Juno's Swans

Juno's Swans

by Tamsen Wolff


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In 1988, before her senior year of high school, Nina and her best friend spend the summer alone on Cape Cod. Nina has grown up with her ailing grandmother—and she yearns for the chance of a deeper connection. When she enrolls in an acting course, she soon finds romance with Sarah, one of the teaching assistants.

Nina’s own world revolves around Sarah, while the rest of the world moves urgently on. Nina’s high school teacher does not take the end of their relationship well; her best friend feels abandoned; the AIDS epidemic rages; her fellow actors grow and hone their talents. The novel perfectly captures the revelatory feelings that arrive with young adulthood – the startling awareness of oneself outside the bounds of friends and family, and the twin senses of loneliness and liberation that accompany this knowledge. After a summer of love and loss, Nina slowly finds her way back home.

With lyrical prose, nuanced characters, and an evocative narrative voice, Tamsen Wolff vividly brings to life the dizzying experience of first love—and its inevitable partner, first heartbreak. This honest depiction of female relationships—both romantic and platonic—will capture readers from fifteen to fifty. Juno’s Swans is rich and sharp and emotional in all the right places.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609454661
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,177,982
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Tamsen Wolff is a professor in Princeton University’s English Department, where she specializes in modern and contemporary drama, voice, directing, and dramaturgy. She has published essays in numerous journals, and is the author of Mendel’s Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early Twentieth-Century American Drama. Juno’s Swans is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


I keep replaying the conversation in my head," I say out loud to Titch, louder than I mean to. "Don't," she responds. Then, "I'm sorry."

"I couldn't speak, I didn't know what to say."

"Well that's a rarity," Titch says. Which is fair.

I look over at her.

We are sprawled on beanbag chairs in the basement in her mother's house where we once watched Lady Chatterley's Lover on the VCR, back when the VCR was a really big deal. Titch's mom had to drive us all the way to the video store in Lebanon because there certainly wasn't one in Etna, New Hampshire, the backass end of nowhere. The video store had rows of shelved black plastic cases that seemed to advertise something illicit, like the adult area of the magazine store, or beer bottles in brown paper bags, so it didn't seem that surprising when we got back to Titch's house and discovered Lady Chatterley's Lover in the case that claimed to hold The Great Muppet Caper. We managed to get through all the good bits before anyone upstairs noticed.

I wonder if Titch ever thinks about this. At the moment she has her right index finger in her book and is squinting out the sliding glass doors at the blurry world of October, frowning. It is raining lightly, spattering on the glass. We haven't said anything out loud for probably an hour.

(I'm in love with her. You can't be.)

I think, Titch does not want to talk to me, she does not want to hear about Sarah, she does not want to hear about any of it. I wonder if she will tell me that I can't stay. If she does, where am I going to go?

Titch and I used to be best friends. Her real name is Harmony, which is a terrible joke because she's maybe the least harmonious person around. She's an artist and a kind of prickly, lackadaisical hypochondriac with an excellent, very dry sense of humor. Before this summer, we'd been best friends since fourth grade. But right now, Titch isn't looking at me. She's reading again, her left hand clamped under her right armpit for warmth. Her hands are slender and long-fingered and nearly always blue from cold. She's one of the coldest people I've ever known. In the middle of summer, her mom, Lois, will seize both her hands and rub them together murmuring, cold hands, warm heart.

Lois teaches special ed in elementary school and volunteers at the hospital. She has a soft nest of dark hair and eyes that look amazed and gentle at the same time. I always want to perform tricks around her to get her to look at me the way she looks at Titch. Her face gets all kind of suffused, like she's blushing, but with helplessness and love. Sometimes not having my mother around all the time has seemed like an advantage, but whenever I see Lois look at Titch, it gives me pause.

When Lois was first diagnosed with breast cancer we were in sixth grade. That time she smoked pot medicinally for a while, which we thought was very cool, but which made her throw up. We sat around in the basement after she smoked, pretending we could breathe in the fumes from the air, laughing ourselves sick with the imagined high, and rolling about on the floor cushions deliriously, like demented puppies. We are sitting in that room now, that pretend pot room, that room of ridiculous juvenile giddy idiocy. It's right where we are now and in some other dimension.

Titch has never actually smoked anything to the best of my knowledge. She has a formidable list of real ailments, asthma, allergies that used to require special shots at the hospital once a week, diabetes that required insulin injections. She has a lot of paraphernalia to deal with all the contingencies, the dangers of low blood sugar, the wheezing, the bee stings. She's like her own walking hospital and she jingles when she moves because of all the various dog tags with information about how to treat her if she stops breathing. We used to practice for emergencies and I know how to administer her shots and even how to resuscitate her, if necessary. This always gave me a great sense of importance, and besides, it was fun. By the time we were faced with the plastic mannequin in CPR in high school — "Annie, Annie are you okay?" — we were old hands.

Titch looks up at me sharply right then.



"Did you just say Annie, Annie are you okay?"

I can't see any way out of it. "I was thinking about CPR with Mr. Honeywell."

