Authors: Adele Griffin
With many thanks to Shannon Dean
For Donna Bray
MET AMANDINE ON
the last day of my first week at James DeWolf High School. She was standing on the curb outside the front doors, waiting to be picked up, and so was I. She wore an oversized white coat, the kind used by scientists, and her pale head was bowed as she stared down at her scuffed pink ballet slippers. The slump of her shoulders suggested she had been standing there for a long time.
The afternoon was cold; a March chill furred with frost. Not a lab-coat-and-ballet-slippers kind of day. I myself was wearing thick brown wool things.
I did not think she could tell I was staring at her, but she knew. It was something I learned about her, later. That Amandine was always aware of her audience.
“In there,” she began, in a voice that stayed smooth as a zipper. “I’ve got a notebook. Drawings of the ugliest things I ever saw in my entire life.” She kicked her book bag, which crouched like a puppy at her feet. “Do you want to take a look?”
She turned her head to stare at me. Her eyes were hard and pebble gray.
I nodded yes.
“Five dollars,” she said.
“I don’t have any money on me,” I lied.
“Sucks to be you.”
A car pulled up. It was not like the sensible station wagons and minivans that the other mothers drove. This car was red and low, and when Amandine opened the door, music streamed out like an invitation to a private party. As she climbed inside I heard a man’s voice say, in a way that was half joking and half not, “Dammit, Amandine, have the decency to
before you go rip clothes from my closet.”
That’s how I learned her name. Amandine. At the time, that word sounded very beautiful.
“Did you meet anyone interesting today, Delia?” my mother asked me that evening. She is from Boston and enjoys polite conversation, even among family.
I saw the pull in her eyes as she waited, and my own eyes fixed on the Diet Delite carrot cake she had placed in view to get me through my tuna and broccoli. Mom did not eat with me, preferring to wait for Dad, who usually worked late now that he was working for himself. Then they would share their usual romantic dinner together in the dining room, after the Diet Delite cartons and I had been cleared out of sight.
Mom had asked me the same thing every evening since Monday, and every evening I had answered no. Tonight I answered, “Amandine.”
“Well! Amandine who?”
“I don’t know. Just Amandine.”
“And what makes her so interesting, this Amandine?”
Using my index finger, I drilled a hole into my carrot cake. I wasn’t hungry; Mrs. Gogglio had detoured through a drive-in Taco Bell before she dropped me off at home, and I had spent my money on three bean burritos plus curly fries.
My mother hated it when I played with my food, and I bet she was torn between waiting for an answer and wanting to scold me for my cake tunnel.
-lee-a … ?” she prompted, singsong, a compromise.
“She likes to draw things,” I answered. “She’s an artist.”
Amandine’s name didn’t come up again until the next morning. I was helping my parents turn up soil in the garden. The frost had turned to
but gardening was part of their optimistic list of “Things you Can Do in the Country That You Can’t Do in the City.” The City is New York. Every other city keeps its name, even Boston, which is a three-hour drive from us now.
It’s been ten years since my parents left the City, and they still miss it enough to talk about all the ways it was a horrible place.
I am at the top of my parents’ list of “Reasons We Left the City.”
“You shouldn’t keep a four-year-old there, in the City. It’s wrong, like caging a bear,” Mom used to say.
We’ve moved away from the City in increments over the years. First a hop upstate, then a jump over to Connecticut. Our latest leap, up here to Alford, puts us farther away from the City than we’ve ever been before.
It’s quiet here. Lots of trees, and not many houses or people. I don’t know why my parents are so nostalgic for skyscrapers and pigeons. I guess I’m more like my mom’s brother, Uncle Steve, who says barefoot in green grass is as close to paradise as we mortals get.
“So, Honeydew, how would you rate your first week of school?” Dad asked. “I want details.”
“Delia made a friend,” Mom said. “Amandine. She’s an artist.”
“An artist? That right?” Dad looked expectant. “What else?”
Suddenly I had a feeling that she’d already filled him in on Amandine, and that they were playacting this conversation.
“Oh. Well, okay. She’s got long hair.” I struggled. “And she, um … takes ballet.”
“Sophisticated lady.” Dad smirked. It was his signature smirk, the one he’d used in his high school yearbook photo, back when he used to be handsome. The yearbook is on my bookshelf now; I’ve looked through it a thousand times plus. Dad’s name then was “O”—short for “The Operator”—and all his yearbook messages make him sound lawless, stuff like:
“O, boy!—Little Egg Harbor, don’t burn down the house!”
Or, from girls, in shy bubble script:
“U better not 4get me, O! love, Chrissy!”
I’ve never seen Mom’s yearbook, but probably she was popular, too, in her own proper-Bostonish, club-president-y way. Popular is all over her, in her smile, her pedicures, the way she knows the exactly perfect thing to say to a stranger. Once at a party I overheard her say that she was the nice girl who married the bad boy. She had giggled when she said it, which was why it stuck in my mind. My mother is not a giggler by nature.
“You should invite Amandine over to the house next weekend,” Dad continued. “I give you my word it’ll be in better shape. I’m putting up your curtains just as soon as I get around to it.”
“Mmm,” I answered.
“Ooh, that’d be fun,” Mom put in. “A sleepover. I’d take off work early and drive you and Amandine to the movies or the mall, if you’d like. And,” she coaxed, “you can get takeout for dinner, anything you want. Anything.”
