On a sunny, chill day in September 1970, two seventeen year old girls met each other unexpectedly on the Brooklyn College campus. One of them was crying, and the other, who recently had become friends with her, was concerned.
The weeping girl was Charlotte Davis, five feet four inches tall, dark-haired, who had in normal times a secretive expression and a quiet manner. Her friend was Desiree Stein, who was very dramatic and knew it. Desiree was blonde and big: almost six feet tall, with eyebrows too dark and prominent for her long wavy light hair, and a nose too large and arched for beauty. Desiree wore a big, loose G.I. jacket and cowboy boots; she dressed to stand out from the crowd while Charlotte, with her jeans and sneakers, blended in.
Desiree led her friend to a nearby concrete bench by the turtle pond. A boy they both knew, whom everyone called Fritz the Cat because he resembled the R. Crumb comic character, was up a tree nearby and wanted to come over to them, but Desiree fiercely shooed him away.
It took her a few minutes to find out why Char was crying; Char was not talkative even when she was happy. Desiree had originally been drawn to her by her silence. After holding Char's hand and wiping her tears with a bandanna which she produced from her large floppy canvas handbag, Desiree finally elicited from Char that her grandparents had asked her to leave their house.
While Desiree came from the most stable and boring middle class family imaginable, Char's family life was broken, mysterious and tragic. Her Jewish mother had died young. Her Wasp father was an alcoholic whom she could not stand and rarely saw. For some years she had lived with her intolerant grandparents, Admiral Ty Davis and his wife Bethesda. They had taken her in from duty rather than love, when her father, Walter, became too dissolute to support her. That morning, after five years living in their house, and in the aftermath of a mild stroke suffered by Bethesda from which she was already almost fully recovered, Ty had told Char harshly at breakfast that she must leave within the week. "You're too much of a responsibility for Mrs. Davis to handle," he said. "You haven't minded her, as I asked." Char had surprised herself and him by starting to cry hysterically. She was weeping so hard that she couldn't breathe; the retired admiral brought her a glass of water. "What have I done?" she asked. "I've tried to be good. I didn't break anything. I didn't steal anything. I haven't made noise, I've never even had a friend over." Char had never loved the Davises, because they so obviously had not loved her, and she would have left their house immediately if she had anywhere else to go. She realized that she was crying because shocked by the rejection and frightened; the prospect of moving into her father's small, dirty apartment on the Junction (paid for by the admiral) was impossible.
Admiral Davis was uncomfortable. "You've come in late. You haven't done things I asked." Char's biggest act of defiance had been to attend a peaceful anti-war demonstration outside her high school the prior spring, after the Kent State killings. A vindictive dean had called the parents of several of the students who had participated. Desiree's father, a biologist, had rebuked the dean; Admiral Davis had harangued Char for hours.
"I've been afraid even to take a deep breath in your house."
The admiral had an angry, puzzled look; he dispensed cruel honesty but couldn't abide it in others. He hesitated, then said, "When we retired, we never anticipated we'd have another child on our hands. With Mrs. Davis' stroke, its more than clear we're not up to it."
"Do you think I caused her stroke? Is that what you're saying?"
The admiral hesitated again, then decided to be cruel. "There's something else. Our son admitted to us that you are not his. I always thought so, I have to say. You're not our responsibility if you're not even kin."
He might as well have hit Char. She knew in her heart that it was not true, though she had heard her father say it. He claimed not to be her father only when he was crazy drunk, and he said it to hurt, and to deny responsibility for her. Walter Davis had told her that her real father was a light-skinned black man. If he had said this to the admiral, it would explain a lot, because the admiral hated black people and used the crudest epithets when he spoke about them. She had desired often enough that she was not related to her father or to the admiral; but she knew she had only wished it because she was .
"Walter is getting his apartment ready for you to move in," her grandfather said. "On Friday I'll take you over there."
"I don't want to live with my father."
"You have no choice."
Char went to the sink and washed her face in cold water. She took a clean dish-towel, wet it and held it to her forehead, and said, "I have to go to school now. I'm going to be late." She left the admiral sitting at the big butcher-block kitchen table and went up to her small bedroom on the second floor. She stood looking at her few things: stuffed animals and a pink hairbrush on the mirror-stand; the old guitar she had bought with her savings from the after-school job in the art store. Her books, some rocks and fossils from the year in New Mexico when her mother was alive and her father well. A photograph of her mother, Lena. She knew if she looked at these things any longer she would cry again, so she took her book bag and went to the head of the stairs. On an impulse, she turned down the hall into her grandparents' bedroom. Bethesda Davis was sitting in her big soft armchair, as Char knew she would be, her legs covered by her tatty old blanket, a women's magazine opened on her lap. The old woman with the teased, dyed hair and the big youthful blue eyes looked at her silently. In her expression, shame and cowardice. Neither said anything to the other and Char turned and went out.
She only started crying again when she reached the Brooklyn College campus on her way to Midwood High School.
Char did not know dramatic Desiree very well, but she had recently noticed that Desiree sought her out: at a party, on the steps of school, in the Brooklyn College cafeteria Desiree would come to sit by her. Char had no close friends and she did not know what to make of the attention from the big, popular girl. She was reserved with her, as she was with everyone; not unkind like the admiral, but absent. Desiree was not deterred. Char finally asked her one day why Desiree looked for her, and the other answered with one of her trademark flippant statements:
"I want to be there when you say it."
"Whatever it is you've been thinking over . Char Davis' statement. I want to be able to say, 'When Char Davis Spoke, I Was There.'"
"I have nothing to say at this time." Both laughed.
Now Desiree put her arms around Char and for the first time since she was seven, Char enjoyed the luxury of crying on someone's shoulder. She told Desiree what had happened, and the other said, "We must find a phone immediately." She lifted, almost hauled, Char from the bench and led her into the student union to a pay-phone; she called her father in his lab at NYU, and when a graduate student said he was in a meeting, insisted it was an emergency. "What is it, Dizzy?" Victor Stein asked unalarmed; he knew his daughter. They had a running joke that if it was ever a real crisis, she would say "life and death" emergency.
"My best friend in the whole world, Char, is being thrown out by her awful grandparents. You know, the one I told you about, who practically started the war in Vietnam."
"Yes, that malefactor. He's gone completely psycho now and says she's not his granddaughter. Char has no place to go. I want to bring her home for a few days until she gets things sorted out."
Victor hummed for a few moments, as he often did while thinking. "Char is a very nice girl. Its fine with me. You'd best call your mom."
She did and her rather remote mother said, "Did you ask your father?"
"He said it was fine."
"He said it was fine." Lauren Stein was silent. "Well," she said, "then it must be fine." Desiree couldn't tell if her mother was being sarcastic, but she didn't much care.
She hung up. "We'll cut," she announced to Char.
"I'd better not," Char said. "I don't want...."
"What are you afraid of?" Desiree asked. "That they'll tell the admiral?" She began to laugh heartily; she boomed so loudly in the concrete quad that pigeons flew and people turned to look. Char thought that she was a splendid sight: a tall dramatic blonde girl overcome with laughter in the autumn sunlight. Then the humor of the situation appealed to her and she began to laugh too.
"We'll go get your things right away." Desiree thought a moment. "We could go get Pinky's car." Pinky was her name for her dad. "But it would be more fun to get a boy to help us. The skeeviest boy we can think of who has an automobile."
