Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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Nothing and Nobody

Billy’s ex-wife called to say she was on her way over to discuss a very important matter, which, if history was any indicator, could mean a decision between practically identical shades of red nail polish or a veterinary crisis for Buck, the pet dog Nancy treated like the child they’d never had.

His apartment’s galley kitchen counters were stacked with pizza boxes and foil tins of semi-recent Chinese takeout; he gathered them all into a lawn and leaf bag. They’d bought a hundred rolls to help Nancy’s nephew’s Boy Scout troop finance a trip to the Grand Canyon. Nancy got custody of Buck and their modest ranch house. Billy got the lawn and leaf bags. He didn’t have a lawn, not anymore, but he did have about seventy more rolls to use before he’d give in and buy regular kitchen-sized bags.

There was nothing in the cupboard to offer her and three beers left in the fridge. Good, he thought, a glass of water it is. He held a spotted glass to the light, washed and rinsed it twice, and dried it with a clean towel.

Nancy knocked twice before trying the unlocked doorknob. A courtesy knock; Nancy thought all doors were open to her and took great offense when proven otherwise.

“Hello?” Her curly head poked around the door frame. “Thank God you’re home. I’m frantic right now.”

He swigged from his newly opened beer. “How’s Buck-O the Wonder Dog?”

“A total pain in my ass,” she said. “But fine. That beer looks tasty.”

“My last one,” he lied. “Water?”

She nodded, eyes narrowed. “Listen. Did you RSVP to the reunion yet? Are you bringing anyone?”

So that was the very important matter. He was relieved it wasn’t anything to do with Buck, an aging Maltipoo, though he’d rather talk about the dog than their fifteen-year class reunion. Most everybody from high school knew they’d divorced the year before. Nancy, no doubt, was here to put on the pressure: Act normal. Let’s be friends. Lots of people divorce amicably. Dammit, then just pretend.  

Nancy was on the decorating committee, so the next hour would be a one-sided discussion about crepe vs. Mylar streamers, should the helium balloons have messages, were real flower centerpieces better than fake, what with allergy season and all.

“Are you taking anyone?” Billy asked. “How about old what’s-his-name?” Billy knew Steve’s name. Nancy had been dating him, a graduate of the rival high school, for two months.

“Steve refuses to wear a belt,” Nancy stated. “The man needs a belt.”

“I’m not planning on wearing one either,” Billy told her.

“Like I care if you wear one,” she said.

Billy held up his palms, surrendering.

“I like him, OK? But he’s super weird about our town. It’s an old sports grudge. Wrestling. I mean, my God. We’re in our thirties. Get over it.” She studied her nails. “Anyway. You will never guess who did RSVP.”

Billy scratched his head, mocking this trivia. “Sukie Jones.”

“Of course Sukie. She does hot yoga now, so you know she’ll be wearing some ridiculous leotard. But that’s not who I mean.”

“Darryl Edwards. Brandon Connolly. Terry St. Clair.”

“Oh, fuck off.” These were other classmates Nancy had dated in high school. “They’re coming, too. Want the shock-of-the-century guest? Krumcake.”

Billy covered his mouth with one hand, but couldn’t quite hide the smile.

“Cecelia Krum?” he asked, voice squeaking.

God, he’d always been clear as Saran Wrap. His insides quivering, like a bowl full of chicken salad left too long at the picnic. Cecelia Krum, she of the lithe limbs and Breck hair and slow-motion grace, beautiful Cecelia, which one could deduce by name alone, as there has never been an unbeautiful Cecelia. Even the few who are beauty challenged grow into their lovely names with stoic fate.

Nancy was frowning at her nails. “Wonder if she’s still a total freak show?”

Billy remembered her differently. Cecelia was not a freak. Far from it. All those years ago, Cecelia Krum had saved his life. And she didn’t even know it.


To end the visit, he’d suggested to Nancy that he could be in charge of the senior picture photo display, which required a trip to the high school. Though he lived three miles away, he hadn’t been inside the building in years. The halls were the same beigey green color, the lockers dented as ever. Mrs. McCannon presided over the reception desk as if she were part of the faux-wood grain, as if she’d never gotten up, not even for a bathroom break. It was summer, and she wore voluminous white culottes with a sleeveless turquoise blouse. She fanned her face with one hand when Billy crossed into her domain, and the flesh of her bare upper arms swung back and forth.

“AC’s down for repair. You think they’d let us take a day off.”

“Hi, Mrs. McCannon.”

She squinted at him. “Remind me: What year were you?”

