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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Fake Plastic Love

A Novel

Kimberley Tait

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

IN THE BRIDAL SUITE


I hear bars of a Glenn Miller big band serenade float dreamily along the corridor, swooping up then down under the mahogany door into my suite, suggesting brightly motioning, monogrammed cigarette holders and ever-widening green eyes and fizzing champagne cocktails. Somewhere in another room, on another floor, a medley of clarinets and muted trumpets and the light trill of fingers along the upper keys of an old Steinway Grand tell the richer, warmer tale of an era long gone and irreplaceable. Inside the suite, someone has lined up bottles of bubbly dutifully along a sideboard to my left. A precocious few are already open and ready to transport a group of invisible imbibers, a boisterous wedding party that doesn’t actually exist. I steal a glance at the bottles, counting a total of six. Who exactly is supposed to down them? The makeup artist pressed in front of me grumbles as I’ve ignored her instructions to keep my lids closed. I can’t close them yet, because now I’ve caught sight of an alien object, white and ethereal, levitating somewhere to my right. I turn my head and blink to realize it’s my dress—of course, my wedding dress!—hanging inches away in perfectly pressed silk shantung, its waist adorned by a geometric bow that will be, now that I think about it, the first bow I’ve worn since I was pigtailed at age six. Another exasperated sigh from the makeup artist and I straighten my head and close my lids obediently, but wriggle my nose in discomfort. I’m not used to being lacquered like this.

“This is the happiest day of your life!” my mother cries, bursting into the suite. She is propelled by another piano trill and a gust of frankly-I-told-you-so triumph. Fluttering momentarily near the champagne bottles, she frowns. (I can hear her internal monologue now: This would have been the right number of bottles if you had chosen to have a conventional wedding party, dear—emphasis pressed firmly on the word conventional.) Thankfully, she shakes off the gloomy thought and happily splashes a pair of coupes full with the bubbly stuff. She pours a particularly generous coupe for herself and, as shafts of light stream in through the sheer curtains from the shifting skies above Vanderbilt Avenue, the pink sets fire, transforming into a dazzling scepter for my mother to wave in front of herself. She stops her waving momentarily to extend a more modest coupe in my direction. As I accept it, I see one pink bubble abandon ship, bouncing out of the glass in a rebellious arc—through the window and across the street to catch the 12:37 from Grand Central Terminal heading north for a properly merry lawn party in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she can mingle with some gentlemanly mint juleps. I am happy for the little pink bubble and for her impulse and her abandon—qualities I have had a deficit of in my life but am working on making up for now.

“Come on, darling, have a splash of pink! You are looking far too serious for your wedding day.”

Despite my too serious looks—a criticism I have been plagued with most of my life—I really am thrilled. Just a passing thought of my groom unleashes a net of butterflies to fly in a dizzying race of figure eights around my stomach. But as the bride I’m all too aware that I will be the focal point of one hundred pairs of blinking eyes turning in unison to face me at the door of the church in a matter of sixty minutes. This is fantastically foreign territory. I’ve really only ever been comfortable being on display with racquet in hand, shoelaces double-knotted, charging around a squash court. I would have voted for a no-fuss trip down to City Hall followed by an intimate dinner here at The Vanderbilt Club, but the mere suggestion of something that informal would have crushed my mother. She believes a wedding day is one of the crowning moments of a woman’s life and that shining in an appropriate way, in an appropriate dress and setting, will determine the course of all that follows. Women who don’t take their wedding day seriously might as well flush everything down the toilet. To my surprise, maybe only to keep feathers unruffled, my groom sided with my mother, meaning they beat me squarely, two against one. In less than an hour now we’ll be married farther uptown at St. James’ Church followed by a reception in The Vanderbilt’s grand ballroom.

The artist exhales wearily at the champagne disruption and disappears into another room in search of some missing beauty product—or a miracle pill that will make it easier for her to deal with the two of us. My mother now has her back to me, cradling a telephone with both hands as she calls down to the front desk with some urgent, eleventh-hour request. Now is my chance. When the makeup artist planted me in this armchair, I tucked a postcard into the crevice alongside the cushion, out of my mother’s sight where I knew it would be plucked away or soaked through by another sloshing pink coupe. I extract it and turn it over in my hands, bringing it within a few inches of my nose to scrutinize every last pixel and letter loop. Its front features a fleet of crayon-colored hot air balloons—dozens of bygone and beautiful flying machines, perfectly scattered and floating up into an apricot dawn. The word TURKEY is typed cleanly along the bottom edge of the card. On the back, a message is scrawled in romantic cursive, the letters tilted right at an encouraging angle:

Dear M.,

Greetings from Cappadocia where I’ve decided to hang my hat for a little while. I have a good gig running balloon trips for sightseers, floating them over the ancient caves and fairy chimneys, all millions of years old. You know I’ve always had a soft spot for tour guiding. They call this magical place the Love Valley. Would you be surprised to hear I feel a strange connection with it? Only three months until your Big Day, M., and I am sorrier than I can say that I can’t be there. But I’ll be thinking of you from up in the sky and I’ll be smiling, knowing that after so many years you finally agree with me: life, and everything in it, is a Great Love Story and nothing more.

Flying on—but always your faithful friend,

Jeremy

I’m hoping if I look at the postcard long enough, the balloons or the handwriting will rearrange themselves into a clue or a distress cry or an assurance—something that will tell me how everything turned out for my friend Jeremy Kirby. Something that will tell me if he needs my help. But I can’t find a hint of anything. And so my thoughts cluster and cloud into a sooty specter that hovers a few feet above me, sprinkling coarse black particles on top of my happy day—and my happiness.

