John Standick was taking me to Nantucket. It was 1998, the fall of my sophomore and his senior year at Harvard. We’d been dating a few months, “Brooke and John.” I’d never been on a ferry before, and I had a vision of riding out to the island under the October sunshine, the wind blowing across my skin. I’d look beautiful, and he’d kiss me, and we’d arrive with rosy cheeks and the clinging smell of sea salt. But at Hyannisport he bought tickets for the fast ferry—the one with no outdoor seating. I wanted to grab his sleeve and say, “Oh, let’s take the slow ferry!” and have him understand and agree with my vision, but I stopped myself—how childish, I thought. I was humiliated by the part of me that made up girlish visions. It was the same part that had memorized maudlin Tennyson poems all throughout high school and then recited them to my friends in their basements on Saturday nights when other teenagers were dating. Mortifying. I wanted to be completely done with it.
The slow ferry was $14.00; the fast ferry, $27.50. That alone would have justified the slow ferry in my mind. As John took bills from his money clip and traded them for the tickets, I looked away—I never watched when he bought things. I leaned against the wall, stretching myself out casually, sexily even, I thought. I wanted to stand the way I thought a woman would stand.
I had already checked three times, but I unzipped my handbag to check again for the little peach disk with birth control pills inside. It was where it was supposed to be, tucked in with my lipstick in the inner pocket.
Back in August, at the end of my summer vacation in Utah, my mother had taken me to the dermatologist, who had given me the birth control prescription. Every time I was home she took me on rounds, to the salon to get highlights in my blonde hair, to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned and whitened, to the dermatologist for “a little something.” Actually, it wasn’t until John pointed it out later that I really started to consider the strangeness in my mother’s spending. Since my parents’ divorce we’d always been a family who took things out of our grocery cart after ringing them up because the cheese or strawberries brought the total to more than we had, but at the same time we’d all had braces, and my mom always found money for a tanning pass.
She’d been sitting in the exam room with me flipping through Salt Lake Magazine when the dermatologist said lots of his patients found birth control did great things for their skin. “How do you feel about trying it, Brooke?” the doctor asked me. My mother casually turned another page, not looking up.
“Sure,” I’d said, shrugging, as if to say, Well, if it’s good for my skin.... But even before I nodded, even before the doctor fully said it, from the first moment I began to grasp what he was going to say, I knew, instantly and completely, that I was going to sleep with John Standick. Devout Little Me was going to throw everything away on him.
I might, after all, marry him, I said to myself every time I thought of sleeping with him, and tried hard to believe it. I pictured us with waffles in bed in a sunny city apartment, or myself alone digging in flowerbeds and looking up from under the brim of my hat to see him walk through our garden gate. Everything might be OK if I married him. The stirrings of my hormones still disgusted me a little. In high school I’d hoped to be like Joan of Arc, above it all, and even though it was a relief not to be, I cringed just a bit when I thought about his hands, my lips. When we were together I sometimes felt a small, dull ache of disgust for myself, for both of us. At the same time, how wonderfully my stomach fluttered when his fingers touched my waist.
Despite the fact that we’d talked about what I’d been embarrassed to hear myself refer to in unexpected church-speak as “my standards,” we’d been moving closer and closer to sex since I’d gotten back from summer vacation, to the point where I had panicky thoughts that I would wind up pregnant. Such things happen, as my mother had told me years before—“Christine Hamblin kicked her husband out, but he came back and she let him into the bedroom. She didn’t even take her underwear off, but she got pregnant again, and so she had to stay with him.”
Maybe the Utah pills didn’t mean John and I would have Massachusetts sex. But they did mean I could end my irrational worrying. As the doctor wrote the prescription I looked over at my mother. I hoped she fully believed John and I were chaste companions and that I was still the daughter I’d been when I’d left suburban Utah for college a year earlier. A big part of me wished that too, even though I couldn’t seem to stop myself from hurtling away. I wanted her to look up so we could exchange a glance that acknowledged the good humor of pure and faithful me taking birth control, but she didn’t. She only raised her eyebrows a little, as if she’d just read something interesting, then arranged her expression again, her eyes fixed on the page.
