Each evening, the streetlights came on at dusk, and the view out the window changed, from barely glowing kitchens and TV rooms to the houses that contained them, and to the trees that sheltered the houses. It seemed to Sarabeth that for a little while there was a kind of balance out there, an equilibrium. But then, quickly, darkness came down from the sky, and soon the lit rooms returned to prominence, and finally everything else was black, and the world seemed limited to a few bright windows on a street in Palo Alto.
She was at her desk now, doing homework—at John Castleberry’s desk, which, like his room, was available for her to use this year because he was away at college. Across the hall, Liz was working, too. The first couple weeks of Sarabeth’s living here, they had done their homework together at the dining room table, as they so often had in the past, when Sarabeth lived in her own house across the street. But doing homework together night after night was different from hooking up from time to time, for company or help, and now they studied separately.
Out in the hall, Mrs. Castleberry was talking to Liz’s younger brother, Steve, who’d started junior high this year. “Just some math,” Sarabeth heard him say. “I’m on top of it.” “I know you are,” Mrs. Castleberry said. “But don’t forget to get on top of those dirty clothes we talked about, too.” “I know,” he said, and though he sounded impatient with her, Sarabeth knew Mrs. Castleberry would just smile her smile, maybe chuckle as she continued on her way. Mrs. Castleberry was so calm.
Her footsteps approached, and she came into view, slowing to wave at Sarabeth. Sarabeth waved back. Even this late in the evening, Mrs. Castleberry’s hair was neatly brushed back from her forehead and held in place by a wide headband. Liz had the same thick, slightly wavy hair. Sarabeth’s hair was curly and would not be contained.
Mrs. Castleberry’s heels tap-tapped their way down the stairs and then changed sound slightly as she headed for the kitchen. The dishwasher started, and the faint noise of the water joined the muffled sounds coming from the TV show Mr. Castleberry was watching in the den. It was a special about NASA; at dinner he’d suggested they all join him for it, and Liz and Steve had nodded solemnly, saying, “Sure thing, Dad,” “Wouldn’t miss it, Dad,” and then broken into laughter. “How about you?” he’d asked Sarabeth, and while she was trying to figure out if he was teasing, and how to respond, Liz said, “No torturing of guests, Dad,” and that was that.
He watched TV almost every night—so unlike Sarabeth’s father, who as far as she could remember had never in her entire life watched any TV at all. When he was home and not somehow occupied with her mother—assuring her that dinner had been fine, more than fine, good; or saying that while he did like the new painting she’d bought, it was perhaps a little on the expensive side; or asking her to slow down and take a deep breath before continuing a story—times when he wasn’t busy with her mother, he cleared off his desk and painstakingly took apart and repaired old and broken radios, telephones, stereos, donating them to the Goodwill once he had them working again. Even last year, with Sarabeth’s mother gone, he’d never tried TV for relaxation, for the solace of not thinking; instead, he’d continued bringing out appliances, letting them sit on his desk for days at a time, but only ever looking at them, or poking idly with his special tweezers, no real intention in mind. When Sarabeth helped him pack up the house in August, there were boxes and boxes of old machines for the dump.
Liz had put a record on. Her door was closed, but the album was so familiar Sarabeth didn’t really need to hear it to know what it was: the Eagles, One of These Nights. “Lyin’ Eyes” was starting, and Sarabeth was tempted to wait for the refrain—“You can’t h-i-i-i-de your lyin’ eyes”—and then stick her head into Liz’s room and say, “That isso true.” It was a guaranteed crack-up: Bill Cuthbert had said it to Liz one evening in tenth grade when she was at his house working on a lab report; he gave her a meaningful look as he spoke, as if the Eagles were singing about a truth he’d had to learn the hard way. Sarabeth remembered Liz telling her about it the next day as they rode their bikes to school, Liz’s hair whipping behind her, her face full of glee.
Tired of the physics problems she’d been working on, she moved to the bed and opened Swann’s Way, the English translation she’d gotten from the library—without Monsieur’s permission, though he hadn’t explicitly forbidden it. “Sah-rah-bette,” he had said. “C’est bien d’aimer Proust, mais il n’est pas lui-même en Anglais.” It’s good to like Proust, but he is not himself in English. Of course he wasn’t, but she couldn’t help herself. And she was reading the French, too, just not as quickly. Monsieur looked the other way for her sometimes, which was sort of nice and sort of embarrassing. Even as she allowed herself to take advantage of it, she longed for next year, for the anonymity of college, when she would no longer be the girl whose mother had committed suicide. She would always be that girl at Palo Alto High School.
Suddenly the Eagles got louder, and Sarabeth looked up to see Liz coming across the hall, Du Coté de Chez Swannin her hand. She’d put on her school sweatshirt, green with white letters. “Have you gotten to page ninety-three yet?” she said. “I don’t get this at all.”
Sarabeth held her book up, cover out.
“You’re such a cheater!” Liz exclaimed. She perched on the bed and set her own book down, then reached for Sarabeth’s. “Let me see that.”
“Then you’ll be a cheater.”
“True.” Liz brought her legs up onto the bed and crossed them. She’d pulled her hair into a ponytail but had missed a piece, and it lay in a wave against her neck.
“I’m reading the French, too,” Sarabeth said.
Sarabeth took Liz’s book and flipped through the pages. She said, “Are you kind of tired of French? I wonder if we’ll keep taking it.”
“Oui. I’m not tired of speaking it, I’m tired of reading it.J’adore speaking it. Penses-tu qu’on va etudier le francais pendant l’année prochaine? L’an-née prochaine. L’année. Prochaine. Isn’t ‘l’année prochaine’ so much nicer than ‘next year’? Do you think in France when they learn English they’re all going, ‘Oh, how ugly’?”
