JODI AND I WERE PLAYING the Ravel. Her parents had been texting her for almost an hour, and though Jodi was ignoring them with a theatrical nonchalance, I knew it was only a matter of time before they tried my apartment.
Not that they would get anywhere. For days now, my mother and I had been walking across the street to the Shell where a payphone was still in service. We hadn’t paid our bill in eight or nine weeks, not since my mother’s latest accident, and our line had been disconnected with hardly a warning and with no small measure of relief on our part at the shedding of the monthly obligation. Still, I didn’t want Mr. and Mrs. Tucker to know. I could imagine their conversation well enough, and I knew that the careful neutrality of their tone would veil an unanswerable rebuke. I wouldn’t see as much of Jodi after that.
They weren’t snobs, Jodi’s parents. Or not in the way I was used to: the studied apartness of the other girls at our prep school, where I was a scholarship student; the pointed, ironic courtesy of the boys. No, Jodi’s parents were simply good. Good and worried—about Jodi, about the world they couldn’t quite seal out with their gates and manicured hedges. Faced with hard evidence of my circumstances—not merely the absence of their advantages but real, abiding poverty—they would neither bully nor plead; they knew as well as I did that Jodi couldn’t be swayed so easily. Rather, they would offer up guilty inducements, keep her away from me with travel, hobbies, presents. Had Jodi been only a few years younger, they might have bought her a pony.
Sitting beside her now on the piano bench, I watched as Jodi bent to the tricky passage after the fermata, her right hand stretching for the upper notes as effortlessly as if the master had written them for her rather than Ricardo Viñes, the Spanish genius whose recordings Jodi’s teacher had played for her, and which Jodi, as was our bargain, had played for me. That was our deal, Jodi’s and mine. Jodi got a place to bring boys, a place where no one cared when she dipped into her stash of Marlboros or wasted hours looking at pictures of tattoos in magazines. I got lessons at secondhand on the upright piano my mother had somehow managed to hang onto through the firings, the breakups, and the recoveries. Though she was a terrible teacher, bored and distractible on her best days, Jodi played the piano with such grace that she might have been summoning a lover. Her prim body swayed, yet she retained her self-possession, a member perpetually of her class even when lost to the forgetfulness of music. Most importantly, she understood what I seemed unable to learn despite my dreary proficiency: that the work of mastering a piece of music began when you could hit every note without thinking about it. Fifteen years old, Jodi was already becoming an artist. My own playing, she had told me more than once, sounded like someone doing math homework.
Still, I took my turns. Jodi insisted on it. Finishing the piece, she got up from the bench and walked to the sofa my mother and I had rescued from the alley behind our building. She smoothed her skirt beneath her and lay across the stained cushions. After a moment, she began to fidget. I paused, straining to hear any hint of my mother stirring in the other room, then turned to the keys.
“Helen, check out the creeper.”
I looked over. I had only been at it for a few moments, and already Jodi was staring at her phone, her eyebrows arched in mock dismay. “Shouldn’t you be texting your parents?” I asked.
“In a minute. Come look at this.”
I stood up from the bench. Sunlight was pouring in through the window where Jodi had cracked the blinds earlier, but the room looked dim nevertheless. Unfinished. From my mother’s bedroom came the sound of a cough or a heavy sigh. All the more reason for Jodi to leave. “You’re going to miss your bus,” I said.
“In a minute,” Jodi repeated. “Check it out.”
I crossed the room and knelt beside the sofa, aware that obedience would be quicker than an argument. Over Jodi’s shoulder, inside a faintly blue dialogue bubble, I read, Liked that skirt. You should wear it again tomorrow.
Jodi was smirking. “I think he’s, like, thirty.”
“So delete it,” I replied, looking up at the plastic clock on the wall.
She glanced back at the screen and paused, as if trying to decide how much to tell me. “I met him yesterday, on the bus.”
I said nothing. Of course she had met him on the bus, which she rode for that very purpose.
“What should I say?” Jodi asked, turning back to me again.
“I don’t know. Tell him you’ll have to ask your mommy first.”
“Ew, you perv. He’d probably like that.”
“Tell him you’ll think about it.”
I took hold of her arm. “Tell him my mother’s about to wake up and start drinking.”
Jodi laughed, but I could see that I had convinced her. “Fine, I’ll go.” She shook her head and went to the door. “Hey,” she said, turning around, her hand already on the doorknob. “You okay?”
“No. Please save me.”
“I’m just asking, smartass. Sleep over at my house tomorrow night?”