On the ferry dock I watched John’s pretty profile as he put his money clip back in his jacket pocket, his hand disappearing, then reappearing to reach for mine. Every step I took was a little step of consent. If I hadn’t wanted it, I should have stayed back in Cambridge; I should have said no in Utah to the prescription; I should have said no in my dorm the first time John’s hands slipped under my clothing. Walking with him toward the ferry, my fingers helplessly tingled their way to numbness, but I kept my hand in his and tried to mimic his carefree stride as I took step after step.
On the ferry John led us to a seat near the forward windows. “Your first ferry ride! Are you excited?”
“Very,” I said. The feeling began to come back into my fingers.
“Here, you’ll be able to see everything from here,” he said. He had a way of tending to me. His voice would get creamy. He would touch me softly, pettishly. He wanted to take care of me, he had even said it aloud. Late after his dorm’s formal in the spring, we’d been walking up the steps to his entryway, my bare arm draped through his tuxedoed one. He’d been tipsy, but I was the one who’d stumbled, the toe of my shoe just missing one of the steps. I’d caught myself with my hands, but not before bloodying my knee. He’d wanted to carry me inside. I wouldn’t let him—“I’m not that small,” I’d protested, and then he’d pulled me close, the faint exotic smell of wine in his voice as he said seriously, “I want to take care of you, Brooke. I mean it.” I felt limp in the face of this vision of our relationship, a little thrill of power at my ability to elicit the reaction but uneasy underneath. I could never say exactly why, even though I felt like I knew somehow, like it was a word on the tip of my tongue. Perhaps it was just that I knew I was too mean, or maybe even thought myself too mannish. On the ferry, though, I let his hand on my back lead me to our seats.
It was Thursday mid-day—we’d taken off just after class—and even though the ferry was almost empty he still leaned over to whisper when he said, “Who would have guessed we’d be running away for weekends together?” His breath felt warm and wet. When he pulled away, my ear felt suddenly cold, and for a wild second I wanted him to whisper in my ear forever so that I’d never again feel anything but his warm, wet breath.
“I love being here for all these firsts with you,” he said as the ferry began to push through the water. The soothing vibration of his low voice passed into my body.
I had first seen John Standick in The Inquirer and Mirror: Nantucket’s Newspaper since 1821, in 1995 when I was 15. From our little Utah suburb my mom had taken out subscriptions to the Inquirer and Mirror, the Vineyard Gazette, the Cape Cod Times, and the Concord Journal, all with the idea of scouting out an east coast job managing a bed-and-breakfast.
Since my parents’ divorce she’d needed a job but hadn’t ever found one that suited her. Part of the problem was that she didn’t really want a job. All of her friends were full-time moms; did being divorced mean her children deserved any less? She was sure it did not. Taking in ironing hadn’t been as lucrative as she’d hoped, and the hairnets, pink apron coats, and lazy-eyed, overweight coworkers involved in being a lunch lady had been too humiliating. Those days she was also cleaning houses, her knees hurting every night after the day’s scrubbing and scraping. The bed-and-breakfast idea seemed like the perfect escape. She managed our household of six well enough. What other experience could she need?
The Nantucket newspaper was my favorite from the start. I could see us there. We’d live in a white, three-story house with green shutters and a view of the ocean. We’d grow daffodils. They’d come up just in time for the Daffodil Festival each April—I’d read about it in the paper, and it sounded lovely. I would buy bread at the market and carry it home in a basket. My mom said she could imagine being the mayor of Nantucket someday. Before she’d dropped out of college to marry my dad she’d had a real thing for political science. We had some concerns, of course. We’d have to take the ferry to church, and the schools were small. But all in all, Nantucket was the place. We could just feel it—a little breathless frenzy when we thought about it that just had to mean something.