Nostalgic melodies continue to echo down the hall and under the door, drifting from Glenn Miller onto Cole Porter: “… Do you love me, as I love you?” And suddenly my spine straightens an inch as I remember what I’m listening to. Someone is testing a gramophone one floor up in The Vanderbilt’s grand ballroom—a green-horned music machine that was motored down years ago from a grandfather’s cabin in the Adirondacks, then dusted off and repaired and later anointed to play the swoon of our first dance. “Are you my life-to-be, my dream come true?” With each gust of the gramophone, its romantic tune turns longing and ghostly as it winds through these Club hallways. My mother has vanished next door to change into her wedding day outfit, fumbling with a brooch and issuing incomprehensible noises.

I’m still looking down at Jeremy’s postcard, flat and tantalizing in my hands. It’s the last card he sent me and is so evocative of him that it seems to be glowing, soft and golden and half-haunted. We can torment ourselves asking what became of a person we love—where they are, who they are with, whether they have found or created a happy ending. I’ve been tormenting myself in that way ever since Jeremy’s postcards came to a halt three months ago. Ever since an article appeared in my FT Weekend just last week, planting an ominous clue about what might have happened to him. I’ve been doing my best to turn all of that speculation and gloom into something more positive—something more productive. I’m trying to channel and carry forward the best of what Jeremy gave me before he left.

When his postcards stopped, I started casting him as the leading man in recurring dreams I now have almost nightly. In each one he wears different costumes, he inhabits different continents, he dwells in different times—but he always assumes the role of protagonist, of champion, of savior. The night before my wedding was no exception and my dream is still with me, tingeing the bridal suite air around me a smoky and sorrowful blue. It was dawn. I was flying a hang glider of all things and slalomed through the air a thousand feet above the ancient rock of Cappadocia, still and slumbering in the earliest moments of day. The world swept out below me—great smears of violets and reds and yellows and darks. I was chasing a lone hot air balloon that drifted fifty feet ahead of me, journeying along in a Turkish breeze that I knew was heading south in the direction of Syria. The balloon was an indigo blue peppered with a hopeful constellation of silver stars. It carried a single man, whose silhouette stretched out optimistically over the wicker basket’s edge, searching the horizon with a pair of binoculars.

“Jeremy!” I called to the figure from my glider but felt my cry swarmed and swallowed up by the altitude as soon as it escaped my mouth. How would I reach him? How could I get through to him? “Is this the right way? Are we going the right way? Jeremy!” Against all likelihood he heard me—there was some movement in the basket as he scrambled to the other side and peered down at me, his binoculars dangling jauntily around his neck.

“Yes!” Jeremy answered, his voice a bright flurry of confetti tossed in my direction. “Don’t worry about a thing! I’ve mapped out a route to the moon and I’m going up there to find her! I don’t know how long it will take me but I promise I’m going to find her. I’ll pick her up and bring her right back!”

“I know you will!” I yelled, believing him with every fiber of my being. The right corner of my mouth trembled, and I couldn’t tell if it was the start of a smile or the precursing pull of tears. Jeremy Kirby had never been a superhero. If he had been one, he would have looked more like a Peter Parker than a Clark Kent. Either way, when he came into your life and his brown eyes locked on yours so earnestly, you knew that it wasn’t what he would do but how hard he would try to do it that made him so extraordinary. “It’s what you were born to do! It’s what she’s really wanted—it’s what she’s been waiting for all along!” He smiled at me from above, an aura of fondness and friendship illuminating him, and lifted one palm toward me—part wave, part salute. I desperately wanted to reciprocate his gesture but was frozen, knowing that if I let go of my glider and raised my hand, I’d plummet a thousand feet down and break apart on the rocks below. Keeping his palm in the air, he reached up with his other hand and turned a knob that sent a long and lean flame firing upward into his balloon, lifting him up and whisking him off on a fresh current away from me—a wash of silver stars bound straight for the moon.

“Have a sip, dear,” my mother implores, startling me out of my dreamscape. She has returned from the other room, sparkling and dressed and disturbingly staccato in her movements, and without warning plucks the postcard from my hand and extends a winking pink coupe toward me in its place.

“Mom, I need that,” I say to her with surprising sharpness, reaching ahead to reclaim my card. The offered coupe tips precariously to the right then left then right again. Sensing danger, a new, wayward flock of pink bubbles confers and flees out the window and across the street to catch the next train north.

“Darling, this is hardly the time for personal correspondence. You can write as many postcards as you’d like on your honeymoon.” My brow is furrowed and I lean forward to take another swing at the card as she places it out of arm’s reach on the sideboard next to the remaining champagne bottles. “You know, if you had bridesmaids, they could have handled all of these trivial sorts of things for you today.”

To her great dismay I have no bridesmaids. I agreed to a bigger wedding, but I still insisted on doing a few things my way, which means there is no wedding party. My mother would have undoubtedly cast Belle Bailey as maid of honor, that much I know, and in my heart I feel the soft indentation of regret that I couldn’t do it—that I had to shut her out. Of course I had to field a legion of questions from my mother about my decision—why Belle wouldn’t be my wedding day right-hand woman, why she will not be with us as even a guest today. We’ve grown too far apart was all I could say as bewilderment gripped my mother’s face. A wedding exposes everything, but it explains very little.

Later in the church, partly out of habit, partly for old times’ sake, I know I’ll still look into the congregation for hints of Belle’s incandescence, for her signature splash of red—the plume of a fascinator, the forward tip of a hat brim, the bright stain of doll-like lips. More than anything, I will be looking for Jeremy’s hallmarks—the sheen of his beeswaxed head, the poetic bloom of the buttonhole in his lapel. I will not see any of that. Belle will not be there. Jeremy is God only knows where—a half a world or a constellation away. I know it’s an idiot’s game to try and predict or control other people. But we can always control ourselves. So I close my eyes and take a deep breath and focus inward, trying to remember my promise: today will be one day, after all of these years, that will finally be about me.

