A January Pop-Up! Because, you know, we like our readers.
By Lynn Vande Stouwe
The second week in January was Winterim, during which students at our second-rate private school could purchase a week of self-discovery for approximately one thousand dollars: camping with Hopi Indians in Arizona, building sweat lodges in Honduras. Most popular were trips to interchangeable European cities, where daytime tours of historic monuments masked evenings spent drinking in public squares–students throwing beer cans into a fountain in one and teachers sipping red wine in another.
The eighteen students sent to Washington had parents who knew better. While our classmates would undoubtedly be smoking opium with indigenous peoples in Mexico, we would be shaking hands with our decrepit senator, Preston Gervais, aged ninety-seven.
It wouldn’t be so terrible, I told myself as we dragged our luggage across the brick walkway, towards the concrete mausoleum of a hotel where we would be interred for a week. I had Amelia.
I looked over my shoulder. She lagged behind our Winterim group with her twice-too-large rollerboard, a day-glo pink. As I waited for her, a pack of khaki-clad Georgetown lacrosse players sauntered down the walkway. She pursed her lips, her face almost pretty enough for a magazine cover, and sent the cloud of her breath out like a smoke signal.
“Hello, lovers,” she said.
They turned around all at once, white smiles shining against a kaleidoscope of polo shirts: robin’s egg blue, salmon, periwinkle and cream. Colors only suitable for visiting your rich grandmother on Easter or riding a horse.
I rolled my eyes. Despite her two hundred dollar jeans and stiletto heels, she lived on a soybean farm ten miles off the interstate, so far removed from civilization that her address wasn’t a number on a Road but a Route. We had been best friends ever since arriving at the first day of preschool in matching purple Converse sneakers, though I was beginning to think we weren’t anymore. She was trying on a new persona, an effort that required smoking cigarettes, wearing low cut tops, and pretending she didn’t know me.
“Gross.” I pointed towards the lacrosse preppies. “They look like they robbed the sale rack at J. Crew. Remind me never to go to school here. I would slit my wrists at orientation.”
Amelia sighed. “It’s not rigorous enough for your nerdtastic standards anyway.”
I hated when she called me a nerd, even if it was almost true.
“I know you don’t believe me but where you go to college can determine your entire future,” I said.
She grabbed the pink handle of her pink suitcase and walked fast to catch up with our group, which was halfway to the hotel already. I followed.
“You might want to, like, live a little, Katie,” she said, as if she had figured out some great secret I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
“Yeah? Well, you might want to wear a bra when we meet old Preston,” I said.
“Nice.” Amelia bit her lip.
I was being a bitch but so was she. We were having the same fight we’d had for the last three months. This, in hindsight, should have been the first sign that my secret hope for Winterim, that it would be a fantastical adventure that would mend our friendship before it broke forever, was misdirected, wrong.
“Jane!” Amelia looked past me and called. She had to yell because Jane Easley was twenty feet ahead, flanked by the broad-backed Frost twins, one of whom lugged her black leather duffel bag on his shoulder. I could never tell them apart.
“Jane!” Amelia shouted again.
Jane turned around and winked.
That was the second sign.
Jane Easley came to our school in December, three months before Winterim, after being expelled from Jefferson Davis, the district’s worst public school. You might as well have told us she was recently released from death row. You probably had to sleep with a teacher or do coke to get kicked out of Jefferson. Jane normally would have been too cool, and her parents too permissive, to end up on the nerd trip. But by December, trips with easy access to drugs, alcohol or fun were long-filled with hopeless waitlists. So she got stuck with us.
Her eyelashes were long and fake. Her skirts nearly skimmed the crotch of the red underwear she shoplifted from Victoria’s Secret. She weighed ninety-eight pounds and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds whenever she could get more than fifty feet away from a teacher. She could probably punch my teeth out.
I could tell from the way Amelia looked at her as we stumbled about the frostbitten monuments of the Mall, brown doe eyes wide and steady, that Jane Easley was not just a classmate but an aspiration. I wasn’t sure that I could be friends with Jane Easely, even if I tried, but I hadn’t given up on Amelia yet. If I wasn’t giving up on Amelia, I was going to need to try to be friends with Jane.
