It was my junior year of high school, and I was living in a Victorian on Beach Avenue with my sister, Alex, who is my twin but always somehow prettier and skinnier than me, and our grandmother, Zilpha. The house was old and handsome, like our grandmother, and it sat surrounded by perennial gardens on a grassy hill above the south shore of Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York.
My parents had been killed in a car accident when I was in seventh grade. They were driving home from a wine tasting in Buffalo and got caught in a sudden snowstorm that swept off Lake Erie, and their car skidded off the road and hit a tree. My boyfriend Rick’s father had died of cancer of the throat, and I think one reason Rick loved me was because my parents were dead. He and his mother lived on my grandmother’s street, which is how we met. As residents we had access to a private beach, where Alex and I liked to swim and sunbathe in the summer, and where Rick and I liked to screw around late at night when the moon was out and the water smelled sweet and clean and the Big Dipper hung low above the lake, way out over Canada.
One afternoon during spring vacation when I thought no one was home, I brought Rick down to the basement. We were just kissing, but I also had my shirt and bra sort of off, and my grandmother came down and caught us and was very angry. She said no granddaughter of hers was going to grow up to be a “two-dollar floozy.” My grandmother let me keep seeing Rick, I think because he was cute and sweet and his father was dead, but a week later she told me she was sending me to etiquette classes at the Feminine Mystique School of Modeling downtown, where I would learn how to be a lady. I was sitting on the love seat in the parlor, doing homework in front of the television, when she made this announcement. There was a big picture window in that room, and I stopped what I was doing and looked out at the milky expanse of the sky and the gray blur of the lake. Although it was almost Easter, there was still ice along the shoreline, and even the sky somehow seemed icy.
“Grandma,” I said, “I’m seventeen years old. You can’t make me go to some bullshit etiquette school. It’s too late.”
My grandmother sighed, and I realized how fragile she was, because her chest sort of fluttered when she did it. She looked at me for a long moment. She had age spots on her forehead, which she covered with makeup, and her eyes were bright and beautiful and not quite blue. They were some other color. The color of the lake on a sunny morning.
“I hate that language,” she said, “and it is never too late. Never.” She kissed me on the neck then, and I could smell that she had been drinking rum with lime and soda, and it made me feel young and small and sleepy. She looked at me real close, her eyes wet, and she said, “I love you, Kirsten.”
“I love you, too,” I said, and even though I thought there was no way in hell I was going to etiquette school, I really did love her, and I always will.
My first etiquette class was supposed to meet from six until eight the following Monday night. We had our last snowstorm of the year that afternoon, and the beach was cloudy and dark when I got home from school. I called Rick, and he picked me up in his father’s wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer. We liked to drive all the way down Lake Avenue to where it gets kind of seedy, and Rick would go into this corner store and buy a forty-ounce bottle of beer and two or three Seneca menthol cigarettes from a plastic bin next to the cash register. They were called “loosies,” those cheap single cigarettes. Sometimes I waited in the Wagoneer, and sometimes I went in with him and held his hand while he looked at the beer in the cooler. The man behind the counter was from Yemen and was very old and never asked to see our IDs or even made eye contact with us. If it was after dark, Rick and I would go to the public golf course on the other side of the river and drive down an access road and take long drinks from the beer bottle and smoke Senecas and make out.
That Monday night I skipped class, and we drove to the golf course, and Rick turned off his headlights but kept the engine running and the heat on. We drank the beer, which tasted clean and cold in the dry air of the Wagoneer, and then we climbed in the back and started kissing. It was especially nice that night in the snowstorm because it got quiet and clear, and I felt as if I could hear the snow falling outside the windows, and I didn’t feel guilty at all, just sad because I knew that I would probably only love Rick for a little while longer and wouldn’t marry him, and he was unhappy and alone and beautiful and needed someone to love him. I felt peaceful about all this, though, and we wrapped ourselves up in a flannel blanket, and Rick cried for a long time about his father, and I thought it was good for me to be there with him.
We climbed back into the front seat and shared a Seneca and held hands, and Rick got a Toronto Maple Leafs game on the radio from across the lake, and we listened to that for a while. At eight o’clock we drove downtown and bought french fries from a hot-dog stand, and I had Rick take me past the Feminine Mystique so I would at least know what it looked like when I lied to my grandmother about how great the class had been. It was in an old Erie Canal warehouse that had been turned into offices. This tall, pretty girl, her skin the color of coffee with cream, stood out front as if waiting for a ride.
My grandmother was asleep when I got home, and Alex was on the telephone in front of the television, so I went to my room and read a chapter of my favorite book, Anna Karenina. Then I fell asleep.
