved to me from her door, and her lips formed the words “Thank you” silently as the elevator door closed.

When we got back out onto the street, I felt as if I were about to burst with I didn’t quite know what, so I started whistling.

“Liza,” said Dad—he can be a little stiff sometimes—“don’t do that. This isn’t a terrific neighborhood. Don’t call attention to yourself.”

“It is so a terrific neighborhood,” I said, ignoring a drunk in a doorway and a skinny collarless dog who was sniffing around an overflowing litter basket. “It’s a gorgeous neighborhood, beautiful, stupendous, magnificent!”

Chad tapped his head with his forefinger and said, “Crazy,” to Dad. “Maybe a stop at Bellevue?” Bellevue is a huge hospital with a very active psycho ward.

I made a growling sort of werewolf noise and lunged at Chad just as a bum reeled up to Dad and asked him for seventy-five cents for the subway. So I growled at the bum, too, and he reeled away, staring at me over his shoulder.

Dad shot me a look that was supposed to be angry, but he couldn’t keep it from turning into a guffaw, and then he put one arm around me and the other around Chad and marshaled us firmly over to the next block where he hailed a cab. “I can’t risk being seen with you two,” he grinned, giving the driver our address. “Can’t you just see the Times? ‘Prominent Engineer Seen At Large With Two Maniacs. Sanity Questioned. One Maniac A Suspended High-School Student. Ear-Piercing Ring Rumored.”

I sneaked a surprised look at Dad and he reached over and mussed my hair in a way he hadn’t done since I was little. “It’s okay, Liza,” he said. “We all make mistakes. That was a big one, that’s all. But I know you won’t do anything like it again.”

But, oh, God, neither of us had any way of knowing that I would do something much, much worse—at least in the eyes of the school and my parents, and probably a whole lot of other people, too, if they’d known about it.

Liza took Annie’s picture out of the drawer she’d been keeping it in, put it on her bureau, and went to bed.

But she couldn’t sleep. She tried to read and the words blurred; she tried to draw and couldn’t concentrate. Finally, she went to her desk and read through Annie’s letters. “I miss you,” all but the last one said at the end.

Liza took some cassettes from her bookcase—Brahms, Bach, Schubert; she put on the Schubert and went back to bed, listening.

Maybe I should stop, she thought more than once; I should probably stop thinking about this.

But although the next day she took two long walks, went to the library, and put in three unnecessary lab hours to avoid it, she was back at her desk after dinner, looking at Annie’s picture and remembering …

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset