The town I grew up in is famous for two things. One is granite, which supposedly made my great-great-grandparents rich. The old quarries are still there, empty and echoing, the jutting ridges of which we climbed as children. Like magic, one generation finds itself rich on the pinkish blue stone the earth burps up. Like magic, the next generation can’t sell the stuff to save its life. Poof! The quarry is deserted. The bosses leave town. Empty houses, empty storefronts. The jewelry store turns pawnshop. The barbershop is a brothel. The history of Woodfern is a magic act in which everything disappears. The show ends, the magician goes home with his doves. But the people of Woodfern stay late into the night, scouring the stage for all they’ve lost. Jobs, self-respect, children’s legacies. They at least want their money back! This show stinks, they decide. Give them back their seventy-five cents! This is the legacy they pass down to their children and their children’s children: the treasure of the thwarted, that heirloom resentment.
Into this I was born. A town of people mad at God and no relief for it, although they tried various methods over the years. Drinking only got them in trouble with their wives. Fighting took too much energy. They tried starving their own dogs and that gave them some satisfaction. They killed every deer, squirrel, moose, bear, fox, coyote, turkey, grouse, and duck within the legal limit, but a forestful of dead beasts couldn’t make up for what they’d had and what they’d lost.
Other boys my age picked up their parents’ discontent like hand-me-down boots, but I was different. While other boys could experience every shade of anger known to man, every black and blue hue, I knew something about love. I knew that love was not a single stroke of feeling, not the solitary stab of an arrow or a thunderbolt, but a rich and wild condition that varied in its visitations the way storms did. Love could be turbulent like wind or as gentle as rain.
The way I loved my mother was of the gentle variety. In its day-to-day form it was a dull throb of gratitude, but it could be sharpened suddenly, breathlessly, by her faintly dusty, wintry smell as she took her coat off in the hall; tightened by a rare eruption of her teenage beauty rising from beneath the pale and faded mother I knew.
The love I felt for my father was stiff but comfortable comparatively. He was a vegetable farmer, with a wheat-colored beard and huge cracked boots he wore yearround. It was our tradition to spend Youth Day at his camp by the lake, waking up at four in the brittle dark to wait for deer. The sharp, sweet smell of earth, the prickle of November dawn—it was a comfortable feeling, and it was how I loved him.
Then there was the love I felt for certain soft-spoken teachers who made me think of other, richer places. There was the love I felt for girls who made my days (and nights) better just by being beautiful and having no control over what they did and said in my fantasies. There were kinds of love that didn’t make sense. Love for food sometimes, a rising, bursting appreciation for the taste of venison or apples. There was the love of beautiful words, which came up in English class, a love I discussed with no one since I valued my reputation, what little I had. There was the love of finished tasks. The love of cracking knuckles, or a hot shower. The love of snow. The love of a shot deer. The love of a tree full of birds. The love of waking up, drifting off, dreaming.
And then there was the love I felt for Twila Flood—a love that felt the way her name sounded, like dusk and hard water. In this granite town, Twila was something unreal. Creature of decadent beauty. Too lovely to talk to. But I watched her. In the hallway. Walking past. Dark hair. Dark mouth. Twila. Hot. Silent. Swelling. Flood.
Which brings me back to Woodfern and the second thing it’s famous for: the ice storm of 1988. It was the year Twila Flood was in my English class. I sat behind her where I could study the baby hair on the back of her neck, and a certain mole near her ear, and the glossy wave of her hair crashing on her shoulders. It was the year the school closed down overnight, with the students inside. It was the year a girl got pregnant in the halls of the school. It was the unfurling of my own embryonic understanding of love.
No one predicted the ice storm. It came suddenly and without warning while I was in Miss Little’s English class, looking at Twila Flood’s neck. I leaned toward her, longing to feel the heat off her body. She seemed nervous, biting her fingernails as if she were chewing herself out of a trap. I thought of the raw flesh under Twila’s fingernails, pretty, unprotected. Outside, the light changed. The sky turned sickly, the clouds purple, gray and green, the colors of acid and bile.