The day I first came across John’s picture in the Nantucket newspaper, I was walking home from school when our rusty station wagon pulled up to the stoplight ahead. I heard it as much as I saw it, the worn-out brakes yowling as my mom slowed to a stop. She smiled and waved cheerily, her thin wrist flickering back and forth, her curly hair bouncing as she jokingly tipped her head to the side. I waved back half-heartedly. Through the car windows light glinted off our vacuum cleaner. Rags and spray bottles filled with pink and blue liquids lay all around it.
“Hey Mom,” I said, dropping my backpack onto the floor of the car with the heaviest thud I could manage.
“Hey, beautiful.” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Brooke, I’m so sorry I’m late. Your heavy bag!”
I leafed through the mail piled on the seat between us as my mom and I drove off for the round of pick-ups to come, first my brother at the junior high, then my sister and other brother at the elementary school. The black and white German-bible-looking script of the Inquirer and Mirror was followed by a big newsprint headline: “Nantucket High School Graduates 33.” A little article followed with pictures of each senior, captioned with name, activities, and future college. I began to scan the Nantucket paper like I sometimes did my mother’s old yearbooks, looking for the prettiest girl, the best-looking boy, the biggest jerk, the loneliest person.
My mom interrupted me partway through the first line of photos. “How much homework do you have tonight?” she said, turning the corner and pulling onto the side street to wait for my brother.
I knew what she was getting at, but I was going to make her ask me outright. “Tons,” I said.
I should have cheerfully volunteered to help her, but I didn’t want to help. I tried to talk myself into having pride about being poor—hard knocks, humble beginnings, etc. etc. But none of it helped the shame that bubbled up every time I thought of cleaning a house that might belong to someone from school. They’d see our car outside. They’d see me carrying in the vacuum. There I would be with a bucket and rags. There’d be no getting over that.
We drove a few more blocks before she finally said entreatingly, “I have a new house I need to clean by tomorrow so the owners can move in. If we all help it’ll go so fast.”
“Fine,” I said, not meeting her eyes. At least the house would be an empty one.
Once we picked up the other kids, instead of driving down the hill toward our two-bedroom box of a house tucked in next to the Quik-E-Lube on Main Street (the triple bunk my brothers shared in one room; the triple bunk my little sister Heidi, my mom and I shared in the other), we turned and went up the hill toward the big houses. Our station wagon could barely chug its way up the incline. Car after car pulled around and passed us.
We finally stopped at the house, parking on the street instead of in the long driveway—we’d learned our lesson after having to scrub an oil leak off a new house’s driveway. Giant windows on the ground floor looked out at the sprawling houses across the street. As we unloaded the supplies onto the grass, I moved stiffly under the potential gaze of eyes everywhere. I folded the picture page of the Nantucket paper and stuck it in my back pocket, then pushed the vacuum up the driveway.
Once inside, I vacuumed the vast first floor, starting with the family room and kitchen eating-area where my mom and little sister were working, then moving to the foyer and living room. I was careful not to knock up against the built-in bookshelves. On the second floor I began the bedrooms. And then, there it was. The room I knew would be mine if this were our house.
It was next to the master bedroom, with a big window, complete with a window seat, looking out on the Great Salt Lake to the west. It was sunset, and the flaming, rose-colored sun was plunging into the gilded surface of the water. The sky, so easily visible from the huge window, glowed with pink all the way from the lake to the mountains. I looked until my eyes hurt, and when I looked away the after-effect—a blue ball the size and shape of the sun with waves around the edges that looked like flower petals—shone on all the pale walls of the room. I left the vacuum cleaner running so it would seem like I was still working and sat on the window seat, tucking my legs up under me. Then I took the folded-up page of the Inquirer and Mirror from my back pocket. On Nantucket I would sit in a window seat every day. I would do all my homework looking out over the sun setting on the ocean. I would fall asleep at night with a book in my hand, the moon shining in on me, and my mom would come in and cover me with a quilt. I scanned the pictures again.
Sandra Freedon, second row, left, the clear beauty contest champ. Wavy brown hair, straight, delicate features, ivory skin. Sandra Freedon’s activities: cross country. Of course. Pretty skinny girls always signed up for cross country. College: UMass Amherst.