COLLEGE

I know it isn’t standard form to be distracted by a man who isn’t your fiancé an hour before getting married—but I have a good reason that’s worth explaining. I’ve always made a point of doing things at my own pace, in my own time. For example, it took me until age thirty to finally assuage my mother’s greatest, soul-rattling fear that I would never marry. She planted her first urgent seed on the topic at O’Hare Airport, seeing me off on my Boston-bound flight to start my freshman year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I’m not sure what a mother is supposed to say to a daughter when she leaves home to begin undergraduate life. Mine yanked me back just as I was stepping into the airport security line, grasping both of my shoulders and rushing out one pressing instruction:

“Listen to me, button. Whatever you do, find yourself a nice young man before you graduate. One who’s going into banking. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

I struggled in the opposite direction while extending my ID to the security attendant. But he only looked on bemusedly as my mother pulled me back toward her, staring at me with large and alarming eyes:

“Just make sure he has a good head for numbers!”

She tapped an index finger against her temple, indicating the young man’s brain in which all of the numbers would dwell and divide and masterfully square root. That gesture lessened her grip on me, and I wrested myself away successfully, spinning off into the security area in a blur of waving hands and neatly packed carry-on bags.

Though it was an unusual way to say good-bye, I knew what she was getting at. Marrying a numbers man had provided stability and reliability in her life, which she valued far more than any kind of personal ambition. My father was ten years her senior and had come of age as a bond man in a presynthetic world—when, I imagined, it was a yawn-inducing, quintessentially steady business of thirty-year yields and even-keeled coupon payments. The eventual ubiquity of opaque and daringly named financial products like naked swaps would have prompted some embarrassed throat clearing from my father, confirming it was time for him to hang up his beloved braces and pinstripes. But his decades of faithfulness to his bank means that in retirement he still provides my mother with a comfortable life in the white-picket-fenced commuter suburb north of Chicago where I grew up. Our family dwelled in that rare and contented state of not wanting even more than we had, so all of this—my father being a numbers man—meant my mother and I never devoted serious thought or worry to the notion of money.

Though I had briefly considered applying to colleges closer to home—Northwestern or the University of Chicago—the pull of the Ivy League was too lush and storied to resist, so I was heading east for my higher education. This pleased my mother to no end. She had always claimed young northeastern men held more promise than midwestern ones, storing it up in the folds of their ever-present pocket squares and tucking it into the shining penny slots of their oxblood Bass Weejuns. Or perhaps she believed they liked numbers more there—for in the east there were more bankers. Dartmouth would be just the place. The new millennium saw it develop an exaggerated reputation as a feeder for the finance industry or, as one attention-seeking alumnus inaccurately described, “a vocational school for investment bankers.” When the dark-caped banks swooped down onto campus during senior fall to hatchet their pick of the brightest undergraduate minds, small clusters of cable-knit-sweatered protestors gathered on patchy corners of the campus Green. A nucleus of picketers rooted itself near the entrance to the Hanover Inn, where corporate recruiting interviews took place in the uncomfortable intimacy of suites with four-poster beds overlooking Baker Library. They voiced their disenchantment using homemade cardboard signs in all-cap letters that rewrote the College’s romantically charged motto VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO as a question: A VOICE CRYING OUT FOR A BANKING OFFER?

Don’t misunderstand me—many people at Dartmouth could give a hoot about the world of finance. My best friend Annabelle Bailey—Belle is what we always called her—was one of them, and it was on that score and many others that we made such an unlikely duo. I would eventually figure out that we weren’t so unlikely, after all—that the purest forms of admiration and envy don’t require an incubation period, blooming instantly and soon coloring everything.

Belle and I first met during our freshman year when she—with characteristic absent-mindedness—picked up my coffee at the counter of the off-campus café, Rosey Jekes, instead of waiting for her own. Despite all of our glaring differences, our coffee orders were identical—double-shot black Americanos—and she had taken mine. I trailed her in the coffeehouse for all of three steps, and then lost my nerve. I could wait another thirty seconds for my caffeine injection. And besides, there was something about her bow-clad flats and giraffe’s neck and ballerina’s walk that was too unsuspecting and delicate to startle. The effect endeared her to strangers like me without our ever realizing it. But in reality Belle was far from unaware: she had a sixth sense about her—an extra set of vigilant cat eyes fixed onto the back of her head—and she knew all at once that I was there and that I had watched her mistake.

“This is your coffee,” she stated, turning around and looking straight at me. Glancing down to the cup in her hands, I saw two opposing arcs decorating the plastic lid in brilliant red—she had already taken a sip and left behind her signature stamp. “It’s how Great Love and Friendship begin in the movies, isn’t it?” She laughed, shooting sparks of delight around her. Her neck craned toward me. I would soon learn this was Belle’s physical reaction when she properly focused on another person or thing—a trace or two away from silly and undeniably florid. I assumed a puzzled look that she must have mistaken for amusement, adding, “Lovely, then—the next one will be on me!” before flying out the door and zipping off on her red bicycle, with each pedal fertilizing a blooming path along an otherwise ordinary campus walkway. And so she had declared us friends—invented a romantic beginning, planted seeds of meaning into something I would have quickly forgotten as one of life’s everyday and inevitable accidents.

