The fall of their senior year, when they lived side by side in singles on the third floor of Little Hall, Lulu received an anonymous love letter. It was not her first love letter, but it was well written and included poetry. Carrie and Lulu read the words aloud to each other ten times, at least.
“Whoever wrote this, he’s unimaginable, isn’t he?” Lulu said, her eyes sparkling. She had soft brown eyes and full lips and her auburn hair glistened in the sunlight, any light really. She prompted longing and unrest.
Carrie could imagine him. Tall and handsome. Misunderstood. He was known as the reliable, unassuming star of the men’s heavyweight crew team, while he had passions incongruous with this identity. He’d watched Lulu Saunders for years, her light gorgeousness, and now with the confidence of senior year, and the pressure of his last chance, he reached out for her. She became the focus of his yearning; the woman he dreamed would celebrate and enhance his self-expression, his conscious masculinity.
Lulu couldn’t think of a person on the crew team to match Carrie’s description. But like Carrie, she sensed the greatness, the breadth, of this man’s potential. The two friends felt as if they’d been drawn tingling and dazed into the center of a novel. September rains transformed the campus—the stone buildings and green lawns, the bushy tailed squirrels and autumn trees—into crisp, vigorous forms. Another letter arrived, slipped into Lulu’s book bag and again recited back and forth between Lulu and Carrie. It was Lulu’s love affair, yet the letters—ardent, sweet, and clever, which were the parts Carrie liked best—brought reverence into their friendship. They were the sole witnesses to a true love.
They kept the letters in a cookie tin with their list of potential admirers on top. Despite Carrie’s interest in the broad shouldered, straight nosed crew team, Lulu had tired of athletes and scions. She had dated the Rockefeller and later, the Firestone. Her favor had turned to artistic types. She had been entangling herself with Andrew Despres in Slavic lit class. He looked like a poet: tall and thin, with straight black hair that fell at a slant across his grey eyes. And, in fact, he had grown up in New York and studied painting. Carrie had seen him at parties at Tiger Inn, standing in a corner with other smirking New Yorkers. A rumor claimed he lived in the city, commuted to school, and dated a model.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Lulu’s mother said when Carrie arrived at the Saunders’ beach house in Laguna. Carrie lied about traffic and missing a turn. Actually, she had dawdled and delayed and considered calling with an excuse. It had been a year since graduation. But not coming to see Lulu would be as disheartening as visiting her. Carrie worried how the evening would play out. She’d already agreed to spend the night, on the phone Lulu had insisted. There would be a dinner and Lulu had something planned for afterward. Though Carrie had no idea what it was, she sensed the after dinner program was the real reason they’d all come to the beach house. That, and to say goodbye.
The beach house was a trailer: a beachfront wood shingled doublewide in the El Moro Cove mobile home park. Mrs. Saunders called it a cabana. She had brown eyes like Lulu and wore a white collared shirt and Bermuda shorts. Her face had drawn back since Carrie had last seen her at commencement, when they wore spaghetti strapped dresses and drank champagne on the lawn. She appeared to have steeled herself against a strong, unyielding wind. Yet she moved briskly, which made her seem much younger than she was. Off the back of the house, a deck overlooked the white sand and glittering sea. Abalone Point jutted into the water on the south side, the rocks hugging the beach into its crescent. Carrie found Lulu on the deck, reclining on a teak chaise as a hazy orange sun paused above the horizon and then dipped towards the ocean.
Lulu did not look like Lulu. The medicines had bloated her face and torso, softened her. But when she stretched her legs across the chaise, Carrie recognized her delicate ankles and shapely calves. Lulu wore a cotton tunic over leggings; she always emphasized her best features.
Lulu’s eyes were hidden beneath black Ray Bans. Carrie sat on a chaise beside her and watched the Ray Bans and wondered whether Lulu was staring at her or watching the waves roll into the sand or the sun disappear.
On the beach in front of the house next door, two teenage girls, long hair and tan limbs flying—Lulu five years ago—chased each other towards the ocean. Lulu turned to follow their squeals, then looked away.
“Andrew would have drooled over those girls,” she said. It was the first time either of them had mentioned his name.
“Gillespie wrote me that she’d seen him in New York,” Carrie said casually, as if they were talking about someone else’s ex-boyfriend. Gillespie never mentioned Lulu’s recurrence. Or had she known? At Princeton, Susan Gillespie had tried to wedge Carrie from Lulu, slip into her spot by inviting Lulu for coffee and borrowing Lulu’s clothes. A horsey girl from New Jersey, she even rode horses, Gillespie worked as a paralegal at a big firm; soon she’d be starting law school. Carrie had appreciated receiving Gillespie’s monthly letters in Guatemala this past year, no matter what she said in them.
“Gillespie would. She probably wrote everyone,” Lulu said. “I was surprised you didn’t call.”
“I should’ve. I meant to,” Carrie said, because she couldn’t ask Lulu why she was the one who was supposed to call. Those first months in her cockroach-sharing apartment in Guatemala she had called the Saunders’ house in Newport Beach each week and left messages until she couldn’t leave any more. After scribbling and posting a dozen airmail envelopes to Lulu and receiving nothing in return, Carrie tossed the photo she’d tacked up on the wall of her and Lulu with their arms around each other. They were wearing sweaters and standing in the snow, which made no sense in the humidity of her flat. Then Carrie went back to watching her daily Dynasty rerun dubbed in Spanish.
“It was crazy there,” she said. “I was working all day.”
“He’s dating a model, for real,” Lulu said, and when she didn’t laugh at the ridiculousness of models, Carrie realized that Andrew had, perhaps, dumped Lulu. She should have called.
The sliding glass door opened, and as if summoned, Debra and Kristen walked out to the deck. Earlier, Carrie had found Lulu’s new best friends whispering to each other in the tiny kitchen while they grilled Lulu’s favorite cheese and tomato sandwiches on the stove.
Kristen and Lulu had gone to Newport Harbor High School together, and Lulu had met Debra in a support group at the hospital. Debra, a decade older than Lulu, was cured. She had a husband and kids, but she reminded Carrie of the teenage girls Carrie had avoided growing up in Fullerton, plump and defiant, with a heavy dose of mascara. But instead of processed yellow, Debra’s hair was streaked with gold strands, and she’d tamed her body’s curves at the gym. Only Carrie noticed that she had assimilated from somewhere else.
Kristen was also blonde, Scandinavian, her face as placid as watching golf on TV. She wore a bikini top and surf shorts low on her hips. Earlier she had told not funny enough stories about ex-boyfriends with crisp names like Bret, Nick, and Jake. But Lulu laughed and laughed. As soon as she met Lulu’s new friends, Carrie regretted the jean shorts she had cut off so carefully and the sleeveless blouse she had left unbuttoned and flapping at the bottom. She must look insubstantial in her shaggy clothes.
Debra sat down at the end of Lulu’s chaise and began to massage her bare feet.
“We’re talking about Andrew’s girlfriend,” Lulu said.
“The Wonder-fucking-bra model,” Debra said.
“She’s a lingerie model? You’ve got to be kidding,” Carrie said.
“No, why would I?” Debra said, her stare cutting Carrie out of the fold.
“Underwear, it’s so tacky,” Carrie said.
She was relieved when Debra laughed. “And Andrew is such a tactful asshole!”
Lulu leaned her head back on the chaise as if it had become heavy to hold upright. Her Ray Bans rolled toward Debra. “My mom hates swearing,” she said.
“Well then I better close the fucking door,” Debra said. She got up and pulled the sliding glass door shut.
Kristen sat down beside Carrie.
“Can you stay for dinner?” Kristen said.
“She’s spending the night,” Lulu said. And Carrie wondered if she should have made an excuse to decline that invitation.