“Billy Northfield, class of ‘93,” he said.

She squinted harder, giving way to a boilerplate smile that showed she did not remember him. “Of course!” she said. “And what brings you back?”

He explained about needing pictures for the reunion, framing his task in such a way that he managed to disparage Nancy, who’d been their much-beloved senior class president. Nobody understood why Nancy Butler had wanted to marry Billy Northfield, not straight out of high school. Back then, Billy could barely believe his luck either.

The secretary unlocked the yearbook office, escorting him to the filing cabinets. “I trust you,” she said, winking on her way out. “Got to get back to my oscillating fan.”

The files were grouped by year, then by club or activity, stopping in 2001. Digital photography took over, he guessed. His only camera was an old point-and-shoot that made pictures look like instantaneous artifacts, blurred edges compared to the crisp new digital imagery. He and Nancy had used the camera throughout their marriage, and looking at the photos now, it was as if someone had run their fingers through each print, smudging their lives.

He easily located a manila folder with all the senior portraits, relieved he wouldn’t have to search manually for each of his 217 classmates, many of whom he was not eager to see in a few short days. He tucked the folder into his bag on the tiled floor and began opening the other drawers. Gymnastics, Key Club, the Spanish-Speaking Travel League. No sense in bothering to search for himself—he wasn’t a joiner. His was a club of one, a club of video games in his parents’ unfinished basement.

This office housed forgotten memories, or ones he hadn’t had access to. He knew Cecelia Krum lived inside at least some of those files, waiting like a paper doll. Waiting for him to find her, is how he thought of it. It was, admittedly, a stretch. Cecelia didn’t know how much she meant to him, had never known, and if the gods of courage and foolhardiness were paying attention to him on Saturday, he would finally tell her about how she’d changed his mind, how her mere presence in his life had convinced him of his worth. You had to tell people they mattered. You had to be specific. He knew that now.


It was senior year. Billy had gotten into the habit of skipping sixth period. The previous semester had been the big academic crunch, the one that guidance counselors threatened would make or break the rest of your life. Break your shot at college, at least, which Billy had no intention of attending. Still. At the beginning of the year he’d shyly brought up a couple schools he was interested in to Mr. Loggia, his assigned counselor. This was a cross between bravery and bravado. His parents had never pushed him to be any more than what they were: high school graduates spending their lives behind brooms. Mr. Loggia had told Billy with little preamble or gentleness that each college pick would be a stretch for someone like him. Billy had taken an awful lot of the vocational classes, Mr. Loggia tried helpfully. Plenty of good mechanics in town. And though Billy had wound up at Pitzler Brothers Brakes & Muffler, and was relatively happy, he refused to offer his counselor any of the credit. What right did that man have to dissuade him from college? He was unlikely to have gone, anyway, but that wasn’t the point.

Someone like him. What did that phrase even mean, Billy had scorned inside, a thought mixed with deep hurt and emotion. Because he knew what it meant. In 1992 he was the type they’d call a loner, isolated. He owned an awful lot of black clothing, though this was years before such a guise was ominous, soon to be infamous. He was just a quiet teenager who couldn’t articulate his loneliness, so he wore it instead: black T-shirts, dark jeans, black high-tops.

The school had yet to keep its doors locked during the day, had never discussed emergency plans to deal with a mass tragedy or a school shooter. Billy wasn’t scary, just a kid who’d “slipped through the cracks.” In 1992 that described a variety of students: geeks, potential high achievers who strayed, jocks who forfeited scholarship opportunities with alcohol and pot. The phrase was a consolation for teachers and principals: We can’t reach everybody. Parents must take accountability. Blah, blah, blah. In Billy’s junior year, Nancy Butler, with whom he shared Painting II, had toyed with his emotions for a marking period before choosing someone else. Friendless and girlfriendless and without a plan for the future, Billy knew he wasn’t slipping anywhere. He was the cracks.

Sixth-period chemistry was no great loss. It was the kind of class that led you to other classes, which led you to college, where Billy wasn’t headed. Not someone like him. He’d begun spending the period on the flat school roof, a tar-papered surface that almost hissed in the sun. A ladder snaked up through the drama department’s musty props closet, empty this time of day. He could’ve gone out to the woods beyond the baseball diamond, or walked the few short blocks to the strip mall, where he could get a pizza slice. Funny, though, that he stayed close to school. That he wanted to be up high, gaining another viewpoint, even if it remained his own. Here on the roof he collected his thoughts and planned for the short-term future.

