Monday, April 29, 2013
The boy who almost never was, finally showed up and boarding school was lit with a new kind of sun. By then, I’d made friends…
Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
I met Jenny at the start of freshman year.
Jenny Covington, my new best friend, was another reluctant cheerleader and in many ways, my savior. For a previously lonely girl like me, one who’d had few acquaintances beyond her sisters, to be accepted into Jenny’s world was surprising. On paper I made the perfect foil for her outrageous antics. Plus, I introduced her to the Socials.
I was quiet, shy and mostly polite. Jenny was loud, outgoing and as pushy as she needed to be around teachers in order to get what she wanted. We both came from similar backgrounds but her family were warmer and friendlier; her family’s summer house had a different dynamic – welcoming.
Jenny discovered me hiding in a library on our first day at Hallowed Halls. I saw Jenny’s flaming red hair through the stacks before I saw the boy who had chased her there. They’d only made the school co-ed in the last few years and the older students seemed to have a kind of “fall fever” in relation to inter-school dating, which was still a novelty. Even so, Jenny and I were more interested in cheerleading than boys. Both of us had the idea that when we met “the one” we’d know it.
Jenny’s hedonism impressed me. When she joined the cheerleading team (and dragged me with her) it was obvious she grabbed life in a proactive way. Up until this point I’d been content to look on and be directed.
“Whatcha reading?” She’d asked me that day in the school library, with a swiftness that betrayed her near total lack of interest in my response.
I showed her the cover, Mexican Travel.
“Mmm... I always wanted to go to Cabo San Lucas,” she said it as if she thought she might not do this, adding, “...We should go for spring break, when we’re seniors.”
“Sure,” I nodded thinking, as if my family would ever let me do that.
“You responded quickly. I think you must want to get away from home even more than I do,” Jenny added.
I smiled, “I guess.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jane Elliot. It’s an old family name, Plain Jane.” I grimaced.
“I think it sounds regal,” Jenny said, “and you are the least plain girl I’ve ever met.”
I smiled. “Thanks. It sounds boring though… just Jane.”
“Mmm… seems to me no one is just anything. We need to get social, girl. I’m Jennifer Covington.”
“Hey, we should try out for cheerleading together.”
“Okay,” I pushed my hair off my face and Jenny noticed my wrist.
“I just adore your bracelet. Where did you get it?”
“It was my grandmother’s.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
I needed a friend like Jenny. This girl was larger than life, but in a good way.
“I have to say, this school is way better than I thought it’d be. Still, no one could blame us for wanting to get out of this place. Me? I can’t wait. I have no idea why my parents are even bothering to educate me since I’m taking a year off and heading to Los Angeles the minute I graduate. Hey, you want to come with me? I’m going to be a singer in a band…”
At the end of this speech she struck a pose that made her look like a 1960’s rock star.
“Sure,” I said, with a smile on my lips, “sounds like a great idea.”
“What do you want to do when you get out of here?”
“I guess I’ll go to college. I’d like to become a journalist or maybe a teacher. I like looking after kids.”
“Well, it seems to me you could do all of those things… A teacher is probably the most helpful but a journalist sounds more glamorous. Maybe you could report from a war zone.” Jenny said.
“Mmm,” I hesitated. Living dangerously wasn’t quite in the plan. Being resigned to the status of friend in her shadow, though, would suit me more than she knew.
“I’m going to make you over, Jane Elliot. I mean, I know the Socials have a dress code but that doesn’t mean you have to look...like this.”
“Mmm...” she pulled at the Peter Pan collar of my shirt, a season out of date according to Jenny, “I believe the polite term for your look is so yesterday.”
“But never mind. We can change all of that. We’ll go to my room after practise for a makeover. I’m awesome at making people over,” she assured me.
That sounded like a good idea, a makeover couldn’t hurt, so I was happy to oblige.
“By the way, if you’re interested in actually joining the Socials, my sister is a member and aims to be head of it,” I announced.
“No way! Are you serious? But we’re only freshman.”
“I know, but they like to train up younger sisters. I’m already in and you are too, because you’re my friend. Besides, we don’t specifically have to hang with them, just turn up for mixers, dances, help organise the bachelor auction, that kind of thing.”
