Sunglasses At Night
Cort is whispering something to me but she’s trying to be all respectful or whatever so I can’t make out what she’s saying.
–Your sunglasses, she says, loud enough this time that I can hear her. They’re, um . . . She raises her eyes and tilts her chin ever so slightly upward, and I realize that my elegant Chanels are sitting on top of my head in a most inelegant way. I slip them off and let them fall from my fingers onto my bag though, of course, they slide off and land on the floor with a clack that can be heard throughout the church.
Will someone please kill me? Like, now?
I mean, seriously . . . what am I doing here? I shouldn’t even be at the wedding, let alone in the wedding party. And Lea knows it. I mean, God, look at her smiling and staring into Danny’s eyes and acting all perfect just like she always does, when anyone who’s taken the time to get to know her as well as I have knows what a total bitch she really is. Oh, sure, she’ll be nice to your face, but the second you walk away she’ll tell whoever will listen your deepest darkest secrets—just ask Shawn how it felt when Lea told the whole school that he was gay just cause he wasn’t interested in her dirty hippie friend. I mean, sure, anyone with half a brain could have figured out Shawn was gay, but back then he was trying to, you know, like, survive high school without being murdered by someone on the hockey team and why Lea had to go blabbing it to everyone when I told her she couldn’t tell anyone, I’ll never know. He wouldn’t talk to me for, like, a month after that—and all because Lea couldn’t keep her big fat mouth shut.
She must know how I really feel about her, right? I mean, it’s not like I’ve been discreet. And she must have other people she could have asked to be in her wedding party. I mean, she surely has other cousins, college friends—fucking manicurists—a hell of a lot nicer and more responsible than me, so I don’t really buy her line that she wanted everyone in the wedding party who wasn’t family to be old friends, dear friends. The only reason I’m up here is because she couldn’t resist showing me that she won or teaching me a lesson or whatever. And you know what? Fine. I give up. She, like, totally beat me, once again. She got the perfect boyfriend, I mean, husband, and they’re going to have the perfect life together, and not only that, but she gets to parade me, the loser, up in front of the whole world to see, just in case anyone had any doubt about whether or not she was the victor.
Luckily, I know better. When she’s stuck in Rhode Island for the rest of her life, popping out a million babies or whatever, I’ll be somewhere far, far away, which is where I should be right now, in fact. I mean, Danny might look like David Beckham, but let’s face it, he’s boring, Lea’s boring, the life they’ve chosen for themselves is boring, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s boring.
I’ve so totally outgrown these people, this place, although it’s quite possible I outgrew it all a long time ago, that instead of settling for the public-school gifted program, I should have persuaded my parents to send me to a Swiss boarding school instead, where I could have studied French and met all kinds of interesting people who do not consider shrimp cocktail a delicacy.
Now I have to worry about slipping back into the accent I’ve spent years trying to hide, about gaining, like, a gazillion pounds from all the revolting peasant food they’ll no doubt be serving at the reception.
The last time I’ve seen most of these people was at high-school graduation, when Danny gave his ridiculous valedictorian speech that quoted Ghostface Killah, some nonsense about how if you forget where you come from, you’re never gonna make it where you’re going and everyone was cheering and acting like what he said was so profound and true. The way I see it, the only way to make it where you’re going if you come from a place like Galestown is to forget it—and while you’re at it, forget whatever persona has been imposed upon you by your parents and your social class (not to mention patriarchal oppression) and become someone else entirely.
I’m usually good at forgetting, but for whatever reason—the lack of sleep, the insanity of the day’s events—today it’s, like, impossible. And it’s not only my days at Peterson that are rushing back at me with the force of the rain I’d escaped this morning but, like, my entire childhood—before I found out I was “gifted,” before I realized that being “gifted” was social suicide, before I met Danny and Lea and the rest of them.
Like, I’d completely forgotten that for the first four years of school, Brianna Russo and I were inseparable—perhaps because of fate, perhaps because our last names were next to each other on all the class rosters—and it seemed nothing would tear us apart. Not gymnastics, which took away most of my weekends—or piano practice, which sucked up her weeknights.
Nothing could get us, we bravely and foolishly thought.
Or at least that’s what we bravely and foolishly thought until we learned about the disappearances of the fourth-graders.
They didn’t disappear for good. We’re not talking about what happened to Kenny Castalucci and that other kid whose name no one remembers down by the Reservoir. I’m talking about the fourth-graders who let themselves be taken away. The fourth-graders who left Dewey behind.
The Gifted Ones. The Chosen Ones.
The Lost Ones.
At first kids only whispered about them. About how they went away and came back Changed. Your older sister gets Lost and though she’s still physically there in the house, something’s different; she stays up in her room reading all the time and only comes downstairs to play the violin or ask your parents about current events. Your next-door neighbor doesn’t join the pack walking to the bus stop like always; you watch in horror as a small bus comes directly to his front door and he steps on, looking confident and . . . different. The next time you see him playing outside, it’s with some other kid wearing glasses and he doesn’t even bother to introduce the two of you. Or worst of all, your best friend calls you tearfully to break the news that she’s leaving; she tells you she doesn’t want to go and you want to tell her she doesn’t have to, but both of you know that she does and she does.
Each year one third grader was plucked from the safe, sturdy halls of Dewey Elementary and whisked away via the small buses we thought were reserved for only the handicapped and retarded, and transported to some school on the other side of Galestown, a school a lot like Dewey, we were told, only with a program for the “gifted and talented.” We were all terrified at the prospect of getting Lost—and yet fascinated by the thought of a way out of Dewey that had nothing to do with sixth- grade graduation or a move to a nicer neighborhood or different military base. By March of our third-grade year, we could contain ourselves no longer and the whispers rose from throats as yelps of full-on paranoia and glee.
