IN THE EARLY DAYS OF INTEGRATION, when only white girls tried out for cheerleader, our elections were a cross between small-town participatory democracy, Soviet-style anointment of the chosen, and the Miss America Pageant. We sat rapt in the bleachers while the candidates cartwheeled in front of the whole school, flashing their white panties. Then we trooped back to homeroom to cast our votes.
We were chatterers, smarty-pants, A-track girls who raised our hands on one beat and never let the boys get a word in edgewise. We would never be cheerleaders, but we knew what it took: a cheerleader didn’t need to be pretty, though most of ours were pretty, as a matter of fact, and a cheerleader didn’t need to be athletic, though some of ours weren’t too shabby in the handstand department. A cheerleader only needed to exude unshakable self-confidence and, maybe as a corollary, to beam bubbly friendliness and make it look like it wasn’t fake—we knew all about fake friendliness. We were growing up in South Carolina, for God’s sake.
All our stories are unresolved high school stories. We were the Tidal Wave, the class of ’69 at Due East High School, our school years punctuated by assassinations and riots, by the Tet Offensive, by flower children in San Francisco whose very existence suggested that we were living in some remote outpost of civilization that didn’t get updates on a regular basis. The Due East boys who couldn’t get a word in edgewise volunteered to go to war while the rest of America burned its draft cards. We heard that Bo Channing, who’d just moved to Due East from Twenty-Nine Palms, smoked pot, but we couldn’t imagine where he got hold of it or what would happen if the MPs caught him with it on base. We couldn’t imagine what we would do if Bo Channing cast his icy-hot gaze on us.
We were a chorus that sang with one voice, and now in every Facebook post we hear one of those voices standing close. We spend all our waking hours online, poring over photos, but the only face we really care about seeing again is Vonda Freeman’s. She was our homecoming queen, our sweetheart of Due East High, and once upon a time we A-track girls were her court. She was—yes—our head cheerleader. She was also the most self-contained girl we ever knew, so we’re not surprised she boycotts Facebook, but that doesn’t stop us from looking for her night and day. That doesn’t stop us from craving her love.
The minute we saw Vonda Freeman, freshman year when she stepped off the bus from Saint Elizabeth’s Island, we were stunned by her eyes, a strange light green. Would she mesmerize the boys the way she mesmerized us? We weren’t entirely sure she was beautiful, because redheads were not supposed to be beautiful, and the auburn brows framing her cat eyes drew too thick a line. She wasn’t even tanned, which was a challenge to everything we knew about the attributes of beautiful girls. Mr. Thigsby said we were ignorant little yahoos, the way we slathered on baby oil and roasted ourselves at the beach, when for centuries poets had known the most beautiful skin was alabaster. Look at Botticelli’s Venus, look at Vonda Freeman, for goodness sake.
So we all did. We twisted in our seats toward the back of the room, where Vonda’s face had turned one of those fiery shades that is certainly not alabaster. She wore an expression we had never seen on each other’s faces, a combination of pain and shame and sweetness, and she stared down at her desk so assiduously that Mr. Thigsby said: Vonda, sugar, I most certainly did not mean to put you on the spot, but now you have perfectly illustrated feminine grace.
Later, we all agreed that when she finally allowed herself to look up that day with her slow-breaking smile, her eyes darted toward Margaret Washington and Marcus Toomer, who stared out the window as assiduously as Vonda had stared down at her desk while the white folk discussed the perfect shade of pale.
We were a pod of porpoises swooping and diving through tidal creeks, and we had to have Vonda swimming among us. We worshipped Mr. Thigsby, but we resolved to take Vonda to the beach, to slather baby oil all down her white sloping back. We crammed in one car and headed to Saint Elizabeth’s, to the ends of the earth.
Bouncing down Vonda’s dirt drive, lined with crushed shells, we remembered the oyster beds dying, the canning factory shuttered. The Freemans’ yard was encased in chain link and covered by a tattered rug of brittle brown leaves. Beyond, their squat house was concrete block, its windows small enough for prison cells, because enlisted families always had to live like that. But the pines rose up like spires, the live oaks dangled dappled moss, the light was dream light. We smelled the marsh, somewhere close. Maybe the Freemans knew something we didn’t know, something about what to do if the waters rose or the world came to its close.
A shadow passed the prison window and we exited the car as one pulsing heart. We knew that Vonda had brothers and sisters, six or seven, which meant they must be Catholic, our mothers said. It made us ashamed to look at Vonda’s mother, who came to the door with a wan smile, her long thin hair a sickly yellow.
