Of course I can walk home alone,” Helen said. “I’m almost thirteen.”
It was July, 1970, in southern California, and she was standing next to the driver’s window of her family’s Country Squire, breathing in the smell of her mother’s cigarette, which she loved. Her mother only smoked in a crisis, like now: in the passenger seat sat Helen’s younger sister, Maggie, the daredevil, who’d split her scalp open on the diving board of the country club pool. The white towel Maggie held pressed to her head was pink with blood, and she was beaming with the excitement and attention and the prospect of ice cream for dinner.
Scott, the lifeguard, had carried her out to the car. “Not to worry, Mrs. Wyatt,” he’d said. “Head wounds always bleed like crazy.”
“Don’t I know it.” Helen’s mother had sighed and pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. She was so often compared to Natalie Wood that the movie star’s drowning years later would seem like the death of a distant relative.
Scott tucked a beach towel around Maggie but didn’t buckle the seatbelt—back then, nobody did.
“You’re too kind,” Helen’s mother said, meaning that he should get his naked torso out of the car already so she could drive her child to the emergency room.
Then she turned to Helen, who was, her mother often said, a perfect nightmare in the ER—though she’d never been a patient—fretting about germs on the orange plastic chairs and the soft, thumbed magazines, flinching whenever the automatic doors slid open in dread of beholding severed limbs, bereaved people screaming. “Do you remember where the hide-a-key is?” her mother asked.
Helen glanced at Scott—who didn’t look like a criminal, but you never knew—and whispered into her mother’s ear.
“Good girl. Don’t talk to anyone.”
God, no. It was the summer of the Manson trial, and the Wyatts lived not twenty miles from where Sharon Tate and her dinner guests had been murdered. Helen and her friend Amy traded tips on bedside self-defense: Right Guard or Aqua Net sprayed into the intruder’s eyes, then a quick, hard stab to the windpipe. Their parents were always asking where the hell the scissors had got to.
Maggie practiced her future Rose Queen wave out the window as the car eased onto Orange Grove Boulevard.
Helen darted away across the country club lawn, in case her mother decided on second thought that she might as well stay at camp until the end of the day and get a ride home from another parent. Being happy about Maggie’s accident didn’t mean she was a psycho, like the Manson girls. She loved her sister—mostly—but she also hated tennis camp. Her parents had insisted that she go, though Helen had known it would be ghastly. She’d pronounced it in the British way as her grandmother did, which made her mother laugh. But then she said, “I’d have given my eye teeth for such an opportunity when I was your age.”
“Careful,” Helen’s father said, in a warning tone. Helen’s mother’s parents had been poor and now they were dead, but her father didn’t like her mother reliving the details of being underprivileged, like being willing to barter her teeth.
“Well, I can’t have her sitting around all summer complaining that she’s bored.”
“I won’t—I’ll read.”
Helen’s favorite books were historical novels praised as “sweeping” on the jackets. But the truth was that she was often achingly bored—stalking from room to room, yanking open drawers and cabinets, skimming for the sexy parts in the books on the living room shelves: The Naked Communist, None Dare Call It Conspiracy. Disappointed, she’d fling them down and sprawl on the carpet, imagining a life in which she’d wear old-fashioned clothes and make clever retorts as she flounced away.
Clever retorts and flouncing away were not put up with in the Wyatt household; even a badly timed eye roll could get your cheek slapped. So, no, Helen had to go to tennis camp.
It was worse than she’d expected. Unlike at school, where Amy also loathed PE, so that together they could dawdle putting on their gym uniforms and hang back at the end of the line for throwing or kicking or whatever until the bell rang, everyone else at camp liked tennis and played well. Helen envied Amy, who was Jewish, and couldn’t have attended camp at the country club even if her parents had tried to force her.
After a lunch of hamburgers and milkshakes, their lungs still burning from the smog, campers had an hour to play in the pool. But this break from tennis was no respite for Helen because she also couldn’t swim.
