What She Didn’t Say
Everything important is a secret. — Charles Baxter
March blows cold this day in 1960, a milky overcast in our Catholic mill-town on the Rhode Island coast. I lag behind Gary as we make our way down a dirt two-track, through a cluster of single-story ranches with plain trims and quiet paint. Forget this, I think. Senior girls like Susan are fixed on life after graduation, not junior boys like us.
Gary claims his cousin is “different.”
I know better.
She’s finished baking as we tramp into the cramped kitchen. The house smells sweet. A woman sits in a covered chair in an adjoining room, the back of her head visible.
“How about some cake?” Susan asks a smiling Gary. She wears an off-white camp shirt and mid-thigh shorts, her blue-green eyes rare among so many darker Italians in town, her blonde hair falling to wide shoulders.
“Can I make you a salad, Jake?”
Gary must have told her about the diabetes.
He wolfs a piece of chocolate two-layer and I watch from beside him at the Formica table as she pulls lettuce, a cucumber, a tomato, a pepper, and a carrot from the refrigerator. No one’s offered me a salad in the year since the diagnosis. I’m no invalid, I want to shout. I’m a kid with a disease. Diet and exercise, the doctors push, diet and exercise. They aren’t sorry for me. I hate the pitying glances I get that shrink me to zero.
Susan peeks at her cousin from the cutting board and flaps a bent arm like a bird’s wing, and grins. “You still shoot baskets with the elbow out like that?”
“They go in, don’t they?” Gary spews cake with his answer. “What else counts?”
She laughs⸻“What else counts . . .”⸻and clutches the counter to steady her body.
“You give the boys drinks?”
The woman doesn’t turn from her book; she must be Susan’s mother.
Susan leans toward us, spreads her palms, and quizzes wordlessly. We shake our heads and she returns to slicing.
Minutes later, “Here, Jake.” She places a fork and paper napkin on my left, and in front, a huge white bowl of salad. “Try this.”
I remember seeing her with a freckled boy outside what must have been her old in-town attic apartment. Nothing dramatic, I thought then, nothing at all, yet she didn’t finger her hair or giddily drop her eyes. She wasn’t flirting. She held the boy’s gaze for long moments.
““I told her about your diabetes,” Gary says as we shuffle out the dusty street.
“She’ll pity me.”
“Not a chance. I said she was different.”
Probably he likes her easiness with boys like us, without the Look at me, I’m pretty manner.
She has an older brother who signed with the Cincinnati Reds to play minor-league ball somewhere out West, and she teaches gymnastics at the YMCA⸻the mat, the rings, the trampoline⸻and competes in tennis and basketball, yet holds her tongue about all of it, according to Gary. Girl athletes aren’t the usual; boys play, girls mostly watch.
“I guessed that was her mother in the chair. What’s her father do?”
Gary shrugs. “Gone. Susan was small.”
Divorce brings problems in a Catholic mill-town. Gossips feed on the troubled. Susan Pelligrino’s father never should have married a Protestant girl, they’d declare. What’d he think would happen? I picture young Susan gaping at the female clerk in J. C. Penny as the woman marches off after Susan’s mom asks for help. Not a good town for divorce. You’re instantly snot.
It’s only days later.
“You’re your own worst enemy,” my mother snaps from the front door as I clomp up the steps to our house. She’s spotted the lumps on my face from a fight in the park with Frankie Nicastro.
I don’t fit. Maybe I don’t understand how to fit.
Girls call me “pretty,” an unhealthy description most anyplace. I wear penny loafers and Shetland sweaters I buy with cash from delivering the Sunday New York Times. “Mr. Collegiate,” my sister teases. And we live in a tiny portion of a dilapidated mansion that looks over to the Atlantic, a ruin my parents, already with full-time jobs, have restored by themselves into an inn to save money for us kids’ college. Our family only appears fancy.
And Frankie Nicastro, with anger borrowed from textile-worker parents, doesn’t appreciate us. He broke my nose.
Susan’s house becomes a welcome refuge, and not for romance: not for cousin Gary and not for me, either. She has an older boyfriend, Gary claims, and he’ll return from relatives in Turkey soon.