Our eyes trained above on a pileated woodpecker, rat-tat-tatting, mocking us. A preening bluebird perched below. Those birds never perched in our well-pruned trees. We never heard that low clear hum.
We were bad as buzzards, scavengers, pickers at the dead meat of gossip. But what could we say about sweet Vonda? She looked like a candidate for all kinds of loving—hadn’t Mr. Thigsby called her a goddess?—but her only dates were with Elliot Schwartzman, who was so far off in his math-and-science world that he and Herb, the Schwartzman twins, spoke a language nobody else understood. Yet somehow Elliott knew the words to ask her out, and Vonda, for some reason nobody understood either, said yes.
One Wednesday night, cruising through town, we saw Vonda standing in front of the Church of God. Vonda: the holy rollers. Did Elliott know about this? We turned our faces so she wouldn’t see us gaping, but our screeches might have reached the moon. The church was asbestos shingle, raised off the ground, with big red doors the rollers threw open when they got to rolling. We’d spent our whole lives staring at that church every time we drove by, hoping to see someone cavorting with the Spirit or shouting out in tongues, and sometimes we did see lumpy white folks pounding out the Jericho march, speaking a language stranger than the Schwartzman twins’, a language that came from some place so far beyond Due East it was beyond our powers of imagination to conjure it. Our mothers said the way the Church of God carried on, they ought to call it Church of the Holy Fools.
Vonda could not possibly believe what holy rollers believed. When we craned our necks, we saw a scraggle of yellow hair swaying on the front steps, and Vonda yanking her mother so hard it looked as if she herself, our priestess, was on fire with the Spirit.
Our screeching calmed. Would we tell? Or would we swallow her shame and make it our own?
A few years back, we heard her name on the radio: Vonda Freeman-Toomer. Within the hour, Mindy Bottom, who’d always claimed to be Vonda’s closest friend, posted the NPR link. Our aging giggles rippled out across the Southeast as we played it again and again: Vonda at an Occupy demonstration in Oakland, our Vonda in California among the latter-day hippies. She said something sweet about idealistic young folks, and we pictured her casting her green eyes down. Then she led a chant into the people’s mike, and Mindy posted: She certainly is putting those old cheerleading skills to use.
We couldn’t make out a word of her chant. Over and over, the segment came to an end, till Mindy sent the link to Vonda’s faculty page at Berkeley, where she taught physics: Vonda, a professor of quantum mechanics. Elliott Schwartzman was already instructing his Facebook friends in the mysteries of wave-particle duality and the concept of entangled twins.
Vonda was nothing like her mother and nothing like us: her hair was short, thick, pure white. We didn’t know a single woman our age who even let the gray show. She wore old movie-star glasses, rhinestone-studded, and behind the lenses her eyes looked like they were lit up by the Due East sun. She was just starting on that slow-breaking smile, beautiful as ever.
Vonda’s father was due to ship out to Vietnam, the way so many fathers did, but what could we do? We were the women’s auxiliary, the USO girls. The war beamed at us day and night, from the Today show and Walter Cronkite and even WAPE, the Big Ape out of Jacksonville, but we knew when to hold our tongues.
The Monday Vonda didn’t get off the bus, Mindy Bottom reported that she had seen the military police kick up white dust as they departed, speeding down the oyster-shell drive. Vonda’s father hadn’t shown up for the transport, so the MPs came to fetch him and when they got there—
He hid from them under the bed.
We were agog. According to Mindy, Sergeant Freeman didn’t want blood on his hands. After they took him away, Vonda locked herself in her room, which as we all knew wasn’t a room at all but a large closet, and wouldn’t answer a knock except to say: Mindy, you are my closest friend but I don’t know that I’ll ever come out.
The truth was, Vonda wasn’t anybody’s closest friend: she was our porcelain doll, and we fussed over her, but did any of us ever get close? We imagined her on her knees, losing track of day and night, mumbling strange holy roller syllables no one could understand. After he heard the story, Elliott Schwartzman yanked his curls and paced the lunchroom. He stopped in front of our table to keen: What if they handcuffed him?
We had not pictured that, but now we did, and more: what if they shackled him and took him to Vietnam a prisoner in chains? A father who didn’t do his duty shook us like nothing our parents had ever done, not tomcatting fathers or mothers with sherry-breath. Mindy’s mother had swallowed all her sleeping pills once, but this was different: this was shoving your finger in the whole country’s eye. Hiding under the bed, drunk or sober, wasn’t something we would call manly.
The longer Vonda stayed away from school, the more we shivered at the memory of the down on her cheek when the light dappled through the moss. We pictured Vonda’s father smoking pot and dressed in women’s underwear. Where had we picked up such notions? He could get killed in Vietnam!