I looked down the hallway. “Why?” I said. “Are your parents finally going to adopt me?”
The next day was Friday. Jodi had arranged for her mother to pick the two of us up from school, and we were waiting for her on a bench outside the science building. Behind us, their windows open to the afternoon air, our teachers were cleaning up the labs in preparation for the weekend. I could hear someone humming what sounded like a John Philip Sousa march and the clattering of empty beakers. Though the weather was cool still, it was no longer cold, and the older girls had already donned the season’s new halter tops. On the edge of the massive lawn, a group of freshmen had started up a soccer game. I watched as they jostled for position, going after each other with surprising ferocity. One of them, a thin, black-haired boy whose name I couldn’t remember—Todd or Tom—freed the ball from a clutch of his friends and sent it sailing across the grass with a tremendous kick. He turned toward us and winked.
Beside me, Jodi was busy again with her phone, her fingers flying as if shot through with an electric current. Seeing me watching her, she silenced it and put it in her pocket. “Him again,” she said, shifting toward me on her seat.
“Who?” I said, though there could be no doubt.
“Mon amour. I saw him again yesterday.”
I rolled my eyes, a gesture I knew drove Jodi crazy. “At least he’s persistent,” I said.
I waited a moment. “So, have you slept with him yet?”
“Shut up!” She shook her head as if to dismiss me, then looked over her shoulder at the open windows. I could have told her that no one was listening to us. “Like I’d tell you.”
“Whatever. You wouldn’t have to. I’d just watch the video on his kiddie porn site.”
Jodi laughed. Looking across the lawn, she pointed at the group of boys racing toward the ball at a dead sprint. “They would.”
I didn’t reply. She was right.
She spoke again. “Anyway, it wouldn’t be kiddie.”
“It wouldn’t be kiddie. I looked it up. Not here. Not unless he took me across state lines.”
“Besides, I’m just messing around.”
“Whatever you say.”
“No, I mean it.” She bent toward me, her voice low and serious. “You know I would never do anything like that, right?”
I didn’t answer. While Jodi probably wouldn’t sleep with a man twice her age, she would certainly let him believe that she might.
“There’s Mom,” she said and stood up from the bench. I turned and saw the familiar gray Volvo idling, her mother sleek behind the wheel. Gathering my things, I took a last look at the boys and followed her.
Inside the car, the air was stuffy, cloistered, as if Mrs. Tucker had been running the heater. Though normally friendly, she seemed distracted. Twice I caught her looking at me in the rear-view mirror. By the time we arrived at the house, she had brightened, however, and before long she was asking us what we wanted for dinner and insisting that Jodi introduce me to Priscilla, the Basset pup the family had purchased since my last visit. “And dear,” she said, addressing me, “would you mind going into Mr. Tucker’s study and telling him that we’ll be eating at six o’clock?”
As I left the room, I heard the sound of a knife scraping a cutting board. Mr. Tucker’s study was at the end of a long hallway lined on either side by doorways, and I took my time studying the pictures that hung between them at perfect level. Jodi and her parents on the lake. Jodi and her parents at Vail, their skis angled neatly beneath them. In one image, obviously much older than the others, Mr. and Mrs. Tucker were alone. Mr. Tucker, beardless and slim, reclined against the corner of what appeared to be a barn, or perhaps a crumbling church. Mrs. Tucker’s head was in his lap, facing the camera, her expression one of unconstrained joy. I closed my eyes slowly and opened them, as if I might make myself appear in the photographs. After a moment, I heard a noise from the study.
Mr. Tucker was at his desk writing something on a legal pad. Though I knew that he had heard me approaching, he didn’t look up, so I stood where I was and tried to take everything in. The study, nearly as big as the living room of my apartment, was packed—overflowing, it seemed—with things. Maps, matted and framed, covered the walls. The desk, a double form that might easily have served a president, was littered with what appeared to be fossils: lengths of bone, an ink-black beetle under a glass dome. Books were everywhere: stacked and leaning on shelves, piled on the twin leather sofas beside the window, even marooned here and there on the floor. A volume on the hardwood in front of me caught my eye, and to my surprise I recognized it: an account of Darwin’s Beagle voyage that I had checked out from the library the previous summer. I was about to pick it up when I heard Mr. Tucker place his pen on the desk. He said my name.
“Yes, sir?” I answered.
“You haven’t been in here before, have you?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“Sit down.” He gestured at the empty chair across from him. Because I could think of no reason not to, I took it.