“I really like the toucan,” Kristen said. On Carrie’s walk through the beach house, she had noticed the clay toucan on the nightstand in the room where Lulu slept. Carrie had made the toucan in high school. He was almost a foot tall, with a white glazed belly, shiny black tail feathers, and a thick orange beak. She had sent him to Lulu last week when she heard the news. The toucan on the nightstand gave her hope, for what she wasn’t sure—admission? Relevance?
“Are you an artist?” Kristen said. Her willing nature tired Carrie. In college, she had played Kristen’s role.
“Not really,” Carrie said. She looked over at Lulu. Her eyes were closed. Carrie wondered if her neck hurt or if they gave her painkillers.
“Have you seen Lulu’s pottery?” Kristen asked.
“She’s amazing on the pottery wheel,” Debra said.
Kristen leaned towards Carrie and lowered her voice. She had noticed Lulu resting.
“It’s been calming for us, the pottery class,” Kristen said.
“I just made the one sculpture,” Carrie said.
“It’s a cool bird,” Debra said. “What is it, a puffin?”
“A toucan,” Lulu said, her eyes still closed. “Carrie found out I was dying and she sent me her toucan. And I love it.”
They drove to an Italian restaurant for dinner, and when Lulu refused to sit at the head of the table, Mrs. Saunders nudged Carrie to sit there instead. With her tight smile and choker of pink pearls, Mrs. Saunders maintained a certain decorum over the evening. She glanced at Lulu, sipped her dry martini, then glanced at Lulu, then sipped her martini. She asked Carrie questions about Guatemala, which Carrie answered softly, as if she’d recently read a travel brochure about the place. She couldn’t tell the truth—she’d been miserable for nine months—because the trip had been Lulu’s idea, or lie and say she fell in love with the country, since Lulu would never leave California again.
The table of women felt lonely, off balance. Lulu’s father and brother had gone on a fishing trip for the weekend. They needed a break, Mrs. Saunders said, as if they belonged to a weaker sex. Carrie had never seen Lulu without a man of some kind in orbit. Debra talked about her children eating dirt in the yard and swinging their cat in a pillowcase. Kristen and Lulu split the salmon and held hands as if they shared one cardiovascular system, passing blood through tightly woven fingers. Carrie dreaded spending the night. She hoped they wouldn’t stay up late talking. She used to with Lulu, imagining their imminent adult lives. The men they could meet, the city streets they might walk across on a bright, clear morning, the coins they would lace with silent wishes and toss into the fountains of faraway countries. The wishes they hadn’t imagined that could still turn true.
They had fudge brownie sundaes for dessert. Debra ordered one for each of them without asking, as if that’s what they always did. Mounds of vanilla dripping with sauce, islands of brownie underneath. Carrie had barely gotten through her roasted chicken. She poked at her ice cream and melted chocolate.
Kristen dug a cavern in the side of her dessert, excavating warm brownie like a master.
“It’s Lulu’s favorite,” Kristen said.
Lulu dabbed a spoon into the whipped cream at the top of her sundae. Not mentioning, or forgetting, that Carrie didn’t like chocolate. Lulu ate her whipped cream and smiled as if it had brought her a satisfaction. They all had roles to play.
“Mine, too,” Carrie said. She would gorge herself on Lulu’s favorite. How could she not? She ate and ate until there was only a milky brown soup left in the bottom of her bowl.
In the end, Carrie and Lulu did not solve the mystery of the anonymous letters on their own. The astonishing finale, or opening chapter, Carrie thought later, occurred when Andrew (because, of course, he was Lulu’s admirer) appeared at Lulu’s door, handed her the last letter, and asked her to dinner. That night, Lulu told her then boyfriend, a gangly, earnest, and well mannered All American basketball player from North Carolina, that she was going out with Carrie; Carrie stayed in her room dutifully watching TV, and Lulu and Andrew fell in love.
“He is unimaginable,” Lulu said the next morning. Her hair was rumpled and perfect as she sat cross-legged on her bed, her face stunned by his adoration.
“What do you mean?” Carrie said. She could see the letters hurdling past her, their promises manifesting between Lulu and her lover. Carrie’s boyfriends were brief, occasional, and felt as if she’d found them second hand, cast off from some other woman’s plans.
