The summer she and I were twelve, Alexandra Metcalf became my best friend only hours after she moved onto our block. I was sitting on my front stoop, hugging my knees, listening to the bees’ late summer panic as my parents carted sod back and forth. They were planting the evergreen that would eventually tower over the house, and surrounding it with chrysanthemums. Alexandra’s blond head bobbed past our honeysuckle hedge and she stopped to wave at me as if she weren’t thinking twice about it.
We swam like minnows in the pool in Alexandra’s back yard every day that first week. On the first day, I learned to dive, crouching low, peering at my reflection peering back at me, then meeting the surface with a bruising splash. There was nothing dainty about my dives. Alexandra’s were practically swan-perfect, her rounder thighs catching the sunlight, shaming me in my own bony frame.
"Let’s play shark," she said one day, a hiss of authority behind her voice that upended my will, a will only practiced on my parents until then. Her china-blue eyes were round with eagerness, her teeth bared. "You be the lady swimming at the beach and I’ll slowly swim near you, kind of tap you like this.” She nudged my leg and I flinched as if a real shark had nosed me. "Then you scream, as loud as you can, and I’ll pop out of the water and catch you and drag you under. Okay?"
"What if you hold me there too long?" I glanced at Mr. and Mrs. Metcalf, poolside, both of them reading magazines. Alexandra’s sister, Michele, who was about to start her sophomore year of high school, was stretched out on a chaise, tanning. Her skin was already brown. I could see the faintest shocking white line gleaming at her hip.
"I wouldn’t dare!" Alexandra screeched, as if offended that I suspected her of this. "C’mon, Carrie, grab the side and just kick your feet a little." She paddled backwards to the middle, her eyes fixed on me, then took a deep, silent breath and went down.
I clung to the side, waiting. It was taking her longer than I expected. Michele turned onto her back. From just below the blue tile lip of the pool, I watched, mesmerized, as she slathered a dollop of sun block onto each of her long legs and began massaging it into one of them in long, deliberate strokes.
"Gotcha!" Alexandra yelled, surfacing next to me. "Didn’t you feel me touching your leg?"
My gut lurched.
“I guess not,” I said. “You really took your time."
“The element of surprise. Daddy says there’s an art to it. Isn’t that right, Daddy?”
"That’s right," Mr. Metcalf said, eyes closed, one arm slung across his forehead.
I played the game again, doing it the way Alexandra wanted to, waiting with my back turned and my attention riveted on her stealthy approach from behind. I was truly terrified, the delight of it squirreling up my chest and into my throat as I sensed her coming nearer. I turned in time to see her head charging forward, leaving a cleft in her wake that, for a split second, made me think she was a real shark. Before she could grab hold of my legs, I scrambled out of the pool. When she burst from the water, bewildered, and saw where I was, she let her arms splash back in and she arched into an effortless backward somersault.
"You’re hopeless," she laughed, coming up for air, spitting water in a neat fountain far ahead of her.
Michele didn’t like to swim. She lay still, glistening as Mrs. Metcalf read her magazine, nodding and clucking under a white straw hat.
“Watch this,” Alexandra whispered.
Like a rotor, she spun herself into a frenzied whirl, arms in the air until she lowered one into the pool and splashed a cascade of water directly on her sister.
Her sister screamed, livid, and grabbed the towel from her chaise.
“You little brat!” Michele shrieked, grabbing a towel and curling into a ball as if traumatized.
Ignoring her daughters, Mrs. Metcalf absently patted the few drops that had landed on her, but Mr. Metcalf strode over to the pool. Clad in a tight piece of spandex, he was a full, slender head taller than my stocky father and seemed to tower over us.
“You know better than that, Alexandra.” His voice was deep and full of quiet condemnation.
“It’s no big deal,” Alexandra said. “You’re in your swimsuits.”
“We don’t play those games in our family,” Mr. Metcalf said. “Do that again, and you’ll go straight to your room.”
When he turned his back on us, Alexandra looked at me. Her mouth was cockeyed, and her eyes rolled toward her father. I jumped back in, and we ducked our heads and blew bubbles to keep from laughing out loud.
When we came up for air, Michele and Mr. Metcalf were walking back into the house, and Mrs. Metcalf had risen from her chaise. She was a tall, broad-shouldered woman who, under her livid rouge and brown eye shadow, was paler than milk, even in the sun.
