A princess on Another Planet


НазваниеA princess on Another Planet
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^ CHAPTER EIGHT

The Mysteries of Romance
"Tell me exactly what he said."

"He said I was interesting. And a character."

"Did he say he liked you?"

"I think it was more that he liked the idea of me."

"Liking the idea of a girl is different from actually liking a girl," Maggie says.

"I think if a guy says you're interesting and a character, it means you're special," The Mouse counters.

"But it doesn't mean he wants to be with you. Maybe he thinks you're special--and weird," Maggie says.

"So what happened after we left?" The Mouse asks, ignoring her.

"Lali came and rescued us. He went home. He said he'd had enough excitement for one evening."

"Has he said anything since?" Maggie asks.

I scratch a nonexistent itch. "Nope. But it doesn't matter."

"He'll call," The Mouse says with confidence.

"Of course he'll call. He has to call," Maggie says, with too much enthusiasm.

Four days have passed since the barn-painting incident and we're dissecting the event for about the twentieth time. After Lali rescued us, apparently The Mouse and Walt did come back, but we were gone along with the ladder, so they figured we got away okay. On Monday when we showed up at school, we couldn't stop laughing. Every time one of us looked out the window and saw 198 and that big red splotch, we'd crack up. At assembly that morning, Cynthia Viande referred to the incident, saying the vandalism to private property had not gone unnoticed, and the perpetrators, if caught, would be prosecuted.

We all snickered like little cats.

All of us, that is, except for Peter. "Can the cops really be that dumb?" he kept asking. "I mean, they were right there. They saw us."

"And what did they see? A few kids standing around an old dairy barn."

"That Peter guy--geez," Lali said. "He's so paranoid. What the hell was he doing there anyway?"

"I think he likes Maggie."

"But Maggie's with Walt."

"I know."

"She has two boyfriends now? How can you have two boyfriends?"

"Listen," Peter said the next day, sidling up to me in the hall. "I'm not sure we can trust Sebastian. What if he rats us out?"

"Don't worry. He's the last person who's going to tell."

Hearing Sebastian's name was like a skewer to the gut.

Ever since the kiss, Sebastian's presence has been like an invisible shadow sewn to my skin. I cannot go anywhere without him. In the shower, he hands me the shampoo. His face floats up behind the words in my textbooks. On Sunday, Maggie, Walt, and I went to a flea market, and while I pawed through piles of sixties T-shirts, all I could think about was what Sebastian would like.

Surely he'll call.

But he hasn't.

A week passes, and on Saturday morning, I reluctantly pack a little suitcase. I look at the clothes I've laid out on the bed, perplexed. They're like the random, disjointed thoughts of a thousand strangers. What was I thinking when I bought that beaded fifties sweater? Or that pink bandanna? Or the green leggings with yellow stripes? I have nothing to wear for this interview. How can I be who I'm supposed to be with these clothes?

Who am I supposed to be again?

Just be yourself.

But who am I?

What if he calls while I'm gone? Why hasn't he called already?

Maybe something happened to him.

Like what? You saw him every day at school and he was fine.

"Carrie?" my father calls out. "Are you ready?"

"Almost." I fold a plaid skirt and the beaded sweater into the suitcase, add a wide belt, and throw in an old Hermes scarf that belonged to my mother. She bought it on the one trip to Paris she took with my father a few years ago.

"Carrie?"

"Coming." I bang down the stairs.

My father is always nervous before a trip. He gathers maps and estimates time and distance. He's only comfortable with the unknown or the unexpected if it's a number in an equation. I keep reminding him that this is not a big deal. It's his alma mater, and Brown is only forty-five minutes away.

But he fusses. He takes the car to the car wash. He withdraws cash. He inspects his travel comb. Dorrit rolls her eyes. "You're going to be gone for less than twenty-four hours!"

It rains during the drive. As we head east, I notice the leaves are already beginning to flee their branches, like flocks of birds heading south for the winter.

"Carrie," my father says. "Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't beat yourself up about things." He can usually sense when something is wrong, although he's rarely able to pinpoint the cause.

"I'm not, Dad."

"Because when you do," he continues, warming up to one of his favorite topics, "you lose twice. You've lost what you've lost, but then you also lose your perspective. Because life happens to people. Life is bigger than people. It's all about nature. The life cycle...It's out of our control."