One afternoon she stands in the kitchen and sighs, her face suddenly soft. She waves an arm around the new ranch house which has been a gift from her brother, Tom, a part of his money from the Cincinnati Reds. Before, she shared a bedroom with her mother and grandmother, she says, and that’s over. She lingers over her brother’s name and blushes. Tom. Brother Tom.
She never mentions the divorce or the gossips or her father or never seeing him, or how her mother entered Cranston State Hospital for the insane after he left. As tiny children Tom and Susan lived with relatives while their mother got strapped to a table and blistered with shock treatments. Will Mom come home? they must have wondered. When? What will she be like?
I can’t ask about any of it. I have no right. I’m just her cousin’s friend.
And I wake to Susan, and don’t question why.
Tuesday afternoon and I wander into the school auditorium; it’s loud with 200 students, an assembly to elect class officers.
“Saved a seat, Guinea. Over here.”
“Paisan, what’s with you? Take this one.”
Sunlight pours in the high windows as steam pipes pop, the air reeking of armpits and crotches, the cream walls and classical columns at war with the mayhem. I sit beside Gary and fix my stare on the bare floor at my feet to shrink away from the looming contest.
The sour principal finally stills the crowd and Gary shoots up. “I nominate Jake Jacobson for President.”
The room turns soundless, the silence scraping my insides like fingernails across a blackboard. Gary’s star-athlete status won’t carry the day for me.
I don’t glance up, and my fingers pick at my shirt.
And yet . . . . This is impossible. It won’t work. I can’t win. They call me “the brain.” I read too much. I’m distant except with Gary.
And still, I want this, I want this despite the unlikeliness. I realize it’s hopeless, but I want to matter, I want to add up. All that book-work deserves respect.
Maybe not. Not here. I’m earnest and humorless and apart. “Arrogant,” they say. Boys call me “cunt” in a half rhyme with Kent when they idle past in the hall.
The principal announces after more classmates get nominated, two to rowdy cheers, that people will raise their hands to vote, there’s no secret ballot. Everything will be in plain sight. The four candidates have to leave.
I don’t remember getting up from my seat.
Next thing, we four jam together in the foyer just outside with our ears pressed to the opaque-glass doors. Giggles leak from the auditorium.
I step back and can’t look around, afraid I’ll see my dread reflected in another face.
Howls from inside. Boos. Shrieks of laughter. I’m numb.
The doors open.
In English class minutes after, the room jammed with classmates, the kid to my right smirks at me and roars for everyone, “You know what happened, don’t you?”
I stare ahead to the teacher about to start as if I missed what he said.
“You got one vote.”
An older person might predict the next hours. I flee downtown and drift, stung with humiliation, boxed in by low stores and narrow sidewalks. Please, please, let me be someone else.
I’ll tramp the miles home, the punishing way, screw begging for a ride. I walk till I cross her road. I hesitate, and turn down the dirt two-track to the yellow house where Susan sits in a car. I should have told her I was coming, I should have. She smiles from the passenger seat and I walk past and stop inside the empty carport. I’ve shown up alone for the first time. This is a mistake. I’m pushing into her life. She hasn’t asked.
And she exits the basketball captain’s Ford. Leave, I tell myself. Leave. Apologize. You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come.
Instead, I stand frozen in the carport, silly and exposed.
She negotiates the stony ground and the black Ford creeps out the road. Her smile widens. I look off, I can’t hold her gaze, and a few steps apart her hands reach for me.
“How are you, Jake?” Her blue-green eyes search my face. She must have heard, the class-vote big news.
She leads me into the kitchen and I crumple into a chair at the Formica table, my body shuddering as if from cold.
What can I tell her? People dislike me. How will that sound? I don’t understand their anger and I’m not sure I can muddle through anymore.
“A salad, Jake?” I mouth no thanks without realizing.
Susan sits at the table, a leg touching mine, her eyes taking me in, and I peer at a wall, arms over my chest, my mind speeding. Moments pass, I don’t register how many, and I confess things about school, and about a yearning to be who I am, and why isn’t that good enough, and about my father saying I care about nobody but myself.