Across the room a clock was ticking. After a moment, Mr. Tucker gestured to an object on the corner of his desk, a chunk of stone whose face bore the imprint of a fern. I recognized its kind from textbooks but had never been so close to one before.
“Do you know what this is?” Mr. Tucker said. He seemed edgy, as if trying not to sweat.
“It’s a leaf plate,” he said, as if I hadn’t answered. “Tens of thousands of years old, and here we are touching it.” He picked it up and put it back down, then held it out to me. I took it. “Makes you wonder why we fight wars, doesn’t it?”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Mr. Tucker leaned forward in his chair. I could feel him studying me in a nervous way. “I asked Mrs. Tucker to send you back here. To give us a chance to talk.”
I stared at him.
“Tell me,” he said, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him, “have you been happy at Saint Ann’s?”
I said that I had been.
“You’re aware, of course, that I serve on the board of trustees.”
I hadn’t been aware, but I said nothing.
“I tell you this so that you will take seriously what I’m about to say. There are certain”—he paused—“changes coming that may affect you. Financial matters, I’m afraid. As it happens, I disagree with these changes very strongly.” He paused again, as if trying to choose the right words. “I wouldn’t want you to think,” he said finally, “that you have been a disappointment. Jodi is quite fond of you. Mrs. Tucker and I know that. And I hope you’ll come to me if you ever have need.” He sat back in his seat, obviously relieved to be finished. “Am I making myself clear?”
He was. Or clear enough. I could feel my stomach tightening, and I forced myself to nod.
“Good.” Mr. Tucker stood, and I handed him the plate. “Let’s go see what our girls are up to.”
Later that evening, her parents long asleep, I watched as Jodi leaned over the side of her bed closest to the wall. When she sat back up, she held a small wooden box with a hinged lid. She opened it and removed something, then put it between her lips.
“You want some?” she asked, producing a lighter.
I shook my head. Jodi had mentioned pot before but as far as I knew had never gotten her hands on any. Now that she had, I was in no mood. My conversation with her father had left me wrong-footed and in need of a clear mind. “Who gave it to you?” I said.
Jodi didn’t answer. Her eyes were closed, and she was resting on a pillow she had placed against her headboard. Then I saw the phone on the comforter beside her.
“Jesus. He just met you.”
She coughed. “I know. But he thinks I’m beautiful. And he wants me to be happy.”
I laughed at this despite myself. Jodi grinned and motioned for me to join her on the bed. I sat beside her feet.
Jodi held out the joint, and I took it. It felt warm in my hand—not hot, but as if it had been sitting in the sun all day. I took a drag and felt the heat of it in my throat. “So what were you and my dad talking about?” Jodi asked. Her eyes were open now and she was looking at me. “You were in there forever.”
I took another drag and handed it back to her. “His books,” I said, keeping my voice even. “I knew one of them.”
Jodi closed her eyes again. “Which one?”
I lay back. Above the bed, Jodi’s ceiling was covered with tiny glowing stars, stuck on years earlier, I assumed, and forgotten. “Like you care.”
“Come on, tell me. What’s it about?”
I sat back up and crossed my legs in front of me. Jodi was still, and I thought for a moment that she had fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes and put the joint between her lips again. “All right. It’s about Darwin.”
“What about him?”
“He and his friend were on a ship, the Beagle. They were sailing the coastline of South America, looking for specimens.” I hesitated and looked at Jodi. She hadn’t moved at all, but I could tell that she was listening. “This was in the 1830s, almost two hundred years ago. Darwin was studying to become a priest, but he wanted one more chance to work on his theory. To find the evidence that he needed.”
“What kind of evidence?” Jodi whispered.
“Animals. Plants.” I paused. I could hear Jodi’s soft breathing. “Anything that might be better than what he’d been taught at Christ’s College.” I leaned toward her, our faces almost touching now. “He knew that the answers had to be different. That there had to be something he could see.”
“And he found them, right?” Jodi was looking at me intently. “The answers?”
“Yes. He did. For nearly five years he sailed down one coast and up the other, then on to New Zealand and Australia. And he found exactly what he was looking for.”
Jodi put her hands on my knees. “What was it?”
I shook my head, not because the answers hadn’t been recorded but because I had come to the end of my story—the part of the story that I remembered. Though it had been less than a year since I had read the book, I simply couldn’t recall a single, specific thing that Darwin had found on his voyage. Yet that was no ending, and I knew it. Stoned, anxious, and committed to a thoughtless lie, I had no choice but to continue. “A pile of bones,” I said quietly. “In Patagonia. Belonging to a huge and ancient mammal. Something extinct. Darwin and his friend worked for days, sorting and cataloging, but there were twelve bones they couldn’t place. The bones made no sense. Finally, they laid everything out and understood what they had discovered. The twelve bones were the beginnings of dorsal fins. Whatever it was hadn’t just died. It had evolved.”
