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Chapter 1 excerpt from “Off Season”

Chapter 1

There were seven of us at Edgewater that summer, if you count my brother Jeebs. None of us did, really. Jeebs was thirteen and gone into another orbit of his own; he entered ours only when he had nothing else to do, and then grudgingly.

That left Harriet Randall, aged eleven; Ben and Carolyn Forrest, who were twins, aged ten; Cecie Wentworth, aged eleven; Peter Cornish, aged twelve; and Joby Gardiner, eleven. And of course, me. Elizabeth Allen Constable but called, by my own creed, Lilly and nothing else. I was eleven that summer of 1962 and stonily determined not to be confused with my mother, who was Elizabeth, too.

My mother: Elizabeth Potter Constable; painter, activist (in her own words), great beauty. She was sporadic and only adequate at the first two, but at the third she was spectacularly successful. Turned heads followed Liz Constable wherever she went.

It was the apogee of the frenzied Jackie Kennedy mythology, and even up here in this rural saltmeadow world almost untouched by fashion for a century, women wore their hair in carefully tousled bouffants and put on crisp white sleeveless blouses and Bermuda shorts to go to the post office or general store (which were one and the same). The yacht club cocktail-and-chowder suppers looked like a Norman Rockwell magazine cover of an idyllic girls' camp. Into the middle of all the matched Lilly Pulitzer wrap skirts and T-shirts, the huge sunglasses pushed casually above foreheads to form chic headbands, my mother would drift barefoot like an idle racing sloop, her hair in its uncombed little Greek-boy tousle of curls, her white pants smeared with paint, the striped French matelot T-shirt she had affected since a trip to Cannes when she was sixteen daubed with it. There would not be a vestige of makeup on her pure medieval features, only a flush of sunburn on her high cheekbones and a slick of Chap Stick on her full, tender mouth—a Piero della Francesca mouth, according to Brooks Burns, two cottages down, who was a classical scholar and eighty years old, and had been in love with my mother, according to my father, since she came here as a bride.

"Eyes like summer rain on the ocean," he would say. "Eyes like clear pond ice."

"Eyes like a frozen February crust over Eggemoggin Reach," I might have added, "especially when those black brows come together over them."

But I doubted that anyone but my father and Jeebs and I had seen that. My mother's brows were two silky black slashes set straight over her eyes, which were clear, light-spilling gray and fringed with black lashes. With her sun-streaked copper curls they were striking; you expected slender sienna arches. I had those brows, I was often told, and the gray eyes, too, but even to me they often looked stormy and sulky instead of mythic. I had seen my mother, in her studio just before she came out to join us for an evening, slick her eyebrows with some sort of cream, and lightly redden her cheeks, and finger-tousle her hair before the old seashell mirror that hung beside the studio door. Once or twice I saw her daub a sunset smear on her cheek or forehead, or stain her shirt lightly with it. The result was a careless beauty seemingly preoccupied with things more important than her looks. It served her well.

I spied on my mother shamelessly during the summer. I'm still not quite sure why. I think I was looking for revelations, epiphanies, a map for knowing where the real woman and mother lay. It seemed that if I found it, I would have the map for myself, could chart a course by it. But I never did, and after that summer I did not spy on her again. Instead, I set about trying to become the direct antithesis of the woman in her mirror. It got me in endless trouble with her, though not so much with my father.

"Let her be," he would tell her from the rocking chair on the porch that was his regular summertime emplacement. "You wouldn't want a perfect little copy of you, would you? I would think one is enough."

"She could do worse," I heard my mother say once, tightly, in the days when I still eavesdropped."Not much," I thought my father murmured from the rocker, but I was never sure of that.