It shouldn't be, though. There ought to be a law that says every time a boy kisses a girl, he has to call within three days.

"So in other words, old man, shit happens and then you die."

I say this in a way that makes my father laugh. Unfortunately, I can hear Sebastian in the backseat, laughing too.

"Carrie Bradshaw, right?"

The guy named George shifts my file from one arm to another and shakes my hand. "And you, sir, must be Mr. Bradshaw."

"That's right," my father says. "Class of 1958."

George looks at me appraisingly. "Are you nervous?"

"A little."

"Don't be." He smiles reassuringly. "Professor Hawkins is one of the best. He has PhD's in English literature and physics. I see on your application that you're interested in science and writing. Here at Brown, you can do both." He reddens a little, as if he realizes he's being quite the salesman, and suddenly adds, "Besides, you look great."

"Thanks," I murmur, feeling a bit like a lamb being led to slaughter.

I immediately realize I'm being silly and overly dramatic. George is right: Everything about Brown is perfect, from the charming redbrick buildings of the Pembroke College campus, to College Green, dotted with voluptuous elms that still have their leaves, to the glorious columned John Carter Brown Library. I need only insert my mannequin self into this picture-postcard scene.

But as the day progresses from the interview in the artfully messy professor's office--"What are your goals, Ms. Bradshaw?" "I'd like to make an impact on society. I'd like to contribute something meaningful"--to the tour of the campus, chem labs, the computer room, a first-year dorm room, and finally to dinner with George on Thayer Street, I begin to feel more and more flimsy, like a doll constructed of tissue paper. Halfway through dinner, when George mentions there's a rock 'n' roll band playing at the Avon Theatre, I feel like I can't refuse, even though I'd prefer to lie in my hotel room and think about Sebastian instead.

"Go," my father urges. He's already informed me that George is the kind of young man--intelligent, well-mannered, thoughtful--that he's always pictured me dating.

"You're going to love Brown," George says in the car. He drives a Saab. Well engineered, slightly expensive, with European styling. Like George, I think. If I weren't obsessed with Sebastian, I probably would find George attractive.

"Why do you love Brown so much?" I ask.

"I'm from the city, so this is a nice break. Of course, I'll be in the city this summer. That's the great thing about Brown. The internships. I'm going to be working for The New York Times."

George suddenly becomes much more interesting. "I've always wanted to live in New York City," I say.

"It's the best place in the world. But Brown is right for me now." He gives me a hesitant smile. "I needed to explore a different side of myself."

"What were you like before?"

"Tortured," George says, and grins. "What about you?"

"Oh, I'm a little tortured too," I say, thinking of Sebastian. But when we pull up to the theater, I vow to put Sebastian out of my mind. Clusters of college kids, drinking beer and flirting, are seated outside at tiny French tables. As we push through the crowd, George puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. I look up at him and smile.

"You're awfully cute, Carrie Bradshaw," he says into my ear.

We stay out until closing time, and when we get back in the car, George kisses me. He kisses me again in the driveway of the hotel. It's a clean and tentative kiss, the kiss of a man who thinks in straight lines. He takes a pen out of the glove compartment. "May I ask for your number?"

"Why?" I ask, giggling.

"So I can call you, dummy." He tries to kiss me again, but I turn my head.

I'm feeling a little woozy, and the beer hits me full force when I lie down. I ask myself if I would have given George my number if I weren't so drunk. I probably wouldn't have let him kiss me either. But surely Sebastian will call now. Guys always call as soon as another man is interested. They're like dogs: They never notice if you've changed your hair, but they can sense when there's another guy sniffing around their territory.

We're back in Castlebury by mid-afternoon on Sunday, but my theory proves wrong. Sebastian hasn't called. Maggie, on the other hand, has. Several times. I'm about to call her when she calls me. "What are you doing? Can you come over?"

"I just got back," I say, suddenly deflated.

"Something happened. Something big. I can't explain it on the phone. I have to tell you in person." Maggie sounds very dire and I wonder if her parents are getting divorced.

Maggie's mother, Anita, opens the door. Anita looks stressed, but you can tell that a long time ago she was probably pretty. Anita is really, really nice--too nice, in fact. She's so nice that I always get the feeling the niceness has swallowed up the real Anita, and someday she's going to do something drastic, like burn down the house.

