WE WERE THERE
AND NOW WE'RE HERE
My best friend Camilla married our high school English teacher. By the time that this happened, however, he was no longer our teacher and Camilla and I were no longer best friends. In fact, we had not seen or spoken to each other for twenty years. Her marriage, therefore, became the story I would tell whenever people were telling stories about lives stranger than their own. Such stories are collected and passed around like coins; the most impressive ones have been worn down and circulated for so long that by the time they reach you they are scarcely more than ideas of stories: Someone once told me that they knew someone whose hair turned completely white in one day, from shock. That was an idea of a story that someone told me once. I used to tell other people’s stories as if they were my own: I would omit the “someone told me” part and skip straight to “I know someone who....” And after a while I truly believed I knew the person of whom I spoke, and would have argued bitterly with anyone who claimed the story wasn’t mine.
She was forty-one and he was seventy-three. There was no big wedding; it was a second marriage for both of them; in fact, the whole thing seemed to have been done very quietly. Not that I am any kind of authority on the subject. I only learned about their matrimony through a mutual acquaintance. This mutual acquaintance’s name is Peter Schneider, but do not think, just because he is the only person in this story to whom I will consistently refer by both his first and last name, that his character is somehow the most important. I refer to him this way for precisely the opposite reason: because he is one of those peripheral and semi-forgotten acquaintances about whom, under different circumstances, Camilla and I would laugh and say “It’s so strange that he still exists!” or something equally solipsistic, if his name were to ever surface in conversation. We had never thought of him as anything but Peter Schneider. If one of us were to mention a person named “Peter,” the other one almost definitely would have said “Who?”
That is, at least, the way our conversations used to go whenever Camilla and I were reunited on vacations from our separate colleges. We would sit, almost formally, in the kitchen of her parents’ house, drinking tea and reminiscing about our high school experience. Our high school experience, at this point, already seemed ancient enough to merit this kind of treatment, and we had already drifted far enough apart from each other, besides, that there was no longer much else for us to comfortably talk about. We never acknowledged this, but we both seemed to accept it. It was as if our friendship had been seized and placed in a museum—we could no longer touch it, but at least it was safe.
Circumstances being what they are now, however, I no longer know what Camilla and I would talk about. Perhaps the name “Peter” means something now that it didn’t, before—perhaps she has become closer to Peter Schneider than I thought, or perhaps she has met other Peters, real ones, who move and exist in the world outside the glass case of our friendship. It is entirely possible that if Camilla and I met now, we would not like each other. There is also the question of whether or not we ever did.
But Peter Schneider, it seems, was never informed of these circumstances. The point of his phone call had not been to tell me about Camilla’s marriage—he seemed to assume that I had already been told, which was not, I suppose, a totally unreasonable assumption since the marriage, at that point, was already two years old and Camilla had been living with Mr. Avery in New York all that time. She might have called me. We had, after all, been best friends—practically Siamese twins for four years of our lives. But the fact is, I had not known; I had still believed her to be in France.
“I was just thinking of you,” Peter Schneider called to say, “because I received a lovely Christmas card from Camilla this morning. We really must all get together the next time I’m in the city—it’s been such a long time, I haven’t even met her new husband.” This was a typical Peter Schneider maneuver: calling me because he got a card from Camilla. “Of course, he’s not so new to you,” he went on. “Were you surprised when you heard? He was your teacher, too, wasn’t he?”
Although I was surprised—shocked, even—the thought of admitting this to Peter Schneider was somehow embarrassing. At the moment, I felt to do so would be almost impolite. I also got the strange impression from what Peter Schneider said that Camilla might have led him to believe that she and I still knew each other. Why she would do such a thing, I don’t know, but as I nodded along with Peter Schneider on the phone I had the feeling of going along with some silent conspiracy, some childish agreement to cover something up. “Oh yes,” I murmured vaguely. “I was very surprised.” And then, purely rhetorically, for Peter Schneider’s benefit: “I should call Camilla. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
After I hung up, I went back to the living room where my husband and our guests were having drinks before dinner. My husband is a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, and the guests, Pauline and Carlos, were a couple of musician friends of his. “I just found out the strangest thing,” I said, from the doorway.
“What is it?” They all said. “Come, sit down, tell us.”
I sat down next to my husband on the sofa, and told them the whole story, but it didn’t come out right. “My best friend Camilla from high school married our high school English teacher,” was probably what I said. “She’s my age, and he must be seventy-five by now. I think she always had a thing for older men.”
They were intrigued by this, briefly, but quickly got over it. Pauline said that someone she knew from high school had been murdered. After that I couldn’t figure out how to explain my story further—what made it so strange, and my strange sense of guilt that came with it. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to share it right away; I should have let it age first, in a dark place, like wine, and saved it to present on a special occasion.
Camilla was new to my school in ninth grade. It was a certain all-girls’ private school on the Upper East Side, which I had been miserably attending for as long as I could remember. I was the only girl there who lived on the West Side, and no one was ever allowed to ride the cross-town bus to visit me. My address, 97th Street and Riverside Drive, was considered “Harlem” by most of my classmates’ parents (many of whom had probably never ventured north of 96th Street), which meant unimaginable, dangerous, forbidden. This gave me an undeserved air of mystery, which I enjoyed, and although some of the more charitable girls would sometimes invite me over to their houses, I hated them anyway and would usually decline. Therefore, until Camilla, I did not have any close friends—bosom buddies, as Camilla would later put it, not because that was a popular term in 1959, but because she had read it somewhere and thought it was funny.