And yet she was not all artifice. All the children from the cottages around us flocked to ours as naturally as thirsty birds to a birdbath. All the cottages down on this particular cove were members of the Middle Harbor Yacht Club, in the old Retreat Colony up the road, and had full privilege to join the brown, scabby-kneed colony children on the dock and in the tenders and small Beetle Cats in the harbor, or playing Ping-Pong in the raffish old clubhouse, or camping out on the islands in the bay across the harbor. And sometimes we did, but summer friendships are cemented early and tightly, and we came to be regarded as privileged outlanders, "too good for us," hanging around only with each other at Liz Constable's cottage. My mother really loved children, or, perhaps, I thought that summer, the children of others, and never seemed annoyed or bored with our endless and obscure yelping games, or the little flotilla of kayaks and Shellback dinghies that were tied up all summer beside my family's old Friendship sloop at the end of our dock. We were the only cottage in our settlement that had a deepwater dock. All the others kept their boats at the yacht club.

Mother vanished for long periods during the day, into her studio or at the desk in her bedroom, writing letters or phoning on behalf of her causes. They were good New England liberal causes, my father often said: birth-control information for young girls, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his incendiary young civil rights battle, meals for the infirm and disenfranchised of Hancock County, cleaning up the effluent-fouled streams and bays nearby.

I know she was serious about these causes. I had seen her in tears over some social injustice or other featured on the flickery old blackand- white television in the cottage living room. And I know that there were people in the colony, women mainly, who found her indiscreet and vaguely threatening and her causes as unseemly in our little nineteenth-century fiefdom as a fart at the Chowder Race. I know too that she honestly did not care a finger flick what people thought of her activism or her painting. But she did care, secretly and profoundly, about maintaining her role as a careless natural beauty, a warm, funny woman far above artifice and agendas. I could never fathom the why of that as a child; complexity is largely beyond children.

But I still can't today.

At noon Clara Anderson, who "did" for us mornings and who was the third generation of her family to do so for mine, would make a tray of bologna and cheese sandwiches and lemonade and put it on the big side screened porch, and we would rush in and wolf them down and be off again in a chattering swarm, out to the water or to the badminton and croquet courts my grandfather had carved out of the woods behind the cottage.

The other cottage mothers in our cove knew where to call if they had need of their children. So far as I knew, none of them ever worried that their offspring might be a bother to my mother, or that they might be in any way unsafe. Of course it was Clara who had the day-to-day burden of us, but she too liked children and had three of her own, and in our defense we had not yet absorbed any of the early-blooming horrors creeping into the cities then: drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, revolution. In Carter's Cove, as our little settlement was called, all that came much later. The only really malicious thing I can remember us doing was setting off cherry bombs in the shabby small bathroom of the yacht club's steward, a tight-faced fireplug-shaped young man from one of the original colony families who had not been accepted at Yale and was coldly mean-spirited to our crowd because we were not "his" kids. When our parents found out about it, we were forced to pick blueberries and wash windows and mow lawns to earn enough money for a new and vastly superior toilet. It struck us as only fair, and so we did not grouse too much about it, except that the steward got a far better toilet out of the deal and smirked at us all summer.

"Why were you so down on your mother that summer?" Cam asked me once. We had been together two months and were still in the stage where the necessity to know everything about each other, tell everything about ourselves, was paramount. On weekends, over coffee in one of the many small, dark cafés; at dinners of pizzas and cheeseburgers and an occasional salad; at night in the carapace of his old Porsche Carrera between kisses so profoundly consuming that they left us both sweating and gasping, we talked and we talked and we talked. Everything we said to each other was miraculous: the fact that he had been in the National Spelling Bee and lost by misspelling "mackerel" (I don't eat it to this day). The fact that I had once dyed my hair green with food coloring before the Cornwell Country Day production of Peter Pan. ("Were you Wendy?" "No, I was the dog, Nana. A green sheepdog. I was a great hit.")

So when he asked me about my mother and my feelings toward her that summer, I did not hesitate to spill out to him the thing I had never told anyone. Not my various best friends, certainly not Jeebs. Not my father, of course. No one.

"One day early that summer I went running up to her studio to ask her something," I said. "I forget what. Whether we could go somewhere or other, I think. The stairs and the third-floor hall were covered in sisal matting, and I was barefoot and was sure she couldn't hear me. It was lunchtime. We were never around her at lunchtime.