Jenny Marsden third row, center, she would have been my friend. A cute brown bob and a round jaw, her nose just a little wide. Pearl earrings. Salutatorian. Activities: orchestra, ornithology club, fencing. If we lived on Nantucket I would join the ornithology club. I would join the fencing team. College: Stanford. Maybe I would go to Stanford.
And then I came to him, there with the vacuum running and the pink sun setting on me in my window seat. John Standick. Bottom row. Alphabetically, my name and picture would have been next to his. Shepherd, then Standick. Valedictorian. Activites: choir, newspaper editor, sailing club, tennis. College: Harvard. In the picture he wasn’t beaming; instead, his lips just barely curved—I thought the words, a knowing smile, and imitated his face with mine. There was something old-fashioned about him. His square jaw. His big blue eyes. His vaguely feminine cheekbones. His blonde hair’s sculptured wave.
As we drove home that night after finishing the house, the full moon rose over the mountains and I thought of John Standick. I would be valedictorian. I would be editor of my high school’s newspaper. If we moved to Nantucket I would pass him on the beach and we’d exchange knowing smiles.
It turned out that he worked for the Nantucket newspaper that summer, and I read every single one of his weekly columns on the “Nantucket Life” page. He was from New York, I learned, an only child, and hadn’t moved to Nantucket full-time until he was 16, after his parents’ divorce, when his mom turned their vacation house into a year-round residence—all information gleaned from his June 10th column, “In Season.” I also learned that he loved bright painted walls (June 24th, “Covering Your Mistakes”), that he loved the Nantucket kite contest (July 7th, “Kite Tale”), that he taught sailing to kids and worried that they’d drown even though he was a certified life guard (July 30th, “Cut Your Sails”), and that he really didn’t like dogs (August 18th, “The High Road”). My parents were also divorced! I also liked bright colors! I also liked kites! I was terrified of dogs! I gripped each of our similarities like a tether. I never mentioned John Standick to anyone, not even my mother. I hardly let myself think of him, really, because it was foolishness, all foolishness. But there he was in the Nantucket newspaper—I'd see his face as I fell asleep.
By the time I started my junior year that fall we’d stopped talking about Nantucket. “The problem is that if you manage a bed-and-breakfast you have to be there all the time,” my mom said. I agreed, saying, “It wouldn’t have been what we’d wanted.” We let our subscriptions to the papers lapse. For a couple of months my mom didn’t feel like doing much of anything. We started getting dinner from the grocery store deli almost every night—jalapeno poppers and pizza pockets. My mom agreed to let a friend set her up—it would have been her first date since my parents divorced. The man never called. We started ordering cheap home-delivery pizza. I studied, I sang, I wound up as the editor for my own school paper. The next fall I applied to college. Harvard. All I said when anyone asked why I’d want to go so far from home was why not?
John draped his arm over me for most of the ferry ride. I nestled my head into his shoulder, peacefully breathing in the clean smell of him. I’d spent so much time imagining my picture next to his in the Nantucket paper and had thought it would be an unfortunate pairing, but I’d changed myself in little ways that made me prettier. I’d started wearing heels and slim, stylish skirts I bought in little Harvard Square shops, I’d done away with barrettes, and I’d begun wearing makeup. Looking at me now, I was almost sure no one would have guessed I was from Utah. I imagined people on the ferry noticing us and thinking, Ah, a lovely Nantucket couple, and anytime I caught someone looking at us I smiled just a little.
My first months at Harvard I’d thought I might see him, that John Standick could be anywhere. I wondered if I’d recognize him. I played out sitting down at the same table with him at the library, catching his eye, smiling ever so slightly then looking away. Beyond that, who knew? I looked him up in the student directory—this was before Facebook—and found out he lived in Winthrop House. Some nights I walked by and looked in the windows of the dining hall there, but I never saw him through the glass and I never dared to go in to look for him. What would I say? I know you from the Nantucket newspaper?