“Jane Elliot, even if you weren’t a Social, I think we are destined to be the best of friends.”
I smiled as I gathered my notes and together we prepared for English class.
The New Boy
Even before Ben arrived, there was a lot of whispering in the halls… Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
The summer of my childhood friendship with Ben had almost been erased from my mind by the time I reached sophomore year.
By then, I’d learnt to be a popular girl – a Social. I hadn’t asked for inclusion into this elite group but Elizabeth’s leadership aspirations and plans for Missy to take her place after her reign, meant my vote would be useful in all matters and I was an accepted addition. The inclusion of the Elliot sisters (and friends) into this select school society was a given. We were the legacy of one of LA’s most scandalous and celebrated families. Liz even held secret dinners in her dorm room most weekends, plotting sororities she might join at East Coast colleges. We’d spent part of summer at Kellynch and the other parts shifting between New York and Los Angeles. I was still reeling from my “vacation” in Bel Air at dad’s place.
One weekend early in August, we’d been preparing to attend dad’s birthday party. The Bel Air house was decorated and staffed for this express purpose – a formal dinner. I wasn’t sure how I’d endure it.
“The Elliot name stands for all that is good, sociable and well-bred,” my father announced that weekend during one of his infamous gatherings where his “perfect daughters” were expected to impress members of the Board, as his birthday present.
“The Elliot name stands for all that is shallow, groundless and possibly corrupt,” I whispered to myself under my breath when it seemed no one else was paying me any attention, except my father.
There was a moment’s silence before people resumed eating. One of the hired hands delivered a note to me direct from Dad, along with my side of mashed potatoes. On the paper he had written; “Just to let you know you are not too old for me to ask you to leave the table. Now.”
I returned to school early to prepare for the coming semester.
Boarding school was making me independent, but as my Godmother told me that night before I left, “that is no excuse for publicly humiliating the family.” Eleanor had a point and I resolved to hold my tongue in future.
My sisters were happy to be literally fed by the same system which seemed to subject me to a subordinate role. I had to learn what was expected of me as an Elliot. It was as if, once I’d learnt to style my hair perfectly and apply the right brand of lip gloss (our allowances had always been very generous), and fit in by being a shadow against the cool crowd – an almost-pretty girl (how I saw myself) with no obviously conflicting opinions of my own – everything would be okay. By then, I walked a fine line between outward popularity and inward chaos.
I had slowly built myself again from the shoes up in the shadow of my fashionable older sister. By the start of sophomore year and with Jenny’s help, I’d decided to reinvent myself from the child I had been, to the “in control” young adult I was becoming. I’d drifted through my classes until then, transforming from a hermit-like teen to a social, well-dressed cheerleader, gaining above average grades.
I knew I’d have to lift my game by junior year in order to get into a college worth attending, but deep down I wasn’t ambitious for anything beyond a good relationship with a boy I could love. A job I enjoyed would also be nice. I liked reading, writing my own stories and babysitting. My Godmother had taught me to draft patterns and design clothes, so that was another of my interests, my “little hobbies” as my father referred to my passion for design. My least favorite subjects were biology and math and I generally found myself sketching under the desk while my teachers talked.
I’d almost ceased thinking about Ben on a daily basis when he finally arrived at Hallowed Halls. I remember hearing about him first from Jenny Covington, now my closest friend. I was surprised Serena Collins (another Social with leadership aspirations) held bragging rights already.
“He’s mine,” she announced over lunch at our special table with a full view of other, less socially connected aspirants.
“She needs to take a chill pill already and get over it,” Jenny whispered.
Dana Lawrence, Serena’s bestie nodded her head in perfect agreement and gave me a knowing look. Ever since I’d taken a more central position than Dana on the cheer squad she’d been acting jealous and mean towards me. It was only because I was Liz’s sister that either of those girls were even civil.
“Oh, she played spin the bottle with him at a party once,” Jenny assured me as we walked to class. “No big deal. They were only eleven.”
I zoned out as Jenny talked schedules for the day.
I interrupted her when our teacher, Miss Clay, brushed past our lockers.