–I heard Peterson looks like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
–No way. You’re lying, doofus.
–I’m glad he’s lying. That movie is scaaaary. Did you see the part where they go through the tunnel and that monster’s mouth starts chomping open and shut like it’s gonna eat everyone?
–You are such a baby. That was just a chicken.
–I heard that all the gifted and talented kids have to work for NASA. Some kids even blew up one time but NASA covered it up, just pretended like it was only that teacher who died.
–You’re soooo lying.
–Well, I heard the gifted kids get pizza every day. And not the cardboard stuff we get here. Real pizza. Like, from Pizza Hut.
And so forth.
Both Brianna and I could do long division while jumping rope, so it didn’t surprise either one of us when we were chosen to take the test that would decide if our future would involve Pizza Hut or community college.
I suggested to her that we both fail on purpose, but she gave me a look that said she knew I couldn’t fail anything, not even if I tried, and I nodded in agreement and said, Let’s just do our best and see what happens. I don’t remember much about the test other than the fact that the man giving it was wearing a most unfortunate sweater, black with purple and turquoise lines. It looked a little like the “laser” option you could have as a background for your school photos.
I hated his sweater even though I coveted the laser option as I did jelly shoes and white lace leggings, but my mom would have none of it. That’s what the poor kids chose, she explained, the ones whose mommies and daddies didn’t care about ankle sprains resulting from inadequate footwear, who didn’t understand that sensible clothing was the first line of defense against pedophilia, who didn’t plan on ordering the deluxe packet of school photos—one large for the living room, four medium for offices and piano tops, plus forty wallet-size for Christmas cards—an assortment whose myriad uses left open only one option: the tasteful choice of basic blue—not the profile silhouette, not autumn leaves, and certainly not laser. It’s not what you want to hear as a kid when all the laser kids get grouped together, which meant all the cute boys and the cool girls were sharing plastic combs, while I was stuck with the same high-level readers I always got stuck with, but as soon as I was old enough to realize the inverse correlation between coolness and socioeconomic status that existed in suburban public schools in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I realized she was right.
As soon as I got home, I called Bri so we could compare our answers to the questions. Do you remember the picture of the guy standing next to the tree? she asked me.
–Yeah, I said. What did you think was wrong with it?
–Well, the sun wasn’t out, but he cast a shadow.
–Oh, I answered. Crap! My answer was that it was nighttime but he was wearing sunglasses, which was weird and reminded me of that Corey Hart song—and so I told the man in the unfortunate sweater that the problem with the picture was that Corey Hart wasn’t African American like the guy in the picture. The man asked me who Corey Hart was and I explained that he also wore sunglasses at night, and the man laughed, and I hated his sweater even more.
I knew in that instant that I had failed and Brianna was a super- genius who would leave me behind. I’d have no best friend, no one to dress up in my mom’s clothes and entertain me, and I’d be stupid on top of it.
So you can imagine my surprise when my mom and dad called me into the living room a week later to tell me I passed the test, was one of a select few in the city who passed, the only one in my school. It was the first time I remember feeling several emotions at once: terror, that I was to become one of the Lost Ones—did this mean I was going to have to wear glasses and care about current events?; excitement: I liked Pizza Hut as much as the next kid; but, most of all, sadness: If I was the only kid from my school who passed, that meant Brianna had failed.
When I told them I didn’t want to leave Brianna behind, my parents said that if that was my decision they would support it, even if it did mean missing out on an excellent opportunity. But the thing is, that wasn’t my decision. I felt bad about it, maybe even cried a little (I cry a lot; sunglasses help), but as I looked into my parents’ eyes I knew I couldn’t let them down. At my new school, they said, there’d be other kids like me, kids who were really bored with the work at school, kids who were so far ahead of the others. But I didn’t really want to think about being ahead of Bri. We always had done everything together, or at the very least, I’d always let her do everything with me.
I called her because I couldn’t wait until the next day to tell her (I might change my mind, and I knew that would be a mistake) and she said she was happy for me and we both cried and said we’d always be best friends—just like the song we learned in Brownies—
Make new friends, but keep the old.
One is silver and the other gold.
A circle’s round, it has no end.
That’s how long I want to be your friend.
I crossed my heart when I told her that things would be just like always, that I’d call her every day, that we’d see each other every week, that things would never change—but my mind was already racing forward to my new life.
Months passed. I never called Brianna every day like I said I would, never saw her once a week. When we met up again in high school, we were strangers. She’d traded in her pigtails for a crucifix, and we were way past the years when Madonna made that ironic. We had spoken less than six words to each other in those four years.
But who cares about all that, right? I’ve forgotten all that.
Or maybe I haven’t. Nor have I forgotten what a terrible friend I always have been and always will be. Because I wasn’t thinking about keeping old friends that first day at Peterson; I was only thinking about making new ones who would worship me the same way Brianna had. But who? I thought, as our fourth-grade teacher Mr. Donovan called me and three other students to the board to solve a long-division problem. Through a haze of chalk dust, I watched as a girl with light brown hair finished her equation seconds before me, the first time I’d ever been beaten. Her hair was long and shiny, not a snarl in sight, and when I looked at her wiping the dust off her jeans, expecting to see a smug gloat, I was shocked to see a shy smile instead. Realizing that this Lea DeAngelis girl could be my true north in this sea of strangers, I returned her smile and accepted defeat gracefully.