Five days later without explaining Susan brings me to a Sunday Mass. She hasn’t mentioned ever going before, and I’m Presbyterian. Her eyes follow me as we zigzag the parking lot, me in charcoal trousers and tweed jacket, she in a camel’s-hair coat and a silk scarf. We enter the church of St. Pius X, the oak and stone and purple velvet, and a warm red carpet to the altar. Light streams through the painted-glass windows and over a swarm of worshippers. We take seats to the side as an organ plays, and a priest chants Latin into the wide space. There are whispers in response, and singing, and we kneel in a silence that pulses like my heart.
She’s brought me to her father, to Mr. Pelligrino and his church, to a father she doesn’t see, to the traces that remain of a used-to-be family.
I happen on Susan beside the YMCA’s front desk not many days afterward. She’s taught a gymnastics class and promised her 12- and 13-year-olds she’ll chaperone their dance, though she’s second-guessing the offer now and bites her lip. She squints up at me, the Y’s glass doors at my back. “Will you go with me, Jake?”
I wince and she laughs.
I’ve chaperoned nothing. We’ll stand and spy on kids as ill at ease as me. I rub an arm and glance out the doors and feel my jaw tighten.
I say, “Yes.”
She laughs again.
On a Friday night in a thick May heat, we find an air-locked bunker at the YMCA: concrete-block walls, gray linoleum, no windows, no air-conditioning. It’s hot. Boys crowd in a corner beneath red, green, and purple crepe-paper streamers and paw the linoleum with their dress oxfords, while many more girls fidget in petticoats across the way and sneak glimpses at wished-for partners.
Hello young lovers, whoever you are, I hope your troubles are few.
Susan leads me to the floor to dance. “We’ll nudge the kids.”
I know how it feels to have wings on your heels and to fly down the street in a trance.
The kids gawk, Susan and I the exotic fish in their aquarium. I bump her knee, then crunch her foot. Dance, a voice inside me begs. You can dance, can’t you, buddy? We make slow circles as her body presses into mine, her silky hair on my cheek, a perfume of flowers.
The song finishes and I hold onto her hand. We angle to a near wall. She gazes up at me and I hear her breathing.
Did you ever ride on a rainbow, sit starry eyed on a rainbow?
Others are dancing by now so we watch as the songs play. And the dancers seem to be having their awkward fun.
We’ll do a good job for the kids, that’s why we’ve come, though their early curfew means the night won’t be long.
We dance once more. It’s Johnny Mathis again, and more Johnny Mathis. One song melts into another, and another, sweat dripping from my face, the bare-skin fabric of her blouse moist, her breasts against my chest, her fingers on my neck.
The LP hisses an end and she clings to me . . . and slips away, her silhouette fading through shadows, me alone in the middle of the floor.
Susan and I are dancing for the kids; we’re nothing more than a model. She’ll forget all this and I’ll forget, too. The dance will end, the night will be over, she’ll disappear with her Turkish boyfriend.
I won’t think about it. I don’t. I can’t. Not tonight, please not tonight.
She lingers at the record turntable. Come back . . . come back. She holds the platter and rolls it gently over, then sets the needle down, and turns, her eyes on me, a glimmer from her hair.
Chances are ‘cause I wear a silly. . . . I draw her in, my skin a sheet of tingles, my hand brushing her buttocks, her thighs moving against mine.
“Jake,” she murmurs, “Jake. Someone will cover. Would you like to go? Drive to the beach?”
I drive down the bending road as Susan slides close, “Music ‘Til Dawn” low on the radio with a hush in the car, her legs warm and her fingers on my arm.
I don’t recognize the side road where she points, or the narrow lane with a No Parking sign, a lane that ends in marsh grass along the water’s edge.
The harbor ripples gold and silver from the glow of a single streetlight, and a lone yacht circles a mooring.
In the darkness stretch early twentieth-century mansions with their shades pulled, the country homes of the wealthy from other worlds. Someone dreamed these places. The cobblestone foundations and weathered shingles, the spindle-railed porches, the balconies, the turrets and French doors and Palladian windows promise lives of grace, and play, and harmony.
