Sunlight poured onto Sari Siegel’s face in the airless porch of their second-story apartment jutting out over Broadway. As she burrowed into her pillow Tim’s arm tightened about her waist and he drew her close, clasping her small round buttocks and draping his thigh across her hip. The sweat from the copper hair on his chest tickled, and he moved his hand to her glossy hair, sweeping it aside to nuzzle her neck.
She squinted at the alarm clock on the dresser across the narrow room. At a quarter to eight she could already hear Saturday-morning traffic in the street below, and the air was so arid her nostrils twitched. Her gaze wandered to the faded poster of the dove on the cracked wall above the dresser. END MASS MURDER IN VIETNAM. A relic from junior high school days, but it reminded her of home. Beneath it the lab manual for her biology class lay facedown beside a marbled composition book whose binding had not yet been cracked.
She looked at Tim’s arm, which had crept back to her waist. The silky hair was so red it glinted, but the T-shirts he’d worn framing houses over spring break had left his biceps and shoulders paper-white next to hers. His long limbs and fiery hair were an odd match for her petite build and olive complexion, but they fit together perfectly in bed. Breathing his familiar scent, she molded herself to his groin. When his fingertips began stroking her breast she blinked once and then her eyes fell shut. He knew what she liked, she never had to say.... As he entered her, a single thought shimmered in her head: One week from today she would be Mrs. Timothy Scott.
The phone rang twenty minutes later while Tim was in the shower and she was frying his eggs over easy — the way he liked them. After a brief conversation, she hung up and reached for the plastic pitcher in the cupboard over the sink. Pipes groaned on the other side of the wall as the toilet in the next apartment flushed, and she heard Tim yelp at the surge of hot water. When the shower stopped she twisted the faucet and began mixing his orange juice.
As soon as school let out two weeks before they’d moved into the walk-up flat in this rambling house at Locust and Broadway, halfway down the hill leading from the University to downtown Stanley. Although Broadway technically divided the campus from the residential part of town, the University’s tree-lined paths, sandstone buildings and tiled roofs blended into the surrounding neighborhoods abutting the foothills.
Because of its size and location, 655 Locust could have housed one of the smaller departments of the liberal arts college or a professor with a large brood of children. Over the years, additions had been slapped on every which way and the interior divided into oddly configured units for students and the marginally employed, leaving them a kitchen just large enough to turn around in and a converted porch for a bedroom that was so cold in the winter, ice formed on the inside of the windows and froze them shut. But Sari fell in love with the apartment the moment they saw it. The sunshine in the alcove stained her supermarket coleuses magenta and chartreuse, and living on the Hill meant they were no longer just students.
“It must be eighty degrees already.”
She turned to see Tim in the doorway in his denim cutoffs, sweat dotting the reddish stubble above his lip. He’d been trying to grow a mustache since school let out but his sideburns were more successful; the auburn growth reached from his temples to the milky knob of his jaw. The skin below was so tender, she would bury her nose in it while they were making love, feel it throb...
“And a hundred in here,” she replied.
“At least.” He grinned, knowing exactly what she was thinking.
“When do you have to be at the rec center?” she asked. Tim played for the Wings, in an amateur hockey league, and coached kids on the weekends.
“I’m leaving as soon as I eat. Peewees are at ten and I’m working on a new set of drills for the Juniors.” Handing him his juice and eggs, she followed him to the front room, where he settled on the daybed with the plate balanced on his knees. “What are you going to do?”
From the window she gazed at the turquoise pool at the College Townhouses next door, glittering in the morning sun. Last spring’s residents had left after finals and the summer students wouldn’t arrive for days, and if she sneaked in early enough, she could paddle a few laps and no one would notice. But it hardly seemed right to luxuriate in a pool while Tim sweltered at a hockey practice.
“Get a head start on my reading,” she replied, leaning over to wipe a spot of yolk from his lip. He pulled her to his lap, and it turned into a long kiss. “Want me to bring you a sandwich before the one o’clock practice?”
“Nope, it’ll be too hot to eat.” He gulped the rest of his juice, handed her his plate, and reluctantly rose.
“Your mother called while you were in the shower.”
