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Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, Page 2

Natalie Standiford

  I do not have that thing. I have a feeling there’s something old-fashioned about my looks, not in a good way. There are boys who think I’m cute, but old ladies flip over me. Not you, but every other old lady in the universe. They’re always coming up to me to say how beautiful I am. It’s my skin; they love my pale, rosy skin. Boys don’t notice skin. I’ve never heard a boy say, “Hey, check that girl’s foxy skin.” There’s a girl at our pool named Kelsey Mathers who practically has acne but all the boys drool over her anyway. Once, I pointed out Kelsey’s pimples to Sully and he said he didn’t know what I was talking about. “Acne? Check out her ass!” (I was going to write “bottom” instead of “ass” in deference to your delicate sensibilities, but then it wouldn’t sound like Sully talking, would it?) I guess a good ass blinds boys to other deficits.

  Sorry if you think this is vulgar, Almighty, but I decided if I’m going to confess to you I’m going to be completely honest and tell everything, even things you might not like to hear about.

  I said hi to the Radnor girls. They squinted up at me, shading their eyes from the sun.

  “Oh, hi,” said Phoebe Fernandez-Ruiz. She tugged her red scarf out of her hair. Lily Hargrove turned her face toward the swimmers in the water.

  Brooks and his friend Davis Smith climbed out of the reservoir and walked over to us, dripping. I felt Claire tense up beside me. I have a feeling she likes Brooks. Lots of girls like Brooks. I had a huge secret crush on him myself. At least I thought I did. I used to like playing with him when we were little, at family picnics or Easter egg hunts, until we were about ten and he didn’t want to play with girls anymore. That’s when I started missing him a little bit, and thinking about him. It didn’t help that you and Ginger always talked about him as if he and I were going to get married someday.

  He’s not that cute if you really look at him, you know, but nobody really looks at him. I mean, maybe if you showed a picture of him to a girl who never met him, she might shrug and say, “Yeah, so?” But anybody who’s met him knows. I can already kind of see where his bald spot is going to be in twenty years, maybe ten. I can picture him as an old man: He’ll be charming and everyone’s favorite uncle or dad, the kind of guy who still wears his tweed suit from college and sails and writes poetry for special occasions, like the rehearsal dinner for his daughter’s wedding or the baptism of his first grandchild. I don’t know why that is so appealing, but it is. You can look at Brooks Overbeck and see the future, and that future is bright and comfortable, full of parties and travel and glittery Ivy League people. A lot like your life, and my parents’ life, and his parents’ life. I guess that’s why so many girls like him. Who wouldn’t want that?

  Davis kissed Lily and she said, “Ew, Dave, you’re getting me all wet.” Brooks shook his hair like a Labrador and spattered us with water. We all screamed happily except for Jane, who put on her sunglasses and rolled over onto her stomach with an exasperated sigh.

  “What d’ya know, girls?” Brooks said. “Nice to see the Sullivan clan out and about.”

  Brooks’s father always says “What d’ya know?” and now Brooks always says “What d’ya know?” (Doesn’t that ever get on your nerves?)

  “Spare me,” Jane muttered.

  “You didn’t have to come,” I said to her.

  “I wanted to go for a swim.”

  “So go for a swim.”

  “I will. Come on, Bridget.” She stood up, gave Bridget a little kick, and walked petulantly toward the water, where Sassy and some other kids were splashing and having chicken fights.

  “Oh no,” Lily said. “Here comes that St. Haggie’s slut.”

  I bristled, since the Radnor girls are always calling us sluts just because we’re Catholic school girls and the boys think that’s sexy for some reason and it makes the Radnor girls jealous. I looked back to see which “slut” was coming toward us.

  Shea Donovan. Who actually is kind of a slut.

  Shea stumbled toward us through the graveyard wearing flip-flops, very short cutoffs, and a T-shirt sawed off at the rib cage over a pink bikini top. Her dark blond hair hung in her face and her eyes were covered by aviator sunglasses. As usual, she was slouching slightly, with this way of ducking her head, ready to flinch, like a dog who’s used to being hit.

