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She'd been away for just a few days when a biology substitute told my class the most important and wonderful piece of information I'd ever heard.
And then he was pulled out of the classroom forever.
Before this, Mr. Rice had been invisible. The blazers he wore to Peninsula Upper School one of the finest schools in the Brooklyn Heights-to-Park Slope radius, to quote the promotional materials were never wrinkled, and he always combed his thin, wheat-colored hair into wet-looking lines. There was nothing extracurricular in any of his previous lessons, and with his droning monotone, he made the processes of cell division and photosynthesis and the intricate innards of a paramecium seem far less fascinating than they truly were. But on this particular day, Mr. Rice drew a double helix on the board, tapped it with his piece of chalk, and said, "Everyone, this is what your whole life is all about. It's all you need to know about anything."
The class fell silent. "DNA makes up everything inside of you," he boomed. "It determines what you look like and how you think, if you're going to get sick and whether you're smart or stupid. All you need to know about yourself is right here in this little molecule. Everything about your future, everything about your past. Nothing else matters, and you can't change it. It's passed down, directly, from your parents. You can't escape your parents and your parents can't escape you, as hard as either of you might try. You're tethered to them for life."
Everyone murmured. Jennifer Lake raised her hand, then put it back down quickly. "Even the DNA that may not code for anything," Mr. Rice went on, his voice swooping up and down, the way a hawk climbs and dives. "The stuff that's called junk DNA. It does code for something something huge. It codes for the secrets, stuff we never admit to anyone. Once we crack its code, we'll have the answers to everything, but right now I think the only beings that understand junk DNA's secrets are the aliens."
Mr. Rice turned and drew a dish-shaped spaceship on the board. An eggplant-headed alien peeked out the top, and Mr. Rice etched a dotted line beaming right to the helix of DNA. The sweat on his forehead reminded me of the beads of water that gathered on the outside of a plastic bottle on a hot day. A couple of boys at the back coughed insults into their fists. But Mr. Rice's words echoed in my mind. This is what your whole life is about. You can't escape your parents and your parents can't escape you.
Before this, our school's principal had missed every other instance of unorthodox teaching, so it was something of a surprise when his face appeared outside the classroom door. Then there was a knock. "Everything okay, Mr. Rice?" He stuck his head in. His eyes glided to the slapdash spaceship on the chalkboard.
I stared at the spaceship, too. There were so many things I worried about. I'd always been a worrier my father said worrying was in our blood. Just one week before, one of my most pressing worries had been that I would drop my set of keys to the apartment onto the subway tracks. I was so obsessed with the precarious danger of it, I flirted with the idea of pitching the keys down there willingly, just to know what would happen. But if I did, I would have to sit on the stoop in front of our apartment building, keyless, until my mother returned home from work. I didn't want to imagine what she would say, the pinched, disappointed shape her face would take.
I used to worry about the lone gray hairs I often saw sprouting from my mother's head, terrified that she was showing signs of advanced and debilitating age. When she started to shut herself in the bathroom for hours at a time, talking quietly on the phone, I worried that she was hiding a horrible sickness from the rest of us. I pictured a devastating disease ripping her apart, her skin peeling off in curls, her heart blackening. When we received a catalogue from the Vitamin Shoppe in the mail, I put it by her plate at breakfast, convinced its glossy pages contained a miracle pill. But she pushed the catalogue aside. My father absently flipped through it instead, commenting on the high price of spirulina tablets and chromium picolinate diet pills. In all my what-if scenarios, I never envisioned my father physically ill. The dark hours he spent under the covers were due to something different, not sickness.
What had happened to my family a few days before this was something else entirely something far bigger than anything I'd even dared to consider. But Mr. Rice's words made me think that maybe I didn't have to worry about it after all.
The substitute's shoulders slumped as he walked into the hall with the principal. As soon as the door shut, one of the fist-coughing boys snorted. "What a loser." Someone threw a balled-up piece of notebook paper at the alien spaceship. One by one, like dominoes falling over, everyone began to talk, to forget. I was the only one who didn't laugh.
The following day, when my father told me that Claire Ryan and her mother were coming over to visit in a few minutes, I was struck dumb. Just because I was friends with someone a couple years ago didn't mean we liked each other now. I thought my father understood this.
"Claire?" I shrieked. "Are you sure? Why?"
"Her mother wants to talk to me, that's why," my father explained. "And she's bringing Claire because she thought it would be nice for you two to see each other again."