“I love a storm, ”Ben Thomson said, running to the window just as the rain started: a whisper, snapping fingers, applause, boots up and down the stairs. Twila twisted in her seat to see out the window. Her cheeks were flushed with the natural warmth of her body. Kimberly Keenan crowded next to Ben at the window, and then other kids jumped up and joined them, shoving and crowding and watching the rain, until Miss Little ordered them all back to their seats.
Kimberly Keenan sat with voluptuous dignity. Kimberly gave the impression that she was bursting out of everything around her—chairs, clothing, her own skin. We boys had nicknamed her Deedee, as a tribute to her breasts, which were marvelously buoyant and seemed to defy both gravity and propriety. When we read Their Eyes Were Watching God in English class that year, I for one understood Hurston’s description of Janie’s pugnacious breasts. Not only her breasts, but Kimberly herself was pugnacious—and mean, and stupid. I didn’t like her, but still I dreamed of her, being under and between and inside her—we all did— and if she had known the role she played in our masturbatory fantasies, I believe she would have been glad.
When class was over Twila got out of her seat and went to the window. I followed her, with no idea why I felt so brave. I stood behind her, where I could see her faint reflection in the window. Her hair was rich and dark. The bridge of her nose had an expensive fragility like the edge of a little saucer. Outside the air was silver with rain.
“Do you feel,” Twila said, “that this is exactly what it will be like when the world ends? I mean ends again.”
I opened my mouth, but I had exactly nothing to say.
“The flood,” Twila said. She looked over her shoulder at me. “I’m not religious or anything,” she said, “but I like thinking about the flood.”
“Me too,” I said. Not a lie because I figured now I’d think about it all the time.
“Do you ever feel like we’re on the ark?” she said. “Like we’re all the animals? And I’m some sort of wild cat. Like the puma?”
“The puma,” I said. Her voice was intoxicating. She didn’t belong here. She belonged in some rich and pristine place. A palace. A museum. “I can see you as the puma,” I said. “What would I be?”
She glanced at me. “Maybe the moose?”
“The moose,” I said. “The moose—in what way—?”
“I don’t mean in the big and galloping way,” she said. “It’s more something about the nose or the eyes.”
I put my hand on my nose.
“Not in the big sense of the nose,” she said quickly. “I meant the kindness of the nose.”
“Oh, the kindness,” I said.
“Shit, now I offended you,” she said. “I don’t know what is wrong with me.”
“Absolutely nothing,” I said.
She turned away from the window in apparent disgust. “I like a storm, too,” she said. “But my bus stop is a mile from my house. I’m going to get soaking wet.” Then she went into the hallway.
It occurred to me I could offer to ride the bus home with her and then carry her down the mile-long driveway, keeping her warm against my body. She could wrap her legs around my waist, and I could button my coat around both of us, and if she were chilled when we got home, I could give her a bath.
“It’s turning to ice, ”Kimberly K. was yelling in the hallway. “It’s half an inch thick!”
Ask anyone in town, they’ll remember the ice storm. There were fourteen auto accidents in twenty-four hours; power was out for five days; six cows died of mastitis when their milk machines wouldn’t run and their udders swelled to dangerous proportions. The school was shut down that night with the students inside. And worst of all, Kimberly Keenan’s pregnancy, her doctor said, dated back to the night of the ice storm, leading me to imagine conception as an event as hard and perfect as ice, in which an implosion of matter inside the body forms, like the strands of an ice crystal, a precarious structure, made of bone, hair, and skin.
When we pushed out the school’s front doors at 2:30, holding our backpacks to our chests, much the way I had earlier imagined holding Twila Flood, a wondrous transformation had taken place. The buses, benches, parking lot, and soccer field lay under a translucent layer of ice. In the yellow light, the ice had a brownish tint, like a beer bottle, and it was as smooth as if we’d made it in our freezers.
I watched everyone slipping and sliding down the front steps of the school. Twila Flood was as precise and graceful as the wild cat she imagined herself to be. I watched her climb onto her bus, which closed its doors with a sigh and crept into the icy parking lot. Then, in dreamy slow motion, it drifted sideways off the road, fishtailed across the soccer field, and hit a goal post. When the driver tried to move the bus again, the engine revved and the wheels spun madly and a smoky smell drifted across the field.