She’d been able to when she was little, but now, whenever she opened her eyes underwater and saw how the bottom of the pool sloped down, down, down, to a depth far deeper than the tallest human, she felt sick with terror. So she spent the free swim period in the shallow end, paddling with her head out of the water like the adults in their petaled swim caps, as if she were an old lady who just happened to be twelve.
It seemed impossible even to her that she could be related to Maggie, who was not only a demon on the tennis court but fearless in the water, playing Marco Polo with the big kids in the deep end and turning cartwheels off the diving board. The older boys showered her with nicknames: Maggot, Major Maggot, Bird Dog—this last because of how she could catch a tennis ball in midair, her small brown body still spinning from a backflip.
Later, Helen would recall that she knew Maggie’s flip was lopsided even before she jumped. There was a crack as she hit the board, a collective groan from the kids who’d been tossing the ball to her. The lifeguard dove, and suddenly Helen was in the middle of the pool, though Maggie was already rescued. She churned the water, getting nowhere. Water licked her face and tugged her down, like a too-friendly dog. How stupid if she were to drown now, with everyone’s back turned. She fought her way to the surface and over to the side, where she managed to haul herself out onto the warm cement. An adult nearby remarked that she was shaking like a leaf. “Let her through so she can see that her sister’s okay.”
The crowd parted to reveal Maggie sitting up on a chaise longue. She was talking and giggling—not totally okay, as blood was still pouring from her head. A waiter brought a long-corded phone out to the pool deck, and while Scott called their house, Helen ran to collect Maggie’s things from the locker room. Hastily she pulled her tennis dress over her wet bathing suit and screwed her racket into its wooden press. Her joy and relief momentarily shamed her—her sister was injured. But she wasn’t dead, and Helen was free.
She hurried down Orange Grove, brandishing the racket. She wasn’t scared of Charles Manson in broad daylight, but she wanted to get home quickly and call Amy about Maggie’s accident and her near-drowning, because nothing had truly happened to her until Amy heard it.
What could the two of them possibly have to say to each other, twenty minutes after school let out? her mother had wanted to know. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Amy, her mother had continued, but maybe Helen should branch out. Because unfortunately—and this wasn’t Amy’s fault—she talked like her parents, who were from New York, and Helen was starting to pick that up. She now pronounced “down” day-own, for example, did she realize that?
“Day-own, day-own, day-own,” Helen had repeated in a mocking tone, then felt the sting of her mother’s fingers on her face. But the sound of the word in her mouth also conjured her love for Amy.
Helen and Amy frequently declared that they loved each other—it was a common remark in Amy’s family. So to Amy, Helen also freely confessed her love for a boy in their class, whom Amy also liked. Sharing him was not a problem. They endlessly discussed their sightings and encounters, without jealousy—it was like loving the same Beatle. Both were too shy to speak to him outside of class. His name was Edward Barr, and he was the son of the secretary at the Episcopal church next door to their school.
He was the school’s first black student; a neat, quiet boy, with careful penmanship and a slow-blooming, radiant smile. He was good even at the sports he hadn’t played before, like soccer, and that had made him instantly popular. Coming in from the playing field within a knot of sweaty boys, you’d hear him guffaw hoarsely—suggesting that a dirty joke had been told. But unlike the other seventh-grade boys, he was polite and formal in class. He had horn-rimmed glasses that he carried in a hard plastic case on top of his books, which he’d take out and put on once the bell rang. Then he was all business, like Clark Kent.
He’d been in Helen’s Latin I class, where he’d sat in front and to the right of her, so that she could gaze at him while appearing to look at the teacher: at his long lashes curling over slightly droopy eyelids, at his small, flat ears that made her think of the translucent wings of a bat, at his smooth, pimple-free skin. During the whole of seventh grade, they’d spoken twice. Once he’d turned around and asked, “Were we supposed to do the odds and evens or just the odds for homework?” The second time, he’d leaned back and whispered, “This declension is nuts,” followed by a shake of the head, a few clicks of the tongue.
The eyeglass ritual, that slightly feminine tsk-tsking might have been fodder for mockery if he hadn’t been Edward Barr, so coolly above anything as immature as teasing. He and his mother commuted to school by freeway, so Helen hadn’t seen him all summer, though every song on The White Album suggested him.