"Oh, Carrie," Anita says. "I'm so glad you're here. Maggie won't come out of her room and she won't tell me what's wrong. Maybe you can get her to come downstairs. I'd be so grateful."

"I'll take care of it, Mrs. Stevenson," I say reassuringly. Hiding in her room is something Maggie's been doing for as long as I've known her. I can't tell you how many times I've had to talk her out.

Maggie's room is enormous with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and a closet the length of one wall. Nearly everyone in town is familiar with the Stevenson house, because it was designed by a famous contemporary architect and is mostly comprised of glass. The inside of the house is pretty sparse, though, because Maggie's father can't abide clutter. I crack open the door to Maggie's room as Anita stands anxiously to the side. "Magwitch?"

Maggie is lying in her bed, wearing a white cotton nightgown. She rises from beneath the covers like a ghost, albeit a rather churlish one. "Anita!" she scolds. "I told you to leave me alone." The expression on Anita's face is startled, guilty, and helpless, which is pretty much her usual demeanor around Maggie. She scurries away as I go in.

"Mags?" I caution. "Are you okay?"

Maggie sits cross-legged on the bed and puts her head in her hands. "I don't know. I did something terrible."

"What?"

"I don't know how to tell you."

I can tell, however, that I'm going to have to wait for this terrible revelation, so I sit on the padded stool-y thing Maggie uses as a chair. According to her father, it's a Swedish-designed ergonomically correct sitting contraption that prevents backaches. It's also sort of bouncy, so I bob up and down a bit. But then I'm suddenly tired of everyone else's problems.

"Listen, Mags," I say firmly. "I don't have much time. I have to pick up Dorrit at the Hamburger Shack." This is true, sort of. I probably will have to pick her up eventually.

"But Walt will be there!" she cries out.

"So?" Walt's parents insist that Walt have an after-school job to make money for college, but the only job Walt's ever had is working at the Hamburger Shack for four dollars an hour. And it's only part-time, so it's hard to see how Walt will be able to save enough money for even one semester.

"That means you'll see him," Maggie gasps.

"And?"

"Are you going to tell him you saw me?"

This is becoming more and more irritating. "I don't know. Should I tell him I saw you?"

"No!" she exclaims. "I've been avoiding him all weekend. I told him I was going to see my sister in Philadelphia."

"Why?"

"Don't you get it?" She sighs dramatically. "Peter."

"Peter?" I repeat, slightly appalled.

"I had sex with him."

"What?" My legs are all tangled up in the Swedish sitting device and I bounce so hard the whole thing falls over, taking me with it.

"Shhhhh!" Maggie says.

"I don't get it," I say, trying to detach myself from the stool. "You had sex with Peter?"

"I had intercourse with him."

And another one bites the dust.

"When?" I ask, once I manage to get off the floor.

"Last night. In the woods behind my house." She nods. "You remember? The night we painted the barn? He was all over me. Then he called yesterday morning and said he had to see me. He said he'd secretly been in love with me for, like, three years but was afraid to talk to me because he thought I was so gorgeous I wouldn't talk to him. Then we went for a walk, and we immediately started making out."

"And then what? You just did it? Right in the woods?"

"Don't act so surprised." Maggie sounds slightly hurt and superior at the same time. "Just because you haven't done it."

"How do you know I haven't?"

"Have you?"

"Not yet."

"Well then."

"So you just did it. On top of the leaves? What about sticks? You could have gotten a stick stuck in your butt."

"Believe me, when you're doing it, you don't notice things like sticks."

"Is that so?" I have to admit, I'm immensely curious. "What did it feel like?"

"It was amazing." She sighs. "I don't know exactly how to describe it, but it was the best feeling I've ever had. It's the kind of thing that once you do it, all you want is to do it again and again. And"--she pauses for effect--"I think I had an orgasm."

My mouth hangs open. "That's incredible."

"I know. Peter says girls almost never have orgasms their first time. He said I must be highly sexed."

"Has Peter done it before?" If he has, I'm going to shoot myself.

"Apparently," Maggie says smugly.

