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American Wife(6)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“What about you, Alice?” Andrew gripped the handles of his bicycle, angling the front wheel toward me. “You gonna be a cheerleader, too?” We looked at each other, his eyes their greenish-brown and his eyelashes ridiculously long, and I thought that my grandmother may have been right after all—even if Andrew wasn’t flirting with you, his eyelashes were.

“Alice will still be a Girl Scout in high school,” Dena said. She herself had dropped out of our troop over the summer, and while I was leaning in that direction, I officially remained a member.

“I’m going to be in Future Teachers of America,” I said.

Dena smirked. “You mean because you’re so smart?” This was a particularly obnoxious comment; as Dena knew, I had wanted to be a teacher since we’d been in second grade with Miss Clougherty, who was not only kind and pretty but had read Caddie Woodlawn aloud to us, which then became my favorite book. For years, Dena and I had pretended we were teachers who coincidentally both happened to be named Miss Clougherty, and we’d gotten Dena’s sisters, Marjorie and Peggy, to be our students. As with Girl Scouts, playing school was an activity Dena had lost interest in before I did.

Dena turned back to Andrew. “Tell Bobby to let us come over and play with his puppies. We promise to be gentle.”

“You can tell him yourself.” Andrew pulled on his mittens and set his feet back on the pedals of his bicycle. “See you girls later.”

THAT MONDAY, DENA wrote Andrew a note. What is your favorite food? the note said. What is your favorite season? Who do you like better, Ed Sullivan or Sid Caesar? And, like an afterthought: Who is your favorite girl in our class?

She didn’t mention the note before delivering it, but when a few days had passed without a response, she was too agitated not to tell me. Hearing what she’d done made me agitated, too, like we were preparing to sprint against each other and she’d taken off before I knew the race had started. But I wasn’t sure feeling this way was within my rights—why shouldn’t Dena write Andrew a note?—so I said nothing. Besides, as three and then four days passed and Andrew sent no reply, my distress turned into sympathy. I was as relieved as Dena when at last a lined piece of notebook paper, folded into a hard, tiny square, appeared in her desk.

Mashed potatoes, it said in careful print.

Summer.

I do not watch those shows, prefer Spin and Marty on The Mickey Mouse Club.

Sylvia Eberbach, also Alice.

Sylvia Eberbach was the smallest girl in the sixth grade, a factory worker’s daughter with pale skin and blond hair who, when I look back, I suspect had dyslexia; in English class, whenever the teacher made her read aloud, half the students would correct her. Alice, of course, was me. Surely, to this day, Andrew’s answers represent the most earnest, honest document I have ever seen. What possible incentive did he have for telling the truth? Perhaps he didn’t know any better.

Dena and I read his replies standing in the hall after lunch, before the bell rang for class. Seeing that line—Sylvia Eberbach, also Alice—felt like such a gift, a promise of a nebulously happy future; all the agitation that had consumed me after learning Dena had sent the letter went away. Me—he liked me. I didn’t even mind sharing his affection with Sylvia. “Should I keep the note?” I said. This was logical, my ascent over Dena clear and firm. But she gave me a sharp look and pulled away the piece of paper. By the end of the school day, which was less than two hours later, I learned not from Dena herself but from Rhonda Ostermann, whose desk was next to mine, that Andrew and Dena were going steady. And indeed as I left the school building to go home, I saw them standing by the bus stop, holding hands.

When I approached them—Andrew rode the bus, but Dena and I walked to and from school together—Dena said, “Greetings and salutations, Alice.” Clearly, she was delighted with herself. Andrew nodded at me. I looked for a sign that he was Dena’s hostage, being held against his will, or at least that he felt conflicted. But he seemed amiable and content. What had happened to Sylvia Eberbach, also Alice?

Improbably, Dena and Andrew remained a couple for the next four years. A pubescent couple, granted, meaning there may have been no one besides me who took them seriously. But they continued holding hands in public, and they were permitted by their parents to meet for hamburgers and milk shakes at Tatty’s. Andrew was quiet, though not silent, around Dena. The three of us sometimes went to the movies at the Imperial Theater, and once in seventh grade it happened that he sat between us—usually, Dena sat in the middle—and before the curtain opened, Dena got up to buy popcorn. During those few minutes when she was gone, Andrew and I said precisely nothing to each other, and for the entire time, I thought, It is really the two of us who are together. Not Andrew and Dena. Andrew and me. I know it, and he knows it, and anyone who would look over at us now would know it, too. I felt that we were under a kind of spell, and when Dena returned, the spell broke; his energy shifted back to her. Certainly he never gave any proof that I was still one of his two favorite girls. I searched for it, I waited, and it didn’t come. In eighth grade, Dena fell while running across the pavement behind the school, and he licked the blood off her palms. For weeks, thinking of that made me feel like a chute had opened in my stomach and my heart was descending through it.

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