Suburban Chicago, 1982
The phone on the kitchen wall rang. Jess and I stared at it in surprise. Though we had been sharing this college apartment for two weeks already, we still didn’t feel as though we belonged here and the ringing phone seemed to emphasize exactly how out of place we were.
“You answer,” she whispered.
It was eleven AM, hardly a time for whispering, but I whispered back, “No, you,” and then we laughed.
We had met last year when we were freshman living in the same hormonal all-girls dorm that had been built with money donated to the university in the early 1960s by some uptight woman who sensed—and feared—the coming sexual revolution. Allison Hall. The school packed all the freshmen girls there. The halls smelled like hairspray and popcorn. The joke was that entire floors of girls synched their periods. It was a place to escape from.
And we had. Now Jess and I were sophomores—long since free of all those girls, free of Allison Hall, uninterested in sororities, and living together off-campus on the first floor of a small house half a block from the el tracks.
The phone still rang. This was a time before answering machines, before voice mail, email, instant messaging, and Skype. Letters and phone calls were what we had. This was a time where not answering a ringing phone was an act of subversion. We wanted to be subversive—or I did, anyway, secretly—but we were basically good girls, depending on how “good” might be defined. Anyway, letting a phone ring was something we couldn’t do.
Jess picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said, her voice croaking slightly. She cleared her throat, spoke more forcefully. “I mean, hello.”
I laughed. We laughed a lot. We laughed at everything back then.
She listened for a moment, her face scrunching into a knot of annoyance. “I’m not coming back home, Mom. No.”
She twirled around, her back to me, twisting the extra-long cord around herself once, twice.
“No,” she hissed, the word swelling. “I said no.”
A pause. I watched her back, her shoulder blades jutting and sharp through her ex-fiancé’s White Sox T-shirt.
“No,” she repeated. “Stop this. I told you not to call again until Thursday at the earliest.” She emphasized the last three words. I imagined a black line underscoring them.
I turned and ran to the front door, yanked it open and pressed the doorbell, which ding-donged throughout the house. Then I hurried back into the living room, leaning over the cutaway to the kitchen. There was a vase her mother had placed on the ledge where I leaned that I guessed would get knocked over and broken at some point. Hopefully, it wasn’t expensive. It looked like crystal, but I didn’t know how to tell crystal from glass. There had been white roses in it, but Jess shoved them in the trash two seconds after her parents left from their weekend visit.
“I’ve got to go,” she said into the phone. “Someone’s at the door.” I watched her untwist herself and then hang up the phone with a gentle click.
Her sister had died in a car accident over the summer, a gruesome accident with two other seventeen-year-old girls in the car, and both of them also died, and they had all been at a Rush concert at Rosemont Horizon, and Jess’s sister was the one driving. There were headlines in the local papers, above a row of yearbook photos of the girls, who were all pretty, all smiling with straightened teeth and shiny blonde hair and neat turtleneck sweaters. Mary-Louise Donohue, who lived down the hall our freshman year, had clipped and mailed me the newspaper articles because she lived in the same suburb and read about what happened, and it was a good thing she did, because Jess never called to tell me herself. It was a whole folder of clippings, as if Mary-Louise hadn’t wanted them just naked in an envelope.
Of course I called up Jess when I got the articles, of course, even though it was long distance. What an awkward phone conversation, like being trapped overnight in an elevator with someone else’s grandpa. I waited for Jess to bawl and for me to say, “There, there,” or “Everything will be okay,” but she didn’t cry, which meant I didn’t know what to say. “It must be awful,” I said, or, “You must be so sad,” or dumb things like that. “Yeah,” she said, or things like that. She said she had to hang up, that someone else needed to use the phone. I was secretly worried that something would happen with the apartment and our plan to move in together, that she’d back out—hers was the name on the lease—but she called a couple of weeks after the awkward conversation, excited because an aunt was moving, meaning she was giving Jess a coffee table, a dresser set, and a bunch of kitchen stuff, including a blender that was almost brand-new, and a toaster oven. I knew exactly what to say to that—“great!”—but it sounded hollow when I said it.
My mother told me to mail a sympathy card to Jess’s parents, and she bought me one with flowery script writing and ducks on a pond and gave me a stamp, but the card stayed in my top desk drawer at home, even now, shoved in the back, underneath an envelope of movie ticket stubs that I saved from every movie I went to, I don’t know why. I didn’t like knowing the card was there, but I didn’t want to throw it away.