"That would be Tommy McPherson." Tommy was a nineteen year old college drop-out with a sweet, respectful disposition and the face of a murderous thug. Desiree knew where to find him: on the bench by the entrance to Jay Park. He went home and was back minutes later with his older brother's Buick LeSabre. He drove the two girls to East Twenty-third street; the Davis house was a medium size two story house in a block of similar houses, each with a small patch of front lawn and a tree emerging from the sidewalk in front. The house had white aluminum siding and an unusually luxuriant but orderly garden: the admiral's mania. "Shall we pick the flowers?" Desiree asked but Char, giggling, shook her head furiously; she could not imagine desecrating the admiral's garden, not for anything. She opened the door with her key. "Who's there?" barked the admiral, still in the kitchen. Before Char could answer, Desiree called, "Its me, Admiral Davis--Desiree Stein. I've come to get Char's things."
"Is Charlotte with you?" The admiral's turtle head poked from the kitchen. He started when he saw Tommy. "Who is the boy?"
Desiree didn't answer but mounted the stairs to Char's room, two at a time. Char followed her. It took only minutes to pack all of Char's possessions into three plastic shopping bags they took from Bethesda's stash in the hall closet. Char didn't look in on her grandmother again; the bedroom door closed firmly when they were making their second trip down the stairs. Admiral Davis and Tommy were standing staring at each other from a few feet away. The admiral was red with rage, while Tommy, who had a big, pendulous upper lip, wore what Desiree called his "fuck with me and you're fucked" expression.
Desiree lived in a bigger brick house on Twenty-ninth Street. She had a front porch and a large backyard with rosebushes; there was a swing set large enough she could still use it. She took Char into the house, ascertained her mother had gone out, then made Char a roast beef sandwich and poured her a glass of milk. Tommy wanted to stay with them but Desiree sent him away. The two girls went into the backyard and sat in the swings. Desiree walked hers sideways until she was sitting near Char; she took a wooden-handled hairbrush with her initials DES on it, and began brushing Char's hair.
Char said that Admiral Davis thought she was black.
"You could be black," Desiree said cheerfully. "If your hair was just a little wavier. You'd have a Chinese-French-Negro thing going. You're very exotic."
"I asked my aunt Betty once," Char said. "She's not really my aunt, she just grew up next door to my mom in Ohio. She lives in Michigan now, so I only met her twice, when she came to New York. She said my mom never had a black boyfriend."
Betty had said, "She wouldn't have had anything against it but she never had one, dear. I would know."
"Maybe I could live with Betty." The moment Char said it, Betty's last name fled from her memory. Rubin? Roethke?
Desiree said, "You don't have to go to Michigan. You'll live here with us."
"For a week or two like you said. Then what?" Her lip started twisting and she knew in a moment she would cry again.
"No," said Desiree, putting an arm around her, "you're going to live here for two years.--until you and I can move out and get our own place."
"Your folks won't let me stay that long," Char said, astonished.
"You just watch. The trick was getting them to agree to have you come at all. Now you're here, they'll never throw you out. I know my parents."
They went up to Desiree's room. She had a large, sunny bedroom the Steins had constructed for her in the attic. It had a beautiful skylight. Her bed was a huge four-poster with a canopy ("all that thrashing room and I've never had a boy over"). In the far corner was a convertible couch which would be Char's bed; Desiree opened it and made it up for her, then made Char lie down on it to see how comfortable it was. Enthusiastically, she emptied two dresser drawers of her own clothing onto the floor; when Char hesitated, Desiree unpacked the three bags herself. She folded Char's clothes into the drawers, put her books into the half-empty bookcase, and threw a pile of board games into the closet to make room on the window-sill for Char's photographs and fossils.
"There, now its your room too."
Desiree threw herself down on her own bed and after a moment, Char lay down on the couch.
Desiree giggled. "Hey girlfriend."
"Hey," Char said.
They talked for a while and at some point, Char fell asleep. When she woke up, realizing how safe she felt in the Stein house, it was after three o'clock. Desiree was talking on the phone; her parents had allowed her a thing unprecedented in Char's experience, her own line.
Desiree's mother called upstairs and the two girls went down to meet her. Lauren Stein was almost as tall as her daughter but only about half her volume. A very pretty woman, her fragility was offset by a certain steeliness; there was no cruelty in her, but no warmth either. She looked to Char like an actress or model, her hair and make-up perfect. The girls sat at the kitchen table while Mrs. Stein took her gloves off, checked herself in a compact mirror, and plumped her straight blonde hair. Then she turned to Char and said, "Hello Charlotte. Welcome to our house." She held out her hand: she had soft hands and a hard handshake, instantaneous and correct, without affection. Char sensed that Mrs. Stein regarded her as an intruder.
Lauren Stein was not yet forty. Her husband was twenty years older. She had been an undergraduate student of his at NYU. She had a part-time job in a Manhattan publishing house; Desiree was vague on the details.
Her features were much more delicate than her daughters: thin nose, invisible eyebrows.
Mrs. Stein began preparing dinner and Desiree, who did not seem to be expected to help, escaped upstairs with Char.
Victor Stein came home before six o'clock. Char, who had met him twice before, thought he was the most charming and sophisticated older man she had ever seen. He had a cultured German accent (she learned later he was Austrian) and silver hair. He was a very handsome, fit and energetic man, though at fifty-seven he seemed impossibly elderly; his only flaw was his overly pink complexion, which had led to Desiree's nickname for him. It was obvious to Char that Victor adored his daughter; the moment he came in he talked only to her, while Lauren, her shoulders unnaturally straight, sipped tea in a corner and became almost invisible. At first Char surmised that Victor and Lauren hated one another. But when he left the room for a moment, he stopped and kissed his wife's hand, and she gave him an unforced smile.
Char didn't know Lauren's secret until later; for weeks she watched her, trying on various solutions to the mystery. She concluded that Lauren was fond of Victor and Desiree, but lacked personality. Perhaps she was somewhat disappointed in life, though she did not seem to blame anyone, or perhaps she was just one of those people who is not very much present. Char wanted to believe that Lauren was very smart, that she was a dreamer, perhaps even a novelist working on a book. Lauren had all the gravity necessary for this role, but none of the wisdom; when she was really at ease she would make comments that seemed astonishingly banal.
Victor's family had come to the United States in 1933, when he was twenty, and he had finished his education here. His English was perfect but accented. He was a secular Jew; that alone was enough to draw Char to him, for so had her mother been. Lena Davis had had some of the same air as Victor Stein of exquisite culture leavened by warmth. Lauren Stein, nee Howard, was a Protestant from Philadelphia. Her family had not cut her off but they had been very angry when she married a Jewish man, and a much older one at that. She went home for a visit several times a year, but Victor never accompanied her. Lauren's mother, divorced from her bigoted father and remarried, had relented. "I never had anything against him," she claimed to Lauren; "please tell him to come." She and Victor were the same age. Victor was rigid and proud, and would not relent.
Victor Stein played the violin. After dinner, he went upstairs to practice; Lauren went to their bedroom to make phone calls, and the girls were left alone again. Char helped Desiree clear the table and stack the sink. She was ready to do dishes---ready to do much more, to please and be allowed to stay---but Desiree said, "Mrs. Bailey will get them in the morning."
Char slept in a nightgown, Desiree in a t-shirt and panties. She sat on the bed, arms folded across her knees, talking to Char on the couch. Char noticed that Desiree did not shave her legs; they were covered in fine, curly blonde hair. "Why don't you shave?" Char asked her. "Why should I?" Desiree said. She looked for something in a drawer, and approached Char's bed to show it to her. It was a picture of Desiree in baggy pants, with a painted mustache and goatee, brandishing a wooden sword. "I was D'Artagnan in a play at camp." Desiree was a fine musketeer, laughing in bold defiance. She left Char holding the photo; when Desiree turned the light out and lay down to sleep, Char slipped the photo into her book, feeling ashamed. But Desiree never asked for it back.
