by Jane Futcher
Our friendship began on a clear, crisp October after- noon one month after the start of senior year. The Warren Commission had just announced that a single gunman, not a conspiracy, had assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In Jackson, Mississippi, the public schools were integrated without violence. And in a few weeks, the names Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Baines Johnson would be posted in every polling booth in America. But at Huntington Hill, it was the day before the second hockey game of the season, and they had put me back on the team.
They put me back on because Maddy Hansen’s mother married an Englishman and sailed off to England on a honeymoon, taking Maddy with her. Maddy’s leaving had been something of a scandal because of a strictly enforced Huntington Hill rule prohibiting parents from withdrawing their children after term began. Nonetheless, for that very rich woman Randolph Nicholson, the new headmaster, waived a rule that had never been broken during the tranquil thirty-five-year reign of Miss Dunning and Miss Kroll.
Scandal or not, Maddy’s sudden departure made me very happy because they played me in her old position. Actually, center forward had been my position until Maddy had decided she wanted it, and beat me out. Hockey was about the only thing that made boarding at Huntington Hill bearable. I loved playing with the team, working out in the cool fall afternoons, completing a perfect series of passes with the forward line. I was playing well that year, with the wild, loose energy of an animal released from captivity. The ease with which I dodged past the defense, led the forwards down the field, and flicked hot shots over the goalie’s stick amazed me as well as the coaches.
The school felt different that fall. I guess it was a beautiful place — thirty acres of green, forested land nestled in the Appalachian foothills near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Several of the dorms were white clapboard houses left from the days when the land was a dairy farm. On the left, by the Hill Road entrance, were the lower pastures where the school’s horses grazed. On the right were the white-fenced riding rings. Beyond them was the forest, carved with hundreds of rambling, winding trails. Farther along the drive were the dorms, and at the end was the parking lot, shaded by tall elms and bordered by a cluster of other buildings: the brown shingled gym, the small school theater, and Century House, the massive white mansion that had once been the manor house and was now the center of campus life.
This year the school buildings seemed to radiate a quiet, classical elegance. The grass looked greener, like fresh paint oozing from a tube. The other students weren’t as snobby and self-satisfied. Or maybe their attitude didn’t bother me as much because I was playing hockey again and I knew in nine months I’d be graduating. I had almost convinced my parents that it was all right for me to go to art school instead of Vassar, and I was beginning to talk them out of my being a débutante in June. I still hadn’t gotten them to explain why, when they were always talking about equality and civil rights, they sent me to a school that didn’t admit Negroes, Jews, Italians, or anyone not listed in the Social Register, but I hadn’t abandoned the project entirely.
For the first time, life in the dorm was fun. I stopped worrying about clothes and dates and rules. From the time we entered Huntington our lives were determined by rules. Rules about hair length, skirt length, sock length, signing in, signing out, waking up, going to sleep, chewing gum, posture, promptness, and so on. The school was infested with rules that startled you like cockroaches crawling in a dark summer kitchen. Sometimes, during my first two years, I would wake up in a cold sweat, terrified that in the course of the day, I had accidentally broken a rule.
My new roommate, Miggin Henry, was much easier to live with than last year’s, Elizabeth Knight, who was full of stormy moods and sarcastic remarks. If Elizabeth was a thunderhead, Miggin was a light, wispy cirrus cloud. She had gold-red hair and a shining, freckled face. Senior year was going to be different, I knew it. My hunch proved correct.
On the day Lexie and I became friends, there were orange and red and yellow leaves beginning to cover the ground. I remember the grass — still thick and green — and its sweet, aromatic smell as the workmen mowed the playing field in preparation for the game. I could hear the distant hum of their mowers and the exuberant laughter of the children in the Lower School yard as they played tag. When I passed the door of study hall and saw the rows of students poring silently over their books, I didn’t feel the usual anxiety that made me automatically review my list of approaching quizzes, papers due, pages unread in history, biology, French, and English classes. I was easy and relaxed.
A blast of warm air, rich with the smell of paint and turpentine, rushed into my face as I opened the door of the art studio. A Purcell horn sonata exploded from the speakers of the stereo. The pink afternoon sun slanted through the west windows, bathing the room in hot, rosy light. It was a generous room, filled with easels and work- benches, overlooking a pasture that rolled upward to a dairy farm. The ceiling angled sharply down on the far side, giving the impression of an artist’s loft. From two to five every afternoon the studio belonged to students working on independent projects. Most of the regulars were already there.