I’d been hesitant about almost everything in my first months at school. The upperclassmen sitting at the tables in the activities fair had seemed like zealous missionaries, and I’d hurried past them. As a result, by the time October rolled around I realized I had nothing but school work, my 15-hour-a-week filing and copying job, the kids I’d met at church and tried to otherwise avoid—I hadn’t come to Harvard to recreate my Utah life, after all—and my tenuous acquaintances with the partying kids in my dorm who’d been smart but not cool in high school and who now longed for new roles, holding beers and swaying in the dark every night. I found the whole thing laughable and disappointing.
Whenever my mom called she would ask excitedly, “How is it? It must be amazing.” I’d describe things, the scenes in the stained-glass windows in the dining hall, the professors who wore bow ties, and she’d say, “Oh I wish I could see them!” But under the happiness and excitement I heard the little rip of longing and anger, the same voice I’d heard late at night from her bunk below mine when she’d say, “Don’t ever let yourself get trapped.” I told her less and less each call.
When the new semester began in February, I finally auditioned for a choir and signed up for a volunteer tutoring program. There were lots of singing groups on campus, but I chose U Choir because we got paid to sing for services in Memorial Church—a few hundred dollars a term. It did occur to me that John Standick might be in U Choir, but I couldn’t find a list of choir members online and I wasn’t about to ask anyone.
When I looked around the choir on the first day of rehearsal and didn’t see him I felt a soft melting of relief. I hated admitting to myself that I still thought about him, and since he wasn’t there I didn’t have to. But just after rehearsal began he came through the door and hurriedly took his place in the baritone section across the choir from me. My stomach leapt. His hair was longer, but he was the same. The real John Standick. How could I be in the same room with him? I felt my body turn hot and my cheeks blush. I watched his shoulders and his long pretty fingers as he wrestled off his pea coat. When he looked up, his blue eyes shone out above his blue collared shirt.
Since John was a baritone and I was a second soprano, we faced each other on opposite sides of the choir, and for six weeks I pretended not to know his face. When I felt myself wanting to gaze I closed my eyes and counted to five. But it ended in March. I’d been looking at him, the curve of his cheekbones, the way he sat straight with such ease, and he’d caught me looking and smiled. He said “Hey” on the way into choir the next rehearsal. I replayed the moment for days. The next Sunday as I was putting my music away after services he said, “Brooke, want to grab some brunch in Winthrop House?”
John Standick knew my name? But the choir was small—of course he did. Still, hearing him say “Brooke” gave me the same rush I remembered from high school awards ceremonies—a flush of joy at the sound of my name, followed by a slight illness—an awareness that I cared too much, and that the joy could just as easily have been devastation. “Sure,” I said.
We had brunch again the next week, and the week after that. I skipped my own church services, which I’d been going to after Memorial Church, to spend Sunday afternoons with him. How could I have done anything else? He was John Standick, and I felt the weight of destiny behind every second I spent with him. I told him more stories about home, playing up the elements he seemed to like the most. “My mom puts up decals on our windows for every holiday, little leprechauns, rabbits, eggs. Harry, the mechanic at Quick-E-Lube looks up at me in my bedroom window and salutes. When my grandma comes to church with us she tries to single-handedly speed up hymns, singing her loudest a full beat ahead of the organ.”
He couldn’t get enough. “You know, all that’s why you’re not bitchy,” he said. “So many girls are so bitchy.”
We started having dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays after rehearsals, and I finally admitted to the Nantucket newspaper subscription, emphasizing all the papers we’d once subscribed to, and saying that I thought I recognized his name and must have read one or two of his articles. For a quick second he was silent, almost dazed. His face fell blank, as if he were considering something. But then he laughed, “Oh my god, that’s hilarious. I can’t believe you read those things!” He demanded reciprocity, and we walked to my dorm after dinner so I could dig out old copies of the columns I’d written for my high school paper. I sat in my chair reading gems from “Uncommonly Good Times in the New Commons Area” and “Why School Lunch Rocks” while he sat on my bed laughing. When I put the file down, he reached for my hand, then without waiting he got up, pulled me to him, and covered my lips with his mouth. The slickness of the saliva sent a little ripple of repulsion through me, but I opened my mouth to his and kissed him back as if nothing had ever felt better—maybe nothing had ever felt better.