  “I heard she’s going out with some guy who’s, like, thirty,” Phoebe said.

  “Is that true?” Lily asked me.

  As if I’d know. “Maybe. I don’t know her very well.”

  “She’s hooked up with every boy on T&A’s lacrosse team,” Phoebe said.

  Shea had arrived, so the gossip stopped. She glanced around in search of a friendly face.

  Sassy ran out of the water then and grabbed her towel. “The water feels great! Hi, Shea. Sit in the sun with us.”

  “Okay.” Shea spread her towel near Sassy’s.

  Shea’s kind of pretty in an off-kilter way, her nose and mouth not quite centered on her face. But the girls at school don’t consider her pretty. Her only friend is this other slutty girl, Caitlin, who wears a lot of eyeliner. There’s something about them…. They seem contagious, as if you could catch misery from being around them. I don’t know why I get that feeling. They might not be unhappy at all.

  After a short swim, Jane came back to her towel, Bridget nipping at her heels. “It’s frickin’ cold,” Jane grumbled. She sat her cold wet butt on my stomach.

  “Ow. Get off me.” I pushed her over. Since I was now wet, I figured I might as well swim. “Want to go in?” I asked Claire.


  We got up and dove into the water. The cold snapped me awake. I swam a few hundred feet out to the wooden float anchored offshore, letting the sun sink into my bones. Across the water I heard laughter and squealing. It didn’t sound like anything unusual. It crossed my mind that maybe somebody had done something mean to Shea.

  By the time Claire and I crawled back onto the shore, it was clear we’d missed something. I glanced at Shea, but she was hovering on the sidelines, watching. Bibi was the focus of attention. She stalked toward the road, blood dripping from her nose. Brooks, of all people, was trailing after her. Brooks’s friends and the Radnor girls were laughing, and Jane and Bridget huddled on their towels, snickering. I zeroed in on Jane. She’s always my prime suspect.

  “What was that all about?”

  “Just Bibi being Bibi,” Jane said. “You know how she is.”

  “Not really,” I said. “She’s your friend.”

  “She was my friend,” Jane corrected.

  Brooks came back from the road, frowning, Bibi having left in disgrace. He opened up a cooler and hefted out a huge watermelon. “Who wants some? Last melon of the season.” He dropped it on the ground and it broke into pieces. Davis reached for one and bit into it. Brooks passed chunks of watermelon around, and soon everyone was drooling pink juice and spitting seeds. Just like that. Whatever had happened, he was over it. That’s part of his charm.

  But was that enough for me?

  Well, that was the question, wasn’t it?


  THE NEXT WEEK, I WORE JEANS TO SPEED READING, TRYING TO look more like a college student even though I’d already blown my cover. When I got to class the licorice-haired guy wasn’t there yet so I sat in the same seat. He came in just before the class started and sat behind me again. I could feel the heat. My cheeks and my nose got very hot, and I knew they were probably red. I hate when that happens.

  The teacher tested our reading speeds again—it turned out she planned to do that every week—and this time my score was much less embarrassing. I turned around to wave it victoriously in my tormentor’s face.

  “Good job,” he said. He flashed his score at me, which was even higher than the week before, still way higher than mine. But this time he’d written his name on his paper. Robinson Pepper. Had he done that on purpose so I’d see it? I scribbled my name on my paper and showed it to him.

  “Hello, Norris,” he said.
/>   “Hello, Robinson,” I said. “Everyone calls me Norrie.”

  “Everyone calls me Robbie.”

  I sighed happily. I was so glad to have an official name to call him. Now things could get started for real. Fate could begin to take its course.

  I just want to clarify here that I didn’t consciously think “Fate can begin to take its course.” I wasn’t planning a coup or anything. But looking back, I can see that was the moment when my life changed direction. I would also like to add that I’m talking about FATE here, not choice. Not free will. It was out of my hands. I’m not saying I didn’t choose to do what I finally did—I’m only saying that I wasn’t steering myself that way on purpose.

