Monday morning, just before first period, I called school and asked for Ms. Stevenson. But Ms. Baxter, who answered the phone, said she was home sick.
I thought for a minute and then, because I didn’t want to talk to Mrs. Poindexter, I asked for Ms. Stevenson’s home number. “This is Liza Winthrop,” I said uncomfortably. “I guess you know I was suspended Friday. I, um, don’t know if I’m supposed to do homework or how I’m supposed to keep up with classes or anything.”
There was a pause, during which I imagined Ms. Baxter taking out one of her lace handkerchiefs and dabbing mournfully at her eyes. “Six-two-five,” she said, as if she were praying, “eight-seven-one-four.”
“Thank you.” I clicked the receiver button and began dialing again.
Ms. Stevenson’s phone rang five times, with no answer. I was just about to hang up and call Sally to see if by some chance she knew what we were supposed to do, when a voice, not Ms. Stevenson’s, answered.
“Um,” I said eloquently, “this—um—is Liza Winthrop, one of Ms. Stevenson’s students at Foster? Well, I’m sorry to bother her if she’s not feeling well, but the thing is …”
“Oh, Liza,” the voice said. “This is Ms. Widmer. Isabelle—I mean Ms. Stevenson—has a terrible cold and I was just about to leave for school—late, as you can see. Is there anything I can do?”
I remembered then that someone had once said they thought that Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer lived together.
“Or,” Ms. Widmer was suggesting, “would you rather talk to her directly? It’s just that she feels very rotten.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said quickly, and explained.
Ms. Widmer left for a couple of minutes and then came back and said yes, I did have to keep up and she’d send my homework to me via Chad if that was okay and wasn’t it nice it was a short week because of Thanksgiving. She suggested I get in touch with Sally to tell her it would be a good idea for her to make some kind of arrangement, too. So I called Sally—she still sounded upset about everything—and then I spent the next twenty minutes deciding what to wear to Annie’s school. I must have put on four different pairs of jeans before I found one that wasn’t dirty or torn or too shabby or not shabby enough, and then I darned a hole in the elbow of my favorite gray sweater, which I’d been putting off doing since spring. By the time I left, it was after ten o’clock.
It took me more than an hour to get to Annie’s school, what with changing subways and all. She’d drawn me a rough floor plan of the building and copied down her schedule for me, but she’d also warned me I wouldn’t be able to just walk in, as someone pretty much could at my school—and she couldn’t have been more right about that! As soon as I saw the building, I remembered her comparing it to a prison. I’ve seen big ugly schools all over New York, but this was the worst one of all. It was about as imaginative in design as a military bunker.
I went up the huge concrete steps outside, through big double doors that had wire mesh over their windows, as did the regular windows, and into a dark cavernous hall with metal stairwells off it. The first thing that hit me was the smell: a combination of disinfectant, grass, and the subway on a hot day, with the last one of those the strongest. The second thing that hit me was how the prison atmosphere continued inside. Even the interior glass windows, on doors and looking into offices, were reinforced with wire mesh. And right in the middle of the hall, opposite the doors, was an enormous table with three security guards standing around it.
The biggest of them strode up to me the minute I walked in. “What do you want?” he demanded belligerently.
I told him my name, as Annie had warned me I’d have to, and said I was a friend of Annie’s and had come to see the school.
“How come you’re not in school yourself?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I thought of saying I was a dropout or that my school had all week off for Thanksgiving or that I’d graduated early—anything but that I’d been suspended. But then I figured I was in enough trouble already, and besides, I’ve always been a terrible liar, so I told the truth.
He asked why I’d been suspended, so I told him that, too.
And that did it.
He and another guard herded me into a little office off the hall. Then he asked how I’d like it if they called Foster to verify my story, and the other guard asked if I’d mind emptying my pockets, and when I said, “What for?” he looked at his cohort and said, “Is this kid for real?” Needless to say, I never did get any farther inside Annie’s school that day.