The doorbell rang. I looked at my father. He was wearing plaid slippers and had the same Pfizer T-shirt he'd been wearing for days. Our house had magazines piled by the fireplace, empty soda bottles on the coffee table, and a crooked, undecorated Christmas tree in the corner, needles all over the floor. It was amazing how messy things could get in just two weeks.
When my father opened the door, Mrs. Ryan looked right perhaps a bit thinner, a little ragged, her blond hair not as smoothly blow-dried as it used to be but Claire was different entirely. Her eyes were the same, those blue-green eyes everyone used to be so jealous of. As was her thick blond hair, the hair she used to toss over her shoulder so effortlessly, and her pretty, bow-shaped mouth, the mouth every boy wanted to kiss. But her cheeks were puffy. The rest of her body was, too.
I couldn't stop staring. Look at the way her T-shirt clung to her arms! Look at the pink flesh around her neck! I actually gasped, although I tried to pass it off as a hiccup, hitting my chest for effect like I was working something down my esophagus. Everyone knew Claire was back from Paris and her parents were divorcing, but no one knew this.
Mrs. Ryan looked at me. "Hi, Summer. It's so nice to see you again."
She pushed Claire forward. "Say hi, Claire."
"Hi," Claire mumbled.
"How was France?" my father cried. "You two look great. Very European."
He didn't even notice how different Claire looked. My mother wouldn't miss something like this.
My father asked me to take Claire to the roof to show her the view of the city, as if Claire hadn't seen it thousands of times before. Although her view wasn't from this side of the river anymore what everyone also knew was that Mr. Ryan was retaining his apartment on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights, near us, and Mrs. Ryan and Claire were renting a place in a mysterious Manhattan neighborhood called Alphabet City.
"Go on," my father said, making a shooing motion with his hands.
When we reached the roof, Claire looked at the buildings across the East River. Back when we hung out a lot, we had names for each of the buildings we could see from my apartment the tall pointy one was Lester, the squat one on the harbor was Boris, and the Twin Towers were Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, the only two characters on the show worth caring about. I glanced at Scooby-Doo One World Trade and counted twenty-two flights from the top and three windows over. My mother's office. I'd never been inside it, but I was certain there was an official-looking name plaque on her desk, Meredith Heller-Davis. The room was still dark. I squinted hard, willing the light to come on.
Claire ran her finger along the edge of the charcoal grill. There was rust on it, but we used to cook out on the roof a lot. All four of us, my mother, father, my brother Steven, and me, we would come up here and point at the boats and buildings and eat hamburgers. My father used to bring up a boom box and put on a bunch of old jazz tapes, even though my mother preferred music that, as she put it, "actually made sense." When it was time to eat, my dad turned his back and whipped up a condiment that he said was his Aunt Stella's Famous Special Sauce. Once, I remarked that it tasted like nothing but mayo and ketchup mixed, and my mother snorted. "Stella probably got the idea from Burger King," she said with a laugh. My father chewed his burger. "Stella's a good woman," he said stiffly, not that it was in question.
Later, my mother and I would watch the boats on the East River through binoculars, making up stories about some of the yachters. The man in the sailboat named Miss Isabelle still lived on his parents' estate. The man in the yacht with a naked woman figurehead had made his fortune by patenting the long plastic wand used to separate one person's groceries from another on the belt how else could a man with such a tacky comb-over own a boat that big? When it was Steven's turn with the binoculars, he always aimed them at the buildings across the water, watching the people still in their offices, working. "What do you think they're doing in there?" he asked out loud on more than one occasion. "I bet they're doing math," my mother or I always suggested, struggling to remain straight-faced. Steven's love of math was an ongoing joke between my mother and me; we were convinced that he slept with his graphing calculator under his pillow.
Claire's belt was fastened on the very largest notch. "So my new neighborhood is weird," she informed me, as if we'd been talking every day. As if I knew everything about her which I kind of did. "Last night, I saw a man dressed as a woman."
"How did you know?"
"I looked at his arms."
I'd never been to her new neighborhood before, this mythical Alphabet City. When kids at our school traveled into Manhattan, they went to Soho to shop, or to the Upper East or West Sides to visit grandparents. No one ventured into the East Village, and definitely not to the avenues with the letters.
The Staten Island ferry chugged away from the west side of the island, spewing a contrast of black oil and crisp white waves behind it. "So." Claire tapped the top of the grill. "What's new with you?"
"Not much." I kept my eyes on the ferry. "Same old, same old."
Claire curled her hand around a rusted spatula. "I heard about your mom."
A hot fist knotted in my throat. What did everyone know about my family?
