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American Wife(7)
Curtis Sittenfeld

One afternoon in the beginning of our sophomore year in high school, Andrew unceremoniously broke up with Dena; he said football practice made him too tired to have a girlfriend. He was six feet tall by then, was a JV kicker for the Benton County Central High School Knights, and wore his once-shaggy hair in a crew cut. At that point, I stopped talking to him altogether. This was less out of loyalty to Dena—Andrew and I did still smile mildly at each other in the halls—than due to simple logistics, the fact that I had no classes with him. Our high school was bigger than our elementary or junior high schools had been, drawing kids who came from as much as an hour away.

During the years Dena and Andrew had been together, I’d often marveled at both the swiftness and randomness of their coupling. Ostensibly, he’d had no interest in Dena, and hours later, he’d become hers. It seemed to be a lesson in something, but I wasn’t sure what—an argument for aggression, perhaps, for the bold pursuit of what you wanted? Or proof of most people’s susceptibility to persuasion? Or just confirmation of their essential fickleness? After I’d read Andrew’s note, was I supposed to have immediately marched up to him and staked my claim? Had my faith in our pleasantly murky future been naive, had I been passive or a dupe? These questions were of endless interest to me for several years; I thought of them at night after I’d said my prayers and before I fell asleep. And then, once high school started, I became distracted. By the time Dena and Andrew broke up (she seemed insulted more than upset, and the insult soon passed), I had, somewhere along the way, stopped dwelling on the two of them and on what hadn’t happened with Andrew and me. When I did think of it, fleetingly, it seemed ridiculous; if the events behind us held any lessons, they were about how silly young people were. Dena and Andrew’s supposed love affair, my own yearnings and confusion—they all came to seem like nothing more than the backdrop of our childhood.

EVERY YEAR, THE day after Christmas, my grandmother took the train to visit her old friend Gladys Wycomb in Chicago, and every summer, my grandmother returned to Chicago for the last week in August. In the winter of 1962, when I was a junior, my grandmother announced at dinner one evening in November that this Christmas she wanted me to accompany her—her treat. It would be a kind of cultural tour, the ballet and the museums, the view from a skyscraper. “Alice is sixteen, and she’s never been to a big city,” my grandmother said.

“I’ve been to Milwaukee,” I protested.

“Precisely,” my grandmother replied.

“Emilie, that’s a lovely idea,” my mother said, while at the same time, my father said, “I’m not sure it’ll work this year. It’s rather short notice, Mother.”

“All we need to do is book another train ticket,” my grandmother said. “Even an old bird like myself is capable of that.”

“Chicago is cold in December,” my father said.

“Colder than here?” My grandmother’s expression was dubious.

No one said anything.

“Or is there some other reason you’re reluctant to have her go?” My grandmother’s tone was open and pleasant, but I sensed her trickiness, the way she was bolder than either of my parents.

Another silence sprang up, and at last my father said, “Let me consider this.”

In the mornings, my family’s routines were staggered: My father usually had left for the bank by the time I came downstairs—I’d find sections of The Riley Citizen spread over the table, my mother at the sink washing dishes—and my grandmother would still be asleep when I took off for school. But that next morning, I hurried downstairs right after my alarm clock rang, still in my nightgown, and said to my father, “I could buy my own train ticket so Granny doesn’t have to pay.” My allowance was three dollars a week, and in the past few years, I’d saved up over fifty dollars; I kept the money in an account at my father’s bank.

My father, who was seated at the table, glanced toward my mother; she was standing by the stove, tending to the bacon. They exchanged a look, and my father said, “I didn’t realize you were so keen on seeing Chicago.”

“I just thought if the ticket was the reason—”

“We’ll talk about it at dinner,” my father said.

Every evening, the grace my father recited before we ate was “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.” Then the rest of us said “Amen.” That night, as soon as we’d raised our bowed heads, my father said, “My concern about Alice traveling to Chicago with you, Mother, is the imposition it creates for Gladys, so I’ve called and made a reservation for you both to stay at a hotel called the Pelham. You’ll be my guests for the week.”

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