  After class that night, Robinson Pepper asked me if I wanted to go get some coffee. Speed Reading was on Tuesday nights and I had homework to do, but what the hell. Heck.

  We walked to a café on campus that was busy with Hopkins students taking study breaks. What follows is a re-creation of our conversation from my memory and from what I wrote in my diary later that night.

  “So what does SMPS stand for?” Robbie asked me.

  “Huh?” Oh right, the monogram on my uniform. It took me a second to figure out what he was asking. “Guess.”

  “Snooty Mean People Society?”

  “Close. St. Margaret’s Preparatory School.”

  “Oh. Is that a good school?”

  “If you’re Catholic. You must not be from around here.”

  “Because if I were, I’d know all the schools?”


  “No, I’m from New York. I’m down here for grad school.”

  “My brother lives in New York.”

  “I must surely know him then. What’s his name?”

  “Sinjin. St. John.”

  “Hmm. Is he a saint?”

  “No. My father named him after the college he went to. St. John’s in Annapolis?”

  “That’s that strange college where they make everybody study mathematics and classical Greek, right?”


  “So what does St. John do in New York?”

  “He’s a philosopher poet.”

  “Ah. A dying breed. We used to have a lot of those up there.”

  “I know it sounds ridiculous.”

  “No it doesn’t.”

  “What are you studying in grad school?”

  “Your turn to guess.”

  I sized him up. The hair was not conservative, so nothing business-y, lawyerly, or medical seemed likely. The oxford shirt and jeans were faintly preppy, which said to me not Art. “English?”

  “Film theory. Basically the same thing.”

  “Why are you taking Speed Reading?”

  “Because I have a lot of reading to do. You?”

  “Same reason. What other reason is there?”

  “You’re so right.”

  There was an awkward pause while we sipped our hot coffees. I didn’t usually drink coffee at night back then so I wondered what kind of effect it would have on me. (Five hours later as I lay wide awake staring at the ceiling, I got my answer.)

  I tried not to stare at Robbie too much but I found him really fun to look at. He has very twinkly eyes—they’re merry, like Santa Claus’s—and his mouth is always moving, so the expression on his face changes every few seconds. They’re nearly always pleasant expressions, in an astonishingly wide variety. I never knew one face could have so many different happy looks. His coloring is very harmonious—mostly variations of charcoal, brown, and tan, with his lips providing a nice slash of red for contrast. He kept looking at my face too, and I could only think that he liked it because of all the happy expressions flashing by on his. We were signaling back and forth to each other silently. This has never happened to me with another person, let alone a guy, before.

  I could have sat there like that all night, not saying a word, but Robbie finally broke the silence. “I go to the movies a lot because, you know, that’s what I’m studying.”

  “Makes sense,” I said.

  “I bring this up because I was wondering if you would like to go to a movie with me someday. Would you be allowed to? Or would you get into trouble? I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

  “What movie?” I asked.

  “Um, let’s see…. What about Vertigo? There’s a Hitchcock series at the Charles this month.”

  I said okay. I’d never seen Vertigo before but St. John used to have a poster of it in his room. Sully replaced it with a Yeah Yeah Yeahs poster when he moved in.

  “Are you sure it’s okay?” Robbie said.

  “Why wouldn’t it be?” I asked.

  Now he wouldn’t look at me. He fingered his napkin uncomfortably. “Well, isn’t St. Margaret’s Preparatory School a, you know, a high school?”


  “The Johns Hopkins University Film Studies Program is a graduate school,” he said.

  “So?” I said. “What are you, bragging?”

  “No, but I’d conclude from the fact that you’re in high school and I’m in grad school that there may be a significant age difference between us.”

  “How old are you?” I asked.

  “Twenty-five. How old are you?”

