Note to readers: The main character’s name has been changed for publication (to protect the innocent 😉
I have a memory of Lizzie dancing. We were hanging out in our family room, talking about school, boys, vacation plans. She had brought the new Madonna album with her, and we were listening to it on the stereo. She jumped up and started to dance around, singing along with the song, her hair flying wildly as she spun around and around, wiggling to the Spanish rhythm. Saying she couldn’t stand to have me sit there and watch her, she pulled me up off the sofa to join her.
She did that sort of thing whenever the mood struck her, sometimes while she was driving. Holding onto the steering wheel with both hands, she would bounce up and down or wiggle back and forth in her seat, singing along with the music.
Or just walking along, wherever we were, at the beach or on our way to school, she would dance. Being so openly happy, so often, really wasn’t normal, I told myself.
And there was something else: She never had anything unkind to say about anyone. That, also, was surprising and seemed abnormal. I didn’t know anyone else, again, including myself, who didn’t indulge in a little mean-spirited gossip now and then. I never really understood that about her. Always happy, never a mean thing to say.
I compared my schoolmate with the apparition I saw on the boat launch, of the girl whose father had violated her. The intensity of her ghost was not like my school friend. I compared the Lizzie I remembered to the dreams I’d been having, to Celeste’s description. But it was hard to compare an apparition that made her own sister feel threatened to the Lizzie I had known.
Somehow, I couldn’t accept that dying had made my happy friend unhappy. And where had she found the strength to go through life as if everything was all right when it wasn’t?
I lay in my bed thinking of her, a book covering my face. I groaned, a renewed realization of her physical absence sweeping over me.
“You all right?
I took the book off of my face, annoyed at the interruption. One of my classmates, a girl named Sue, stood inside the door looking like perhaps she was somewhere she wasn’t sure she should be.
“Sort of,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“I just wondered if you had finished your Astronomy homework. I’m having some trouble with it.”
Homework. I hadn’t put much energy into that so far this semester. Even an earnest attempt to do research for Food and People had come to nothing when Lizzie’s ghost appeared in the stacks.
“Uh, no. I can’t say I’ve even looked at the assignment. When’s it due?”
“Tomorrow,” she said, shifting on her feet and looking around. “Well, sorry to bother you. I guess I’ll see if I can find someone who’s looked at it,” she turned and left.
I put my book back over my face, resuming my brooding state.
A mother who chose not to protect her children: that aspect alone, Mrs. Verdano’s unexplainable choice to allow her daughters’ continued abuse, was more than I could understand and made me very angry. Even if Mrs. Verdano was medicated, how could she do this? And Lizzie’s super-human ability to disguise the situation …I was sure there was some psychological model that would explain all of this, but I couldn’t recollect a single memory of anything Lizzie had said or done that would have clued me into the bizarre picture that was emerging of the Verdano family. How was it all possible?
It seemed to me that I had never really known Lizzie.
My mind returned to Mrs. Verdano. Bake sale volunteer, flower shop owner. She always bought the most stylish clothes and jewelry for her girls, always looked elegant herself. I had jokingly called her the PTO queen. She’d never missed a meeting. She’d also never had a spare moment for any of us. It seemed to me that perhaps she was always busy as a means of avoiding what was happening at home. Had she used her many business and volunteer commitments as a kind of shield? A means of removing herself from something she could not or would not deal with? Why? Was Mr. Verdano so important to her, did she feel so invested in that relationship that she would sacrifice her daughters to it?
And her father. Polished, sophisticated, charming. All of Lizzie’s friends harbored little crushes on him. An Italian-American from New York, he’d graduated from an Ivy League school and ran the psychiatry department at Manchester Hospital. He was well-known in our little community, well-respected. Had even donated a room to our local library. As I contemplated him, though, I realized that part of his mystique and appeal had always been a kind of smoldering mysteriousness. He was never available to anyone I knew for anything more than the most casual, passing conversation and cordialities. Even at social functions he chose to attend, he rarely appeared on time, preferring instead to arrive late enough to avoid introductions and idle chatter. Unless he was a benefactor or speaker. At those events he shone. All generosity and humility.
I thought about school ball games. Celeste had been a cheerleader for the football team. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but if memory served correctly, he often disappeared early from games. I remembered Mrs. Verdano and the girls getting into her car on their own; Mr. Verdano’s Mercedes was almost always gone by the time the rest of us reached the parking lot. Still, my parents had always considered the Verdanos friendly acquaintances. And now he was filing a lawsuit for wrongful death against my father. It seemed like a work of fiction too surreal to be believed.
I tensed again as the image of the ghost, an image that was always there, burned into my mind. The vision of her apparition visited me over and over again, causing my heart to leap. Always accompanied by her words.
Look what he did.
Breathing consciously, listening to the very real physical event of air rushing into my body and then out again against the book still lying on my face, and doing it a second time, noticing the pages flapping during my second out breath, I thought about being halfway though the semester.
Lizzie would have been halfway through her Biology class and the Food and People class I was enrolled in. Probably the sight of fat deposits wouldn’t have made her throw up, and it was a safe bet that she would be earning good grades. She’d always been an honors student.
Most likely, I wouldn’t have been lying there with a book on my face if she’d come to school with me.
And I certainly would have been earning at least passable grades as well, if things had been different. I hoped.
Probably, she would have made a habit of dancing around our dorm room with a Madonna album playing. And, she most certainly wouldn’t have let the badly intentioned Steve drag me, sick, out of a fraternity party and up a set of stairs.