“Would you minnows like some dinner?” she asked.
Alexandra nodded and looked to me to see if I’d stay.
“I guess I should call home first,” I said.
“Then call,” Alexandra said.
“And just so you know, Carrie, you’re always welcome in our home.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Metcalf,” I said.
Shivering, I got out of the pool and picked up the cordless phone, my movements jerky from the cold stiffening my bones. As I called home, I watched Alexandra doing dolphin dives in the water and knew then, not just from watching her move but from a growing intimate knowledge of my own uncooperative body, that I was Alexandra’s complete physical opposite: my straight brown hair hung just above my shoulders, my teeth jutted from my face. Thankfully, we were both flat-chested.
When swimming got old, we did gymnastics on my back lawn. I admired Alexandra’s perfect cartwheels and long-held handstands even as I thudded onto my back, sending the wind gusting up and out of my chest. My mother flitted near the kitchen window, applauding us both, but Alexandra was too busy spinning and springing along the grass to notice.
She’d never taken lessons.
She was a self-taught acrobat, fearless and airborne.
And when she watched me walk, Alexandra couldn’t help but offer instruction.
“You always look like you’re about to bend, Carrie,” she said one afternoon as I sauntered over to a silver maple to investigate a fallen bird’s nest. “My mother says you should straighten up or you’ll get a hunchback by the time you’re thirty.”
“She said that about me?”
“Not you. People.”
Alexandra stood by my side and told me to look straight ahead. I did as she said, and my eyes started aching.
“Good,” she said. “Now tuck in your butt, bring your shoulders back, and push your chest out a little.”
I obeyed, and it felt good for about ten seconds.
“Don’t worry,” Alexandra said as my shoulders started to fall. “You’ll get used to it.”
When she wasn’t looking, I preferred the comfort of slouching.
At home, Alexandra was all I could talk about. My new friend had a collection of China dolls, I told my mother as she chopped vegetables in the kitchen. And each doll had a different dress, and each dress was a different color. The dresses were made of real silk, I added when my mother remained unimpressed, and in addition to the China dolls, Alexandra also had a collection of crystal animals from Prague .
“You have your own collection,” my mother said.
“Spoons,” I said. “Stupid spoons.”
“They’re not stupid,” my mother said. “And you’ll appreciate them when you’re older.”
The collection had been mine for as long as I could remember, and for as long as I could remember, my mother had been telling me that I’d appreciate my blossoming set of sterling silver flatware when I was older. At the time, however, I couldn’t imagine sharing my plain yet elegant spoons with Alexandra. Her love for showy things kept me from pulling the heavy wooden case from my mother’s closet and explaining the history behind each piece of sterling it contained. Born out of thin air with a history that had surely started and ended with her parents, Alexandra could only be bored to tears by stories of my grandmother and my Polish great-aunt and great-uncle—now long dead, all contributors to this collection in honor of my birth.
“I want something I can show off now,” I muttered, scorning a legacy I knew was precious. “I’m going to Alexandra’s.”
“No you’re not,” my mother said. She’d finished with the vegetables and had begun splitting chicken legs from thighs. “I need you to help with dinner.”
The sickening sound of moist bones breaking was enough to make me wish I were a vegetarian just like Alexandra and her big sister, Michele.
“Good God, Carrie, you practically live there,” my mother said. “Why don’t you spend some time with your own family for a change?”
“I wish I had a sister,” I mumbled, though I wanted much more than that.
I wanted to be someone else.
“You can see Alexandra after dinner,” my mother said, turning to face me, one hand on her hip. “Besides, if she really wanted to see you, she’d call or come knocking once in a while, don’t you think?”
I hadn’t thought of that. I took for granted, as I should have, that Alexandra would be around forever.
The first time I ate dinner at the Metcalfs’ house I was dazzled and sickened all at once. They drank buttermilk out of wineglasses. I hated milk and one look at the thick yellowish liquid clinging to the inside of the glass closed my gullet. But I always said yes when it was offered because it seemed so elegant and strange. At my house, I avoided milk and drank juice from jelly glasses my mother picked up at yard sales.
It was clear to both of us that we preferred her house with the pool and fewer rules. There was also the occasional chance to spy on Michele who looked at her body in the tall oval-shaped swivel mirror, cupping and holding the plum-like roundness of her breasts. Through the keyhole, we took turns peering in as she scowled at her reflection, reaching languidly for her robe, covering herself. I couldn’t think why she looked so angry, and wished my body would open up like hers, my sharp edges soften into curves. I still marvel that she had no idea her keyhole afforded such a perfect view.