The walking tour ended, and Father Trumbull, the school chaplain charged with chaperoning us, said we could fend for ourselves until dinner.
“Meet back at the hotel, young people?”
All eighteen of us seemed to shrug at once. He had forfeited his limited authority over the course of the van ride up, in which he sang along to three distinct Bruno Mars songs on the radio.
Other kids broke off into groups of threes and fours, girls linking arms to keep warm and boys shoving their hands deep into their fleece pockets.
“Where should we go?” I asked Amelia. But I saw she wasn’t listening to me at all. She was honing in on Jane, who was looking over her shoulder, checking to make sure Father Trumbull was mostly gone before she slipped a Marlboro Red from the cuff of her sleeve. I could feel Amelia disappearing, like Jane was on the precipice of a black hole and Amelia was getting sucked into it just looking at her. I needed to pull her back.
“Hey Jane,” I said. Jane turned around, thumb out of her glove to strike her lighter. “I heard you were on the cross country team at Jefferson. What’s with the cigarettes?”
She lit her cigarette and took a drag before she answered. Curls of white smoke seeped from her nostrils.
“All the best cross country runners smoke,” she said.
Jane held the pack in our direction. Amelia skittered over and pulled one out. It took her a minute to decide which end went in her mouth. I had only seen her smoke a cigarette once before, when we were ten and found a pack between paint cans in her garage. It must have belonged to her older brother. We each took one drag and gagged, then stomped out the butt and hid it in a Diet Coke can in the recycling bin.
This time, though, Amelia took a long, smooth pull. She held the smoke in for a few seconds before she exhaled, like she was actually enjoying it. She had clearly practiced many times since the garage. I wondered what other things I didn’t know about her anymore.
I grabbed the cigarette from Amelia’s hand. I inhaled, coughed.
Jane blew an expert ring.
“So when are we meeting this geezer?” Jane asked.
“Senator Gervais?” I asked.
“Yeah. Who is he?”
“Friday,” I said. “He’s been in the senate for like fifty years. He’s ninety-seven years old.”
“Katie’s a total nerd. She knows all sorts of weird stuff,” Amelia said. It might have been a strange kind of compliment the year before, but the hard edge to her voice, the way she scrunched her nose when she said it, turned it ugly.
Jane narrowed her eyes, let the smoke haze her vision. I took another drag of Amelia’s cigarette, held my breath.
“I don’t know why everyone’s so excited,” I said. “He’s a racist bigot and probably senile. Maybe a pervert too.”
“You’re funny, Katie. Who knew?”
Lots of people, I wanted to tell her, including Amelia, once upon a time. But when Jane spoke, her voice deep and raspy and full of certainty, grey eyes on me, lazy and appraising all at once, my heart beat a little faster, until I could hear the blood thumping in my ears, and I understood for a moment why Amelia wanted to be her.
Jane twirled her cigarette between her thumb and index finger like a drum majorette.
“How do you do that, Jane?” Amelia asked.
Jane said nothing, took another deep pull of her Marlboro Red.
The next morning the three of us were sitting in the back row of a windowless auditorium filled with two hundred Georgetown freshmen, listening to a lecture on Constitutional Law. I was on the end next to Amelia, who was next to Jane. The Frost twins were on the other side of Jane, trying to look down her shirt, though I think she must have known because she smirked and leaned forward a few inches.
The lecture was boring, but I was busy imagining what my life might be like after high school, whether all my professors would be as grey and tweedy as the one currently explaining the complexity of the First Amendment. I looked around the lecture hall at the Georgetown students, trying to figure out who were the nerds and who were the preppy kids and the jocks but everyone was quiet, scribbling or pounding notes on a laptop. There was an eager, attentive sameness to all of them.
Before I could figure it out, Jane leaned across Amelia and whispered to me loud enough for everyone within fifteen feet to hear.
“Let’s get out of here.”
She pointed to the door to our right, which was slightly ajar and wouldn’t make any noise if we opened it.
