Natalia and I stole her mother’s new blue Cadillac and drove out to Overpeck to find Tommy. Natalia steered inexpertly, lurching her way from the luxurious oaklined streets of Linden Hill, New Jersey—lush lawns and stately manors—to the spindly birch trees and ranch houses of Overpeck, aluminum siding and green awnings everywhere.
“Are you sure Tommy will be at this party?” I asked her.
“Pretty sure,” Natalia said. She drummed her French-manicured nails nervously on the wheel. I couldn’t tell if her uneasiness stemmed from our mission or from driving itself. This was our first night together after being grounded for two weeks, and we had promised Natalia’s parents we wouldn’t set foot outside the house. Natalia had a newly minted learner’s permit, but no license. As I wasn’t due to begin driver’s ed until school started again in the fall, I didn’t exactly qualify as the licensed driver who was supposed to be sitting beside her.
It was late in the day, hours after dinner, but the sun still hung stubbornly in the sky. I loved this time of year, early summer, with months of leisure and possibility still ahead. My part-time job—lifeguarding at the local country club where most of my school friends belonged—didn’t start for another ten days, and it would mostly involve dozing behind sunglasses and working on my tan. Even the prospect of confronting Tommy couldn’t entirely interfere with the happiness this kind of bright summer night infused in me. Sparrows perched on swinging telephone wires, and the dull slant of sunlight promised that although darkness was taking its time, night would arrive before too long.
The car rattled over potholes and a crooked set of railroad tracks. Natalia parked between an ancient Toyota truck and a battered Chevy Impala. We stepped out of the car and slammed the doors, gravel crunching underneath our feet. Next to the collection of hand-me-down vehicles, the Cadillac looked elegant and out of place. Not unlike Natalia herself—lean, sleek, and raven-haired—picking her way over the splintery post fence and gliding through the tall, wet grass on the strappy designer sandals that had originally belonged to her older sister. Natalia had a funny, endearing face. Her dark eyes were a little too far apart. She had a pronounced bump on the bridge of her nose, and a gap between her two front teeth. Despite her slim body and beautiful clothes, other girls never noticed Natalia until they registered every guy in the world swooning as she walked by.
“Come on, Sydney,” she said, waving her arm toward the woods ahead.
I lagged behind her, my sneakers instantly damp and squishy. We crossed a rickety old playground and followed the voices. I could smell a festive blend of wood and cigarette smoke, possibly cigars and pot.
The scent reminded me of Tommy, and I felt suddenly ill. “Natalia,” I called. “Wait up a second.”
Natalia stopped, looked at my face, and backtracked to my side. She put her hand on my shoulder as I wrapped my arms around my own middle.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” Natalia said. “Are you nauseous? Is it morning sickness?”
I looked at her as if she’d gone completely insane. “No,” I said. “Definitely not.” I uncrossed my arms and started walking again. Natalia’s hand slid off my shoulder, and she strode back to her place in front of me.
No matter what she might think, no matter what the pregnancy test had told me, I knew that the prickly nausea in my middle was most definitely not morning sickness. Apart from my missed period, I had zero symptoms. There had been no barfing, no craving pickles and peanut butter, no swollen breasts. No nothing. I felt so exactly normal that I still didn’t really believe it, even though I’d used all three of the sticks that came in the EPT box, and every one had produced two pink lines. It didn’t seem possible that something so huge—so catastrophic and monumental—could be going on inside my body, while I looked and felt exactly like my usual sixteen-year-old self.
I had taken the tests at Natalia’s house on the very day I was supposed to get my period and fully expected the results to relieve the vague anxiety I’d felt these last two weeks. Afterward, Natalia and I lined them up on the bathroom floor. Then we called the 800 number listed on the box. We sat next to each other, our backs pressed up against the pink porcelain bathtub with lion’s feet. Natalia’s parents were very old, and from Hungary. They spoke in thick accents and decorated with lots of gilt and animal figurines, the kind of details my mother considered tacky.