Whenever she came across us while we played dress-up with Wally, their fat orange cat, I stared at her polished toes, afraid I might fasten my gaze on her nipples because they always seemed to poke out past her bra like tiny, fat buttons.
“If that cat has any brains, he’ll run far away from here one day,” Michele said one afternoon. She had come downstairs to flip on the T.V. “The way you dress him up like that, it’s a disgrace to cats everywhere.”
“He’s my cat, so I can do what I want,” Alexandra said. “Right, Carrie?”
I looked up at Michele, and she smirked at the two of us as if she knew something we could never understand. Then she turned off the television, wheeled around and delicately climbed the stairs without waiting for me to prove my loyalty to her sister.
“She’s mental,” Alexandra said, glowering, when Michele was gone. “She dresses Wally up, too, when she’s not busy looking at herself.”
I didn’t know whether or not to believe this, the improbability of a girl like Michele playing dress-up with anything at all except herself. Part of my fascination with Alexandra and her family was with their glamorous boredom. They never seemed to need to be busy; their languor was an activity. The effortless way they moved through their house and around each other, their striking looks, distracted me from Alexandra’s bull’s eye accuracy of reducing me to the smallest version of myself simply by being who she was, someone I loved instantly without wanting to admit soon after that I sometimes hated her.
One Sunday afternoon, the last before we returned to school, I was alone at Alexandra’s. She had to leave for a piano lesson and, though I wasn’t asked along when the time arrived for her to go, I was invited to stay in the house.
“You can lie on my bed if you want or read something. I have the whole Bobsy Twins, series,” Alexandra said. “But just be really careful about the shelves,” she warned.
At first, I lay down on her bed, and the whisper of her pink cotton coverlet sent up a perfume I couldn’t place, except that all of her clothes smelled like this bedspread. Mine smelled bleachy and over clean. The door to her room was closed and the house was quiet as I looked around, my head perfectly still on the pink and white gingham sham, its plumpness keeping it that way.
Alexandra’s China dolls filled one tall pink wicker bookshelf, and the tiny crystal animal figurines filled another one. Everything on those shelves was sacred. Even Alexandra refused to touch her treasures. She’d already lost one in a pillow fight, and she was so terrified that another one, which had been knocked askew in the same fight, would fall as well, and she wouldn’t even let her mother right it in case it toppled. So there it stood, teetering on the verge of certain doom.
Alexandra and her mother were taking a long time. I had fallen asleep and, jerking awake ten minutes later as the clock radio blinked the lost minutes back at me, I wondered if they’d forgotten I was still there, waiting. Not that I minded too much. It was enough to lie there and pretend it all belonged to me.
I rolled off the bed and padded over on bare feet to peer at the row of crystal animals lined up at eye level, each one different. A giraffe standing next to a lion that was curled up beside an elephant. All the rest behind them were dogs and cats. The sunlight streaming in through Alexandra’s bedroom window bounced off the giraffe and onto the floor in a colorful pool of light. Slowly, my hand steadier than I knew it could be, I took the luminous giraffe and gingerly held it, arcing it through the shaft of light and down, bewitched by the rainbow spilling across the pine planks under my feet.
Just as I finished counting the colors, I started again, sure there were more than my eye could see, but I’d barely begun my second count when I heard crying. Creeping to the door, I opened it slightly until I realized that the crying was coming from the next room.
“You know better than that, Michele,” a man’s voice said, deep and even. “We don’t cry in this house.”
And then Mr. Metcalf was standing in the hallway, in front of me. His frown reversed almost too fast for me to have seen it and he smiled.
“I had no idea you were here, Carrie. Where’s Alexandra? Did she go off and leave you here to fend for yourself?”
I nodded, mute, my palm suddenly empty. We both looked down and saw the giraffe at my feet, snapped cleanly in two.
“Mrs. Metcalf said I could stay if I wanted,” I managed to say.
“Fair enough. Why don’t you join me downstairs for some milk and cookies?”
“What about Michele?” I asked. “Will she be coming, too?”
His smile vanished. He looked at me as if I’d insulted him.
“No,” he muttered. “She’s not feeling well.”
