The girl in the yellow dress, waiting for Noah to step down from the counter, is Grace Childs. Noah (whom her friends call as Noah D., to avoid confusion with xbf Noah Jensen) stands in the boxers that, she says, bring out his eyes, holding the skinny jeans that she made him buy.
“In a book that my grandfather gave me,” he says, “I remember reading that, in his day, soldiers needed to step from the height of a stool into the pants of a new uniform.” He begins to pace across the marble, preparing a speech in the great tradition of protests covered in the elective course, “Protests,” which he took at his high school this past spring. “The times, however, have changed,” he says. “The times have changed, and pants have changed. Man can no longer get into his pants alone, in the privacy of his bedroom. Man is, in fact, no longer the word. The word is ‘person,’ to include the woman, and in just the same way, you might say, I need to include the woman.” His mouth twitches as he restrains a smile. “The woman, that is, being you, Grace. I need you, that is, to hold the jeans beneath me, as I stand on the counter. I need you to hold them open-wide at the waist, like a trash bag, so I can jump into them.”
He is smiling. “There’s no other way,” he says.
Grace looks at him. Her frown is, for a moment, complementary to his smile, its counterpart and not its opposite. She turns her back to him suddenly and throws up her dress.
“Do you see that?” she says—a thong like bubblegum drawn between a girl’s gapped front teeth. “Do you see it?”
Noah pretends not to notice. “I’ll jump into them myself, if you don’t help me,” he says. “I’ll crack my head.”
“I do this every day for you,” she says. “Every day, my ass.”
“My jeans aren’t form-fitting.—” she says.
“—They’re form-forming,” she says.
She turns around.
And at once the two of them scream, “One!” and, laughing, Grace lunges to grab his ankles, tells him to wear anything else, please, she only wanted him to get those jeans, because they make his package look HUGE, as big as… I don’t know, it’s like…
“Like an elephant,” she says after a moment, “wearing a surgical mask.”
They are laughing. They are walking, a minute later, under the rustling branches, smiling to the memory of laughing a minute ago.
Tonight, there’s a party at Mimi’s house, the first party of their last summer before starting college. Knowing that Mimi’s parents were out of town, someone made a Facebook event page with the title, “526 Sweet Briar Avenue: OPEN HOUSE” and a list of made-up specifications out of a real estate listing: “15,000SQ FT., 3 BEDROOMS FOR LOVE, 3 BATHS FOR VOMIT, BASEMENT REMODELED IN 2012 FOR ALL ELSE.”
“Did all your suns wear sunglasses?” says Grace, pointing ahead, where the sun is setting behind the trees. “The ones you drew in grade school?”
“All my suns had sunglasses and all my mountains had snow caps.”
“Did all your men have mustaches?” says Grace.
Only a month ago Noah thought of Grace as beautiful in the way of a girl passed along Fifth Avenue. What one lost, after allowing her to pass, one reclaimed the next moment in a different, passing face. There were many beautiful girls at Laurelton High School. Next to one of them by chance, on the bleachers before assembly began, on the couch at a house party, he would sit close and tell a story, gesture dramatically and even rise from his seat at its climax, flailing his arms as Tanner DeMint fell backward into Ms. Boucher’s lap, blubbering. With little to discuss besides what happened that day or surrounded them at that particular moment, they felt the simple, reciprocal desire to hold each other’s attention more intensely than they did in conversations with friends. The principal’s double-tap on the microphone, shouts that Tino had just peed in the kitty litter—these silenced them; the conversations ended and were forgotten. Still, if they produced no definite memories, they left an undeniable aftertaste, and passing one of these girls in the hallways over the following months, Noah would smile and hear the smiling word, “Noah.” They stopped.
“How are you?” said Grace.
In April, these girls declared prom Sadie Hawkins. “ANY BOY WHO BUYS FLOWERS, DROPS ON A KNEE, DECLARES HIS LOVE IN BEAUTIFUL IAMBS BECAUSE THEY MIMIC HEARTBEATS, YOU KNOW, WILL BE SPAT UPON.” It was arranged that, at 3pm on May 20th, the boys would mass in front of the school, on the landing at the top of the steps, and that the girls would gather on the sidewalk at the bottom, like an opposing army, before all at once climbing to find their chosen dates. So that no two girls asked the same boy that day, pairings were negotiated a month or more in advance, made for the most part between corresponding friend-groups that were disaggregated like electoral districts from the student body at large. In the way of a widowed queen who, having ceded power to her son, nonetheless finds herself consulted in a crisis for her wisdom, her experience, Mimi would be approached in the cafeteria when conflict arose over the dance, despite insisting that the machinations surrounding it confused her—“Really, let someone else do it.”