Before we called, Natalia had promised me that she would do the talking. But as soon as the customer service rep answered, she thrust the phone into my hands.
“Hello?” the customer service rep said, to my silence.
“Um, hello,” I said. “I just took a pregnancy test? And there are two lines, but the second line is faint. It’s very, very faint. So I was wondering, is this a positive result?”
“If there are two lines,” she said, “it’s a positive result, no matter how faint the second line is.” I could hear all sorts of sympathy in her voice. No matter how low I tried to pitch my voice, whenever I answered the phone at home, whoever was calling always said, “Is your mother there?” Obviously the customer service woman could tell I was not some twinkling bride, all giddy to give my husband the joyful news. “You do need to see a doctor to confirm,” she said, which sounded vaguely hopeful.
After I thanked her and hung up, Natalia dug her mother’s extra car keys from her bedroom bureau. We left our cell phones—which our suspicious parents had equipped with GPS tracking devices—on Natalia’s frilly canopy bed. (Natalia always apologized for that bed. “I know,” she would say. “It’s completely childish.” But her mother considered it the height of girlish luxury, and Natalia couldn’t bring herself to tell her it was a total embarrassment.)
Now we walked through a muddy state park, toward the keg party that Overpeck High School seniors threw at the end of every June. It was here that Natalia had met her boyfriend, Steve, last year, the two of them becoming the Romeo and Juliet of the twenty-first century.
I held the white pharmacy bag that contained the EPT box and used tests in my right hand. I hadn’t brought them along as any kind of proof for Tommy, I just didn’t want the evidence within a ten-mile radius of Natalia’s house or mine. The first garbage bin I saw, I opened up the lid and pushed the bag deep inside, burying it under McDonald’s wrappers and dented soda cans. The odor of garbage didn’t help the swirling, nauseated ball in my gut, which was not about being pregnant, I still felt sure, but the anticipation of seeing Tommy again. Not that he was a bad guy. It was just that I hardly knew him. It felt wrong and bizarre, telling him something so personal.
“This seems really pointless,” I said, positioning myself directly behind Natalia. “I don’t see what he’s going to do. I don’t see why I should even tell him.”
“Of course you have to tell him,” Natalia said, striding forward with great purpose. “He’s the father.”
The nausea widened. If Tommy was the father, what did that make me?
Almost as soon as we stepped through the trees, the blue sky gave way to dusk. I could see Steve, standing by the keg. He wore a white T-shirt cut off at the sleeves, and a knit wool skullcap, even though it was about eighty-six degrees. I don’t think I ever saw him without that cap. He waved at us, or at Natalia anyway.
“Don’t tell him,” I hissed at Natalia.
“I won’t,” she said, not looking back at me, but walking straight into Steve’s arms. He held her tight, the muscles on his forearms taut and sinewy, the set of his jaws and his closed eyes looking totally sincere in his happiness at her presence, and in his love for her. My own chest tightened as Steve’s eyes fluttered open—shimmery, gray-blue eyes. He nodded hello at me, his True Love’s best friend.
Steve poured a beer for Natalia and one for me. “Is Tommy around?” Natalia said casually. She dipped her fingers into the cup of beer and flicked the foam to the ground. “Sydney needs to talk to him.”
“Sure,” said Steve. “He’s around here somewhere. I think I saw him head down to the railroad tracks with a couple guys.”
“It’s not important,” I said, sipping my beer without getting rid of the foam. I could feel the mustache forming on my lips. “If he’s busy.”
Steve shrugged. “They’re probably just getting high.”
He put his arm around Natalia’s shoulders, and I wiped my mouth and followed them down the hill. Now that it was dark, people were arriving by the carload. I jostled my way through laughing bodies, not recognizing anybody. Even in Linden Hill, Natalia and I would have been strangers in a gathering like this. We went to the private day school, where parties mostly involved stolen bottles from our parents’ liquor cabinets. Last year Natalia and I had come here with my then boyfriend Greg, who’d heard about the event from one of his older brothers. Natalia and Steve had locked eyes immediately, and over the summer she had—in quick succession—lost her virginity and ruined her relationship with her parents. They didn’t want her to have anything to do with a borderline juvenile delinquent who was not Jewish and whose father worked at a gas station.