She heard the tick-tick-tick of a ten-speed slowing down behind her, then the squeak of brakes.
Later, she would tell Amy that Edward Barr had ridden up to her on Orange Grove just as she was thinking about him—although, because he was lodged in some permanent recess of her consciousness, this would have been true at any time.
“Hey, don’t hit me with that thing,” he said.
She turned around and gasped. Then she reddened—as if all her discussions with Amy, the many long conversations she’d had with him in her mind, were tumbling out of her head, visible to him.
Straddling the bike, he reached out and touched the squared-off bolts that protruded from the frame of the racket press. “Man, this item is dangerous.” He reared back a little as if she were a fearsome creature. “So you play tennis, huh? Dumb question. Of course you play tennis.”
“I’m not very good.”
“I don’t understand tennis, myself.” He swung his leg over the bar of the bike and began walking it, walking beside her. The tires crunched over dead magnolia leaves. “I mean, I understand the rules. I just don’t get what’s so thrilling about it. I’m more of a team player.”
He was walking her to the corner. Then, at the intersection, he could politely take his leave. From the back, he must have thought she was someone else. He hadn’t said her name. Maybe he didn’t know it. Maybe he didn’t even realize they went to the same school.
The pavement under her feet suddenly felt soft, undulating, and she longed to reach out and steady herself on the rough trunk of one of the imperial palms looming up along the parkway.
“You’re one of the girls in Latin One, right?” Edward Barr said.
“Yeah.” Many more girls than boys took Latin, despite its warlike subject matter—all the praetors and consuls and Gaul getting forcibly divided into three parts. “Those nutty declensions,” Helen said.
“A private joke? Okay. So next year, Latin Two. Man.”
The conversation died there. Only about fifty yards to the corner. She slogged on, eyes on the lurching sidewalk as if it were a tightrope high over the city, staring grimly at her tennis shoes.
The light turned red as they reached the intersection. The cars rushing along Orange Grove were still. Mockingbirds quarreled in a nearby bush.
“Are you going home?” Edward Barr asked.
“I’ll walk you.” His words hung in the hot afternoon air. They didn’t sound like a question, but she realized that he was waiting for an answer.
“Okay.” She pointed left. “This way.”
“I figured you knew the way.” He smiled. He was the one who seemed to have a lot of private jokes. She liked the way he emphasized certain words, as if he found them amusing and ironic. She’d heard adults say that Edward Barr didn’t talk like a black person—though that wasn’t what they said, they said that he was well-spoken. Still, he didn’t talk like anyone else she knew.
But now that he’d asked her to do something, she knew it was her job to draw him out. The articles Helen and Amy pored over in Seventeen even provided sample questions to ask a boy. Sometimes, when there was a lull in their hours-long phone calls, one or the other would ask, “What’s your favorite sport?” That made them laugh until their sides ached and they were gasping for air. Laughing was hands-down their favorite sport.
Certainly Edward Barr, with his sense of humor, would get the absurd banality of the question. So Helen asked it, biting her lip to keep a straight face.
“Huh,” he said. “Let me think here.” This was his reply when he was called on in class out of the blue—he did not permit even a teacher to rattle him.
He began with the first fall sport at school—flag football—then moved right on around the year to soccer, track, basketball, and baseball, weighing the pluses and minuses of each one. As he warmed to his subject, Helen’s heart began to beat less frantically. The sidewalk became solid under her feet. She stole a glance at him. Amy would want to know what he was wearing, since they’d only seen him in the school uniform. He was pretty dressed up for a summer bike ride, in a plaid sport shirt, khaki pants, and brown lace-up shoes.
“I guess it’s a tie between football and soccer,” Edward Barr concluded. “I never thought I’d like soccer, and here I am putting it in first place. It’s best to keep an open mind,” he added.
Sweat was beading at his fluffy hairline and on the rims of his ears. He must be hot in those clothes. Helen tugged at her itchy bathing suit.
