“Want to buy this one?” Lin held out the velvety black dress.
Carrie frowned as if the smart, expensive dress contained a hidden trap. She received it carefully from Lin and held it out in front of herself, about a hand’s breadth away from her own body.
“This is too tight for me,” she finally said.
Carrie’s judgment was punctuated by the last lines of an upbeat song from the store’s loudspeakers:
… Later we’ll have some pumpkin pie
And we’ll do some ca-ro-ling
Carrie slung the dress halfway back on the rack. “Let’s get out of here.”
Lin looked confused. “But we only just came in here!”
“Let’s get out.” Carrie exited the changing room and quickly marched through the world of satin and polyester on the other side, her course set straight for the street door.
Lin caught up with Carrie before that. “What is it with you? You’ve been jittery all morning.”
Carrie was about to snap something when she heard, “Can I help you?”
A plump red-headed lady in her mid-forties appeared close to the store entrance.
“We’re all right.” Lin quickly pushed Carrie in front of her, out into the soddy winterscape of central Cleveland.
It had started as a bright enough day, the last weekend before Christmas when Lin had asked Carrie if she wanted to join a Christmas shopping spree, just the two of them. But now …
“Let’s go to a cafe,” Carrie said.
Lin gazed back at the store. “Okay.”
Then she sighed and snuck her arm around Carrie’s. “Why did you want to leave?”
Carrie shrugged. Snow had begun falling again, but it quickly turned to slush on Euclid Avenue. The white gossamer flakes were briefly lit up by the shopping window lights and then extinguished as they hit the ground.
They walked for a while, arm in arm, Lin being aware of the lightness of her shopping bag which she held in her free hand, just as much as she was aware of the heaviness of Carrie’s step.
“How about there?”
They had stopped by a cafe on the corner of the main street and a minor side alley that seemed to lead nowhere. The cafe was called “Moby” and looked like a slightly run-down pub that had been renovated to serve a younger and less world-weary clientele, but without completely getting its branding right. Thus, white grandma-curtains had been peeled back to reveal glossy menus in the window sill, advertising daring combinations of avocado sandwiches and pressed juice.
Lin shook her head. “In there?”
Carrie retracted her arm from Lin’s. “Is it not fancy enough for you?”
“What the hell is eating you?”
Carrie looked away. “Sorry, let’s go in. Okay? I’ll buy.”
Lin sighed. “Sure, as long as it’s got booze in it.”
Carrie smiled wryly and went ahead.
Inside they found a table by the window, from where they could look out on the motley river of Christmas shoppers.
Carrie ordered orange juice and Lin insisted on a soda, despite the bubbly 20-something waitress’ insistence in turn that they had ‘all kinds of good things’.
After that debacle had ended with a victory for the two young patrons, an awkward silence fell over the table. There were only two other customers in the cafe—a brown-haired man and a mouse of a woman—seated together in another corner, staring into the air as if something bad had happened. Maybe it had. They didn’t seem to be keen on talking either
“Look,” Carrie said, “I’m sorry.”
“You keep saying that,” Lin said, “and really, you don’t need to. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“What do you think?”
Lin looked out the window, while thoughtfully sipping her Dr. Pepper through a straw. “I don’t know. Didn’t you like the dress I picked?”
“I loved it,” Carrie sighed. “That’s what kills me.”
“Why? Don’t you think it can fit your boobs?”
Carrie almost coughed half her juice out on the table. “Lin!”
Lin retained her poker face, sipping happily away at her own drink. The tense silent couple in the other corner hadn’t moved. Carrie glanced at them, then her shoulders sank and she finally took a sip of the orange juice.
“I think my boobs would fit just fine,” she said, trying to make it sound casual, but her voice was hollow. “And the rest of me. But I don’t like it.”
Carrie shrugged again, but it was clear she was struggling with something. Then she took another sip of her orange juice, then grimaced as if it had tasted more bitter than she had expected.
“You know,” she said, “do you ever have the feeling that you are not … yourself?”
“All the time.”
Carrie crossed her arms and looked out the window again. “You know what I mean …”
Lin put down her soda. “Actually, I don’t. I’m not a mindreader, you know. I thought it’d make you happy to go shopping a little. Is it because of the money?”
Carrie shook her head.
“Feeling ugly like I am again?” Lin deadpanned.
Carrie rolled her eyes. “Well, not this time.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s about … ” Carrie fidgeted with a lock of her long blonde hair “ … oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just having a weird day.”
“Well, you and me both,” Lin said.
“Sorry,” Carrie added, then dropped back on the chair as if somebody had punched her. “Sometimes I just can’t … I feel like I want to go somewhere badly but I don’t know where that is!”