After that, Mr. Cupjik, our principal, herded everyone back inside. I hung back to make sure Twila got off that bus okay. From a distance I followed her inside. The kids from the runaway bus got to lie down in the library while they waited for the school nurse to check them over. The rest of us lined up outside the main office to call our parents.
“No one’s going anywhere until we see what this storm’s got planned,” Mr. Cupjik said to us.
“So what are we supposed to do?” someone asked.
“Homework,” Mr. Cupjik said.
“What about our parents?” someone else asked.
“They can pick you up if they want,” Mr. Cupjik said. “That’s their prerogative.”
My mother answered the phone at my house.
“They’re keeping us here,” I said. “I don’t even know how long.”
“You want me to come get you?” she said.
“God no,” I said.
“What are you going to do then? Stay there all night?”
“If I’m lucky,” I said, thinking about Twila, the dark halls and the wind outside. After the phone calls they corralled us into the gym. There were close to three hundred of us, and no one could sit still. Out the gym windows, we could see the bus like some strange dead beast in the field, already coated with a layer of ice.
They fed us the hotdogs meant for tomorrow’s lunch. Miss Little herself handed them out. Then they tried to organize games: telephone and psychiatrist, but we refused to play. Mr. Cupjik and the chorus teacher began a round of “Hey Jude,” but no one joined in.
Some parents came to take their kids. But by seven we could hear tree branches snapping under the weight of the ice, and no one else came. At nine the power lines came down and we were plunged into darkness. A roar went up in the gym. Mr. Cupjik opened the gym doors so the emergency lighting from the hallway would shine in. In that dim light, the faces around me seemed possessed with otherworldly spirit. A current of energy ran from kid to kid, a wild restless stirring. Their eyes were hard and black. Their lips glistened. I may have looked that way, too, but I didn’t feel it. I found myself in a state of languor; around me, the wind howled musically and bodies drifted like figures in a dream. I set myself up in a corner of the gym, with my gym clothes bundled to make a kind of pillow.
“It’s time to lie down,” Mr. Cupjik announced at ten, and everyone laughed at this suggestion.
“Lie down on the floor and close your eyes,” Mr. Cupjik said.
There were bodies everywhere, dark furtive figures prowling the shadows. They reminded me of wolves or thieves. They were in a kind of rapture. A kid climbed to the top of the bleachers and held his arms out so that in silhouette he looked crucified. Then more kids climbed up after him and huddled at the top, and they looked like bats, wings folded. Miss Little and the other teachers walked wearily in circles around the room, trying to keep everyone in one place.
Around eleven I went to the bathroom and found Ben Thomson and his girlfriend. Ben had her pinned to the wall. Her head rubbed up and down, her hair a halo of static. They went into the stall while I used the urinal. The faint thump thump of them against the door. Dim graffiti. Suck me. Fuck me. Water splashing in the sink.
In the gym, kids were finding where to go—into corners, behind gymnastics mats. Miss Little’s flashlight poked into their darkness. They growled. Gnashed their teeth. The place got warm. Sweat. Crashing wind.
I lay back on my folded arms, listened to the bodies all around me, the cracking of branches outside. Drifting, dreaming. When all at once Twila Flood lay down beside me.
“Hello James,” she said.
Twila Flood and I had been born one day apart in the same hospital, and I’d been comforting myself with this knowledge since the third grade, as evidence that Fate had thrown us together once and would certainly do it again sooner or later. I liked to think of us together as babies, her open round mouth, her soft wrinkled newborn body. I wondered if we had come from the same place, before being born.
And now seventeen years after we had lain together in bassinets, we were apparently going to lie together again. It looked for all intents and purposes as if she intended to sleep, or not sleep, right there next to me all night long.
“I don’t know why my mom didn’t come get me,” Twila said.
“Roads,” I said. Twila stared at me. Complete sentences, I told myself sternly.
“I would rather ice skate home than spend the night here,” she said.
“A car could hit you,” I said.
