That winter, all Annie had to do was walk into a room or appear at a bus stop or a corner where we were meeting and I didn’t even have to think about smiling; I could feel my face smiling all on its own. We saw each other every afternoon that we could, and on weekends, and called each other just about every night, and even that didn’t seem enough; sometimes we even arranged to call each other from pay phones at lunchtime. It was a good thing I’d never had much trouble with schoolwork, because I floated through classes, writing letters to Annie or daydreaming. The fund-raising campaign went on around me without my paying much attention to it. I did pledge some money; I listened to Sally and Walt make speeches; I even helped them collect pledges from some of the other kids—but I was never really there, because Annie filled my mind. Songs I heard on the radio suddenly seemed to fit Annie and me; poems I read seemed written especially for us—we began sending each other poems that we liked. I would have gone broke buying Annie plants if I hadn’t known how much it bothered her that I often had money and she usually didn’t.
We kept finding new things about New York to show each other; it was as if we were both seeing the city for the first time. One afternoon I suddenly noticed, and then showed Annie, how the sunlight dripped over the ugly face of her building, softening it and making it glow almost as if there were a mysterious light source hidden inside its drab walls. And Annie showed me how ailanthus trees grow under subway and sewer gratings, stretching toward the sun, making shelter in the summer, she said, laughing, for the small dragons that live under the streets. Much of that winter was—magical is the only word again—and a big part of that magic was that no matter how much of ourselves we found to give each other, there was always more we wanted to give.
One Saturday in early December we got our parents to agree to let us go out to dinner together. “Why shouldn’t we?” Annie had said to me—it was her idea. “People go out for dinner on dates and stuff, don’t they?” She grinned and said formally, “Liza Winthrop, I’d like to make a date with you for dinner. I know this great Italian restaurant …”
It was a great Italian restaurant. It was in the West Village, and tiny, with no more than ten or twelve tables, and the ones along the wall, where we sat, were separated by iron scrollwork partitions, so we had the illusion of privacy if not privacy itself. It was dark, too; our main light came from a candle in a Chianti bottle. Annie’s face looked golden and soft, like the face of a woman in a Renaissance painting.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to a long name on the menu and trying to resist the urge to touch Annie’s lovely face. “Scapeloni al Marsala?”
Annie’s laugh was as warm as the candlelight. “No, no,” she corrected. “Scaloppine. Scaloppine alla Marsala.”
“Scaloppine alla Marsala,” I repeated. “What is it?”
“It’s veal,” she said. “Vitello. Sort of like thin veal cutlets, in a wonderful sauce.”
“Is it good?” I asked—but I was still thinking of the way she’d said vitello, with a musical pause between the l’s.
Annie laughed again and kissed the closed fingers of her right hand. Then she popped her fingers open and tossed her hand up in a cliché but airy gesture that came straight out of a movie about Venice we’d seen the week before. “Is it good!” she said. “Nana makes it.”
So we both had scaloppine alla Marsala, after an antipasto and along with a very illegal half bottle of wine, and then Annie convinced me to try a wonderful pastry called cannoli, and after that we had espresso.
And still we sat there, with no one asking us to leave. We stayed so late that both my parents and Annie’s were furious when we got home. “You never call any more, Liza,” my father said, muttering something about wishing I’d see other people besides Annie. “I don’t want to set a curfew,” he said, “but two girls wandering around New York at night—it just isn’t safe.”
Dad was right, but time with Annie was real time stopped, and more and more often, we both forgot to call.
Chad kept kidding me that I was in love, and asking with whom, and then Sally and Walt did, too, and after a while I didn’t even mind, because even if they had the wrong idea about it, they were right. Soon it wasn’t hard any more to say it—to myself, I mean, as well as over and over again to Annie—and to accept her saying it to me. We touched each other more easily—just kissed or held hands or hugged each other, though—nothing more than that. We didn’t really talk much about being gay; most of the time we just talked about ourselves. We were what seemed important then, not some label.
