It came back this morning, that sick feeling of desire and regret that I’d pushed down so many times. My son had been begging me to find his baseball cards and now it was Sunday morning and there was no way to put him off anymore. I went out to the musty garage, pushing aside the cobwebs on the weight machine and struggling to lift the dusty box full of odds and ends. There was the paper mâché dinosaur with glued on macaroni dactyls, now edged with mildew. There was the stack of report cards and test results and book reports. There was one page of a letter from Elizabeth, on a creamy, heavy stock, with her monogram.
I sat slowly down on the bench press. I read the letter carefully with shaking hands. It was about a guy she was seeing and how his wife had treated her at a party, written in her usual rushed, yet elegant handwriting. She could make a tawdry affair seem cool and meaningful. Elizabeth, her ivory skin, so pale and luminous, her soft fair hair, her beautiful clothes, wearing red leather boots I coveted, those wide-set gray eyes.
We met by chance when she was expelled from Wellesley. She ended up in my English class, at a university that wasn’t top notch. Later I found out how prominent her family was, and why she had washed up in Washington, D.C. She was late to class, but strode in with her head held high, ignoring the professor. She sat next to me at the seminar table, and I noticed her scarred wrists, nearly covered by several scarab bracelets and a large watch.
Her father had been in the OSS in World War II and was now high in the hierarchy at the World Bank. Her mother was a socialite, her sister a ballerina. My father co-owned a feed store in a small dairy farming town in Maryland, and I was a high school wild child, though one of the “smart” kids in my tiny class.
That night there was a get-together in the Student Union. I danced with a boy who started pulling me too close, trying aggressively to kiss me. I yanked myself away, out of the hot, crowded room, and into the cool September evening, sitting on the stone steps overlooking the quad. Another boy came out and asked if he could sit there, then he asked if everything was all right. He turned out to be Bobby. He asked me to come along to meet his friends at a bar in Georgetown, and grabbed my hand and pulled me up. He helped me jump off the portico and we ran to his car. Why he picked me out of the crowd I’ll never know. Frye boots, leather jacket, tousled blond hair, a stoner, exactly my type.
And there was Elizabeth, sitting at the bar. She wore a floor length nutria coat, which nearly reached the dirty floor of the pub. I was a vegetarian animal lover, but I still reached out to stroke the soft luxuriant fur; to admire her as she turned, smiling over her shoulder. She was also wearing raggedy jeans and carrying a Vuitton bag, an enormous vintage diamond ring on her right thumb. Paul was with her, bored and laconic and just slightly scruffy. He had arresting green eyes and a way of leaning back in his chair, his elbow casually draped over the back of the chair. He kept taking my cigarettes and giving me a sardonic half smile when he lit them. He never seemed to pay for his drinks.
She was so nice to me, from the beginning, just like Bobby. When we went to the bathroom, she linked arms with me. I was putting on mascara when she came out of the stall.
“If I use that, will I be as beautiful as you?”
I laughed and flushed pink, I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I was flattered and uncomfortable at the same time. I knew I wasn’t in Elizabeth’s league.
“No, really. You look like a Flemish painting, with that pure skin and hair and hardly any eyebrows, and your high cheekbones. It’s smart that you don’t wear that much makeup, it adds to your look.” She looked in the mirror and gave her reflection an exaggerated kiss.
“Want to snort some coke?”
She pulled a little mirror out of her bag. She had the Vuitton wallet, checkbook cover, key organizer, and mirror. I knew it was bourgeois, the damning epithet of our day, but I was impressed. She had an engraved sterling silver coke straw too. We both did two huge lines and smiled happily at each other. And that is how it all began, our foursome.
Elizabeth was always the one to do it all. None of us could keep up with her. She organized all the parties and the drug purchases. Say, a party in an empty mansion, for which she had the key. She wasn’t overbearing, she could just make her suggestions sound like the most fun.
Elizabeth was brilliant, too. She had read everything. We were both lit majors, and she was in a few of my classes. If icy Professor Wexley asked her who Petrarch’s great obsession was, she said “Laura” without even looking up from her doodling. Then he tried to get her on Dante’s. She said, “Beatrice,” and winked at me. I’d never read Petrarch. I strained to see her exam grades or her papers when she wasn’t looking, and they always said something like “Superb” or “I could find nothing to carp about here despite my greatest effort. Another brilliant job.” That one killed me. I remember her discussing Henry James with the professor while the rest of us looked blankly at each other. “The Turn of the Screw” was as far as I had gotten. She and I often smoked dope before class, but there was never any rattling of her intellect.