I had wanted to be like Camilla as soon as I saw her. I loved the way she looked—like someone older, from a movie—and the way she didn’t seem to care what anyone else at school thought of anything. At first I couldn’t see why she had chosen me to be her friend. Then I realized that we already had some things in common: our complete unconsciousness of current slang or fads, for example, and our real or feigned uninterest in talking to anyone at our school. These were things about myself that had always embarrassed me, things that I used to hope would one day magically change. But while my oblivion and friendlessness were beyond my control, it was obvious that Camilla had deliberately chosen hers. She had ignored Elvis in favor of Frank Sinatra, classical music and French songs that I had not even known existed, whereas my own unfamiliarity with popular music was inexcusable—just a blank. She wore her long, straight, blond hair differently from the other girls at our school, not because her hair was wild and simply wouldn’t do what theirs did, but because, in her opinion, their pin curls looked stupid. And although she lived in a brownstone on Fifth Avenue—a perfectly acceptable location as far as our classmates’ parents were concerned—she hated the Upper East Side as much as I did, and didn’t mind the short walk or bus ride through the park to where I lived.
Her parents, luckily, didn’t seem to mind it, either—her father was a busy surgeon, specializing in the knee, and her mother always seemed to be on vacation in the South of France. I met them only a few times over the years that I knew Camilla, and each time they had had to be reminded of who I was. To my parents, on the other hand, Camilla quickly became a welcome fixture at the kitchen table. She was visibly in awe of my psychiatrist father and my embarrassing, paint-splattered artist mother, whose paintings of nude models had scandalized the few other girls my age who had ever set foot in my house. Flattered, perhaps, by Camilla’s admiration, my mother once offered to paint her there, at the table, and Camilla in her school uniform had held perfectly still, with a book open in front of her, pretending to read. My mother captured the pale angles of her nose and elbows perfectly, but the painting, I thought secretly, was not very good. Irrationally, I even took it as a bit of an insult. The girl in the painting was tall and blonde, as Camilla was, but without any of Camilla’s innate elegance to keep her from appearing gawky. “She’s a pretty girl,” my mother said carelessly, admiring her own work—it was as simple as that, as far as she was concerned. There was no point in arguing with her, no way to make her understand that every movement of Camilla’s was somehow classic and deliberate—that even her name, to me, seemed to evoke her chosen aesthetic: a soft, exclusive blend of camel’s hair, chamomile, vanilla milkshakes, millionaires, that emanated from her presence like a signature perfume.
Being in love with Mr. Avery, like everything else, had been Camilla’s idea first. “Look at the way he smiles when he reads Wordsworth,” she instructed me. “Listen to the way he says fortnight.” We were both in his English class sophomore year, and from my front-row seat next to her I looked, I listened, obediently, keeping a well-trained eye out for whatever charms she saw in him. At first I was skeptical; Camilla had, on certain occasions, pretended to like something tasteless or embarrassing just to trick me, just to see how far I was willing to follow her. I preferred to think of these occasions, when I thought of them at all, not as cases of Camilla’s occasional meanness but as tests of faith, of loyalty—shouldn’t I trust and respect my best friend more than to believe, even for a second, that she would actually consider buying the shade of lipstick called “Snow Balls of Fire”? Shouldn’t bosom buddies know each other better than that? I knew Camilla so well that I was seldom fooled.
But the reason that her attraction to Mr. Avery was hard for me to believe in, at first, had nothing to do with any possible vulgarity on his part. He was a wonderful teacher, one of the most popular in the school. I even knew of a few other girls who had crushes on him—but that meant nothing, really, except that it is necessary to have a crush on someone in high school, and, in my time at least, that someone had to be a boy, and since there were no boys at my school we had to make do with the teachers. Each of us was practically required to choose a favorite. And, to Camilla’s credit, Mr. Avery wasn’t bad looking as teachers went. He dressed well and his Scottish accent gave him an additional air of propriety and mischief. I had never known anyone with a Scottish accent before, and I could understand why Camilla found it so appealing. The only thing that seemed suspicious to me was his age. Mr. Avery, although he didn’t look older than forty, was still old enough to be any of our fathers. This was not a quality that I considered desirable.
After I thought about it, however, I realized that Camilla’s choice was not so surprising. I remembered how we had gone to see North By Northwest when it came out and for weeks afterwards Camilla had not been able to stop talking about Cary Grant. He was perfect, she insisted, the handsomest man alive. Although I had loved the movie, I had had to admit that I, for one, could not see what the big deal was about Cary Grant. He just looked like a man to me. He might as well have been my dentist. There had to be men like that all over the place, I thought, men of that age who were indistinguishable, practically invisible in suits and ties, about whom it would never even occur to me to wonder whether or not I could ever be attracted to them.
Cary Grant, in that movie, was fifty-five years old. His face was ruddy, impatient and arrogant-looking—the face of a man who had long been used to getting his own way. At the same time, it reminded me a little of a potato. And there was something unwieldy about his body, too, I thought: something high and stiff and thick and sad about the waist. I didn’t like to look at him in the scenes where he took off his shirt. His silvery chest hair seemed like something that wasn’t meant to be seen, and it made me uncomfortable, like visiting someone in the hospital.