The day the first snow fell was a Saturday and Annie and I called each other up at exactly the same moment, over and over again, tying up our phones with busy signals for ten minutes. I don’t remember which of us got through first, but around an hour later we were both running through Central Park like a couple of maniacs, making snow angels and pelting each other with snowballs. We even built a fort with the help of three little boys and their big brother, who was our age, and after that we all bought chestnuts and pretzels and sat on a bench eating them till the boys had to go home. Some of the chestnuts were rotten. I remember that because Annie said, throwing one away, “It’s the first sign of a dying city—rotten chestnuts.” I could even laugh at that, along with the boys, because I knew that the ugly things about New York weren’t bothering her so much any more.
Annie and I went ice skating a few times, and we tried to get our parents to let us go to Vermont to ski, but they wouldn’t. Mr. Kenyon took us and Nana and Annie’s mother out to Westchester in his cab just before Christmas to look at the lights on people’s houses, and they all wished me “Buon Natale” when they dropped me off at home. On Christmas afternoon, I gave Annie a ring.
“Oh, Liza,” she said, groping in the pocket of her coat; we were on the Promenade, and it had just begun to snow. “Look!”
Out of her pocket she took a little box the same size as the little box I’d just handed her.
I looked around for people and then kissed the end of her nose; it was almost dark, and besides, I didn’t really care if anyone saw us. “Is the silly grin on my face,” I asked her, “as silly as the silly grin on your face?”
“Jerk,” she said. “Open your present.”
“I can’t, my hands are shaking. You know what happens to my gloves if I take them off.”
“What happens to your gloves if you take them off is you lose them. But you don’t lose them if you give them to me.” I held out my hand. “I’ll hold your gloves, Unicorn, okay?”
“Okay, okay,” she said, and stripped them off and fumbled with the metallic ribbon on the box with a wonderful clumsiness that I have never seen anyone else as graceful as Annie have.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. “I’ll bite it off if it’s stuck!”
“You will not! It’s my first Christmas present from you and I’m going to keep every scrap of it forever, ribbon and all—oh, Liza!”
By then she had the box open and was staring down at the little gold ring with the pale blue stone that I’d found in an antique shop on Atlantic Avenue, at the edge of Brooklyn Heights.
“Liza, Liza,” she said, looking at me—no, staring—with wonder. “I don’t believe this.” She nodded toward the box I was holding. “Open yours.”
I gave Annie back her gloves and stuffed my own into my pockets, and I opened the box she had handed me and found a gold ring with a pale green stone—no, not identical to the ring I’d given her, but almost.
“I don’t believe it either,” I said. “But I also do.”
“It’s some kind of sign.”
“It is, Liza; you know it is.”
“The occult sciences,” I said, intentionally pompous, “are the only ones that would even attempt to explain this kind of coincidence, and the occult sciences are not …”
Annie flung her arms around my neck and kissed me, even though there were four kids galloping down the snowy path from Clark Street to the Promenade, showering each other with snowballs.
“If you don’t put that ring on this minute, I’m going to take it back,” Annie whispered in my ear. “Occult sciences, indeed!” She leaned back, looking at me, her hands still on my shoulders, her eyes shining softly at me and snow falling, melting, on her nose. “Buon Natale,” she whispered, “amore mio.”
“Merry Christmas, my love,” I answered.
My parents and Chad and I went up to Annie’s school to hear her recital, which had been postponed till right after Christmas because of snow. Annie had said many times that the only decent teacher in the whole school was her music teacher and the only department, even counting phys. ed., that tried to do anything with extracurricular activities was the music department. As soon as I heard Annie sing that night, I could see why a music department would give recitals as long as Annie was around to be in them.
Hearing Annie sing in the recital was nothing like hearing her sing in the museum that first day, or hearing her hum around her apartment or mine or on the street the way I had a few times since then. I knew she had a lovely voice, and I knew from the time in the museum that she could put a lot of feeling behind what she sang—but this was more than all those things combined. The other kids in the recital were good—maybe the way I’d expected Annie to be—but right before Annie sang, she looked out at the audience as if to say, “Listen, there’s this really beautiful song I’d like you to hear”—as if she wanted to make the audience a present of it. The audience seemed to know something unusual was coming, for when Annie looked at them, they settled back, calm and happy and expectant, and when she started singing, you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe. I glanced at Dad and Mom and Chad to see if maybe it was my loving Annie that made me think she was so good, but I could see from their faces, and from the faces of the other people—not just her family, who looked about ready to burst with pride—that everyone else thought she was as good as I did.