“Totally,” Amelia said.
I didn’t say no right away. I was going to have to stand up to let them get past me anyway.
“Come on, Katie,” Jane said. “I’m dying here.”
“Just stay, Katie,” Amelia hissed as she slid her coat back on. “You don’t want to get in trouble, right?”
Jane tapped my knee with a long, French-manicured nail.
She pointed towards Father Trumbull, who was on the opposite end of the row, past the other fifteen Winterim students. His head was in the palm of his hand, eyelids fluttering with each wheezy breath.
I looked back at Jane, met her eyes. She winked. That same wink she had given to Amelia on the walkway the day before, and I knew it was time to choose what kind of person I was going to be: one who stayed behind or one who knew how to live a little.
I stood up, slid towards the door without another word.
When we were free on the brick-and-town-housed streets of Georgetown, it didn’t feel like breaking the rules. It didn’t even feel like Wednesday.
Jane stopped in front of a store window on M Street. Amelia stopped. Then I stopped. We looked at the pastel dresses, the leather bags.
“This isn’t exactly my style.” Jane sucked on her third Marlboro Red of the morning. “But if you go shopping here, they can’t stop you unless they see you. Like with their own eyes. Store policy.”
I had only been to Banana Republic a few times. My idea of shopping was rummaging through boxes of vintage track shorts in my grandparents’ attic, but Amelia sometimes dragged me along to the mall, most recently to deliberate on first day of school outfits back in August. In any case, I was sure they were in the business of encouraging shopping, not stopping it.
“Why would they want to do that?” I asked.
“Oh, Katie.” Amelia sighed and rolled her eyes in Jane’s direction. Practically throwing herself at Jane. She was starting to piss me off.
“Like you have any clue what she’s talking about, Amelia,” I said.
Amelia pretended not to hear me as she followed Jane into the store. I went in after them and hung near the front door, perusing a table of men’s ties. I was still uncertain of what was next but beginning to formulate a vision. I contemplated turning back for the lecture hall, imagined Father Trumbull’s big grey head lolling to the side as he stirred awake, but the last thing I wanted was to prove Amelia right. I knew how to live a little. I would stay, but it seemed wise to have a head start running. I was not on the cross-country team.
“Do you need help?” A sparkly blond approached me. Her nails were a perfect, barely discernable shade of pink that matched her headband.
“I’m just getting a tie. For my boyfriend.” I didn’t know why I was lying. The words came out before I could decide. “He’s getting an award. For science. And fencing.”
The last bit about fencing was too much, I realized as the salesgirl wrinkled her smooth, shiny forehead. I was saved from further explanation by Jane, who strode from the back of the store like a prizefighter exiting the ring. Amelia trailed behind, arms crossed with knuckles white against her triceps. I dropped the green silk paisley I was pretending to admire and followed.
“Be cool,” Amelia whispered to me. I tried my best.
Halfway down the block, Amelia and Jane unwrapped their coats to reveal the bounty: a set of gold bangles, a pair of silver earrings, and an exquisite rhinestone-studded cuff.
“Here.” Jane handed it to me–the shiniest piece of all. “This is yours.”
I rolled the cuff back and forth between my fingers. If it were a present, it would have been the best present I had ever received. It was heavy, like real gold even though it was probably made in China from melted down car parts.
“But Jane, I thought that one was mine?” Amelia said.
“No,” Jane said. She forced the cascade of gold bangles over her tiny hand, up her forearm.
Amelia’s eyes looked melty, like they did whenever we watched the rain scene of The Notebook more than twice in a row. She looked down at the silver earrings in her hand. They were made for pierced ears, I could see. Her father had never allowed her to pierce hers.
“Here Amelia,” I handed the cuff to her, but Jane held up her hand between us like a wall, thwarting the exchange.
“No,” she said without looking at either of us. She slid another Marlboro Red into her mouth. “You’re welcome, Katie.”
We walked three across the sidewalk, Amelia and I stung and silent for a few minutes after that as Jane smoked. I caught Amelia’s glance behind Jane’s head and raised my eyebrows. But Amelia just shook her head.