Of course I had seen Belle around campus and knew who she was before that first encounter. She’d been a gleaming light in our class—her blond head and hundred-watt smile and apple-red accessories brightening the moods of even the most hungover or chauvinistic fratty types on walks across campus between classes. She could usually be spotted cycling by, laughing or waving atop her cherry-colored, basket-clad bicycle, an old-fashioned Pashley she had imported from England. She was the lifestyle reporter for The Dartmouth, churning out stylized and sentimental stories about the history of Valentine’s Day proposals on campus or accounts of swoony old Winter Carnival traditions—the crowning of the Queen of the Snows (“Not only beauty but the spirit of New Hampshire snows and Hanover winters will grace her personality and costume”), sleigh riders munching maple-syrup-topped snow cones, and ski jumpers swooping off an eighty-five-foot-tall trestle to hold fast-fleeting court high above the frosted country club golf course. She saved and pressed the brightest autumn leaves to use as bookmarks. She requested songs to play on Baker Library’s bells that she’d dedicate to people with anonymous note cards left in their Hinman postboxes. If it had been politically correct enough for Dartmouth to have a twenty-first-century Queen of the Snows—or if Belle had been granted her great wish of being born in an earlier, dreamier era—without a shadow of a doubt she would have been it.

Though she could have chosen anyone, after our Americano mix-up she decided to shine her light on me. I couldn’t help but be flattered. I played varsity squash, dressed in navies and neutrals and duck boots, and was as far a cry as you could find from your prototypical Winter Carnival Queen. But still, something about me must have caught her fascination. Belle did some amount of research to find out my name and within a few days, monogrammed letterpress cards, beautifully penned in her tilted cursive, started appearing in my mailbox. Each one listed an instruction that stacked together could have been published as a guidebook called something like Mischief in Madras: Charmed Life in the Ivy League.

I.O.U. one double-shot Americano! How about we make it a triple and then race canoes on the Connecticut?? Last one across the river and back is a rotten egg!

Apple picking at Windy Hill Orchard this Saturday! The apple cider donuts are so naughty but I’ve been feeling a bit devilish lately …

Ice-skating on Occom Pond after class today—bundle up in College colors and I’ll bring the hot cocoa (spiked, of course—shhhhh!).

We found a simple kind of balance together: I helped bring her down to Earth, if only momentarily, and she brought me out of my shell, offering much-needed diversification of my spare time outside my varsity squash schedule. Neither of us joined sororities so we were both GDIs—God Damn Independents—a more surprising label for a bombshell like Belle Bailey. I never rushed but she had, receiving bids from all the most coveted houses. But none of them had done enough to win her over. Even back then Belle insisted on fashioning her own mold instead of folding her willowy frame into someone else’s. In no time we had thrown out the label GDI and started calling ourselves The Lost Girls, our very own (unrecognized) two-person secret society. All Greek meetings were held every Wednesday when the clock struck an ominous ten, which meant those nights became ours. The campus would darken and empty as undergrads scurried into the close, beer-reeking holds of their fraternities and sororities and, for a few special hours, we were handed the keys to a mystical village. On one of those Wednesdays another one of Belle’s note cards handed me my marching orders:

M.,

They call Jupiter’s proximity to the moon tonight a “conjunction”—I say they’re facing each other ready to set off on a celestial foxtrot. It’s happening tonight! Meet at the Shattuck Observatory at 10 p.m.—sharp!

B.B.

I never asked how she secured the keys to the observatory so we could meet after hours, but it was the first of many trips we would take there on Wednesday nights, when campus police had their hands full trolling the sordid and shadowy length of Fraternity Row. The first time we tiptoed through the door, I could see she was pulled toward the 130-year-old refractor telescope magnetically.

“He’s out there, you know,” she whispered, hovering near the telescope with her voice slowed to a snail’s pace by the sweet drag of dreaminess.

“Wait, didn’t you want to look for the preposition? Or was it the conjunction?” I squinted as I thumbed through The Cosmic Perspective, an introductory astronomy book Belle had borrowed from Baker Library to assist us in our stargazing.

“No, no. For God’s sake.” She sighed, impatiently, as though hauling us across campus to peer into the heavens in search of an intergalactic ballroom dance had been my ill-conceived idea in the first place. “I mean, the boy who will change everything one day—for you, and for me.”

“I certainly hope it’s not the same boy! Because that would end very poorly for one of us,” I said with a snort. We had no idea that at that moment, hundreds of miles away in a rural stretch of upstate New York, there actually was a young man—the same young man—who would alter so much for both of us.

“Don’t,” she censured me with deadpan seriousness. She reached through the dim to take the library book with one hand and grasp my arm with the other. “It’s not a thing to snort at, M. Snort at anything else in this world but not at that. It’s the most important thing there is.”