Before I could reply, a noise interrupted us. Claire's mother clomped up to the roof. My father followed. "Time to go," Mrs. Ryan announced.
Claire crossed her arms over her chest. "We just got here."
Mrs. Ryan gave her a tight smile. "We have a lot of things to do today."
"You have a lot of things to do. I don't."
"Well, you have to come with me." Mrs. Ryan's expression didn't falter.
"I can ride the train by myself."
"Seriously. Time to go."
Claire put her head down. "Fuck off."
My father's eyes widened. Mine did, too. I'd never heard Claire swear.
Mrs. Ryan swallowed, then stood up straighter. "Fine." She turned around stiffly and started back down the stairs. My dad and I stood there, waiting to see if Claire would move. She didn't. My father looked blank. He wasn't good at dealing with things like this.
Claire sighed. "Unbelievable," she eventually said, and stood up. The doorway down from the roof to our apartment suddenly looked too narrow for her to fit through.
My father and I walked them to the door. We watched them out the window as they marched toward the subway, not talking, not touching. The wind blew, shaking the plastic bags caught in the trees.
"Did Claire ask you anything about it?" my father murmured out of the corner of his mouth.
I shrugged. "It's none of her business." Or yours, I wanted to add.
"Claire's your best friend."
"Was. Two years ago. For like a second."
He jingled loose change in his pockets. "It's okay to talk about it, you know."
"I don't need to talk about it. There's nothing to talk about."
He looked at me desperately. The jingling stopped.
"There isn't," I repeated.
He pressed his thumbs into his eye sockets, breathed out through his mouth, and made a funny choooo noise, like a train pulling into the last station stop and easing on its brakes. Then he patted my arm, sighed, and went into the kitchen to turn on the TV.
Claire was born one year, one month, and one day before I was. When we were friends for like a second two summers ago, she liked to remind me of this when she held me down and tickled me: "I am one year, one month, and one day older than you," she would say, "so I have full tickling privileges."
She was going into ninth grade and I was going into eighth. We were forced to be around each other a lot that summer because our mothers, who both worked in the events department of Mandrake & Hester, a high-end private bank, had become best friends and rented a share on Long Beach Island. When my mother told me about it, I panicked. Spend eight weeks at the beach with a girl I didn't know? I didn't even like the ocean. And I wasn't very comfortable with strangers.
My mother wanted me to like Claire and even more, for Claire to like me and at the beach, it didn't seem that hard. Claire's long, ash-blond hair became knotted and caked with sand, and her full, pretty lips were constantly coated with zinc. She wore ratty T-shirts and cutoffs, and she roughhoused, tackling me into the surf. She indulged my need to spy on our mothers, who liked to sunbathe on the beach and read magazines. We had a foolproof system: the lifeguard stand was on a mound by the dunes, and all we had to do was duck behind where the lifeguards hung their towels and our mothers had no idea we were there. They talked about chauvinistic men at the office, places they wished they could visit, the new male teacher at their ballet studio in Tribeca. I waited to see if my mother would talk about me maybe in a bragging way, hopefully not in an irritated way but she never did.
In July, our mothers signed us up to be junior counselors at the town's day camp. Claire was the only person I spoke to and who spoke to me. Everyone loved Claire, though. She could play the guitar, beat anyone in a race across the sand, and she petitioned the camp to let us build a twenty-person ice-cream sundae, exhausting the kitchen's supplies. Three different junior counselor boys had a crush on her, and kids followed her around as if she were made of cake icing.
That fall, I switched from St. Martha's, a private Catholic school in Brooklyn Heights, to Peninsula Upper School, where Claire went. Claire was the only person I knew who went there, but I certainly didn't know who Claire was. If I had, I wouldn't have acted so juvenile around her, stealing stacks of orange-yellow 500s from the bank when we played Monopoly, constantly playing the beach house's Nintendo even though I barely touched our console at home. And I certainly wouldn't have done that dance when I won the Mega Man Six tournament, the finale of which involved flashing Claire my pink bubble-printed underwear.
On September 3, I barely noticed a tall, beautiful blond girl climb aboard the school bus. "Get your butt over here!" a guy at the back of the bus screamed at her. Other guys made whooing noises. "Where've you been all summer, Claire?" a girl cried.
Claire? I started up, alarmed. The blond girl in the pink shirt and form-fitted jeans took off her pale sunglasses. There were those familiar blue-green eyes, that lush, pink mouth, but her hair was so smooth, her clothes so brand-new. She whipped her head around, as if looking for someone. I slumped down in the seat and pretended to be fascinated by my lunch, a cold can of Coke that had sweated through the brown paper lunch bag, a smushed PB&J crammed into a Ziploc. Finally, Claire walked to the back and fell into a seat with one of the girls.