Her eyes are flitting meanly from side to side without comprehension, as though I am speaking a foreign language. Her face is closed and furious. My throat cramps.

When she doesn't say anything else, I think what am I doing here, I should get up and go, she doesn't want me here. My heart is staggering in my chest, actually lurching from left to right.

I think: I am going to lose her too. I think: I already have.

A band of pain clamps around my skull like a vise. It makes my eyes close, until I force myself to open them again and see Titch, scowling downward.

Part of me really wants to ask her something, like how I got here. Or even how did we get here? We used to be the ones who knew that grown-ups disappoint and disappear, and that was part of what drove us so firmly together. But now that we've disappointed each other, disappeared on each other?

These are not the kinds of questions Titch likes much. If I asked her anything like this, she would be completely jumpy.

We have been silent in the basement for so long that the air in the room is starting to sit heavy on my chest like a wrestler. (I'm in love with her.) I know there's a way to get out from under this. (You can't be.) I keep thinking if I can get any kind of grip on what led up to this moment, or if I could focus on what was true, maybe I wouldn't have to be trapped forever, I could roll out from under, I could breathe again.

When we first came down to the basement this afternoon Titch had asked right away whether I was going to go back to school. I'd driven by the high school on the way to her house, trying not to look and see who was horsing around on the grass out front. I held my breath, like I was driving by the cemetery. I could hear laughter floating up, a girl's warning helpless giggle. I thought I could hear the sound of sneaker rubber squeaking on the linoleum floors inside and I imagined a random pair of disembodied Tretorns or Adidas running up the front staircase to where the wobbly glass of the victory case loomed, filled with photographs — the faded grinning lines of faces, ancient boys kneeling on the soccer field — alongside unpolished trophies with illegible writing.

To Titch I said, "If I go back I might as well have a hunchback or a third eye, because everyone knows. You might as well paint a big red X between my shoulder blades."

That shut her up.

I didn't say it, but actually you could paint two big X's for that matter, front and back, because I am doubly marked. I am branded twice over. And Titch knows it. She is partly to blame.

In our grade, starting in elementary school, there were three kids who were visibly marked. Lucas Mitchell's head was too long for his body and he had seams on his neck from brain cancer surgeries. Ginny Schramm mostly looked normal, but she was tiny and had teeth that made me squeamish, child teeth in a grown-up head, baby teeth, small smooth mouse teeth. Lucas was shy and kept to himself, but Ginny and I were friends for a while in third grade because it was easy to make her laugh and she had that kind of breathless laugh that would make her laugh again harder and harder until she wheezed silently, just phht phht, like a bellows. That laugh would make me want to say whatever it was over and over again. She was a ludicrously easy audience, the best to be had in 3G. And I could overlook the teeth too — or at least rationalize my fear — because everyone knew Ginny had a defective heart and wasn't supposed to grow like the rest of us. So I figured her heart was the reason she still had baby teeth and I tried not to let that drive a wedge between us. She died the summer before the first year of high school I think or even earlier when they moved away, I don't remember which. One fall she just didn't come back to school.

Then there was Marcia Rabinowitz. She had been some freak victim of polio after there was never supposed to be polio anymore. She walked the way you do after you've sat on the toilet for too long reading a book and your feet have fallen asleep all the way up your shins: kind of splayed and unsteady, grabbing onto stuff. Her fingers were stretched apart and rigid, the skin on the knuckles yellow. Ginny, Lucas, and Marcia were like constant reminders of things we thought we were safe from. You had to be nice — although some boys used to trip Marcia on the bus and everyone tried hard not to sit next to her. She had a strange smell, the smell maybe of too many hospitals, but absolutely of the weak animal in the herd. No one wanted to touch her, or Lucas, or even Ginny. You just wanted to leave some offering at their altars under the cover of night, open a beer or something and pour it into the ground like our crazy Latin teacher Mrs. Herrera had us do with red wine for the Greeks & Romans Unit. Libations! she'd cry and empty a bottle of red onto the ground. This was outside by the flagpole, before some parents complained. Since we couldn't get our paws on the stuff it seemed like an awful waste and we'd stand around in our white sheet togas mournfully watching it seep away.

When I pointed this out to Titch, the super sad marked lineup I'd be joining if I go back to school, she considered it without speaking for a minute.

"You'd be more like Jessica Myers," she offered then, tentatively.

Jessica Myers had become an overnight sensation sophomore year because she was supposed to have tried to kill herself over the lone exchange student, Dmitry Petrov, who had come to our high school for the year as part of some do-good Cold War outreach effort. There was a lot of whispering about it and she did appear to have faint scars on her wrists. If you looked really hard when she was changing in gym class you might see them. She wore a lot of those braided embroidery thread bracelets though, so it was kind of hard to tell. At the time, Titch had said flatly, "What an excellent idea for us to be friends with the Russians. They don't even have to bomb us; they can just send over their teenage boys and get American girls to off themselves. Crafty Commie pinko bastards."

"Like Jessica Myers with a twist," Titch added. "Jessica Myers on crack." She said it like that commercial where the voice says, This is your brain — image of an intact egg — This is your brain on drugs — a smashed, splattered, fried egg.