Usually when a friend got a serious boyfriend, it meant seeing a lot less of her. But Natalia and Steve’s relationship required so much plotting, it had brought Natalia and me closer together than ever. Natalia’s romance with Steve somehow made all our lives much more exciting, our evenings fueled with the arrangement of secret meetings and plans. Twice she and Steve had run away together—both times discovered before daybreak (the Overpeck police knew Steve well, and they were always glad to help Natalia’s parents keep her away from him).
I didn’t know if trains still ran over the Overpeck railroad tracks. Part of me thought I had heard them in the distance on some of these foggy, partying nights. But maybe that was just my imagination. They certainly didn’t look fit to hold any kind of weight—crooked and cracked, with ancient wood slats crawling with ants and termites. I let Natalia and Steve cross the tracks, then I stood on that rotting wood a minute, almost like I hoped one of those phantom trains would come hurtling down the tracks and mow me down, saving me from all this: the supposed life inside me and all the miserable errands it would require. I could see three teenage boys by the brook that trickled over flat rocks and moss. They all looked completely alien. I couldn’t imagine that I was here to tell one of them this terrible secret about myself, one that I still didn’t totally believe.
“Sydney,” Natalia called. “Come on.”
I walked forward. At the sound of Natalia’s voice, all three boys looked our way. I heard them say hello to Steve, and then Natalia. They weren’t passing a joint back and forth like I’d expected, but a bottle in a brown paper bag. I recognized Tommy, leaning against a tree as if he needed it to hold himself up.
He had shoulder-length hair, not thick and curly like Steve’s but fine and shiny. He was short and slight, not much bigger than myself. I’d first met him a month or so before, at a pizza parlor in Overpeck when Natalia and I skipped third period so Steve could pick us up and take us to lunch. That day I’d thought he was very cute in a boy band sort of way, with puppy-dog eyes, smooth skin, and perfect teeth. Afterward, through Natalia, Tommy had relayed messages of how hot he thought I was, how nice and pretty. A week or so later Natalia slept over at my house, and we snuck out after my mom went to bed. Steve and Tommy picked us up at the end of my street and we drove to Flat Rock Brook Park. While Steve and Natalia disappeared up the nature trail, Tommy and I sat on the swings and shared a pint bottle of peach schnapps. I ended up kissing him, and then having sex with him, not because I especially liked him, but because I was flattered by how much he liked me.
I know how that makes me sound. But I wasn’t a slut. I had never been a slut. The only other guy I’d ever had sex with had been my boyfriend Greg. We’d gone out all last year, and we’d been in love—not a great romantic drama like Steve and Natalia, but still in love. It had taken me months to decide whether to sleep with Greg, and when I finally did, it was a big event, with roses and soft lights and good French wine stolen from his dad’s cellar. Then we broke up, because of a blond cheerleader who now held hands with him in the halls at school.
So when I found myself making out with Tommy in the park, kind of drunk—adored again, for a minute anyway— I went ahead and had sex because that was what I did now. It was like after all those months with Greg, I’d forgotten how not to have sex. It was only afterward, picking the dry leaves out of my hair and saying an awkward good-bye––that I realized the whole thing had been, if nothing else, entirely unnecessary. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to see him again. But then the next weekend rolled around, and Natalia had the bright idea that the four of us should go to her house at the shore. It seemed like so much fun to be part of a foursome—with my own Overpeck boyfriend, instead of just being Natalia and Steve’s third wheel. Who knows? I thought. Maybe Tommy and I could be Romeo and Juliet too, except for the fact that my mother would probably like Tommy, who looked so generally harmless.