So I left, and spent the next few hours at the Museum of the American Indian. When I got back, at about two-thirty, the guards and a couple of cops were outside and what seemed like thousands of kids were pouring out the doors—and just as I was thinking there was no way Annie was going to find me except by luck, I spotted her and yelled, waving my arms. One of the guards started edging toward me, but I managed to duck out of his way and get lost in the crowd; Annie watched from the next-to-top step till I crossed the street, and then she came toward me, smiling.
“Let’s get away from here,” she said, and led me around the corner to a quiet little park where there were mothers and baby carriages and dogs—a different world.
“I tried to get in,” I said, and explained.
“Oh, Liza, I’m sorry!” she said when I was through. “I should have warned you more—I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay.”
“Those security guards are jerks,” she said, still sounding upset. “They probably thought you were selling.” She gave an odd little half laugh and sat down on a bench. “We could use fewer of them here at school and more where I live.”
“I didn’t think it was so bad,” I said, remembering her embarrassment when we took her home. “Where you live, I mean.” I sat down next to her.
“Oh, come on!” said Annie, exploding the way she had at the Cloisters over the ear piercing. “You know what goes on in those buildings, the ones no one lives in? Kids shoot up, drunks finish off their bottles and then throw up all over the sidewalk, muggers jump out at you—sure, it’s a wonderful neighborhood!”
“I’m sorry,” I said humbly. “I guess I don’t know much about it.”
“That’s okay,” Annie said after a minute.
But it didn’t seem okay to me, because there we were sitting moodily on a cold bench saying “I’m sorry” to each other for things we couldn’t help. Instead of being happy to see Annie, which I’d been at first, now I felt rotten, as if I’d said something so dumb the whole friendship was going to be over with when it had only just started. Finis—end of script.
Annie poked her foot at a bunch of dry cracked leaves near one end of the bench; we were sitting pretty far away from each other. “Somewhere out there,” she said softly, “there’s someplace right, there’s got to be.” She turned to me, smiling and less upset, as if she’d forgiven me or maybe never even been as angry as she’d seemed. “Where we lived when I was little, after we’d moved to San Francisco, you could see out over the Bay—little white specs of houses nestled in the hills like—like little white birds. Getting back there and finding out if it’s as beautiful as I remember—that’s one of my mountains.” She flapped her arms in her coat—it was thicker than her cape, but I could see that it was old, even threadbare in spots. “Sometimes then I used to pretend I was a bird, too, like the ones I pretended were across the Bay, and that I could fly over to where they were.”
“And now,” I said carefully, “you’re going to fly across the whole country to get to them.”
“Oh, Liza,” she said. “Yes. Yes—except …”
But instead of finishing she shook her head, and when I asked her “What?” she jumped up and said, “I know what let’s do! Let’s walk over to the IRT and go downtown and take the ferry back and forth to Staten Island till it gets dark so we can see the lights—have you ever done that? It’s neat. You can pretend you’re on a real ship—let’s see. Where do you want to go? France? Spain? England?”
“California,” I said, without thinking. “I’d like to help you find your white birds.”
Annie put her head to one side, for a moment reminding me of the way she’d pretended to be a unicorn at the Cloisters. “Maybe there are white birds in Staten Island,” she said softly.
“Then,” I said, “I guess we should go on a quest for white birds there. California’s very far away.”
“That’s what I was thinking before,” Annie said—we were walking now, toward the subway. “But next year’s far away, too.”
I wondered if it really was.
On the subway, Annie’s mood changed, and mine did too. After we sat down, Annie whispered, “Have you ever stared at people’s noses on the subway till they don’t make sense any more?” I said I hadn’t, and then of course we both stared all the way to South Ferry, till people began scowling at us and moving uncomfortably away.
We rode back and forth on the Staten Island ferry for the rest of the afternoon, sometimes pretending we were going through the Panama Canal to California after all, and sometimes pretending we were going to Greece, where I was going to show Annie the Parthenon and give her architecture lessons.
“Only if I can give you history ones,” she said. “Even if they hardly teach it at all at my stupid school.”
“How come you know so much then?” I said, thinking of our improvisations.
