Annie on My Mind: Chapter 8


School seemed strange the Monday after Thanksgiving. In a way it was nice to be back because it was familiar—but it also seemed irrelevant, as if I’d grown up and school was now part of my childhood.

I was almost surprised to see the ballot box in the main hall, and kids dropping folded pieces of paper in it. It wasn’t that I’d really forgotten the election; it was just that it was part of my old world, too, and it had lost a lot of its importance. So I was quite calm when after lunch we were all told to report to the Lower School gym, which doubled as an auditorium, for “a few announcements.”

Ms. Baxter gave me a big cheerful smile, I suppose to be forgiving and encouraging, but Mrs. Poindexter, in a purple dress I’d never seen before, her glasses dangling, looked grim. “I must’ve won,” I quipped to Sally. “Look at her—she looks as if she’s swallowed a cactus.”

But Sally didn’t laugh. In fact, I soon realized she must be nervous about something, because she kept licking her lips and she was clutching a couple of index cards, shuffling them around, picking at the corners.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Mrs. Poindexter—her usual way of addressing large groups of us—“I have two announcements. The first and briefer one is that Eliza Winthrop will continue as head of student council.”

There was quite a bit of applause, and school began mattering more to me again.

“And the second,” Mrs. Poindexter said, holding up her hand for silence, “is that Walter Shander and Sally Jarrell have very kindly agreed to be student chairpeople for our fund-raising drive. Sally has a few words to say. Sally?”

Sally got up, still fidgeting nervously with her index cards.

“Well, I just want to say,” she piped, “that I realized over Thanksgiving what a terrible thing I—I did with the ear piercing and all, and Walt and I talked over what I could do to make it up to the school, and then this morning Ms. Baxter said Mrs. Poindexter wanted students to get involved in the campaign. And so then I thought I could do that, and Walt said he’d help. I—I really want to make up to everyone for what I did, and this way, if anyone on the outside finds out about it, the ear infections, I mean, it’ll be easier for Mrs. Poindexter and everyone to say that I’m really sorry …”

I swallowed against the sick feeling that was creeping up my throat from my stomach. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was a nice thing for Sally to do—I did—it was that she seemed to be doing it for the wrong reasons.

“If the campaign’s a success,” she was saying, “that means that Foster can go on giving people a good education. Later, Walt and I will tell you about some dances and rallies and things we’re planning, but right now I wanted first of all to apologize, and secondly—well, to ask for your support in the campaign.” She blushed and ran back to her seat. There was applause again, but this time it was uncertain, as if the other kids were as surprised and as uncomfortable as I was about Sally’s making so much of the ear piercing—she made it sound as if she thought she’d murdered someone.

But Mrs. Poindexter and Ms. Baxter looked like a couple of Cheshire cats, one large and one small.

“How was I?” Sally asked.

“Great, baby, terrific,” Walt said, hugging her. “Wasn’t she great, Liza?”

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.

After school I went to the art studio to do some work on my senior project. Sally and Walt were there, bent over a huge piece of poster board, painting, and I had to admit that Sally looked happier and more relaxed than I’d seen her for some time. Maybe, I thought, doing this won’t be so bad for her after all.

“Hi, Liza,” Walt called cheerfully, as I rummaged in the supply cabinet. “What shall we put you down for? We’re making a list—how much do you think you can pledge?”

“Pledge?” I asked, not understanding.

“That’s the word Mr. Piccolo says fund raisers use,” Sally said proudly. “It means, how much do you promise to give to the Foster Fund Drive. Doesn’t that sound good, Liza—Foster Fund Drive? So—um—metaphoric.”

“Alliterative,” I grumbled, sitting down.

“Welcome back, Liza,” Ms. Stevenson said, peering out from behind her easel, where she was working, as usual, on what we all jokingly called her masterpiece; it was a large abstract painting none of us understood.

“Thanks,” I said, poking a pair of dividers down so hard I made a hole in my paper.

“Ms. Stevenson’s pledged twenty-five dollars,” Sally said sweetly, waving a small notebook.