“I guess so,” Twila said. She pushed up on her elbows and looked around the room. “Everyone is acting drunk. This is the only quiet place. Right here where you are.”
My love for her flared unbearably.
“Do you want to lie against the wall?” I said. “It might be quieter.”
“It’s a difference of like three feet,” she said.
“The wall might absorb sound?” I said.
“Anyway, I don’t even do that at home,” she said. “Lie against the wall, I mean. My bed’s in the middle of the room.”
“Oh, your bed,” I said.
“Because I bump my elbows,” she said.
“You must thrash around a lot.”
“I guess I do,” she said. “Plus I bruise incredibly easily.”
She hiked up the sleeve of her sweater and showed me a purplish circle just above her elbow. It looked as soft as fruit.
“That’s a good one,” I said.
Twila wrapped her jacket around her like a blanket. She said, “I guess I’ll try to get some sleep now,” and she turned on her side, facing me, and closed her eyes.
I lay there a long time before I fell asleep that night. I heard the murmur of kids who didn’t want to waste time sleeping. Behind Twila, I caught glimpses of dark shapes moving with purpose. I grew sleepy listening to the ice outside as it tore down telephone lines. I grew sleepy watching Twila as she slept. Her breath was long and slow, and long and low. Her hair, escaping from its rubber band, curled like some exotic underwater weed. I touched the tip, the tendril closest to me. She was so beautiful I was moved to sing, under my breath, the first two verses of “Is This Love” by White Snake. Don’t fall asleep, I told myself, don’t fall asleep. Lying on the hard gym floor, my heart, the blood within me, swelled with love.
For weeks all we heard about were damages from the ice storm. Trees, barns, and fences: destroyed by ice. My own house suffered, too. Four windows blown out and the chimney snapped like a pipe cleaner. Heat out all over town. Burst pipes. Horses, cows, dogs, and one old woman frozen to death. And Kimberly Keenan was pregnant.
When her father found out, he hit her in the face, avoiding her stomach so he wouldn’t hurt the baby. She told him it wasn’t her fault, but the school’s, since she’d gotten pregnant there in the hallways. Mr. Keenan stormed into Mr. Cupjik’s office the next day demanding to know what the hell the school was going to do about it. He’d had his doubts about the virtue of Woodfern High since last year when he’d opened his front door in the morning, and found Kimberly on the doorstep, passed out with her panties in her pocket. She’d been at a school dance the night before.
Kimberly didn’t know who the father was; it was either, she admitted, a tenth grader named Simon or Brady Doyle, a senior basketball star who told us that Kimberly Keenan was “like a bank, men,” a place to “deposit your dick and keep your cum.”
“Guess you should have made a withdrawal,” someone said.
“Funny,” Brady Doyle said, flicking that kid on the nose.
Then he told us in detail where and how he’d had her. In girl’s locker room, bent over a bench. Although I had often imagined scenes in the locker room in which it were I and not Brady Doyle holding Kimberly by the flesh of her bare hips, when Brady Doyle told us this, when he showed us with his hands exactly how he had bent her like a Barbie doll over the girl’s locker room bench, I wanted to hurt him.
Once it was all out in the open, there was a buzz of rumors: Mr. Keenan was suing the school; Mr. Cupjik was the father of Kimberly’s baby; Kimberly had been charging money the night of the ice storm, her new career sadly ruined before it even got off the ground due to the unforeseen pregnancy. To me the gossip seemed flat and dirty like the blackened snow that piled up on the side of the road.
The night of the ice storm had come to stand for everything I detested about myself. It was a night of squandered opportunities. What a night! everyone said. Relationships had been forged and consummated; conception had occurred! But did I act on my desires that night? Was I courageous? I did not and I was not. I slept. I dreamed. I lay down near my love and never once reached out for her.
And it soon became clear there would be no second chance. I didn’t mean anything more to Twila after our night on the gym floor. She didn’t turn around in English class to meet my eyes. When I passed her in the halls she said, “Hi James” and that was all. I couldn’t believe how desperately I hung onto those careless words. In bed at night, I thought of Twila, but even in my fantasies, she was out of reach, and there was no relief for the desire I felt.