"Anyway, I got to the door of her studio and it was closed, but it always was, so in my adopted mode as supersleuth I eased the door open and looked in. She was . . . she was standing in front of her easel, facing me, and she had her shirt unbuttoned to the waist and was holding it open, and old Brooks Burns was standing in front of her with his hands all over her breasts, crawling like old spiders. Every now and then he'd bend over and smack one of them, or suck at it. He was making a kind of whistling noise in his throat; I thought maybe he was dying. She was smiling at him. It was . . . a sweet smile. Tender, like she'd give a child. After a while she said something to him and kissed him on the cheek, still smiling, and buttoned up her blouse and turned back to her easel and picked up her brush. He stood there awhile, gasping like a gaffed fish, and started to turn and leave. I was out of there and down the steps before I could get a deep breath. Then I went into the bathroom and threw up, and stayed in my bed under the covers all that day. I couldn't let anyone in, not Clara, not my father, not my summer best friend, Cecie Wentworth.

"After dinner, my mother came in with a tray of toast and milk and started to sit down beside me and—I don't know—feel my forehead or feed me or something. I said, ‘No,' and turned over facing the wall. In a minute I heard her set the tray down and go out of my room and shut the door."

Cam was silent for a while, tracing the line of my jaw with his fingertip. Then he said, "You never cut her much slack, did you?"

"Slack? My God! That old . . . satyr! You should have seen it."

"Did it ever occur to you that she might have been doing him an exceedingly kind thing?"

"Not once," I said, knowing the truth of what he said. Tears burned in my eyes. "Never once."

The memory of that day stuck like a burr in my brain. I tried to dislodge it; I was not prepared to give up my grand and secret anomie. But I could feel it begin to trickle away like sand out of a sieve.

"Well," Cam said, "I know if I was old and you showed me your beautiful boobs it would be an act of spectacular kindness."

"That's different."

"Why is it?"

I did not answer, and presently he said, "Was she like that? I mean when you were back home, in school and all that?"

I remember that I stared at him for a long moment. It was something that had never occurred to me. "No," I said slowly, thinking back to the winters in Washington that followed those summers. "No, she wasn't. She was different at Edgewater. Come to think of it, we all were."

"Why do you think that was?"

"It was just . . . simpler there. Nothing changed. In our colony, in all those old colonies, not much had changed since the first people came there. Nothing much was new. If somebody painted a veranda or built a porch or bought a new piece of furniture, no matter how broken-down the old one was, people talked about it for weeks. New people hardly ever came in, except to visit. We ate the same things at the same time that our parents and grandparents had, or so my father said, and the grown-ups went to the same porches for cocktails and the club had the same regattas with the same boats every year, and it seemed to me that we even wore the same things every summer that I could remember, things we'd left at Edgewater. And we played the same games, children's games that we wouldn't have been caught dead playing at home. It was like all of us slipped back into some kind of idyllic summer time warp; it was like time stopped. I wonder why I never thought about that before. It was a whole other life and nobody seemed to know or question it."

"So what do you think was responsible for all that? It sounds like Brigadoon."

"The ocean," I said suddenly, as sure of that as I had ever been of anything in my life. "The bay. The water."

He laughed. "You sound like a sea nymph or a kelpie. Couldn't it have been that you were all the same people you were all year, and the place, and the water, and all the old associates just called out different parts of you? Parts that just weren't . . . winter parts? People don't have two different selves, Lil. There are countless sides to all of us."

"No. We were different people there. I'm sure of that."

I was obscurely annoyed at him. He was undoubtedly right; Cam was always, among a thousand other things, my voice of pure reason. But I knew what I knew. I was different at Edgewater; I had always been different there. Back in Washington I was very much a child of my time; that sweet, smug, late fifties and early sixties world shaped me like potter's clay. I was touched by most of it. But in those Maine summers I was a creature of water and wind and tides and rock, a much simpler being, awkwardly pure and without artifice except for that last summer, when I became a spy, and there was something essentially artless even about that. Cam was wrong. The sea changed me.

