This was twelve years ago. We were seventeen, Diane and me, and for the eight or nine months of our senior year, we shared an energy that crackled in both of us, a drive, a hunger, a singing ambition.
Then, one night, everything broke.
We were at my house, my mom’s cramped, Lysol-laden house, thick with rescue animals, and absent all privacy. None of the doors fully shut, swollen wood in cheap frames, accordion doors off their tracks. But she told me anyway.
When it started, we were sitting at either end of my twin bed doing our Hamlet study questions, Diane with her meticulous handwriting and tidy nails, wearing one of her dozen soft-as-lamb sweaters—a girl so refined she could even get a holiday job at the perfume counter at the fancy department store. She always came here to study, even though the house she lived in with her grandfather was three times the size of ours.
Here we were, so tightly quartered we could hear my mom already creeping to bed, the slith-slith of her slippers.
Things felt off from the start. Each time I read out a question (“What is Hamlet’s central crisis?”), Diane would look at me blankly. Each time, the same distracted look, stroking the locket around her neck as if it were a genie’s bottle.
“Diane,” I said, crossing my legs, the narrow mattress undulating with every move, scrunched pillows, spiral notebooks tilting, our cross-country letter jackets and itchy scarves swarmed around our legs, “is this about what happened in class today?”
Because something had happened: Ms. Cameron had asked Diane to read aloud Claudius’s speech—the best in the whole play—but Diane, pale as Hamlet’s ghost himself, refused to open her book, arms folded and eyes blinking. When she did finally submit, the words came slow as pine sap, as that cough syrup my mom used to give me that tasted like the inside of a dying tree. Diane, Diane, are you okay?
“Nothing happened,” Diane insisted now, turning sideways, her long blond bangs hanging like a gilt chandelier over that beauty-queen face of hers. “You know, none of these characters are real.”
It was hard to argue with that, and I wondered if we should just drop it. But there was something hovering behind Diane’s eyes. Diane, who’d never shared a private thought with me that wasn’t about chemistry or college scholarships or the fairness of the ionic-compound question on the last exam.
I admit it: I wanted to know.
“Kit,” Diane said, gripping her little Signet Hamlet in her hand now, the gold Jesus ring from her grandfather gleaming, “did you mean what you said in class? About Claudius having no conscience?”
I could feel something happening, something heavy in the room, a heat shuddering off Diane, her neck pink and pink spots at her temples.
“Sure,” I said. “He kills his own brother to get what he wants. Which means he just has no morals.”
For a moment, neither of us said anything, the air in the room pressing our faces with thickish fingers. And what was that buzzing? The halogen bulb? The chugging old laptop the PTA gave all the students who couldn’t afford computers? Or was it like that time I found Sadie, our scruffed-up lap cat, under the porch, covered in flies?
“Kit,” she said, her voice quiet and even, “do you think it could happen in real life?”
“For someone to have no conscience.”
“Yes,” I said so quickly I surprised myself. I believed it, utterly.
Diane didn’t say anything, and her hand wrapped tight around that delicate locket, tugging it down, leaving a red ring on her long white neck.
“Diane,” I said, “what is it?”
We sat a moment, the buzzing still buzzing and my feet nearly asleep from stillness.
“Did someone do something to you?” I said. “Did someone hurt you?”
I’d wondered about it before, many times. I’d known her only a few months and Diane was so quiet, so private, not like any of the rest of us. Private in all the body ways, taking her gym shirt off only behind her locker door. And in how she dressed, like a virgin princess.
Or maybe I assumed that of everyone. It seemed like everyone had sad stories if you scratched deep enough.
“No one did anything to me. I’m talking about something I did,” she said, eyes lowered. “I’m talking about myself.”
“What did you do?” I couldn’t imagine Diane doing anything that wasn’t careful and correct.
“I can’t say it out loud. I’ve never said it.”
With anyone else I knew, I could think of a million possibilities. Stole a sweater from the mall, cheated on a test, rolled on molly all through the school day, too much Baileys and three furtive blow jobs before the party was over. But not Diane.
“Did you crash your granddad’s truck?”
A sinking feeling began. A feeling of circling something dark.
“Are you pregnant?” I asked, even though it seemed impossible.
“No,” she said. And I heard something click-click in her throat, or mine.
She looked up at me, those golden lashes batting fiercely, but her voice even and calm: “It’s so much worse.”
Smart never mattered much until you, Diane.
I’d always gotten good grades, maybe good enough to get a scholarship at City Tech. But I wasn’t thinking even that far ahead, much less as far as you.
You had a plan for yourself, for what you wanted to be, and you weren’t taking any chances. You were relentless. Everything had to be perfect, fingernails precise little half-moons; those goldenrod mechanical pencils you used, the erasers always untouched. Your answers were always right. Every time. Teachers used your tests for the answer keys.
What I didn’t know then was that all that perfection, held so tightly, can be a shield, either to keep something out or to keep something in. To hide it.
And your ambition was itself a gift—to us both—but also some dark evidence.
“Mom,” I said, “she’s so serious. She works all the time. She gets up at five to run and then do an hour’s homework before school.”
“Good for her.”
“She’s learning German on her headphones while she runs. She says she’s going to be a scientist and work for the government.”
These were things I didn’t think real people did.
“We used to call them grinds,” my mom said, smiling. “But good for her.”
“Mom, I just…” A yearning inside me I couldn’t explain, to know things, to be bigger, to care more. I’d never felt it before Diane, but now it was there, humming inside. And my mom seemed to sense it, eyes resting on me as I twisted my hands together, trying to explain.
“Well,” she said, “you’re the smartest person I know.”
Diane, after you told me your secret, I’d lie awake at night, staring at the light on my phone.
I’d think about you. Picture you closing your books at last, scattering eraser rubbings (you had to erase sometimes, didn’t you?) into the trash. Scrubbing your face. Brushing your hair until it gleamed moonlight.
I wondered if you thought about what you’d done all the time, like I now did.
Did you rest when you finally shut your eyes?
Or was that the worst moment? The time when you thought of what you’d done, and how, maybe worse still, you’d gotten away with it. When you get away with something it’s yours only, forever. Heavy and irremediable.
Sometimes I wondered: Why did you pick me? Attach yourself to me on your first day at our school? Was I the nicest, the friendliest? The easiest, the smartest, second-smartest to you?
Or was it mere chance, the two of us landing side by side at cross-country, legs bent, at the gate? The two of us in chem lab, elbows on the slab, working the math of it all?
Or was it me who picked you?