He did not want to go to the trouble of a gun. The fingerprinting, the permit, the money he did not have. He worried about procuring pills and whether pills would work. Any type of bloodletting meant a horror-show mess someone would have to clean up, and he’d always been considerate, as well as squeamish about razors.

In the drama department, there was a rope.

A lasso made from someone’s parents’ old sailing supplies, likely leftover from an ancient production of Oklahoma! The school hung onto each prop and gown for the inevitable return of each musical, staged in a different year with different kids with pretty much the same result. For a week straight, Billy had taken the lasso from its hook, careful to rearrange the feather boas and rubber exercise bands (for what production were those used?), and each day he’d descend from the roof and replace the rope. Sometimes he put it back in a slightly different place: in front of the boas instead of behind them, say. He imagined he was the only one who noticed.

One overcast Friday when he ascended the ladder, the trap door to the roof was wide open. He debated climbing the last several rungs, thinking he’d be disturbing someone, perhaps a janitor or maintenance worker who’d report him to the principal. Then he wondered if he’d accidentally left the door open the day before. It was possible: though he’d envisioned the end result (the thick metal pipe he’d use for an anchor, the length needed to go over the edge), his actions were more like bread crumbs than actual plotting. Deep in his heart, he was asking, Find me.

Instead, Billy found Cecelia Krum, smoking a cigarette on the eastern edge of the roof. He approached slowly and dumbly, the lasso coiled around his arm, and saw she merely held an unlit cigarette between her fingers. She was staring over the edge of the one-story building. Her right leg dangled over the side. His shoe caught a pebble, which skittered away, and Cecelia looked up sharply with violet eyes, both dark and bright simultaneously against the gray sky. The far horizon was deep gray green; “tornado sky,” his mother called it. A sharp delineation between the clouds and the nothing below them.

They said nothing for a moment, which is rarer than you might think. Especially for high schoolers, who subsist on the speed of their edgy, attention-seeking speech. Cecelia broke the silence after a long minute, tapping what Billy saw was a pen, not a cigarette, on a folded newspaper.

“What’s a four letter word for sand-dwelling creature?” she asked.

Normally Billy would’ve stammered an apology and backed away, feeling like an intruder. But he was possessive of the roof. All week, it had been his and his alone. And while he wanted to be alone, he also had to acknowledge how much he wanted to enjoy the vision of Cecelia sitting on the roof’s edge, her long leg swinging, her shiny chestnut hair tangling in the ticklish wind, her violet eyes. They’d been in school together for years but scarcely had talked. He knew she had a gaggle of younger siblings, offered up as an excuse for why she couldn’t complete the essay on Hester Prynne or why she dropped out of activities after a single meeting or practice. Mr. Loggia’s impassioned speech to Cecelia Krum was guidance counselor legend. Her test scores were off the charts, so how can you fail Algebra II, Loggia asked, with logic results like hers? There’s no reason for it.

“There is if you don’t go to class,” Cecelia had said, executing said skills.

The tar paper roof was merely warm instead of piping hot. A trickle of sweat inched down Billy’s back. He wanted to ask if she skipped class often, but in his head it sounded corny, like a pickup line. Instead, he answered her crossword question.

“How about ‘crab’?” he asked.

She appraised him. “Not too shabby.”

Billy remained immobile.

“You can come closer. I do bite, but I won’t.”

Instant boner. He moved the rope from his arm, positioning it strategically in front of him. He walked closer and gingerly sat upon the two-foot-high wall at the roof’s edge. Cecelia’s leg still swung, and dangling from her foot was a navy blue and white polka-dotted espadrille. He worried her shoe would fall off. It would land on the sidewalk near the gymnasium entrance.

“What’s that for?” she asked, then shook her head as if she didn’t want to know. Billy suddenly couldn’t remember why he had a rope, either, or where it had come from. Somewhere inside, he might’ve realized that a suicide claims more than one life, even if no one else dies.

“Found it,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to jump,” she announced. “I couldn’t deal with English today. You have Mrs. Sheedy? No? You’re lucky. She’s got it out for me.”

Billy listened intently. He did not want to say the wrong thing. He did not want to send this creature scampering back down the ladder. He needn’t have worried. Cecelia did the talking for both of them.

“A crossword’s better than class, if you asked me,” she said. “Works your brain differently. Makes you more clever, you know? Mrs. Sheedy is clever in kind of a gross way. Like, so smart that her humor goes over most everybody’s head, and those of us who get it become her mangy little pets. Some days she’ll zone in on me for the entire fifty minutes. Have you ever been stared at for so long you feel like your head’s about to burst into flames? Foosh!”