They turned onto Oak Knoll, walking in the shade of giant carobs and jacarandas. The sports conversation had taken up eight whole blocks. Only eight more to go. “So maybe I’d like tennis after all,” he said. “Maybe you and I could play tennis. I don’t mind if you’re not very good.”
So he didn’t know that he wasn’t allowed into the country club. This was what Amy had told her—that black people and Jewish people couldn’t even enter. Helen’s parents had said it wasn’t true—had she ever seen guards at the door, keeping people out? It was more a question, her father had said, of whether certain people would feel comfortable there.
“I’m bad at tennis, and I hate it,” Helen exclaimed. “My parents are making me take lessons.”
He looked at her and laughed. “Whoa. That is an opinion. I hear you. My mom made me take piano lessons and I hated it. Wouldn’t practice. She finally gave up.” He laughed again and shook his head. “My mom’s kind of over-protective.”
“Oh, mine, too!”
Actually, Helen’s mother had tried to protect her from Edward Barr. Helen hadn’t even told Amy about this. It was one evening last winter, when her parents were having drinks in the library before dinner. Their house was all on one floor, built around a Spanish-style patio with a stone fountain in the middle. The rooms gave off a hallway paved with red ceramic tiles, which echoed, so that voices carried easily if the doors were open.
Standing in the hallway, Helen had heard her mother’s voice rising, getting more and more upset. She was worried about how much time she and that Amy Gold spent mooning over the boy from Inglewood who was in their class.
Helen heard her father telling her mother to calm down.
This request, she’d noticed, usually made people do the opposite. Her mother began to cry. “You don’t seem to understand that such an association could mark her for life.”
“I understand perfectly,” her father had said. “Let me handle it.”
By this time, Maggie was out of her room, too. “You’re in trouble,” she said, surprised—usually, she was the one in trouble.
“No, I’m not,” Helen said. “I haven’t done anything.”
“That’s what they all say.” Maggie ran into her room and slammed the door.
Helen went into her room and sat on her bed. There was no point in closing her door, though the sound of her father’s approaching footsteps on the tiles was nerve-wracking. How could she possibly be in trouble for liking the black boy in her class? You’re not too big to spank, her father sometimes said. But how big did she have to be? She would never be bigger than him.
She pictured being cast out of the house over Edward Barr, her beloved. In this fantasy she was wearing a long dress and cloak, riding horseback to his house in Inglewood through wind and rain. She’d dismount before a thatched cottage with diamond-paned windows, and Mrs. Barr, coming to the door, would have on a floor-sweeping gown instead of the Dacron skirt she wore at the church office. She would urge Helen to sit by the fire and warm herself.
Then Edward Barr would stride in, wearing tall boots and a cravat—whatever that was. Their eyes would meet. What would he say to her? Were we supposed to do the odds and evens or just the odds for homework? This declension is nuts.
Helen burst into giggles. Her father came into her room and sat on her desk chair, which wobbled under his weight. “What’s so funny?”
“I was thinking of a joke somebody told in Latin class,” Helen said.
“God, I hated Latin,” her father said. “Hic, haec, hoc. Have you noticed how Latin teachers always have bad breath?” He rubbed his cheek. “I just wanted to say that it’s important to be polite to every single person in your grade, Helen. You should be friends with everyone equally. No special treatment for anyone. Do you understand?”
“I guess so,” Helen had said.
She and Edward Barr were getting close to her house now, walking past wide, velvety lawns where automatic sprinklers were also sprinkling the sidewalk. “At least,” she sighed, “your mom lets you ride your bike to another town.”
“She doesn’t,” he said. “And this isn’t my bike. This is a Peugeot.”
“Oh,” Helen said. Though she’d in fact noticed what it was and was planning to tell Amy.
“She’s been making me come in to work with her this summer because she doesn’t like some of the kids on my block,” Edward Barr said. “That’s how over-protective she is. But I got bored reading all day, so the preacher said I could ride his son’s bike around since he’s away at camp. As long as I didn’t leave it unattended.”