The next day, the girls returned to school. In history class, Char realized she felt hopeful. She still did not believe she would be permitted to stay with the Steins more than two or three weeks, but she resolved to look no further forward than that. It also helped her to resolve that she would not live with her father no matter what. She thought she had remembered Aunt Betty's name: Rutger. Whatever happened now, she would have had a lovely interlude with a real family---almost a vacation, even if she was still in Brooklyn. She looked forward to seeing Desiree in the cafeteria at lunch.
Every night, Desiree and Char talked for an hour after lights out, until one of them, usually Char, dozed off in mid-sentence. One night, Desiree said that she thought she was ugly. "But the boys' eyes are always on you," Char said. "I notice it every day."
"I have a really sexy body, so they watch me. But I have an ugly face, a man face," Desiree said. "I was at a party at Coop's one time, and I was very stoned, and I scooched down behind an arm chair and nobody could see me. You're thinking Desiree is too big to hide, right? Some boys came in, and they were talking about me, how hot I was. And one said, 'If you see her from behind, you think when she turns around you're going to see the most beautiful girl in school. But when she does , her face detracts from the overall picture.' That was a refined boy---an in-tell-ect-ual. And another cruder boy said, 'Do what I do---just put a bag over her head when you fuck her.' And they laughed."
"I think you're beautiful," Char said, then, embarrassed: "Have you been with many boys?"
"Seven---no, eight," Desiree said. "You?"
"Char's constipated." Desiree laughed. "Do you think I'm bad? Is eight a lot?"
"Eight seems like quite a few."
Desiree explained that she had never dated one boy for more than a month or two. "They act like they own you." Half of her encounters had been one night stands. " I do what I want. If a boy can treat a girl like a thing, why can't a girl do the same to him? I like them brainless and beautiful, same as the boys like us."
Char's own experience could not have been more different. Living in the Davis house, where she always felt she had to occupy the smallest space possible, she had known since puberty that sex, or even interest in boys, was one of the many capital offenses which might someday dislodge her. Admiral Davis had always made it clear that she was there on sufferance. Her two relationships had been very brief and circumspect; she had always thought that one of the reasons she had failed to sustain either one was her own paranoia. She had never allowed her boyfriends to accompany her home, let alone come over to meet the Davises; they could not even call her on the telephone.
Both young men had been disappointments. One, who seemed smart and gentle, turned out to be a jealous hysteric. She had broken off with him when the danger became too great that he would erupt into her home life in some way. The other one had not really been very interested in her and had taken up with someone else after a few weeks.
Desiree had gone to the Planned Parenthood office near Coney Island and was on the pill. Char, for whom sex was an unexpected and complicated event, had relied on the two boys to provide protection. When she told Desiree this, Desiree said that there was no better way to end up with a baby. The following Saturday, Desiree arranged for Tommy McPherson to drive them to Planned Parenthood. On the way, Desiree remembered a cosmetic item she needed and asked Tommy to stop by a pharmacy. While she was inside, he said to Char in his very gentle, tentative way: "Do you think Desiree likes me? She's always asking me to help her."
"Oh, gosh, Tommy, I think you better ask her."
"I would but I'm scared to."
Char wore no make-up; it was the fashion for teenage girls to look natural. Desiree wore lipstick and a touch of blush. She began harassing Char to try cosmetics. One night, Char allowed Desiree to make her face up for her. Desiree worked smiling, then said "There." She led Char to the bathroom mirror. Char saw a beautiful girl looking back at her. The image in the mirror was so far from her idea of herself that she gasped. Desiree laughed.
One night, Admiral Davis called and spoke to Victor Stein for awhile. Victor always shouted on the telephone, as if he did not trust it to carry his voice. He was in the kitchen and Char could hear him from the backyard. She only realized he was talking to the admiral when he said, "Your granddaughter is fine, sir." He came out and asked Char if she would come to the phone. She didn't want to but Victor gently insisted. She took the phone and said "Yes?" Her grandfather sounded gruff and awkward---years later she realized it was the voice of a man who had become belatedly aware he was in a false position, but did not know how to get out of it. He did not ask her to come back home, but stumbled and hesitated. "Are you all right?"
"Are they treating you well?"
"Walter is asking after you. Will you call him?"
"Why should I call my father? All he's ever done for me is get me thrown out of your house."
He was silent, then: "Its hard on him. He had a room made up for you."
"Why should I live with him if he says he's not my father?"
She knew she had hurt him. "Well, Charlotte. He raised you...."
"He never raised me."
"He's been very upset....."
"What right does he have?" Desiree and Victor were hovering in the kitchen. Victor looked as if he were very sorry he had given her the phone. Char had her back to them, cradling the handset as if playing keep-away in the school yard. She had seen that Desiree was looking for an opening to grab the phone from her.
"What right does he have? Unless of course he's my father."
The admiral sighed. "It's all very murky."
"Because then you would be my grandfather, wouldn't you?" She clicked the phone precisely into its cradle. "If he calls again," she told Victor, "please say I'm not here."
Two weeks had gone by and there was still no talk of Char leaving, at least not in front of her.
There was a world of teenagers who could have people over to their houses. Some had attic or basement rooms to which their parents never came. Others had obliging parents who vanished for the evening when their children had visitors. Char would have been very happy to stay in; she had never before had a home without an oppressive atmosphere. Desiree wanted to go out every night. Char felt obliged to go with her.
Desiree had another hanger-on besides Tommy McPherson: a boy named Cooper who was short, quiet, obliging and loved to be seen with Desiree, even after people started calling him "Jeeves".
One night, in the recreation room in Cooper's basement, Desiree acquired a nickname. She was very drunk; she had had almost an entire bottle of Boone's Farm Apple Wine by herself. David Solomon, whom people called "Shipwreck" or "Ship", was there, along with beautiful Brian Hanrahan and several of the Apple Bonker gang. Char was mildly drunk; her emotional economy never permitted her to get out of control, and she had easily fallen into the role of Desiree's guardian, ready to prevent wild excesses by her friend. She sensed that the Steins, Victor at least, knew that she played this role, and had come to count on her.
Desiree had a tendency to monologue when high; she stood in the middle of the room telling her captive audience about her hopes and dreams.
"I want to be famous. I want to be either a movie actress or a famous novelist. Maybe I could be both. I feel like I have this power---don't you think so? And I want to be rich---this rich, famous actress or novelist who could help people with the money I had. I want...."
"I want, I want, I want....." said a boy named Allen in a high unnatural voice. "What don't you want, Desiree?"
"'I want the world and I want it now,'" sang Brian Hanrahan. He roared: "'NOW.....'"
"What don't you want, Desiree?"
"Don't be a jerk, Allen. Its not like you don't want anything." Allen had tried to start a nickname for himself: Captain Trips. It was so grandiose and wildly inappropriate for a well-behaved, middle class seventeen year old that everyone refused to call him that.
"I just want to be left alone." Char alone knew that Allen was imitating his friend Ship, who had used the line before. Char felt the same way as Ship.
"Okay, Captain Trips," Desiree said sarcastically.
Shipwreck asked her, "Have you ever considered dropping an 'e' from your name?"
"Desire," Brian Hanrahan said, laughing.