Miss Clay was very well-dressed and held her head high, high enough to look down on her own students. Miss Clay, under the guise of friendliness, stopped me to talk about my father.
“Is your father coming to parent-teacher evening, Jane?” she asked me. Miss Clay was very keen on all things my-father related. She’d wanted to know, “how he was getting along,” since the divorce. I found this quite amusing but Eleanor Russell, who came to take me for lunch one Sunday; assured me I needed to be more perceptive about people’s true intentions.
Eleanor went so far as to suggest my teacher, Lilly Clay, was interested in my father romantically and that he would be susceptible to the charms of a much younger woman. Perhaps Eleanor was right.
All I could say was, “poor Miss Clay.” Even though daddy was my father and thought himself very good-looking, it was clear to me, that since he drank too much and exercised too little, his skirt-chasing days were way behind him (I’m just being honest). Eleanor assured me this was not true, that men like my father enjoy the chase at any age and that I should be careful about Dad connecting with unsuitable women.
“What do you mean?” I asked Eleanor.
“That woman, Lilly Clay, has her eye on your family’s money - mark my words; and marrying your father would be the fastest way to get it.”
“Oh,” I said, this was an eye-opener to me. I really couldn’t see how any younger woman, in fact any woman, would find Dad appealing but let’s not go there right now. I put thoughts of Miss Clay out of my head. I had to, in order to stay sane.
My sisters and I generally carried the notes we needed to class and kept spares in the row of lockers which made Hallowed Halls seem more like a six star resort for unwanted rich kids, rather than an academically focused boarding school for Type A personalities.
That morning, the first day of Ben’s arrival, Serena Collins and I had just come back from our morning gym session. I loathed gym but Serena loved it because she liked the coach’s assistant, an older student from the nearby college campus. Soon Serena would have someone newer to focus on; Ben.
Jenny met us for hot chocolates post-shower and pre-first class. We had an awesome cafeteria which remained open from dawn till dusk. The facilities at Hallowed Halls – an Olympic sized swimming pool, tennis courts and a games room - were pretty amazing by the stretch of anyone’s imagination. We were seated at a round table when Serena started gossiping.
“So, let me tell you more about the new boy....” Serena stated as if she already knew him well. It was a given that she would have the jump on me in the way of any sort of juicy details. I listened absently as I readied myself for cheerleading practise. Ben Wentworth was all Serena talked about for thirty minutes. I was elated that he’d arrived but I didn’t show it. I acted cool since I was learning it never paid to let mean girls like Serena and Dana know everything I was thinking. They’d just use it against me.
That Night – Sophomore Year
I waited for him at the first Social mixer of the year, punch and appetizers in hand; I’m not sure what I was expecting... Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
We’d heard about Ben’s arrival but neither Jenny nor I had sighted him. The boys were housed in a different area of the school.
That evening, in the cool of Jen’s room, we ate snacks pilfered from the kitchen: corn chips, dip and carrot sticks. We had a view of the courtyard and the adjacent parklands and we saw Ben and his brother kicking a football around in the grounds below.
Ben was wearing a red school sweater. “Wow, he’s hot,” Jenny said. Then she turned to me and smiled, adding, “chillax, I’m talking about his brother. Harley’s the one in the blue sweater, right?”
I peered through the window.
“We should wave.”
I looked at her, aghast.
“Kidding, just kidding. I know. It pays to be unobtainable.”
We arrived at the Welcome New Students mixer at six in the evening. My sister Liz greeted the new students animatedly as I hovered in the background.
I whispered to Jenny, “Where are they?”
“They had to meet the principal, settle in and then go to the game this afternoon. The whole football team are just arriving now from the other side of town.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Blame Serena,” Elizabeth replied, “she’s the one who messed up the dates. It has been noted.”
I looked around the brightly lit entrance hall. The décor and furnishings were richly colored and impressive. Elizabeth was keen to keep Serena in her place, socially. Let’s face it, Serena’s chance of becoming Head Social when it was her turn to be a Senior, was flimsy, at best. She’d have to rely on the good opinion of my sister and me to make that happen and we all went to elementary school together. There, Serena had been part of her own little group, generationally known as the Princesses and she’d played countless tricks and placed the blame squarely on me. Serena could hardly expect me to endorse her reign.