Grace stood in front of her, eyes averted, holding a steaming tray. “I know all that,” she said. “I know it, and above all I hate coming over to you with my problems, but—”
A few weeks ago, Grace broke up with Noah Jensen. He was caught cheating on her with a girl from their rival high school—caught by his mother, who always liked Grace, as she began on the phone, and so decided to call and talk to her “woman-to-woman, if that’s all right with you.”
Now what? Should she take one of the gay boys? Was it depressing to be the single girl at prom with a gay boy? Who else was left? Would there need to be kissing and even more, maybe?
Mimi smiled. She opened her laptop to consult a spreadsheet, listing in columns (PAIRS, G-UNDECIDED, B-UNDECIDED) the status of Laurelton’s 220 seniors.
“Confirming a memory,” she said, bringing down the screen.
“Two memories, in fact.”
“This morning, at assembly, I saw you talking with Noah Dallier,” Mimi said. “I saw you laughing madly as he did some routine. He was talking all fast and waving his arms…? Whatever. He’s hot, is the point. He’s hot and he’s not going with anyone. He didn’t go last year, either, because he thought that prom was lame. But he didn’t know that you wanted him.”
“I wanted him?” said Grace.
“He doesn’t know that you want him now,” said Mimi.
Grace’s longstanding plan for the summer was to live in Santiago, where her uncle moved last year for business, to take a class or two at the University and perfect her Spanish. A few nights ago, her mother knocked on Grace’s door in that special way she always does, a kind of code, and sat at the foot of Grace’s bed with her legs folded to the side, smoothing nearby wrinkles on the bedspread as she waited for Grace to begin, to explain the email from uncle Max that said it was too bad that Grace changed her mind, too bad … She had dated Noah D. for a month, less than that. It was humiliating. It was even more humiliating to tell Noah, who seemed not to know what make of the news, who said, “That’s wonderful. That’s absolutely wonderful,” and ahead of whom she now skips, her arms out and head tilted up, exclaiming, “Why does it feel so incredible tonight?”
She is a young woman in love. She had been a girl, who, at seven, danced with a handsome older cousin at a wedding, looking up at him with steady, curious eyes, wondering at the first blush of an attraction for which she didn’t yet know the name. She came to believe in love, as a boy might believe in heroism: as an occasion for both virtue and adventure. During her freshman year, she walked down the hallways with her first boyfriend in silence, too shy to let go of his clammy hand. Everything that he said she found uninteresting, and after listening to his lazy laughter and updates on the status of his appetite, Grace, contaminated with his hazy-headedness, couldn’t think of anything to say that would prove her superiority over him, which compounded her frustration. Unsure of her superiority and, by extension, unsure if she could sustain a relationship with someone who was more intelligent or charming, she remained with him, slowly darkening toward the realization that relationships were as dumb as he was dumb: the puppy-pleasures of giggling and cuddling, the helpless surge of jealousy that she felt when he happened to glance into space that happened to be occupied by another girl, the need to advertise the fact that they kissed in private by holding each other’s clammy hands in public, never letting go.
She let go. “Billy!” she said. “God, we’re just going to be friends, all right?” She wiped her damp hand over her shirt, over a breast beneath it, triumphantly.
What she concluded, a few weeks after splitting with Billy and overcoming the embarrassment of their relationship’s stupidity, was that she had fallen for someone who was undeserving not by projecting admirable qualities onto him, but by ignoring the need for admirable qualities in a boyfriend altogether. She was so familiar with the swooning love-feeling awoken in her by romantic movies and novels that she could activate that love-feeling at will, whenever she came into his presence. Still, a few days after coming to that conclusion, she saw a quote by Marilynne Robinson on somebody’s Tumblr—“Love is holy because it is like grace –the worthiness of its object is never really what matters”—and finding it beautiful, intuitively true, she wondered how to square it with her recent disappointment. She did not think very intently. She still doesn’t. If she doesn’t have an immediate opportunity to apply an idea, she allows it to drift to her mind’s periphery, to be forgotten by the time of its potential application. This disinclination to pursue her lines of thought has left her inborn impulse to love intact, by the spring of her senior year, against her initial disappointments and confusions—intact but uninformed, and she does not know what qualities make for a successful boyfriend, or whether she should distrust her initial attraction to someone, or whether a successful relationship is a matter of intelligent conversation, the pursuit of mutual understanding, shared experiences, or something else entirely.