I remember that I began to feel the sea recede as soon as we pulled out of the gravel driveway at Edgewater. By the time we crossed the Piscataqua River into New Hampshire, the breath of the bay was as faint as that of a dying child. By the time we reached Washington, D.C., it was gone, though its cadence whispered to me for months, a ghost without enough strength to do a proper haunting. In the first few humid, swaddling days before my classes at the National Cathedral School for Girls began, I was like a timid, newly caged wild thing: scarcely remembering but feeling in every cell the world I had lost, sniffing and tasting the somehow familiar cage into which I had been put, creature of neither, creature of both. My mother never failed to say that I was impossible in those few days; a changeling. My father simply touched my tangled curls and said, "It's not easy when you first come back, is it? But in a few days you'll be right at home at Cathedral, and then before you know it it'll be time to go back to Maine again."

I was nine or ten when I realized that it must be hard for him, too, newly returned to the most urban fortress of George Washington University, where he taught Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Lake Poets to juniors and seniors who had not had the grades or the wherewithal to attend one of the Ivies. George Washington has a lustrous academic name now, but it was not always so. I am certain that my father never minded that. He was essentially a content man, perhaps a happy one. He was easy in his skin and confident in his calling, and a born family man. I have seen him angry, but never at us, though he must have been sometimes. His blue eyes often narrowed at injustice, unfairness, cruelty. But I have also seen them fill with tears as he looked at us around the dinner table or together in the sun at Edgewater. I think he was a very good man. I wish I had inherited more of that, instead of his wide mouth and light, straight stature.

I think my mother minded about his academic station and his ambition, or lack of it, though. The winter before that summer had changed everything. My mother's best friend, Tatty Glover, had come for tea, bringing her daughter Charlotte to play with me. She was slightly older than I, and I thought her timorous, whiny, and a sissy. I can see that I must have intimidated her. I was impulsive, clamorous, a taker of risks and scorner of softness. I shudder to think now what those obligatory play sessions at our house must have cost her.

It was raining and I was bored with the pretty pink, green, and white bower that was my bedroom. Charlotte did not know how to play board games; she was afraid to climb on the gym set my parents had set up in the cavernous, white-painted basement for Jeebs and me. Jeebs had never paid it the least smattering of attention, being gone into the concerti and fugues of numbers inside his head by the time he was eight or nine. That left it to me—and to my father. He was delighted with it, and spent as much time as possible with me on the bars and swings. He was small, slender, firmly muscled in shoulders and arms and legs; indeed, he had the build of a gymnast. My mother was surprisingly amicable about our basement sessions on the gym set. She would only say, smiling, that she hoped all had gone well with the Flying Wallendas that day. Most of the summers of my childhood, when my mother and I and Jeebs were at Edgewater and my father's duties kept him in Washington, I wondered if, there alone in the big house on Kalorama Circle, my father swung and leaped and thumped and laughed in the silent white Olympic ring of his basement.

So it was that day, petulant and disgusted with the shrinking Charlotte, that I said, "Okay, then, you think of something. What do you like to do at home? Comb your dolls' hair?"

It was a nasty thing to say to a child I had already intimidated, and I knew it. I was half prepared for tears. Charlotte had employed them more than once to be allowed to go home early from our house. Instead, she looked at me out of brown eyes that could only be described as sly.

"Let's go listen to our mothers. Hide and listen. I do that all the time. It's fun!"

I stared at her for a moment as if she had lost her wits. Who cared what grown-up women said over tea in a Washington drawing room? On the other hand, there were thirty more minutes left of our enforced confinement. I followed her sulkily downstairs.

Our drawing room—my mother always called it that—opened off a large, high-ceilinged central hall, the focal point of which was a beautiful, curved mahogany staircase that rose three stories to the top of the house. Jeebs and I had worn out the patina on the railings, sliding down them until my mother or Lucille caught us. The drawing room was divided from the hall by heavy velvet drapes that were fastened back on either side with golden ropes and rosette holders. The flowing folds made a perfect hiding place, as secret and secure as a duck blind in a swamp. We crept into the velvet shelter, crouched down, and settled ourselves to listen.