The director of the Feminine Mystique called later that week and told my grandmother that I hadn’t shown up for class. So the following Monday my grandmother drove me there herself. We didn’t say a word during the ride downtown. My grandmother had a white Cadillac Eldorado with a cream-colored leather interior. A lemon-scented air freshener hung from the rearview mirror. The carpeting was freshly vacuumed and felt plush underfoot. It was the kind of car God would drive, if He ever needed one. It was like riding in a cloud, only more elegant. When I got out of the Cadillac, I told my grandmother I had brought cash with me, and I’d take a taxi home so she could go to sleep at 8:30 as usual. She told me to have fun and try to learn something.
The modeling school was on the third floor, and the elevator was broken, so I had to climb the stairs. There were law offices on the first floor and some sort of Civil War historical society on the second. It smelled like the Erie Canal in there. It smelled like dirt and sawdust and cool, damp stone. It smelled like the past.
At seventeen I was by far the oldest young lady enrolled in the Feminine Mystique School of Modeling. My classmates were mostly sixth- or seventh-grade Girl Scouts, who were making jokes about bra sizes and snapping their gum when I came in. There was also the girl I had seen waiting for a ride the week before, and there were three Puerto Rican girls who I found out were getting ready for their quinceañera parties. I felt like a counselor at a lame summer camp.
The school was basically one large room painted a bleached white and lit with bright fluorescents. Two of the four walls were lined with mirrors, like in a dance studio, and there was a raised modeling runway with stage lights above it. A small collection of folding chairs had been set up in one corner, and most of the girls congregated there, although none of them sat down.
The class director appeared from behind a curtain at the top of the runway and glared at me. She was at least thirty pounds overweight and had heavy eyelids. She reminded me of a cartoon toad. “You must be Kristen,” she shouted.
“It’s Kirsten,” I said.
“Excuse me?” she said as she came down the runway in long, heavy strides. The platform shook. For a moment I was afraid she might hit me.
“Kirsten,” I said. “My name is Kirsten.”
Not bothering to introduce herself, she frowned and turned to the other girls. “Who can fill in Kirsten on what she missed last week?” she asked.
A short, skinny girl with red hair and a green Girl Scout T-shirt raised her hand.
Janelle looked at her feet and said, “Well, we practiced our posture on the runway, and we played a game to help you remember people’s names.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I smiled at the girl, but inside I felt sad. I thought of my grandmother and how much money she must have been spending on this crap. I thought of how badly she must have wanted to help me, but she just didn’t know how.
“Yes, thank you,” the director said. “And today we are going to learn how to get in and out of an automobile while wearing heels and a skirt.”
There was a dressing room behind the runway and boxes of shoes and skirts back there for us to put on for our lesson. The Girl Scouts thought it was some kind of fashion show and oohed and aahed over every garment. I got out of my clothes while the younger girls stared at my breasts, and I eventually settled on a pair of sling-backs and a black evening gown that looked as if it were about a hundred years old.
“You look beautiful,” Janelle told me after I had slipped the gown over my head. The dress smelled like my grandmother’s basement, and I immediately thought of Rick and how I had gotten into this mess in the first place.
“Thank you,” I said. “So do you.”
She smiled and rolled her eyes, and I immediately liked her. “It’s for a badge,” she said and offered me an orange Tic Tac. Janelle told me that the teacher’s name was Ms. Monroe. She was careful to stress the first syllable — Monroe — and I could tell Janelle was afraid of her.
When we came back from the dressing room, we found the folding chairs set up in front of the mirrors. Ms. Monroe gave us a tutorial, and then we were supposed to practice on our own in front of the mirror for a while and finally do it in front of the rest of the class and get a critique.
When my turn came, I set my chair on the edge of the runway and stood on the floor so that I had to climb up into the seat.
“Why are you doing it that way?” Ms. Monroe asked.
“My boyfriend drives a truck,” I said, and I folded my left leg under my right in a kind of curtsy.
Ms. Monroe frowned again and made a sound that I guess you would call a harrumph.
I suppose I went back to the Feminine Mystique the following Monday out of love for my grandmother. Love is an invisible thing, and so we have to show it in visible ways. With Rick I showed it with my body and with conversation and with alcohol. With my sister I showed it by sunbathing with her on the beach and playing tennis and helping her color her hair. With my grandmother I tried to show it by going to these etiquette classes, but I didn’t do a good job. There were six more classes left, but that Monday was the last one I ever went to.
We were supposed to learn how to plan a formal dinner party. The Girl Scouts were sullen. The quinceañera girls had all quit. The other girl, whose name was Diana, was still there: tall, skinny, unspeaking. Ms. Monroe was explaining how to set the table for a formal dinner when I decided I needed a cigarette break. I ducked out the door while she was making a Girl Scout refold her napkin.
It was raining outside, so I hid in the stairwell and stared at the stone walls and smoked a Seneca that Rick had bought the night before. On a whim I wandered down to the second floor and tried the handle to the door of the Civil War historical society. The door opened. The lights were off, but there was a soft glow coming from a display case in the middle of the room. It had old photographs from the war — pictures of New York volunteers on their way to battle. Even though many of the faces appeared sooty and smudged, you could see they were young, handsome boys. They looked like Rick, only more sure of themselves. They had swagger, I guess you would say. Rick didn’t have any swagger. I think Rick felt bad about himself.