At the next corner, I hid the cuff in my fist. And when the light turned and we crossed the street, I dropped it into the corner trashcan. I didn’t really want to give it up, but it was a pledge of allegiance to Amelia, so I was pissed when I realized she was busy whispering something to Jane and hadn’t seen me.
Jane would notice the cuff was gone later, when we were back at the hotel. I would pretend to be devastated, claim it must have fallen down a storm drain on M Street.
The next evening at the hotel I waited in the lobby at precisely 6:00 pm. The rest of the group was there. The true nerds who took notes everywhere we went with the miniature notepads and stubby number two pencils Father Trumbull had passed out on the van ride up. The Frost twins, who were flipping through a coffee table book of artsy nude portraits and cracking up. The other dozen kids somewhere in between, bored and shifting their weight from leg to leg as they checked their iPhones. But Jane and Amelia were absent.
I had told Amelia about the cuff the night before, when Jane went into a deli to buy more cigarettes, but it was like Amelia didn’t even care.
“So?” she said, not even looking up from the fuschia fingernail polish she was chipping off her thumbnail.
She had been arm-in-arm with Jane all day, until they finally just disappeared while I looked for a souvenir for my parents in the hotel gift shop. I hadn’t seen them since then.
Someone tapped my shoulder.
“Where are they?” Father Trumbull asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” My voice caught in my throat at the last part, so unconvincing a lie that even I didn’t believe it. He narrowed his eyes on me.
Then they appeared across the lobby, Jane in the lead and Amelia scampering alongside.
“We got lost.” Jane crossed her arms, daring Father Trumbull to discipline her. Amelia studied the carpet.
The Winterim group began the slow stream out the revolving door of the hotel, falling into lock step behind Father Trumbull. He unfurled a billboard-sized map from the front-desk, dutifully following the concierge’s ballpoint pen path to dinner.
“Where were you?” I whispered to Amelia. I noticed her eyes were bloodshot. Jane had on a pair of sunglasses, even though the evening had turned purple. Then I knew. “You smoked pot?”
“Be cool.” Amelia pulled her navy peacoat tighter and walked a stride faster, leaving me in step with Jane. “Just in the room.”
“Our room? Are you crazy? He’s not a total moron.” I gestured toward the broad backside of Father Trumbull. I knew his attention was wholly consumed by the fold-out map, but if they were going to leave me out of all the adventure, I was at least going to try to ruin their high.
Jane grinned. “Are we really going to Chili’s?”
“I can’t believe you smoked in our room.” Without me, I wanted to say but knew it sounded desperate. “My luggage probably reeks.”
“I tore out a page from the little Bible in your nightstand and rolled it into a fat joint,” Jane said. She lifted her sunglasses and looked at me, suddenly serious. “Amelia said you would tell The Trumbull. She told me about the cuff too. You’re no fun at all.”
Amelia turned to look back at us, her pug nose scrunched in a smile. I felt my cheeks get hot.
“I probably should tell him,” I said. I looked Jane right in the eyes. Whatever allure they held before was hidden behind the spidery red vessels. “But I’m not as big of a bitch as you.”
The next morning the Winterim group ate breakfast at a diner that wasn’t a Denny’s but looked just like one. Jane and Amelia ordered black coffee, no food. I got an omelet.
It had been a full sixteen hours since I’d spoken to Amelia, even though she was right in front of me, our longest stretch since she went to Kansas for her grandmother’s funeral the summer before. Maybe the longest I had gone without talking to her since we both learned to dial the phone. I hadn’t said anything to her about the pot, about her telling Jane I would rat, which wasn’t true. I hadn’t said anything at all the whole night before, or that morning, even though my hash browns arrived covered in my arch nemesis, mayonnaise, and Father Trumbull had been humming a medley of Katy Perry songs on the walk back to the hotel. These were things Amelia would once have cared to know.
Jane and Amelia giggled as I chewed. I looked at them, forgetting for a moment, wanting to be in on whatever the joke was. They stopped laughing. I swallowed and put my fork down.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. They shrugged. “Seriously? What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Amelia said. “Be cool.”