I suppose it was slightly unusual, even in those days, for a girl Camilla’s age to be interested in such an old movie star. It would have been more typical for her to have obsessed over someone like Marlon Brando, someone like Paul Newman or Tony Curtis— those were the younger male heartthrobs at the time. Now, though, it occurs to me that even those younger ones had to have been at least thirty-five when Camilla and I were in high school. When I say “it occurs to me now,” I don’t mean that we weren’t aware of how old they were then, but simply that we never noticed anything strange about it. In the movies we saw, there were no teenage boy idols. There were, however, plenty of young starlets—girls just a little bit older than ourselves—and these of course played the girlfriends and assistants and lovers of all the middle-aged dreamboats we were given to choose from. So perhaps Camilla’s taste for older men was perfectly normal. The anomaly, the backwards one, was most likely me.
This was how I assured myself that Camilla’s infatuation with Mr. Avery was in earnest, and how I decided that it would be in my best interest to accept the half of this infatuation that was rightfully mine. It gave me and Camilla a whole set of new and exciting things to talk about. We competed over who liked him more, who knew the most about him—for example, once, when he was handing back papers, I noticed a small, dark freckle on his ring finger, halfway between the knuckle and his gold wedding band. Camilla, impressed but not to be outdone by this, actually went so far as to find out his wife’s name: Judith (overheard, by some miraculous stroke of luck, while stopping to tie her shoe in front of the door to the faculty lounge). We were both wild with curiosity about Judith—not jealous of her as an actual other woman but, rather, interested in her as an extension of Mr. Avery himself, as scholars are interested in the mistresses of Romantic poets. Was she young? Was she pretty? Was she Scottish, too? I never found out the answer to any of these questions, although I’m sure Camilla did, after Judith passed away.
We began to dress better on the days when we had class with Mr. Avery. This was not the sort of thing that we would admit to one another, but I noticed almost immediately when Camilla started and I’m sure she wasn’t oblivious to it, the following week, when I silently raised my beauty standards to match hers. We must have each had some strange, vague idea in our head that we were in class to be watched, that Mr. Avery took note of the changing shades of our lipstick, that there was some kind of suspense involved in it for him. Would Camilla wear her triple-strand faux pearl necklace, nearly identical to that of Jackie Kennedy? Would I tie my silk scarf around my waist, or my ponytail? Our efforts, of course, were limited by our school uniforms, and nobody watched us as carefully as we watched each other. I became so familiar with Camilla’s behavior in class that after a while I didn’t even have to really watch her anymore: from my seat beside her in the front row I could practically feel her leaning forward, with her back straight, her breasts pushing proudly and eagerly against her sweater. I could picture her clasped, manicured hands on the desk in front of her, and whenever she giggled in that reverent way of hers I didn’t need to turn my head to see what I had begun to consider her infuriating smile, her deliberately shining eyes.
I should make clear that by this point, my obsession with Mr. Avery was just as real as Camilla’s. If anyone were to suggest to me, at this time, that my love was only an imitation of her love, that I had been brainwashed into it, I would have been outraged. I thought about Mr. Avery constantly. I wondered whether he would approve of things I said, clothes I bought. If I said something that I thought was witty, for example, I would imagine Mr. Avery saying that I was witty. I would imagine running into him outside of school and having him be impressed with whatever I was doing—he wouldn’t say anything that would embarrass me, of course, but I would see it in his eyes. Later he might mention me to his wife: “I saw one of my favorite students at the Met today,” he might say. “Susan Morris. She was so enthralled by one of the Gauguin paintings that she didn’t even notice me at first. I had to say her name twice. Have you ever met a fifteen-year-old girl who cared so much about art?” Privately, I strove to live my life in such a way that if Mr. Avery were to suddenly peek in on me, at random, he would not be disappointed by my speech, my dress, my maturity, or the activities to which I devoted my free time. In a way, all this made my life much more exciting. It was sort of like being the heroine of a novel.
In class, however, where there was no doubt in my mind that Camilla and I were being watched and compared and evaluated, I was unable to decide how best to convey my dedication. I didn’t want to just follow Camilla’s example because Camilla’s behavior, to be honest, disgusted me. I knew that she was smart, and that if she acted otherwise, she was doing so—as she did everything else—deliberately. But I failed to see why she was doing it in this case—I could not believe that Mr. Avery would fall for her fawning, wide-eyed enthusiasm. This, perhaps, goes to show how naive I was at the time: overestimating Mr. Avery’s intelligence, just as many of our classmates probably came to underestimate Camilla’s. “Do you think that Jane Eyre is really ‘one of the most romantic stories of all time’?” she asked once, her eyes sparkling as if she were engaging in truly clever conversation. “Because that’s what it says in the introduction.”
“Oh, does it?” said Mr. Avery. “Well, what do you think?”
“I think it is,” said Camilla, without hesitation. Then she smiled, blushed a little, and folded her hands on her desk, ostentatiously modest and completely satisfied. Clearly she thought that Mr. Avery would appreciate her passionate understanding of both romance and literature. I, on the other hand, was embarrassed to be sitting next to her, and hoped that Mr. Avery would see from my pained, yet tolerant expression that I did not subscribe to my friend’s mode of literary criticism, nor to the vapidity of her flirting style.
My own method of flirting, therefore, turned out to be mainly silent; it relied heavily upon the assumption of a shared, unspoken understanding between me and Mr. Avery—an understanding that when he spoke in class, he was speaking primarily to me, and that when I didn’t speak in class, he did not forget that I was there, but rather wondered incessantly about what I was thinking. I stared at him with my softly intelligent blue eyes, and twisted strands of auburn hair around my delicate, pale fingers. Sometimes I smiled a little bit, almost imperceptibly, raising only the very corners of my lips if he said something funny, or someone else said something stupid. This method of flirting is easy because it takes shyness and inexperience and transforms them magically into a very realistic image of sultry sophistication—no social skills, or other kinds of skills, are required. I made use of it almost exclusively until the day I met my husband, and if I hadn’t, my life would probably have turned out very differently.
