Excerpt from The Anniversary Party (a novel-in-progress)By Emma Straub
April 25, 2010
Jackie was from Newport, Rhode Island, which as far as Franny knew was Nowhere, Rhode Island, and even though she was from Brooklyn, they both felt like total rubes at Barnard, where all the city girls wore going-out clothes to English class just because they felt like it. Their dormitory room was exactly the same as all the others on the hall, narrow and Spartan, perfect for two eighteen-year-old nuns. Jackie tried to spruce it up with some pictures she’d cut out of magazines, mostly models dressed up to look like Ali MacGraw. The two girls tried to do the same—sweeping bell-bottoms and collegiate sweaters. The effect was not great on Jackie, with shoulders as wide as an Iowan football player or on Fran, who stood just over five feet and had to hem every pair of pants by several inches, sometimes cutting off the bells entirely.
Jackie’s family spent most of the winter in Florida, and sometimes she was permitted to bring a friend. When she asked Franny to go to Palm Beach with them during the Christmas break, Franny was so excited that she punched Jackie in the arm. It took Mrs. Johnson three phone calls to convince Mrs. Gold that airplanes were safe, and then the tickets were booked, and Jackie packed all three of her swimsuits, knowing full well that Franny would want to borrow them.
There was the Breakers in Newport and the Breakers in Palm Beach. Franny didn’t know the difference. They pulled up in the rented car and Jackie’s father handed the keys to a kid their age wearing a jacket like Sgt. Pepper. The boy was tan and blond and Franny looked at him like he was made of ice cream. Jackie thumped her in the arm.
“Hey,” she said. “You coming?”
Franny grinned. That’s what Jackie liked about her: Fran wanted to be from Newport as much as Jackie wanted to be from Brooklyn. If Franny could have pushed a button and swapped lives with her, like in The Parent Trap, she would have done it in a heartbeat. They both scrambled out of the backseat and picked up their purses, letting the bellboys take the rest of the luggage on a golden cart the size of their dorm room.
The hotel room had two twin beds but the girls swiftly decided that it would be better to sleep in one and use the other as the depository for all of their belongings. Franny forced Jackie to hang up her fancy clothes and then complained that she didn’t have anything that would suffer from staying folded. They lay on their stomachs and waggled their bent legs back and forth. The Atlantic Ocean lapped and crashed outside the window, which was open.
“I can’t believe how warm it is here,” Franny said. They’d stripped off their airplane clothes and were wearing only their underwear. Jackie wore white briefs she’d stolen from her father and a flimsy camisole. Franny wore a bra the size of Cleveland, with latches and hitches that would have held up a lesser mountain range. Jackie was impressed. A breeze snaked in and slipped around their waving calves.
“Want to go to the beach?” Jackie was a great swimmer, and had been the captain of her high school team. Franny shook her head. “Or Worth Avenue? Or get some lunch?” It was only noon, and Jackie’d only eaten a banana for breakfast. Franny met the Johnsons at the airport with both of her parents, and the look on her face told Jackie that she would have rather committed ritual suicide. Jackie couldn’t imagine she’d eaten much, either.
“Lunch,” Franny said. “Immediately.”
There was a good place nearby. It had the best shrimp cocktails, and was close enough to walk. Franny changed into one dress after another—she needed something that said Florida, she said. Jackie sat on the edge of the bed and sang songs to try to hurry her along, but could only remember the chorus to “Both Sides Now,” and so was singing it in an endless loop, her deep voice occasionally muffled by a pillow. “I’m going to eat this,” she said. But then Franny trotted out of the bathroom in a pink dress and bright, shiny lipstick and Jackie was happy enough to let it go.
Every street we passed started with Sea. Seabreeze, Seaspray, Seaview. “God,” Franny said. “They really got creative.”