On the ferry our breathing fell into unison as we watched the grey ocean pass outside the windows. When the ferry finally began to slow, John squeezed my waist. “Here we go,” he said. I wondered if my feelings would leap at seeing the island—some visceral response seemed necessary. But as the ferry pulled into to the harbor I looked placidly out the window, and nothing in me leaped. I was about to walk onto Nantucket with John Standick’s hand on my back, but, I thought, with a feeling too quiet to be a real pang, here I am, still me.
My mother, back home in Utah, knew I was dating a boy named John, but she didn’t know he was from Nantucket. She had never known about John Standick. I stopped myself from storing away descriptions of this Nantucket scene, since I knew I didn’t want to tell her I had been here. If she knew, she’d smile and gasp. “I want to hear everything!” she’d say. But she would hold her smile too long, and I would see the strain. I would know her desperation. I took John’s hand, and we stepped out into the afternoon breeze.
John had told me his mother was away in New York so we’d have to place to ourselves. I’d said it was too bad I wouldn’t get to meet her and feigned innocence toward the other implications. Since coming back to school we’d spent night after night together in his twin bed, kissing and touching. He always fell asleep before I did, and sometimes I cried quietly, feeling his body so warm and oblivious next to mine. But it would be different here. It had to be.
As we walked across the cobblestone square and over the brick sidewalks of town, the cool breeze turned John’s cheeks an attractive pink. I was never so lucky; in the cold my nose, not my cheeks, turned red. How much I wanted the kind of rosiness he had. “I would have had Katie pick us up,” John said as we walked up a steep hill, “but I thought we’d enjoy the walk.”
“Katie?” I asked.
“Oh, I thought I’d mentioned her. She keeps our house. She does other errands for us too. She lives in town.”
He had never mentioned Katie. He must have known, after all my stories of house cleaning, how it would bother me. Of course there was a woman who cleaned his house. How could I have ever thought there was not? I was glad she hadn’t come to pick us up. She probably would have pulled up in a rusty station wagon.
“Oh,” was all I said.
After another twenty minutes of walking he finally pointed and said, “There it is.” The house, a modern-looking two-story, overlooked the beach at the point on the end of Bathing Beauty Road. Panes of glass in front looked out at the other houses, the giant garden and, tucked in elegantly among the bushes, the swimming pool. Clouds had blown in and the air had gotten colder. I wondered if any of the neighbors saw us as we hurried to the end of the long driveway. I thought of my hair in the wind, my hand in John’s, and hoped then, in fact, that someone was looking.
Inside, we put our bags down and he led me around the ground floor, three bedrooms, all guest rooms, and the laundry room, with two washers and two dryers. Then up the stairs to the main level, which held the kitchen, a huge room with big windows facing the beach, and his bedroom down a short hallway, his childhood trophies and awards lined up on shelves above his little bed. His mother’s bedroom and bathroom were up another set of stairs, all by themselves on a small third floor you couldn’t see from the street.
I pulled a framed photo of him from the built-in bookshelf along one wall of the living room. “Look at this. You’re adorable!” I said. He must have been fourteen or so in the picture, younger than I’d ever seen him, standing on the beach with his arm thrown around the shoulder of one of his friends, kites at their feet. His face was just as it was now, only softer. A wish that I had known him then, that I could have been the other boy in the picture, or just that I could have been John instead of Brooke caught in my throat in a sudden lump of tears. I put the picture down and pulled him toward me.
The sun set out the western windows, coating the water with gold. I was hungry—we hadn’t eaten since lunch—but it didn’t matter. We were on the couch, and we only looked up long enough as if to say, Lovely, yes, gorgeous sunset, before returning to each other, our hands pressing into one another’s skin, his shirt coming off first, then mine. Once the pink light had turned grey and the color of everything in the room was fading into black he pulled me up so we were sitting, his hands sliding from my lower back to the band of my pants, then further down. When I took my hands from his back, where I usually safely kept them, and began to move them down below his waist, I felt like I was watching myself in a movie. He pulled his face away and looked at me, surprised and questioning. For a moment I was afraid he would stop us, but I looked eagerly back, and we tumbled on.
