Wanda lived down the street. Her daughter Hannah and I were friends. To my teenaged eye, she was elegant, but in truth, she was flashy, almost gaudy. She dyed her hair auburn to please her first husband, then kept it that way once he left her anyway. She wore heavy jewelry; chunks of coral in settings of golden vines, and wide ovoid earrings. Her thick wedding band twined up her finger like a serpent. She was the kind of person who labeled objects like brass urns or Japanese bowls “important.” I found all this drama delightful, and so I dropped by a lot, or went home with Hannah after school. Often it was just Hannah and me, but my favorite times were the three of us together.
Hannah and Wanda were sun worshippers. We called it “laying out.” They oiled their bikini-clad bodies and stretched out on pale sherbet-colored lawn chairs while I huddled in the shade in my Speedo tank suit. Both Wanda and Hannah had thick thighs, though Hannah’s were as yet undimpled. (On the subject of cellulite, Hannah once observed, “My mother’s riddled with it.”) One afternoon, Moon, their albino cat, glided out of the boxwood toward Wanda and tenderly deposited a freshly killed mouse beside her bronze painted toenails. Hannah shrieked and I squealed.
“Girls,” Wanda intoned, waggling a tanned finger. “Nature is red in tooth and claw.”
“Oh, gross, Mom,” Hannah said.
I was dumbstruck. My father’s metaphors extended as far as, “Now he’s behind the financial eight-ball,” whenever another of his friends was ordered to pay alimony.
In our sophomore year of high school, Hannah got in trouble. She started taking a lot of drugs and cutting classes. We hardly ever sat together in the cafeteria anymore. Her new friends hung out in the parking lot during lunch period, the only place where smoking was allowed. She quit the debate team. Eventually, she got into a car accident, during the aftermath of which she literally bit the hand that fed her; in this case, her stepfather Bernard’s. The aftermath of that event was boarding school in Indiana. Wanda’s response to all the turmoil was to spend her time making a six-foot collage of a rooster negotiating traffic. She hung it while I helped Hannah pack.
“Shit, Mom, how do you think that makes me feel?” Hannah asked.
Wanda pursed her lips and considered. Then she said, “Art is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable,” and sauntered away.
I still dropped over once Hannah left, but things were awkward. Wanda made obscure references to her marriage, such as, “If I didn’t understand the power of money, I wouldn’t be here,” turning to indicate her plushly furnished living room, with its shale fireplace, thick rugs and sleek maple tables. The recessed lights shone down on her flaming hair. “I didn’t grow up with money, you know,” she confided with an air of sharing a state secret. Bernard was a developer, generally despised for his plundering of surrounding counties.
I wrote to Hannah at boarding school. She hated sharing a room. I saw her briefly at Thanksgiving. Wanda went to Arizona with Bernard, so Hannah had to stay across town with Harlan, her father. I visited her there, but I left when Harlan’s girlfriend Tish came over. Tish was tall and wore boots so high they covered most of her long legs. She had a mane of strawberry blonde hair which trailed over her shoulders. Her nose was tiny and her eyes were green. She looked like Puss in Boots. She sprawled on the big white rug that looked like yak hair and rubbed her little snout against Harlan’s Keeshond’s wet black muzzle.
“Look, Harlan,” she said. “Eskimo kisses.” The dog backed away from her. Hannah and I rolled our eyes.
By the middle of senior year, I lost touch with both Hannah and Wanda. I stopped writing letters or visiting when my father’s importing business went bankrupt. Suddenly, he could no longer afford to send me to college in New York. When my stepmother Bev initiated divorce proceedings, he packed a suitcase, left me a check for his last four hundred dollars, and took off for Florida, where my grandmother lived in a big stucco house near the water. Bev went wild when she discovered his defection.
“That son of a bitch!” she cried. She descended on the clothes remaining in his walk-in closet, stomping on and cutting up his abandoned suits. She tore one of his silk ties with his teeth. I stood in the doorway, watching the destruction. She was too mad to notice me.
There were seven weeks remaining in the school year. A few days after her raid on his closet, she called me into their Louis-style bedroom. “I guess I’m stuck with you,” she announced, stabbing a cigarette between her thin lips.
“I just want to graduate,” I said.
“You stay out of my way, though. Once you’re done, you are out.” She ran her hands through her frosted hair, and faced herself in the big, gold-flecked mirror above the mahogany dresser.
“You’re too nice,” she told her reflection.
Of course, people heard about it. Bev told everyone she knew, and she’d lived in Fox Hollow all her life. A steady drizzle of gossip hung over my days like a pregnant cloud. Schoolmates went silent when I passed, catatonic with despair. I stopped speaking in class. I couldn’t even force myself to pretend to pay attention. I looked out the windows at the beech trees, or down at my chewed-up fingernails. Only one of my teachers ever addressed my situation. Mr. Novak, my Thomas Hardy-loving English teacher, kept me after school one day. His pale blue eyes were bright as he perched, Indian-style, on one of the student desks, tucking his Hush Puppies beneath him. His gray slacks rode up and I could see his soft-looking black socks and fuzzy calves. His longish brown hair was always wild with static electricity.
“Amy, I just want you to remember that you’ve got a long life before you, and there’s plenty of time for things to improve. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Just be sure to use it, okay?” He clasped his hands and shook them dramatically in a pleading gesture. He waited for my response, though he might as well have said, “Life is shit and will only get worse” (a summation of my beliefs at that time), for all I heard his message.
“Yeah,” I answered, winging it. I nodded. “Thanks.”
Mr. Novak peered at me, frowning. I looked at the floor. He shrugged, which I read as permission to gather my books.
On graduation day I woke up early and went for a walk. I wasn’t thinking of Wanda, though I arrived on her doorstep like a magnet drawn to metal. She was sitting on the bottom step of her steep staircase, alternately sipping at and blowing on the contents of a thick white mug. I tapped lightly on the storm door, not wanting to startle her. She looked up, smiled, and came outside.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she said, her hand resting softly on my head. I stood it for a moment before collapsing into her arms in a fit of passionate, terrified weeping. She embraced me while my body heaved and shuddered.
“What will you do?” she whispered, once I was calm.
“I don’t know,” I said, my voice small. “I’m leaving tonight. Will you keep my books and stuff until I get settled?”
“Of course,” she answered, smoothing my hair.
“Wanda,” Bernard called, in his loud, low voice. He ambled down the steps in his dark leather slippers and iridescent silk robe. He was tall and silver-haired, with one brown eye and one blue eye. He cracked the door and nodded in my direction without meeting my eyes.
“Is there coffee?” he asked, drawing her back into the domain of the house.
“What? Yes,” she answered. She gave me a last squeeze, smiled, and broke away. Bernard shut the door behind them.