At first the mumbled conversation was boring in the extreme; I could not make out the words themselves. I started to fidget, and Charlotte shushed me, and then I heard. It was Tatty Glover talking.

"What on earth more do you need, Liz?" she said, her voice smooth and oily and laced with humor that wasn't really humor. I did not like Tatty then any more than I did her daughter, although I could not have said why. My affection for her came much later.

"I mean, you've got this fabulous big old house on one of the best streets in Washington, and the summer house in Maine, and the Chevy Chase Club, and the Sulgrave Club, and George has the Metropolitan Club, and a distinguished career as a professor—your children, well look at them. Jeebs is an Einstein already and number one in his class at Saint Albans, and Lilly is at Cathedral and is going to be a pretty thing. I can name thirty of our friends who are green with envy of you. What else is missing?"

Over the chink of china I heard my mother's low voice. "It's just that it was all here, Tatty," she said. "There's not a piece of it that's ours; we didn't choose any of it. It came lock, stock, and barrel from George's parents and grandparents. The only things we've paid for are the cars and the children's educations, and if you think that's easy on a college professor's salary, especially George's, well, think again."

"You're not saying you're poor," Tatty said. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. Everybody knows how . . . well off the old judge was."

My mother snorted. "Well," she said, "Mother Emily made short order of all that when the judge died. Every bit of it went to Susannah and Gregory and the damned Colonial Dames. I guess she figured George would be president of the university sooner or later, so the houses and the clubs and all that would do us."

"And they haven't?"

"Oh, of course they have. I don't mean to sound bitter or greedy. There's just nothing of . . . me in this house. When I look in the mirror I always expect I'll see old Emily Constable smirking at me under her blue wig."

"Well, hang some of your paintings. Or sell some. Get a job. Take in sewing. God, Liz. I'd swap my life for yours any day."

"You know not what you say, Tatty," my mother said. "Enough of this. I'll shut up. It's just that we were at dinner at the club last night and Jackie walked in with her sister and that movie star, the Lawford one, I think, and it was like someone set off roman candles. The energy, the pure style, the sense of joie de vivre—it made me want to come home and burn the drapes and the antimacassars. I want to be part of that. I want to know those people."

"You will, eventually, what with your good works and all," Tatty said. "You and George will be dining at the White House and never play bridge with any of us again. Look, I've got to run. See you Thursday?"

"Yes," Mother murmured, her voice subdued. "Look, don't go telling anybody I'm whining about being poor. I'm just antsy, and it's February and George has some excruciating faculty dinner I've got to go to tonight, and I hate Earl Grey and Lucille knows it, and I've got cramps . . ."

"You don't have to explain. Jackie Kennedy does that to you. I saw her at the Sulgrave last week and wanted to come home and shred my entire wardrobe and buy a Mercedes convertible. So instead I ate a whole box of chocolates."

There was the sound of laughter and the gathering of coats and scarves.

"Charlotte? Time to go, dear," called Tatty Glover, and Charlotte and I ran silently back up the stairs and into my room.

"You're not so rich, are you?" She twinkled at me. Charlotte was famous for her twinkle. "I guess you think you are, but you heard what your mother said. Y'all don't have anything of your own. It was all your grandparents'. I guess that must have really surprised your mother. My mother says she only married your father for his money."

A red mist of rage struck me nearly blind. I had felt it before, but not often; it frightened me. I thought while it blinded me I might do something really terrible: smash, hurt, kill. I turned my head away from Charlotte Glover and clenched my teeth until my jaw throbbed.

"Your mother doesn't know shit," I said, summoning the worst word I could think of besides "fuck." "My mother married my father because he loved her the first time he saw her and courted her a year before she said she'd marry him. He said she was so beautiful that it was one of God's miracles that she ever said she'd marry him, and he was the luckiest man alive. And she says she knew the minute she laid eyes on him that he was the one she wanted to be with the rest of her life. They talk about it all the time."