“He feels me in his heart,” Lulu said. “It skips a little forward when I walk into a room, when he first sees me, or even if he thinks of me when I’m not there.”
It was unheard of, until then, for a young man to speak of his heart. Sunlight through the window flickered across dust in the air between them. Lulu and Carrie sat together quietly, observing its significance.
Lulu said she liked Andrew’s unhurried approach to school and to life; she claimed that he made choices instead of following rules. But when Carrie ran into Lulu and Andrew in the library or walking across the quad, Carrie did not know what to say to him. His grey eyes observed, but as far as she could tell, rarely engaged. She struggled to be witty, or useful, to yank him forward. Lulu didn’t seem to have any concerns about Andrew’s interests, and Carrie didn’t think that she should. Once, at a reggae lawn party on an Indian summer October afternoon, Andrew sat on a fence with his New Yorkers watching Lulu’s hips undulate as she danced barefoot in the grass. Carrie wished that a man might one day look at her with the same conviction.
There was talk that Andrew might come to Guatemala with Lulu and Carrie after graduation, as if this news would excite Carrie as well. They had applied to a program teaching English in elementary schools. (They were both almost fluent in Spanish; Carrie had grown up around her father’s construction crew and Lulu had a housekeeper.) Guatemala was Lulu’s idea. Carrie had intended to get a real job. She searched the white notebooks on the job listings shelves at Career Services. She flipped through Broadcasting, Journalism, Finance, and Non-profit as if one of their neatly typed pages, smudged and softened on the edges by fingerprints like hers, might identify her pursuit. None spoke up. Their fluid descriptions seemed written for ambition, for a hardness that Carrie couldn’t muster. In the end, she decided Guatemala offered a line for her resume. She was wary of teaching—standing in front of a classroom of rabid, or worse bored, nine year olds—but with Lulu she could manage. They would share an apartment, plan their lessons together, and on the weekends hike dirt paths to Mayan temples. This is it, Lulu had said when she proposed the year abroad, our chance to have an adventure. No one else is going to Guatemala. Just us, together.
Carrie had to take herself out of Guatemala to make room for Andrew.
Then in January of senior year, Lulu came down with a strange flu; the doctors ran tests and found a tumor on the side of her neck. She had lymphoma. It was Andrew who flew back to California with her for treatments. The cure rate for her kind of cancer, Lulu explained when she returned wearing a gift from Andrew’s mother—an Hermes scarf with bright, geometric patterns wrapped around her beautiful bald head—was almost ninety percent. Carrie flew to Guatemala alone after graduation to teach summer classes until the school year started there. She felt loyal to Lulu’s adventure. And where else would she go? Where else could she go?
Carrie received one postcard from Lulu. It arrived her first month in Quetzaltenango. MISS YOU!!!! XOXO, L. And then nothing more. Carrie lived alone on a busy, pot-holed street above a restaurant that also served as a market, selling baskets of plantains and strange foods in cartons and cans. If she opened her window, she could smell the fruit ripening in the late afternoon sun and hear the restaurant television blare soccer matches in bursts of Spanish. In the distance, she could see the green mountains surrounding the lake that she had not yet visited because she worried she’d get lost on the bus ride out of town. She wrote Lulu letters about the boys and girls in her class, their electric laughter and eager, “Please, Missus, please Missus!” She didn’t describe her paralyzing stage fright the first week (which led to constant, rambunctious challenges to her authority), or that she was quiet with the other teachers, who came and went from the school every month, so there were always unfamiliar American faces, acquaintances too brief for companionship. The adventure had not turned out right, or she turned out not to like adventure.