I barely knew the sister, Linda. Jess’s parents had visited campus and taken us out to dinner sometimes on weekends, but only once Linda had been there. Or the times when Linda was with them, I wasn’t invited or had to study or had a boyfriend keeping me busy or my campus job. When I was with Jess and her parents, we talked a lot about the weather and Jess’s classes and maybe my classes and Jess’s boyfriends, especially after she got engaged, and Chicago trivia and sights, since I wasn’t from the area and they all were, and sometimes Chicago politics if her dad was in the right mood. Basically, he thought everyone from the mayor on down was a crook. There was a lot of talking; the meals were almost all talking it seemed to me, always someone asking something or telling a story prefaced with, “Oh, this one will really make you laugh,” or if it was a sad story, “Oh, this one will about make you cry.” There were tons of cues that way, so anyone at the table immediately knew exactly how to react, how they should feel about this particular issue, whether it was all the rain we were getting or the new exhibit at the Art Institute or whatever donkey thing the mayor was up to. It was so easy. Jess acted like a talk show host, rolling through topics we could talk about as if she had jotted them down ahead of time on index cards. I mostly just sat there, answering any questions that bounced my way, mentally reminding myself to eat slowly so I didn’t look like a pig.
My own sister was much younger than me—ten years younger—and that summer after I got the folder from Mary-Louise with the newspaper clippings, I stared at her often, as she sprawled on the battered fake-leather recliner in the basement, afghan pulled up around her because even in the summer it was frigid down there, reading, always reading: she was working her way through my old Nancy Drew books, trying to stay in exact order, lining up each completed yellow-spined book on her bookshelf like trophies. She was so quiet, it wouldn’t seem as though there would be much of a loss if she were gone. Sometimes it seemed I had to remind myself of her name: Grace. Out of guilt, I brought with me to school several framed snapshots of her, which I right away set up on Jess’s aunt’s hand-me-down dresser in my bedroom. But they only made me feel guilty and so this morning I dropped them into a drawer and filled the empty space with bottles of nail polish instead.
Now, back at the kitchen table with its mismatched set of chairs (the “semi-furnished” part of the rental, along with two saggy twin beds, a couch with an ugly mustard slipcover, a brown lazyboy, and several wobbly floor lamps), Jess said, “My mom wants me to come home because she heard all these news reports about people dying from poisoned Tylenol.”
“Why are people eating Tylenol if it’s poisoned?” I asked.
She laughed. “Dope, they don’t know it’s poisoned. They have a headache, and next thing you know, they’re dead.” She laughed again, a bark this time. She had bunches of different laughs, which also reminded me of a talk show host, that varied range of laughs, and which also seemed like a lot of effort. Like there were different kinds of funny, so you had to always match up the right laugh with the right joke.
“Who’s poisoning the Tylenol?” I asked.
“They don’t know that either,” she said.
She put both her hands palms down on the kitchen table. There was still a faint white line across her ring finger, from the engagement ring, a diamond so big it looked fake, a diamond big enough to cast a shadow. She still had the ring, even though the fiancé’s lawyer dad sent a letter on fancy stationery demanding she return it. We weren’t supposed to say his name out loud anymore.
“My mom says we’re supposed to throw away our Tylenol if they’re capsules,” she said. “If they’re extra-strength.”
“What if we get a headache?”
“Suffer through it, I guess.” She shook her hands as if she’d known I was staring at them, then stood and walked into the bathroom we shared. I heard her wrestle with the sticky sliding mirrored door of the medicine cabinet for a moment. There are a lot of things you don’t check when you move into an apartment; landlords probably know this. Also, it was the slowest moving shower drain ever, with water creeping up ankle-high. “Aha!” she exclaimed, and she returned to the kitchen, cupping two plastic bottles in her hand. On paper and back to back we were the exact same height except that she felt taller. Her eyes were blue and mine were muddy and brown. She had dark wavy hair, lush like a doll’s hair. My hair was too soft, too limp—more like mouse fur, not quite blonde, not quite brown. A color you would forget immediately, even as you were staring straight at it. Sometimes I felt like a shadow standing next to her, and other times I felt like she was my real sister, my only true family.
She plunked the pill bottles on the kitchen table. One of them rattled slightly. The other, I knew, was brand-new, with the cotton still stuffed inside. I knew this because I had bought it yesterday at the drugstore. I didn’t come from the kind of family where you could just grab a bunch of things from home to take to college. Nor did I have the kind of aunt who handed over a practically new blender just because she was moving somewhere else.
“They look incredibly dangerous,” I said.
She nodded. “Totally.”