  Twenty-five! Eep. Should I lie? I wondered.

  “Seventeen.” I couldn’t lie to him.

  He frowned. “I was hoping you were at least eighteen. I was under the impression that lots of high school girls are even nineteen these days.”

  “Sorry to disappoint you. But I’ll be eighteen in November.”

  “Maybe we shouldn’t go to the movies.”

  “Why not? Is there some law against twenty-five-year-olds going to the movies with seventeen-year-olds?”

  “Not exactly. But won’t your parents mind?”

  “I don’t know. They’re hard to predict.” I wasn’t sure what Ginger and Daddy-o would think of Robbie. They live on their own planet. The age difference might bother them, but then again they might not even notice it. Daddy-o mostly objects to people he feels aren’t interesting enough. He likes “aristocrats of the mind.” Ginger’s more of a local snob—the people she likes best are those she’s known since birth. Robbie seemed a likely candidate for aristocrat of the mind, but since he wasn’t from Baltimore, Ginger probably wasn’t best friends with his mother in kindergarten. The best I could hope for was that they’d been sorority sisters in college. “I say we try it and find out what they think later.”

  His face flashed through five different happy expressions. “You’re an adventurous girl. I knew it the minute I saw you.”

  I had never thought of myself as the least bit adventurous before. I was the dull goody-goody who never got into trouble and always got straight A’s. The bossy, responsible big sister. But as soon as Robbie said that, I realized I am adventurous—like you, Almighty. It’s just taken time for everyone to get used to thinking of me that way.



  “It’s freezing in here,” I said. Jane had the window open for smoking, of course. I snatched her clove cigarette from her hand, tossed it outside and shut the window.

  “Hey, I was smoking that,” Jane complained.

  “You could set the whole house on fire,” Sassy added.

  “There’s no respect for privacy in this family,” I said. “Every time I walk into my room, it’s full of people.”

  “We’re not people,” Sassy said. “We’re us.”

  “The Tower Room has always been the official clubhouse,” Jane said. “It has been since St. John.”

  “Things change,” I said. “The new rule is you have to ask permission before you can burst in here and fill the place with clove smoke.”

  “Speed Reading really is messing with your head, Norrie,” Jane said.

  “Remember that rope ladder St. John had so his friends could climb up for late-night parties?” Sassy said. She’s of
ten a few steps behind in conversation. “Whatever happened to that?”

  “He took it to college,” I said. “Maybe Sully has it.” It occurred to me that the ladder could come in handy again. If I—or somebody else—I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular—should ever need to sneak in and out of my room, for example. I reopened the casement window and stared into the darkness, four stories down to the ground. It’s amazing none of St. John’s drunken friends ever fell and broke their necks.

  “Look at her, Sass,” Jane said, nodding at me. “Don’t you think she looks different lately?”

  I turned my face toward Sassy so she could study me carefully.

  “Yes,” Sassy said. “Norrie, you’ve got cheekbones.”

  I went to the mirror. Sassy was right. Where only last summer—the last time I’d really checked—I’d still had puffy baby-face cheeks, now I suddenly had sharp angles in my face. I was beginning to look a bit like Ginger. I still have mixed feelings about that.

  “I must have lost weight.” I ran my hand over my face.

  “It’s the Speed Reading class,” Jane said. “Something happened in that class that changed you forever, and now it’s showing up in your face.”

  “What happened in Speed Reading?” Sassy asked.

  “She won’t tell us,” Jane said.

  “Yes I will,” I said. “Just not yet.”

  “What?” Sassy jumped up and down on the bed. “You have to tell us! Now!”


  “Let me guess,” Sassy said. “You met a boy!”

  “No I didn’t,” I said. “How did you know?”

  “Lucky guess,” Sassy said. “Throughout history, big changes always start with a girl meeting a boy.”

  “No they don’t,” Jane said. “They start with somebody being assassinated.”

  “But that starts with boy-meets-girl,” Sassy said.