During Quetzaltenango’s rainy season, relentless days of downpour, word reached Central America that Andrew had moved back to New York. Gillespie’s letter. Carrie had already stopped writing Lulu, and she didn’t think to then. From the silence, and now Andrew’s departure, she understood that Lulu had finished her treatments, and with her illness completed, a page had been turned. Carrie was easily overlooked. She and Lulu were separated by months and months, and countries spread out between them. She remembered reading Andrew’s letters with Lulu, the two of them sitting on Lulu’s bed with their plastic cups of seven dollar Chardonnay, reciting lines as if under a spell. She’d seen Lulu’s passions subside before, as they had for the basketball player from North Carolina. Or not like him, because Andrew was different. Still, Carrie imagined Lulu’s hair had grown out thick and glossy, and she had found another Adonis, a blue-eyed surfer. She had lost interest in poets and artists.
At the beach house after dinner, Carrie settled Lulu under blankets on the chaise closest to the fire pit. Mrs. Saunders had driven back to the Saunders’ real house. Before leaving, she hugged Lulu on the front porch. Mrs. Saunders was a few inches shorter than Lulu, but she clasped her daughter to her chest and gently rocked her back and forth. Carrie looked away.
The fire pit ignited with a gas switch, then flickered silent orange and blue flames. Lulu appeared small beneath the cardboard box resting on her lap. Kristen and Debra hovered, and Carrie waited for the something serious that had been planned.
“Are you sure, sweetie?” Kristen said to Lulu. She was sensitive, more sensitive than Carrie. A better friend.
“Carrie’s here, it’s time,” Lulu said and looked at Carrie. “I’ve got everything of Andrew’s in here. We’re going to burn it.”
“May his dick rot in hell,” Debra said. Carrie wondered if she talked this way in front of her kids. She seemed like the sort of woman who would.
Lulu wrapped her arms around the edges of the box in an awkward hug. Her head bent forward as she stared at the contents, and her eyes were wet, but she didn’t cry. She pulled out a worn T-shirt and smelled it. Then she balled up the shirt and tossed it in the fire. The flames whooshed a bright orange. The shirt combusted in a swirl of smoke and sparks.
Debra whooped. Lulu handed her a shirt from the box, and Debra dropped it in the fire. Kristen threw in plaid boxers, and Lulu a pair of U2 concert tickets. Then she handed a stack of photos to Kristen.
“I don’t want to see them, just throw them in there,” she said.
The fire absorbed every piece of evidence they threw into its jittering flames: restaurant napkins, concert tickets, a pair of woven rope bracelets, a stuffed banana amusement park prize, three grey T-shirts, a lock of dark hair, champagne corks, an I heart Wildwood, New Jersey bumper sticker. Carrie hung back and waited for the strange ritual to end. As Debra’s shouts waned and they burned a hooded sweatshirt into a cloud of black ashes it seemed the box must be empty. But then Lulu reached into the bottom of the box and brought out several loose notebook pages. She held them out to Carrie.
Andrew’s secret admirer letters were each no more than a page in length; his black handwriting angled and narrow across the lined paper. He left a few scratch outs, words reconsidered, and Carrie remembered appreciating his authenticity. She took the letters from Lulu, nodding that she understood the significance of her appointment. The letters slipped from Lulu’s fingers as if she could barely hold onto them.
Carrie wished to trade for Andrew’s T-shirt, a pair of boxers. She didn’t want to be the one who burned the letters. She had the sense that none of them, other than Debra, were behaving as they would ten years from now.
“These are all the letters he wrote you?” Carrie said.
“I won’t do it,” Carrie said.
Kristen moved to sit on Lulu’s chaise, roosting there in her slim jeans and silk tank top.
“She’s thought about it and this is what she wants,” Kristen said.
“I don’t need an interpreter,” Carrie said.
“They’re my letters,” Lulu said.
Debra reached out her hand.
“Give them to me, I’ll do it,” she said.
Carrie stood in front of Lulu and folded up the notebook pages. Whoever he was, Andrew had revealed a mysterious love, its freedom and exhilaration. Carrie couldn’t let his testimony disappear.
“I’ll keep them tonight,” she said. “Tomorrow you can burn them or tear them up or throw them in the ocean.” Though as she held the college ruled notebook pages, she considered whether their magic came from the shelter of a campus, the scope of their immature days. But she had to save the letters while she could. At twenty-three she felt the ruthlessness of youth disappearing. It seemed the time the letters marked might have been her best days. Her proximity to a true love. Her closest friendship with Lulu, or perhaps anyone.
