It was impossible to start school without remembering him.
Some kids, of course, had been on vacation when it happened and hadn’t seen the news in the paper. Some hadn’t even known Mark Stedmeister.
But we’d known him. We’d laughed with him, danced with him, argued with him, swum with him, and then . . . said our good-byes to him when he was buried.
There was the usual safety assembly the first day of school. But the principal opened it with announcements of the two deaths over the summer: a girl who drowned at a family picnic, and Mark, killed in a traffic accident. Mr. Beck asked for two minutes of silence to remember them, and then a guy from band played “Amazing Grace” on the trumpet.
Gwen and Pam and Liz and I held hands during the playing, marveling that we had any tears left after the last awful weeks and the day Liz had phoned me, crying, “He was just sitting there, Alice! He wasn’t doing anything! And a truck ran into him from behind.”
It helps to have friends. When you can spread the sadness around, there’s a little less, somehow, for each person to bear. As we left the auditorium later, teachers handed out plastic bracelets we could wear for the day—blue for Mark, yellow for the freshman who had drowned—and as we went from class to class, we’d look for the blue bracelets and lock eyes for a moment.
“So how did it go today?” Sylvia asked when she got home that afternoon. And without waiting for an answer, she gave me a long hug.
“Different,” I said, when we disentangled. “It will always seem different without Mark around.”
“I know,” she said. “But life does have a way of filling that empty space, whether you want it to or not.”
She was right about that. Lester’s twenty-fifth birthday, for one. I’d bought him a tie from the Melody Inn. The pattern was little brown figures against a bright yellow background, and if you studied them closely, you saw they were tiny eighth notes forming a grid. I could tell by Lester’s expression that he liked it.
“Good choice, Al!” he said, obviously surprised at my excellent taste. “So how’s it going? First day of your last year of high school, huh?”
“No, Les, you’re supposed to say, ‘This is the first day of the rest of your life,’” I told him.
“Oh. Well then, this is the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the rest of your life. Even more exciting.”
We did the usual birthday thing: Lester’s favorite meal—steak and potatoes—the cake, the candles, the ice cream. After Dad asked him how his master’s thesis was coming and they had a long discussion, Les asked if I had any ideas for feature articles I’d be doing for The Edge.
“Maybe ‘The Secret Lives of Brothers’?” I suggested.
“Boring. Eat, sleep, study. Definitely boring,” he said.
From her end of the table, Sylvia paused a moment as she gathered up the dessert plates. “Weren’t you working on a special tribute to Mark?” she asked. Now that I was features editor of our school paper, everyone had suggestions.
“I am, but it just hasn’t jelled yet,” I said. “I want it to be special. Right now I’ve got other stuff to do, and I haven’t even started my college applications.”
“First priority,” Dad said.
“Yeah, right,” I told him. “Do you realize that every teacher seems to think his subject comes first? It’s the truth! ‘Could anything be more important than learning to express yourselves?’ our English teacher says. ‘Hold in those stomach muscles, girls,’ says the gym teacher. ‘If you take only one thing with you when you leave high school, it’s the importance of posture.’ And Miss Ames says she doesn’t care what else is on our plate, the articles for The Edge positively have to be in on time. Yada yada yada.”
“Wait till college, kiddo. Wait till grad school,” said Lester.
“I don’t want to hear it!” I wailed. “Each day I think, ‘If I can just make it through this one . . .’ Whoever said you could slide through your senior year was insane.”
Lester looked at Sylvia. “Aren’t you glad you’re not teaching high school?” he asked. “All this moaning and groaning?”
Sylvia laughed. “Give the girl a break, Les. Feature articles are the most interesting part of a newspaper. She’s got a big job this year.”
“Hmmm,” said Lester. “Maybe she should do an article on brothers. ‘My Bro, the Stud.’ ‘Life with a Philosophy Major: The Secret Genius of Les McKinley.’”
“You wish,” I said.
In addition to thinking about articles for The Edge and all my other assignments, I was thinking about Patrick. About the phone conversation we’d had the night before. Patrick’s at the University of Chicago now, and with both of us still raw after Mark’s funeral, we’ve been checking in with each other more often. He wants to know how I’m doing, how our friends are handling things, and I ask how he’s coping, away from everyone back home.
“Mostly by keeping busy,” Patrick had said. “And thinking about you.”
“I miss you, Patrick,” I’d told him.
“I miss you. Lots,” he’d answered. “But remember, this is your senior year. Don’t give up anything just because I’m not there.”
“What does that mean?” I’d asked.
I’d known what he was saying, though. We’d had that conversation before. Going out with other people, he meant, and I knew he was right—Patrick is so reasonable, so practical, so . . . Patrick. I didn’t want him to be lonely either. But I didn’t feel very reasonable inside, and it was hard imagining Patrick with someone else.
“We both know how we feel about each other,” he’d said.
Did we? I don’t think either of us had said the words I love you. We’d never said we were
dating exclusively. With nearly seven hundred miles between us now, some choices, we knew, had already been made. What we did know was that we were special to each other.
I thought of my visit to his campus over the summer. I thought of the bench by Botany Pond. Patrick’s kisses, his arms, his hands. . . . It was hard imagining myself with someone else too, but—as he’d said—it was my senior year.
“I know,” I’d told him, and we’d said our long good nights.
In my group of best girlfriends—Pamela, Liz, and Gwen—I was the closest to having a steady boyfriend. Dark-haired Liz had been going out with Keeno a lot, but nothing definite. Gwen was seeing a guy we’d met over the summer when we’d volunteered for a week at a soup kitchen, and Pamela wasn’t going out with anyone at present. “Breathing fresh air” was the way she put it.
There was a lot to think about. With our parents worrying over banks and mortgages and retirement funds, college seemed like a bigger hurdle than it had before. And some colleges were more concerned with grades than with SAT scores, so seniors couldn’t just slide through their last year, especially the first semester.
“Where are you going to apply?” I asked Liz. “Gwen’s already made up her mind. She’s going to sail right through the University of Maryland and enter their medical school. I think it’s some sort of scholarship worked out with the National Institutes of Health.”
“She should get a scholarship—all these summers she’s been interning at the NIH,” said Liz. “I don’t know—I think I want a really small liberal arts college, like Bennington up in Vermont.”
We were sitting around Elizabeth’s porch watching her little brother blow soap bubbles at us. Nathan was perched on the railing, giggling each time we reached out to grab one.
“Sure you want a small college?” asked Pamela, absently examining her toes, feet propped on the wicker coffee table. Her nails were perfectly trimmed, polished in shell white. “It sounds nice and cozy, but everyone knows your business, and you’ve got all these little cliques to deal with.”
“Where are you going to apply?” Liz asked her.
“It’s gotta be New York, that much I know. One of their theater arts schools, maybe. Some-body told me about City College, and someone else recommended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I doubt I could get into Cornell, but they’ve got a good drama department. Where are you going to apply, Alice?”
I shrugged. “Mrs. Bailey recommends Maryland because they’ve got a good graduate program in counseling, and that’s where she got her degree.
But a couple of guys from church really like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. . . .”
“That’s a good school,” said Liz.
“. . . And I’ve heard good things about William and Mary.”
“Virginia?” asked Liz.
“Yes. Williamsburg. I was thinking I could visit both on the same trip.”
“You could always go to Bennington with me,” said Liz.
“Clear up in Vermont? Where it really snows?”
“It’s not Colorado.”
Just then a soap bubble came drifting past my face, and I snapped at it like a dog. Nathan screeched with laughter.
What I didn’t tell my friends was ...