Nora Grange, the small, blond cheerleader from Atlanta, was drawing animal cartoons as usual, an orange and gray striped scarf from a boys’ prep school wrapped loosely around her neck. Jeepers, a junior from Philadelphia, looked up and smiled, then returned to her huge sketch- book. Jeepers always wore jeans and a blue work shirt, with a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap on her head, visor turned backward, to keep her hair out of her eyes. She was my favorite of the regulars. Spread out on a workbench were Helen and Christine, two sophomores, who were painting a giant mural for the dining room. Then there was Elizabeth, standing by her easel in the far right corner. Over the summer, Elizabeth had developed some strange affectations. She had taken to wearing a French smock and beret, and she talked in a peculiar English accent, which I think she’d picked up on Cape Cod from her summer dates, who’d picked it up at Harvard.
“Ready for tomorrow’s game, Jinx?” called Jeepers as I pulled my easel away from the wall.
“Guess so,” I said. “Ready as I’ll ever be. You coming?”
“You bet,” grinned Jeepers.
“You bet,” mimicked Elizabeth from the corner. “Wouldn’t miss it for all the shinguards in Siberia.”
“Shut up, Elizabeth,” drawled Nora Grange. “Just because Miss Pennebaker’s not here doesn’t give you the right to mouth off.”
“Well, ah nevah thawt a Georgiah peeech could be sa fuzzy,” replied Elizabeth.
“Where is Miss Pennebaker?” I said. Miss Pennebaker was young and jolly and she usually hung around the studio in the afternoon. When she wasn’t there, we talked too much and didn’t work as hard.
“She’s at a faculty meeting,” said Elizabeth, pulling her beret down over her right eye. “I believe they’re discussing the Maddy Hansen affair.”
“Still fighting over that?” said Jeepers.
My confidence slipped a notch. “Is Maddy coming back or something?” I said quietly.
Elizabeth shrugged. “Who knows? Frankly, I think Mr. Nicholson handled the whole thing most improperly.”
“No one cares what you think,” said Nora Grange, stalking over to Elizabeth’s corner. “Would you pulleese shut up.”
For a while we all did shut up and the studio was quiet. I sighed. Since the summer I’d been painting from old photographs I’d found in a box in my folks’ house in Washington, D.C. I liked the pictures. They were all black and white. Most of them were taken before I was born. There were snapshots of my mother as a girl, at summer camp in Wisconsin, arms draped around her bunkmates; shots of her when she lived in New York. She was dressed in long, mid-calf length skirts and huge, wide-brimmed hats. Her hair was blond and curly and she often posed on the run- ning board of an old Packard, in front of her building on East Sixty-eighth Street. There were pictures of my father too, in college, sailing in Maine, looking young and happy, his collar unbuttoned, arms firmly guiding the tiller. There were others, of people I didn’t know — women walking arm in arm on Fifth Avenue, men dressed in army uni- forms, drinking whiskey at stylish New York bars. There were a few pictures of me, too, and I studied them carefully. In one, I was wearing a pinafore and Mary Jane patent leathers. I stood stiffly against the wall of our house in Washington — a prisoner in front of a firing squad. It looked like I might cry.
I pieced together the family history like an archeologist with pots and shards. Who were those people with their fine city clothes and big smiles? When had my mother changed from an impish kid to a grown-up woman escorted by grown-up men? What about my father? Was he as serious and worried then as he seemed now? Did he know, as he sailed that boat, that he would become a law professor, an expert on maritime trade agreements? And why was I always so sad? So uncomfortable? Where was my smile? Sometimes I felt like a detective. I was solving a mystery, but I wasn’t sure what the crime was — or if a crime had even been committed.
If I’d been drawing myself the way I looked in that studio at school, the picture would have shown a tall, thin girl with skinny legs, light brown hair, and shoulders raised in a perpetual, self-conscious shrug. Skin pale, eyes retreating behind large, round cheeks, and an expression at once questioning and defensive. But I wasn’t painting a self-portrait. I was painting from a photograph taken in 1929 — a picture of the All-County Girls’ Basketball Team of Aretha County, Tennessee. All the girls were white, and they stood on the steps of a high school gym wearing dark bloomer shorts and woolen tops. They looked very serious except for one girl, the captain, who stood on the bottom step grinning and holding a basketball on which the words “Aretha County” were painted in white letters. She was shorter than the others but she had a sureness and style I liked. That smiling girl was my mother. I was working that day on her expression. The expressions were hard because they were so subtle, and the colors were hard because I was painting everything in shades of gray, to create the same flat, ghostly quality as the photograph.
I was working on my mother’s smile when someone came crashing into the studio. Without looking up, we all knew it wasn’t a regular. Regulars tried to enter quietly. The door slammed and a pile of books thudded to the floor.
“Shut up,” hissed Elizabeth.
“Screw you,” came the voice. And there was Lexie — Alexis Nicole Genevieve Yves. She was out of breath. Her hair was mussed and slightly orange from a summer peroxide job. She wore a rumpled raincoat over her blue school uniform and her navy knee socks had fallen to her ankles. Lexie stared at us like a child peering at animals in the zoo.