“I know that feeling,” Lin said. “So … isn’t it a little early thinking about college?”
“It’s not college,” Carrie said, “but don’t remind me. That’s just around the corner.”
“Well, yeah,” Lin admitted and stole a glance at the silent couple, “actually it’s only half a year and there is so much that has to be in order.”
“A scholarship, for example.”
Lin dismissed Carrie with a wave of her hand. “You’ll get yours. Don’t worry.”
“Do you know what university Alan is going to?”
“Duluth, I think.”
“Really? What’s in Duluth?”
“Architecture … I mean, you can study it.”
“-Is everything satisfactory?”
They both stared into the bright healthy smile of the waitress who had reappeared. Seemed like everyone was in the mood to give great service this Christmas.
“Satisfactory?” the walking smile prodded again.
They both nodded. “Yeah. Great.”
“Can I get you something more? Perhaps something to e-”
After the obnoxious waitress had retreated, Lin downed the last of her Dr. Pepper. “God, she knows how to make you want to leave.”
“Lin … I think I might be pregnant.”
For about five seconds Lin just sat still, her hand clenched around her glass.
Then, “Are you sure?”
Carrie looked around like someone was following her. “My period’s like three days overdue.”
“That’s … normal, isn’t it?”
Carrie leaned closer, her eyes darting. “I don’t know. I don’t think so!”
Lin bit her lip. “But have you checked?”
“How long it should-how long it can go … without, you know …”
“No, I haven’t checked, but I know that-”
“If you haven’t checked then how can you know?”
Carrie held up her hand from the table as if she was about to shush Lin, but instead, she gazed nervously at the stony couple in the opposite corner. They looked as unfazed as ever.
Carrie leaned even closer than before. “I just feel it.”
“But,” Lin started fidgeting her empty glass, “if you haven’t, you know … I mean, have you?”
Carrie’s nod was barely perceptible.
Lin sat very still.
Then she exhaled audibly. “Wow. I mean, just wow.”
Carrie frowned. “What does that mean?”
“You always say you don’t feel anyone wants to … you know, you always say you don’t have anyone.” Lin tried a smile but it transformed into a rather awkward grimace. “And now you say you have hooked up with someone? Well, that’s news.”
“It’s not … something.” Carrie sighed and fell back on her chair again, looking extremely uncomfortable. The glass of orange juice was only half empty.
“So you are not going steady with someone.”
“Noo … I would have told you.”
“Damn.” Lin bit her lip again. “Then … who?”
The snow fell through a hazy gray sky over Springbrook Drive in Brooklyn Heights, about ten miles away.
Alan Stockdale sat by the window in his attic room, with the back to his record shelf, watching the afternoon turning to dusk.
There was a knock on the door.
Alan was about to get up but then decided against it. “Yes.”
His dad’s voice sounded from the other side of the door. “Should I order something special for dinner, son?”
“I don’t care.”
“That new Italian place in Murray Hill has some great pizzas.”
“Just get me cheese and tomato.”
And then there was silence, except for a few soft footsteps down the stairs.
Alan got his feet down from the window sill and to the floor quietly, as if it was a minefield. He didn’t want dad to hear he had moved around in his room. In fact, Alan wished his dad could pretend today of all days that his son did not exist like he so often seemed to do when he went to work in the studio for days on end. But now when dad was home, and mom was out for a change, it was like he had to compensate for his regular absences.
In the beginning, Alan had thought it would be a great perk to start a new high school and have a dad who was co-owner of a recording studio. But as it turned out, it wasn’t something that attracted real friends. Or girlfriends.
Alan went to his bookshelf and took out his first print volume of The Lord of the Rings and carefully leafed through it.
There was an entire world in those books, but not the world that could be a refuge for him now.
Should I call … ?
The silent snowflakes outside seemed frozen in the air. Each represented a possibility to Alan’s mind, an outcome.
Alan put the book back and slowly opened the door to the hallway outside his room.
There was a phone in his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t like using it but since dad’s generosity in take-away had not extended to buying his son one of those fancy mobile phones, there was no other option, he could think of.
He would buy a Motorola himself soon. He liked those. He had saved enough money. In fact, he could recite the serial numbers of the four versions he liked best. Maybe he should go back to the room and boot up the modem and see if he could find that page on the World Wide Web again where they-
Alan steeled himself. And closed the door behind him. Below were the reassuring noises of TV from the living room. His dad would hear nothing.
He went in and sat down on their bed. Then he called the number.
No one took it. Not even her mom who always seemed to be home. Watching TV like his own dad did when he was at home. Did adults have nothing else to do?