Jackie held her hands up to shield the sun from her eyes. “Tell me about it.” After every block, the ocean appeared, a little window of blue. She could tell that Franny wanted to look, and walked slower. In her hand-me-down madras shorts and plain white t-shirt, Jackie felt like Franny’s older brother. She still had a swimmer’s body; her shoulders were as wide as a man’s, if not wider, and stretched and moved as she walked, like giant wings. Jackie’s whole body was taut and boring, a straight line, and Franny’s was wiggly. Everyone they passed on the street turned to look at her, and Jackie couldn’t blame them. Franny moved her bottom from side to side with every step, like she was Fred Astaire dancing with an invisible Ginger Rogers, always pushing her backwards in those heels.
“You will come in the ocean, won’t you?” Jackie asked.
“Will you save me if I drown?” Franny replied.
Jackie nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
The restaurant had white tablecloths and painted murals and a long bar filled with girls their age and their fathers or husbands. Jackie looked at Franny, ready to bolt, but she just sailed through the crowd, as if she were walking into their bathroom at school with her towel slung over her back. The maitre’d seated them at a table overlooking Worth Avenue, where they could watch women window-shopping while their patient chauffeurs trailed them like the world’s worst secret service.
Jackie didn’t even need to look at the menu. “Two cokes, one shrimp cocktail, two BLTs, please,” she said, then looked up at Franny. “Is that okay?” Franny thought it was hysterical that she was Jackie’s first Jewish friend, and Jackie still had tiny panic attacks when she was confronted by something that struck her as a Jewish Issue. Bacon was one of them. She didn’t know enough to worry about the shrimp.
“It’s fine,” Franny said.
The waiter came back with two tall, slim glasses of fizzy Coke, straws bobbing happily. They both lunged forward and sucked, the sugar gliding across the roofs of their mouths and then all the way through their veins.
“I love Florida,” Franny said, and right then, Jackie did, too.
The reason Jackie’s family stayed at the Breakers every year was for the Preservation of Newport Society’s Pearl of the Sea Ball. Jackie hated wearing skirts and shoes with heels and so she started planning their exit strategy as soon as they were in the hotel room. Jackie pretended to be totally unconscious of Franny’s excitement. She tried to tell her everything she hated about the ball: there was an orchestra. There was a seated dinner. There were boys from all over the country, slick with money. Rockefellers. Kennedys. There would be photographers from the Shiny Sheet, the same photographers who took pictures of Teddy when he was too drunk and had his arms around every woman at once. Franny’s eyes got wider and wider and Jackie knew she’d said the wrong thing. There was no way they were going to miss a minute of it.
The Johnsons, Jackie’s parents, had real first names, but almost nobody used them. Her father’s name was Edward, and her mother’s was Elizabeth, though other women tended to call her other things: Bitsy, Betsy, Betty. This had long since seemed strange to Jackie, but Franny raised an eyebrow every time somebody called her something new. Jackie’s mother would kiss them on both cheeks, no matter what they’d called her. She went with the girls to the pool, claiming she just wanted some sun, but Jackie knew she wanted to keep an eye on then. Jackie spent most of her time diving off the highest board and ignoring her mother’s requests to talk to other children. She told Franny they’d been kidnapped. They were hostages.
The shallow end was long enough to sit in, and Franny stretched her legs out. That way, she said, the sun could continue to have direct access to the largest number of pores. Every few minutes, Jackie would swim past, her goggled eyes open and unblinking, leap out of the pool, and run back around to the diving board. This was something Jackie knew Franny liked about her: dogged enthusiasm.
“Hey!” she said as she jogged around the bottom lobe of the pool. It was shaped like an eggplant, they’d decided. A gigantic eggplant filled with chlorine. “Jackknife!” Since Franny didn’t know the name of any dives, Jackie had to make her own requests. Behind her, Jackie could hear her mother made a small groan at the noise they were making.