“Ah, mon Dieu,” she laughed. “I’ve interrupted les artistes. Je vous demande pardon.”
“What on earth are you doing here?” said Elizabeth. Since ninth grade, when they’d roomed together, Elizabeth and Lexie had carried on a vendetta. They were both from New York City, both theatrical, and both sarcastic. But Lexie was a school celebrity, a success. Her sharp tongue had a lovable side; her grades were always better than Elizabeth’s; and her popularity with boys was a legend at Huntington Hill. So was her family’s wealth. Although Lexie was seventeen, the same age as all the seniors, there was something older about her. Her body seemed fuller and more mysterious, her dark eyes more discerning, her attitudes more sophisticated.
“I need a poster for Music Club,” said Lexie, who was roaming the studio, looking over everyone’s shoulder.
“Stay away from me,” screamed Elizabeth.
“You’re painting nuns again, Elizabeth,” said Lexie, holding both hands on her hips. “You shouldn’t be painting nuns. Your mother paints nuns.”
“Dammit, who asked you?” Elizabeth turned her back to Lexie and pulled up the collar of her smock.
Lexie persisted. “Elizabeth, it’s not at all original to paint the same thing your mother paints. It shows a failure of imagination.” Lexie scanned the room to see if she’d missed anyone.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Tuckwell, great star du hockey. Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” Without waiting for an answer, Lexie approached, squinting. I hated people to look at my paintings before they were finished. I was afraid that Lexie might sabotage my self-confidence with one quick remark. But instead, she stood quietly beside me, weight sunk into her right hip, carefully examining each member of the All-County Girls’ Basketball Team of Aretha, Tennessee. The smell of Jean Naté Friction pour le Bain filled my nostrils.
“What is this, Tuckwell?” Lexie’s eyes were fixed on the painting. My eyes were fixed on her.
“It’s the 1929 All-County Girls’ Basketball Team of Aretha, Tennessee.” I pointed to the figure at the bottom. “That’s my mother.”
Lexie moved closer. She sighed. “I don’t know what to say. It’s very…unorthodox.”
“It’s not finished,” I said. I was flattered by Lexie’s interest. She was a star — sparkling and sophisticated. I never thought she’d waste her time on me.
“I don’t care if it’s not finished,” she said, distracted. “It’s a…it’s a fine painting. It’s very moving.” She pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and blew her nose. Then she looked up at me. “My mother died when I was born and my father died when I was six. I have a guardian, Eleanor, and a cousin…Philip.” She closed her eyes. For a moment, she disappeared into another world. The color left her cheeks. Then she opened her eyes. “Philip’s an ass,” she said quickly. “So’s Eleanor.” She held my arm. “You’re lucky to know your mother, Jinx.” Lexie pushed her hair off her forehead.
“Elizabeth,” she yelled, in a colder voice. “Come over here and look at this painting.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer. She dabbed black paint on her nun’s habit. “You didn’t discover Jinx,” she said finally.
I was surprised. Elizabeth usually criticized everything I did — from my choice of subjects to the way I mixed paint.
Lexie cleared her throat. “Tuckwell,” she said loudly, “I would like you to make my Music Club poster.”
Elizabeth cackled. “Do your own dirty work, Alexis Yves. Tuckwell has better things to do.”
“You keep out of this.” Lexie turned to me and held my arm. Her eyes were wide and hopeful. “Jinx, will you help me? I need to announce new girl tryouts.”
Elizabeth hurried to my corner of the room. “She’s a con artist, Jinx. Don’t let her take advantage of you.”
I looked at Lexie.
“When do you need the poster?” I said.
“Shut up, Elizabeth.” Lexie gazed at me. I felt as if her brown eyes might swallow me. “Actually, I need it today — right now, in fact!”
I shrugged. What was there to lose? It wouldn’t take me long. “OK, I’ll do it.”
“Tuckwell, you’ve been had.” Elizabeth retreated to her corner.
With Lexie leaning over my shoulder, her perfume floating by me, I hand-lettered the poster. It wasn’t easy, with so much to distract me, but I did it. I even did something extra — a little drawing of a man and a woman, in 1930s clothes, dancing — Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The woman was leaning backward in a daring arch. The man’s arm supported her.
“It’s beautiful,” said Lexie. She slipped her arms around me. “The new girls will think Music Club is hot stuff.”
“Jesus,” grumbled Elizabeth, eyeing us suspiciously.
“Know something, Jinx?” said Lexie quietly. “You don’t breathe when you paint. I was watching you.”
“She’s actually a fish,” called Elizabeth. “She only breathes under water.”
“Really, Jinx. You don’t breathe. Here, feel me.” Lexie placed my hand on her stomach. She breathed slowly, her abdomen rising and falling under my hand. “You see, I’m really breathing,” she said. “You should be breathing this way when you paint. In and out, in and out.” Her hands were on top of mine. “When I breathe, my whole diaphragm contracts. Feel?”