“I don’t know what I can give yet, Sally, okay?” I told her.

“Okay, okay,” she snapped. “You don’t have to be that way about it.” Then her angry expression vanished as if it had been erased, and she got up and put her hand on my shoulder. “Oh, Liza, I’m sorry,” she moaned. “It’s me who shouldn’t have been that way. I’m sorry I snapped at you for being uncertain.” She patted my shoulder.

Ms. Baxter, I thought; she’s been talking to Ms. Baxter—that’s what it is.

But of course I couldn’t say that. “It’s okay,” I muttered, glancing at Walt, who shrugged.

Ms. Stevenson dropped a large tube of zinc white, and Sally and Walt nearly crashed into each other trying to be first to pick it up for her.

I pushed away from the drawing table, muttered something about homework, and ran out of the art studio. Before I even thought about it consciously, I was in the phone booth in the basement, dialing Annie’s number. As I waited for someone to answer, I reluctantly noticed the paint peeling off the steam pipes that ran along the walls, and a big crack that ran from the ceiling almost to the floor. All right, all right, I said silently. I’ll do something for the silly campaign!

“Hello?” came Nana’s gentle voice.

“Hi,” I said—I never knew whether to call her Nana to her face or not. “This is Liza—is Annie there?”

“Hello, Lize. Yes, Annie’s here. How you been? When you come see us?”

“I’m fine,” I said, suddenly nervous. “I’ll come soon.”

“Okay. You not forget. Just a minute, I call Annie.”

I could hear her calling in the background, and was relieved to hear Annie answer, and I closed my eyes, trying to visualize her in her apartment, only it was the beach that came back to me, and I could feel myself starting to sweat. But it still made sense to me; every time that scene came back to me, it made sense.

“Hi, Liza,” came Annie’s voice, sounding glad.

“Hi.” I laughed for no reason I could think of. “I don’t know why I’m calling you,” I said, “except this has been a weird day and you’re the only part of my life that seems sane.”

“Did you get it?”

“Get what?”

“Oh, Liza! Did you get reelected?”

“Oh—that.” It seemed about as far away as Mars, and about as important. “Yes, I got it.”

“I’m so glad!” She paused, then said, “Liza, I …” and stopped.

“What?”

“I was going to say that I missed you all day. And I kept wondering about the election, and …”

“I missed you, too,” I heard myself saying.

“Liza?”

I felt my heart speed up again, and my hands were damp; I rubbed them on my jeans and tried to concentrate on the crack in the wall.

“Liza—are you—are you sorry? You know, about—you know.”

“About Sunday?” I realized I was twisting the phone cord and tried to straighten it out again. I also noticed a bunch of juniors coming down the hall toward the phone booth, laughing and jostling each other. I closed my eyes to make them go away, to stay alone with Annie. “No,” I said. “I’m not sorry. Confused, maybe. I—I keep trying not to think much about it. But …”

“I wrote you a dumb letter,” Annie said softly. “But I didn’t mail it.”

“Do I get to see it?”

She hesitated, then said, “Sure. Come on up—can you?”

I didn’t even look at my watch before I said, “Yes.”

It was cold and very damp outside, as if it were going to snow, but it was warm in Annie’s room. She had some quiet music on her rickety old-fashioned phonograph, and her hair was in two braids, which by now I knew usually meant she hadn’t had time to wash it or that she’d been doing something active or messy, like helping her mother clean.

We just looked at each other for a minute there in the doorway of her room, as if neither of us knew what to say or how to act with each other. But I felt myself leave Sally and school and the fund-raising drive behind me, the way a cicada leaves its shell when it turns from an immature grub into its almost grown-up self.

Annie took my hand shyly, pulled me into her room, and shut the door. “Hi,” she said.

I felt myself smiling, wanting to laugh with pleasure at seeing her, but also needing to laugh out of nervousness, I guess. “Hi.”

Then we both did laugh, like a couple of idiots, standing there awkwardly looking at each other.