I suppose that now would be as good a time as any to tell the story of how Camilla and I met Peter Schneider. It is not an important or interesting story, but in the context of this larger one it does demand explanation. So I will make it very brief: we met at a school dance. I think it was junior year. Peter Schneider attended one of the neighboring boys’ schools that our school often invited to such coed affairs. He was tall, skinny, dark-haired, unattractive; Camilla and I took turns dancing with him because he kept asking us, politely. He was aggressively boring, and we were boring in return: “You girls don’t talk much, do you?” was the kind of thing he said. Afterwards, we went back with him to his house on Third Avenue, where he offered us packaged cupcakes and showed us his magic tricks. He had a book about magic and a magician’s hat. What I remember most is laughing about this on the way out of his building, and being scolded when I got home for missing my curfew.
After that night he kept calling us and asking us to do things. We never figured out whether the things were supposed to be dates or not, but if they were, Peter Schneider might have had better luck if he had just chosen one of us and focused his attentions on her. Instead, he was very diplomatic about it: if he called Camilla one weekend, he would call me the next, and no matter which one of us he called he would always make clear that the other one was also welcome: “I was wondering if you and Camilla wanted to go skating on Saturday,” he would say if he called me, and then the following week Camilla would call to say: “Peter Schneider wants to know if we want to go see West Side Story with him on Friday. What should I tell him?” We never really talked about how people often treated us as if we were the same person, but it was something that we had almost come to expect.
Since Mr. Avery was not our English teacher after sophomore year, Camilla and I were obliged to join the staff of Epiphanies to be near him. Epiphanies was the unfortunate name of our school’s literary magazine, of which Mr. Avery was the faculty advisor. Being on its staff meant that three days a week we (and four other girls) got to stay up in the typing room with him until after dark, reading submissions aloud and then, later, typing up the ones we had accepted to be sent to the printing press. During the first year that we did this, two important things happened. I will describe the two things in the reverse order in which they occurred, because the second thing has since altered my perception of the first.
One day after gym class as Camilla and I were changing out of our gym uniforms and into our regular uniforms, we overheard two seniors in the locker room talking about Mr. Avery. One of them was Mary Beth, a tall girl known throughout the school for being beautiful and for always smoking out the window of the first floor bathroom. “His wife just had a baby a few weeks ago,” she said.
This was not news to us. We knew that Jessica Avery had been born exactly seventeen days ago, because Mr. Avery had taken a few days off work and instead of reviewing submissions those days, we and the other Epiphanies editors had spent our after-school hours making gifts for the baby. We knit little pink hats and miniature booties, using patterns from old issues of Ladies’ Home Journal, and Camilla embroidered a bib with the baby’s initials. “I think he’ll make a wonderful father,” she had said dreamily. “Don’t you?” I had nodded, but secretly thought to myself that I didn’t really care whether Mr. Avery was a wonderful father or not. Raising a family was not one of the things that I had ever considered doing with him.
Then the other girl, who was shorter and blonde, said: “I feel sorry for her.” This was what made me and Camilla really snap to attention. Why would anyone feel sorry for Mr. Avery’s wife? Even if they didn’t think that Mr. Avery was the best looking, kindest, most brilliant man in the world, as we did, there was certainly nothing that made him worse than any other woman’s husband. At first I thought that maybe the girl was talking about the pain of childbirth.
Mary Beth laughed. “Oh, come on,” she said. “It’s not as if anything ever happens.”
“Yes, but just imagine,” said the blonde girl. She had a squeamish look on her face. “Being married to someone like that. It’s disgusting.”
At this point, perhaps sensing me and Camilla staring, Mary Beth turned to us and jokingly explained: “Cynthia’s just mad because she didn’t get an A on her paper.”
“Mr. Avery’s a tough grader,” I said, trying to be helpful. I smiled at Cynthia sympathetically. Camilla glared at me. Just who did I think I was, she seemed to ask, talking so casually about our true love with these snooty twelfth-graders? I was, in fact, flattered that they were talking to us.
“Oh, are you in his English class?” Mary Beth asked.
“Last year we were,” Camilla said. “And now we work on Epiphanies with him.” Then she added, defiantly, with a pointed glance in my direction: “We love him. He’s the best teacher we’ve ever had.”
Although somewhat thrown off by Camilla’s intensity, Mary Beth quickly regained her lofty composure. “Well, he is a good teacher,” she admitted carefully. “But I should warn you, he has a bit of a reputation. I would have thought you’d have known by now.”
“What do you mean?” I don’t remember if it was Camilla or I who asked that question.
“You must have noticed,” said Cynthia, “who his favorites were in the class. Weren’t they always the prettiest girls, or the ones who wore tight sweaters? Didn’t he always try to find an excuse to talk to them, and give them the best grades?”
I looked at Camilla. Her blank face matched mine. I realized that it had never even occurred to me to wonder who the prettiest girls in Mr. Avery’s class might be; I had always compared myself only with Camilla. I wondered if Camilla was now thinking the same thing.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Mary Beth, seeing how pale and disturbed we must have looked. “He’s not going to pounce on you. Just be a little bit careful when you’re up there in the typing room alone with him, that’s all. Keep your legs crossed, you know.” She laughed suddenly, as if she had startled herself. “Come on, Cynthia, let’s go have a cigarette before History.”