“Not your decision,” Debra said.
“You’re ruining Lulu’s plans,” Kristen said.
Lulu pushed herself forward on her chaise as if preparing to issue her decree as arbiter of their witches’ coven. She pinched the bridge of her nose. She had never liked conflict, not in front of her. She hadn’t minded if girls and boys had fought one another for her favor while she pranced out in front as if she loved them all just as much. Oh how Carrie had loved her role as favorite.
“I don’t want it to end like this,” Lulu said.
“Nothing’s ending,” Debra said, “Every moment has its own beginning.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Lulu said. “It sounds like some bullshit from support group.”
Kristen smoothed the blanket over Lulu’s feet.
“She was just trying to—” Kristen said, but Lulu waved a hand at her.
“I want to say something,” Lulu said.
Lulu looked at Carrie then, and it was like they had never met. Lulu’s face swelled along her jawline while her cheeks were sunken to the bone. Her brown eyes shone black in the firelight, despair settled in the dark circles beneath them. When Mrs. Saunders hugged Lulu on the porch, Carrie had felt loss rear up and spread its tentacles. The rest of the time they would stave it off, Mrs. Saunders, Kristen, Debra, and Lulu, divert its presence with the sun and the beach, the blue ocean and their scripted conversations. If Carrie had reached Lulu sooner, if she hadn’t disappeared in Guatemala, she could have fallen in line with them. Instead she held the letters, where Lulu was gorgeous and divine.
Lulu nodded at Carrie as if they had an agreement.
“I’m tired, I need to go to bed,” Lulu said. “And Carrie’s right.”
The next morning Carrie drove back to her parents’ house in Fullerton, and the morning after that Lulu went into the hospital. They held her funeral five days later.
When Carrie had returned from Guatemala that summer, she called Lulu right away. It was a reflex she had to exercise, or curiosity, or a need to witness what had moved on without her. After she left two messages, Mrs. Saunders called back with the shocking news. Lulu’s cancer had recurred. She was spending “her months” Mrs. Saunders said—and Carrie understood she meant Lulu’s last months—at their beach house in Laguna.
Carrie lay on her bed in her childhood bedroom cornered by the news: its lateness and inevitability. No one had thought to summon her from Guatemala. Or wasn’t it her responsibility to keep writing her sick friend? Why hadn’t she? She felt an urgency to act, to compensate for her neglect. To send Lulu something. Her eyes drifted to her shelves, the AYSO soccer trophies and frayed stuffed animals and stacks of mixed tapes, and then, the orange beak of the toucan she had sculpted in art class. She wasn’t an artist. Everything else she made that semester—the coil pots, bowls, and mugs with sturdy handles—exploded in the kiln. But the toucan survived.
For days, Carrie had pressed the block of cold clay gently until the figure emerged, as if he were a real bird with a proud breast and resting wings. She dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and molded the curve of his back. Then she shaped his beak and sculpted eyes with tiny cuts into the surface. She studied a National Geographic picture of a toucan perched on a branch in the bright green rainforest (maybe in Guatemala). She etched tail feathers with arcing strokes, over and over until the texture emerged. As Carrie held the toucan in her bedroom, she could feel the grooves, the lines running parallel and merging, like real feathers. She recalled the moist iron scent of wet clay.
Though the toucan had endured Carrie’s bad luck with the kiln and triumphed against the odds, it could not reverse Lulu’s fate. An essence of herself is what Carrie wanted to send, and what the toucan represented. The time pressing and carving the slab of clay into a bird was meditative, pure. Carrie felt the most of herself, enlisted completely in the calm thrilling pleasure of what she could do with her hands, what she could imagine into being. She included a note to Lulu with the toucan: Thinking of you—Love always, Carrie. She debated the always, whether it sounded insistent or saccharine. But she wanted to apologize for Lulu’s misfortune, that death could occur for no reason, when it shouldn’t, and she meant her always to say I’m sorry this happened to you.