“Delia, really,” Mom added in a deeper, more meaningful tone. “It’d be good to make an effort. We know it’s tough to move and transfer schools midyear, but Dad and I feel awful enough without you insisting on playing the loner.”
“Playing the loner” was the phrase Mom used to explain away why I never had many friends. Her rationale was that I did it on purpose. There was no point in arguing; I think the idea was a comfort to her.
Mostly I know I’m lucky to be an only child, and I don’t have to suffer being compared to some wonderful sister or brother. The one who “got everything”—Mom’s hazel eyes and long lashes and Dad’s curly hair, instead of the puddle-eyed, lank-haired combination that made me. But times like now I wish I had a brother. A cool, older brother named Ethan whose good looks and herds of friends fulfilled all of my parents’ expectations, and took the pressure off me.
“I’ll invite her over next weekend,” I said on impulse. It got the right reaction. Mom made a soft approving noise in her throat. Dad’s face brightened.
“Super. I’ll make my famous sour-cherry pancakes.” He smiled and rubbed his hands together.
My brain worked on it. Amandine, at my table. Ballet slippers kicking under the chair. Triangle kitten face and flat gray eyes taking in our big bright maplewood kitchen.
Sure, I’ll have another pancake, Mr. Blaine!
Well, this wasn’t a terrible picture.
The drizzle had turned to a spitting rain.
“We ought to go in,” said Mom, collecting up her gardening tools. “Smell that! Soon we’ll have daffodils and hyacinths. What a gorgeous spring this will be. “You’d never get this kind of spring in the City!”
“Black lung, that’s what the City’d have given me by now.” Dad looked up at the sky and inhaled deeply as he hooked his fingers in his belt band to hoist up his jeans. Now that he was in business for himself, he’d taken to using his old neckties in place of belts. A regular belt would have done the job better, but he probably enjoyed the clownish look of the tie, of making a small joke on the corporate world he’d been happy to leave behind.
Amandine slipped the drawing into my locker early Monday morning. She meant to shock me and did, like a poke in the eye. I tried to make sense of what basically was a dirty picture of a twisted-up, burnt-up naked lady. Her hands and feet were charred, and she was color-markered in smeared, scalded-lasagna hues of yellow, black, and red.
Ugly as it was, Amandine had drawn it well. She was seriously talented.
Before I could think it through, my fingers crunched the picture into a ball. I crept down the crowded corridor in a fog of panic, furtive as a thief until I found the custodian’s wheeled garbage cart, where I dropped it. Then I went to the girls’ room and washed my tingling hand. It was as if that lady’s actual scorched skin had touched mine.
Worse, the image in my head—that one of the pale, pretty girl eating sour-cherry pancakes in my kitchen—went up in smoke. Over the weekend, I had turned that girl, Amandine, into a daydream of friendship and secrets.
But the real Amandine was messed up, crazy. Bad.
Afterward, when mess lay thick and everywhere and everyone was blaming everyone else and some people were trying to lift the blame off me and other people were pressing it back on, I tried to remember my innocence. I tried to make myself believe that I hadn’t known. That Amandine had tricked me, just like she fooled everyone else.
But I’d always known something was wrong with her. I’d known from that first picture.
I knew, but I was distracted. It was my second Monday at James DeWolf, and mostly I was just trying to get by. This week was different from last, when the luster of “new girl” had clung to me shiny as a wet lollipop. Last week, it seemed that everyone in the entire ninth grade had introduced him or herself to me or saved me a seat or passed me a note or confided which teachers were insane or clueless or scared easy. Now, kids had figured out that I was nothing special. Nothing better than what I had been back in Connecticut.
Amandine didn’t find me until after lunch. “Did you get my lady?” she asked, slipping up behind me as I was clearing the dirty silverware off my tray. She was more than a head shorter than I. Her breath seemed to stick to the hairs on my neck.
I shrugged and stepped away from her.
She stepped closer so that now she stood at my side. “What’d you think?”
“I threw her in the trash.” My heart was kicking, knowing she’d be angry. I tried to stare her squarely down, but I’m no good at that kind of thing. I could feel myself smiling although I didn’t mean it. My voice was watery, apologizing. “Sor-ry. Too gross.”
“You cow!” she burst out. Then quickly, she recovered, smiled, showing me her pointy kitten teeth. She looked different when she smiled. A small twist that turned her charming. “you goof!
was the whole point! But if you threw mine away, you have to draw me something in replacement, right? Right?”
Another thing I would learn about Amandine. Everything, everything was either a bet or a bargain.
“I don’t … I don’t know.” I swallowed.
“The Ugliest Thing you ever saw. You draw it for me. You have to.”
“Yours was a lie, though. You never saw that lady.”
“Yuh-huh, I did.”
“In a movie?”
“In my brain.”
“That doesn’t count,” I said. “Last week, you told me … you said you had to see it. That you had to see it for real.”
“She was for real.”
“I never said that.”
I was confused. What had she said, exactly? The lunch bell rang, startling us both, reminding me that we were not the only two people in the entire cafeteria.
Amandine cornered me after school. Since we were in different homerooms, and because I was in advanced math and English classes (my old school had been harder), lunch and spring fitness were our only shared periods, and we did not have spring fitness on Mondays.