As we walked across the park after school (Epiphanies did not meet that day), Camilla and I decided not to believe what the older girls had said. “They were probably just jealous,” Camilla suggested, “because they weren’t his favorites.” She kicked a chestnut as she walked.
“Obviously,” I agreed.
We never spoke of this again.
Neither of us acknowledged that if what Cynthia said was true—that Mr. Avery always liked the prettiest girls, with the tightest sweaters best—then Mary Beth, at least, should have no cause for jealousy. We also did not venture to claim that we, by contrast, were his favorites, since neither of us had any evidence that this was true. If I had wanted to sabotage my friendship with Camilla, I would have pointed this out, because I knew that her main reason—besides her undying love for him—for not wanting to believe in Mr. Avery’s lechery was her unwillingness to imagine him preferring anyone to herself. He had never shown her any kind of special attention, as far as I knew. But, like the tactful best friend that I was, I did not mention this—nor did I ever tell Camilla about my own reason for not wanting to believe what we had heard.
This is where the first of the two important things becomes relevant. It was relevant to me, of course, before the second thing happened, but only afterwards did it become relevant to this story. To some people it might not seem like such a big deal, although it was, at the time, what I considered to be the crowning moment of my high school career.
Here it is, then: I had never submitted anything to Epiphanies myself. I had simply joined its staff because Camilla was joining it, because it was led by Mr. Avery with whom we were both madly in love. A scene in which Mr. Avery would compliment me on my writing was not a scene that existed in my imagination. Running into him at a museum, in my favorite dress, in spring, was still the recurring fantasy at the top of my list. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when one afternoon among the typewriters he remarked, casually, as if it were something that had already been discussed: “You know, I’m still waiting for your submission, Susan.”
We were alone together in the typing room; I had arrived early, before Camilla, for once. The rest of the editorial staff usually trickled in late. You must remember that this was before the incident in the locker room, so my mind was still free of any unwanted suspicions, and Mr. Avery was able to catch me completely off guard.
“Submission?” I echoed stupidly. I really didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Yes,” he said. “Why don’t you ever submit your own work to the magazine? I’m sure that anything you write would be at least as good as all these bloody villanelles we’ve been getting.” He smiled. “You shouldn’t tell anyone I said that, of course.”
My heart had already begun to beat in such a way that I was afraid Mr. Avery would be able to see it through my blouse. “But I don’t write poetry,” I said.
“I don’t write prose, either.”
“You wrote some very good prose when you were in my class last year. Some of the best tenth-grade papers I’ve ever seen, in fact.” He paused, thoughtfully, as if remembering them. “Yes, even better than some of the seniors.” I stared at him. “It’s not the same thing as writing stories,” he went on, “but I suspect that you’d be able to do that too, if you tried. What I mean to say is that you... that is, to me at least, you—”
But before he could finish this exhilarating sentence, in waltzed Camilla, cheeks freshly pinched to give them a healthy-looking glow. “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Avery,” she said, although she was not late at all. “I had to get something from my locker.” And I pretended to yawn in order to clap my hand to my mouth, because I did not want her to see me smiling the way I was, uncontrollably. I knew that I could never tell her what had happened without being accused of bragging, and without hurting her feelings in a way that I had no wish to do. It was as if Mr. Avery, by singling me out for praise, had left some mark on me that separated me from her, which no one but he could see but which nonetheless confirmed that we were, and had always been, two different people. Despite all of my efforts to make it appear otherwise.
It would be years before Camilla and I fully lost touch with each other, but I think that that moment in the typing room was when our friendship started to change.
I did try to write a story for Mr. Avery, although I never finished it. I worked on it slowly, for almost a year, the idea being to publish it in Epiphanies when I was a senior as my sort of masterpiece, a surprise debut that would astonish him, and everyone. It was a terrible story—I am ashamed to have written it—and I will not embarrass myself further by attempting to describe its plot. Its sole redeeming quality was that it was never published, and the reason for this was that I never submitted it. What prevented me from submitting it, I am sorry to say, was not my own better judgment but, rather, a third and—I thought—final incident involving Mr. Avery, which happened in the winter of my senior year.
It was an exceptionally unpleasant winter evening—actually, it was March, and should have already been spring—and I was standing in the slush outside of school, waiting for the bus after our Epiphanies meeting. The meeting had ended unusually late—we were approaching the publication deadline—so Camilla had gone straight home afterwards, instead of taking the bus with me to my house as she normally did.
The bus stop was the kind with no bench and no roof, just a sign at the curb indicating where to wait. My red tweed coat was not warm enough for the circumstances; I had stubbornly refused to put on a heavier one that morning, because at that age I believed in dressing according to how the weather should be, not for how it unreasonably but actually was. I had, however, consented to wear my new ankle boots, and these allowed me to kick at the slush while I waited, probably thinking about my terrible story and how great it was going to be. Mr. Avery snuck up behind me just as it started to hail.
“Well, hello again,” he said. I whirled around and saw that he was wearing a plaid scarf and a long black coat, and was standing beneath a fairly small black umbrella. I wished that I had seen him before he saw me kicking the slush. “Have you been standing out here all this time?”
I nodded, and added, although it was plain to see: “I’m waiting for the bus.”
“Your ears are all red,” said Mr. Avery (I was not wearing a hat). “Where do you live? My car is parked just around the corner. Perhaps I can give you a ride.”