“I read a lot,” she said, and we both laughed.
After about four trips back and forth, the ferry crew caught on that we’d only paid once, so the next time we pulled into St. George, Staten Island, we got off and hiked up one of the hilly streets that lead away from the ferry slips, till we got to some houses with little yards in front of them. Annie said, serious again, “I’d like to live in a house with a yard someday, wouldn’t you?” and I said, “Yes,” and for a while we played a quiet—shy, too—game of which of the houses there we’d live in if we could. Then we sat down on a stone wall at the corner of someone’s yard—it was beginning to get dark by then—and were silent for a while.
“We’re in Richmond,” Annie said suddenly, startling me. “We’re early settlers and …” Then she stopped and I could feel, rather than see, that she was shaking her head. “No,” she said softly. “No, I don’t want to do that with you so much any more.”
“You know. Unicorns. Maidens and knights. Staring at noses, even. I don’t want to pretend any more. You make me—want to be real.”
I was looking for some way to answer that when a woman came out of a house across the street, carrying a mesh shopping bag and leading a little dog on a leash. When she reached the corner, she put the shopping bag into the dog’s mouth and said, “Good Pixie, good girl, carry the bag for Mommy,” and we both burst into helpless laughter.
When we stopped laughing, I said, awkwardly, “I’m glad you want to be real, but—well, please don’t be too real. I mean …”
Annie gave me a funny look and said, “Annie Kenyon’s dull, huh?”
“No!” I protested. “No, not dull at all. Annie Kenyon’s …”
“What? Annie Kenyon’s what?”
I wanted to say fascinating, because that’s really what I was thinking, but I was too embarrassed. Instead, I said “Interesting,” but then that sounded flat, and I knew Annie couldn’t see my face clearly in the twilight anyway, so I added “Fascinating” after all. I thought magical, too, but I didn’t say that, even though just sitting there in the growing darkness with Annie was so special and so unlike anything that had ever happened to me before that magical seemed like a good word for it and for her.
“Oh, Liza,” Annie said, in a way I was beginning to expect and hope for. Then she said, “So are you,” and I said stupidly, “So am I what?” Instead of answering, Annie pointed down the street to where Pixie and Mommy were coming back. Then, when I was looking at them—the streetlights were on now—Annie said very softly, “Fascinating.”
Pixie was still carrying the shopping bag, but now it had a head of lettuce in it. Pixie was so low to the ground that the bag was bumping along the sidewalk.
“I hope,” Annie said, “that Mommy’s planning to wash that lettuce.”
We sat huddled together on the wall in the shadow of some big trees, watching until Pixie and Mommy were back inside their house, and then we walked back down to the ferry slip, shoulders touching. I think one reason why we didn’t move away from each other was because if we had, that would have been an acknowledgment that we were touching in the first place.
We each called home to say we’d be late, and on the way back in the ferry we stood as far up in the bow as possible so we could watch the lights in Manhattan twinkling closer and closer as we approached. We were the only people on deck; it was getting very cold.
“Look,” said Annie. She closed her hand on mine and pointed up with her other hand. “The stars match the lights, Liza, look.”
It was true. There were two golden lacework patterns now, one in the sky and one on shore, complementing each other.
“There’s your world,” Annie said softly, pointing to the Manhattan skyline, gold filigree in the distance.
“Real, but sometimes beautiful,” I said, aware that I was liking Annie’s hand touching mine, but not thinking beyond that.
“And that’s like my world.” Annie pointed up to the stars again. “Inaccessible.”
“Not,” I said to her softly, “to unicorns. Nothing’s inaccessible to unicorns. Not even—not even white birds.”
Annie smiled, as if more to herself than to me, and looked toward Manhattan again, the wind from the ferry’s motion blowing her hair around her face. “And here we are,” she said. “Liza and Annie, suspended in between.”
We stood there in the bow for the whole rest of the trip, watching the stars and the shore lights, and it was only when the ferry began to dock in Manhattan that we moved apart and dropped each other’s hands.