She gestured with both hands to show her head exploding. Billy laughed and looked at the ground; he probably was staring at Cecelia in much the same way. The talk felt natural, and they knew each other from a lifetime of attending the same small-town schools. But this was the first real conversation they’d ever had, one-on-one. Back in third grade, Billy had joined a group of boys in chasing Cecelia Krum around the playground, shouting variations of her name. What a fool he’d been.

“Maybe you don’t remember, but I was one of the kids who called you Krumcake,” he said. “But I meant it kind of nicely. Cake’s one of my favorite foods.”

She laughed, and her perfect small white teeth flashed. “Forget it,” she said. “We were all tiny little babies. Hey, where are you supposed to be now, anyway?”

Billy smiled for what felt like the first time in ages. “Here,” he said.


The yearbook office’s clock ticked as loudly as a bomb, just as it had fifteen years ago when the students waited for it to go off. Some things, most things, did not change.

Like Billy’s mental image of Cecelia Krum. He licked the sweat from his upper lip. He’d dug up a half dozen photos of her. Mostly candids, and who looks their best in candids? Still. He had remembered her grace, balancing on the school’s roof, the way she’d lightly dangled her leg. The photo of her playing badminton in a gym class action shot, however, revealed a figure best described as gawky. Her limbs were a geometry problem, her racket a weapon. Her T-shirt, red with a white strip for markering one’s name, said KRUM in blocky letters. In another unflattering portrait, she could be seen in the crowded cafeteria line, gazing with disdain at a smiling couple in an embrace. Tonya Whitson and Brad Chamberlain, who, admittedly, were a sickeningly sweet pair. Had she been against public display of affection? Did she hold a grudge against Tonya, or a crush on Brad? Vice versa? In her scowl he recognized the feelings he’d held at that age, uncomfortably so. He saw her face contorted and her nose a bit smooshed and her teeth more crooked than he had remembered. Unsettling, to say the least, that his memory was so far from these snapshots.

They were just pictures, he reminded himself, thumbing through the senior yearbook, wanting the reassurance of her color portrait, her violet eyes. You got to select from proofs which shot made the yearbook, though that made little difference for him—his photo never quite came out right. Most kids dressed up; he’d worn a concert T-shirt in support of a band he now was embarrassed to have liked. He bypassed his own photo and stared at Cecelia. She stared back, frank and challenging, and he thought he detected a hint of disdain. He logically knew it was for the photographer, not him, but at the moment it felt more like a reproach coming from those eyes. Cecelia’s irises were brown.


They’d finished the crossword and turned their faces skyward, absorbing the weak sunlight that made a brief appearance. Cecelia blinked rapidly in the sun, giving Billy the notion that she was batting her eyes at him. (He amended the memory: batting her brown eyes.) Her next period was Band, where she was learning classical guitar. She wouldn’t miss it. Was he coming?

He sighed. Of course the afternoon couldn’t last forever. Why was it the class period dragged interminably when you were seated at a desk, but passed in a blur if you happened to be skipping class with a beautiful girl on top of the roof? (His current mind replaced Cecelia the vision with Cecelia the scowler, and he shook his head, as she’d done, to clear the thought as if from an Etch A Sketch toy.)

“Suppose I ought to go to class,” he said. “Even if it’s study hall.”

“Let me go first,” she said, her hand on the ladder, and Billy, his boner now becalmed, took the chance to gather the rope and sling it over his arm.

When they both stood on the firm ground of the prop closet, Cecelia reached forward and gave his shoulder a little squeeze. Really, she was taking the lasso gently away from him. Her movement caused the feather boas to ruffle soundlessly, placidly, like sea anemones underwater.

“The rope goes behind the boas,” she said. “Not in front.” Her voice was absent of contempt or scolding. Her words carried no judgment. But she’d noticed his small gesture, and his sense of humanity turned on its ear. She had noticed him.

Several weeks passed, and he’d curried favor with Nancy again, lifting his funk even as his mother warned him against “that Butler girl.” He’d stopped going up to the roof and had stopped thinking about the rope and how it could be used. He marveled at the easy absence of those thoughts. Eventually, walking by the drama department triggered his memory: he finally saw other meaning in Cecelia’s words. She, too, had known the exact location of that prop. I wasn’t going to jump, she’d said. At the time, he’d viewed her comment through his own depressed vision. Later, he understood her differently and saw how he’d failed: the words were hers to be reflected back, not absorbed by him as smugly as a suntan.