He stopped with his hand on the doorknob.
“What’d she say?”
“Nothing. Just to tell Laura the transmission’s still out on the Dodge and she’ll have to find some other way to get back from Gillman.” Tim’s sister had dropped out of the University in her junior year but was still living in Stanley, twenty-five miles north of Widmark, the state capital, which was another ten miles from the suburb of Gillman where Tim’s parents resided. “She couldn’t reach her on the phone and thought maybe we’d see her before she left.”
“Your dad was going to have the brakes changed on Laura’s car and let her borrow the Dodge for the week.”
“Anything else?” Hope lay beneath the casual words.
“You mean about the wedding?” She turned toward the kitchen. “No.”
“Did you ask if she was going to come?”
“Of course not.” She felt him watching as she sponged egg off the chipped stoneware. “The only reason we’re having a minister is because of her.”
“Are you kidding? To a Catholic, the Unitarian Church might as well be City Hall. You must’ve talked about more than the transmission.”
“They had inside chores and yard work to do before it got too hot, and then your dad was going to a seminar.” Catching a glimpse of Tim’s face as she reached for the dish towel, Sari cast for details to make her conversation with his mother sound longer. “Some self-improvement guru. She was in a hurry to hang up.”
“At least she called.” She’s trying, he meant, why can’t you?
“Tim, we have to—”
“Later, honey, I need to warm up.” Wrapping his arms around her waist, he stooped to kiss the part in her hair and was gone.
Sari smeared suntan lotion on her cheeks, secured her shoulder-length black waves with a barrette, slipped on her sandals and left the apartment. Telling herself to forget Peggy’s abruptness and Tim’s disappointment, she cut across the campus to the Bryant Library lawn to read up on the birth of the solar system. Lying on her stomach, she reached into her backpack for a yellow highlighter and began skimming the introduction to her biology text.
Her pen whipped across millennia, from the mass of energy and matter that erupted and collided to form stars to the medieval notion of spontaneous generation. Could they really have believed maggots originated from meat, and mice from sweat-soaked shirts and wheat? She flipped two pages ahead. Once their parents saw how much she and Tim loved each other, how right they were, they’d come around.... Missing links, heredity versus environment. She was marrying Tim, not his family; what did religion or the rest matter? She would adapt, they would evolve, and in the sands of time, who cared whether his parents liked her.... With that, she was finally able to focus on her text and it wasn’t until her shoulders began smarting beneath their tan that she went inside, found an empty carrel on the third floor, and reimmersed herself in the molecular soup.
The next time Sari looked up it was a quarter past twelve. As she hurried from the library the heat radiated from the pavement, and by the time she mounted the steps to their apartment her tank top was plastered to her back. Knowing she would be late, she jumped in and out of the shower and changed into Tim’s faded Gillman High T-shirt before starting down the Hill to the rec center. Despite the fresh clothes, her shirt was clinging by the time she reached her destination.
The hockey rink was in the municipal recreation center on Birch Street. Its cinder-block walls and metal roof also housed a swimming pool, weight room and gymnastics area, all of which were empty when Sari arrived. Hurrying through the lobby, she was greeted by a blast of cold air as she stepped through the glass door to the deserted rink. The clock behind the scoreboard said one, and she made her way through the stands to the exit onto the outdoor basketball court, the damp cloth between her shoulders pressing her forward like an icy hand. Blinking in the sudden brightness, she spotted Tim at the far end of the court. Like a beacon his red hair drew her forward.
Off-season Tim’s teams stayed in shape by playing roller hockey with wheeled skates on asphalt and a ball instead of a puck, and now a dozen junior high school boys stood watching him circle the court cradling the ball against the blade of his stick. The only sounds were the tap-tap of plastic against wood and the dull rumble of wheels on pavement as he threaded his way through a slalom course of orange cones. Eyes straight ahead he skated faster and faster from one goal to the other, manipulating ball and stick so smoothly they might have been a third appendage. As he came to a stop at the end where she was standing, he saw Sari for the first time. The smile that began at his lips and suffused his features in a flush of unexpected joy was private, meant only for her. As she stood watching him she remembered the first time she saw that smile.