When he turned to go downstairs, I pocketed the two pieces, then followed.
“Have a seat, m’lady,” he said, gesturing with a flourish to a dining room chair. Then he went into the kitchen and came out with a goblet of buttermilk, which he placed before me, and a plate of cookies that wasn’t sweet enough to smother the taste of the milk that Mr. Metcalf seemed intent to have me drink, one agonizing sip at a time.
He said nothing as he watched me choke it down. With Wally purring on his lap, he began to ask me meaningless questions.
“Carrie, are you happy to be returning to school? It’s not long now.”
I shook my head, my lips pasted together.
“I’ve heard the school here is very big. Very good, but very big. Do you think you and Alexandra will have any classes together?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, tonguing the cookie into my cheek.
At that moment, Alexandra and her mother breezed in the door, Mrs. Metcalf chirping, “Darlings, we’re home!”
As if wound from behind, I took my empty plate and unfinished milk to the sink and scurried off with Alexandra, the giraffe’s head and body in my shorts pocket.
That afternoon, back at my own house helping my mother prepare dinner, I knew I had to tell Alexandra what I’d done. Her father had seen the murdered giraffe.
Gathering my nerve, I went back to their house, the pink and purple creeping into the sky before sunset almost displacing the terror I felt from my scalp down to my feet.
When I knocked on the door, Michele answered.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked, nudging one sandaled foot against the other.
She eyed me for a heartbeat. “Fine,” she said. Her voice fell flat between us. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“I guess you’re looking for Alex,” she said, opening the door wide. “She’s downstairs torturing Wally.”
The one time I’d tried to suggest that Wally might not be having such a great time, Alexandra had said that I was being ridiculous. Cats had no idea whether they were having a good time or not. Besides, Wally was her cat, and I could go home if I didn’t like dressing him up.
Stung by her words but unwilling to be chased away, I stayed on and helped her lace the dresses over his fat, furry stomach and truss the tops of his paws into the tiny booties. This time, however, Alexandra looked up at me, and I thought she understood why I’d come.
I knelt next to her and picked up a piece of doll’s clothing, tracing the eyelet at the hem, embroidered with green petals. Alexandra had a dress just like it in her own size.
“Wally looks nice,” I said. “Like he’s going to a party or something.”
Alexandra was silent.
“Is he?” I said. “Going to a party?”
“Wally doesn’t like parties. We both hate crowds.”
“Then maybe for a walk? Maybe we can take him in the stroller. It’s pretty outside, with the sun about to set.”
I hated how Wally looked, but for the first time, I didn’t want to be in the house any longer than I had to be.
Still not looking at me, Alexandra gathered Wally into her arms and placed him in the stroller, his hind legs poking up, his front paws bound too tightly in ruffled sleeves and slippers for him to fight even if he wanted to.
Once outside, we walked together back toward my house and past it into the park that led toward the school. I started to worry about whether I should bother with any of this—with a confession, with a decision. And I worried, too, that if there was any decision to be made, no matter what I would say, it might not belong to me, that it might be out of my hands altogether.
“So, what’d you do while I was out at piano?” Alexandra asked. “Did you get to read?”
“No,” I said, the fingernails of one hand clamped between my teeth. “I think I fell asleep.”
Alexandra laughed. It was an adult laugh, the kind I’d heard from my mother once or twice, and it made me wonder what kind of emotion could can produce such a mirthless sound.
“I wanted to ask you something,” I said before I really wanted to. I hadn’t planned to ask her anything. But the will I’d abandoned when Alexandra first bobbed into my life was beginning to right itself, stretching, as if roused from sleep.
She stopped the stroller and turned to face me.
I looked at the ground, knowing I had to go forward. “Do your parents—?”
“What? Love us?”
Alexandra spit out the word like a curse, and it dovetailed with all that I knew about her: that she would be a friend I could always count on to put me in a place that would suit our friendship best, even if it hurt her to have me there. It would be a place where I could not hope to be allowed to love my new friend in the way everyone should be loved.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, ripping off my cuticles and staring back at her.
“Then what did you mean?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
But in a way that terrified me more than what I was sure of, I really did.
I knew exactly what I meant.
Casey Krivy Hirsch is formerly of Toronto, and living in the Philadelphia suburbs since 1989. She has been a freelance writer for numerous regional newspapers and publications, including Main Line Today and City Paper. Mother of three, she is currently