He looked very gallant standing there, with tiny gem-like hailstones bouncing off his umbrella. If only Camilla could see this, I thought. But it was a good thing that she was not there to hear my skittish response: “Oh, really? Thank you, but... I’ve been waiting a long time, I think the bus should come soon.”
“You’ll catch cold,” said Mr. Avery, looking at me with concern. “Here, get under my umbrella.”
I did as I was told. Umbrellas, as probably everyone has noticed at least at some time in their life, are inescapably romantic objects. The person who walks alone, in the rain (or the hail, as it were) beneath his or her (preferably black) umbrella is an elegant, mysterious, but melancholy figure; he or she seems to have it all and yet is isolated from his or her surroundings. When that person, however, in an undeniably chivalrous gesture, invites another bedraggled person to share his or her moving shelter, the couple—for that is what they become, no matter how temporarily—are forced to huddle close together, exchange solicitous remarks, perhaps giggle a little over the awkwardness of the arrangement, and suddenly the umbrella is no longer a barrier between one person and the world but a symbol of cozy solidarity and teamwork, of two people braving life’s challenges together. Anyone who has ever shared an umbrella, however, will recognize at once this unfortunate problem: it is always the taller person who gets to hold the umbrella, which means the shorter person must either cling ever closer to that person, exhausting his or her shorter legs to keep up, or else be dripped on and jabbed by the umbrella’s pointy edges, which is far worse that walking umbrellaless in the first place. I have actually come to dislike umbrellas; I never carry my own and will only accept the offer of someone else’s if that person appears equal or nearly equal to me in height.
Mr. Avery was, of course, taller than me, but at the time I was too inexperienced to care. I allowed myself to be herded along by his umbrella, smiling gratefully up at him while describing, in my head, every detail of this unlikely and perfect experience, preparing it for an envious Camilla to devour. The timely hail storm, the chivalry, the way the sleeves of our coats, black and red, brushed against each other—and then his car, waiting just around the corner as he had promised, and how he held open the front door for me to climb in.
The inside of the car was like being inside a bubble. I wondered what I looked like with melting hail in my hair—it wasn’t the same as snow, but it still might look nice. And just then, as if he could read my mind, Mr. Avery said: “Your poor head is frozen,” and, to my great astonishment, reached out his hand to smooth it free of ice. As he did so, I could not help but notice that his breath smelled the way that teachers’ breath often does: of tobacco and chalk dust and too much coffee. This discovery seemed so dirty and shameful to me that I decided not to let it become part of my memory. I kept picturing Mr. Avery’s hand on my hair, trying to think of the right way to describe how it felt, but for some reason I couldn’t—not in a way that would sound impressive.
I crossed my legs. This might or might not have meant anything.
The radio was on, playing classical music, as we drove through the park and up Amsterdam Avenue. The traffic lights were red and green haloes behind the windshield wipers, and the streets were sleek and black and roomy. “It stopped hailing,” I said, which was something to say and also true. I don’t remember if Mr. Avery said anything after that.
How much of the strangeness and tension of that ride was real, and how much of it did I imagine? It is true that I have always had a thing about cars. I will explain it, because although to me it makes as much sense as what I already explained about umbrellas, I realize that for some people it might be harder to accept. To me, then, cars are also inescapably romantic. If you have seen any movies at all you will know that if one person is driving another person home, there is necessarily a space in time reserved for a goodnight kiss. Whether the kiss actually happens or not is irrelevant—most car rides, obviously, do not end with a kiss, but what matters is that the space is still there, regardless. For as long as I can remember I have felt awkward getting out of cars. No matter who the driver is—I am certainly not referring exclusively to “dates”—I feel that I am being almost rude when we don’t make out before saying goodbye. There is something intimate and secretive about cars; being in a car with someone for the first time seems like an important breakthrough, and it seems to me that, before you get out of someone’s car, there should be some way to at least acknowledge that you have been in a car with them. I have yet to think of a better acknowledgement than making out, although making out, clearly, is not always the solution.
Being in cars also entails a certain passivity, if you happen to be the one in the passenger seat (which I always am, having lived in New York City all my life and never having learned how to drive). A total loss of control, which can be pleasant and soothing, or terrifying and degrading depending on the circumstances. I could go into this further, but I won’t. Consider, however, how all of the awkwardness and vulnerability described above might be heightened if the person driving the car also happened to be your teacher. Especially your teacher with whom you thought you were in love.
Because—needless to say, perhaps—I was no longer in love with Mr. Avery by the end of that car ride. I was disgusted to think that I ever had been, and disgusted by him; in fact, I almost hated him. Whether or not his face, when we said goodbye, was really wolfish with longing—as, at the time, I was convinced that it was—is still up for debate, as is whether his last words—“I’ll see you tomorrow”—were really as ominous as they sounded to me. What I remember, however, without any doubt is that he placed his hand on my knee as he said them. A little above my knee, actually, but I wouldn’t say my thigh. Who knows why he did this? I still am not certain. But at the time, as I thanked him, hoisted my book bag onto my shoulder and ran through the slush, up the steps into my lobby, I did not even want to think about it.
Epiphanies went to the press two weeks after I fell out of love with Mr. Avery. I went to all of the frenzied, final meetings but took care to show up late. I never submitted my own story for two reasons: first, because I wished to avoid talking to Mr. Avery as much as possible, and second, because I understood, after that incident in the car, that I had never actually been good at writing.