We took the bus down to Red Hook, where we met the boys and took a taxi to Natalia’s. Thank God we didn’t get caught until Sunday afternoon. While we were heading back on the bus, Kendra Hirsch’s mom had called mine for a copy of the summer reading list. No, she said, Natalia and I were not with them in the Berkshires that weekend. Luckily, by that time Natalia and I could pretend we’d gone to the shore with just each other—earning us two weeks of being grounded instead of a firing squad.
Of course if we’d been caught on, say, Friday, with or without boys, I might not have been standing here, supposedly pregnant from those few attempts at my own wayward romance. I stared at Tommy, who in the hazy dusk looked not only very cute, but extremely drunk and about thirteen years old. I wondered what telling him could possibly accomplish. What was he supposed to do? Marry me? The idea brought a faint, scratchy laugh to my throat. Unlikely as that prospect was, Tommy was equally unlikely to have five hundred dollars, or however much it cost for an abortion.
“Tommy,” said Natalia. She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. He seemed like he needed to be woken up. “Look. Sydney’s here.”
He raised his eyes to mine. They looked filmy and unfocused, like they probably had the three or four times we’d been together. His skin looked flushed, a faint patch of pink on each cheek. Although he’d probably started shaving as a point of pride, he definitely didn’t need to. His face looked very young, very open, and nothing whatsoever to do with me.
“Hey,” Tommy said. He pushed himself off the tree and stepped forward with a lurch. “Hey, baby,” he said, then tripped over a root and fell flat on his face, landing splayed out at my feet. The bag and bottle slipped out of his hand, not breaking on the soft ground, but seeping through the brown paper and soaking my already wet sneakers with a pungent smell that I’d never be able to hide from my mother.
I stepped back, defeated. “Forget it,” I said to Natalia, handing her my half-drunk beer. “Let’s just forget the whole thing.”
I turned around and ran back over the railroad tracks, over the sprigs of poison ivy and jagged stones, back to the party. I could hear Tommy’s friends behind me, laughing and helping him up. I could hear Natalia’s light voice calling me, and I pictured Steve holding her arm, escorting her and her stupid shoes around every hole and bump. It wasn’t fair. If Natalia were pregnant, Steve would take care of everything. They might even run away and get married, catapulting themselves out of the hell of high school limbo, these stupid parties, and the stupid rules that made them exciting in the first place.
As I ran up the hill, my blood began pumping in a pure and liberating way. Even though it was impossible to the point of ridiculous to think that I might actually be pregnant, this image appeared in my mind for one split second, of a little baby floating around on an umbilical cord, getting bounced and jostled because I was fleeing from half its DNA.
“Sydney,” Natalia yelled, and I stopped, not so much because of her order but because I’d reached the threshold of the party, and bodies stood too thick to run through. I waited for her and Steve, my chest rising and falling with labored breaths.
Natalia’s face when she reached me looked pink and exhilarated. I couldn’t blame her. It was thrilling, all this drama. She still had a beer in one hand, but she placed her other hand on my shoulder and looked directly into my face, searching. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “But I think I need a plan B.”
She nodded and said, “It’s not like we really had a plan A,” which was true. We hadn’t worked out anything besides telling Tommy, as if he would take over the problem and make it right, like some kind of wonder parent. We both laughed now at our lack of logic and foresight.
“We should get back to your house anyway,” I said. Natalia’s parents were due home from their dinner no later than ten.
While Natalia and Steve began their lengthy and tongue-thrusting farewell, I sidled my way through the party. As I stepped out of the trees and onto the playground, I could see the silent, whooshing lights of a parked police cruiser. I stood there for a minute, watching the red and yellow shadows pulse across the dented metal slides, the merry-go-round’s sad and chipping horses.
“Shit,” Natalia said, coming up beside me. “Do you think they’re here for us?”
“That would be my first guess,” I said, “given my recent luck.”
There was no point ducking back into the woods. We joined hands and walked toward our decidedly less luxurious—but much safer—ride home.
