Bobbie stood astride her bicycle behind a clump of trees, looking for a sign of Gail’s parents. The lights were on inside the raised ranch. The air was quiet, and the sky was whitewashed, rendering the blues, purples and reds of clematis edging the front of Gail’s house inert and the fading greens dark and flat, as if the heavens were reminding the Earth that its beauty, its power to regale the eye, were subject to its whims.
She pedaled the short distance up the driveway, dropped the bicycle onto the lawn, and hurried to the front door. She leaned over the wrought-iron railing, plucked a clematis beyond its youthful bloom, and held it behind her back. The door was ajar. She let herself in. The lights were on in the living room and, beyond it, steam rose up from a pot in the kitchen. They had already started packing. Cardboard boxes were scattered everywhere, and the walls were dotted with hooks where paintings and family photographs had been. She slowly walked up the stairs, the faded clematis by her side, toward a red glow emanating from Gail’s bedroom.
As she reached the top of the stairs, she heard the repeated click of a camera. She leaned on the jamb and peered inside. The deep red from a floor lamp made Gail’s blue jeans black and her skin and camisole ghostly white. She sat erect in front of a wide mirror on her dresser, balancing the camera on her head. She exaggerated a frown and pressed. Click.
“You know they’re not going to come out in this light,” Bobbie said.
“I’ll overexpose them,” Gail said, without looking at her.
“So when were you going to tell me?” Bobbie said indignantly.
Gail didn’t acknowledge her. She advanced the film, placed the camera atop her head again, and opened her mouth wide in mock terror. Click. She then put the camera on the dresser and tied her hair back in a ponytail.
“Well?” Bobbie said.
“How did you know?”
“My mom saw your mom in the grocery store.”
Black-and-white and color prints, pinned to twine, were strung like a clothesline between opposite walls. Lenses, camera bodies, flashes, rolls of film and empty canisters occupied every surface—desks, nightstands, the floor, her dresser. She had a good eye for composition, and her austere portraits of farmers on oversized tractors, white-framed churches, and tree-lined winding lanes lent an almost tragic weight to the daily mundane rituals of their small town. Her room was her own private gallery that no one would visit.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Bobbie tossed the clematis onto the dresser. “Why didn’t you tell me? When are you leaving?”
Bobbie’s father hadn’t told her that he was leaving, either. After his funeral, she had taken an inventory of his belongings, an incomplete portrait of a man who lived only fifty-six years. Pairs of gray work shirts and pants for each day of the workweek, suspended from hangers, were jammed together with a bomber jacket he had worn when he drove Bobbie to the emergency room after she had swallowed an entire bottle of Seconal in her sophomore year.
“I don’t know.”
“Really?” She sat down hard on the edge of Gail’s bed.
“Probably before the end of the school year. Maybe after.” She picked up the clematis, pressed it against her temple, and took a photograph. “Call me Senorita Costellanos from now on.”
“There’s no more now on for us.”
Gail sighed, as if Bobbie’s annoyance were an inconvenience, and draped her arm around her friend. Bobbie leaned into her shoulder.
“I’m not going to just disappear, you know. I do have a car.”
“Offering to stay in touch is different from staying in touch.” She looked for confirmation in Gail’s distant eyes. “Anyway, I stopped believing in promises after my Dad died.”
“It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“Are you really going to a private school?”
Gail withdrew her arm, grabbed a flashlight and magazine from a muddy pile on the floor, and sprawled out on the bed. “That’s what they think. I’ve put together a portfolio. I’m thinking of going to Greenwich Village. No, I know I’m going to Greenwich Village.”
Bobbie nestled up beside her, propping her head on a clenched fist. Gail aimed the white beam at a page in the magazine.
“Ever feel like you lived a past life?” she asked. “It’s weird, but sometimes I feel like it’s 1945 and I’m in Times Square shooting that sailor kissing the nurse.”
“Promise not to laugh?” Bobbie asked.
“Funnier than being in Times Square in 1945?”
Gail’s cherry lips, lost in the crimson curtain, were full and inviting to Bobbie in the shadow of the flashlight.
“I’ve always felt like I’m in France and can’t speak French.” Bobbie waited for a reaction, but there was none. “If I were in Times Square, I’d be the sailor.”
Gail was fixated on the magazine. “Yeah, and I’m Alfred Eisenstaedt.”
“No, I mean it.”
“Chill out,” Gail said, sliding the magazine aside, “I’m agreeing with you.”
She reached for another camera on a nightstand, her camisole separating from the top of her jeans exposing a flat belly. Bobbie wanted to touch it. Gail aimed the camera at her and twisted the lens. The shutter snapped. Bobbie feigned indifference.
“I saw Joplin,” she said, continuing to shoot. “Did I tell you?”
Bobbie had taken for granted how even the most fleeting thought of someone she loved could get her through a day. She had nothing to lose. Her father was gone, and now Gail, her crush, was leaving.
“What if I told you I really was a boy?” She rolled onto her back and cradled her head. The ceiling looked like it was smoldering in a red miasma, the darkness a welcome camouflage for perpetual disappointment.
Gail shrugged. “You’re going through a hard time, with your father and everything.”