For a minute, neither one of us speaks. Maggie picks dreamily at a thread on her bedspread while I look out the window, wondering how I got so left behind. Suddenly, the world seems divided into two kinds of people--those who have done it and those who haven't.

"Well," I say finally. "Does this mean you and Peter are dating?"

"I don't know," she whispers. "I think I'm in love with him."

"But what about Walt? I thought you were in love with Walt."

"No." She shakes her head. "I thought I was in love with Walt two years ago. But lately, he's been more like a friend."

"I see."

"We used to go to third base. But then Walt never wanted to go any further. And it made me think. Maybe Walt didn't really love me after all. We were together for two years. You'd think a guy would want to do it after two years."

I want to point out that maybe he's saving himself, but the truth is, it is pretty strange. "So you were willing and he wasn't?" I ask just to clarify.

"I wanted to do it on my birthday, and he wouldn't."

"Weird," I say. "Definitely weird."

"And that really tells you something."

Not necessarily. But I don't have the energy to contradict her.

All of a sudden, even though I know this isn't really about me, I feel a thundering sense of loss. Maggie and Walt and I were a unit. For the past couple of years, we went everywhere together. We'd sneak into the country club at night and steal golf carts, and cooling off a six-pack of beer in a stream, we'd talk and talk and talk about everything from quarks to who Jen P was dating. What's going to happen to the three of us now? Because somehow I can't imagine Peter taking Walt's place in our corny adventures.

"I guess I have to break up with Walt," Maggie says. "But I don't know how. I mean, what am I supposed to say?"

"You could try telling him the truth."

"Carrie?" she asks in a wheedling tone. "I was wondering if maybe you could--"

"What? Break up with him? You want me to break up with Walt for you?"

"Just kind of prepare him," Maggie says.

Maggie and Peter? I can't think of two people who belong together less. Maggie is so flighty and emotional. And Peter is so serious. But maybe their personalities cancel each other out.

I pull into the parking lot of the Hamburger Shack, turn off the car, and think, Poor Walt.

The Hamburger Shack is one of the few restaurants in town, known for its hamburgers topped with grilled onions and peppers. That's pretty much considered the height of cuisine around here. People in Castlebury are mad for grilled onions and peppers, and while I do love the smell, Walt, who has to man the onion and pepper grill, says the stench makes him sick. It gets into his skin and even when he's sleeping, all he dreams about are onions and peppers.

I spot Walt behind the counter by the grill. The only other customers are three teenage girls with hair dyed in multiple hues of pink, blue, and green. I nearly walk past them when suddenly I realize that one of these punks is my sister.

Dorrit is eating an onion ring as if everything is perfectly normal. "Hi, Carrie," she says. Not even a "Do you like my hair?" She picks up her milk shake and drains the glass with a loud slurp.

"Dad's going to kill you," I say. Dorrit shrugs. I look at her friends, who are equally apathetic. "Get out to the car. I'll deal with you in a minute."

"I'm not done with my onion rings," she says with equanimity. I hate the way my sister won't listen to authority, especially my authority.

"Get in the car," I insist, and walk away.

"Where are you going?"

"I have to talk to Walt."

Walt's wearing a stained apron and there's sweat on his hairline. "I hate this job," he says, lighting up a cigarette in the parking lot.

"But the hamburgers are good."

"When I get out of here, I never want to see another hamburger in my life."

"Walt," I say. "Maggie--"

He cuts me off. "She didn't go to her sister's in Philadelphia."

"How do you know?"

"Number one, how many times does she visit her sister? Once a year? And number two, I know Maggie well enough to know when she's lying."

I wonder if he knows about Peter, as well. "What are you going to do?"

"Nothing, I guess. I'll wait for her to break up with me and that'll be it."

"Maybe you should break up with her."

"Too much effort." Walt tosses his cigarette into the bushes. "Why should I bother when the result will be the same either way?"

Walt, I think, is sometimes a bit passive.

"But maybe if you did it first--"

"And save Maggie from feeling guilty? I don't think so."

My sister walks by with her new Day-Glo hair. "You'd better not let Dad catch you smoking," she says.

"Listen, kid. First of all, I wasn't smoking. And secondly, you've got bigger things to worry about than cigarettes. Like your hair."

As Dorrit gets into the car, Walt shakes his head. "My little brother's just like her. The younger generation--they've got no respect."
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