"Anyone sitting here?" asked an Indian boy who I would later learn was named Vishal. My hand was still saving the empty seat next to the aisle for Claire. I curled it away into my lap and squeezed myself as close to the window as I could.
When the bus pulled up to our school on Lincoln Street, I stood up, but Vishal grabbed my sleeve. "I think we're supposed to let them off first," he said, in his loopy I-didn't-grow-up-here accent. And there they came, Claire among them, shoving each other and laughing, all of them with clear skin and hiking backpacks even though there was nowhere around to hike.
Claire noticed me cowering behind Vishal. "Summer!" She stopped short, holding up the line in back of her. "When did you get on?"
"I was here," I said quietly. "I got on before you."
"Claire, c'mon!" A girl behind her shoved her playfully.
But Claire didn't move. "I didn't see you." She seemed honestly sad.
"I was here." My voice sounded pathetic. Claire noticed, too; her lip stuck out in a pout.
The next day, she made a big point to sit with me on the bus. The day after that, too. The whole time, she was up on her knees facing the back of the bus, laughing with them. "Just go back there," I said on the third day, pressing my body against the cold, drafty window, my knees curled up to my stomach because I'd stupidly chosen the bus seat above the wheel.
"No, it's okay." Claire moved her knees to the front. "So what's been going on with you? Are you liking school? Wasn't I right isn't it easy to find your way around?"
"I'm busy reading this," I snapped, staring at the oral report schedule for my American history class. I was to give a report about the Gettysburg Address on November 14, more than two months away.
"Summer." Claire wore shiny lip gloss. Her earrings were dangling silver pears.
Claire shrugged, then monkey-barred from seat to seat, listing sideways when the bus went over bumps. Maybe I should've told her to stay and sit with me. Maybe I should've asked why she hadn't suggested that we both go back and sit with them. But I was afraid what the answer might be what fatal flaw of mine prevented her from introducing me around. I told myself I was being charitable, a real friend, letting her go off there alone. I'd given her a gift.
By the time the end of the year rolled around, if Claire and I passed each other in an empty hall, all she might say was, "Steal any Monopoly money lately?" I hated her by then. I'd begun to blame Claire for everything that was going wrong: That, two weeks before, I had woken up and realized I'd peed in the bed. That a window in our front room had been broken, and my father asked my mother to call to have it replaced but she argued that he had fingers, he could call to have it replaced, and it still wasn't replaced because they were at some sort of standoff, and there was still a huge crack in the window, sloppily sealed up with duct tape. That I would probably die an old maid without ever kissing a boy. That my father had begun to spend whole Saturdays in bed, and that my mother didn't take me shopping anymore.
One late May afternoon, I was in keyboarding class, typing line after line of the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog. Two girls in the front row leaned close together. "Claire Ryan is moving to France," one whispered to the other. "They're taking the Concorde."
I typed a whole line of nonsense so it seemed like I wasn't listening. France?
I found out later not from Claire that her father had taken a position at his company's Paris office. They had rented a three-bedroom apartment in someplace called Montmartre. I wanted to ask Claire about it, or wish her well, or tell her good riddance, but so many people always surrounded her, all the way up to the very end, that I never had the chance.
The excited chatter that Claire was returning from France started a few weeks ago. Claire hadn't told anyone the news herself, but someone's father worked with Mr. Ryan and had found out the details. Claire would be attending Peninsula again, but she would be in tenth grade with me, not eleventh. People nudged Devon Reyes, Claire's old boyfriend, saying that Claire had probably learned a few tricks, living in a country that was so obsessed and open about sex. And me? I didn't have any reaction to the news, and no one asked me for comment. The time we were friends felt as far away as my birth.
But it surprised me that Mr. and Mrs. Ryan were getting a divorce Claire had never seemed worried about her parents' marriage. After Mrs. Ryan and Claire left our apartment, I followed my father into the kitchen. "Perhaps Mrs. Ryan just needs a private vacation," I called out to him, as if we'd been dissecting the Ryans' divorce for hours. "You know, some time to herself. And then, after a while, she'll move back into the Pineapple Street apartment, and everything will be fine. It's probably what all couples need, I bet."
My father looked at me for a long time. His eyes were watery. "Maybe," he said, eating from a bag of pretzels, letting loose salt fall to the floor. He tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a sniffle. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Shepard