At the quarterly tea for the English Department, the head of the department gave a little speech. Elizabeth and I were giggling and whispering a little, not paying attention. Professor Silverstein glared at us and started lecturing on how terrible it was when people don’t live up to their potential. I sensed people’s eyes on her.
One night Elizabeth and her boyfriend Paul and Bobby and I were sitting around her apartment. Elizabeth suddenly stood up, exhilarated,
her pupils large and black with excitement and cocaine.
“We should all have sex together. It would build the trust between us, tear down all our barriers.”
Bobby and I looked at her, dumbfounded. Paul narrowed his eyes and scowled.
“If we switch partners, that will make us free and bring us all closer.”
I just sat there, my mouth slightly open. Elizabeth took off her pink Indian cotton shirt, revealing her beautiful breasts. She had lit candles earlier, so the light in the room was muted. There was a faint blue glow from the flickering TV. She was so pale she looked almost incandescent. She was smiling, her lips moist and her eyes glistening in the half light. It seemed like there was no turning back. I stood up and took my shirt off too.
Paul was not terribly interested in kissing or fondling me, and ultimately, he was unable to get an erection, especially once Bobby and Elizabeth were having sex. I was too scared to do anything except tentatively kiss Elizabeth and barely touch her clitoris. I wanted to do more but something held me back, a crazy kind of shyness.
Then I was stuck with Paul, who was cold and angry, nearly in tears and unable to look at anything or anyone but Elizabeth. I could see her white legs in the air, even in the darkened room. Paul finally freaked out.
“Stop, stop, stop! Get out of her, both of you, now. You fucking bastard, Bobby! Just get out.” Paul stood there, trembling with rage, crying now, and clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Okay, okay, we’re going!” Bobby shouted back.
“Paul, you are overreacting! I don’t want them to go! YOU stop it!” Elizabeth said.
But I knew we had to get out of there before the boys got into a fight. I threw on my jeans and shoved my panties and bra into my jacket pockets, then Bobby and I grabbed our shoes and jackets and ran out. We didn’t talk or look at each other as we dressed in the elevator.
Bobby and I didn’t speak on the way home. I hugged myself in the thin jacket. He kept lighting cigarettes and throwing them half-smoked out of the BMW window. I felt the same excitement I had felt when I drove home one night in high school, no longer a virgin. I had a strange feeling of accomplishment; I could say I’d had group sex! I wasn’t such a boring country girl. Maybe now Elizabeth would see me as edgy as she was.
Bobby drove to our favorite pizza shop. We ordered the clam one with white sauce that Elizabeth liked, and he told me the bathtub story. Paul had been calling and calling Elizabeth, and she never answered, for hours. Finally, Paul went to her house, a huge one in Bethesda. Her parents didn’t want to let him in, they had never liked him, but he was so insistent that they allowed it. He pounded on the door to her bathroom, and finally broke it down. She had slashed her wrists and was in the tub surrounded by blood and water, unconscious. Paul called 911, and loaded her into the ambulance, leaving her befuddled parents frozen on the stairs, unable to act or react. Then they followed in a car, and then they got her one of the best therapists in the city. They also hired a publicist to keep the story out of the papers.
I was even more enamored of Elizabeth after that story. I loved The Bell Jar and R.D. Laing. I thought people who committed themselves or attempted suicide were cool, that they saw something that made them unable to fit in the straight world, that they were more special, more sensitive. Elizabeth got eight stitches in each wrist, and one could see the intricate scars when she was high and forgot to hide them with her sleeves or her jewelry. I thought she was courageous, a warrior.
I put down the letter and straightened up on the bench press, stretching out my back. I could hear dogs barking. I had tons to do, groceries and cleaning. But I sat down again, not ready to face the house. I picked up the letter again.
Elizabeth was always meeting and cultivating new people, and one of them was her haircutter, Ray. He cut all the society women’s hair in a fancy salon in Georgetown. They went for drinks one night after a cut and became fast friends.
Ray liked guns. Once we went over to his house, and after he was finished telling us we both needed trims and that I should try layers and that we both had beautiful, soulful eyes, he asked us if we wanted to see his new “something.” He went to the closet and pulled out a .357 Magnum. He asked us if we wanted to touch it. I had never seen a gun before, but I took it in my hand and felt the heft for a moment, then quickly gave it back. I knew nothing about the safety or anything like that. Elizabeth grinned widely as she held it, then she pointed it at Ray.