"A streetcar named Desire," Allen added. From that moment forward, Desiree's nickname at Midwood High School was Streetcar, soon elided to Street. Desiree was angry at first, then accepting; not everyone had a nickname; it was generally a sign you were popular. And it wasn't a bad nickname; it implied she could run you over. Though there were, of course, always sexual innuendos: "comes every ten minutes" and such.
Soon after, Char somehow picked up a nickname of her own: "Shard", elided from Char D. And she had a new friend: Ship. The slender, dark-haired Jewish boy with an intense look seemed to spend time with her at every party and at the hang-out place near Brooklyn College. Char realized that she and Ship had a lot in common: intelligence, a sense of humor, a cautious world-view. Desiree soon adopted Ship as the best of their hanger-ons (though it was a drawback that he couldn't drive.) He was the only one who was really there for Char, not Desiree---a fact Desiree either did not know or chose to ignore, as events later demonstrated.
Within a few weeks, Streetcar, Shard and Ship were a known trio; everyone always expected to see them together, with Desiree leading them, Char watching carefully to make sure Desiree didn't get in trouble, and David generally being handy and helping them accomplish whatever it was Desiree wanted.
Ship was easy-going, friendly, free and open with Char; he told her things he would say to no-one else. But there was never the least hint he was romantically or sexually interested in her; she concluded he could not be (a very natural conclusion for her to reach, as she believed that she was desperately plain.) Desiree knew that Ship had lost his virginity the year before, with a girl named Trelia Sparrow, whose older brother Eugene was a plainclothes cop feared by everyone. As far as anyone knew, that one night stand had been Ship's only sexual encounter. Ship's friend Allen, who was probably jealous and trying to deflect Char away, told her confidentially that Ship was in love with a girl named Virginia who lived outside Philadelphia, and whom he only saw in the summertime, on Cape Cod. "And he's not even sleeping with her," Allen said.
On Saturday mornings at the Steins', Char slept until almost noon. At the Davises' she had always been awake by six, her stomach in a knot, rehearsing the known tempers of the admiral and how she would manage him that day.
When she came downstairs one Saturday in November, everyone was already up and dressed. Victor, who would be heading out to the lab in a few minutes, was in a good humor as always. Desiree was lecturing her parents about politics. Lauren sat apart, her hands cupping her coffee mug, her eyes reflective. Char, after receiving Desiree's and Victor's warm greeting, withdrew to the far side of the room from Lauren and stood by the bay window that looked out onto the quiet street. She watched the "Desiree and Victor" show for a while---they were arguing affectionately about whether President Nixon was more evil than inept---and then turned to Lauren, who appeared to be completely in a dream and did not see Char watching her.
"Lauren doesn't like me," Char thought. "She loves her daughter and her husband and tolerates me. She is the key to this situation. If I have to leave here, it will be because of her." And she felt sad, as if it was already over.
Lauren wasn't mean or selfish; she was very limited, and didn't particularly have room for Char. "Some people love everybody, like Desiree and Victor. Lauren only has room for two people in her heart." Char made the comparison to herself: "How many people do I have room for? One or none," she thought. "Do I adore Desiree? Or do I live in their house like a well-behaved cat, returning courtesy for love?"
Char had done dishes, shopped for groceries, and helped prepare dinner: everything she could think of to win Lauren over so she would not have to leave. She had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, she was trying to live up to her own standards of correct behavior in someone else's house ("learned from the admiral," she thought with sudden revulsion). On the other, she felt wildly hypocritical when wooing Lauren.
Lauren was not intuitive; she never seemed suspicious of Char; she just was not available to her most of the time. Once in a while, something Char did won a quick smile from Lauren. At those moments, Char was prepared to like her very much.
Char realized that Victor had become very attached to her. There was nothing wrong about his attention; she never had the sense of inappropriateness and danger she had had with a certain schoolteacher and with one friend of the admiral's. He simply opened up the cast of the Desiree and Victor show to include her. Within weeks, she and Victor had their own allusions and jokes. Char had read more than Desiree or Lauren; Victor loved having someone around who could talk with him about books. Char, who had at first regarded it as part of courtesy to be very quiet, had to be drawn out by Victor to discuss books he saw her reading; but when she ventured to say that one novel was nonsense, while another very intelligent writer was derailed by self-pity, she spotted Victor's growing appreciation of her. Desiree's prediction about her parents had been at least partly right: Victor did not regard her as a burden. She could stay forever as far as he was concerned.
At Desiree's request, Victor began to give Char an allowance equal to his daughter's. At first Char didn't want to take the money, so Desiree and Victor worked out a solution: he doubled Desiree's allowance and she then gave the money to Char. Char assumed Lauren knew.
One day she declined to go to Prospect Park with Desiree and Ship, in order to help Lauren with some errands. As soon as reproachful Desiree had left, Char was astonished to discover that she felt very anxious that her friend would be alone with Ship all day. Jealousy was a luxury; she had never felt it before that she could remember. There was no time to dwell on it now. She made a mental note to herself to think later, after lights out, when Desiree was asleep, about the implications of her feelings, both where Desiree and Shipwreck were concerned.
She accompanied Lauren to Lord and Taylor in Manhattan. Lauren did not seem to have many friends, and would otherwise have gone alone. She alternated between appearing to be glad of the company, and displaying an awkward uncertainty about coming out of herself when she was so used to solitude and silence. Char had launched herself into something she had not thought through: why was Lauren so inured to shopping alone, when she had a daughter? Desiree apparently refused to go anywhere with her, but why? An instant later, Char felt the hollow dull feeling in her stomach which she knew to be terror: was Desiree, at that very moment, also feeling jealous of Char? It had never occurred to Char that Desiree might have feelings about Char spending time with her mother. She got control with some difficulty---her first impulse was to run for the bathroom.
Lauren tried on elegant black sleeveless evening dresses while Char exclaimed, sincerely, how gorgeous she was. Somewhat later, Char was at a counter examining barrettes, the only thing she could afford in the store. She picked one out and was rummaging in her bag for her wallet when Lauren said, "Where do you get money, Char? Have you seen your grandfather?"
"Victor gives me an allowance," Char said, frightened.
"My husband gives you an allowance," Lauren said, as if floored by the information. Then, with a resolution Char had never seen her display before, she said, "I'm selfish."
"No you're not, you're wonderful to let me stay in your house."
"I've been terrible. I've made you watch me trying on dresses in a store, and I didn't offer to buy you anything. I hated it when my stepmother did that to me."
"But you're not...." Char didn't know how to finish. Lauren took her by the arm---her white glove rested easily on Char's forearm---and took her back to the dress department. She wanted to buy Char an evening dress; Char consented to try one on, and was astonished before the mirror, as she had been when Desiree put make-up on her. Lauren took off the band holding Char's pony-tail, and spread Char's hair across her shoulders, smoothing it out with her fingers. "See, you look beautiful and sophisticated." Char saw that she looked great in black. But she could not consider buying the dress. Desiree would never wear anything like it, and might be very angry that Char had accepted it as a gift. Aside from such considerations, Char could not imagine when in her own limited life she would wear such an amazing garment. She thanked Lauren and kissed her; the older woman's cheek seemed to tremble, draw away from hers, and then come back. Instead, they settled on an inexpensive long print dress she could wear to school in the cold weather. Char's entire wardrobe consisted of two like it, and four pairs of jeans; she spent a lot of time in the Stein's basement, doing her wash.