“Too many pictures of the Krumcake,” Nancy said Saturday morning, her fingers dunked in sudsy water. She’d summoned Billy to the manicurist to check his progress on the photo project. Her splayed hands twitched as Lisa Macomber, two years ahead of them in school, filed and trimmed. Lisa studiously ignored their conversation, which is to say absorbed every word silently and tucked it away in her internal hard drive. She’d later retrieve dates, details, and names for any client who summoned an associative phrase.

“Huh,” Billy said. “I’ve got plenty of everybody.”

“What a nobody, that girl. Kind of a hippie. Wasn’t she all into the environment?”

“Everybody cares about the environment.”

“They do now. But back then? What a weird thing for a teenager to obsess over: pop bottles and Styrofoam McNuggets boxes.”

Billy thought it simply offered more proof of Cecelia’s empathetic nature. He tried not to think of her giving the stink eye to the couple in the cafeteria line.

Nancy wouldn’t give the photo display a rest. “And you can put this together by tonight? Billy, I’m counting on you. We’re doing the cocktail hour first, and the early birds will be drinking mixers in the parking lot before we’re even ready, so I need to have stuff set up, like, yesterday.”

“I’ll bring it when I come,” he said. “You know, make a grand entrance.”

She narrowed her eyes, taking in his new haircut. “You aren’t bringing a date, are you?”


“Then who’re you trying to impress?”

“You, Nancy,” he said, staring directly at Lisa Macomber, whose mouth hung open. He’d installed the manicurist’s new brakes last month, and she’d talked on her cell phone the whole time, even as he processed her credit card. “It’s always you, my darling ex-wife.”

“Oh, shut up,” Nancy said. “And be there by six.”

From the start of their married life, Billy and Nancy had fought over everything. Money and in-laws, sure, those were a given. But they bickered over the name of an actor in a commercial. What to order on their pizza. Which movie to rent from Blockbuster. They’d never discussed having kids, and when it finally came up, they fought about that, too. Billy wanted children. Nancy did not. Kids would change everything, she said. Not long after that, Nancy came home at three a.m., sobbing over Brandon Connolly rejecting her. Billy thought she had meant back in high school. It was a few weeks before he found out she’d meant that night, at the bar, and now it was over between them.

Billy’s nerves wore him raw all afternoon, thinking of seeing Cecelia, wondering what she’d be like. Would she match the pictures in his head, or the pictures he’d taken from the yearbook office? Fifteen years after graduation, she was probably someone else entirely now. But who? And how had he changed? Nancy, enmeshed in the last-minute preparations of the reunion, was probably his most reliable source for this last question, and unavailable for comment. His worry nagged at him until finally he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep on the blue-velvet couch. When he woke, it was six thirty. He still hadn’t assembled the photo display, hadn’t even opened Nancy’s shrink-wrapped poster board from Schafer’s Art Supply.

Nobody needs a photo display, he decided, quickly dressing in his one and only suit, black, with a deep-blue satin tie. He could sort of scatter the photos on one of the linen-draped lunch tables. He’d deal with Nancy later.

His new haircut was not bad. He scrubbed his hands extra hard and stuck his nails into the bar of Ivory, digging around for maximum cleanliness. He was a man who still performed menial tasks for his unfaithful ex-wife. He was a reliable mechanic and a sound sleeper. He liked his burgers well-done and could not stand whiskey, a taste he no longer tried to acquire. He had learned, over the years, to please himself. He was learning.

He was not a high school senior standing on a roof. He was not a high school senior standing on a roof. He was not. Or if he was, if that part of him remained, then that wasn’t all he was.


Cecelia Krum packed light for the reunion; she only planned to stay one night. Kath lay on their bed, supervising wardrobe choices.

“Who were the hot girls in your class?” Kath teased. “Come on. You know you had a secret crush.”

Cecelia held up a blue dress to her body and frowned. “I really didn’t,” she said. “Is that weird?”

“Not weird, just surprising,” Kath said. “I was in love with all the female teachers. Half the senior class. All of the cheerleaders. The softball team.”

Cecelia smiled at her in the mirror. “Such a cliché.”

Kath held up her middle finger, touched it to her lips, and blew Cecelia a kiss. “Wear your silver dress. Especially if you want to be remembered as a smokin’ hot fox.”