“What are you doing to Tuckwell?” Elizabeth was staring at us. Jeepers and Nora and the sophomores were staring too.
“Never mind them, Jinx. Do you feel?”
“You’re white as a sheet, Jinx,” said Elizabeth.
“The point is,” continued Lexie, “if you hold your breath when you paint, you can’t paint as freely. You can’t do anything as well.”
“Like sex, right, Lexie?” Elizabeth frowned.
Lexie laughed. “Well, of course sex is one thing.”
I looked at Lexie. My face was red. I could feel it. “Should I take my hand away?” I whispered.
“Listen to your voice, now, Tuck. It’s way up here.” She drew a line across her neck with her finger and spoke in a falsetto.
“There’s nothing wrong with her voice,” fumed Elizabeth. “What do you know about her voice? Nothing. You’re crazy.”
“I’ve had three years of voice at Juilliard, you creep,” said Lexie. “Jinx, I’ll give you breathing lessons.”
“Listen to her,” growled Elizabeth to Jeepers and Nora, who were still watching us intently.
“In…in six lessons, I’ll have you breathing and painting at the same time.” Lexie’s gaze was direct. “I like you, Jinx,” she said softly. “I’d like to help you.”
I shivered. Lexie was standing close to me. Her body and her voice seemed to be melting into me. Or maybe I was melting into her.
“Are you sure you have time?” I wasn’t sure I did. Her hand brushed my cheek. “It won’t be difficult, Jinx.”
I gulped. “OK.”
“Jesus,” muttered Elizabeth again.
Lexie buttoned her trench coat and picked up her books. “In six lessons, Jinx. I promise. Meet me on Tuesday, Practice Room D.” Lexie grabbed the poster, wrinkling the edges, and banged out of the studio.
“So much for art,” mused Elizabeth.
I laughed. That was the beginning of Lexie and me.
When the studio had emptied, I stood at the sink washing my brushes, warm water splashing over the black bristles and gurgling down the drain. Usually, the cleanup ritual relaxed me, but today I felt nervous; I couldn’t stop thinking about Lexie and the sudden strength of my feelings about her. My legs were trembling. What was happening to me? What was it about Lexie that reminded me of last summer and that conversation with my mother? It was the day that I told her I didn’t want to go to college, that I wanted to go to art school, in New York.
Mother had looked up from the newspaper. “New York?” she said in her Tennessee drawl. “New York is a rough city.” My mother had lived in New York for eight years before she married my father. “You’d get swallowed up, Jinx, coming from a school like Huntington Hill.”
“I might not get swallowed up,” I said tentatively.
My mother folded the newspaper. “People at art school aren’t very attractive.” She was crazy about attractive people.
“What’s wrong with art school people? Aren’t they like anybody else?”
Mother stood up nervously and carefully dropped a handful of peppercorns into the silver pepper grinder. “They won’t be from the same background as you, Jinx. You’ve lived a very sheltered life. You’re too high-strung. People go off the deep end in New York. Particularly at art school.”
The deep end. There was that expression. Mother used it a lot. She seemed to have a special, secret meaning for it.
“What exactly do you mean by deep end?” I said casually. “If I’m going off it, I ought to know what it is.”
“Jinx, I didn’t say you would go off the deep end.” Mother’s hands shook as she poured particles of Calgonite detergent into the dishwasher. “I was thinking of Clarence Brown, Uncle Dick’s roommate at Yale. He went to art school in New York. I met some of his friends. They were kooks. New York is full of kooks.”
“Did Clarence go off the deep end?”
“Jinx!” Mother’s face was red. She sat back down in her chair.
“Mother, how come you could live in New York with all those kooks and not go off the deep end, but you think I will?”
“I need to order a cord of wood,” said my mother suddenly, whipping out the Yellow Pages.
“But it’s summer….”
“New York was different then, Jinx. I lived on East Sixty-eighth Street with my sister and her two roommates from Vassar and we knew lots of attractive men.”
“Did Aunt Connie know Clarence Brown?” I asked.
“Everyone knew Clarence Brown.” Mother’s finger moved down a column in the Yellow Pages. “Clarence Brown was from Greenwich and he was very old Greenwich.”
“What was wrong with him then?” To be old anything was high praise from Mother.
Mother’s face tightened. Her mouth turned down. “Clarence Brown was an alcoholic. He never married.”
“Is alcoholic the deep end? Or never marrying?”
Mother stood by the door, hands on her hips. “Jinx, you’re being rude. You know perfectly well that the deep end is just an expression. It means he got in trouble. Lost himself.”
“Riding the subway?” I offered.
“Jinx, Clarence Brown was a pansy,” said Mother in a whisper. “And that’s the last I want to hear of it.”