I never told Camilla about any of this. As far as she knew, absolutely nothing had changed. We still ate lunch together and walked across the park after school, and she still talked about Mr. Avery as if he were the man of both our dreams. I did not contradict her, but I wasn’t a good actress, and I began to worry that she would soon suspect that I was hiding something. It was a relief when we graduated and went off to separate colleges. Camilla, actually, was the only one who went off—to Smith, where her mother and great-aunt had gone before her. She too was probably relieved, to some extent, to be rid of me.
I stayed in New York, went to City College and lived with my parents. Although I regret this now, I didn’t mind it at the time. Camilla and I were reunited when she came home for vacations, but each time we seemed to have less and less to say to each other and by the end of sophomore year we had almost completely lost touch. In the fall of my junior year I met Thomas, a violin student at Julliard who was exactly my age. One year after we graduated, we were married.
Camilla was invited to the wedding but could not attend, as her parents had given her a trip to Europe for a graduation present, from which she would not return for a good twenty years. “I wish you all the best—I always knew you would be happy,” she wrote mysteriously, in the surprisingly heartfelt note that she sent to congratulate me. I read the note over and over, trying to decipher what it meant. I would never have expected Camilla to write anything like that— it had somehow never occurred to me that she would wish me the best, or that she would ever have predicted my future happiness or unhappiness, presumably (I thought) in comparison to her own. Reading it made me feel like something was wrong, or rather, like I had been doing something wrong, like opening someone else’s mail for a long time or giving someone the wrong phone number on purpose.
Less than one year after that, I heard that she had married a Parisian, Jean-something-or-other, who was considerably older and had a five-year-old son from a previous marriage. How “previous” that marriage had really been, before he met Camilla, was something that I must admit I wondered, but—of course—did not ask Peter Schneider, who was, strangely enough, the bearer of this news.
He told me when I ran into him in 1969, at the anti-war demonstration in Washington. I was three months pregnant at the time. Peter Schneider, as it turned out, had gone to one of the men’s colleges not far from Smith, so he had actually seen more of Camilla over the years than I had. He and I exchanged phone numbers, and I promised to let him know when the baby was born, but I forgot. He, on the other hand, began to call from time to time just to chat, to “catch up” with me, while barely revealing anything about himself. He learned, over the years, about my husband, my two sons, and my job teaching English in a New York public high school. I knew that he worked as an “efficiency expert,” and that he lived in Chicago, but little else. There was certainly never mention of any girlfriend, or boyfriend for that matter. Why was he so secretive? I wondered about this for a while, entertained noncommittal suspicions that what little he had told me might not even be true, that he was not actually an efficiency expert whatever that was but some kind of criminal—but, to be honest, I was never interested enough to find out. I usually just tried to get off the phone with him as fast as possible.
But I never stopped being curious about Camilla, and when she divorced her French husband, sixteen years later (but continued to live in Paris), Peter Schneider was the one to tell me. I did not try to pretend that I was still in touch with Camilla while any of this was going on. It was only when I found out, three years after her divorce, that she had been living in New York for two years without my knowing—in her parents’ old apartment, which she had inherited, and with Mr. Avery, no less—that it suddenly seemed shameful to admit how long it had been since I had seen her.
Not that I was ashamed, really—there was nothing to be ashamed of; just that it occurred to me that some people might find it hard to understand how two former best friends could live in the same city for years and never see each other—never even be aware of each other’s presence. In New York, however, such things are quite common. When I was growing up there was a boy in my building, a very cute little boy almost exactly my age, who I used to play with until one day—I must have been seven or eight—I decided that I did not like him for some reason, and told my parents that I did not want to play with him anymore. They kept asking me why but I would not tell them—perhaps there had never been a reason in the first place—and within a few years it was as if the boy and I had never met. When we crossed paths in the lobby, or the elevator, we did not make eye contact, although there was a sort of sheepish understanding between us. And by the time we were in high school, I never saw him, although he still lived right upstairs. Wearing our new high school identities like masks, we didn’t even have to think about avoiding each other anymore; it was just as if, to each other, we did not exist.
“Well, here we are again,” I said. “We were there and now we’re here.” We were driving back from visiting our eldest son, Eric, in Massachusetts, and the familiar tall shapes of the city had just come into view.
“‘We were there and now we’re here,’” my husband muttered. “Jesus.”
There are things that we have to say on certain occasions, as prescribed and expected as “bless you” after a sneeze. “We were there and now we’re here” is what I have to say on any occasion of returning to the city from somewhere else. “Jesus” is how my husband is obliged to respond. I think he thinks that I think I am saying something profound, and thus that I am crazy, or perhaps becoming senile. We have enjoyed watching each other for signs of approaching senility ever since we married. But I know that I am not saying anything profound; I am merely taking note of something that happens to be true. Even if, instead of a five-hour car ride, I were alluding to the entire progression of our lives, to everything that might have brought us from one place to another, it would still not be profound. It would still just be true.
To me, however, that does not make it any less interesting.
When we finally made it back to our apartment that night, there was a message on the answering machine from Peter Schneider. Seventeen years had passed since he first told me that Camilla was married to Mr. Avery. The message said that he would be in the city the following weekend, and hoped that Camilla and I, and our respective spouses, would be able to join him for dinner on Saturday night.
That is what made me begin telling this story in the first place.
Cradling a bottle of red wine in one arm, I rang the doorbell to Peter Schneider’s parents’ apartment. It was the same apartment that Camilla and I had been to, forty-three years earlier, after the school dance where we first met Peter Schneider. I had recognized the address as he told it to me, but it had not immediately occurred to me how strange this was—that he was inviting us all to dinner at his parents’ house. I had forgotten, for a moment, how long it had been since he’d lived there.
