The Way It Was
Lisa Lynn Biggar
It’s snowing the day of the slumber party, but it’s supposed to turn to rain. Jackie had kicked her husband and two kids out of the house for the night, so the rancher with the added family room is all ours. We pushed the furniture aside in the family room for our dancing and sleeping space. Black helium balloons with “40” on them clustered on the ceiling like dark planets.
We gather in the kitchen around the island. Jackie has outdone herself, though most of the food came from Angels, the local grocery store: potato salad, macaroni salad, sushi rolls, barbecue ribs, a vegetable platter, sour cream dip … the rest of us bringing wine and snacks. Jackie has made a list of rules for the night, and she’s reading them as if this were her classroom and we were back in school, her shrill voice already grating on us.
The rules are as follows: no calling home, the golden rule (unless it’s an emergency), and no talking about our children, husbands, or ex-husbands. Tonight, we’re all single ladies, back in the time of B.C. (before children). We grew up in the Dena, this peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay, the water rising and falling around us. Many of us have been flooded out more than once, but we stay. We felt the pull and stayed. We went to school together, got married and had kids, and now we’re turning 40.
Jackie blasts Duran Duran on her old turntable and starts dancing. We all follow her lead (we always follow her lead), waving our hands in the air, singing and swirling, “just like that river twisting through a dusty land….”
The wine is flowing, Jackie is reminiscing, laughing about pouring syrup on Mr. Summey’s seat in Social Studies. We’re all laughing now, remembering the look on his face. Jackie was famous for her pranks in high school, so she was voted Class Clown our senior year.
There’s a knock on the door and Jackie goes to answer it, saying our big surprise is early, but she’s just as surprised as us—it’s Julia. Jackie messaged her on Facebook as a joke, but none of us thought she’d actually come. We haven’t seen her since high school, since the summer after 11th grade, and if it wasn’t for Facebook, we never would’ve recognized her: her short mousy brown hair, now long and blond, and the rest of her frame catching up with her then gangly limbs.
Even Jackie is thrown offbeat, but she quickly recovers and walks over to Julia with her arms outstretched. “Wow! Look at you!”
Julia bends over, gives Jackie a slight hug, flashing us all a powerful smile.
She gives Jackie a small bottle of red wine—surely more pricey than our big bottles of Barefoot—and then puts her sleeping bag down in the corner across from ours, taking off her long, velvety, red coat. She’s wearing black boots and a lacy black dress, showing off curves and cleavage she most certainly didn’t have in high school.
“Can tell you never had kids,” Vanessa says lightheartedly, but Julia’s appearance makes us all feel self-conscious in our sweats and high-waisted mom jeans.
“I have to stay in shape,” Julia says, striking a pose, hands on her hips. “I’m a fashion consultant, you know.”
We all nod knowingly, begrudgedly—she’s one of the ones who got away, living in New York City. We all had dreams of getting away, especially Jackie who wanted to be a stewardess but ended up working in the baggage claim.
“How long are you back for?” Sabrina asks.
“I just came for the party,” she says. “You know I can’t resist an invite.”
We all laugh. It sounds high-pitched and giggly, girlish. It sounds nervous.
Jackie is entertaining us now, since the male dancers, our big surprise, cancelled due to what is now an ice storm. She’s thrusting her heavy body to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” her head a wild mass of dark curls. We whoop and holler, and she dances over to Julia who’s sitting upright in an armchair, apart from us. We all sit slumped on the edge of the wide couch (except for Vanessa who said she had to use the restroom, but we all know she’s on her phone).
“Your turn, Julia,” she says.
Julia takes a sip of wine and then stands up, moving her body provocatively to the music. It makes us wonder even more what happened to that shy, awkward girl we used to tease. Jackie used to bump into her in the hall, pretending it wasn’t on purpose, and we’d all laugh when Julia’s books would go flying or when she’d fall against the wall.
“Okay,” Jackie says, clearly annoyed at being upstaged.
“I’m not finished,” Julia says, hips swaying away.
“Your turn’s up,” Jackie says.
“Lighten up,” Julia says.
“You lighten up.”
“I’m trying,” Julia says.
“Why did you even come here?” Jackie yells.
“Don’t you know?”
“Stop playing games,” Karen whines.
Vanessa walks back into the room, her ear to her cell phone. “Mountain Road’s closed. It’s a sheet of ice.”
The lights flicker and then go out.
We scream, like children.
Mountain Road is the only way on and off our peninsula—it got its name from early settlers who, looking up from a boat at sea level, thought the hills looked like mountains. Jackie brings out candles and lights them around the room. Shadows flicker on the walls like marsh grass.
We’re spread out on the braided rug in our sleeping bags, the heat from the candles making the balloons slowly swirl. Julia is wrapped in a blanket in the arm chair, looking down at us. We wait anxiously for her next move.
“Let’s play Truth or Dare,” she says.
“Let’s not,” Jackie says.
“Let’s,” Julia says.
“Vanessa,” Beth says. “Truth or Dare?”
“Truth,” Vanessa says, and we all know what the question will be.
“When Jim gets out of jail are you going to take him back?”
Vanessa nods, but then shakes her head. “No,” she says, adamantly. “It’s over.”
But we all know that’s not the truth.
“Sabrina,” Vanessa says. “Truth or Dare?”
“Truth,” she says.
“Why don’t you divorce Steve?”
We all know he’s cheated on her over and over, and now she’s cheating on him.
“We love each other,” she says.