Ray heard something outside, and when he looked out, he thought he saw someone messing with his car. Cocaine made him paranoid. He tucked the gun into the waistband of his pants and raced downstairs. Elizabeth and I ran to the window, and soon enough we saw Ray burst outside. The person who had been by the car was gone now, and all we could see was Ray rushing around frantically. When Ray came back upstairs, I quickly went home.
Ray was into edgy sex, too. One night Elizabeth and Ray and Ray’s girlfriend Shelley and a Dutch girl they had picked up that night in a bar, were playing sex games. Ray got out his gun, pretending to be forcing the women to have oral sex with it. Power and sex and edginess, complete with a ton of coke.
I have always imagined this scene. Maybe some part of me wished I was there, although I can hardly admit that, even to myself. I know Elizabeth and Shelley were sitting on the bed, leaning back against the headboard. I know Ray put the gun in Shelley’s mouth. I know Ray was crouched above Shelley, and Elizabeth was stroking Shelley’s breasts. It’s all in the court transcript. I know the gun went off.
Shelley’s brains and blood spattered all-over Elizabeth and the headboard and the wall and onto Ray and the Dutch woman. Elizabeth reached out and put her hand on the wall, to remind herself of reality, to see if the wall would bend and ripple, to see if she was alive, or if it was a dream.
Later, the police took pictures of her bloody handprint on the wall. I know for a moment the three of them sat stunned. I know Ray ran to the phone and called 911, because they played the tape over and over at the trial.
“I shot her! I killed her! It was an accident! I didn’t mean it! Help us! Help us!” and on and on. Elizabeth could be heard sobbing in the background. Shelley’s mom had to leave the courtroom.
Imagine Elizabeth getting off the bed and walking to the bathroom, holding her arms away from her body. She wouldn’t want to touch or see the blood. She would hate the feeling of wetness on her body. She would hear herself breathing jaggedly. She’d be aware of Ray keening in the background, waiting for the police.
She’d hear the Dutch woman muttering to herself in her language, low and awful and guttural. Elizabeth would step into the glass shower stall, and see the dark red
blood and beige-pink brain tissue bloom and swirl between her legs before it went down the drain. She would vomit again and again in the shower, until a policewoman pulled her out.
Elizabeth never really talked about it, maybe that is why I let my imagination run wild. Everything I know to be true I only heard in testimony. I liked the weird celebrity we had on campus; you could see heads turn and people whispering.
What I do know is that she didn’t tell her parents for the longest time, they were out of the country when it happened. They wouldn’t have read the lurid parts of the paper, and it was before the internet. There was a full article devoted to it in the Style Section of the Times, with a long-range photo of Ray, unlocking his car, a Porsche. He looked great, a slim handsome Italian man, with a great haircut, in a long black leather jacket. Somehow, he was out on bail.
It wasn’t until the trial that Elizabeth finally had to tell her parents. We were roommates by this time; she had to move out of the complex where Ray lived, she couldn’t bear it. By coincidence, we lived on Courthouse Road. I was watching the news in the apartment when they did a segment on Ray’s trial, perhaps because of his celebrity attorney, perhaps because people love a scandal.
I turned on the afternoon news, just in time to see Elizabeth emerge alone from the courthouse. She should have had someone with her. The Dutch girl left the country the day after the murder, and Elizabeth was the only witness for the defense. The lawyers were hoping for manslaughter, or even that it would be ruled an accident. Elizabeth had to run from the reporters and photographers. She looked terrified, racing down the street in a conservative plaid dress that didn’t suit her. When she burst into the apartment, she was still panting. I had just seen her on TV.
Soon after that, Elizabeth invited Ray over for dinner. It was a hot and humid summer, so she made marinated grilled chicken on our tiny hibachi on the balcony. She asked me to make my mom’s red-potato salad with scallions and fresh parsley.
“This is the best potato salad I’ve ever had,” Ray said. He took a huge bite. Both Elizabeth and I smiled at him.
Ray’s face crumpled, his laden fork trembling in his hand. He dropped it and covered his face with both hands.
“I did the worst thing a person can do, didn’t I?”
“It was an accident!” I said.
“You didn’t mean to do it!” Elizabeth said.
I had always wanted to be like Elizabeth, as cultured, as smart, even as wealthy. I wanted her beauty and her charisma and her edge. I wanted to have her interesting life, so much richer than my own. Why didn’t I knock on her door when I heard her crying in her room? Even now I can still see her stricken face when her father called to confront her with the truth. I just handed her the phone.