A tall, bespectacled man, practically bald, opened the door. “Susan!” he bellowed, throwing his long arms around me. Then: “Hello,” he said to my husband. “I’m Peter.” The two men shook hands. Over Peter Schneider’s shoulder I could see into another room, from which two shadowy figures were slowly making their way towards us.
“Your parents,” I said, foolishly. “Are they home?”
“Oh! No,” said Peter Schneider. “No, my parents are dead. My mother passed away last week. She was eighty-seven.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured. “I didn’t know.” We had stepped into the apartment and Peter Schneider had closed the door behind us, but we were all still standing awkwardly, in our coats, by the door.
“It’s all right,” said Peter Schneider. “Thank you. But she had been in a coma for three years, so... it didn’t come as such a shock.” He smiled nervously. “I just came back to the apartment to sort out some of her things.” He gestured down the hallway and I saw that it was lined with boxes.
The shadowy couple was now standing right behind him. Camilla’s blondish-gray hair was pinned up in an elegant way; her skin looked smooth, but seemed to have a pearly sheen to it. I looked younger than she did, I immediately thought, but she still made me feel short and dismal by comparison. She was looking at me; we made eye contact, smiled faintly, did not say anything. Peter Schneider looked at us both, happily, and said: “Well, here we all are. Our little threesome, reunited at last.”
“Our little threesome” is a strange thing to say about anyone, but Peter Schneider was saying it about me, Camilla, and himself. As soon as I comprehended this it made me laugh, I was so startled. Then, to cover up the laugh before it became inappropriate, I said “Camilla!” as if I had just noticed her for the first time, and we stepped towards each other and embraced gingerly. Even when we were friends, we had never performed such rituals of affection, and I imagined that Camilla was aware, as I was, that this embrace had something farcical and dishonest about it. But to my surprise she kissed me, once on each cheek, French-style, as efficiently as if she had been doing it all her life. Then: “Albert,” she said, in an encouraging voice. “You remember my friend Susan, don’t you?”
She was addressing the tiny, white-haired man who stood next to her, so frail and faded and limp-looking that he might as well have been an empty suit, draped over a hanger, ready to crumple, at any moment, noiselessly to the floor. Albert, I thought. The name of an old man.
“Mr. Avery,” I said loudly. “Do you remember me? I’m Susan Morris, I was in your tenth grade English class.” I made exaggerated facial expressions as I said this, pointlessly, as if I were trying to communicate with a baby.
“Of course,” he said slowly. “Of course I remember you.” He was looking at me in a gracious and benevolent way, as if he really did remember me, fondly, and was pleased, though not surprised, to be seeing me again.
“This is my husband, Tom,” I shouted.
Mr. Avery nodded, as if he already knew. “And this is my wife,” he said proudly. “Judith.”
The scene did not stop there, unfortunately, but this story does. To continue it would be like going on after the end of a ghost story: the boy unties the ribbon from around the girl’s neck and her head falls off, revealing that she has been dead all along. Since it is clear, after that, that these two have no future together, there is no need to stick around and discuss matters further.
“He knows who I am,” Camilla said. “He just gets confused sometimes.”
“You should have been here earlier,” Peter Schneider whispered, when I went into the kitchen to help him toss the salad. “All my mom’s books in those boxes? He thinks he wrote them. And they’re all autobiographical, including Moby Dick.”
There is another story, a fairy tale, one that I had my students read—a condensed and saddened version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The entire story is no longer than half a page—it is, in fact, more like an idea of a story, because most of it is taken up by a very knowing and mournful-sounding summary of the original story that every child has heard countless times: how hundreds of young men die in their attempts to reach the famous princess—they are attacked by wild animals or strangled by vines, or they get lost and starve to death in the impenetrable thorny hedge that has grown up around her tower. But (this is the new part), by the time the young man arrives who is able to get through the hedge, to scale the walls of the tower and enter the princess’s chamber, so many years have gone by that the princess is now an old woman, veiny, wrinkled and snoring, her toothless mouth gaping open while she sleeps. That is the end of the story. It does not say what course of action the young man decides to take—whether he kisses her, and breaks the spell, or throws himself in despair from the tower window. I imagine that the author believed such information to be superfluous—as any information after the ghost girl’s head falls off in the other story would be superfluous, or information about how life went on after that dinner at Peter Schneider’s. Clearly, the author of that fairy tale must have thought, the young man and the princess are not going to get married. He might kiss her because he thinks it is his ethical duty, but there is no way he could still want her now that she is so old.
Which is understandable to me. The end of that story made me shiver. I know someone, however, who would probably be unfazed by it. Well, what did he think he would find? Camilla would probably say. Time goes by. People get older. Obviously. Camilla—or at least the Camilla I knew—would not have had much sympathy for anyone who, after wanting something so badly for so many years, suddenly stopped wanting it as soon as he got it. If she were the man in that story, she would marry the princess. She would do exactly what she had set out to do.
I, on the other hand, would not be able to go through with it—in the unlikely event that I managed to survive the hedge in the first place. The disappointment would be too great, and I would be too embarrassed—embarrassed for myself, for my impossible expectations, but also for her, the princess, for being asleep and not knowing, not having any idea what had happened to her. No matter how long I had been waiting to do so, I could not bring myself to kiss her and tell her the whole story. I would leave without even waking her up.
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