Belle was a very smart girl who would never apologize for dreaming the most formulaic dreams about moonlight and storybook endings and so-long-as-we-both-shall-live. And sometimes the universe responds to what a person sends out into its silent, starry vastness. Eager suitors lined up around her on campus—from slow-witted, supercute hockey players to sharp-tongued, owl-eyed, Jack-O-Lantern writers. But none fit the bill perfectly enough to be anointed as her Chosen One. Belle was her most emphatic on one point. She would wait as long as she needed to find True Love. While on some fundamental level I hoped—and expected—he would materialize someday, during my teenage years I’d never idled away hours pining for the boy who would one day change everything for me. I’d never had a confidante or coconspirator—no hairbrush lip-syncing or crank calling crushes or heart-fluttering first kiss recaps. After the sweaty herd of adolescence had stampeded by, I would always wonder if, by skipping those most blushing moments of shared girlhood, I had ever been fully and completely young. My friendship with Belle gave me another crack, if only vicariously, at some of the things I’d missed. I suspect that was a great comfort to my mother who had been so profoundly disappointed to realize that I, her only child, lacked that essential girlishness—that, as I got older, I continued to sport several earmarks of a tomboy. Makeup always seemed too costume-like, and the thought of nail polish chipping imperfectly was almost as unbearable to me as the sound of nails scraping their way across a chalkboard. I was happier gripping a squash racquet than a ballet barre. At school, I was proudest being anointed yearbook editor instead of Homecoming Queen. I found steadiness, dedication, thoroughness, and honesty to be the most attractive qualities and pursued them in everything I did in the classroom and on court. This no doubt resulted in a healthy amount of eye-rolling from other girls my age, but I didn’t notice. I wanted to be good and do good things—I didn’t pay attention to much else. At fifteen I went to one school dance and was never asked to dance. I left the building long before the grand “Stairway to Heaven” finale. The thought of what was happening through the double doors in the seedy smokiness of the parking lot behind the gym frightened me to no end—maybe the boys could sense it. So I never went back to another dance. I learned that secret Valentines and sentimentally scrawled journals and soulfully recorded CD mixes were not for me. And so, while Belle Bailey became a woman for whom two-plus carats were a life certainty, I grew up into a woman who’d insist she preferred her signet ring to a diamond.

* * *

Every life has an essential inflection point—a sharp angle that jolts each of us off in some direction, altering our course and marking the Before and After. Belle’s came earlier and was sharper and more course altering than most. In the last stretch of our junior year on a blue-skied and blossoming May day, her parents died in one of the decade’s most notorious plane crashes when flying back from their holiday in Burgundy. An in-flight fire and pilot error were to blame. I had studied abroad in London that term, then went traveling—hiking in Iceland, sleeping in a volcano hut and out of phone contact for a full three days when it happened. I would always feel a fresh scraping of guilt for being so unaware, so far away from Belle when she got the news. Her tragedy—losing her parents so young in such a spectacular way—granted her the right to be evasive about her past. It was deeply melancholic territory and no one would disrespect her by posing the questions shallow souls were most desperate to ask her: What did your dad do? Where did you summer? Wait, my dear girl, are you still able to summer? What’s the state of your trust fund? How much did you actually inherit? It handed her a special allure. The intrigue and pity of others intermingled to form a lovely film around her—a second skin that distanced her. So, from that point on, no one could ever say with certainty whether Belle was a beer fortune heiress or just another pretty Golightly girl dusting off her nonexistent social status on trips to the powder room.

Belle spent the first summer after the crash with an aunt back home in Rhode Island and I wasn’t certain she would return to campus to finish her senior year. But she did return—much thinner and brushed with a watercolored sadness that only managed to make her look more beautiful. We had planned to share a small off-campus house for our final year, but Belle regretfully told me she needed to back out of the lease, retreating into her own palatial two-bedroom apartment reigning high above the quiet bustle of Main Street. Her trademark fire had dialed down to an ember—she stopped making Baker bell song dedications, and to my knowledge she never visited the Shattuck Observatory again. She gave up her job as lifestyle reporter for The Dartmouth. She started walking, leaving her red Pashley leaning at a lonely angle, chained up on the sidewalk in front of her building. Our entire class started scrubbing and polishing itself in preparation for the first round of corporate recruiting that hovered like a black boom on the brink of swinging over to complete a hazardous sailing tack. Our entire class except Belle, that is. She never spoke of it, but I could see plain as day that her interest in the future dissolved along with the last traces of her parents’ downed fuselage. And so did her insistence on finding True Love. In both respects, she decided to look the other way.

One electric October morning with hints of fire in the air, I checked my campus postbox as a desperate break from editing and reediting my CV for the first résumé drop lurking only a few days away. A single envelope occupied the darkness of the box, slanting sadly against its left wall. Even before I pulled it into the daylight, I knew it was a letterpress card from Belle—the first I’d received since the crash. Without a single exclamation point or asterisk or all-capped word, she was summoning me on one of our old adventures:

M.,

Lost Girls Summit on Gilman Island. Meet me tomorrow at the Ledyard dock at 5:30 p.m. Bring your sleeping bag. I’ll bring the canoe and the jam and bread.

B.B.

I traced my fingers along the string of blue loops spelling out Lost Girls and shivered.

And so the next evening we canoed through the early ripples of twilight away from campus and down the Connecticut River, deeper and deeper into haunted Indian territory toward Gilman Island, the Lost Girls’ very own New Hampshire Neverland, that when viewed from above in its full autumn flush would have resembled the teardrop flame of a candle floating mystically atop the water. When we arrived, Belle sat cross-legged at water’s edge, holding a piece of bread smothered in jam and marveling up as the sky darkened and a deep-blue, star-specked carpet unfurled above her.

“Let’s never leave,” she said, decisively. “I think I’d prefer to stay right here.”

“Gilman Island?” I laughed. “I don’t buy it for a second. You can make it through a night with no electricity and plumbing, but I think Block Island is more your speed, Belle.”

“No, I think I’d rather not leave this place,” she insisted, ignoring me and keeping large eyes trained upward as she took a giant bite of her bread and jam.

But we have to leave—none of us have a choice, I thought to myself, feeling the full, sad weight of her desperation to escape the rawness and reality that awaited her once she’d be forced into the wider world beyond campus. On our holy undergraduate lawns, she was safe—we were all safe; she could wrap herself in the College’s history and its verdure and pretend that tragedy hadn’t actually struck her. But what would she do once that wrapping was gone, once she was left exposed without that arcadian shield?

When night fell with crisp and inky permanence over the island, Belle wouldn’t retreat into the log cabin to sleep and insisted on spreading her sleeping bag out along the shore.