At the memorial service, the minister spoke of Lulu’s dear friends who had suspended work and time with their families to spend these last months with her. He asked them to stand. Kristen and Debra rose in the pew in front of Carrie. They were the ones who had slept on the floor by Lulu’s bed at the beach house. Carrie spent her one night on the living room couch, counting the minutes, thinking about the toucan standing guard on Lulu’s nightstand.
Afterwards, Carrie walked through the reception at the Saunders’ house looking for Andrew. She had seen him outside the church. Alone in his dark suit, an east coast suit, his eyes disengaged as usual. He was easy to find among the pastel dresses and linen sport coats. Mrs. Saunders had requested summer attire, summer being Lulu’s favorite season. Carrie hadn’t had the nerve to speak with him then. Kristen sat on the Saunders’ living room couch, accepting condolences in place of Mrs. Saunders, who wandered from room to room, adjusting the bouquets of sunflowers her daughter had loved. Lulu’s black and white portrait, her brilliant smile, leaned on an easel by the empty stone fireplace. Mr. Saunders stood in the kitchen speaking solemnly with several older men. They looked at the floor as they spoke. Lulu’s brother sat outside by the pool with his own group of straight-faced boys. Carrie stopped in the entryway next to Debra, who was talking to her husband on the phone, “No, hon’,” Debra said. “It’s not over yet. I left chicken in the fridge for you and the kids.”
Carrie found Andrew on the back patio, leaning against a Mediterranean column. In the heat, his skin was pasty, his black hair limp.
“I came in this morning on the redeye,” he said. “Mrs. Saunders said it would be all right.”
Carrie had been so relieved to see him sitting in the back of the church.
“Did you see her parents yet?” Carrie said.
Andrew looked at the peeling trunk of a eucalyptus tree hanging over the lawn. “I did,” he said.
“Guatemala was awful. I hated it,” she said.
Andrew’s grey eyes settled on her face. She wondered what they picked out: her freckled nose, blue, narrow set eyes, the chapped lips. She had lost weight since college; her stomach couldn’t handle the Guatemalan spices. And she was tan.
“Why didn’t you come home then?” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said. Every night she had crawled into bed with plans to leave, but when the morning sun blazed through her shadeless apartment windows, she felt obligated to see her choice through. Princeton loomed over her, its expectation that she turn out worthy. Carrie was weighed down by her potential when Lulu’s had been taken.
Andrew loosened his tie and the top buttons of his dress shirt.
“I don’t think I can stay here much longer,” he said.
It was early afternoon, but they found a bar open by the harbor, and then a motel with vacancies next door. A watercolor of a sailboat hung at the foot of the bed, and there were anchors on the faded blue wallpaper. Outside, white boats floated in the marina.
Andrew waited to kiss her until they were in the room. He wasn’t tentative or questioning, nor did she feel the two of them in a motel room had been part of his plan. She realized that she had been wrong about Andrew. He wasn’t detached; he was self-contained. She liked the smell of his skin. As his hand slipped beneath her dress, she considered whether he was too good for Lulu and then she considered what too good meant, whether one person could be worthier or more valuable than another. She was thankful for the drinks at the bar, and that later she might regret them and the opportunity they had created, knowing she wouldn’t. If she was learning anything in sleeping with her dead ex-best friend’s ex-boyfriend, it was something about the purity, the paramountcy, of her physicality. The physical at the expense of everything else. She slipped off her sandals. He lifted her dress over her head. She unbuttoned his shirt and felt he was right to stay so close, the touch of his chest and stomach and hips, his mouth against hers, his hands on her back, meant they could only go forward. He kicked off his suit pants, left them on the blue carpet, and led her to the bed. He kissed her neck and then her breasts, and she felt her body provide a belonging. She felt the closest to Lulu, as if she and Lulu were of the same matter. She considered whether she had wanted Andrew in this way, for herself, since the memorial service, or long before, when she sat in the dorm room with Lulu and first read his letters. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t thought about making love, if that’s what they were doing. Reading the letters she’d wanted to be his subject, the girl who turned his heart. In the bar, she had waited beside him, watched the condensation drip down her glass, she had let the silence come and go, until he needed her, and she would go as far as he would take her, she never thought of stopping him, of coming to her senses. She didn’t feel guilt or betrayal. She thought that until this moment she hadn’t felt herself clearly since childhood; since before she could remember, she had been looking at herself from a distance.