“Jackie the Jackknife,” Franny said, seconding the motion with as much decorum as possible. She wanted Jackie’s mother to like her. There were countless other girls the Johnsons could have brought in her place: Jackie’d shown her photo albums filled with pictures of friends from Portsmouth Abbey. She knew their names by heart: Susan and Laura and Barbara and Jane. Franny looked most like Jane, who also had dark hair and was small. Jackie’s mother didn’t like Jane, though, and so she’d invited Franny instead. When Franny asked why Jackie’s mother didn’t like her, Jackie told her it was because she was a “bad influence,” which meant that Jane smoked and drank too much. Franny didn’t ask more than that. Jackie turned around and waved at her mother and Franny, two sunny bodies. A waiter was bending down to set a drink on the small table next to her mother’s lounge chair. She waved back, her pink nails little kisses in the air.
When Jackie’d made it back to the far end of the pool, the stem of the eggplant, she bounced up and down on the diving board. Her swimsuit was black and slick as a seal’s pelt, and with the goggles, she felt like a Russian spy. Franny pushed herself off the wall and doggy-paddled out into the middle of the pool. She could see Jackie watching, or at least she thought she could. It was hard to tell with the goggles.
Before Franny could even yell up and alert Jackie to her newly water-bound presence, Jackie leapt up and did a forward flip. Her head was up, and then it was down. Her feet were down, and then they were up. She could feel her body fold in half, and then open up as straight as a pencil, into the water in one motion. Jackie loved to dive. If she could have stayed underwater forever, she would have. My water baby, that was what her mother used to say. My water baby.
Franny’s legs looked like two white pillars. Her toes scraped against the bottom of the pool. Jackie swam as close as she could, and then grabbed Franny’s left shin and gave it a tug. Jackie could hear Franny scream, even from under the surface. She popped up next to Franny, laughing, and then lifted the goggles off her eyes and moved them onto her forehead. There were deep indentations in her skin where the goggles had been.
“You look like you got into a fight with an octopus,” Franny said.
Jackie spat out a mouthful of pool water. “What do you think is down there?” she asked, gesturing with her right ear.
“Octopus!” Franny said, and before she’d finished saying it, Jackie was on top of her, underneath her, behind her, swimming like a fish, her hands two tentacles, just for Franny. She screeched, in spite of herself. Jackie hoped that her mother had gone to the ladies room.
The day of the Ball, they were booked. Mrs. Johnson made the three of them appointments to get their hair done. Jackie huffed and puffed through it all: the rollers were too hot, the hairspray stung her eyes. When they were back in the hotel room, her mother started to loom over Jackie’s face with a mascara wand. She actually screamed.
“I can do it,” Franny said. Jackie could tell that Fran was trying her hardest not to be ready too early. Her dress, on loan from Jackie’s mother, lay flat on the bed, but her hair was done, her make-up, everything. Jackie’d loaned her a string of pearls, and she fingered them gingerly. They looked better on Franny.
“Yes,” Jackie said. “Let Franny do it, Mother. We’ll meet you in your room in half an hour, okay?” Mrs. Johnson already had her dress on and didn’t look inclined to wait. “Or we’ll meet you and Dad at the bar, how’s that?”
“A gimlet doesn’t sound like a terrible idea,” her mother said. “Fine. You girls hurry up, though. I won’t be late.” Her skirt was the color of sea foam and pushed out from her body as though held up by tiny creatures. It was satin, the kind of thing you had to know you wanted, because they didn’t sell it in every store. Not even at Bloomingdale’s. She walked sideways so not to muss herself and closed the door behind her.
“Jesus,” Jackie said. Another Jewish Issue word. She winced.
“Jesus,” Franny said back. They smiled.
Franny guided Jackie backwards until she was sitting on the closed toilet seat. She sat next to her on the lip of the bathtub. They were wearing their slips, peach and white and slippery. She moved her make-up bag into her lap.
“Okay,” Franny said. “Hold still.”
Jackie closed my eyes.
“Your hair is so much poufier than normal,” she said. It was true. The lady in the salon had somehow teased an extra four inches out of Jackie’s hair. “You look pretty.”
She kept her eyes closed. “Not as pretty as you are,” Jackie said.