The quiet wraps us, and scattered lights glow in the distance. We kiss as the yacht turns in the hush of the harbor water’s stillness.
In several hours it’s near midnight, time slowing so much we’ve forgotten it was passing. We pause under a naked bulb in Susan’s empty carport to say goodnight.
The door opens: “Where have you been? Where did you go?”
“The beach,” Susan answers.
Mom shuts the door.
The door opens. “Susan, it’s late. It’s time to come inside.”
Susan pulls me tighter. The door shuts.
The light snaps off and on.
We laugh. We kiss. The light off and on.
“I’d better go in.”
From inside: “Susan, it’s late. Say goodnight. It’s time to say goodnight.”
On the way home I worry. Susan’s best friend has gotten pregnant and left school. I flip off the radio.
Forget Jake. That’s what her mom is telling Susan. He seems a nice boy, though a little . . . troubled. He hangs on your every word. Don’t get close is all I’ll say. That business with your father brought divorce and no money, and I landed in a crazy bin. You want that? Few allies. Few friends.
Or her mom stops herself, and offers nothing, nothing at all. She shatters a beer glass on the floor and hopes Susan gets it.
I avoid pressing Susan about her mother.
On a bright, late June Sunday, the air soft, Susan packs a lunch into a straw basket and won’t tell me the secret spot where we’re going. We push a path through a thicket of low brush and briars to a massive tree near the river, the river high and on the move to somewhere else. The oak tree towers over its neighbors, the lowest limbs barely above our heads. I lay the blanket and set the pillows, and we share sandwiches and peaches and the sugarless lemonade Susan has made.
I’ll take a train this week for a summer science program at Brown and Susan’s friends are stuffing trunks for the state university. I’d mentioned college once and she’d twisted away, pained, her jaw clenched, the cost maybe too much for the family.
I don’t want to know if her boyfriend’s home, or even if there is a boyfriend. I hope Gary’s been wrong.
We lie on the blanket and swatches of deep blue peek between the boughs, and motes swim in the honeyed light that streams beyond the oak’s shadow. We whisper, Susan’s eyes inches from mine. I touch her cheek and she blows gently into my ear, her arms taking me, holding me, come closer, come closer⸻her sighs, her hair, the kisses on my chin and mouth. I’m here, only with her, and I pull the blanket tight around us as light falls and Susan’s body trembles, her cheeks flush, the two of us alone within the shelter of an old tree.
I don’t see her again.
I board the train for Providence and in six weeks I return. Her mom says Susan flew to visit her brother. So I wait. And no letters come, and summer stretches into fall.
I meet Tom outside the carport where I’ve appeared one more time, after many times, her mom always apologetic.
“She’s not coming back,” he says the instant he realizes who the wary boy is. “She’s not coming back,” the second one softer as he edges nearer. Tom and I have never spoken before.
I glance to the surrounding scrubland, my mind a blank. The softer second tone to me means he knows how the words sound. She’s made a choice, and he won’t say what his sister doesn’t want to say.
I have no idea what I can ask that he’ll answer.
I hesitate for a beat and then nod, and give a grim smile and mumble, “Thank you,” and head down the dirt street.
People probe about Susan’s leaving, but I resist conversation. She’s left and I can’t say why absolutely. Her mom, the town, the memories, the father she doesn’t know . . . or me, the troubled kid with college ahead. I can’t explain what I feel, why I haven’t been brought to the floor for good, why I yield so quietly, how her going seems as fated as her silence, how she needs me to let go, how I have to let go, and my letting go feels to me like kindness, a kindness I can’t name because it is so new. I’ve been uncoiling with Susan like a twist of tangled string, becoming someone I want to become, and that someone is someone else.
Kent Jacobson has been a teacher, foundation executive, and documentary filmmaker. His nonfiction has appeared in Hobart, Under the Sun, Punctuate, Thread, and elsewhere. He grew up in Rhode Island and lives in western Massachusetts.