Her friend group assembled during her freshman year, almost exactly in its current form. When she talks with them over a picnic table’s rough boards, waving bees away, she feels camaraderie and absolute openness, the sort of trust that only follows from long familiarity, but with Noah, because they need to build their relationship from nothing, each of them says fresh, interesting things whenever they see each other, and as a result, their relationship continually deepens.
She does not know whether to believe that. She walks a few paces ahead of him now, kicking pebbles and thinking of something to say. A silence sometimes settles between them. In the romantic movies that, as it turned out, they both saw as kids, the notion of “silent understanding” would often be invoked as the supreme goal of relationships, marking the moment when two people came as close as possible to being one, and occasionally, with a slow smile that passes between them in bed, a glance to one another on those late car rides home, Grace believes that this harmony arises in their own relationship. Inevitably, though, with the passage of only a few minutes, those silent moments will blur into ones like these, empty, awkward.
They pass the church on East Rock’s corner and turn down St. Ronan’s. It is lined with parked cars tilted slightly into the gutters. Mimi’s garage, hidden from the street by hedges, is entered from the house’s side, through a door that opens suddenly with a surge of voices, laughter, and music.
“Lovers!” Carla exclaims. She is carrying a tray. “Here, take a drink. I’m a waitress, this night only.”
There’s a Ping-Pong table surrounded by people splashed with beer. Voices merge with the music like waves crashing over each other.
“Look,” Grace shouts, pointing. “Tino’s got his new hair.”
“Mimi!” Grace yells. “Hang on,” she says.
Wearing a new dress, low-cut and slim, Mimi passes to the other side of the room. She does not stop when people say hello. She smiles blankly for anyone watching. Her face is plain; she cannot claim even the self-pity of ugliness, the self-pity or conclusiveness of it. In the right dress, she must believe, in the right light…
Grace catches her elbow on the stairs into the house. They step back to admire each other, touching and smiling.
Suddenly they’re laughing. Mimi has said something. She is talking through the laughter, holding Grace’s necklace on her palm, and then they are stumbling up the stairs, inside. For a minute, Noah watches the door. The boys around him lurch with laughter. Rarely, over the past few years, would he go to parties. His classmates imagine that lives a different kind of life from theirs, rich and always to be unknown to them, like whatever appears on page 600 of Proust.
He passes into the crowd. He moves sideways through it, like a man sliding between a subway’s closing doors. At times, when confident, he can say beautiful things, in a simple voice that sung its vowels slightly. He was the high school’s valedictorian. For forty-five minutes, he was the person who could deliver that speech, for whom girls would toss their caps onto the stage, like roses on an opera’s opening night.
Tino, on the other hand, was a D student. Throughout high school, he was marked as a failure, destined to work at Walgreens or worse, the place on Forsythe that loans bail money. Then, the word began to circulate. Tino had done something incredible, people said. Tino had enlisted in the Marines. With one stroke he had redeemed himself, thrown himself away.
He is standing now in the corner of the garage. Caroline is running the back of a finger down the side of his crew cut, smiling.
“It feels like… what?” she says.
“Let me try,” says another girl.
“No… No, it’s just like a buzz cut,” says Caroline. She is smiling at Tino, her hand moving forward and back. “Nothing special,” she says, smiling. “A buzz cut, that’s all…”
The other girl has turned to Noah. She says, “I think you need one of those haircuts.”
He dimly appreciates that this is some sort of attempt to be charming. “Grace likes it when it’s long,” he says.
Her face brightens. “Oh, where is Grace? Is Grace here?”
“She went inside,” he says. “I really don’t know, actually.”
“Wait—” the girl says, grabbing his arm. “Guys. Tino! Caroline. Guys! Did you hear? Grace is staying in Bethel this summer. She’s staying because she’s in love. It’s incredible. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Noah is making gestures of modesty. “Why wouldn’t she be here in the first place?” says Tino.
“I’m going to tell her to come out here,” she says.
“Yeah. Tell Grace,” Noah decides, “to come back out here.”
She makes her way briskly across the room, smiling to herself, the hair around her face slick with sweat. She moves people from her path, repeats, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” even as she climbs the stairs, with no one in her way.
She throws open the door with gusto of a fireman becoming a hero. Mimi and Grace look up. Grace, standing over the kitchen island, is peeling the foil on a bottle of champagne. Mimi is leaning over the drawer of the refrigerator.