And we both moved at the same time into each other’s arms, hugging. It was just a friendly hug at first, an I’m-so-glad-to-see-you hug. But then I began to be very aware of Annie’s body pressed against mine and of feeling her heart beat against my breast, so I moved away.

“Sorry,” she said, turning away also.

I touched her shoulder; it was rigid. “No—no, don’t be.”

“You moved away so fast.”

“I—Annie, please.”

“Please what?”

“Please—I don’t know. Can’t we just be …”

“Friends?” she said, whirling around. “Just friends—wonderful stock phrase, isn’t it? Only what you said on the beach was—was …” She turned away again, covering her face with her hands.

“Annie,” I said miserably, “Annie, Annie. I—I do love you, Annie.” There, I thought. That’s the second time I’ve said it.

Annie groped on her desk-table and handed me an envelope. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t get any sleep last night and—well, I couldn’t tell you a single thing anyone said in school today, even at rehearsal. I’m going to wash my face.”

I nodded, trying to smile at her as if everything was all right—there’s no reason, I remember thinking, why it shouldn’t be—and I sat down on the edge of Annie’s bed and opened the letter.

Dear Liza,

It’s three-thirty in the morning and this is the fifth time I’ve tried to write this to you. Someone said something about three o’clock in the morning being the dark night of the soul—something like that. That’s true, at least for this three o’clock and this soul.

Look, I have to be honest—I want to try to be, anyhow. I told you about Beverly because I knew at that point that I loved you. I was trying to warn you, I guess. As I said, I’ve wondered for a long time if I was gay. I even tried to prove I wasn’t, last summer with a boy, but it was ridiculous.

I know you said on the beach that you think you love me, and I’ve been trying to hold on to that, but I’m still scared that if I told you everything about how I feel, you might not be ready for it. Maybe you’ve already felt pressured into thinking you have to feel the same way, out of politeness, sort of, because you like me and don’t want to hurt my feelings. The thing is, since you haven’t thought about it—about being gay—I’m trying to tell myself very firmly that it wouldn’t be fair of me to—I don’t know, influence you, try to push you into something you don’t want, or don’t want yet, or something.

Liza, I think what I’m saying is that, really, if you don’t want us to see each other any more, it’s okay.

Love,

Annie

I stood there holding the letter and looking at the word “Love” at the end of it, knowing that I was jealous of the boy Annie’d mentioned, and that my not seeing Annie any more would be as ridiculous for me as she said her experiment with the boy had been for her.

Could I even begin an experiment like that, I wondered, startled; would I?

It was true I’d never consciously thought about being gay. But it also seemed true that if I were, that might pull together not only what had been happening between me and Annie all along and how I felt about her, but also a lot of things in my life before I’d known her—things I’d never let myself think about much. Even when I was little, I’d often felt as if I didn’t quite fit in with most of the people around me; I’d felt isolated in some way that I never understood. And as I got older—well, in the last two or three years, I’d wondered why I’d rather go to the movies with Sally or some other girl than with a boy, and why, when I imagined living with someone someday, permanently I mean, that person was always female.

I read Annie’s letter again, and again felt how ridiculous not seeing her any more would be—how much I’d miss her, too.

When Annie came back from the bathroom, she stood across the room watching me for a few minutes. I could tell she was trying very hard to pretend her letter didn’t matter, but her eyes were so bright that I was pretty sure they were wet.

“I’d tear this up,” I said finally, “if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the first letter you’ve ever written me, and so I want to keep it.”

“Oh, Liza!” she said softly, not moving. “Are you sure?”

I felt my face getting hot and my heart speeding up again. Annie’s eyes were so intent on mine, it was as if we were standing with no distance between us—but there was the whole room.

I think I nodded, and I know I held out my hand. I felt about three years old.

She took my hand, and then she touched my face. “I still don’t want to rush you,” she said softly. “I—it scares me, too, Liza. I—I just recognize it more, maybe.”

“Right now I just want to feel you close to me,” I said, or something like it, and in a few minutes we were lying down on Annie’s bed, holding each other and sometimes kissing, but not really touching. Mostly just being happy.

Still scared, though, too.


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