Alan almost felt like slamming the receiver but he controlled himself. Then he walked slowly down the stairs and into the ground floor hallway and got his coat. He needed to walk a lot more.
Alan opened the door and went out into the gray-white winter. There seemed to be nowhere else to go.
Later that evening, the phone rang at Lin’s house. She almost flew out of her room to take it, before her mother could.
Lin struggled to find the right expression, even though nobody could see her. “I know it’s you, dummy. What’s up? Did you tell your mother?”
“No, of course not.”
“‘Of course not?’”
“Come on …” Lin could hear Carrie fidget with something at the other end. It sounded like keys. “Don’t be like that.”
“Don’t be like what?” Lin clenched the receiver. “My best friend tells me she might be pregnant. That she somehow forgot her pill, forgot everything. And with Alan. And I didn’t know jack about you guys … and I’m not supposed to be concerned or what?”
“Lin, it came tonight.”
“My period. It came.”
Lin was silent for a long time.
Carrie’s voice became frail. “Lin?”
“Oh,” Lin quipped. “I mean, that’s great …Thank god.”
“Yeah, I’m really better now,” Carrie blurted right away. “Feels kind of like I’m on a high or something. Even if the stomach is acting up again like it always does.”
“Cramps, huh?” Lin gazed distractedly out the nearby window. It was evening and the garden had been reduced to ashy, indistinct shapes.
“Yeah,” Carrie said. “I’m only good for tea now and the rest of the evening. Maybe you could come over? Keep me company in my misery?”
“I … think I have homework,” Lin said.
“But we can go shopping again tomorrow … if you like?”
They talked a little more before hanging up. Tomorrow they would start again.
Carrie was watching something on the TV and close to dozing off. Then the doorbell rang.
Mom had gone to Steve’s and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. (Or was it Ben? Carrie had stopped keeping track.)
The bell rang again.
Carrie tried to concentrate on the TV.
But after several incessant rings, she got up and went out on the stairway. There was no window but after a little hesitation, she tip-toed down, figuring she could use the door spy once she reached street level.
When she saw who was outside in the increasingly slushy snow, Carrie opened quickly.
“Can I come in?”
Alan stood in the dim light from the sparse street lamps on Grant Avenue, many of them frozen over. He looked vaguely unreal.
“Why didn’t you call?” Carrie asked, looking at his boots.
Alan looked away briefly. “I was out walking and I just felt like … ” He trailed off.
“I – come in, okay?”
He shrugged and looked around, hands in his pockets. “You sure?”
She stepped aside and he got in, carefully, like he was afraid there was someone else in there. He looked at her, questioningly but Carrie remained behind the open door, not moving to close it.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Yeah.” He rubbed his hands. “Better not let it in.” He glanced at the stairs. “So … ”
Carrie quickly closed the door and went past him. “Come on up.”
They went up into the small apartment on the first floor and Alan got his coat off.
Carrie nodded at the well-worn couch in the living room. “Make yourself at home – don’t sit on any of my mom’s VHS tapes.”
He drew in a deep breath. “I won’t.”
“I’m good.” He leaned back and picked up a TV guide from the small sofa table.
Carrie came back from the kitchen with tea in a big glass. “Anything interesting on tonight?”
“W-I … don’t think so.” Alan turned to look her in the eyes, as she sat down beside him. “Look, I-”
She smiled at him while making a face. “Yeah, it was some weekend at that holiday house.”
He shook his head. “It should never have happened. I came to say- look, I’m sorry, okay?”
Carrie’s smile softened. “You don’t have to. It’s not as if it was that bad.”
Alan look confused for a moment, then his shoulders came down. “It wasn’t?”
She shook her head. Her smile stayed.
He nodded to himself, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. Suddenly there were a lot of interesting TV programs in that guide to inspect. “Well, it’s just one of those things, we can laugh at in twenty years, eh?”
“Hopefully before.” Carrie breathed, then moved to lean her head against his shoulder. “Hopefully …”
“I wonder what Nadine-” he started, but she tensed and that broke him off.
“She won’t have to know, unless you tell her,” Carrie then said.
“No.” He shook his head resolutely. “Of course not.”
“I hope you won’t but if you do, I’ll understand,” Carrie said. “She’s my friend, but I shouldn’t decide this.”
“She’s … a good girl,” Alan said. “Very good.” He took the TV guide up and then put it straight down again.
“You are lucky to have her.”
“Yeah.” He put his arm around her waist. “Yeah, I am.”
“So nothing happened,” Carrie said. “Nothing at all.”
He grinned. “When you put it like that … ”
“I do,” Carrie said and her gaze rested on the lamp on the opposite wall.