I’m not sure how to describe Annie’s voice, or if anyone really could, except maybe a music critic. It’s a low soprano—mezzo-soprano is its technical name—and it’s a little husky—not gravelly husky, but rich—and, according to my mother, it’s one hundred percent on pitch all the time. It’s also almost perfectly in control; when Annie wants to fill a room with her voice, she can, but she can also make it as soft as a whisper, a whisper you can always hear.
But none of that was what made the audience sit there not moving every time Annie sang. It was the feeling again, the same thing that first drew me to Annie in the museum, only much, much more so. Annie’s singing was so spontaneous, and she gave so much of herself, that it sounded as if she’d actually written each song, or was making each one up as she went along, the way she’d done in the museum. When she sang something sad, I wanted to cry; when she sang something happy, I felt myself smiling. Dad said he felt the same, and Mom had a long serious talk with Annie the next afternoon about becoming a professional—but Annie said she wasn’t sure yet if she wanted to, although she knew she wanted to major in music and continue singing no matter what else she did. Chad, even though he was shy with girls, gave her a big hug after the performance and said, “There’s nothing to say, Annie, you were so good.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, either. Mostly I just wanted to put my arms around her, but at the same time I felt in awe of her—this was a whole new Annie, an Annie I hardly knew. I don’t remember what I did or said—squeezed her hand, I think, and said something lame. But she said later that she didn’t care what anyone thought except me.
I had the flu that winter, badly, some time late in January, I think it was. The night before, I was fine, but the next morning I woke up with my throat on fire and my head feeling as if a team of Clydesdales were galloping through it. Mom made me go back to bed and came in every couple of hours with something for me to drink. I think the only reason I remember the doctor’s making one of his rare house calls is because I nearly choked on the pills that Mom gave me to take after he’d left.
Some time that first afternoon, though, I heard voices outside my door. Mom had let Chad wave to me from the threshold earlier, and it was too early for Dad to be home, so I knew it couldn’t be either of them. And then Annie was beside me, with Mom protesting from the door.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Winthrop,” she was saying. “I had the flu this year already.”
“Liar,” I whispered, when Mom finally left.
“Last year, this year,” said Annie, turning the cloth on my head to its cooler side. “It’s all the same.” She put her hand on my cheek. “You must feel rotten.”
“Not so much rotten,” I said, “as not here. As if I were floating, very far away. I don’t want to be far away from you,” I said, reaching for her hand, “but I am.” I really must have been pretty sick, because I could barely concentrate, even on Annie.
Annie held my hand, stroking it softly. “Don’t talk,” she said. “I won’t let you float away. You can’t go far with me holding on to you. I’ll keep you here, love, shh.” She began to sing very softly and sweetly, and although I was still floating, I was riding on clouds now, with Annie’s voice and her hand gently anchoring me to Earth.
We didn’t always use words when we were together; we didn’t need to. That was uncanny, but maybe the best thing of all, although I don’t think we thought about it much; it just happened. There’s a Greek legend—no, it’s in something Plato wrote—about how true lovers are really two halves of the same person. It says that people wander around searching for their other half, and when they find him or her, they are finally whole and perfect. The thing that gets me is that the story says that originally all people were really pairs of people, joined back to back, and that some of the pairs were man and man, some woman and woman, and others man and woman. What happened was that all of these double people went to war with the gods, and the gods, to punish them, split them all in two. That’s why some lovers are heterosexual and some are homosexual, female and female, or male and male.
I loved that story when I first heard it—in junior year, I think it was—because it seemed fair, and right, and sensible. But that winter I really began to believe it was true, because the more Annie and I learned about each other, the more I felt she was the other half of me.