After another few minutes he pulled us up so we were standing. Still kissing him, I began to move us toward his bedroom. He took his lips from mine long enough to say, “Let’s go upstairs. It’s nicer.” Had I been myself I would have said, To your mother’s room? But I wasn’t myself, and I kissed him as he pulled me up the stairs, step after step.
The clouds outside had broken, and the moon poured through the huge skylight and the bank of beach-facing windows in his mother’s room, coating both of us with a blue glow. He sat on the bed and pulled me to him. I didn’t dare take my face from his to look at our bodies. I feverishly kissed him. We went on and on. I wasn’t sure what, but I was proving something, and even though I could feel the dark stirrings of regret already, I put my leg over him and pulled him to me.
“Should I get a condom?” he whispered.
The word sounded so ugly. I felt a weight behind my eyes—tears would come if I didn’t stop them. “I’m on birth control,” I whispered back.
He looked at me for a moment, a hint of a knowing smile in his eyes, then pushed his face against mine again and moved closer still. Then he suddenly pulled away from me. “What’s that?” he said, sitting up quickly.
“What’s what?” I felt cold without his body against mine, panicky even.
He pulled his boxers on. “I think it was a car in the driveway.” He hurried onto the stairs to look out the front windows. “It must be Katie.”
I curled up on top of the sheet as he ran down the stairs. When he turned on the light below, a small glow reflected off the walls up into the room. He must have thrown my shirt somewhere and slipped quickly back into his own thrown-off pants and shirt. I heard the front door open and the shuffling of shoes on the tile floor.
“Katie, hey!” he said, projecting his voice down to the foyer below.
“John honey, hello!” Her voice sounded older than I had expected, gravel in her throat. Why had I thought she would be younger, my mother’s age?
“I’m just here for the weekend,” he said. “With Brooke.”
As I heard my name my chest rattled. Katie knew my name?
“Your mom told me you might be coming down.” Katie’s voice grew louder as she climbed the steps to the main floor of the house. “Is Brooke here? I’d love to meet her.”
I slipped under the covers of the bed and stared at the moon through the windows. I wanted to disappear beneath the sheets.
“I think she’s still napping,” John said, “but let me go see.”
“I don’t want to stay long,” she said. “I just came by to pick up my wallet. I was mopping the floors and must have left it lying around somewhere.”
I heard him coming up the stairs and sat up stiffly in bed. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Do you mind meeting Katie?”
“I’m not wearing any clothes,” I said.
“I grabbed your bra.” He held it out for me to take from his hand. I didn’t move.
“Did Katie see you grab it?”
“I threw it on the stairs before she came in. I didn’t see your shirt.” I finally took the bra from his hand.
“Here,” he said, pulling a white tank top from one of his mother’s drawers, “put this on.”
“Does Katie do the laundry? Is she going to know this is your mother’s shirt?”
“It’s just a shirt. You could have one just like it.”
I climbed out of the bed and took my underwear and pants from the floor, then pulled on his mother’s shirt. It smelled like perfumed drawer-liners.
“If you want I can tell her you’re still sleeping,” he said.
But I knew it was too late. I wiped the mascara from under my eyes and ran my fingers through my hair. “Isn’t she going to think it’s weird that I was sleeping in your mom’s room?”
“It’s just Katie,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
I didn’t let my face show the wincing I felt. I walked down behind him as if I were automated. On the last steps, I saw her there in the kitchen, filling three glasses with water from a bottle. She looked up, her curly brown hair, grey at the roots, moving around her heavy round face. I put on my best smile.
“So you’re Brooke,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. I would have shaken her hand, but she didn’t put it out, and I wasn’t sure that was the thing to do. Instead I put my hand up in a little wave. I stood far enough away that she wouldn’t be able to smell the shirt.