“We’re lucky we’re still alive,” I said, and immediately I wished I had kept my mouth shut. It seemed like a bad thing to say, knowing what had happened to her sister this summer. But Jess laughed. She unscrewed the top of the open bottle and dumped out about ten capsules. With one finger she rolled them into two rows of five, then into three rows of three and flicked the extra so it spun for a fast moment. The capsules looked set-up, like pieces for a game with complicated rules and scoring.
“The other bottle is full,” I said. “I bought it yesterday at Osco.”
“My mom said it’s only bottles bought in Illinois so far,” Jess said.
“Mine is from Osco,” I said. “Right here in Evanston.”
Jess unscrewed the cap and tugged out the lump of cotton wadding. Then she dumped out those capsules at once, fast, so they made a small clatter as they tumbled and rolled along the table, caught by Jess’s finger, guided back to the center of the table with the others. She lazily circled one finger through them, swirling and combining the contents of the two bottles. I was suddenly panicky to see that many pills on the table. What if Jess’s mom was right? What if they were poisoned? What if I had taken one yesterday or this morning? Psychosomatically, a headache immediately pressed into my temples, and I tried to will it away.
Jess picked up one of the capsules, barely as long as her pinkie nail, pinching it between her finger and thumb, peering at the seam between the red half and the white half. “Seems easy to pop it open and then dump in the poison,” she said.
“People don’t do that,” I said. “Who does that?”
“One Halloween my sister found a razor blade in a Snickers bar after trick or treating,” she said.
She had never told me this before. It seemed like a story that might have come up. “I didn’t think that kind of stuff really happened,” I said. “I thought it was just what adults told kids to scare them so they can’t have any fun.”
“My sister bit down and slashed up the roof of her mouth and tongue,” she said. “They drove her to the emergency room and it was on the news.”
“One of your neighbors did that?” I said. “Did they catch the guy?”
She shook her head, still staring at the Tylenol as if mesmerized, either by the capsules or by this memory. “Tons of people give out Snickers. Plus, my sister said she traded candy around with her friends. Snickers was her favorite, so that’s what she traded for. She was at the age where you go around for hours with your friends, to anyone’s house, all over town. She had a whole pillowcase.”
“But the police—.”
“Never found the guy,” she said. “Did nothing.”
There was a silence. Jess’s sister seemed incredibly unlucky to me.
The phone rang again.
“Don’t answer,” Jess said.
I counted off ten rings as I imagined Jess’s mother in their house in Oak Park, sitting at a kitchen table much nicer than this one, where the chairs all matched, worrying that her only remaining daughter was going to die from taking an extra-strength Tylenol capsule laced with poison. I imagined her sneaking a cigarette maybe, or maybe there was an untouched turkey sandwich on a plate in front of her, the bread hardening slightly, the smear of mayo stiff and congealed. I imagined the tinny burr of an unanswered phone echoing in her ear. I imagined a daughter who wasn’t able to talk about her sister’s car accident, a mother who laughed on cue. Here’s a story, I imagined her saying, this one will scare the crap out of you.
I jumped up and grabbed the phone, but no one was there. The dial tone felt lonely.
Jess said, “For a while they suspected my dad.”
“Suspected your dad?” I repeated her words because they didn’t make any sense.
“Of the razor blade,” she said. “Because nothing happened to any of the other kids in the whole neighborhood. They were all fine, everyone’s candy was fine. They x-rayed everything. Only my sister. That one candy bar.”
“God,” I said. “How horrible.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine a family where a thing like that would happen, but that I didn’t want to. I knew for an absolute fact that families could do plenty of bad things and that no one could stop them, not the police, sometimes especially not even the police.
“They questioned my mom,” she said. “Privately, away from him, and you know what she said? She said, ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if he did.’ I was sitting on the stairs, listening, and she just flat-out said that. To cops.”
“What I always wanted to know then is, so why’d she stay with him? I mean, if she thought he would do something like that? That’s what I wanted to know.” Her voice had turned sort of dreamy and singsong, as if she were a child telling a familiar story.
I stood up and moved to the window. The leaves on the giant maple tree in the yard next to ours were tinged yellowy-red. It was amazing the tree knew to change color every single year, year after year, until it died or was chopped down. If I thought about it, I almost couldn’t believe it because it felt so impossible, though it was an obvious fact of nature. We read a poem that I kind of liked in one of the literature classes, about a girl named Margaret who was bummed out about a tree turning color, and it turned out that what she was really bummed out about was the fact that she was dying. The professor told us she had done her dissertation on that poet so she turned all fiery talking about it and almost cried when she read some of the lines. We were embarrassed for her, but I also kind of liked seeing that someone one could care deeply about something like a poem. I couldn’t be that way, even when I tried.