The oddest thing, perhaps, was that even as the winter went on, we still didn’t touch each other much more than we had at the beginning, after around Christmas, I mean.
But we did realize more and more that winter that we wanted to—I especially realized it, I guess, since it was so new to me.
And the more we realized it, the more we tried to avoid it.
No. The more I did, at least at first …
We were in Annie’s room; her parents were out and Nana was asleep; we were listening to an opera on the radio, and we were sitting on the floor. My head was in Annie’s lap, and her hand was on my hair, moving softly to my throat, then to my breast—and I sat up and reached for the radio, fiddling with the dial, saying something dumb like, “The volume’s fading,” which it wasn’t …
We were in my kitchen; my parents and Chad were in the living room watching TV; Annie had stayed for dinner and we were doing the dishes. I put my arms around her from behind and held her body so close to mine that I wasn’t sure whose pulse I felt throbbing. But when she turned to me, I reached quickly for the dish towel and a plate …
Then it began happening the other way around, too: Annie began moving away from me. I remember one time in the subway; it was pretty late, and for a minute there was no one in the car with us. So I leaned over and kissed Annie, and she stiffened, holding herself away from me, rigid …
The worst thing was that we were too shy to talk about it. And we got so tangled up that we began misunderstanding each other more and more often, just in general, and the wordless communication we prized so much weakened, and we began to fight about dumb things, like what time we were going to meet and what we were going to do, or whether Annie was coming to my apartment or I was going to hers, or if we should take the subway or the bus.
The worst fight was in March.
We’d gone to the museum, the Metropolitan, and Annie seemed to want to stay in front of the medieval choir screen forever, and I wanted to go to the Temple of Dendur.
“There’s nothing to look at,” I said nastily—she was just staring, at least that’s what it looked like to me. “You must have memorized every curlicue by now. Really, how many of those post things are there?” I pointed to one of the hundreds of vertical shafts of which the screen is made.
Annie turned to me, blazing; I’d never seen her so angry. “Look, why don’t you just go to your silly temple if you want to so much? Some people can pray better in the dark, that’s all. But you probably don’t pray at all, you’re so pure and sure of everything.”
A guard glanced in our direction, as if he were trying to decide whether to tell us to be quiet. We weren’t talking loud yet, but we were getting there.
I was mad enough to ignore most of what Annie’d said till later. I just turned and walked away, past the guard, to the temple. I must have stayed there for a good half hour, until it hit me that I’d said the first rotten thing. But when I walked back to the choir screen, ready to apologize, Annie was gone.
“Did Annie call?” I asked casually when I got home around six-thirty.
“No,” Mom said, giving me an odd look.
I don’t think I said a word during dinner, and all evening I jumped every time the phone rang.
“Liza had a fight,” Chad sang gleefully the third time I ran for the phone and had to turn it over to someone else—usually him. “H’m, Lize? Bet’cha you and Annie fought over some boy, huh? Or …”
“That will do, Chad,” Mom said, looking at me. “Haven’t you got homework?”
“If he hasn’t, I have,” I said, and fled to my room, slamming the door.
At about ten o’clock, when Chad was in the shower, I called Annie, but Nana said she’d gone to bed.
“Could you—could you see if she’s still awake?” I asked humbly.
There was a pause and then Nana said, “Lize, you have a fight with Annie, no?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
I could almost hear her head nodding. “I guess that when I see her come in. She look all fussed. Maybe you call tomorrow, eh? It’s none of my business, but sometimes people just need a little time.”
I knew she was right, but I couldn’t let it go. I didn’t want to go to sleep thinking Annie was mad at me, or that I’d hurt her in some unforgivable way.
“Could you—could you just tell her I’m sorry?” I said.
“Sure.” Nana sounded relieved. “I tell her. But you hang up now. Call tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, hanging up.
Mom’s hand was on my shoulder the moment I put down the receiver. “Liza,” she began, “Liza, shouldn’t we talk about this? You seem so upset, honey, what …”
But I wrenched away and ran back to my room, where I read until dawn, mostly Shakespeare’s sonnets, and cried over the ones I had once copied out and sent to Annie.