We even said it aloud. Not a month after Vonda came back to school, they called her to the office to get the news. When she walked back into A-track trig, the sight of her was hard to take in: Mr. Thigsby said beauty required a flaw, but surely he didn’t mean a glob of snot stuck to her upper lip. She didn’t look beautiful—she didn’t even look pretty—but she did look like someone who would mow us all down if we said so much as a word. The student-teacher stood slack-jawed, helpless, while the rest of us stared down at our desks assiduously, which Vonda had taught us to do. She gathered up her things.
Vonda’s father, who hadn’t wanted to go to war, who’d done something you just didn’t do, was dead, dead, dead. Now everything was wrong, upside down and inside out, every truth we’d ever breathed in with the salt air that blew through these islands. If there was a God, why did he make Vonda for such suffering? Oh God, why did you make us for such suffering? We couldn’t find out about the funeral: no one knew, not even Elliott Schwartzman. We called and we called, but not one of the Freeman children ever picked up the phone. Our mothers said: Stop calling, why don’t you. They’ve gone to bury whatever’s left of him.
We snuck our extensions into our closets. We were as bad as B-track boys who knew they were going to get turned down but had to keep asking for the date. She was the most elusive girl at Due East High School and we knew we couldn’t have her but we just couldn’t stop.
Vonda’s father dying turned the very tide. When she came back to school, Elliott had already lost her to her grief. She walked dazed and unearthly through the halls, and Mr. Thigsby whispered “Ophelia” when she passed. The whole football team tripped over each other to save her from other boys on the team who might take advantage of her sorrow, and she latched onto a halfback as her protector. We heard that Vonda Freeman put out for her halfback, because that was what boys said about girls. It wasn’t enough, though, not in that place, not in that time. Soon enough we heard that Vonda put out for Marcus Toomer, too.
Marcus Toomer. Miscegenation was a word our teachers hissed, as if the very concept were obscene. In the spring of ’68, the spring Martin Luther King was killed, it did not matter that Mr. Thigsby had marched for voting rights. Marcus and Vonda could have been killed, too.
Our mothers said they were asking for trouble, letting Marcus run for student council president. The three candidates sat in folding chairs on the gym floor in front of the stage and we sat before them, docile lambs craving a shepherd. One by one they went to the podium to deliver their speeches. First Calhoun Booth stumbled and forgot the jokes he’d practiced. We remember Herb Schwartzman next, droning on while Elliott, his campaign manager, mouthed the whole boring speech in unison from high in the bleachers.
Marcus sat in his folding chair with some of that self-possession we’d seen in Vonda, as if he knew perfectly well that it was his turn to speak but declined the opportunity, thank you kindly. Then the curtains on the stage above parted to reveal a band: two hulking guitarists, a sleepy-eyed drummer, a bassist with an Angela-Davis Afro. We’d never seen such a thing. We’d certainly never seen a girl bassist. Marcus had enlisted the officers’ sons with the longest hair, the hair they grew to spite their father’s high-and-tights: that was Bo Channing on drums, probably stoned out of his mind. The band struck a chord, and we all swallowed little strangled cries when they launched into a soul version of “Revolution.”
That song acted as a drug on us: we were bedazzled, ecstatic, released. Bo Channing slurred the words but we didn’t need the words. We saw Vonda’s mother swaying outside the church, Vonda kneeling by the bedside where her father was rolled up like a rug, hiding from the military police. His hand reached out to grab her white leg and then—poof, presto-change-o—the song was over. The assistant principal pulled the switch to draw the curtains and Marcus Toomer walked to the podium, the slightest smile playing on his lips.
We tensed as the band marched down the side stage steps (remember, this was the spring of James Earl Ray). Marcus reached the microphone and nonchalantly spoke a line we’d only heard on Walter Cronkite: Power to the people.
Bo Channing, halfway down the steps, raised a drumstick high, and the gymnatorium erupted. From that moment, we knew Marcus would pull it off. We ached for whatever he could see so clearly. We were his acolytes now, in our bleacher row, his fan club, his groupies. We felt Vonda’s body heat radiating. Who was to say that Mr. Thigsby wasn’t right? Who was to say our churches weren’t crazy too, blessing fighter jets?
It was as if she could hear my thoughts: Vonda looked at me—not at us, at me. It was the longest gaze anyone had ever directed my way, her smile full-throttle for once. We were alone. I was alone. My eyes locked with hers. She knew the thoughts I thought. She knew who’d called and called. She knew I loved her, and now I loved Marcus, too, and I didn’t even know what I meant by love. She knew I’d never speak my thoughts, not now, not on Facebook, not ever.