Cecelia did wonder how people remembered her, one reason she was going back. She recalled high school as one long standardized test. A test without directions, without the required No. 2 pencils, without measurable outcomes. The standards—not the state mandates passed down from on high, but the everyday ones by which students were expected to live—baffled her. She thought she was providing the right answer until a teacher would ridicule her. She liked her new haircut until another student whispered about it being so choppy, and she refused to have it cut for the remainder of the year, which caused her peers to label her a hippie. They followed at a close distance in the hallway, watching her every move, and she, in turn, watched them, wondering what on earth she could possibly be doing wrong. “See how she walks,” one girl whispered to another, and magically, Cecelia had new material to add to her list: Reasons for Being Self-Conscious, a list she actually kept in her red, spiral-bound notebook, which she refused to call a diary or a journal. That’s what it was, though: the material with which she built the case of her life. Ways she learned to build cases for and against other lives.

As she jotted her lists and musings on the various characters in her school—that’s how she thought of them, as characters—certain patterns emerged. Being in the gaze of others caused her great upset. At some point, maybe junior year, she’d exhausted herself with the possibilities of what her classmates could possibly think, or want, from her. She wouldn’t describe it as numbness, exactly, more like massive detachment. Unconsciously she adopted a new attitude: what was wrong with being observed? And: if people were watching, then put on a show.

Her voice grew louder and echoed through the halls. She started wearing colored contact lenses, and stared down anyone who glanced twice. Sometimes she’d bark, just for fun. Her long hair no longer was reparation for a botched haircut, but a choice. An extension of herself, sometimes piled on top of her head, sometimes hanging limply, unbrushed. She did not, would not, care. She was treated differently. Noticed. This time, praised. Some girls mimicked her; others critiqued those who’d adopted fickle, Cecelia-inspired fashions. But they stopped criticizing Cecelia.

She took notes in her red notebook, a practice in sociological field study that would prove useful in her government job. How much, she wondered, would be too much to reveal? She was rehearsing conversations for the reunion. There had been humanitarian work, which sometimes involved acts of mercy. Mercenary? That wasn’t quite right either. She planned to stay only one night in her old hometown, then she’d drive her rental car back to O’Hare for an early Sunday flight back to DC. Back to her life with Kath and the Georgetown townhome they’d shared for the last two years.

Cecelia’s family had moved shortly after graduation, and she hadn’t returned to her old town. She had been married once, just out of college. A mistake. She and Pedro split up two weeks before their year anniversary. Meeting Kath, she told their friends, was like coming home to a dream house she never knew she wanted to live in.

“You might want to take these.” Kath unfurled a strand of foil-wrapped condoms.

“Please tell me those are vintage,” Cecelia said.

She signed the letters “AL,” which was their code for “Another Life.” The lives they lived before meeting each other.

Kath was an American Sign Language interpreter for the deaf. She worked events at the White House and the Kennedy Center; you could see her on television, her lovely, expressive hands moving as if to mimic flight. Cecelia, who had not come out to her parents and siblings, let alone her high school class, was relieved Kath had to work that weekend. She would be signing at a Paul Simon concert. Her favorite song was “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Kath and Cecelia would listen to it in bed and murmur, “Another Life.”

Sign language interpreter was a great job to bring up at a high school reunion. Cecelia didn’t know how to talk about her own work. She had traveled the world on the government’s dime, translating, healing, performing jobs that involved keeping silent. Cecelia was paid to be silent. Kath finally had stopped asking.

She could not talk about Miles, an agent she’d known since her first assignment in Haiti, though they only spoke or emailed sporadically in the last few years. He’d returned from Iraq, the picture of cheer for exactly one week. Smiling and drinking and barhopping, sleeping it off. On the eighth day, he hanged himself in the basement with an orange electrical cord. His wife found the body. She would not permit anyone from the government to attend the funeral. Cecelia understood that she could not have saved Miles. But she would’ve attended the services, would’ve paid a thousand dollars for the last-minute flight to Milwaukee.

When the class reunion e-vite arrived a few months later, she’d impulse-booked a bargain flight home. She could not talk about her work. No. There were safe topics: the skeletal infant with AIDS transformed into a chubby-cheeked toddler who loved sticky rice. The teenager who’d lost his right leg to a landmine, who now lectured at American high schools and had appeared on the TODAY show. Her life, she realized, was probably more interesting than most of her classmates’ lives. Probably. What did she know? She was just the Krumcake, or Environment Girl, or BHD for Bad Hair Day. At least before. Predetachment. Some of the boys in her class had gone straight to the military and had been deployed all over the world. In some ways, Cecelia thought she’d done the same thing, well before that flight to Haiti after her last college exam. Even back in high school, she’d deployed herself elsewhere. Sometimes it was just a mental trick, daydreaming in class and doodling in a notebook. Other times, she climbed to the roof.