Franny laughed a little, even though she knew Jackie wasn’t joking. She was prettier; everyone knew that. But there was something in Jackie’s voice that was different. She’d told Fran before that she thought she was prettier, but always in a jokey, self-deprecating way. This time, Jackie said it like she wanted to kiss her. Which she did.
Here are all the boys Franny let kiss her before going to Barnard: Samuel Epstein, who was two years ahead of her at Midwood and immediately lied about her to all his friends; Josh Schwartz, who was almost as short as she was, and had a slippery tongue; Barry Weinstein, who was soft around the middle and touched her with the gentlest hands she’d ever felt, until now.
Here are all the boys Jackie ever let kiss her: zero.
She kept her eyes closed. Jackie don’t know if Franny found her mouth, or the other way around. One of them had moved closer to the other, or they both had, and Jackie could feel Franny’s mouth in all different parts of her body: her ribcage, where it was vibrating against her chest, and in her underwear, twitching like someone had flipped a switch. Jackie slipped her tongue past Franny’s lips and teeth, and there was a shudder somewhere inside her that she could feel. If Franny’d opened her eyes, she would have seen Jackie’s eyes open, too. But Franny kept her eyes closed, as thought that would insure that we would laugh about this later, the way girls laugh when they’re with their friends and they’ve just said something so deeply personal that they had to look at each other in a new way, to recalibrate what they’d previously taken for granted.
When they finally pulled apart, slow as taffy, their chins were red, as though they’d been mining their pores for blackheads. The bathroom mirror stared back at them, agape. Franny put her hand to her mouth, and Jackie did the same, Simon Says.
“Well, are you gonna put that mascara on me or what?” Jackie said, her face now pulling into a sideways grin. The small bathroom smelled like sweat and perfume and possibility. Franny plunged the mascara wand into the bottle a few times and then leaned forward, moving her hands back to Jackie’s face. She shut her eyes slowly and evenly, as docile as if she’d been hypnotized. If Franny’d snapped her fingers, Jackie would have done anything she said. She could have whispered.
The ballroom made Rockefeller Center look like Times Square, seedy and filled with prostitutes. The walls were covered with red and gold silk, and above their heads, chandeliers twinkled like enormous diamond rings. There were round tables circling a dance floor, and the orchestra was already playing: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jackie recognized the song. All around them, people were having the polite kind of talk that sounded like falling leaves, small crunches and murmurs. All the men wore tuxedos and bow-ties that matched their wives’ dresses. The wait staff from the hotel restaurant was present and dolled up in black and white. Young men Jackie recognized from the pool walked by carrying platters of champagne glasses. Inside, in the relative dark, their tans made them look like silent film stars, with features so easily translated into black and white.
“Why didn’t I bring a camera?” Franny said into Jackie’s ear. But of course, there were photographers, and flashbulbs, and for the first time, she hoped that one of them would catch her, that maybe one of the photographers would take a picture of Franny and Jackie and their arms would be around each other’s waists and only they would know why they were smiling.
Franny couldn’t stop looking at Jackie, which she knew from her peripheral vision. Whenever Jackie actually turned to look back, Franny would turn away, cheeks brighter than any man-made blush. Mrs. Johnson cupped her hand around Mr. Johnson’s bicep as they entered the room. As far as Jackie could tell, time had stopped and there was no other party on earth, no other dinner, nothing that she cared about outside this room. She wanted to sit at the table and fill out her dance card with just one name over and over again, Franny Gold, Franny Gold, Franny Gold.
The table was close to the band, good seats. Mrs. Johnson had pearls in her ears and a pearl on her finger. Jackie’s own set was still strung around Franny’s neck, flat against her collarbones. All around the room, women were just as decked out. Jackie wondered how many pearls were in the ballroom, if there were more pearls than in a hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The three women sat down simultaneously, like a ballet corps, moving individually but with the sense to do it in unison.