Lauren took her to eat little shrimp salad sandwiches in the beautiful, spacious restaurant with hanging plants on the store's top floor. She took off her white gloves to eat. As Lauren talked about her girlhood and shopping at Strawbridge and Clothier back home, Char realized that Lord and Taylor was the closest Lauren could come to Philadelphia in New York.
"When my dad used to come up here, he wanted to see me alone, without Victor, at the Union League club, where he stayed. I always refused, because it wouldn't admit Victor as a member. But when I went to Philadelphia to see them, I would go to the club there, because anything I did in Philadelphia was my own, while anything I do here concerns Victor. Strange, isn't it?"
Lauren began speaking about Desiree: she wished her daughter would shave her legs, pluck and dye her eyebrows, and consider a nose job. Char realized that Lauren hoped she would use her influence over Desiree to persuade her to do these things.
After lunch, when they were sipping their coffee, Lauren asked with some hesitation, "Char, what are your plans?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you've been with us five weeks now, and Desiree originally said you would be staying for two."
Char's mind raced through the following analysis: "She just had a good day with me. She's not being mean or looking to throw me out. She likes me after all---or she could like me, because it takes her time to come to anyone. It simply has never occurred to her that I might stay forever."
Char spoke confusedly of Aunt Betty and Lauren said, "Michigan is very cold, isn't it?" Char felt hopeful for an instant that Lauren was working her way around to inviting her to stay; but the immediate follow-up disillusioned her: "At any rate, you mustn't go until the end of the term, so you don't break up school. Christmas would be a good time for you to make the transition." Lauren seemed satisfied that the subject had been resolved. "So, do you like your new dress?"
That night, after Desiree had put on her nightgown (she had bought one the week before, just like Char's), she lay down on her bed and said to Char across the room: "Its too hard to talk across the room.....come lie here with me."
Char came and lay facing her friend in the large bed. She said, "I want to talk to you about some things which happened today." "Speak," Desiree replied.
Char gave her a detailed description of her conversation with Lauren. Desiree thought Char's concern was solely with Lauren's comments about Michigan. She said, "She just doesn't know yet you're staying here. I've got Pinky where I want him, so I just need to work on Mom now."
Char knew Desiree believed this, but she might be deluding herself, and Char didn't want to fall into that familiar trap---it would be like hoping that Admiral Davis would love her, or that her father would join AA and go straight. "Why do you think your dad would let me live here?"
"Pinky adores you."
Char considered this. "There's a big difference between liking someone and wanting them to live with you forever."
"I didn't say Pinky liked you. I said he adores you."
"Why would he?"
"Because you're so smart."
Which was a natural bridge to her other topic. "Des, I spent the day shopping with your mom. Now you tell me your dad adores me. Don't you have any feelings about that?"
"Jealousy, you mean? No, I don't."
"But how can you not? If I was getting even one scrap from Admiral Davis and I thought someone else was about to take it from me, I'd be crazed."
Desiree thought about this. Char understood: Desiree had always had everything and had nothing to fear. She was trying to assimilate herself to Char's world-view, to imagine what it would be like to live on crumbs.
Desiree finally said, "I couldn't ever feel jealous of you, because in order to feel that way, I would have to believe that you would hurt me. And I know you never would."
"Jealousy isn't rational. Jealousy is a dumb animal feeling you have in your gut."
"I don't feel jealous. I mainly feel glad you'll shop with my mom, 'cause I won't, and I'm very glad Pinky adores you, 'cause it will make it much easier to arrange for you to live here. You know," she said, stretching and yawning, "Pinky always says I'm a happy monster. Actually, Pinky is a happy monster, and I'm a happier one."
Char woke in the morning and realized she had fallen asleep in Desiree's bed instead of her own. Frequently after that the two friends slept together.
The weather, though cold, was temperate enough to permit hundreds of teenagers to continue congregating on the street alongside Brooklyn College every night. That Friday, Char contemplated Desiree in action. She felt that she herself might as well have been raised by wolves, for all she knew about social interaction and especially courtship. She saw Desiree and other girls communicate to a young man that they liked him by squeezing or caressing his hand. A handshake that ended in a little caress seemed like a sedate, safe way to signal her feelings to Ship.
He was not beautiful like Brian Hanrahan, but Char liked his pale skin, black shoulder-length hair and intense hazel eyes. Most important of all, he was very smart, and respectful of her. She spent an hour talking to him about Joyce; both had recently read Dubliners. When he left, she spontaneously reached out her hand, and he took it with a firm handshake like he would have given another boy. At that moment, Char's courage ran out and she could not form the caress she had intended.
School was going very well. She had not realized how much it would help to have a supportive home life. Pinky made himself available to help with mathematics. When she quickly understood something, Char saw he was proud of her. She constantly said to herself, "Pinky adores me," then looked at him covertly to see if it was true. She almost never cut school any more, and that meant that Desiree cut less, because she couldn't persuade Char to join her. Lauren commented that she thought Char was a very good influence on her daughter, and Char again hoped that meant she could stay.
Desiree always flirted with boys, but hadn't slept with one since Char came to stay. "I'm sure she would have had several boyfriends by now," Char thought. But if Char was getting in the way of her social life, Desiree didn't seem to care.
One night, as they lay in Desiree's bed, Char told her that she thought she was falling in love with Ship. She was surprised by the intensity of her friend's reaction.
"Oh, Char, he's nothing, but nothing. He's not good-looking, he's not sexy, he does nothing but talk, talk, talk. If you're interested in boys, I could have fixed you up with some who have much more going for them. Anyway, you're seventeen: this is the time to play, not fall in love with anyone. Exploit them and drop them, that's my motto."
Char had always been able to think of more good reasons not to be involved with people than to chance it. Desiree's opposition entered into the balance along with Char's uncertainty that Ship liked her "in that way." In addition, though Victor and Lauren seemed very easy-going, it might be risky to have a boyfriend until things were more settled. Nevertheless, when she closed her eyes late at night, she thought about Ship.
She saw her father one day on the Junction, walking unsteadily down the street. He was unshaven and dirty, and looked as if he had been on a three day tear, and she did not speak to him.
Desiree and Char had their first argument. Desiree, acting uncharacteristically nervous, took Char into Troedmann's, a large clothing store on the Junction, and stuffed a blue work-shirt into her floppy bag. The girls ran out of the store, catching the attention of a middle-aged security guard with a sour face and huge bushy black eyebrows, who followed them out and looked after them suspiciously.
Char was breathless with rage. "How could you, how could you," she kept saying. She believed that Desiree should simply understand how dangerous such behavior was for Char. Desiree obviously did not, and the words caught in Char's throat trying to explain it to her.
Desiree was at once apologetic and defiant. "Its a big store. They charge high prices, and the people are nasty. I wouldn't rip off a little store."
"You had no right."
"Everyone says its all right. I've even heard your beloved Shipwreck say its okay to steal from a big chain store."
"Desiree, if you got caught...."
"I know exactly what happens. They scream at you and humiliate you, and the guard makes you sign a piece of paper saying you stole something. If they catch you a second time, they call the cops. It happened to Susan Sparrow, only her brother hushed it up."
"You're not listening. What happens to you is that Victor and Lauren weep and yell and wonder where they went wrong. What happens to me...."
Desiree stopped stock still under a street lamp in the early dusk, her eyebrows arched and forehead furrowed. "You mean you get thrown out."
"Horseshit. Pinky and mom would never throw you out. They'd know it was my fault."
"Are you absolutely sure of that?"
"Not absolutely sure, no," Desiree admitted.
Later, when they were both calmer, Char made another attempt to explain. "You live in the middle of a beautiful garden. If you jump up and down, nothing happens, except maybe you leave footprints in the grass. I live on a window ledge forty stories up. If I jump, I'm done for."
