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“If you get a fat letter, it means you’ve been accepted. If you get a thin letter, forget it.” Becky Margeson made the pronouncement. No one was really listening; they’d all heard it before. It was part of the college-admissions folklore that circulated every spring. It was one of the myths that had been disproved two years before when the president of the student council had been accepted by an Ivy League college and didn’t know it for a week—didn’t know it until his mother emptied the trash and found the (thin) crumpled letter, unopened, where he had thrown it in anger. Natalie Armstrong, especially, wasn’t listening to the two friends who were sprawled in her bedroom on the spring Saturday. Natalie had been thinking about something else for a long time, something that she hadn’t told even her closest friends. “Even if I get a letter six inches thick,” groaned Gretchen Zimmerman, “it has to say ‘scholarship’ at the end of it, or I can’t go.” She nudged her sneakers off with alternate toes and examined her feet in the sunlight that came through Natalie’s windows. “I wish it were summer, so I could get a tan. My feet look like haddock filets.” “I hate this waiting.” Becky sighed. “Wait for the middle of April, to see if you’ve been accepted. Wait for summer, to get a tan. Then wait for summer to end, so you can go to college. Then what? I suppose you get there and end up waiting for the next thing.” “To get married.” Gretchen grinned. She folded her bare feet under her and scrutinized her hands, spreading the fingers to imagine a wedding ring on one. “Ha,” snorted Natalie, with disdain. “Ha,” mimicked Gretchen, laughing. “You’ll probably marry Paul the minute he graduates from college, Nat. You’re so lucky.” “Lucky?” Natalie looked at her in surprise. “You are, Nat,” said Becky seriously. “Look at you. You’re so gorgeous. Honestly, if I didn’t like you so much I’d hate you. Has your face ever broken out, I mean ever?” Natalie laughed. “I had a cold sore once. My dad said it was caused by a virus.” “A cold sore. Big deal. I’m talking about zits. I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t have zits except you.” Becky leaned toward the mirror over Natalie’s bureau, glanced at her own face, stuck out her tongue, and sighed. “And you have Paul,” mused Gretchen. “And you’ve already been accepted at MacKenzie. And your parents can afford the tuition. God, you are lucky, Nat. Did your application form have one of those stupid questions on it: ‘What do you consider the most interesting thing about yourself?’ What did you put, Nat: ‘The most interesting thing about me is that I’m incredibly lucky’?” Natalie crumpled up a piece of notebook paper and threw it halfheartedly at Becky. “No,” she said. “I put, ‘The most interesting thing about me is that my best friends are insane’!” They all laughed. It was the kind of day when it was easy to laugh at things. The snow had melted at last, and the early April sun was the sort that promised summer before long. The hardest parts of senior-year classes were over; they were all marking time, and the teachers indulged them. The English teacher had assigned Hawthorne and Thoreau in the fall, and now they were reading Salinger and Vonnegut. Four years of French conjugations had been laid, pretty much, to rest, and the French teacher was teaching them something about cuisine. Some days they borrowed the Home Ec room and made crêpes. Sometimes they read the magazine Elle in class, and talked about fashion; the boys groaned and made vomiting gestures in the aisles between the desks, when they weren’t flipping the pages and looking for see-through blouses. Becky and Gretchen would both get into college, and Gretchen, who had the highest College Board scores in the history of the high school, would win the scholarships that would make it possible for her to go. Paul had been accepted, already, at Yale. That was a long distance from MacKenzie, but it didn’t seem important. She would see him during vacations; they would write; they would stay close; and they both looked forward to new things. The springtime agonizing was just part of the senior ritual, part of the boredom. Something to talk about while they waited for time to pass. There was a knock on Natalie’s bedroom door. Nancy, her sister, stuck her head inside. Nancy was a year younger: sixteen, chubby, blond, and freckled. The yearbook would, next year, describe Nancy as “cute as a button.” It had already described Natalie with the quotation “She walks in beauty.” They were not at all alike. But they were friends. “Mom wants you to set the table, Nat.” “Nancy, do me a favor?” “Mmmmm?” “Bug off.” Nancy grinned and closed the door. “Well, listen,” said Gretchen, standing up. “I have to go anyway.” “Me too,” said Becky. “Gotta go check the mail at home.” “Tell Mom I’ll be down in a minute,” Natalie said, and listened to the muted thuds of her friends’ feet on the carpeted stairs, to Nancy’s called “See ya!” and to the front door’s open and close. She sat where she was, and noticed that she could see herself in the wall mirror across the room. Her long dark hair. The startlingly blue eyes. Her skin was very light now, but she would tan easily and early in the summer. Her teeth were even and straight; she had never needed the braces that Nancy had worn, now, for three years. They’re right, I guess. I am lucky. That is, if looks are what count. I suppose I’m good-looking. And I’m bright enough that I don’t have to study much, that I got into college, that I’ll probably get into med school. I can do whatever I want. Then why do I want something that scares me so much?