“Peugeot’s supposed to be a good kind of bike,” Helen said.
“Yup,” he said. He wasn’t swerving to avoid getting his pants and shoes wet. He sighed, opened his mouth and closed it again. The air felt thick, as it had when she’d realized that Maggie was about to hit the diving board. “A lady down the block from the church recognized the preacher’s kid’s bike,” he said finally. “She made a big mess about it.”
“That was stupid,” Helen said.
“Okay. Yeah. She said she was sorry. But the preacher thought I could still ride it if I wore my good clothes.”
“Church clothes—church bike,” Helen said. “I guess that makes sense.”
It didn’t, really. Still, Edward Barr looked relieved, as if he’d handed in a troublesome homework assignment. “Do you like to ride bikes?” he said.
“Well, what do you like?”
“That sounds like amazing fun. Man. Sitting around together reading.”
“I also like listening to music.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. What music?”
“My friend Amy has The White Album.”
“Amy. Oh, yeah, she’s in math. Now, there’s a girl with opinions.”
Helen laughed, a little guiltily. On the other hand, Edward Barr hadn’t said that he didn’t like opinions. Amy was in the smart math and science classes; Helen in the smart English and history. Together, they liked to say, they added up to one smart person. Edward Barr was in all smart classes—he was actually an eighth grader, but had been put into seventh when he came to their school in order to catch him up with the curriculum.
“Go over to Amy’s, hang out, listen to music—we could try that,” he said. “The ‘White’ Album. Okay.”
“Private joke?” Helen said.
“She’s sharp,” Edward Barr said, but not to her. He was smiling faintly at the spreading purple branches of a jacaranda.
They walked the last long, shady block. “Here we are,” Helen said. He wheeled the bike up the circular drive and they stood in front of her house.
“You live here.”
“You live here.”
Helen didn’t answer. He was making fun of her.
“How many people in your family?”
“Four. So do you call each other on walkie-talkies?”
There was an intercom system, but she didn’t want to say that.
“No, we just yell,” she said. Unbidden, then, came a picture of herself and Maggie standing frozen in the hallway, listening to raised voices coming from the library. Sometimes, you could hear glass breaking. Then murmurs, and finally, cigarette smoke would float towards them like a fragrant ghost. Helen and Maggie would go back into their rooms without speaking, as if they were strangers in adjacent motel rooms. They usually had dinner very late. European-style, their parents said.
“Actually, we yodel,” Helen said.
He grinned, softening towards her again, forgiving her for living in a huge, fancy house. You couldn’t help where you lived—he, of all people, ought to realize that.
“I can’t invite you in,” she said. “I’m not allowed to have friends over if no one’s home.”
“That’s true for most girls,” he said archly. “I have to return the bike, anyway. Maybe tomorrow we could go to your friend’s. ‘Glass Onion’ is a pretty decent song.”
She knew then that that song would remind her of him for the rest of her life. Honey pie, she thought boldly, then reddened.
“I’ll wait here until you get inside,” he said. “That’s just good manners.”
He was quoting his mother, she realized. She glanced at the potted Meyer lemon under which the key was hidden. “Have you been watching the news about the Manson trial?” she asked.
“My mom watches it.” He shrugged. “Dude’s crazy. He listens to The White Album. Says it told him to do that shit. Excuse me.”
“I don’t care.” Actually, it gave her a very pleasant, wild feeling, to have a boy swear in front of her.
“So you better go in before it’s dark and all the crazies are out,” he said.
“I can hit them with this dangerous item,” Helen said. She swung her racket. Now they had a joke together. But she didn’t move toward the house.
“Is your mom at work?” he asked.
“She’s at the hospital with my sister.”
“Oh, man. Does she have like, leukemia?”
“No. She fell and cut her head open.”
Edward Barr looked shocked—maybe at how heartless she was, saying this so calmly. “Maggie’s accident-prone,” Helen said. “She’s always in the nurse’s office. She’s a fourth-grader. We don’t look anything alike.”
“Well, I’ve always liked freckles,” Edward Barr said. “A lot of people don’t.”