On Monday morning, I received a summons to the headmaster’s office. I was in second-period history, furiously scribbling notes on Constantine’s conversion, when an older boy entered with a slip of paper and handed it to the teacher. She looked at me and frowned, then went on lecturing. I gathered my things and followed the boy into the hallway and out of the building.
Though I knew the headmaster well—I had been in his honors Latin sections for almost two years—I felt a weight in my stomach as we walked up the great hill to the administrative offices, a hard stone that seemed to me the physical embodiment of the misfortune that Jodi’s father had foreseen, now coming inexorably to pass. When I tried to slow my pace, however, the boy looked over his shoulder and told me to hurry. When we arrived, he turned and walked away without another word.
Now that I was alone, I felt freer to take my time, and I sat down on the steps of the building and looked out across the campus. As it always had, the beauty of the sight startled me. Down among the academic halls and the quad, the playing fields and the theater, the impression one received was of spontaneity—of buildings that sprawled and paths that might lead anywhere. Here, however, from its highest point, the school revealed a fuller vision, the hopes its founders must have had so many years ago when they chose this place. Though I had been an outsider here and often friendless, I knew very well what I stood to lose. Had I been certain that no one would see me, I might have allowed myself to cry.
As it was, I simply sat. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. A few other students came and went, each accompanied by the same sullen boy, but I could read nothing in their faces, and the boy looked at me with no recognition whatsoever. When no one came outside to find me, I began to consider the possibility that a mistake had been made, that the headmaster had wanted others rather than me. It was this thought that was interrupted by Mrs. Winston, the headmaster’s secretary.
“There you are,” she said, her tone stern, as if the burden of my tardiness would fall on her alone. “You were supposed to come inside.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, standing up.
“No, stay. He’s with someone else now.” She held out her arm. In her hand was a thin envelope. “He left this for you.” She looked at me again, and I could see her deciding to relent. “Though I know, dear,” she said, her voice kinder now, “that he would have liked to talk to you himself.”
I took the envelope. “Thanks.”
She reached out and patted my shoulder. “Come back tomorrow,” she said. “He’ll see you then.”
Alone again, I sat down and tore open the envelope. Inside were two pages, each filled with closely spaced print and bearing the school’s seal: an open book above a Latin motto. Ad meliora. Towards better things. As I read, a gust of wind came up, and I had to hold onto the pages to keep them in my hands. After a few minutes, I stood and began to make my way down the hill.
I didn’t speak to Jodi for several days, though I saw her waiting for me in our usual places. Instead, I went home and helped my mother clean the apartment, a project she had roused herself to after several weeks in bed. It didn’t take. By Friday afternoon, she had retreated to her room, closing herself in without a word. I was sitting down at the piano when I heard a knock at the door. Though I knew who it was, I went anyway. Sure enough, there stood Jodi, her hands in the pockets of her jeans and her hair pulled up in a tight ponytail. “Hey,” I said, my shoulder resting against the doorframe.
“Hey, yourself.” Jodi looked me up and down. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something else. When I didn’t, she spoke again. “So can I come in or what?”
I shrugged and moved out of the doorway and went across the room to the sofa. Jodi shut the door and followed me.
“Listen,” she said, sitting down on the sofa beside me. “We need to talk. For real.”
I shook my head but didn’t reply.
“Come on, I’m really asking.”
I looked over at her. I had never known Jodi to speak like this before, and it occurred to me that it was costing her something to do so. “What are you doing here?” I said.
She hesitated. Finally, she spoke again. “My dad told me what happened.”
“What did he say?”
“The whole thing. The economy, the endowment, how they’re cutting scholarships.” She turned her head and looked at the window. The blinds were closed. “It’s dark in here.”
For a minute, neither of us spoke. Then Jodi shifted in her seat and faced me. “You know he’s upset about it, right? We all are.”
“I know. He told me. But that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Jodi leaned back. I could feel her appraising me. “So you weren’t talking about fossils, then?” she said.
I looked away.
“Look, who cares, right? My parents sent me to tell you that they want to do something about it.”
“There’s nothing to do.”
“Yes, there is.” She paused. “They want to pay your tuition.”