Bobbie bolted upright. “It isn’t a phase! I’ve hid my true self out of fear my whole life—to protect myself!”
“Relax, okay?” She put the camera aside and rested her hand on Bobbie’s shoulder. “I believe you. I get it. I haven’t told my parents I’m going to Greenwich Village. They’d flip. See? There are costs to every decision.”
Bobbie collapsed onto her back. “It’s not the same,” she whined.
Gail flipped through the pages of the magazine, and held up a spread. A full-length photograph of Janis Joplin.
“I took some Ecstasy when I saw her at the Fillmore East,” she said. “The stuff was being passed around like popcorn. I freaked out. I thought she was trying to kill me.”
“This life is my past life,” Bobbie said. “Maybe it’s good that you’re leaving. I need a life. A new one.”
Gail spun the magazine off the side of the bed, like a Frisbee. “Well, I can’t wait to get away from you.”
Bobbie grabbed at her arm, flat-out rejection more unbearable than her friend’s inability to understand. “Hold on!”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” She put her hand over Bobbie’s. “You know I don’t mean it. I’m just angry at my parents. Angry they control my life.”
They had met in sixth grade. Gail was a photographer then. One day she rode up Bobbie’s driveway unannounced in a dress and Buster Browns while Bobbie shot baskets, taking pictures of everything with her Kodak Instamatic. When she was out of film, she put the camera in her basket and showed Bobbie an amulet on her necklace.
“It’s a Star of David. My parents gave it to me. It’s a big deal.”
She cocked her head and smiled, self-satisfied, studying the piece she rubbed between her thumb and forefinger. She handed Bobbie a folded piece of white lined paper. “I want you to come to my Bat Mitzvah. You know what that is?”
Bobbie held the basketball against her hip. She shook her head.
“That’s a big party where they hold you up in the air on a chair.” She flashed a crooked mouthful of Chiclets. “I’m a woman now.”
Later that day, Bobbie stood on Gail’s front stoop and told her mother that she could go to the Bat Mitzvah.
“She told you we’re Jewish?”
“Gail Marie Costello!,” the mother screamed over her shoulder. “I’m sorry… what’s your name?”
“Bobbie, I’m sorry, but there is no party.” She narrowed the door. “If you’ll excuse me, we have to get ready for church now.”
Bobbie hoped Gail’s leaving was another put-on. In her best throaty imitation, she sang out: Take another little piece of my heart now, baby…
They harmonized another verse in a soft treble and then shared a conciliatory laugh. Bobbie leaned in and gently kissed her on the cheek. Gail smiled conspiratorially. They fell back onto a pile of plush pillows. Gail yanked off her camisole, exposing her modest breast, and Bobbie stripped down to her panties.
They were raucous—rubbing and bouncing, and bobbing and flailing. They slurped, sighed, and swayed. And when it was over, their pain and gratitude spilled forth. Bobbie had escaped death, had forgotten for a glorious moment how alone in the world she felt. When the tears subsided, they embraced, holding hands, ruddy and perfumed with their ardor.
“You know, I’d ask you to the prom,” Bobbie said.
“That’ll be the day.”
They lingered for a few minutes more, then the murmur of voices downstairs.
“Martinis with the neighbors before dinner almost every night,” Gail said despairingly as she got up, as if the subjects in the twined photographs were her true family. She replaced the red bulb, and they both dressed quickly. Then she closed the door, put the clematis in a glass of water, and rifled through the dresser drawer. Her mother yelled from the bottom of the stairs that dinner was ready. Their hug was quick, glancing.
“I gotta go,” Gail said, her head motioning at the door. “But I want you to have this.”
Bobbie felt her throat constrict. Her eyes lingered on Gail’s open palm. The amulet. “Me, too.” She took it in her hand. “My mother will be wondering.”
Gail led the way down the stairs. Her parents were in the kitchen. Silverware rattled in the drawer, chair legs dragged against the floor. As Bobbie opened the front door, she turned around. Gail was staring at her, smiling softly, her eyes sad but appreciative. Bobbie held up the amulet in her clenched hand, and then plunged into the cool dusk.
As she rode home, she remembered returning home from her father’s funeral on that awful day. She shook out the umbrella and removed her grass-stained dress shoes, and stood in the foyer alone, noticing the quiet. The things he had animated with his skillful hands were inert, as if they had been transformed overnight into museum pieces to be admired but not touched. The clang of a wrench on the driveway, the rumbling of his Chevy, the sound of his heavy, deliberate steps. They were summoned from memory when she and her mother fought, when she didn’t want to get out of bed on a gray day, when she heard the melancholy drone of a faraway plane. Bobbie stayed close by her mother’s side, to comfort her the only way a child can in the shadow of sorrow—with her presence. It was her way of staying close to him, too.
In that now strangely cavernous house, Bobbie caught herself putting a book down when she heard a car start, and feeling let down that it was her mother’s footsteps, not his, in the hallway at the end of a work day.
She held the amulet tight in her hand and peddled fiercely. Images of her father, a cigarette dangling from his lips as they played catch in the yard, of Gail lingering by the door as she left, flashed before her. Her eyes welled, blurring the light from the street lamps and muddling the road ahead.