“Tiens, c’est tellement laide, c’est langue.”
Now Liz clasped her hands in her lap. She reclaimed her book and set it behind her. She said, “I saw you talking to Doug outside the office today.” She looked serious now, eyes narrowed a little.
Sarabeth felt her face heat up. She knew Liz thought she should stay away from Doug, but if he wanted to talk to her she wasn’t exactly going to say no. She’d had some weird times with him last year, but he was being really nice lately.
“Oui,” she said. “Nous avons parlés de les S.A.T.s. Oh, my God. Des S.A.T.s. But that doesn’t sound right, either.”
Liz kept on looking. “How was it?”
He’d started the conversation by saying, “S.B., you’re looking downright foxy these days.” But she wasn’t going to tell Liz that. “Fine.”
“Is he taking them when we are?”
“Oh,” Sarabeth said. “Duh. Yeah.”
Liz straightened her long legs. She was in the pants she’d worn to school, sailor-like jeans with patch pockets on the front and back. They’d tried to find a pair for Sarabeth, but they didn’t come small enough.
“It’s October,” Liz said, “and we still haven’t taken John’s posters down.”
Sarabeth looked around the room. Linda Ronstadt was on one wall, Wilt Chamberlain on another. In her room across the street, posters had been forbidden. They would ruin the wallpaper, according to her mother. And they were déclassé.
“I don’t really mind them,” she said.
“I would.” Liz parted her lips and opened her eyes wide. “Do you like me?” she breathed, Ronstadt-style. Then she said, “Hey, brilliant idea. I’ve got those Monet posters in my closet. Let’s take these stupid things down and put them up in here.”
“But you bought them for next year,” Sarabeth said.
“Nothing would happen to them.”
“They wouldn’t be new anymore. Don’t you want them to be new? New room, new life, new everything?”
Liz shrugged, but Sarabeth had gotten herself thinking, and she couldn’t not go to the questions, the questions that were always there, waiting. Where would she and Liz be next year? How far apart?
The Eagles stopped singing, and Liz looked at her watch and moaned. “I haven’t even started my math.”
“Steve’s doing math,” Sarabeth said—stupidly, but she suddenly didn’t want Liz to leave. Time was moving. October now, SATs and applications, December with her trip to see her father, April 15th and the thick or thin envelopes in the mail. Graduation. It would all be over before she knew it.
This night would be over soon. Mr. and Mrs. Castleberry would come upstairs, Mr. Castleberry first, saying, “Goodnight, one and all,” as he moved down the hallway toward the master bedroom. Mrs. Castleberry would take her time, stop in on the kids—on Steve first and then on Liz, knocking at her door and then going in and staying for quite a while, ten or fifteen minutes, maybe longer. It had surprised Sarabeth, that Mrs. Castleberry did this. She wondered what they talked about.
“All right,” Liz said. “Break over.”
Sarabeth sat up. “Do you think he’ll get a girlfriend this year?”
Liz yawned. “If he’s anything like John, he already has one.” She got to her feet and stood next to the bed, her hands going up to release her ponytail. She regathered her hair and fastened it again, this time catching the errant strand.
Sarabeth reached for Liz’s Proust. “What page was it?”
“It’s OK. I’m moving on to math.”
But Sarabeth had found the place, a page with a long, dense passage, and now she began to read. She felt Liz standing there waiting, but she kept her eyes on the text. After a moment Liz sat again, and Sarabeth slid the book over so they could both see it. She stared down at the page, and at her side Liz did, too. The French nothing now but a trail of black marks.
“Sorry I called you a guest at dinner,” Liz said.
Sarabeth looked up at her. “It’s OK. I am.”
“No, you’re not,” Liz said. “You’re a…” Her voice trailed off, and Sarabeth imagined the possibilities: friend, honorary sister, near orphan, beggar, leech. If she had gone to Baltimore with her father, she’d be none of those things, not the bad but not the good either, and especially not friend. “The nice girls of Baltimore,” she and Liz had called the people with whom she couldn’t possibly, in a single year, develop anything like the friendship she had with Liz. They—the nice girls of Baltimore—were among the many reasons it had made so much more sense to stay.
“I’m a what?” she said.
Liz patted Sarabeth’s shoulder. “You’re a you.” She stretched her arms over her head, bending from side to side. “OK,” she said. “I have to get to my math. Nighty night.”
Sarabeth raised herself onto her elbows. “‘Nighty night’?”
Liz smiled a wry smile. “It’s what my mom says every night. Corny, huh?” She moved to the doorway. “Open or closed?”
“Closed, I guess.”
Liz took hold of the knob, gave Sarabeth a little wave, and then pulled the door shut behind her.
It was an hour before everyone was settled for the night. Sarabeth waited—until Mrs. Castleberry was in her own room, until all the trips to the bathroom were completed, all the lights off—and then she put on her nightgown and tiptoed to the bathroom herself.
Back in John’s room, she closed the door and turned off the overhead so that the only light came from the small reading lamp on the bedside table. She made her way to the window. There were a few lights here and there, but the one she saw, the one she couldn’t avoid, was the one directly across the street, the light shining from the room that had once, and for so long, belonged to her parents. That room seemed to be the whole of her view from here. It was to that room that she had most often gone to find her mother, in bed at nine in the morning, at noon, late in the day. It was from that room that she had so often heard her mother, weeping or shrieking. And it was in that room that she had last seen her mother, on a warm spring morning eighteen months ago, when she had poked her head in as usual to say she was leaving for school. Her mother’s dark head had not moved from the pillow, but she had raised her hand, and sometimes, even now, Sarabeth wondered what that gesture had meant: goodbye, or go.