"That's not what my mother says," Charlotte sang, and scurried down to take her mother's hand and smirk back up at me. Before I could think of a scathing reply, they were gone out into the early blue dusk and damp of Kalorama Circle, their lilting good-byes lingering after them.

My mother let out a long breath of relief and said, "Finally. I thought they'd never go home. I've got to get dressed for that thing of your father's tonight. Did you have a good time with Charlotte?"

"No," I said. "I hate her. She makes me itch."

My mother laughed and came up the stairs and ruffled my hair. "You hit the nail right on the head," she said. "She makes me itch, too. I think you're going to grow up to be a writer. Would you like that?"

"Are writers rich?" I said.

"Some of them are, I guess. Why, do you want to be rich?"

"I think so," I said. "I didn't know we were poor. Charlotte told me. She said you must have thought Daddy was rich, though, because her mother said you only married him for his money."

"Did she, now." My mother's soft mouth curled into a smile I had never seen. I thought fleetingly that I hoped never to see it directed at me.

"And how would her mother happen to know that, do you suppose?"

"Don't know," I said. It had never occurred to me to question the provenance of the knowledge of grown-ups. I thought that great knowledge simply came with adulthood, like driver's licenses and the right to drink liquor.

"Well," she said, kneeling and putting her arms around me and pulling my face onto her shoulder so that I could smell the lovely perfume she always wore, Vetiver—it came from Paris. "I am rich, my funny little girl. We are all rich. I have your father, who is the love of my life, and I have my children, especially my little lionhearted girl who's going to be a writer and get very rich, and we have a really wonderful life. I want you to remember all that the next time some horrible little brat like Charlotte Glover says something nasty about me. Or about any of us. We have us. We don't need anything else."

She rose and went swiftly up the stairs and presently I heard the sound of water thundering through the old pipes into the cavernous claw-footed bathtub in her bathroom. I knew it would be deep with billowing lavender-scented foam.

"That's not what you said today," I whispered to the empty stairs, but I knew she had spoken the truth. I knew that she loved us, or at least in that moment I knew it, as fully as I ever have. She was rarely so demonstrative with me. I glowed with her touch. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that one could feel two different ways about anything, as she seemed to about her life, and I shoved the knowledge down deep, where I pushed all the things I could not yet deal with.

When my father came home that night I met him at the door, dancing with impatience.

"Tell me how you met Mama," I said. "Tell about when you first knew her."

"Can I take off my hat and coat first?" he said, smiling. "Lilly, I've told you that story a thousand times. What's going on? Have you forgotten it already?"

"No, I just like it," I said. "Tell me, Daddy."

He poured himself a glass of whiskey from the decanter on the mahogany trolley beside the drawing-room fire, and sat down in his old leather chair and motioned to me, and I ran across the room and jumped into his lap.

"Well," he said, sipping whiskey and looking at me through the amber glass, "you know that I had just graduated from Princeton and gone to work at the university. I was very young and I was really only a teaching assistant then, but it was the tail end of the Depression and the job was a plum for me. I was twenty-one and full of myself and a burning desire to fill young heads with the beauty of the English language. I couldn't have asked for a better job, and I guess I still can't."

"But Granddaddy didn't like it. He wanted you to be a judge like he was."

I had heard the story many times.

"No, he didn't. He wanted me to go on to Harvard Law like he had, carry on the family tradition and all that. Luckily my brother Gregory came along and filled that position beautifully, so the heat was off me a little. Anyway, the start of my second year at the university, the dean of the department hired a new secretary to replace the old battle-ax who had ruled over us all, and—"

"It was Mother!" I shouted.

"It was your mother," he agreed, hugging me lightly. "Well, the minute I saw her I was a goner, along with everybody else in the department and half the students, but she was very reserved and proper and wouldn't give anyone the time of day. Lord, she was pretty! I used to stand just outside her office and watch her work. She was quick and quiet and very good at her job; for the first time in living memory the department ran like clockwork. I don't think I ever would have worked up the courage to ask her out if I'd known how young she was."

"Tell how young!"