"Is that how you feel?"
"All the time."
"I thought you were happy in our house."
"I'm very happy here. Its the best life I've ever had, Desi. The window-ledge feeling was much worse at the admiral's. But I still feel I have to be very careful."
Desiree put her arms around her friend and Char rested her head on Desiree's shoulder. "You have a wild, sweet smell," she told Desiree, "like sagebrush. I remember it from the year we lived in New Mexico."
Later, Desiree threw the shirt she had stolen in the garbage. "Why aren't you keeping it?" Char asked. "I feel like shit," Desiree said. "I thought I would feel good about taking it, but I don't."
A few nights later, hanging out on the street near Brooklyn College, Char was talking to Allen. Desiree and Ship had gone to a liquor store at the Junction. Eugene Sparrow drove by slowly in his beat-up Bug; he liked to drift by, threatening the hippies and keeping them in line.
"Come here," he called to Char. "I want to talk to you." Allen, a coward, slipped away while Char hesitated. She walked over and stood by the passenger side window.
"What happened to your coat?" Sparrow asked. Char smoothed down the front of her worn old cloth coat but couldn't see anything wrong. "No, the back," he said.
She caught the skirts and pulled them around to see that it had been cut or torn open in back. Later that night, looking at it more closely, she decided that someone with a razor, sitting behind her on the college steps, had made a long slit without her realizing it.
"I don't know how that happened."
"Get in for a moment," Sparrow said. Char only looked at him, nervously. The big policeman had sandy hair and cold blue eyes; these wrinkled up now in a smile. "I won't hurt you."
Sparrow was feared and hated by everyone, but looking at him up close, Char wasn't frightened. She climbed into his car.
"You seem like a good girl," Sparrow said. "What's your story? Let's see: I know your dad, Walter Davis. I arrested him once, and I've driven him home a couple of times when he had a drop too much. You lived five years with the admiral. I know your grandfather because my dad served with him in WWII. Now you're at the Steins."
"Are you watching me or what?" Char asked, starting to feel frightened again.
"Not at all. I'm a neighborhood cop. I live right here. Midwood High is in my beat. I know everybody."
He lit a Marlboro and blew the smoke away from her, out the window. "May I have one?" she asked.
"No shot." He continued smoking and looking at her with a slight smile, until Char was emboldened to ask, "Did you have something else you wanted to say to me?"
"Yeah. Why are you at the Steins? My dad always thought your grandfather was God. Why aren't you still with him?"
"Yeah, well, the famous Admiral Davis threw me out."
"Why? What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything. My psychotic father told the admiral I wasn't his."
"Walter told me the same thing when I drove him home once. I don't buy it. You resemble both him and the admiral." He flicked the butt out the window. "Well, well. The famous Admiral God is a jerk. Just like my dear old dad."
"You believe me," Char said, amazed.
"Why? People say you always think we're guilty until proven innocent. That we're all trash to you."
"I believe you because I know who's telling the truth and who's not," Sparrow said. "What I wanted to tell you is this. You're a nice girl, and you're in with a bad crowd. You should get out of the Stein house and find yourself some new friends."
"What are you talking about? Desiree is my friend, and the Steins are lovely people. You sound like you think they're some kind of gangsters."
"The Steins are all right, but Desiree will get you in trouble."
"Desiree's exuberant, but she's got a big heart. She's the best person I know."
"Desiree is headed for drugs and maybe even prostitution." Char remembered that Sparrow's sister Susan had been a prostitute and had died of an overdose of heroin. "Just because it happened to your sister doesn't mean it would happen to my friend," she thought. But she said, "I know you're wrong. Desiree is good."
"Desiree is going to sail over the line one day soon and she won't even see it," Sparrow said. "I'll tell you what will happen. You'll all go to a party at someone's house one Saturday night and instead of the usual pot or speed, someone, maybe Brian Hanrahan or Tommy McPherson, will invite you to snort some smack. You'll shy away, and Desiree will do it, and it will start there."
"You're wrong," Char said, but in her heart she was not sure. One day in the Brooklyn College cafeteria, they had seen some of the Apple Bonkers snorting heroin at another table, and Desiree had said, "I wonder what that would be like."
"Okay, that's it," Sparrow said, as if he were tired or bored. "No, there's one more thing. If you ever find yourself in a box...."
"If you're ever in a situation you don't know how to get out of, you could call me up. Over at the precinct, or even at home. I'm in the book. Now get out of the car."
Desiree came home stoned one evening; she had been smoking pot with Ship, Allen and Coop. Char had returned earlier to do homework. Desiree was in a wild, good mood. She went downstairs and returned with a ballroom music album from her parents' collection. "I had lessons, you know. Pinky is an excellent dancer. We waltzed last year at the faculty Christmas party." She put the record on her stereo and dropped the needle onto the third track; it emitted a loud screech. "Oops....one two three, one two three, one two three," she said in time to the music. She put her right arm around Char's shoulders, took Char's hand in her left, and said, "Watch my feet and follow.....one, two, three, one, two, three." Char, who had never danced, did her best, enjoying it but dissatisfied with her own lack of ability. "Wait, don't move," and Desiree ran back to the stereo to put the needle back to the beginning of the track. "Follow....that's better.....you've got it now." She insisted on replaying the waltz four more times; Char was enjoying the sweeping movements in the large room. She looked up and could see a star twinkling through the skylight. "I'm going to dip you now," Desiree said, and did; when she brought Char back up, she kissed her. Char stood immobilized for a moment, then felt a happy, excited warmth as Desiree's smooth lips moved on hers. Char returned the kiss; Desiree moved to her ear and then her neck, holding her tightly in a warm hug, stooping a little to her short friend, her breasts pressed against Char's. After a moment, Char extricated herself and went to sit on the couch, her arms around her knees. "Whew," she said. "Well."
"Are you angry at me?" Desiree asked. With an awkward movement, she tumbled to the floor and sat at Char's feet, not touching her.
"No, not at all."
"Did you like that?"
"I liked it very much."
"Then why are you upset?"
"If your folks...."
"Oh, the window ledge? Pinky and Lauren are dense. We could live here together in my room and even share my bed for twenty years and they'd never figure anything out."
Desiree took her hand and Char pressed hers, then immediately let it go. "I'm so far off balance already, Desi....."
"I won't push you," Desiree whispered. "I didn't plan that."
The next afternoon after school, Desiree, who seemed very restless, wanted to go over to Coop's house but Char didn't feel very well. The girls split up and Char let herself into the empty house and went upstairs to bed.
She woke at six to the sound of the Steins arguing in their bedroom on the floor below. She went halfway down the stairs and could hear them fighting about her. They were not screaming, but their voices were loud and distinct and they sounded highly exasperated with one another.
"It doesn't work that way," Lauren said. "She's a lovely girl, but she can't simply grow up in our house like a weed. You're so thick-headed, you haven't even noticed that the girl owns only two dresses and four pairs of jeans. That's everything she has in the world. She deserves to live with someone who will take care of her. Suppose she needed braces or a root canal or God forbid, had a medical emergency? And who's going to send her to college?"
"Charlotte has no place else to go," Victor said. "I've talked to the admiral myself. Her father is an alcoholic. Where would you have her go?"
"I'd be thrilled to have her stay, if we had the means. You don't make enough to raise two seventeen year old daughters. Would you pay for her wedding too? You enjoy having her in the house, but you haven't given one seconds' thought to the financial responsibility. She's spoken of an aunt in Michigan."