Natalie walked over to her desk, the pine desk that her father had built for her in his garage workshop, years before. It was marred now, and scratched, but she loved it still, as she had the day he finished the final sanding and rubbed in the wax carefully with a soft cloth. Her father, a doctor, was very dear to her. In kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school, when she had made him paperweights and penwipers every Father’s Day (and who uses paperweights or penwipers? Nobody, she knew now, as she hadn’t, then) he had given them places of honor on his desk as if they were truly objets d’art. It was he who had bandaged the scraped knees of her childhood, bathed her in cool, medicated baths when she itched all over from chicken pox, and had been the one beside her bed, holding her hand, when she woke after a long night of pain and drugged sleep to find her appendix gone. Kay Armstrong, Natalie’s mother, was the volatile one in the family. The daughter of gypsylike, artistic parents, Kay had traveled as a child in Europe and Mexico; had absorbed her parents’ passion for color, light, and change; and had inherited their exuberant emotions. She had settled as a young woman for the quiet, uncomplicated life of a small-town doctor’s wife because she loved Alden Armstrong; but she brought to the family spontaneity and vibrancy that startled them all, at times. The Armstrong household was not like any other, and it was because of Kay. It was the only house in Branford, Maine, for example, that had, in the modern, copiously tiled upstairs bathroom, an immense old-fashioned bathtub, with feet, in the center of the room. And the feet had Crimson Passion polish on each toe. Kay Armstrong had painted it there, meticulously, herself one October afternoon when all the other doctors’ wives in Branford were listening to a speaker discuss The Art of Flower Arranging after their monthly luncheon, to which she had forgotten to go. She was the only doctor’s wife in Branford, Maine, who hung her wash on an outdoor clothesline instead of putting it through a dryer, because she liked to look out the window and see the clothes blowing in the wind. She had been especially delighted, one day, when one sleeve of the top of her husband’s pajamas, prodded by the stiff breeze off the bay, reached over and grabbed her nightgown around the waist. “I bet that’s the sexiest thing that’s ever happened in this back yard,” she had exclaimed, watching in glee from the kitchen window. “Mother!” groaned Nancy. “Don’t be gross!” “Well.” Her mother grinned. “If you know of anything more than that that’s been going on back there, I hope you’ve consulted your father about birth control.” “Mother!” groaned Nancy again. Kay Armstrong had grinned and shrugged, still watching the striped sleeve making sporadic breeze-guided passes at the pink nightgown. She was not your run-of-the-mill mother. Natalie adored her.
Natalie called downstairs from the door of her bedroom. “Mom! I’ll be down in a few minutes to set the table, okay?” “Yo,” called her mother affably. Yo. Natalie smiled. That’s Marine talk, she thought. Who else . . . who else in the world has a mother who talks like a boot camp Marine? She went to the desk, opened the top drawer, took out the paper that was there, looked at it briefly, and sighed. Yo. Her mother had not said “Yo” when she read that paper. Her mother’s face had crumpled like an old Kleenex, and her mother had cried. And her father had turned away, his face set in the stiff and puzzled lines that formed there when he had a patient he could not help. “Natalie,” he had said, and the word, her name, was almost a question. It was filled with pain. They had not spoken of it again. Natalie had always felt that there was nothing she could not discuss with her parents. They had talked, often, over the years, about feelings: about anger, about grief, about love. But they had read the paper, when she gave it to them, and she had seen all those same feelings in their faces; she had seen their anguish, as well. And it was something they had not been able to talk about. It had been two months. They had not mentioned it. Life went on in the Armstrong home, in combinations made up of Nancy’s boisterous cheer, Natalie’s more introspective calm, Kay Armstrong’s splashes of color and craziness, and the doctor’s dignity that kept them all moving in smooth and well-directed currents. But there was an undercurrent to the life, now. The murky hurt she had inflicted hung like a translucent curtain; they all looked through it, around it, over and under it, and pretended that it had never been hung there at all. Once her father’s sister, Horrible Aunt Helen, had sent them a hideous ceramic lamp for Christmas. It was a pale green panther with a dim bulb suspended from his underside. If they placed it on top of the television, Horrible Aunt Helen had explained in her enclosed note, their eyes would be protected from damage that was likely to ensue from the flickering light of the screen. “This guy is going to have terrible sexual problems,” Natalie’s mother had said, holding the panther upside down to examine the bulb and its dangling electric cord. “Why don’t we just pack him up again and send him to Masters and Johnson in St. Louis?” “Kay,” her husband had said, “Helen stops here unannounced all the time. We have to put it on the TV, at least for a while, so we don’t hurt her feelings.” “All right,” said Mrs. Armstrong. She moved the small piece of Peruvian sculpture that had always stood on top of the television, and put the panther in its place. “But we shall consider it invisible.” They all looked at the panther. It was posed in a sinuous lunge, its fangs exposed. It was very large. Very, very green. “Do you see a panther on top of the television?” asked Kay Armstrong. “Nope.” Nancy, who always caught the tail of her mother’s fancies as they flew past, giggled. “Can’t see a thing.” “A panther?” asked Natalie solemnly. “On the TV? Who in their right mind would have a panther on their TV?” “Not the Armstrongs,” said their father resolutely. “The Armstrongs are very tasteful people. I see nothing on the television at all.” The green panther had stayed there for a month. One afternoon Natalie, in her room, had heard a crash. When she went downstairs, her mother was picking up green ceramic pieces and dropping them into a wastebasket. “Isn’t it amazing,” Kay Armstrong had said calmly, “how when something is invisible you are very apt to bump into it very hard with your elbow?” “Amazing.” Natalie grinned, helping her with the last green bits.
Now they were all playing the game again. If they pretended the paper didn’t exist, it wouldn’t exist. But it does, Natalie thought. I had to write it. I had to ask them to read it. And they will have to talk to me about it. Even if it hurts.