At this I laughed aloud, more harshly than I had intended to. After a moment, I looked at Jodi and saw to my surprise that her eyes were wet.
“Dammit, why can’t you just say yes?” she said. “I knew you wouldn’t.”
I started to answer but thought better of it. I couldn’t say yes—Jodi was correct in that regard—but neither could I explain why. Though I knew that my reasons were right, I wasn’t sure that I understood them myself.
We were silent for a minute, then Jodi spoke again, and I could tell that something had hardened in her. “Fuck you, then,” she said, her voice level.
“No.” She stood up, and I saw her head turn in the direction of my mother’s bedroom. “Just live like this.” She walked to the door. “You’re perfect for it.”
I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I got out of bed and found the apartment empty. My mother, it seemed, had exhausted her stash of Wild Irish Rose in the early hours and had gone out for more.
Walking into the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water. Then I went outside. Across the parking lot, a group of men I didn’t recognize had huddled at the edge of the pavement and were throwing dice against the side of a dumpster. One of them stood and removed his shirt, then turned again to his business. I went inside and shut the door.
Alone, I paced the apartment and tried to concentrate. Something had occurred to me in the night as I sweated beneath the sheets, endlessly replaying my conversation with Jodi. Pausing at the kitchen counter now, I shut my eyes and tried to find the thread in the jumble of my thoughts. Suddenly, it was right in front of me, a phrase in the headmaster’s letter to which I had previously paid no attention. Alone among our scholarships, the letter had stated, the Saint Ann Award will continue to be given.
The Saint Ann Award: given not annually but as circumstances warranted to a student of extraordinary courage. That was the phrase used. Extraordinary courage. Though I hadn’t ever spoken to her, I knew the last recipient: a rail-thin girl—a scholarship girl like me—who had given life-saving CPR to a teacher who had collapsed in the classroom. I remembered the ambulances, the dread that had flowed like water through the rooms and hallways. More than that, however, I remembered the words the headmaster had used at the award ceremony. The girl had earned her place, he had said. Not been given it but earned it.
Leaning against the peeling linoleum, I considered what it meant to be courageous. To act when others wouldn’t. As others wouldn’t. Unbidden, an image of Darwin appeared before me: the great man on his ship, determined to change his world. After a moment, not yet sure of myself but letting my feet carry me, I stepped across the living room and down the narrow hallway to my mother’s bedroom. In the corner stood her small writing desk, and I sat down and began to rummage through the drawers. After a few minutes, I found what I was looking for. Grabbing my key, I left the apartment and walked across the street to the payphone.
As I had suspected, the headmaster’s office was among the first numbers listed in the school directory, which I had placed in my mother’s drawer myself. I rolled my coins into the slot and listened as the phone began to ring. My heart was beating quickly, almost painfully, and I forced myself to remain calm. When a voice answered—a recorded greeting—I was surprised to the point of panic to hear Mrs. Winston rather than the headmaster. Then I came to my senses and gathered myself. Before I knew it, it was time to speak.
When I did, I told them everything. Jodi’s bus rides, the older man, the texts, even the pot. When I was done, I hung up the phone and leaned against the wall of the gas station. I closed my eyes and blew out a hard, deep breath.
Two days later, Monday, neither Jodi nor I spoke to one another. The next day she was absent, and the next, and the next after that. On Friday, toward the end of my last class, I received another summons to the headmaster’s office. This time I went straight in. Not only the headmaster but the dean of students and the guidance counselor were present. They showed me to a chair and began to speak.
What I had done, they told me, was exemplary. It had been a difficult thing—they knew that it had not been easy—but I might very well have saved a classmate’s life. Now it was their turn to do a difficult thing, given the school’s finances. Difficult but necessary. “We’ve decided,” the headmaster said, “that we can’t let you go just yet. We felt”—he reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out an envelope—“that we could hardly do less. There will be an announcement, of course, though we’ll leave out the specifics. In any case, we wanted you to know right away.”
I took the envelope but didn’t open it. There was no need. When they had finished, I thanked them and began to gather my things. I held out my hand, and the headmaster shook it. Then I turned, went to the door, and let myself out.
Outside, my classmates were already pouring onto the sidewalks. I could hear the raucous glee of their conversations, of their freedom after the long week indoors. Hurrying down the hill, I came upon a girl I knew from AP Chemistry, and when she asked if I wanted a ride home, I told her yes.
That afternoon at the piano, I turned to the Ravel for the first time in days. The music that filled the living room had never sounded so true.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.