“We’ll tell her,” Jane decided for the both of them. “After you left this morning, I popped over to your room to see if you guys were awake yet but Amelia was still sleeping so I woke her up and we decided to take our shower together. We were just laughing about something Amelia said in the shower.”
A mouthful of eggs lodged in my throat. I coughed. Amelia was a lot of strange things recently, but this was unexpected.
“Who cares? It’s not a big deal.” Jane said.
“I think that depends.” I wiped my mouth and looked at Amelia, who lowered her eyes and whispered something to Jane.
“Amelia knew you wouldn’t be cool.”
Amelia tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, looked down and pursed her lips as she took another sip of coffee.
“Amelia?” I needed to talk to her without Jane lording over us like some vengeful goddess from a Latin class translation, to understand what she was thinking because I used to know everything she was thinking and suddenly I knew nothing.
But before I could say another word, Father Trumbull returned from the bathroom, shouting at us in what must have been his best impression of Ryan Seacrest, “Fifteeeeen minutes until we meet U.S. Senator Preston Gervais!”
The rest of the Winterim group stood up, started to bundle up for our next walk but Amelia and I just sat there. Her gaze stayed on the table, and I tried to figure out how to stop caring that she couldn’t even look at me anymore.
“He’ll be just a minute,” the turtle-necked blond secretary chirped, ponytail swinging in back of her head like a metronome. We had already been waiting forty-five. Father Trumbull had left to find a vending machine after thirty.
The secretary pulled a tarnish cloth from a drawer and began to burnish the silver frame on her desk. Satisfied with the shine, she set it down, and I saw that it was a picture not of her boyfriend or Golden Retriever but of the Senator himself, black and white but already as old as my father in front of a campaign banner: Preston for President, 1958.
“Do you think he can like, walk?” Amelia spoke quietly, at first, and I wasn’t even sure she was talking to me until she finally looked at me.
“No. I’m sure they’re wheeling him up from the Senate floor now and pretending not to notice he’s pinching an intern’s ass in the elevator.” I turned to face her. “Are we actually still friends?”
Amelia let her chin fall into her hand, deflated, like all the fun had been drained out of her. “I don’t know.”
“Me neither.” I kicked the brown Sunday-school pumps my mother had instructed me to wear when we met the Senator. I hated them. “Maybe we’re too different now.”
“If we’re not friends anymore, then what are we?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure. I had never thought about whether to be friends with Amelia. It was automatic, a reflex like sneezing.
I caught a black, wet ball of mascara beading in the corner of her eye and felt victorious for a moment—she did care, after all. But then I wondered if it mattered, whether it was too late for us. Before I could say anything, she brushed the tears away with the back of her wrist and used the tip of her ring finger to wipe the stray mascara.
“Senator Gervais will see you now.” The secretary opened her arms and beamed, like a genie fulfilling our greatest wish.
We shuffled through the mahogany doors. There he was, propped up like a puppet behind an antique oak desk. His shoulders were broad and upright, his hands folded in a perfect triangle. He was so wrinkled and waxy that I wasn’t sure he was real until he spoke.
“How y’all doing?” His voice boomed even as his jaw went slack, revealing a prism of drool at the corner of his mouth.
“Y’all stand behind the Senator’s chair and we’ll snap a real nice photo,” the secretary said.
We followed orders. I stood in the middle in between the Frost twins and the other taller students, right behind the Senator’s big leather chair. Amelia and Jane, the shortest of the girls, moved to opposite ends of the row.
“Y’all are too long,” the secretary said, sweeping her hand across the line of eighteen students packed shoulder-to-shoulder. “You two on the ends.” She pointed to Jane, then Amelia. “Just stand next right in front, next to Senator Gervais.”
Amelia and Jane shuffled towards the center, one on each side of the Senator’s chair, right in front of me. They exchanged sly smiles, looking pleased to be front and center of the tableau. Jane turned to me and smirked.
“Don’t worry. Photoshop does wonders,” she said. The Frost twins snickered on either side of me. I felt my neck tighten, my mouth go dry.