Adapting to college was more than simply culture shock: stepping off the plane in Widmark last August, Sari had been literally stunned. It was her first time away from home, in a place that had meant no more to her than a pink square on the map to the left of the Mississippi. She arrived the day before orientation, so eager to put two thousand miles between her and her parents that it wouldn’t have mattered where the plane landed. The moment she inhaled arid heat and began squinting in the brutal sun she knew she’d made a mistake. But she’d insisted she knew what she was doing. Now she had to tough it out.
When the airport shuttle dropped the new arrivals at Chase Hall, the kids tossing Frisbees on the lawn were pale-eyed and golden, with legs as sturdy as tree trunks and the self-assurance that comes from being raised in places where every high school had a football field and swimming pool. Sari felt insubstantial and dark and for the first time, her intellect seemed a disadvantage. As she unpacked her trunk and hung an Indian-print bedspread on the wall to make her room seem cozier, she resisted the impulse to call home.
By the third week she’d landed on her feet, at least so far as academics were concerned. Her social life was another matter. There were two classes of girls at Chase: prom queens from out of state who brought flasks of low-calorie salad dressing to the dining hall and paired off with boys whose shorts had loops for pitons and rock hammers, and girls from Fort Jackson or Mesquite Springs whose mothers sent them Care packages of lemon bars and fudge. Moon-faced Ronnie across the hall was technically neither; from California, which might have made her a bona fide outsider if not for her membership in the Sierra Club and hundred-dollar Vibram-soled hiking boots, she was the closest Sari had to a friend.
That morning the Student Union had been a madhouse. It was the deadline for dropping and adding courses, and traffic between the cafeteria and bookstore made conversation impossible. Ronnie wanted a doughnut to fortify her for her eleven o’clock class, which was starting in ten minutes, but a flash of color caught Sari’s eye. A half dozen canvases were displayed on the cinder-block walls outside the grill.
“Come on,” Ronnie insisted, tugging at her. The door swung open, expelling a band of boys in Hawks jerseys who smelled of cinnamon buns and fried meat. “I’m going to be late for French.”
“I just want to look...” In the wake of the jocks Sari was able to move closer. The paintings were a mixed bag — a monochromatic landscape that seemed to be pottery jugs but was the San Juan Basin, a too-pink watercolor of the foothills, and a raunchy cartoon inspired by R. Crumb. But one work stood out: an extraordinarily lifelike acrylic of a youth peering into a glass sphere. The banner over the exhibit read Outstanding Freshmen.
“If that’s the best the Fine Arts Department has to offer,” Ronnie sneered, “civilization’s in a heap of trouble.” Following Sari’s gaze, she added, “Bring on the Ouija board....”
“There’s someone inside trying to climb out.”
The silky hair and translucent skin of the portrait’s subject drew her but Sari was transfixed by the figure in the globe. Pressed cheek and flattened palms said urgency, and now she recognized him as a miniature version of the boy holding the glass. Isolation and claustrophobia, her parents’ old apartment on Willow Street ... How could the artist know? She glanced over her shoulder, but the only one looking was a tall boy with red hair and a backpack standing behind them.
“Gross!” Ronnie said.
“No, it’s perfect,” she insisted. “Look at his expression, how desperate—”
“Sari, that painting is shit. It’s just another self-absorbed dweeb staring up his own ass.” Loud enough for the guy behind them to hear, and Sari flinched. “I’m getting something to eat before I starve.”
As Ronnie trundled off to the cafeteria, the boy turned to Sari. His features were delicate, but his pale skin and dark eyes made his hair flame. “Were you kidding about it being good?” he asked.
“No, I really like it.”
“But the perspective’s off, the face inside the ball is flat.” The careless way he dropped his pack suddenly made her realize she knew nothing about art, and up close the copper in his hair gleamed. “And you can tell he had a problem with the hands. The brushwork—”
“Can’t you see what he was trying to do? The whole point is the distortions.” He’d captured her father’s rigidity and her mother’s explosions, life in a shrinking bubble. “When he looks at himself he isn’t sure what he sees, or maybe he thinks they don’t see the real him. Either way, he has to break free.”
From the Paperback edition.