Natalia’s parents were a strange combination of strict and good-natured. They laid down firm laws and drastic repercussions but always did it with sweet, giggly smiles on their faces. Whereas my mother would get angry—screaming and yelling and listing hurt feelings—they would just issue their edicts as if Natalia’s adventures were as understandable and expected as they were punishable.
When they’d come home early from dinner, they found our cell phones on Natalia’s bed and the new Cadillac missing from the garage. They called the Overpeck police, who discovered the car almost immediately in the playground parking lot. I rode back to Natalia’s house in the back of the police car, while Natalia drove the Cadillac sitting next to the younger of our blue-capped escorts. I imagined him flirting and giving her driving tips, while my officer lectured me all the way home.
“You smell like a brewery,” he told me. He had a thick New Jersey accent. He sounded a whole lot like Steve and Tommy.
“Someone spilled whiskey on my shoes,” I said. I held up my brown-stained sneaker so he could see it in the rearview mirror.
“You’ve got no business hanging around kids like that,” he said. “A nice girl like you.”
I put my foot back on the floor of the car. Where my sneaker had been reflected, I could now see my face, which certainly looked like it belonged to a nice girl. I had big brown Bambi eyes. I had round apple cheeks. I had lips that would not hold any color of lipstick, because my too-big front teeth rested naturally on my bottom lip and couldn’t resist scraping it off. I had curly, shoulder-length brown hair. Everyone thought I looked sweet. Innocent. I had “girl next door” written all over me.
“I’m sorry, officer,” I said. “I won’t do it again. It wasn’t much fun anyway.”
He laughed, not sure whether I was conning him but charmed anyway. The kids he was used to dealing with were like Tommy and Steve, usually drunk, not politic enough to mind their manners.
When we got back to Natalia’s house, her parents stood together between the elaborate columns of their front porch. They waited for us with their arms crossed but big smiles on their faces, as if our disobedience was the funniest thing in the world. Mr. Miksa was somewhere in his sixties, Mrs. Miksa not far behind. Natalia had an older sister, Margit, who was thirty-three and married to a bonds trader named Victor. They had a fancy apartment on West 59th, a block from Sutton Place. Margit had sleek blond hair, a floor-length mink coat, and an incredible collection of shoes—many of which she wore once before handing them down to Natalia.
The year before, we’d watched a show on the Biography channel about an old movie star who found out that his sister was actually his mother and his parents were actually his grandparents. Ever since then, we had decided this must be the case with Natalia and her family. Last summer she had planned to confront them, but her romance with Steve had caused so much trouble, she’d put the revelation on hold.
“Seed-ney, dahling,” Mrs. Miksa said. “Your mother will be here in one minute.”
Natalia shot me a look of deep, devastated apology. Until that moment, the chance had existed that only she was busted. Mr. Miksa spoke to her in Hungarian. The tone was full of fond hilarity, but the words must have been severe. Her shoulders sagged as she followed him inside.
I stood in the quiet dusk with Mrs. Miksa. Her plump, aged face was pleasantly made-up, her bleached hair swept into an elaborate bun. Even when she came to the pool with Natalia, she always wore heavy, swirling gold earrings. She would do a breaststroke in her thick, bosomy bathing suit, her head carefully perched just above the water.
Now she pinched my cheek and pressed my cell phone into my hand. “I don’t tink you’ll have this long,” she said cheerily. I nodded and stared into the forsythia bushes. After the police car left, the motion-sensor lights had turned off. Only the faint porch light shone above us. I could hear the whistling chirp of cicadas. A stand of honeysuckle braced the west wall of the house, and in the blossoms I saw the summer’s first firefly light up, dim, and light again.
“Don’t look so stricken, dahling,” Mrs. Miksa said. “It won’t be a life sentence.”
I raised my chin and smiled at her bravely, as if the worst of my problems lay outside and in the present moment—instead of far off in the future, and very deep inside.
© 2010 Nina de Gramont