Carrie reached her arm from the covers and brushed the hair from Andrew’s forehead. Andrew’s eyes were fixed on the sailboat drifting in the painting.
“She hated me, didn’t she?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Carrie said.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
“Did you write letters to Virginia?” Carrie asked. Virginia, who modeled in swimsuit catalogues, not lingerie.
“No,” he said. His breaths shortened. Carrie sensed that he had.
“Do you copy the sentences from books?” Carrie hadn’t thought of him plagiarizing before—when she and Lulu had studied every phrase as if God had written them. They had such belief in Andrew. The letters had been lyrical, without gushing, they were masculine and sensitive and raw. She wanted him to speak the words, to her, so she could feel their sway.
“I’ve got to leave for the airport soon,” he said. He made no motion to rise. Carrie was silent, waiting.
“Why did you leave her?” she said.
Andrew stared at the painted sailboat, its sails unfurled over a flat ocean.
“You went back to New York,” she said.
“I couldn’t be there any longer,” he said.
“I tried,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t try to stay.”
He lay still beside her. If he cried then, Carrie couldn’t tell. She didn’t want to look at him.
In the fall, Carrie received a package from Mrs. Saunders at her parents’ house. She was temping as a receptionist while she finished her law school applications. Mrs. Saunders had included a note. Lulu wanted you to have these. There was a large envelope and a small present wrapped in tissue paper. Lulu had written Carrie across the envelope.
After Kristen and Debra had taken Lulu in for bed and Carrie turned off the fire on the deck, she read Andrew’s letters. She couldn’t not read them. She skimmed the lines, like an embarrassed intruder opening drawers while Lulu slept on the other side of the living room wall. Andrew’s words felt old, or she felt old reading them. They recalled a liveliness in her past. She was most comforted by the handwriting, the intent held in the pen sliding across those ruled lines. When she had first read the letters with Lulu, these pages held the unknown, the love affair itself. Now a relationship had come and gone, and the mystery was in Andrew. The next morning, she left the letters on Lulu’s nightstand, under the toucan. She picked up the toucan and the bird felt heavy in her hands, like a rock. The etched lines more amateur than she had remembered.
Now Carrie opened the envelope and found the three letters folded as she had left them. Behind the letters she found more, ten pages of Andrew’s sloped scrawl. These were not carefully composed; he repeated sentences from one day or week to the next, pleading with Lulu to listen. They were dated, with the time. Several marked as two or three in the morning after Andrew and Lulu had been on the phone. He swore he was taking a cab to the airport at sunrise and flying back to California. He said it hurt more to be sent away than to be with her until the end. She wasn’t saving him, he didn’t know where she’d gotten the idea that one of them could be saved. She didn’t have the right. But it seemed that she had. I can make my own choices, and I choose you. How had she kept him away? When had he given up and found his swimsuit model? Is that when Lulu understood her mistake? Had she not known until then? She wouldn’t try to call him back, the farthest she could reach was to burn his things, destroy what she had believed would always be true.
Carrie unwrapped the present slowly.
It was a picture frame with a photograph of Lulu and Carrie, their arms around each other under Blair Arch. The same photograph Carrie had thrown away in Guatemala, as if Lulu had known she’d lost it. They wore wool fisherman sweaters, jeans, and boots and stood on a white blanket of snow. The snow was three or four inches thick at most, but it looked luxurious. Carrie and Lulu had pink cheeks and triumphant smiles, and bits of white in their hair. They had just carved angels on the lawn, flying their arms and legs across the snow as they stared up into the cold blue sky.