In February she started dating a boy named Bo, a jerk I’d known forever. I saw them kissing at the end of a hallway one afternoon. His hands ran down her back and came to rest on the upper curve of her butt, a gesture so familiar to her she apparently didn’t even notice. It was terrible knowing that while I was still deluged with dreams of Twila Flood, she was opening up her soft inner parts to someone else; it was as if someone else had seen the pink underneath of her fingernails, the wrinkled newborn self I thought only I knew about. The love I felt for her, so wild and pneumatic for so long, was punctured suddenly and sagged inside me. It all seemed ruined, every sweet thought I’d ever had.
To keep from thinking about Twila, I thought about a possible life I might have someday far from here. At night in bed I pictured an imaginary city where I would one day live, the defining features of which were tall brick townhouses with window washers swinging off the walls like trapeze artists, women in high heels walking bejeweled dogs, and mustachioed hot dog vendors on cobblestone streets. I wore suits and hurried from place to place, constantly saying, “Keep the change.” In a living room in this city, I worked late into the night, bent over a desk against a window illuminated by one lamp. Women walking by on the street could see me in that glow and they liked me. The women of this city were beautiful and lonely; their gorgeous feet ached at night. They lived in my neighborhood and hoped to run into me at the grocery store.
As far as I knew no one in my family had ever lived in such a city, or any city at all. They were vegetable farmers and granite men as far back as my great-great-grandfather, and not one of them had been to college. My mother had her own dreams for me, as did Miss Little, who seemed fixated all spring on my SAT scores and college applications, the education she saw spreading out in front of me like a golden staircase leading out of a pit of dirt.
To occupy my mind the spring after the ice storm, I read college brochures, brought my GPA up to a 3.8, and took practice SAT tests. Miss Little stayed after school drilling me on analogies and antonyms. I was happy for the extra work. I figured ambition is to anguish as salve is to infection. I began to think of college as the way to escape from gossip and dirty winter snow and dirty sex against the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and poverty, and what I was born into, and who I was supposed to become.
In English class I didn’t look at Twila Flood anymore; I gazed out the window instead. The spring sky was a thin membrane of blue, on it projected translucent wisps of possibility, a future that seemed always on the verge of ripping and floating away.
In July, Kimberly gave birth to a premature baby born without bones. It wasn’t alive, but still I pictured its eyes blinking, small black stones in a jellyfish body. We heard that she cried and clutched the body until a kind nurse coaxed it away from her.
In August, I met a girl who worked at the movie theatre in Littleton. She went to a different high school, and apparently hadn’t been part of the “we think of James as a friend” conspiracy I had suffered from for years. For a month, we went out every weekend. We went to keg parties on a dark golf course after midnight where the rolling green in the moonlight looked like silver, like money. We swam at Loon Lake, and I studied the summer kids up at their lake houses for the weekend. They lay in the sun like we did, they swam to the barge and dove off just like us, but these kids, up from Boston or New York, seemed to experience sensation more acutely than we did. When they lay in the sun, they soaked it up until they glowed. The water beaded on their skin like pearls. They were always yawning, stretching, rolling over with lazy pleasure. The girl from Littleton called them hedonists, a word that pleased me.
On Labor Day weekend, the last weekend before I began my senior year, we took a tent out to Woodfern Lake and found a place to set up camp among the old browning pines. While I drove the tent stakes into the earth, she built a fire. Later she followed me inside the tent, and we lay looking at one another until the campfire had sputtered down to red. We kissed. She twined her fingers through my hair. We exhausted ourselves kissing and I fell asleep with my mouth still on her. I woke a second later with the desperate impression that I was falling and had to hold onto her. I pulled her up on top of me and then she pulled me on top of her. In the dark I couldn’t see her face but the heat and dampness from her body and her wet smell left me almost senseless.
I couldn’t picture her face as I pushed and pushed against her until I slid in through the leghole of her underwear and found myself where I had so longed to be. She asked me to put on a condom and I managed to. Then I found my way inside her again, and in the quick and mindless dizziness that followed, my brain misfired, producing images of women I had never touched and pasting parts of them on parts of her. A lonely woman passing by my city window; Kimberly Keenan’s breasts; my mother scratching my back; Twila. In the night the packed dirt under the tent became the hard gym floor and Twila Flood was the darkness that enveloped me.