“So, Franny, sweetie,” Mrs. Johnson said. A waiter appeared behind her and put champagne glasses in front of them all, in between the gold chargers and the floral centerpieces with their dramatic spikes of red and white. Everything seemed native and wild. “Are there any boys up there at Barnard? Jackie never told us if you had a boyfriend.”
She could see Jackie’s neck, her cheeks, her chin. She could smell the kisses from two seats over. She wasn’t a mother, she was a bloodhound.
“Franny goes out with tons of boys, Mother,” Jackie said. “Tons. The Columbia Lions? All of them. The whole team.” She shook her head in mock-disapproval. Franny’s dress had cap-sleeves; Jackie wondered if they were both sweating so much, or if it was just her.
“No,” Franny said, turning to face Mrs. Johnson. “No boys. At least not right now.”
There were boys at Columbia, boys who would call and call and call, but Jackie couldn’t picture any of their faces. She picked up her glass and held it high, her arm straight out and triumphant. “To Franny,” Jackie said, “the pearl of the sea!”
Jackie’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, Edward and Elizabeth, Ed and Bitsy, Bitsy and Bootsy, Bippity Bobbity Boo, everyone in the room seemed to raise their glass, and there was a booming inside Jackie’s chest that would have made the ocean turn green with envy. She and Franny danced with each other and with her parents and with people who looked like they were bored out of their minds. Franny talked about Newport as though she’d been there a hundred times, and really, it was just a matter of changing her address with the post office. Jackie talked to old men about their sailboats and old women about their daschunds. When the party was winding down, Jackie’s parents toddled off to their room and she and Franny ran for the beach with their shoes in their hands.
The hard, wet sand looked so dark against their bare feet, like city concrete. Jackie ran fifty yards in her dress, the hem hiked up around her waist with her white slip taut against her thighs. She pictured Franny on Broadway, all those boys fading into the background. When Jackie stopped running, the girls stood there for a moment and stared at each other in the dark. Jackie could make out Franny’s hair, which was starting to frizz in the humidity, and her dress, puffy under her arms like a barrel. Her feet were still mostly clean; Jackie’s were speckled with sand and dirt. Above them, the Breakers looked like it had been carved out of a cloud, all smooth, all white. The ballroom was still lit up; the orchestra continued to play. Tired dancers could have walked to the window and seen them there, two ghost-girls. Jackie let go of her dress with one hand and waved, inviting Franny further away from the line of vision.
But Franny didn’t move. What was down the beach? What would she do once she made it there? Jackie thought of the faceless boys on Broadway, and the way that Franny would have run to them, without even giving it a second thought, just because they were handsome and tall and exactly what she’d always imagined she would have. Jackie hadn’t imagined that, not ever. She’d only imagined a girl like Franny kissing her back and meaning it. The longer they stood there, the more Jackie knew that Fran understood what she had never told her. That it wasn’t a game. Now she could guess why Jane hadn’t been invited along, why she had been chosen in her place. The kiss in the bathroom had not been Jackie’s first, of course not. There were so many things Jackie wanted Franny to do, and one of them was fly across the sand, into the legion of girls like Jackie and Jane, not caring if her borrowed dress was torn to pieces in the surf. Jackie could have made a flying leap, an Olympic leap, right from where she stood into Franny’s arms. She could have spun her out and in, out and in, until their arms were tired and so they’d use their mouths instead. But that was not what she wanted; even in the dark, that much was clear. Franny’s face was blank and white. She was shivering. By the time Jackie started walking back towards her, her shoulders had collapsed for a few steps, and Jackie turned towards the ocean, offering Fran her profile so that she couldn’t see her face. Jackie didn’t stop when she reached her. Instead, Jackie pointed her body back to the hotel and said, “Well, you coming?” They flew back a few days later and never talked about the trip again.
And now, of course, I’m eager to know what happens next.
I’d call this a page-turner if I hadn’t been reading it on a laptop.
I’m with Marni on this one – and if Twitter is anything to go by, it’s your birthday as well? Happy birthday and welcome!
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