A plaque in the display case listed the upstate New York brigades, and some of the names were beautiful. There were the Sons of Old Monroe and the Chasseurs and the Christian Soldiers. Corcoran’s Irish Legion. First New York Light. The Bully Boys. McClellan’s Rangers. The Hibernian Brotherhood. Ghost Company. Young America. For some reason the names made me remember a story my grandmother had told me once about when she was dating my grandfather and how they used to do a dance called the “turtledove.” This made me feel nostalgic and lonely and sad because I would never dance anything called the turtledove with a young man and marry him and live on one of the Great Lakes with him in a giant house with a porch that wrapped all the way around and had ferns and geraniums on it in the summer and snowdrifts up over your knees in the winter, and because I would never get to join anything with a name like Ghost Company or Young America or First New York Light.
Back upstairs at the Feminine Mystique, Janelle greeted me with a salad fork in one hand and a soup spoon in the other.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“I went for a walk,” I told her.
“They could smell your cigarette,” she said. “Ms. Monroe called your grandmother.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I don’t know where these go,” she said to me, holding up her silverware. She looked worried.
“Who cares?” I said.
Ms. Monroe approached me and announced that I had been asked to leave the modeling school, and I said, “Well, that’s funny, because I don’t remember anyone asking me to leave the modeling school.”
“We called your grandmother,” she said. “She’s coming to pick you up.”
In my experience, everyone and everything lets you down eventually. This was not true of my grandmother, however. She never let me down. Not once. And I let her down a lot. My getting kicked out of the Feminine Mystique was just another in a long series of letdowns. I could feel it as soon as I got into the Cadillac. I could see it in her face. She had been drinking, and her hair was undone. She must have gone to bed early, and Ms. Monroe had awakened her. I apologized for getting her out of bed and asked why she hadn’t just sent Alex to pick me up.
“Because I wanted to pick you up,” she said.
There was a long pause, and then I apologized for getting kicked out of the class.
“That’s all right, Kirsten,” she said. “I just want the best for you.”
I cried all the way down Lake Avenue. It was raining hard by the time we got to the house, and we decided to sit in the driveway and wait for it to let up. I put my head in my grandmother’s lap, and she ran her long, dry fingers through my hair. The engine hummed. At one point I coughed and took a deep breath and shuddered, and then I was finally able to stop crying.
That summer Alex and I worked at a private golf club where we wore short shorts and sold beers to middle-aged men from coolers on the backs of candy-striped golf carts. We worked six or seven days a week and got tan and made good money in tips. We were working there when our grandmother had a massive heart attack and died sitting on the love seat in the living room, looking out over the lake. She was on the telephone with her sister in California, my great-aunt Caroline, who said that my grandmother’s last words were, “That’s funny. I see starlight out over the water.” But it was eleven o’clock in the morning.
I found the cordless phone under the love seat where it must have fallen, and I keep it to this day in my hope chest. My two uncles got the Victorian and sold it and split the money. Alex and I had to move to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to live for a year with an aunt on our mother’s side of the family.
Our grandmother had willed us the Cadillac, and we drove it all the way to Florida by ourselves, which was good for our relationship. We talked a lot about our parents and our grandmother. I told Alex that, even though I’d gotten kicked out of etiquette school, I’d actually learned how to be a lady from our grandmother, and that it had nothing to do with how you get out of a car or set a table, but with how you treat people: how you look at them when you’re talking, and whether you actually listen when they try to tell you something important.
There was never anything to do in Cocoa Beach. For a while I didn’t return Rick’s phone calls, but then we went back to Rochester for Thanksgiving, and I met him for coffee. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt that looked good on him, and he told me he loved me, and I just said, “OK.” He got really pale then, and I felt bad, but not enough to say anything more.
Rick drove down to visit us in Cocoa Beach for New Year’s. He and Alex and I built a fire on the sand, and I held Rick’s hand under the night sky, which was particularly clear that night, and we could see fireworks down the beach. At one point he bent over and pressed his lips to my warm shoulder, and it made me feel sleepy and calm, the way my grandmother used to make me feel, and everything was so peaceful and good that I thought I did love him, which made me really happy, because I was starting to think that maybe, if you’re persistent about it, life will turn out OK, or close to OK. Alex rolled a joint from a package of marijuana we’d found on the beach, wrapped in a plastic bag and sealed with duct tape, and she and Rick smoked it, but I didn’t want any. Instead I lay flat on my back and looked at the stars. I tried to pray or something, but I didn’t really know what to say. I thought about my grandmother. I pictured her eyes and how it felt when she ran her fingers through my hair. I remembered how her breath smelled when she had been drinking. I thought about how beautiful it must have been to see starlight over the lake in the middle of the morning.