"She was barely eighteen," he said. "But she never seemed young in the silly sort of way that some young girls do. She had just graduated from high school and the aunt and uncle she lived with couldn't afford college and probably wouldn't have sent her anyway—they were none too gracious about taking her in when her parents were killed in a trolley accident, when she was only ten—and so she knew she'd have to get a job. Well, she'd wanted to go to college in the worst kind of way, and she figured the next best thing would be to work for one, and George Washington was easier for her to get to on the trolley than any other school in D.C., so she marched right in and up to the English Department and asked to see the head, and the dean hired her that day. I still don't know how she got past the old gorgon who was her predecessor. But your mother had her ways. Still does, don't you think?"

"And then . . ."

"And then the rest is history," he said, kissing the top of my head and depositing me on the floor. "We eventually got married and had Jeebs and you and moved into this house when my parents were gone, and here we are. If there's a happier ending to a story than that, I haven't heard it."

"But Grandmother and Granddaddy didn't like her at first . . ."

"No," he said slowly. "But it wasn't that they didn't like her. They just had never met anybody like her, a very young girl from a not-sowell- off family who was making her own way in the world. They had wanted me to marry a society girl, you know, the kind you see in the papers, and have a huge wedding and all that stuff. But then Gregory did that; he married Susannah Carter of the Virginia Carters, and they immediately set about producing gilded offspring, and so I was off the hook again. Besides, when they really got to know her, they both came to like and love your mother. My father told me the day before he died that he couldn't have asked for a more loving and appropriate wife for me than your mother, and he reckoned he'd been a hardheaded old fool about her in the beginning."

"And you said . . ."

"And I said yes. You hop down now, Lilly. I've got to get changed."

I got down, but lingered, still troubled. Then I said, "If somebody tells you a lie about somebody else and you know it's not true, what should you do about it?"

"Depends on the lie, I guess," he said, "and who told about whom. Did somebody tell you a lie?"

"Yes. And I knew it was. I was really, really mad. I thought I might hit her."

"Did you?"

"No."

"Good. It's rarely a solution. Who told you a lie, and about whom?"

"That stupid Charlotte Glover. It was about Mama. She said her mother told her."

"Ah, the Glover ladies," he said, smiling and sighing. "A pair of she-hounds in full spate, as they've always been. You did the right thing. It wouldn't have done a bit of good to swat Charlotte. Her kind never learns."

"I can still go back and hit her, you know," I said.

"Heaven forbid," he said. "Then you'd become just like her. You don't want that, do you?"

"No. But maybe a little poke . . ."

"No pokes," he said, and went out of the drawing room and up the stairs. It struck me only later that he had not asked what Charlotte Glover had said about my mother.

"You must have been a handful," Cam said. "I don't see much of that side of you."

It was the same season, the season of the great tide of talking, and we were sitting in a small café on M Street that had cheap hamburgers. Since I lived at home and Cam shared a ramshackle apartment with a med student at Johns Hopkins, cafés and the breath-fogged Porsche were about the only places we spent much time together. Yet we two were a universe. There was no room there for others. Nor had I visited his family in the big old country house on the James River, near Williamsburg. The McCalls had a pied-à-terre in Alexandria and a summer place in the Caribbean, but since the Judge's retirement they spent most of their time at River House. I knew the family had money, but I had not yet thought much about it. Almost everybody our family knew in Washington "had money," or that even more luminous asset, "family." Cam and I were still wrapped tightly in the glove of ourselves; our contexts would come later.

"I rarely saw the lovely and talented Charlotte again, though I got regular bulletins about her," I said. "Her mother still came to visit, but not nearly so often, and my mother dropped their weekly bridge game. Not many of her friends made the cut. She started to paint in earnest after that afternoon, and I became a spy."

"Did you lose any friends in the brouhaha? If it had been my mother, I would have been fiercely forbidden any consorting with the offspring of the enemy. Amelia McCall didn't take no shit from anybody. Still doesn't."