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you,” she said. She handed both of us glasses of water, and I saw the age spots on her hands. I drank the water and tried not to look her up and down but noticed the way her heavy eyelids hooded her small eyes, the way her fat cheeks pulled down at her mouth, creating deep lines where she smiled. The lines around my mother’s mouth were still only small traces of wrinkles. I noticed Katie’s eyes flick up and down my body once, a quick appraisal. I wondered what she’d tell John’s mother.
“Did you kids pick up anything for dinner?” she asked.
“No,” John said, leaning comfortably against the cupboard. I stood stiffly in the open room.
Katie opened the fridge. “I brought a few things over this afternoon, just in case you wanted them. I can cook something up if you want. I picked up some of that pizza dough you love and there’s cheese and sauce and some sausage and veggies.”
I drank more water, glad for the real feeling of the cool water when everything else felt unreal, like a scene from a play, me trying to act the part of the girlfriend who belongs in a beach house.
“No,” John said. “We can manage. Thanks for getting all that stuff, though.”
Katie closed the fridge door. “Sure, sure,” she said, smiling, the lines around her mouth looking even deeper. “Is this your first time on Nantucket?” she said to me.
I nodded and said my line: “It’s beautiful.”
“I hope John shows you all around tomorrow.” She patted his shoulder.
“More water?” she said, putting out her hand to take my glass.
“Sure, I can get it, though.” As I passed her on my way to the faucet I was sure she could smell the perfume from the drawer. Both she and John watched me fill my glass. Then we all stood in the kitchen looking at one another for a moment before Katie said, “I really ought to be getting back home.”
“Good to see you, Katie,” John said.
I sipped more water and looked at John, not Katie, as she went down the stairs, but even in my peripheral vision, I could see that she went too slowly, favoring one knee. At the front door she turned and said, “Bye,” her thick wrist flickering back and forth in a wave. I waved back. And then she was gone, and it was just the two of us again.
John took the glass from my hand and set it on the counter, spilling water. Neither of us moved to wipe it up. Then he reached his arm around my waist, under his mother’s shirt, and began kissing me as if nothing had interrupted us. I pulled him to the couch.
In elementary school my friends and I had a game called Red Rose Garden. With our fingernails we’d scratch at the insides of one another’s forearms—first you rake the soil. Then we’d pinch—then you plant the seeds. We’d poke—then the rain comes. Slap—then the sun beats down. And then we’d reveal the red lines of roses. In shows of bravado for the other girls I’d let them scratch my arms so hard that little pinpoints of blood blossomed in sweet, straight rows. There was no one to see my toughness now, but in a show for myself I pushed into the raking, the planting, full of want for the remembered pain that sprang up in familiar crimson lines. When we were finally still, John brushed his hand softly over my hair, each gentle stroke pushing me further into loneliness. I just held still—was I even breathing?—waiting for him to tire of it.
When John was asleep, I stood up and went to the bathroom. Closing the door behind me, I turned on the light and looked at my face in the vanity. I watched myself begin to cry, then turned away and opened the shower door. It was perfectly clean, not a water streak to be seen. Katie must have cleaned it that afternoon. I stepped inside the shiny marble shower and turned the spot-free silvery knob. Looking up into the falling water, I was glad for its hot sting.
I wondered how soon I could tell John I wanted to leave. But what would I say? What could I even say to myself? I’d wanted this. A thousand moments of decision, and I had made them all. What was the point of denying it? Of course John and I wouldn’t leave in the morning; we wouldn’t leave until Sunday, as we’d planned all along. But I’d seen the ferry schedule in the Nantucket newspaper enough times in high school to know it by heart, and I thought of 5:50 a.m., and then 7:10, with an ache now, something like nostalgia. I’d dreamed about being here, and they’d been clean, easy dreams. But in my dreams I’d been here with my mother.
I stopped crying, but still, there in the shower, for one last moment before I extinguished the vision, I imagined myself hurrying to the ferry alone in the dark of early morning, when none of the neighbors would see me with my bag slung over my shoulder. It was a silly, Tennyson-maiden picture of flight—and, anyway, it was too late for me to run. I turned my face up into the water and burned away the thought. I was staying, I knew.
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