After the NPR story, that picture of Vonda adorned a dozen Facebook walls. Did Marcus shoot it? There was no Marcus Toomer we could positively ID as our Marcus in the first twelve Google pages, though both the pastor and the political consultant looked like possibilities. Mindy tweeted them out into the void.
For weeks, we played the interview. We could make out the words by then: Vonda was chanting Power to the people, of course. It echoed through the internet, enough to make us want to drive downtown in the middle of the night to occupy Atlanta and Charleston and Charlotte. But we were not the occupying sort, so we occupied Facebook instead. While we were trying to locate Marcus, scanned black-and-white snapshots from the Tidal Wave days crowded our walls: Marcus underexposed, Vonda too pale and perfect to keep onscreen for long. She made our eyes sting.
Our nostalgia weighed down the cloud, and eventually the others moved on, even Mindy. Grandchildren replaced the old high school pictures just as the Occupy tents started to disappear, like that tide: turning, then turning back.
For a brief while we were upstarts. We stuck our fingers in our parents’ eyes and voted for Marcus Toomer: he was Marvin Gaye and we were his backup singers. We said things we’d never dreamed of saying—Keep the faith, baby; fight the power—but the rumors were carpet bombs, exploding all around us. Vonda never told us she was seeing Marcus. She told us she was going out for cheerleader.
For cheerleader, we repeated, uncomprehending as our mothers.
The concrete-block house and the dead father and the holy rollers? And now Marcus? We even thought, for one split second, that she might not win—the gossip was sticky as napalm, adhering to her perfect skin—but Vonda did fine at the audition. What could we say about whooping and shaking a pompom? Everyone she’d been kind to voted for her, and of course all the boys were mesmerized, and we voted for her, too. We were loyal, we were faithful, and that was that. Vonda was an actual cheerleader: our friend Vonda Freeman.
Of course the other cheerleaders took her under their shapely wings, whereas we were just boring A-track girls, some of us a little plump. The cheerleaders were certainly super-friendly. Vonda never acted like she was too good for us. She never let on what she knew about me, and I never let on what I knew about her. And maybe we were both wrong. Maybe I didn’t love her, and maybe she didn’t disappear into the ranks of the girls beaming self-confidence to protect him, to protect them both.
Even before Facebook, we thought of her over the years. Mr. Thigsby was wrong about the flaw: we never saw Vonda’s. But when the assistant principal announced the scholarships, we didn’t know why Vonda would want to go to hoity-toity Bryn Mawr, so far away. And Marcus Toomer, Haverford—we’d never heard of Haverford. What was a pair of Quaker schools, or geography for that matter, to the Tidal Wave? We heard that they were married and year after year we looked for them at our reunions. We had three interracial couples by our twentieth, and by our thirtieth we wouldn’t have been surprised to see somebody walk in with a gay partner—though they haven’t, not yet. Vonda and Marcus could certainly have come to a reunion, but they never did. They just simply did not.
With husband number three, I moved to the Atlanta burbs like everybody else, but I miss the lowcountry like a limb that’s been taken from me. The prelapsarian beauty, as Mr. Thigsby used to call it, the dirty-lace look of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks in Vonda Freeman’s chain-linked yard. Vonda was right about one thing: I don’t tell people in Smyrna what I’m thinking. I can’t picture myself at a demonstration. I can’t imagine.
After the Charleston shootings, Facebook pop-pop-pops with the Rebel flag. Every few days, a new firefight breaks out and the ghost of Mr. Thigsby weeps. I find myself staring into another void. I open Vonda Freeman’s faculty page and gaze again into her light eyes. Vonda gazes back, zapped by the miracle of quantum-something-or-other into my condo. I could reach out and touch her face.
I do reach out. I stretch a hand toward the wavering screen. We’re in the holy rollers’ church. All around us, rollers sway and moan while we sit silent, side by side. The air’s charged, as if a hurricane’s about to swoop in, and outside the birds chatter, sly prophets planning where to meet after the waters rise. I feel Vonda’s body warm against mine. It takes me a while to see that the preacher standing in front of us is Marcus, grown portly. They both know something I don’t know. When Marcus summons me to rise, I realize I can translate that one line he keeps chanting.
Right on, I whisper, but no sound comes out. Marcus doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t see me, either.
I’m not there.
I’m not anywhere, and Vonda has marched off into the night without me. I hear birds chattering still, though the dark stretches deep. The screen pulses on, looking assiduously for its absent Facebook queen.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.