Cecelia had been going to the roof alone for ages before Billy Northfield showed up. He never saw her. There was a brick chimney to crouch behind, and she’d use a compact mirror to check him out. She wasn’t all that hidden, and sometimes she worried he caught the sun’s glare from her mirror, but mostly he seemed absorbed in his thoughts and the old lasso from Oklahoma! (she’d been an extra), threading it through his palms as if he were a deckhand. Billy Northfield, whose ears had stuck out until ninth grade when he finally grew into them, and his huge nose, a real honker, which no one mentioned because Billy wasn’t the type that people at their school noticed. If you were quiet, if you were thoughtful, if you were the slightest bit off-kilter—and this is how Cecelia perceived Billy, and to a lesser degree, herself—you were either traumatized or completely unseen. Either way, you were made to feel like nothing, a nobody. They were not friends. They never spoke until that day on the roof.

Cecelia set the whole thing up. She knew his routine and had grown nervous that he was considering expanding upon it. The next step. The final solution. His eyes grew flat as buttons. She’d seen him at lunch, untouched cheeseburger on his cafeteria tray, so absorbed with that dingbat, Nancy Butler. In English, Nancy had claimed The Great Gatsby was a magician, and in history, declared that the atom bomb was named after its creator, “Adam Somebody.”

Cecelia actually brushed her hair that day. She’d worn her contacts. She’d perched comfortably on the ledge and lured him over and talked him down, as it were. She felt euphoric. Addicted. The look he had given her, the pureness of his gratitude, the innocence she knew he possessed, and by turn, that she possessed. He had recognized something in her she didn’t know existed. It was like being a child again. She’d never told anyone or tried to explain what had happened that day; how could they comprehend it? She barely understood. He was the first to change her like that. My first, she sometimes thought of him in her head.

Billy had gone back to mooning over Nancy; she heard they’d gotten married. After the roof, they never really spoke again, though once or twice they’d exchange nods in the hallways. It wasn’t romantic, which she supposed didn’t matter. Cecelia had paid him scant attention before the rooftop encounter, and it would be years before she understood that her lack of interest in men might mean she was actually interested in women. But she noticed the way he looked at her. She saw him try to hide his erection, a move nearly any high school girl could decipher. After that, he was on her mind constantly. She imagined the ways he might show his gratitude, simultaneously chastising her own sappiness. She longed for a mixtape, a midnight hike through silent suburbs, a drive along country roads with nothing but corn surrounding them. She retreated in her mind from the chaos of her seven younger brothers and sisters, understanding that her mild fantasies had little to do with Billy. She didn’t even know what music he liked. She didn’t even know if he had a car. It was this: thinking about him allowed her to think about herself.

Even so. The way she saw herself was through his eyes. His was the face she saw nightly in her mind’s eye. Even now, she saw his expression of wonder and relief, and yes, say it: love. A look caused by her, given to her. Her first.

“What are you thinking about?” Kath asked. “Or should I say, who are you thinking about?”

Miles, Billy, herself: whatever her answer, Kath wouldn’t quite understand. It was better to gloss over certain things.

“Nothing and nobody,” Cecelia said. “No lost loves, no love lost. Promise.” Cecelia hugged Kath goodbye and hoisted the roller suitcase down the stairs. It was heavy, but she was stronger than she looked.


The Class of 1993 had had enough of “Baby Got Back” by the third playing. The first time around, the reunion crowd grew raucous and shook it like there was no tomorrow. The second time, the dancing turned ironic. Now the DJ was a few drinks in, and Nancy marched over and practically yanked the young man’s ear. She grabbed the microphone while the DJ scrambled for a new song.

“Please be sure to stop by the picture table,” she told the crowd. “Sorry there isn’t a more attractive display.”

Their senior prom song came on: “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton. It had been held in this very gym, and for the reunion Nancy recreated the same color scheme of peach and gold. The after-prom party at Sukie’s was where Billy and Nancy had sex for the first time. Now Nancy stared at Billy with soft eyes—was she drunk? Tearful, even?—and Billy touched the stash of photos in his suit coat’s interior breast pocket.

As if summoned, Cecilia was before him.

“Billy?” she asked, and he relished being both the question and the answer.

She was lovelier than he’d dared imagine, in a silver dress and black patterned tights and heels that gave her several inches on him. She hugged him, and he breathed in her gardenia perfume. What did he smell like to her? He hoped not the Jack Daniels he’d gulped earlier, waiting out the first playing of Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“I’m super glad to see you,” she said. “Dance with me?”