Immediately afterwards, I flicked on my flashlight and looked down at the wet condom flapping off of me. I had done what I’d wanted to do, and I felt as shrunken and insignificant as ever. Now that my impulse lay in a little milky pearl in the tip of the condom, I felt small and scared and tender as a mole.
When I woke up, the sun was new and warm and orange through the tent. All around was the smell of latex and semen. My fingers smelled like the inside of her. In the sunlight I could see more of her than I wanted. I could see each pore on her face. I could see the hair follicles on her upper lip, and the pale hairs moving as she breathed.
I stepped out of the tent. The old shaggy pines were glowing, as if their needles had been polished. The earth looked rich and golden.
I remembered the morning after the ice storm when we emerged from the dark school, blinking like cave animals, and we saw what we had never seen before—each twig, each leaf, each blade of grass outlined in crystal. The school bus in the soccer field shimmered like some sort of wonderful statue, and the soccer field hurt our eyes with the splendor of sunlight glinting off it. I stood on the school steps, and searched out Twila Flood. Her hair was tangled, all caught up in knots on the back of her head. I would have liked to coax those tangles out for her, carefully holding her head with one hand. I felt that we were sharing something amazing, seeing how the ordinary world can be transformed overnight.
I packed up the tent, drove the girl home, and that night, I showed up at Twila Flood’s house. We stared at each other over the threshold.
“You want to come in?” she said finally, and led me into her living room, where she’d been watching an old movie, a line of women dancing in costumes that sparkled.
Twila sat on the couch, and I went down on my knees beside her.
“I have to say something,” I said. “You may think I’m crazy, but I have to say it.”
“I do think you’re crazy,” she said. “Get the hell up.”
She looked almost scared. Her eyelids were smudged with mascara. “I’m pretty much in love with you,” I said. “I’ve felt this way for a long time, and I’ve never said a word about it, because I didn’t know if there was even the slimmest chance in hell you’d feel the same way, but I decided it was time to say something whether you feel it or not. I have to let you know, don’t I?”
Twila Flood reached up and smoothed the hair at her forehead. She looked at me and touched her hair distractedly.
“This is a big surprise,” she said finally.
“I know you’re with Bo,” I said. “I should probably leave you both alone.”
“Bo and I broke up,” Twila said.
“My god,” I said and started to cry. I covered my face with my hands as if that would keep her from seeing. For a while we stayed just like that, Twila on the couch, me on my knees beside her, and behind us, women dancing, shimmering, making sharp sounds with their heels on a stage.
Then Twila pried my hands from my face and made me look at her.
I’d been saving up for a truck, and that fall I bought it so I could drive Twila home from school every day. I never got tired of seeing her in the passenger’s seat although it gave me a feeling that was both happy and sad. It was the way I felt when I saw something beautiful that I knew wouldn’t last, an upsurge of appreciation for something I was already grieving for.
I was different now, I told myself, from the boy who had fallen asleep the night of the ice storm. I was not a boy any longer, I thought. When it was time to kiss Twila Flood, believe me when I say I kissed her. The days swept by. I didn’t want to stop and think. I rushed through the days so I could end up at her house, touching her. When we first made love Twila closed her eyes. I wanted her to look, to know it was me and no one else. I kept my mouth on her jaw when I came, sucking on the bone.
In the spring I was accepted to three of the four colleges I applied to. One was Northwestern in Chicago, and Miss Little waved the acceptance letter in my face telling me I was a fool not to go. She looked so angry, I wondered what was in it for her. She didn’t have to stay here. She was from Connecticut and had gone to school in Boston. She had a big wealthy family elsewhere. She could leave anytime she pleased.
“I have a girlfriend,” I said. “I have to think about her.”
“Very noble of you,” she said.
“I can’t leave her,” I said.
“Well you can’t stay here,” she said.
“You’re here,” I said. “You’re staying here. How is that different?”