She takes a step backward to brace herself. Only now does she remember: she is not friends with these girls, she hardly knows Noah, or Tino, or Caroline, she hardly knows any of these people.
“Noah… wants you to come back,” she manages.
“We’re just getting this bottle of champagne,” Grace says. “Is there something wrong?”
“Wrong? No. With him? No, no… There’s nothing wrong.”
“Well, could you to tell him inside, if you’re going back?” says Grace.
After she leaves, Grace says, “That was weird.”
“Who even was that?” says Mimi. She has her arms wrapped around an ice bucket. “Is that Meg?”
“No, I think that was Sonia,” says Grace. “She was in my math class. It’s a pretty name.”
“There’s a problem,” says Mimi.
“There’s no ice.”
“That’s no problem,” says Grace. “The bottle’s cold. Here. The ice bucket was just a nice idea. Feel it.”
A private smile comes across Mimi’s lips. “Wait a sec…” she says.
She takes the bottle. She is looking at the glasses and ice bucket. Without hesitation, she begins to pour from the bottle into the ice bucket.
She takes a glass and—“Like this,” she says—dips it into the bucket like a ladle. She begins to giggle wildly.
Grace is laughing. Mimi takes a sip and then puts her glass down to lift the bucket from the counter. Her arms have the thin muscles of a young boy who lifts weights.
“Take my glass,” she says. “Come on.”
“Didn’t I just tell Noah that I’d be here?” says Grace. She’s smiling at the bucket.
“Who knows what that was. Meg, or Sonia, or Sonia Sotomayor,” says Mimi. “Come on.”
In the study, it’s dark except for the soft light of the street through the window. The couch sinks like a cheap mattress. They sit with the bucket on the floor, wiggle into comfortable positions, laugh with the warmth of it all, the unexpectedness.
“Is this where your dad works?” says Grace.
“He trades for himself at coffee shops, mostly, but, yeah, sometimes he works here. At night, he sends emails here.”
“How did people find out that he was gone? He and your mom, I mean.”
“I posted what was on Facebook,” says Mimi.
“Someone was saying that whoever did it was either a mortal enemy of mine or an invulnerable friend,” Mimi goes on, ignoring Grace’s surprise. “I liked that.” She takes a sip and smiles. “Anyway, tell me about Noah. I want to hear everything.”
“Well, what is there to say?” says Grace. “He’s just incredible. You know that.”
“I know what I’m doing,” says Mimi. “That’s what I know.”
“I just should feel so lucky,” Grace says. “I mean, lucky that he wasn’t going with anyone. That’s just the way he is. But I still feel thankful.”
Mimi reaches to refill her glass. She licks the champagne that drips down her wrist, holds her mouth there the way someone sucks on a cut. Suddenly, she seems bored.
“How is the sex?” she asks abruptly.
Grace laughs after an inaudible pause of surprise.
“Well, a woman can’t have it all,” says Mimi.
“I didn’t say that,” says Grace.
“That’s the thing,” Mimi continues. “Most of these boys are just boys. Did you hear about Ross? He couldn’t get hard the other night with Jackie. He got close, and in a frenzy tore open a condom and pushed it down. A second later, he got soft inside, and it fell right off. They’re so nervous. They’re just little boys,” says Mimi. “What’s the matter?”
The door opens with the light sweeping in from the hallway. Noah stands there, silhouetted.
Grace steps quickly from the couch, as if inspired suddenly with the idea to look for him.
“Noah,” she says.
“Come in,” calls Mimi.
“Where did you go?” he asks Grace.
“I’m here,” she says.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” says Noah.
Mimi rises and takes the bucket, saying, “I’ll leave, I’ll leave…”
“Why the hell does this house need so many rooms?” he says to Grace.
She stands there, holding her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she says softly.
She says it with such simplicity, a stunned simplicity, that Noah looks at her in silence.
“No, it’s all right,” he says. “It’s all right. I just didn’t know, you know?”
After a moment, they begin to kiss. They pause and then continue to kiss until their mouths are dry.
When he looks down, her face is in his shirt. “What’s the matter?” he says. “It’s all right, ok? I’m not mad at you. I just didn’t know.”
“No, no… I’m sorry.” She is shaking her head. “You should be. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” she says. She is wiping her nose. “Nothing. Why do people like her?” she says finally.
“Who?” he says.
They leave by the front door, which is still unlocked. The summer is just beginning.