“Come inside, Belle”—I almost said you’ll catch your death out here but caught myself—“you’ll catch an awful cold out here.” I had officially started editing the things I said to her and it would take a good number of years for me to speak my mind to her again, honest and unchecked.

“No, thank you,” she refused, politely, pulling a red wool hat over her ears and stretching wide within her sleeping bag. “I want to wake up with a frosty nose. Don’t you just love waking up with a frosty nose? It’s one of my favorite things in the world.”

When we paddled back to campus the next morning, Belle had in fact caught something. She couldn’t stop sneezing, issuing an unending string of soft and dainty “a-choos!” But something else had shifted, too, like a weather vane rotating a few ominous degrees east.

Within a week of our summit on Gilman Island Belle took up with a brash and bulky fraternity president named Chase Breckenridge—an Anglo-American turbo-douche she secretly canoodled with after a number of frat parties over the years and the guy least likely to qualify as the one who would change everything for her. Belle never introduced us properly, which confused and irritated me in equal measure. But I managed to meet him on my own later that October when a big gang of us—at long last turned twenty-one—took over a townie pub off-campus, downing Long Island Iced Teas that could have doubled as lemon-laced rocket fuel. Belle had agreed to meet me at the bar but never turned up; I had assumed Chase was the reason but since our return from Gilman Island she had started disappearing, breaking or rearranging plans or arriving an hour or two late, without explanation or apology. It was becoming increasingly difficult to track her movements. By myself in the mayhem, I was tossed into a crowd of classmates who were semistrangers and urged into a game of darts with an especially rowdy lot that included Chase. It came down to the two of us and I ended up beating him. Though he looked more and more outraged as it was happening, at some point he resigned himself to the defeat, rocking back on his heels and staring at me with wide and amused eyes, as though he were observing a newly evolved species flashing its feathers just to please him.

“And that, my friend, means you owe me another one of these,” I said to him, smugly, waving my empty glass in his direction once I had won. We sidled up to the bar and he fixed his big, off-kilter grin on me as he commandeered my victory tea.

“You know you’re somewhere between pretty and beautiful,” he remarked, scanning me up and down with cold-blooded confidence. “I just can’t tell which way you’re skewing.” He tossed his dark, golden head back with the remains of his tea, keeping sly eyes trained on me.

“Well, don’t strain yourself to figure it out. It’ll tire you for the rematch I’m sure you’re going to demand—though I’ll pass on that, thanks,” I sassed, reaching over to pluck my drink from the bar. As I turned to make my way back into the fray with my brimming glass, I tossed over my shoulder, “I think we both know how it would end.”

“You cheeky little bitch,” he slurred, pulling me into his expansive chest with an easy sweep of his arm. With my drink knocked to the floor, he backed us into a shadowy side corridor, around the corner and out of the crowd’s sight. “How would it end, M.? Hmmmm?” He had me fixed against his chest and was still grinning at me, crookedly, less than an inch from my nose. I could almost taste his excessive cologne—he was a human sprinkler fanning Acqua di Parma in an obnoxious semicircle around his epic torso—until he emitted a thick, Long Island Iced Tea burp into my face that I’m certain he thought he’d disguised. “You’re right, we’re done with darts for the night. But I think there’s something else you’re wanting to take dead aim at?” He grabbed one of my wrists with enough force that, based on instinct alone, I brought my right knee up then down to grind my right heel into his meaty left foot. It was the first and only time in my life I regretted not owning a pair of stilettos. “Jesus, you DYKE!” he howled, limping his way into the men’s room down the corridor. He never apologized—and of course neither did I—charging all of our interactions from that point on with an undercurrent of hostility.

I never told Belle about that game of darts. She and Chase spent the rest of that autumn speeding around the Upper Valley in his vintage racing green roadster. And of course Chase took the noble approach of pretending I didn’t exist, even when I had the misfortune of running into him with Belle in situations that revealed their surprising, adult-like intimacy—on a weekday picking up mail together from their Hinman postboxes that fatefully sat next to each other thanks to their “B” surnames, or on a weekend stashed cozily in a booth at Lou’s Bakery in town, Chase powering through his “Big Green Breakfast” as Belle carefully paged through the New York Times Styles section, leaning into his sturdy shoulder and whispering in his ear as she, every minute or two, pointed out an item of shared interest. I’m not sure it would have mattered if I had revealed everything to her. I always guessed she would leap to his defense. (“Oh, M., REALLY? I just don’t see it. You know you’re not Chase’s type AT ALL and you were playing darts. Your judgment gets so cloudy when it comes to anything competitive.”) Despite his sweeping faults she saw Chase as an ideal partner who, like her, didn’t give a toss about his future. He didn’t have to—his father, his surname, his family fortune mapped it all out for him with easy and opulent precision like a preeminent architect’s skyscraping blueprints.

Beyond joyriding with Chase, Belle studied very little and spent the rest of her senior year high-stepping around campus snapping photographs for a new lifestyle blog she was building called La Belle Vie. She said it was one of the first of its kind and featured a collection of pretty sights and musings that I could plainly see filtered out everything foul that she couldn’t bear facing in her life. I saw less and less of her. Whenever I did see her, I noticed she was riding her red bicycle again, but something about all of it—Chase, La Belle Vie, her reborn enthusiasm that seemed to be a tinny, inauthentic version of her warm old spirit—just didn’t ring true to me. Maybe I should have paid her more attention; maybe I shouldn’t have let her start drifting away so elegantly and adeptly. But, like everyone else, I had plunged myself headlong into the deep end of corporate recruiting. As I had wanted to tell Belle on Gilman Island, none of us had a choice. It was all part of the serious business of finding a good job. The next hoop of excellence we needed to jump through. And by preoccupying ourselves with that all-important task, there was no time for introspection. College was slipping away so quickly—the pine-guarded place that had protected us for three years began nudging us toward the door with sudden and semiabrupt gestures that added up to one clear message: It’s been such a hoot having you here and we really don’t mean to be rude, but we’ve got to make room to give a new bunch their shot. Translation: You’d better get a move on now and sort out the rest of your life.