That was my glamourous youth. Now, I was just a suburban housewife. I wore a lemon-yellow sweater tied around my shoulders, and crisp khaki pants. I did yoga. I put curly willow in plant arrangements. I made brioche. Today I’m still a staid woman with a boring life, exactly what I feared becoming when I was young.
I got up, shakily. I must have been in the garage for an hour. I felt stiff and chilled. I had tons of things to do. My husband and son were out all day, but I still had to get the groceries, take the dog for a run, and go to yoga.
I pulled into the parking lot at the Downward Dog. I switched off NPR, and just for a second I rested my head on the steering wheel and closed my eyes. I still had five minutes before class.
I heard a sharp knock and jumped. There was Suze, tapping on the glass with her manicured nails. Her hair was different again. I rolled down the window.
“Hi! Are you okay?”
‘Yeah, just meditating for a minute before class.”
I opened the door and jumped out. I noticed that the day was warm and sunny and that there was a cool salty breeze floating off the ocean. Suze was beaming happily.
“I love that top. Not everyone can wear pistachio.”
Sometimes I wondered if Suze’s compliments were tiny digs.
“Do you want to do a drink after? “
“Oh, no thanks. I have some errands to run later. Thanks though. Next week for sure, ok?” I smiled widely.
Suze was what passed for a friend now.
The day I left for California was a bitter, gray winter day. I had graduated, and been working for a few months, saving money. Bobby and I had been history for a while; he went to Europe after school. I never saw him again after graduation.
I was in our apartment, waiting for the cab to pick me up for the airport, and I wandered into Elizabeth’s room. Elizabeth had antique furniture she had gotten as a child when her dad was working in Portugal. She was famously messy, and her clothes were strewn everywhere. She had thrown her fur down on the floor of the closet. A tiny plastic bag with some white powder in it was peeking out from her jewelry box. There was a faint smell of marijuana and cigarettes. Her plants were dead. I picked up one of her shirts, lifted it to my face and sniffed deeply. It was “Joy,” of course. Her favorite. The night before we had gone to Nathan’s and she had bought me a few bottles of Dom Perignon, my head still ached from it. Then I heard the doorbell buzzer, and I grabbed my bags. I never said goodbye.
What happened to her? Did she leave the past behind too? I wondered what she read. I couldn’t imagine her aging, or shopping in the produce section of a grocery store. She wasn’t an ordinary mortal, like me. I slipped out of her life. Years later, bored at work, I googled Ray, and found a blog the victim’s sister had written about the rift in her family’s life when her sister was killed. They had never healed. It wasn’t an edgy game to them.
Twenty years later, I work in a gallery downtown. I sit there for four hours a day, answering the phone, showing the few passers-by the price lists and the upcoming shows. It’s the kind of job people who don’t really have to work get, an excuse to get out of the house. I drive to the station, then take the train.
The steps out of the subway smell like urine and rotten food and cigarettes. I get out at Seventh and Market and walk through the groups of homeless people that congregate there. The gallery is five blocks over, but in an entirely different world. On the way I walk by people laying in doorways wrapped in filthy blankets, people with bad teeth and worse skin who mutter to themselves or who shout elaborate plans at no one in particular. Some of the faces are familiar. I look at the wares on sale in the Thieves Market; it is heartbreaking, really, to see the carefully folded yellow Gap sweatshirt, and the wasabi bowls, and the wrought iron candlesticks, and the CDs; all the leftover objects from a previous life. I walk by the Chinese restaurant and read the sandwich board, advertising four chicken wings for a dollar; soup for seventy-five cents; the storeowners know their clientele. The guy who delivers liquor to the store looks ashamed as he wheels his dolly full of booze past the staggering drunks.
Today I’m walking behind a man wearing flip flops, on a freezing, rainy January day. I thought he had wrapped duct tape around his heels. Then I realized that it was his skin, flayed and torn and green, that I saw flapping through the puddles on the street. I forced myself not to look away.
I deserve to see these things. It’s been too easy for me. I never had to pay for my privileges. And Elizabeth, well, she paid even less than I did. The people who live here on the street, they know what danger and survival really mean.
My co-workers get out of the subway further down so they can avoid all the suffering. It’s hard for them to walk by with their coffee and their scone. But I feel impelled to go this way.
Jane VanCanfort has an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She's been published in a variety of literary magazines, such as Idle Ink, El Portal, Fiction on the Web, and the Valparaiso Review. She lives in the Sierra foothills with her husband and pets.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.