“Good. No one needs to see those nicotine stains on your buck teeth,” I said. The Frost twins laughed harder. Jane turned back around, but beneath her upper lip, I saw the bulge of her tongue run over her incisors.
The secretary raised a boxy black camera and fumbled with the flash.
“H-h-hold on!” Preston silenced the room with his onion-skinned hand. He flashed a wicked smile and looked left and right, to Jane and Amelia standing on either side of him. In a motion that seemed too swift for his devastated frame, he pushed his chair back from the desk and wrapped one arm around Jane’s waist, one arm around Amelia’s, and pulled them onto his lap like rag dolls.
“One of you on each knee!” he cried out.
The Frost twins stopped laughing. The room stood still, like all the oxygen got sucked away at once. It seemed like someone should stop him but I wasn’t sure who. Or how. We were sixteen and he was ninety-seven, a Senator. Even the secretary just watched through the viewfinder, the broad lines of her furrowed brow peeking over the top of the camera, not taking the picture but not dismantling the tableau either.
“Well, what are you waitin’ for?” the Senator drawled to the secretary.
I looked at Jane, who had gone as pale as her tanning salon pallor would allow, even as she held her steely grin. Then, for a moment, her big, fake eyes flickered back at me, and I was sorry for what I said before about her teeth because having that man’s cold, dry hand folded around her waist, squeezing until his knuckles turned white, seemed like punishment for every nasty thing she might have done and then some.
I looked at Amelia. Amelia would know to stand up, to pry his skeleton fingers open and free herself. But she just stared straight ahead at the camera, ashamed, ready, and I realized I didn’t know her anymore. Not at all. And maybe I didn’t need to, or even want to.
The flash went off and we blinked.
“Y’all have to go.” The secretary hustled us out the front door of Senator Gervais’ office. “We’ll print these up and send you each a copy signed by the Senator.”
But I knew that no one was ever going to send us a photo of our Winterim group flanking the ancient Senator with two sixteen-year-old girls on his lap like some ersatz Santa Claus. Maybe when he finally died, someone would find a secret trove of all the photos he had ever taken with sixteen-year-old girls on his lap and publish them in the Washington Post. Then we could see the evidence that Winterim really had been a great adventure after all.
“Enjoy the rest of your visit,” said the secretary. She gave her widest, brightest smile and closed the door behind us.
The group trudged through the marbled hallways of the Capitol, rattled by the old Senator’s brazen grab and seeking sunlight. As we stepped outside, into an icy wind, I looked through the group to Amelia, expecting her to mirror Jane, who had swiftly jettisoned whatever fear I had detected in her eyes back in the office. She laughed as she told the story again to the Frost twins, pantomiming Senator Gervais’ grab even though we had all been standing there, seen it for ourselves.
But Amelia’s lip was quivering. She looked my way.
I couldn’t hear her across the crowd, but I could read her lips. I’m sorry. Her eyes begged forgiveness, and I considered it for a moment. But then I thought about the last week, the lacrosse players on the brick walk and the rhinestone cuff and the Senator’s lap, and I knew that it didn’t matter anymore. She could apologize, we could deem ourselves friends yet again. But we would go home, back to school, and it wouldn’t be Winterim. Jane would still be there, with her short skirts and her smoke rings that didn’t seem so mysterious after a week of watching her. There would always be another Jane for Amelia to worship, and I would always be me. There would never be any new allure in that.
Amelia stepped towards me.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, close now.
I had heard the words before, comforted by them each time our orbits expanded then contracted again, pulled not by gravity but by history, by patterns we had not yet learned to break. I could hear them, could feel she meant them, at least for now. But I didn’t need them anymore.
“Be cool,” I said.
I stepped ahead to walk alone.
Lynn A. Vande Stouwe is a freelance writer from Glen Ridge, New Jersey. “Winterim” is loosely based on actual events from her often-stranger-than-fiction adolescence in South Carolina. Her work has also appeared in Georgetown Review. She is currently completing a coming-of-age mystery, The Blossom Street Bridge.