The next afternoon I ran most of the way home from school, so I’d get there before Chad; I knew Mom had a meeting, and I wanted to be sure I was alone when I called Annie. But Annie was waiting outside my building, sitting on the steps in a heavy red-and-black lumber jacket I’d never seen before.
I was so surprised to see her I just stopped and stood there, but she got up right away and came toward me, her arms woodenly at her sides. The lumber jacket was so big it looked as though it belonged to someone else. “Want to go for a walk?” she asked. She looked haggard, as if she hadn’t slept any more than I had.
I nodded and we walked silently toward the Promenade. I kept twisting Annie’s ring with the thumb and little finger of the hand it was on, wondering if she was going to want it back.
Annie leaned against the railing, and seemed to be trying to follow the progress of the Staten Island ferry through the fog.
“Annie,” I began finally, “Annie, I …”
She turned, leaning her back against the railing. “Nana told me you’d called and that you were sorry,” she said. “Accepted. But …”
“But?” I said, my heart racing. She hadn’t smiled yet, and I knew I hadn’t either.
“But—” said Annie, turning back to face the harbor, soft hair blowing around her face. “Liza, we’re like the temple and the choir screen, as I thought the day I met you, only then I was just guessing. You—you really are like the temple—light—you go happily on without really noticing, and I’m dark, like the choir screen, like the room it’s in. I feel too much and want too much, I guess, and …” She turned to face me again; her eyes were desolate. “I want to be in the real world with you, Liza, for you, but—but we’re still running away. Or you are, or—Liza, I don’t want to be afraid of this, of—of the physical part of loving you. But you’re making me afraid, and guilty, because you seem to think it’s wrong, or dirty, or something—maybe you did all along, I don’t know …”
“No!” I interrupted loudly, unable to keep still any longer. “No—not dirty, Annie, not … I don’t want to make you afraid,” I finished lamely.
For a minute Annie seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, but I couldn’t just then. “I really was praying there in the museum,” she said softly, “when you got so mad. I was praying that I could ignore it if you wanted me to—not the love, but the physical part of it. But having to do that—I think that makes me more afraid than facing it would.”
It came crashing through my foggy mind that in spite of everything Annie had just said I wanted desperately to touch her, to hold her, and then I was able to speak again. “It’s not true,” I said carefully, “that I want to ignore it. And I’m not going on happily not noticing.” I stopped, feeling Annie take my hand, and realized my fists were clenched. “It scares me, too, Annie,” I managed to say, “but not because I think it’s wrong or anything—at least I don’t think it’s that. It’s—it’s mostly because it’s so strong, the love and the friendship and every part of it.” I think that was when I finally realized that—as I said it.
“But you always move away,” she said.
“You do, too.”
Then we both looked out at the harbor again, as if we’d just met and were shy with each other again.
But at least after that we were able to begin talking about it.
“It’s timing, partly, it’s as if we never want the same thing at the same time,” I said.
We were sitting on the sofa in my parents’ living room. My parents and Chad were out, but we didn’t know for how long.
“I don’t think so,” said Annie. “It’s the one thing we don’t know about each other, the one thing we aren’t letting each other know—as if we’re blocking the channels, because—because we’re so scared of it, Liza. The real question still is why.” She reached for my hand. “I wish we could just sort of—let what happens happen,” she said. “Without thinking so much about it.”
Her thumb was moving gently on my hand; her eyes had a special soft look in them I’ve never seen in anyone’s but Annie’s, and only in Annie’s when she looked at me. “I’ll promise to try not to move away next time,” she said.
“I—I’ll promise, too,” I said, my mouth so dry the words scraped. “Right now I don’t think I could stop anything from happening that started.”
But a few minutes later my father’s key turned in the lock and we both jumped guiltily away from each other.
And that was when there began to be that problem, too—that there was really no place where we could be alone. Of course there were times when no one was home at Annie’s apartment or mine, but we were always afraid that someone would walk in. And it wasn’t long before we began using that fear to mask our deeper one; we were still restrained and hesitant with each other.
But maybe—and I think this is true—maybe we also just needed more time.