We wonder about that now—what we’ve settled for in the Dena, the hills, like mountains, closing us off from the rest of the world. Our parents would listen to the news every night after dinner, Walter Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it was,” when men in body bags were flown back from Vietnam, but we never thought any harm would ever come to us here, the water cradling us, lulling us to sleep.
“Julia,” Sabrina says. “Truth or Dare?”
Jackie glares at Sabrina, and we all squirm in our seats.
Julia continues to gaze out the window, the trees glazed with ice, glimmering in the moonlight. She turns to Sabrina, her face stone serious. “Truth.”
Sabrina looks at us, gives us a mischievous smile, and then back at Julia. “What was it like with Westley?”
We all take a sharp in-breath, all of our eyes on Julia.
Our peninsula ends at Gibson Island, an exclusive gated community. Walter Cronkite, the fatherly, bearded newscaster, had a summer home there, and we’d hear about Cronkite sightings in Angels, buying bread and cottage cheese, but none of us ever saw him. Our parents told us that he only went to the store early in the morning while we were sleeping, but because we never saw him, we began to doubt his existence. He became almost mythical in the Dena, elusive—his TV presence other-worldly.
We got the idea to swim out to the island one day, the summer after 11th grade, across a creek of the bay. We wanted to find his home, find him, but mostly we were after the island boys. One of them went to our public school, Westley Moore, his sculpted good looks like a Greek God (he barely glanced our way in the hallways, but we dreamed of him at night in our hot beds). We went to the local realtor, got a map of the island, and poured over it for days. We planned to go in south of Mt. Carmel where the land juts out into the creek like a penis pointing toward the island, and then Jackie thought of the prank of all pranks. We’d get Julia to go along, get her drunk, and then tell the island boys she was ready to be deflowered.
Julia said we were crazy, that the tide could pull us into the bay, but she was elated by the invite and finally agreed to go along, wearing a whistle and life preserver.
It was late afternoon when we emerged from the water, nearly two hours later, like mermaids in our bikinis, catching our breath on the sun-drenched shore, taking sips from the flask of tequila that Vanessa got from her older brother. The island, we hadn’t known, is heavily forested, and we had to fight our way out through the prickers and brambles onto the main road and then make our way down the back roads where we finally found the Moore’s mailbox.
It was Jackie who first ventured across the large circular driveway, like a moat protecting the mansion on the water, the rest of us waiting by the sailboat-shaped mailbox. She said she’d call for us when she was in, so confident in her passage, and it wasn’t long before we heard Jackie’s call, a whooping sound like a wild bird (the way she summoned us back then). We were all caught up in the moment (Julia included), buzzed on the tequila, honeysuckle thick in the air, sweat on the back of our necks.
There was a party going on, Westley and some other gorgeous island boys were out on an expansive back deck. Beyond that spread, a huge lawn on a steep bluff overlooking the bay, a built-in pool on one side of the deck, and a tiki bar on the other. They said they were waiting for some girls to show up and here we were out of the blue. They cooked us burgers and gave us beer after beer, laughing when we told them we swam over from the Dena.
“Never know what the tide’ll wash up,” Westley said, smiling, all of us under his charm, even Julia who still had the whistle around her neck, but she’d left her life preserver behind on the shore.
Jackie was telling jokes, making all the guys laugh, and then she and Westley disappeared inside, and we knew she was telling him about Julia. We made out with some of the other guys, but the truth was that we were all still virgins (second base was as far as most of us had ever gone). We weren’t ready to be women yet, especially Julia, but we all went along with the joke, sneaking away when Julia went to the bathroom, leaving her there alone. That was the last time we saw her, since she and her family moved away soon after, before our senior year. None of us broke the trust; none of us ever said a word about what we did.
Julia is telling us the way it was, “Didn’t you hear me blow the whistle?”
We all shake our heads, but we heard. We heard it faintly in the distance, but we all kept walking, following Jackie down the main road, out the main gate.
“He told me what you said,” she says, addressing Jackie, standing in front of her.
“It was just a joke,” Jackie says, her voice a near whisper.
“Just a joke,” Julia says. “Just a joke to be gang-raped, and the rest of you went along with it. You’re no better.”
We can’t argue with that.
The ice is beating time on the roof.
Then, Vanessa’s voice breaks out of the dark, “She told us it would just be Westley—we didn’t know.”
Beth chimes in, uttering, “She said you would thank us.”
Julia starts laughing, a hysterical, mad laugh.
“That’s not the way it was,” Jackie says, her voice cracking.
Julia sputters out in her hysteria, “He said you told him I was a nymphomaniac—that I couldn’t get enough, that I wanted to suck all of their cocks. They thought I wanted it,” she screams. “They thought I asked for it.”
“That’s not what she told us,” Sabrina says.
“I’m telling you that’s the way that it was,” Julia screams. She picks up the dull cheese knife and starts waving it around. “None of you gave a fuck about me. I should end all your pathetic lives.” She starts mumbling to herself, looking up at the dark planets, and we know she can’t hurt us with that knife, but we’re still scared to death, our hearts beating out of our chests, and then Julia tells us to get out of here. She dismisses us. She tells us that our pathetic lives are enough punishment. “Get out,” she yells, gesturing with the knife. “Before I change my mind.”
We find it hard to stand, to walk, but we’re slowly making it out the door, out into the slippery darkness, climbing those hills like mountains with only each other to cling to.
Lisa Lynn Biggar received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is currently marketing her first novel, “We Were Here.” Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Little Patuxent Review, Main Street Rag, and Bluestem Magazine.