On a bleak winter morning, a few dozen equally clueless seniors and I were bused away from the rolling idylls of New Hampshire down to the brassy blare of New York City for final-round interviews with a few of the big investment banks. We were assaulted with questions about the number of Ping-Pong balls that could fit into Madison Square Garden, or how we would go about valuing a coffee and bagel cart in Union Square. And we were assigned young alumni “buddies” who toured us around each bank after the interview goring was complete. I sensed it right away. There was some intangible thing binding these young professionals together—an upward angle of the chin, an authoritative edge to the voice, a precocious choice of cuff links. Leading us into a conference room or onto a trading floor, they strode with such implied authority and purpose and polish. They were twenty-four-year-olds behaving like bombastic old veterans—all pocket squares and after-hours bourbon old-fashioneds. I remember turning a corner in one office and recognizing a boy I knew from College, a few years older than me, rocking back in his desk chair and snarling so nasally, so dismissively into the phone—“Fly Delta? To be clear, did you just suggest that I fly Delta?”—that I marveled at how someone could hurl so much open disdain toward another person, about an airline no less, before completing his first quarter century on the planet. For better or worse, these cues left an impression. For as long as I could remember, being first mattered intensely to me—crossing the three-legged race finish line ahead of the pack, having the most immaculate Brownie uniform stitched with the widest array of badges in all the troop. I approached my search for my first job in the same way I had approached my undergraduate applications—I was looking for a team to join and I wanted it to be the winning one. By joining a bank this seemed to be a certainty. I would jump straight into the rush and the hum—into the inner chambers of our country’s beating capitalist heart—and move in lockstep with my highest-achieving contemporaries.

I took the direct route when it came time to break the news to my mother. Campus recruiting had wrapped up and—against all odds—as a history major I had received the most coveted job offer of them all, a first-year analyst position with Bartholomew Brothers, the most iconic of the New York investment banks.

“Mom, something amazing has happened,” I announced to her by phone. “I’ve found a job at a bank!”

“Oh, how wonderful, dear—wherever did you meet him?” My mother had taken the call in the kitchen where she was in the middle of making dinner, the extractor fan roaring with industrial force in the background. I imagined her as an aproned, spatula-bearing figure pitching itself forward bravely in the center of a wind tunnel. She crudely covered the receiver, hissing “Jim!” to summon my father from his study. “At a party? A sorority house social?”

“No, Mother,” I answered, flatly. She knew full well I had never rushed a sorority. “I didn’t meet a banker.” I cleared my throat. She issued a horrified gurgle, anticipating my next line. “I’m becoming one.”

* * *

In an indiscernible flash, it was June and it was Commencement Day and our undergraduate curtain call was upon us. Our class stood—en masse and mildly stunned—with a poignant fog hanging low around our gowned shoulders on the crisp stretches of the campus Green. How was it all over before it had barely begun? The College had transformed its central lawn into a launchpad to catapult us, formally and finally, into adulthood. It was fitted with a stage and a lectern in the deceptively friendly shape of an old pine trunk and a lone piper on the sidelines who sounded a sharp song of sorrow into the mist. I stood in the middle of that grassy launching site, looking ahead to the vast, flat unknown of wherever it was that I would land. The piper finished, staying silent and reverent as Baker’s bells started clanging out alternating notes of melancholy and promise. So many of my classmates were doubled over at the now unavoidable reality of leaving College—around me they wore green, queasy looks advertising their shock or their hangovers and in all cases were convinced that the most epic hangover of all was on the brink of hitting. A passageway to everything foolhardy and wonderful and high-spirited was sealing shut behind us forever. Out in the real world there would be no rousing alma mater to urge us forward, no lunatic rioting around sixty-foot-tall bonfires or accidental afternoon naps in battered old leather armchairs or spontaneous snowball fights when the heavens shook down the first silver flurries or toga parties or term papers returned heavy and lovely with the perfume of pipe smoke or the warmth and safety of knowing you were tucked in behind sky-high gates made of towering pines. I knew this and I wasn’t the least bit happy about it. But on that last afternoon, I was determined to hear the promise, not the melancholy, in Baker’s bells—to look up and past its storybook spire and think that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t an elaborate hoax. Maybe they called it Commencement for a damn good reason; maybe the best years of my life could still be ahead of me. As I hopefully transferred my tassel from the right to left side of my mortarboard, ready to race toward all of that best-still-yet-to-come, my parents greeted me on the lawn.

“That’s my girl,” my father glowed, engulfing me in a bear hug. “Look out, Wall Street, this one’s whip smart and barreling your way!”

My mother rolled her eyes and pushed herself between us to face me and issue her perverse version of congratulations. With a sniff and a downward sloping of the right corner of her mouth, she wasted no time to remind me that I had failed to follow her one instruction.

“Maybe it’s not all lost,” she wavered, uncertainly. “If you play your cards right, button, being at that bank may actually work in your favor, with so many eligible men right at your fingertips.” She said the word bank in the same tone she generally reserved for words like bookmaker and brothel.