“I gotta go,” he said. “Get inside now.”
She’d have to retrieve the key with him watching. She’d been told she’d be in deep trouble if she let anyone see her do it, even Amy. She walked slowly across the grass, stepped up on the lip of the porch, turned around, and waved.
“Keep going.” He was leaning forward on the handlebars, resting his chin on his hands, watching her. “I’m not leaving until you’re in.” He laughed, thinking she was playing with him.
“Close your eyes,” she said. He did, and drew his lips together.
Helen bent quickly, pushed the heavy flowerpot to one side, scooped up the key, and unlocked the front door. She planted one foot over the threshold. “I’m in,” she said, pivoting around to face him.
He was looking straight at her. His expression was perfectly blank. “You can find another hiding place for the key after I’m gone,” he said. He swung his leg over the bar and sailed down the driveway and into the street, swooping in graceful arcs without touching the handlebars, just like the boys did who had Peugeots of their own.
She never saw him again. In September, the headmaster made a special announcement in chapel: Edward Barr had been accepted to a prestigious boarding school back east on a full scholarship. He was entering as a ninth-grader, which reflected well on the preparation he’d received at their school. “He was an outstanding scholar and athlete, and a friend to everyone in his class,” the headmaster said. “He will be very much missed.” If he hadn’t looked so pleased, he might have been speaking at Edward Barr’s funeral.
The school’s first black student had been a great success. But it did seem that he had become—if possible—even more popular now that he was gone.
Meanwhile, Helen’s love for him was turning into an ache of embarrassment over the key—that he’d thought she hadn’t wanted him to see where it was hidden because he was a black person.
This hadn’t occurred to her, at first. On that evening after he’d walked her home, she’d felt a little delirious, like the moonstruck heroines in her books.
They’d gotten to eat dinner on TV trays in the library so that Maggie could have her head supported by cushions. Helen’s mother had noticed how flushed she looked; her eyes were glittering strangely. She felt Helen’s forehead. “Good heavens. You’re burning up.”
It was not the fever of love, but strep throat.
Helen had tried to persuade Amy to go wait on Orange Grove near the country club to tell Edward Barr she was sick. And Amy had—rightly, Helen conceded later—refused. She was already irritated that Helen had invited herself over to listen to records with him. “We can’t share him,” she’d said, though it was exactly what they’d done all through seventh grade. “What are you, an idiot?”
After that, in eighth grade, their friendship was somewhat strained. And the idea that she’d hurt Edward Barr’s feelings bloomed until it tinged everything she associated with him: the teacher’s stale breath in Latin class, the shouts of the boys on the playing field, fallen jacaranda petals, her tennis racket standing unused but adored like a religious relic in her closet. The White Album. The ‘White’ Album.
What could she do? If she wrote to him at boarding school to apologize, he might not remember what she was talking about. He might think she was crazy. Maybe he hadn’t been offended. Maybe he’d simply decided that, on closer inspection, he wasn’t as attracted to freckles as he’d thought.
Then one day towards the end of the school year, she crossed paths with his mother in the breezeway outside the main office. Mrs. Barr always helped organize the eighth-grade graduation, which was held in the church.
The dormant ache flared, flooding every cell of Helen’s body. This close, she could see how like her son Mrs. Barr was, with her long, curling lashes and planed cheekbones. Her lovely ears were pierced with tiny gold hoops.
“Oh, hi, Mrs. Barr,” she chirped.
“Why, hello, dear,” Mrs. Barr said. She went inside with her papers. All she probably knew about Helen was that she was about to graduate. She had no idea that the two of them shared a grief: the absence of Edward Barr. Helen sat down on a bench outside the office door. It was a clear, warm day, with a stirring of Santa Ana wind. She watched a blue jay pecking at a dropped sandwich on the patio. The bell rang, and she ignored it.
When Mrs. Barr came out of the office, Helen rose and walked behind her. Mrs. Barr took graceful, even steps, her head high. She copied Mrs. Barr’s rhythm. She gazed at her straight back. She was following her, like in a parade, a procession, a recessional.