“Maybe you should call her,” I said, still looking at the tree. “Just tell her you’re throwing out the pills.” I had a way of staring that made things blur and fuzz, get sort of prettied up around the edges, and I was doing that right now. It could last for ten minutes sometimes, my ability to stare like that. People didn’t know when I was doing it, even if they were talking straight at me, even if they were yelling at me about something.
“She wants me to go back home and I’m not doing that,” Jess said. “She didn’t want me to come back to school this fall. She’s crazy, she really is, and she’s turning crazier by the day. She’s dragging me down with her.”
“She’s worried,” I said. “She cares about you.” That comforting blur, condensing everything into nothing, into fuzz. I spoke in the same singsong voice Jess did, as if we agreed that the things we were saying didn’t much matter.
“What she cares about is…,” but Jess didn’t finish the sentence, and I didn’t ask her to.
We hadn’t spoken this way, or hadn’t for ages anyway, probably not since those early freshman year nights in Allison Hall, at four in the morning, after all the pizza was eaten, even the nibbled down crusts rattling in the box, sitting side by side on my twin bed, under the Monet posters taped to the cinderblock walls, my pretentious roommate somewhere with her boyfriend-with-a-car, the desk lamp bent straight down into a glowing U our only light, and I felt cradled by deep darkness and the sense that the world was asleep, that maybe I was far enough away to let up, if only for these few moments. It would never be me breaking the spell; it was always her saying, “Guess I should get some sleep or something,” and she’d wander back to her own room, pulling open the door to a slash of bright hallway light that prickled my eyes. Now, I knew I should want to listen to her talk about her dead sister. I should want to find out what was going on in a family where the mom thought the dad might slide razor blades into kids’ candy bars, or where that’s what the mom might tell that to the cops, or where she or Jess or possibly even the sister might lie about the whole entire thing. Jess had lied quite a bit in the beginning of when I knew her, about things that didn’t matter all that much, like her shoe size and what the cute guy in sociology said to her after class, but I hadn’t really minded. It had seemed interesting. And lots of people lie. Lots of people lie all the time. About a month ago she had caught her fiancé in a big fat lie, about the thing you’d expect—being with another girl, his ex-girlfriend, actually—and that’s when it was finally over and the whole ring fight started up. No one really needed that ring; sure, it was a lot of money, but both Jess and the fiancé had tons of money, and I mean tons of money. For me, throwing out a full bottle of Tylenol that I’d just paid a not-on-sale, full price for was kind of a big deal, but those two bled money. It wasn’t that big of a deal that they were both of them that rich, except that sometimes it was sort of a big deal. Anyway, if the ring disappeared entirely, neither of them would starve. I thought a ring was a dumb thing to spend so much money on anyway, but weren’t people always spending money on dumb things? Recently, I’d started getting a lot of headaches, and extra-strength Tylenol worked the best. Or I thought it did. I’d learned about the placebo effect in a psych class. The ring was in an envelope under her mattress, she’d told me. Like the princess and the pea, I had said, but then the effect was ruined when I had to explain the story to her.
It was possible that Jess was lying now about the razor blade in the Snickers bar. And that her mother was lying about the Tylenol. It was possible the fiancé wasn’t in love with his ex-girlfriend. The tree looked like lace in my eyes. Or like a fast pencil sketch. My sister liked to draw. That’s the other way she spent her time, drawing. She was either reading or drawing. Two silent activities, done alone. She wasn’t all that good at drawing, but she sure liked it. Lots of pictures of horses. Before Nancy Drew, she had read all of my old horse books. That was something about my family, that there were a lot of books and no one threw away any of them, ever. She’d probably find my Agatha Christie next. Boxes of those worn-through, library sale paperbacks were stacked somewhere in the basement.
I was supposed to be paying attention to Jess, listening to her talk about her dead sister for the first time. That’s what a friend does, a friend who got the furniture the aunt who was moving gave to Jess. Jess bought a new dresser from a furniture store in Oak Park and had it delivered. So I asked, “How’s your mom getting crazier?”
Jess said, “For one, she slapped a lock on my sister’s bedroom door and now she’s the only one who goes in there now, the only one with the key.”
That was another name Jess didn’t like to say: Linda. I remembered from high school Spanish that the word “linda” meant “pretty.” Linda had seemed pretty in the newspaper photograph, but no prettier than the average pretty girl. I didn’t like staring at her photograph for too long, knowing she was dead. Something about that made me uncomfortable. Like I was spying on her. But I kept the folder of clippings, and even brought them to school with me. I don’t know why.
“That’s crazy,” I agreed.