This is my brain on crack.

Thanks, I said. Or meant to say. Nothing actually came out. I tried to smile at Titch, but that didn't work so well either. My face seemed to be kind of paralyzed. I knew that she was trying but I was not rallying well. She looked around uneasily and bit the side of her middle finger.

She had asked me if I wanted to talk about anything. When we first came into the house, she asked me. She wasn't looking at me when she said it, but she didn't seem exactly mad or upset. Careful. But we were both being careful, like wary, uncomfortable strangers.

"I don't know where to start," I said dully. The backs of my calves were sticking to the vinyl of the beanbag. This wasn't entirely true. I didn't know whether to start telling her.

I know when it started.

It started at the party in Wellfleet on Cape Cod not long after my seventeenth birthday, or four months and eight centuries ago. Titch was there, but she didn't know. She knew and she didn't know too, the way people who are close to you do.

(I'm in love with her. You can't be. I'm in love with her. You can't be.)

Please. Make. It. Stop.

When I didn't say anything else, Titch had picked up the book beside her on the floor.

"If you want to talk," she said, her head in the book.


I don't want to talk.

Driving on Route 6 heading off of Cape Cod about nine hours ago, I heard something over the insistent jabber on the car radio. It was right before I reached Eastham, around seven A.M. In the middle of the toothless forced hilarity of the morning DJs — the obligatory useless female DJ was saying over and over, "Oh you guys" — I heard a terrible sound. It sounded like somewhere in the car there was a yowling animal that had given up on being saved from death. Then I saw in the rearview mirror that my face was appallingly contorted. It looked like there was a frantic bird trapped and flapping behind my eyes. I pulled over into the greasy puddled parking lot of the Dunkin' Donuts kitty-corner with Nickerson's gas station, forgot to cut the engine, and stalled. I was actually writhing in the seat, wrestling with the snaking grief in my gut. It slithered up and wrapped around my throat, cutting off my windpipe. It's amazing what can live in your belly and what can come out of your mouth. I mean apart from how awful I felt, even right then I was amazed. It was like I was ventriloquizing the entire sick house at the zoo, making the whole car resound with feline caterwauling, and that eerie otherworldly mewling that marine animals make. I had to slap myself hard in the face a bunch of times just to stop the sounds. Then I sat for a long blubbering snotty stretch of time.

Kate Bush was singing on the radio when I finally pulled out of the parking lot. It sounded sort of like a sympathetic backup chorus, a muted and prettier animal lament.

Maybe this is what people mean when they say you have a growing pain. You sprout new limbs, monstrous organs right there on the spot — you feel the flailing, the impossibility of coordinated movement, your belly distended, pushing out your rib cage, and you hear the groaning, creaking, roaring fury of your cavernous bones. It didn't much make me want to talk. It didn't much make me want to open my mouth ever again.

So instead I am sitting here in silence with Titch reading and me on my lumpy seat, lumpy with grief, just stupid with it. There's the back of Titch's impenetrable neck. Over her bent head a poster is hanging partly off the wall. Under the curl of paper it says, ACE: The New Frontier.

SPACE. Of course: SPACE. SPACE: The New Frontier. It's from before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded sophomore year and Christa McAuliffe blew up on national television along with those six other astronauts nobody can ever remember. We watched it happen, with most of the rest of the country, in our case in the school auditorium on a big television screen. A lot of people had posters and hats and the like. Our school and the whole state had a kind of proprietary interest since Christa was from New Hampshire, picked from 11,000 teachers nationwide, people liked to boast. She taught at Concord. Our football team had lost to Concord twice the season before the Shuttle launch. (We lost to everybody. We were a joke.) When the explosion happened seventy-three seconds after takeoff, people mostly looked around the auditorium, confused, as though an explanation would follow, but the faces of the teachers were as perplexed and stunned as ours. Then the television cameras zoomed in on the faces of her two kids, who were young, under ten anyway. That's when I understood what had happened, by watching their faces drain and shrink and pucker in shock. The way they were exposed, their skin peeled back right there in front of the world, was strange and terrible. Like slitting open the frogs in Bio, only worse because the frogs at least are already dead. Donna Henderson, our perpetually sweaty Music teacher, plowed forward like a giant damp cheese trapped in a polyester pantsuit, trying to get to the TV and turn it off. She was panting, and she trod hard on Trevor Sullivan's hand because Trevor was sitting on the floor in her path. He shrieked but she didn't even notice.

Listen, obviously it's not the same thing what I'm feeling now and what those McAuliffe kids were feeling. Obviously. But something has exploded. And anyone who really looks at me can see my chest is cracked open, my heart is visibly, senselessly banging away. Anyone who is looking at me can see that all I am is a collection of exposed organs, walking around.

It's dreadful being porous, the way everything and everyone gets in. There should be a plastic wrap for this grief and rage, or a way to lock me in my own phone booth so I can be left to stew alone.

(I'm in love with her.

You can't be. You're for me.)


Excerpted from "Juno's Swans"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Tamsen Wolff.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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