"I asked her about this. Its not an aunt at all, but a childhood friend of her mother's. There's no evidence that the woman could or would have Charlotte."
"Let's call her up and find out. Michigan is not so far away. We could bring her back or send Dizzy to her once or twice a year. I wouldn't mind that. I like Char. But you're being foolish to think we could keep her here."
Lauren came out of the bedroom and saw Char standing halfway up the staircase. Her expression was one of shame and panic, then she composed herself and said, "Oh dear. You heard us arguing, I suppose."
"I heard voices," Char said quickly, "but I couldn't make out the words."
"Its nothing, just a little pre-party tension," Lauren said relieved. She was wearing the black dress she had purchased at Lord and Taylor's. "The faculty dinner dance is tonight and it seems we always fight." Victor came out of the bedroom wearing a tuxedo; he was fixing a cufflink. For the rest of her life, Char never met another man who looked so elegant in evening wear.
On Saturday, Desiree and Victor took Char to Abraham and Straus and bought her a new winter coat. It was a warm, bulky, down garment with a hood, and it cost one hundred and fifty dollars. It was the most expensive piece of clothing she had ever owned.
Char played her guitar a half hour or so every day. She knew she wasn't very good but it made her happy, and Desiree liked to listen. Sometimes Char would sing; she had a sweet contralto voice and could handle songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Both Sides Now." Desiree had not inherited Victor's musical talent; she couldn't carry a tune and her already loud voice scratched or broke when she tried to raise it in song. The best she could do was a nasal Bob Dylan imitation. Char obligingly played chords while Desiree chanted, "They'll stone you when you're walking down the street. They'll stone you when you've got someone to meet. But I would not feel so all alone...Ivrybody must get stoned."
Mr. Dooley at the art store had promised Char she could work there during the Christmas rush. She planned to offer the money she made to the Steins. If they refused, as she expected, it would pay for a couple of guitar lessons.
Char hadn't told Desiree about the argument she overheard. In early December, there was another weekday afternoon when she was home and Desiree was out. She lay on her bed thinking intently for an hour, until she gave herself a migraine headache. When she sat up, she was resigned to the fact that this idyllic time would end right after Christmas. She went to the phone and called information for Ann Arbor, Michigan, obtained Betty Rutger's phone number and dialed her.
To her surprise, Betty answered. It sounded as if she had been sleeping.
"Aunt Betty? This is Char Davis."
"Char honey, is everything all right? What time is it?" They had not spoken in four years.
"Its five o'clock, Aunt Betty."
"I was sleeping, darling. I work the night shift at University Hospital. I'm a nurse now, dear, did you know that?"
"No, I didn't. Aunt Betty, I have a problem. Admiral Davis threw me out. My dad told him I wasn't his."
"That old story? What a pair of scoundrels. The worst thing Lena ever did was marrying your father---except then I suppose you wouldn't have existed, dear. Where are you living?"
"I'm staying with the family of a friend of mine. I've been here two months, but I have to leave soon. I couldn't think of anyone else to call but you." Char started to cry. She felt desperately ashamed of herself, afraid Betty would think it a manipulation, but she couldn't stop.
"Honey," Betty said. She sounded miserable; her voice twisted around and made a gulpy noise. "I wish I could ask you to come stay with me. I'd like nothing better. But, darling, I'm not married any more, I live in a very small place and I'm on the night shift. I don't see how that could work, do you?"
"Thanks anyway, Aunt Betty...."
"No, darling, don't hang up. Let's think. Maybe we could get you back in Admiral Davis' house? I'll call him myself, I'm not afraid of him."
"I don't want to go back there."
"Char, give me your number, darling. Let me think this over."
Betty called back thirty minutes later. Char had gotten control of herself; Betty was crying. "Char, honey, your mom was my best friend in the entire world. She would have walked through a fire for me, I know she would. And now she's gone, and her daughter calls me up, and how could I say no? I'm so ashamed, darling. Here's what we'll do. I'll make them put me back on the day shift. And I'll get rid of the couch and we'll get a convertible one instead. We'll make it work out, darling. How old are you now? Maybe you could get a job after school. That would help."
"Oh, Betty, thanks, I'll be happy to get a job or do anything.....Thank you," Char said in a rush.
"When can you come?"
"I think after New Year's, if that's all right...."
"Yes, darling, it makes perfect sense, so you don't miss classes. Which reminds me, I'll call the school district tomorrow. Can we just do this, dear, or do we have to make some arrangements? Do I have to adopt you or something?"
"I have no idea, Aunt Betty. The Steins didn't, I just lived with them. Admiral Davis knows I'm here."
"Well, I suppose we should call him, so you don't just disappear from Brooklyn. Shall I send you an airline ticket?"
"I think the Steins would pay my airfare."
"That would help. I think I should talk to them, too, don't you?"
"Let me talk to them first, Aunt Betty. Then I'll have them call you."
She still got into Desiree's bed at night to talk; the other girl had been true to her word and had never mentioned the kiss or attempted another one. But it hung in the air between them. They talked about anything else and looked at each other speculatively. Before it, Char had never been aware of a sexual thought about Desiree or any other woman; now there was a sweet latency in the presence of the big girl who smelled like sagebrush. The fact that Char now knew she was leaving made her less hesitant. When she closed her eyes at night she sometimes imagined Desiree instead of Ship, but there did not seem to be any hurry to act. She lovingly worked out some of the details of what it would be like; there was much that was unclear to her. She decided that she would make love to Desiree the night before leaving for Michigan.
Char thought that she had a stronger and very different feeling of excitement about boys. However, she had never known one as kind and good and who loved her in the way Desiree did, and she felt safer with her friend than she ever had with any boy.
In normal times, exploring her desire for her friend would have been like jumping up and down on her window ledge. But she would be leaving for Michigan, was beholden to no-one to restrain herself, and she felt she could permit herself Desiree as a gift. Desiree wanted her and no-one would be hurt by it. In Michigan she could start over on a new window ledge and make fresh decisions.
Coop's parents went to Atlantic City for the weekend and he invited a few friends over: Desiree, Char, Shipwreck, Allen, and Brian. In the basement rec room, they smoked kif in a water-pipe and drank Yago Sangria. Gimme Shelter was on the stereo: "If I don't get some shelter, I'm gonna fade away.....Rape, murder, is just a shot away." Desiree was busy with Brian, by far the most beautiful boy in the room; she stood as close to him as possible and rested her breasts on his arm.
Char was upset, because Brian dated their friend Lina Griglia, a happy girl who was always smiling. She whispered to Desiree, who replied, "Nobody belongs to anybody." Char wondered if she was jealous of Desiree, but immediately clamped down on that thought: she had no right to be. Desiree was dancing with Brian now, her arms around his neck. Char went over and said in her ear, "Desi, I have to talk to you," but Desiree gave her a nasty look and kept on dancing. Brian guided her into the next room, where there was a couch, and shut the door. Char sat scandalized and immobile for a few minutes. When she noticed that Ship and the other boys were looking at her, she got up and left.
Desiree came in a little over an hour later, very unsteady. She wouldn't look Char in the eye.
"You balled him, didn't you," Char said.
"Yes," Desiree said almost inaudibly.
"How could you? Lina is your friend."
"I didn't really mean to. I wanted to tease him a little. I kept my panties on. I told him I had my period."
"What happened? Did he rape you?"