“She sleeps every night in the guest room,” Jess said. “Locked door there, too.”
“Also crazy,” I said.
“No way am I going back to that house,” Jess said. “No way.”
Without the fiancé, she would have to pay closer attention to getting a job, I supposed. She wanted to work in public relations or something with the media. One of those jobs where they wanted people to have a lot of energy. I was going to have to get a job, too, or find a graduate school of some sort that cost about zero dollars. A lot of people from the university ended up in entry level assistant jobs at one of the big Chicago ad agencies because the founder of the agency went to school here. There was a building named after him. I thought I’d probably end up doing that. I could type fifty words a minute. I could make coffee. I didn’t have a great need to do a lot more right at the moment. I just wanted a place to show up every day, and a paycheck. I probably shouldn’t have bothered with such a fancy college for only that. But I used to want more and back then when I thought I wanted more was when I made the decision to come to the fancy school. Then it was just easier to stay.
“What’s in that bedroom?” I said, mostly just talking out loud. I didn’t expect an answer. Suddenly my eyes snapped back into focus—a tree again, a tree—and I spun around. Jess had popped open several of the capsules and was pouring white powder into a tiny soft pyramid. She set her fingertip at the pointy part and pressed lightly, smushing it down, then started re-shaping the powder into a pyramid.
“You’d think you’d be able to see the poison,” she said.
“Maybe you can,” I said. “Maybe these aren’t poisoned. Maybe these are fine. Maybe we won’t die if we take them for our headaches.”
Jess said, “It was my sister.”
“Linda,” I said, because it was weird not to say people’s names. That’s what names were for, to say them. To say “Linda” and to think of that pretty girl in the newspaper clipping. Also, maybe I wanted to shake her up, knock her concentration.
“She did it herself,” Jess said.
“The razor blade in the Snickers bar. She told me last summer.”
I sat down immediately. The chair squeaked. It was going to be the chair that drove me crazy for the whole year, squeaking and squealing like that, rickety besides, but it would be disruptive to pop out of this chair and jump into another. “No,” I said. “No. That can’t be.”
Jess dribbled more powder into her growing pile. I had never seen cocaine, but this is what it might look like. It was supposed to be glamorous, but probably only because it cost so much money. Jess said, “How hard would it be to sneak a razor blade out of some old paint scraper in the garage? If you pulled the wrapper carefully enough, you could probably re-stick the edges together carefully.”
“Or really, anyone can just buy razor blades from the drugstore,” I said. “They don’t care. It’s just a normal thing to buy.”
“Like Tylenol,” Jess said. She held up half of an empty capsule. “These look like plastic,” she said. “I can’t believe they dissolve in your stomach. That’s some powerful stomach acid.” She smiled. “It goes with how my sister was the one driving,” she said. “Like that.”
“No,” I said again, though it was such a stupid word, so defenseless. It had been my experience that usually “no” was simply the first step on the path to “yes.”
Jess put out her tongue and touched the open edge of the capsule to it. “Less see if it melz,” she garbled.
I imagined taking Jess’s hand, guiding it down to the kitchen table, setting it flat, and tracing the white line of her missing diamond ring with my own finger. I imagined saying some word that was smarter and stronger than “no,” some word that might be meaningful in any way. I imagined that English professor sitting at night in a library somewhere with a thousand scribbled index cards, reading about that poet, reciting the lines to herself until she cried. I imagined a day—not too distant from right now—when I might be perched on an office chair at a cool, clean desk with an in-basket and a telephone with blinking lights and buttons that I knew how to operate, when I might simply pick up the phone and say something easy like, “Mr. Smith’s office,” pen poised to take down a number. I imagined how many asses had sat in this squeaky chair, and how many conversations had happened around this kitchen table, and how in all that time, no one had ever known the secrets we knew, the two of us.
That pile of powder on the table could be all poison, I thought, all contaminated.
I grabbed one of the open capsules and placed it on my own tongue. “Racth ya,” I said. “Go.” It felt impossibly light, tasted like nothing. My heart pounded hard, suddenly loud and fast.
Jess laughed, and I laughed with her, both of us careful to keep balance of the empty capsules on our tongues. It was a regular, ordinary laugh, as if I were still the same normal friend she’d met when we were eighteen, and so was she. As if the world wasn’t changing, now or ever, as if I hadn’t slept with her fiancé that night, as if I wasn’t planning to again, tonight. As if something could stop me.
It was only years later, remembering this time in my life, that I realized anyone else might have thought it unusual that Jess mentioned the paint scraper in the garage. She must have been so disappointed when I let that pass. But also, she had to have known that I would.