As my mother took a deep, preparatory breath to continue her reprimand, Belle Bailey skipped up just in the nick of time, her own mortarboard a black T-shaped cocktail hat sloped stylishly to one side. She was by herself and I couldn’t spot any of her relatives—interested aunts, uncles, or godparents—hovering with decorum on a nearby patch of grass. My mother tried to compensate by dotting her with an even-more-enthusiastic-than-usual Pantone palette of compliments. This time she focused on Belle’s crimson shift dress that apparently looked just precious, my mother’s highest grade of approval, though its exact meaning has always been lost on me. I certainly hadn’t received the same praise for the forest-green suede loafers I decided to wear that day as a nod to our College colors—the emptiness of her stare as she gazed down at my shoes told me she had slotted them into the same stylistic genus as a pair of surgical boots. Belle in red, standing out from a crowd, sparking applause, was not unusual. She could never be seen without some bright-red accessory—an urbane cloche, a fluttering scarf, thick and juvenile red mittens. In time I would come to see those red accents for what they actually were: props in Belle’s daily magic show. Like a waving silk scarf or a startled puff of smoke they were special effects intended to distract and deflect. Looking down, I observed that the skirt of her dress pleated in a way that suggested an inverted tulip. Her left leg was placed in front of her at a gentle angle—an elegant and suntanned stamen. My mother also liked describing Belle as floralisn’t she such a floral girl? And when she stood tapered and tall, you had to agree it was as if the petals of a flower opened up at you—flattering you by implying you were the sun she was extending herself toward in search of nourishment.

“Here we go,” Belle said to me, reaching over to squeeze my hand as though we were jointly attached to a bungee cord, about to take the greatest headfirst leap of our lives together on the count of three. “Off into the wild blue yonder!”

“Or steely-gray yonder? It is New York we’re moving to.”

Belle didn’t respond—her eyes had drifted up to the clock on the library bell tower and I could see she had retreated behind a gossamer veil of reminiscing.

“How did it get so late so soon?” I heard her whisper to herself, or maybe to the mischievous spirit of a young Dr. Seuss, who’d been launched from this same graduation lawn back in 1925.

“My goodness how the time has flewn,” I chimed in, supporting her with another line of his verse.

“How did it get so late so soon? Really, M.—how did it?”

“Sure beats me, Belle. But here we are.” A lump had formed in my throat, tightening my voice into a strange and frog-like quiver.

She pulled herself away from the bell tower and inhaled bravely, looking to my mother and to me with giant cartoon eyes that were shadowed and glassy with contradictory sentiment. Then she tamped all that feeling down and presented us with her warmest gradient of smile—the kind that opened her face up completely and welcomed us into the grief-stricken folds of her beauty.

“We’ll always be here for you, Belle,” my mother clarified with emotion, reaching over and interlacing Belle’s fingers with hers. “Anything you need. You just call. Day or night. Never hesitate for one second. Not for one second, you sweet girl.”

Despite the profound loss she had already endured in her life and how solitary she seemed that day—lost and swimming in the abundant fabric of her cap and gown—Belle would never face anything completely alone. I always knew independence was an irrepressible part of me. For Belle, it was so different. Not once could I recall a moment when she wasn’t propped up by positive reinforcement, by some expression of unconditional support, by an anguished boy tumbled head over heels in love with her. Can that type of existence haunt a person, too? She had shrugged off the insistent pressures of corporate recruiting and decided to become a photographer or a writer or both—I was never quite sure what to call it, but after graduating she planned to manage and market her new lifestyle blog La Belle Vie. That guaranteed her need for external validation would only keep deepening. I suspect there were times that Belle, if she took an honest look inward, would have longed for some space, a grain of autonomy that would allow her to inhale and exhale in her own right, as her own person, sheltered from the prying and expecting eyes of others, if only momentarily. To determine if she herself was truly happy with who she was and what she had become.

I felt confident about what I was becoming. Telling someone where I was going to work yielded nothing but sets of raised eyebrows and acclamatory remarks like Look at you, smarty-pants or Well, we always knew you weren’t exactly a dummy. I stockpiled these comments and felt reassured about my path.

The crowds were beginning to disperse, so Belle decorated each of us with a pair of farewell kisses and started to walk away. But then she paused, turning back to hold my stare and issue me a last good-bye stamped with something enigmatic and sad:

“I’ll see you on the other side, M.”

Then she was gone, and my parents and I crossed the grass toward the Hanover Inn to sit down for what would be, by a large margin, the most anticlimactic lunch of my life. I lifted my mortarboard off my head and took my first step off the graduation Green, half-expecting some kind of startling event—a land mine detonating under my foot or a gale-force wind ripping me off the ground or my mother looking on in horror as my green loafers metamorphosed into cloven hooves. Proof that, from now on and for always, everything would be different. Nothing exploded or mutated—the universe didn’t seem interested that I could no longer call myself a student—but I did stub my toe on the pavement edge, flying forward and swinging myself around a parking meter a few feet away.

“Look sharp!” my father cried.

I regained my balance as my mother shook her head and tsked toward my shoes.

Looking sharply was the last thing I’d been doing. I simply wasn’t looking. I had donned a pair of blinders as the only way to block the ache of leaving the first place I had felt real happiness—the certainty of belonging, of being exactly where I knew I was supposed to be in the world. We reached the inn and my father opened the front door for my mother and me in one gallant swoop. Celebratory sounds floated in our direction from the restaurant—popping champagne corks, clinking stemware, nasal bursts of laughter.

“Magna cum laude earns you a cocktail, jelly bean.” He winked at me. “And I don’t mean a Shirley Temple.”

He bustled us inside, humming happily beneath his breath. Everything will fall into place, I thought, trying to pick out his melody. I will figure out my new place. Belle and I will reunite as Lost Girls again. Things would pick up right where they had left off, I was certain—on the other side.


Copyright © 2017 by Kimberley Tait