"No, I went along with it. I think I sort of wanted him and sort of didn't. I wouldn't let him inside me and he said he wanted to come on my ass. So I took my panties off and he came inside me anyway." She added, "He was singing, 'We all need someone we can bleed on. And if you want to, you can bleed on me.'"
"Are you all right?"
"I feel like shit."
Char could not stop herself from saying, "So much for exploit them and drop them."
Desiree said, "It should work that way. I don't understand why it doesn't. I keep doing happy monster stuff and it doesn't work out."
She and Desiree now frequently separated in the afternoons. One day in mid-December, Lauren came home from her job and Char helped her with dinner. Lauren said, "Sit down, Char, we have to talk." They both sat at the kitchen table and when Lauren had taken her gloves off, she said, "Char, Victor and I have spoken, and the time has come for us to locate you a permanent place to live. We care for you almost as if you were our own daughter, but we just can't afford to have you here permanently. Victor has a job where he's compensated more with prestige than money, and my job pays hardly anything...."
"I called Aunt Betty," Char said, "and she said she would take me after New Year's."
"Oh." Lauren's mouth went perfectly round with astonishment for an instant. "Does Desiree know?"
"No, I haven't told her. I will tonight, if you like."
"Well," Lauren said wonderingly, "I guess that's taken care of then." She did not seem at all certain.
Char set the table but when she heard Desiree at the door, she put her coat on and pushed her back out onto the steps.
"Desi," she said, sitting down next to her confused friend, "I don't know how to tell you this, but I've spoken to my Aunt Betty, and after New Year's I'll be going to live with her in Michigan."
Desiree was looking at her with wild anguish. "Why, Char?" she howled, "why are you leaving me? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to scare you away. I'll be better. If you'll stay, you won't even notice me."
Char put an arm around her shoulders and drew Desiree to her. "I love you, Desi," she said, and her friend grew quiet.
"You've been a darling, but it wasn't realistic to think I could stay here. Your parents can't treat me like a daughter; they don't have the money. Suppose I needed a root canal, or a medical operation?"
"I'm healthy as a horse; they could spend their money on you instead."
"That's no problem; I'll buy half the clothes I used to."
"We can both go to the city university, or Dad will get us into NYU for free."
"You're making this very hard."
"What is it?" Desiree was getting wild again; she was confused and didn't like to be. "What's happened? I don't want you to leave. Why do you want to?"
"I don't, Desi."
"Is it my folks? What did they say to you?" Char didn't answer but Desiree saw the truth. "That bitch!" she shouted, and ran into the house.
Char continued to sit on the steps. Inside, she could hear Desiree's wild screaming. After a while, she walked down to Brooklyn College. Ship was there. She told him what was happening.
"Shit, I'd ask you to stay with me, if I thought my folks would allow it."
"Thanks, Ship." They went to Dairy Queen and he bought her a hamburger. When they walked out again, Char spotted Victor Stein driving by, scanning the sidewalks with a worried look. She waved to him and he stopped for her. Shipwreck said good night and strolled away as she got into Victor's Buick.
"Desiree ran out of the house, and I'm a little worried," he said. She directed him, and they drove down the hang-out block near the college, but Desiree wasn't there. Certainly she was at Coop's or Allen's. "Don't worry, Dr. Stein," Char said. "Desiree won't do anything foolish."
Victor wiped his eyes and looked very old for a moment. "Charlotte," he said, "I am very sorry."
"You have nothing to feel sorry for, Dr. Stein. I've had a wonderful time."
He took her home. Lauren had already retired. Char went up to the attic and fell asleep on Desiree's bed, with her clothes on. She woke to find Desiree stroking her hair. It was two o'clock in the morning.
"I wouldn't have come home at all if you weren't here," Desiree whispered. "Ever. I hate them. Lauren is a bitch and Pinky is a weakling."
"Don't hate your parents," Char said. "They've been very good to me. The idea that I could stay, wasn't real."
"I really believed I could make them keep you."
"I almost believed it too," Char said, "but it wasn't real."
Desiree climbed heavily into bed. She stank of pot and wine. "Oh, Char, I can't bear it," she said, and started to whimper. Char put her arms around Desiree and held her until she had cried herself to sleep.
Lauren seemed very upset, now that she had accomplished her goal. She often seemed on the edge of saying something to Char; she had a confused, regretful expression. Char tried to be very nice to her. She had persuaded herself that it was perfectly logical the Steins could not keep her, and she was already thinking ahead to life with Aunt Betty. She expected that her time in Michigan would be more difficult and impoverished than any prior period. The one compensation was that Betty would love her better than Bethesda Davis or Lauren Stein had.
At worst, she had a year and a half to get through in Michigan. Then she would find some college which would take her on a scholarship. She would graduate in three years, get a good job, and support herself. She told herself that it was possible that she could rejoin Desiree, in college or after. Desiree, when she wasn't crying, clung to this idea like a life-raft.
As Char had expected, Victor Stein bought her an airline ticket, for January 3rd. One afternoon, Desiree helped her box up her books, fossils and photographs. The girls went to the post office and Char shipped the box to Betty. She decided to give her guitar to Desiree. If things went well in Michigan, she would get another one, perhaps by doing some overtime work.
In a strangely festive mood, she took the guitar to Coop's house for another party a few days before Christmas; his parents were out of town again. This time, he had opened the house to everyone he knew, and things were a little out of hand. There were four or five strange cars parked in his driveway, and across the street some of the neighbors were milling around suspiciously, made restless by the rock music blasting from the powerful stereo in the living room.
Ship and Char talked in the corner. "I'm not gonna hang around," Ship said. "Sparrow will barge in and bust everybody any minute." Brian came on to Desiree but this time she rebuffed him with a frown, and Char was proud of her. Someone suggested going to another party instead, at a house in Bay Ridge. A plan was concocted to drive there in several cars. Tommy McPherson had his brother's Ford outside but was too drunk to drive it. Desiree, who had taken driver's ed and had her license, volunteered. She harassed Tommy for a little while, until she got the keys from him.
Ship had vanished. Char walked down the driveway strumming her guitar while Desiree and John Chalfin supported Tommy. John was an arrogant and well-connected Brooklyn College boy whom Char detested. They got Tommy to lie down in the back seat. Char tried to get the instrument into the front, then ended up placing it on top of Tommy, who put his arms around it as if it were a girl. "If he just doesn't crush it or puke on it," Char said. Desiree, who had not had anything to drink or smoke, slid in behind the wheel. In 1970, no-one wore seat belts.
Desiree started the car but left it in park until a Brooklyn College boy named Jim Fowler pulled out in his father's Lincoln. She had not driven enough to know the streets, and had only been on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway twice before, with the driving instructor. Two more cars waited to join the convoy behind her. The temperature was below freezing; there was a slight rain and the streets were slick with ice. Desiree was nervous but in high spirits.
"Your lights," said Char, and Desiree looked on the dashboard for the switch, then turned them on. She edged out of the driveway and followed Jim's Lincoln down Avenue L. In the car behind, Char could see John Chalfin.
The entrance to the expressway came up abruptly. Jim Fowler blared his horn and accelerated down the ramp. His car slewed a bit on the ice as he disappeared around the curve. Desiree, with a booming laugh, hit the horn and stamped on the gas when she reached the top of the ramp. "Watch it, Desi," Char said, her heart in her throat. Tommy's car had chains on the tires; it fought the slush on the road but did not slide. Having ascertained she was in control, Desiree speeded up more. As they turned the corner, they saw the Lincoln crosswise to them, blocking the ramp. Desiree stood on the brake so hard that her head rose up to touch the roof of the car. Char screamed.