"Oh, no, I had my own crowd," I said, thinking back. "There was a little bunch of us from Cathedral who were inseparable. We snubbed everybody else who might have been benighted enough to want to join us. I can see now that we were obnoxious and meanspirited, but back then that little coven was the central fact of our lives. We called ourselves the T Club, and told our parents that the T stood for Thursday, since our once-a-month formal meetings always took place on Thursday afternoons after hockey practice. We were together constantly, but that Thursday was not to be missed."

"What did the T stand for?"

"Thieves. We stole things and brought them to the meetings and voted on who'd made the best heist."

He laughed. The deep dimple that creased his left cheek flashed, and I felt my stomach go warm.

"What in God's name did a bunch of eleven-year-olds steal?"

"Well, sexy things, I guess, or things we thought were sexy. I stole a bra from Woodward and Lothrop. It was one of those padded, pointed things that looked like the bumper of a 'fifty-two Studebaker. I wore it to the meeting and won the prize for the month. I didn't need a bra for another two years and I never wore it, but I still have it."

"What on earth for?"

I leaned against him in the wire chair next to me and rubbed against his shoulder.

"To see if it would get guys like you excited when I got older."

I felt his thumb trace my nipple and my breath came up into my throat.

"You don't need to do that," he murmured. "Christ, we're going to have to find a place. So what else did you-all steal?"

"Margaret Canfield stole a package of rubbers from Peoples Drug Store at Chevy Chase Circle. We spent the whole meeting trying to decide quite what you did with them. Christine Dawson stole a copy of Playboy from the same drugstore. It had just come out. It was wrapped in brown paper: she had to sneak behind the counter to get it. We laughed knowingly at the cartoons, but I don't think any of them really made sense to us. By the time spring came we had quite a collection of erotica. I don't remember where we kept it. I usually dropped out in the spring."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure. Things just . . . changed. I wanted to be alone; I spent a lot of time in my room, reading or listening to records. The thought of the club—or, rather, the things we stole—made me feel a little sick. I usually got asthma about that time, too. I remember my mother saying to my father after one of my attacks that it was time to go to Edgewater."

"So the sea could breathe with you."

"And when we got there, and it did, I was different again. I was a child, a real one. There was nothing left of that thieving little pseudo-sophisticate. I didn't even remember her."

He held up a finger for the check and turned to kiss me lightly. It morphed into a rather unseemly kiss for a public place, as they all did. When he drew away from me he was grinning.

"What?"

"I was just thinking of your little gang at Edgewater, and their names: Randall, Wentworth, Gardiner, Constable—almost a caricature of the entire WASP gene pool. Names that ring in New England history. I'll bet a black or a Buddhist or a Jew, or even a Catholic, never set foot on the soil of Carter's Cove. I bet the earth would have crumbled."

Before my next breath, thick, lightless silence fell down over me like a glass bell jar. Sound imploded; I could feel the wind of it on my face. I could hear nothing; I could see only dimly. My throat closed and my breath gargled in my chest. In the foggy airlessness I heard sounds: the hollow thudding of running feet on our dock at Edgewater; faint, anguished cries; the high crooning of the wind in the tops of the pointed firs; the bay, which was not breathing now, but howling out its anger. I smelled blowing salt fog and felt rain stinging my face, and saw flashlights and lanterns bobbing in the darkness. I heard a child crying, wildly, inconsolably, and knew it was me. The whole thing was torn from someplace so deeply buried inside of me that I thought if I could touch it, it would be sticky with my blood and viscera.

By the time Cam was on his feet and pounding me on the back, I could begin to breathe again, and sat taking deep, sobbing gulps of stale air, coughing. People were looking at us. A few had half risen from their chairs.

"Lilly, what in the name of God! We need to get you to a doctor."

"No," I protested, taking deeper, slower breaths. My sight cleared and my ears no longer rang with awfulness. I felt, simply, hollowed out, forever hollowed and empty.

"I swallowed the wrong way. I'm okay. What were we talking about? Oh, yeah—well, as a matter of fact, we did have a Jew at Edgewater once. But at first you couldn't really tell, and he didn't stay long."

Copyright © 2008 by Anne Rivers Siddons

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