How to explain this was his and Nancy’s song? From prom fifteen years ago? He felt sorry for his ex-wife, who eyed them from her perch at the punch bowl. Sukie, indeed in a leotard-like dress, edged closer to Billy and Cecelia, pretending not to listen.

His heart said, Yes! Of course! His mouth said, “I shouldn’t.”

Cecelia’s face fell. She didn’t know why she’d asked him to dance. Kath would say she was taking herself too seriously. She had a strong urge to call her, to hear Kath chuckle at Cecelia’s familiar lack of social graces. Kath could remind her that Miles and Billy were not the same person, if she’d known either of them existed.

“Right,” she said. She glanced toward the door and squeezed her clutch. “Could you excuse me a second?”

She was out the door. Nancy saw an opening and sauntered over. “You aren’t going to ask me to dance? Not even for old times’ sake?”

Billy stared after Cecelia. “No,” he said. “There are lots of other old-timers who’ll dance with you.”

Nancy no longer looked sentimental; she was back to her default setting of pissed off. Sukie burst out laughing. “Damn, Billy.”

His instinct was to apologize. Instead, he walked away.


Of course Cecelia was on the roof. She was flicking her lighter like an early-’80s concertgoer. He cleared his throat so as not to startle her.

“Play ‘Free Bird,’” she commanded.

He smiled. “Nah, I don’t know it. Look, I’m really sorry. Do you remember Nancy?”

She snorted. “Was Adolf Hitler a Japanese kamikaze pilot?”

He ignored the jab. “We got divorced last year. That was our prom song.”

She turned deadpan. “Shit. I ruined prom. Just like in Carrie.”

“The pigs’ blood was overkill,” he said.

“Tell it to Stephen King.” She flicked the lighter again. “Sorry. I’m divorced, too. We didn’t even last a year.”

“What happened?”

She shrugged. “My girlfriend says I was repressed.”

He nodded like he knew. “Wait, what?”

Should she have said lover, partner, something else? She had little practice using these words. Her far-flung family still didn’t know that she and Kath were more than roommates, more than friends. “Tell them we’re lez-be-friends,” Kath suggested.

“My girlfriend,” Cecelia told Billy. “We live together in DC. Kath’s amazing.”

“That’s cool,” he said, too quickly.

Billy and Cecelia turned shy then, remembering other overly intimate conversations. They knew each other best in their imaginations.

“Hey,” he said. “I have something for you.” He produced the photograph of her in the cafeteria line, scowling at Tonya and Brad’s public display of affection. Of course she’d make that face, Billy thought, now that he knew she’d been in the closet. He had assumed that his and Cecelia’s desire to disappear was of the same variety.

“God, is that even me?” She smiled, with an unreadable expression beneath the surface. This much-anticipated moment was no match for memory, for their shared, deep longing for the survived past. They wouldn’t dance together tonight, or any night. They wouldn’t exchange confidences or email addresses, or stumble out in the dark night air of the parking lot, where the aged jocks were smoking cigars. They would return to their lives. They would adjust the antennas on their static-filled memories.

Cecelia held up the lighter and squinted at this version of herself from fifteen years ago. She pointed to a figure cropped half out of the frame, someone Billy failed to notice. One big ear, half a large nose. It was him, staring off camera at something impossible to discern, then or now. And here he was, standing before her, alive on the very roof where he’d contemplated death.

Cecelia cried out, tears in her eyes, and then she was laughing. Billy joined in. They laughed and laughed, almost uncontrollably. They leaned on the wall to hold themselves up.

“Do you remember when that was taken?” he asked. His planned admission—You saved me—stalled in his throat. The momentous words he’d rehearsed now seemed over-the-top, too large for the roof and the open sky above them.

Cecelia propped her elbows on the ledge and lit the lighter again. “Circa the Bad Hair era. Yo, Northfield. Bring that terrible little time capsule closer.”

He dangled it over the roof’s edge to the waiting flame. She looked at him. “Ready?”

“No,” he said. “I want to say thanks first. So, thanks.” His face went scarlet, hoping she understood. In a way, she did.

She laughed, heart as full as it had ever been. “You’re very welcome. Thank you.”

He nodded: Go. Paper met flame. The photograph curled in bright shades of orange and blue, the ash disappearing into the dark night air. Bits of nothing into nothing. It was impossible to see the tiny flecks’ path. Back in high school, he would’ve assumed that the ashes fell, not taking into account height and wind, the angle of the flame, the person lighting the fire. Now Billy knew what Cecelia had known all along, even if she needed reminding. First they rose.  

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