She looked at me over the top of her glasses and shook her head in disgust. She never answered me, but I figured it out anyhow. It was a rescue mission, Miss Little teaching at this school. She was here to find the worthy ones and take them out with her. I was her project. If I failed, she failed.
The next time we made love, it was afternoon but dark as night outside, a dirty April sky. The air was cold and sluggish, the ground covered with gray slush. I stopped moving and put my fingers on Twila’s eyelids.
“Why don’t you ever look at me?” I said. She opened her eyes.
“I’ll look at you,” she said, “if you want me to.”
Later she said, “You know what I was thinking? I was thinking we could have a baby.”
“What—you and me?” I said.
She snuggled up against me under the covers. Her naked arms around my chest were hot.
“What, like Kimberly Keenan?” I said. “Well, that’s a great idea, Twila. Because she’s a perfect model for how to live our lives.”
“I didn’t mean it like that exactly,” she said.
I pulled away from her and sat on the edge of the bed, cold. She scrambled to pull the blanket over her naked body. I looked down at her and she looked up at me.
Her face looked small, like her mother’s. Her mother had a narrow face, a pointy chin. Her mother was disappointed in how life had gone for her.
“Please don’t look like that,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Twila said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
But I knew what it was. I was fighting the rising realization that Twila was just like everyone else in Woodfern. She was more lovely than the rest of them, that was true. But the expression on her lovely face was often remote as if she were refusing to exist in the beautiful world around us. I wanted her to be extraordinary. I wanted our love to be “wondrous strange” and sex to be a miracle. That it wasn’t made me angry in a way I’d never known.
That night I stood on the back porch with my mother. We were chilly, but we stood there anyway, smoking cigarettes.
“How can I just give up going to college?” I asked my mother.
“You can’t give it up,” my mother said. “You have to go. The way it’s supposed to work is that the children are supposed to do better than the parents. You have to do better so your children can do better. It’s called evolution.”
“Dad didn’t go,” I said. “He stayed here with you.”
“That’s different,” she said. “He didn’t ever want to go.”
“Well there’s no way I can leave her,” I said, meaning Twila.
“You can come back for her,” my mother said. It may have been the only lie she ever told me.
I had loved Twila Flood as long as I could remember, since the day she was born, if not before. When I held her I felt a tiny hot spot inside me, a raw sore the size of a seed, an inflammation. When I drove away in September, the spot blistered and burned, but a month later it had cooled, and a year after that it went completely cold, a little lump of clay.
“It doesn’t matter,” Twila said when I kissed her goodbye. “You would have left some day.”
It didn’t feel that way to me. For me there were two conflicting loves, each one clamorous and exacting. On the one hand there was the love I felt for Twila Flood, a love that felt the way her name sounded, like dusk and hard water. That kind of love can paralyze a person, drown them. On the other hand there was this new love I felt for a city I had never seen, a city of lonely women, brick steps, “half-deserted streets.” There was the James that I would become in that city, and I loved him resolutely. He had a duty to fulfill, improvements to make on the life his parents lived, so that his future children could do even better. He had to buy a suit. He had to learn to wear sunlight and lake water like jewelry. He had to climb out of here. It was a narrow escape. Thank God. He walked away. He didn’t go back.
Once or twice in the new life I’ve come across kitchen countertops made from the pink and blue granite I recognize from home. I touch it. Smooth as ice, and cold, too. And from the depths of its mottled patterns comes rising one mislaid memory.
It’s the spring of my senior year. Our new English teacher reads the last paragraph of Brave New World out loud. The men climb into the lighthouse. Feet hang down like compass needles. The swinging rope turns right then left. North, then east, then south, then west. Kimberly Keenan listens with terrible concentration. When it ends, she begins to wail. She stands up and cries in front of us, her mouth distorted.
We freeze. Mr. Hendricks casts around the room and his terrified eyes fall on me. He’s trying to tell me something. This place is dangerous, he seems to say. Get out of here, he seems to say. Is that the moment I make my decision?
“My baby,” Kimberly screams. Over and over, “My baby!” Her friends come and put their arms around her and lead her out into the hallway.
“City of Lonely Women” was originally published in Manifest Destiny (Summer 2009)