Friday, August 14, 2009


It happened one evening, after dinner. All of us younger classes were in the hall for an hour of free time before bed, and it was mayhem. The hall looked like it had once been a ballroom with a high ceiling, a long, broad wood floor with alcoves and window seats. At one end was a gallery where musicians might have played in olden times. Girls from a higher class used it as their common room. I had never been up there. Below, the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds played tag like we used to do. But we were older now. We knew about sex and periods.

That evening I stood and talked to Sheila and Jane. Sheila was a tall, quiet, pretty blonde. Jane was a dumpy, plain girl. They had been best friends for years, as inseparable as a married couple. Jane and Sheila were all right. They were not part of my main gang – the group of five who were the smartest in the class and got into the most trouble – but Jane and Sheila were in the next tier. Friends, just not best friends.

By the end of the evening I had agreed to ask to be transferred out of my cubicle and into their dorm. They needed a third person, they said, and wanted to know if I was interested. Sure, I said, not knowing any other way to answer. I hadn’t been unhappy in the cubicles, though we liked to complain about them. For a moment, there with Jane and Sheila, it seemed adventurous to ask the nuns for a change (I’d never known anyone to do that), to move away from the cubicles where almost everyone else my age was living into a dorm room, which seemed, for a moment, like moving into an apartment.

The three of us became excited, planning our new life. When Sister Felicity blew her whistle, signaling that it was time for bed, Sheila and Jane walked up the big staircase to their dorm room, and I walked down the passageway that led to the chapel, then on past classrooms, through a locker room to the cubicles.

The cubicles were in an ugly new wing, a chunk of practical modernity tacked onto the old school building next to the courtyard and the clock tower where you knew horses had once stood and stamped their hooves on the cobblestones, waiting to be mounted.

“The cubicles” – that’s what we called them -- were two long rows of cells, each with a window, a tiny sink, a bed, a wardrobe and a chair to put your uniform on at night. The floor was white linoleum. At the foot of your bed you drew a white curtain across to close yourself off from the corridor and the cubicle across from you.

Lucy Ann and Madeleine and Nicola and Ann were all there as I brushed my teeth along with everyone else along the corridor, as we all changed into nightgowns and slippers and bathrobes and walked up and down to the toilets at the far end. The usual calling back and forth was there, the usual laughing and jokes that I loved to dive right into and be at the center of. But tonight I realized I had a secret. I couldn’t tell my friends what I’d done. I knew they’d be mad. They wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had a problem.

I went to bed with strange feelings of dread, wishing I could turn the clock back and erase the evening. But I was trapped, headed down a chute in the wrong direction. Old Sister Barbara walked up and down the two cubicle corridors a few times in the darkness, singing softly, “When Grandpapa Kissed Grandmama in the Second Minuet”, and then she was gone, but I could not sleep.

I lay in bed in the darkness and silence and began to cry, silently, in the boarding school way, making sure no one could hear me. As I cried I thought about our puppy who my mother had said in her weekly letter had just died at home. The little puppy I had played with that summer. She said Buffin had died. No one knew why. He’d just gotten sick and died. I cried and cried for the hopeful little pup and for my mother who had been so excited about that puppy. She had bought him. We never bought our dogs, but this one she went out and chose and bought because he reminded her of the dog she had as a child. So I cried for my mother too and for how she had taken me to the muddy little traveling amusement park I had begged to visit the week before. I cried, thinking of her expression as she clutched the baby and gripped the bar of some ride, her clothes tailored, a black-and-white check suit with a full skirt and heels. I could tell she wasn’t having fun, but I was. I loved the rollicking capsule we were jammed into, the way it swung and jolted us.

After the ride one of the silver combs from my mother’s hair was missing. My father had brought her those combs from a business trip to Morocco. As I lay in bed the loss of the comb the week before felt catastrophic, as if I had done something criminal and cruel in asking my mother to take me on a ride she didn’t want to go on. And then, look, she had lost a silver comb. I had asked for too much. That’s what it felt like.

I cried, rolling from one wave of sadness to the next and back again – the dog, my mother – and through it all this bitter promise I had made that my friends were not going to like.

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