Liz surveyed the room, sans Ben, Harley or any other vaguely interesting guys.
“I’m doing all of this for you, Jane.”
“Huh?” I asked as I scooped some punch into a glass.
“Miles away, Jane. First, I’m going to be voted Head Social next year. Then, when I leave, I’m aiming to nominate you, my middle sister, to take my place.”
“That’s great,” I said blankly.
“Don’t look so enthusiastic, Jane. Team Leader will look good on your college applications. I know you’re not interested but Melissa is, and if you don’t step up, the Elliots have no chance of running the school by the time Serena becomes a Senior.”
“Oh,” I replied. I knew she wouldn’t have nominated me because she thought I was the best person for the job. I couldn’t wait for the stupid mixer to end, no show Ben and another pointless rant from Liz. At least Jenny seemed to be enjoying herself greeting the newbies at the snack table.
An hour later, the lights were dimmed and Ben and his brother arrived with Tom Winchester and some other boys from the football team. As retro music played Ben walked straight over to me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” I smiled. He looked really cute in his school football sweater with the letter H printed on the front.
There was a lightness in my stomach that I couldn’t deny as we started talking alongside the non-alcoholic punch bar.
“Wow,” he smiled tasting the punch, “this is pretty tame.”
“You mean lame.”
“Well, the teachers already sampled the punch so we couldn’t spice it up.” I gestured to the teachers at the door. He smiled as I added regretfully, “We had to keep it clean in case they return.”
Ben glanced across the room towards the girl standing with his brother.
“My friend - my best friend - Jenny Covington.”
By now Jenny and Harley were in deep conversation.
“They seem to like each other,” Ben noted, then he smiled again and said, “I’m going over to get some food. It’s great to see you again Jane.”
“Likewise,” I replied.
“They look good together,” Elizabeth whispered in my other ear after Ben left. “See, your friend Jenny isn’t backward in coming forward.”
“Shh, I said as I poured out some punch, “could your voice be any louder?”
“Sorry, just saying. If you don’t jump in first someone else will get him.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Well, Tom Winchester of course.”
I glanced towards the far corner of the room. Tom Winchester, property developer’s son, rich senior extraordinaire and ace player to be, in my opinion, was surrounded by girls.
“He’s all yours,” was all I said.
“Thanks, but I only date college boys. Some of us have standards.”
I was glad she hadn’t noticed me staring at Ben from the counter top all night while he talked sport with his team mates.
There was something she was right about, though.
After that night Jenny and Harley were inseparable. Although my relationship with Ben was a slow burn, they never left each other’s sides, unless they had to, from that moment on.
Rumors spread that Serena had moved her bean bag next to Ben’s during movie night and was using every excuse to get close to him… Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
The following week in the lunch queue (after Jenny had detached herself from Harley) I couldn’t resist a comment. After all, I hadn’t seen Jen for days.
“You know, it really is almost too much, Jenny. I feel like I’ve lost a friend…”
“And found a sister,” Jenny replied cheerily. “Just think,” she whispered, “If I marry Harley and you marry Ben, that’s what we’ll become.”
“Ben and I are just friends.”
“Friends who like each other. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I have my spies.”
“There are plenty of those at Hallowed Halls,” I said, grumbling over my turkey sandwich.
“Liz and Serena to name just two,” Jenny added with a smile. My younger sister was only a freshman but definitely in thrall to Liz’s power already. Missy followed her around everywhere, taking notes to prepare for her inevitable ascent into the Socials. Melissa and I only spoke when we had to as Missy was busy “preparing to hang with the cool girls.”
The next night after study hall Jenny came running into my room.
“We’re going to be sisters after all,” Jenny whispered to me. “Harley told me, Ben has liked you since you were both kids together! Ben enrolled at Hallowed Halls just to meet up with you again.”
I shook my head.
“I have it on good authority.”
“His brother’s, Jane. Harley would never lie to me. Don’t you think he’s amazing?”
“I guess so,” I shrugged, pretending to be indifferent, secretly feeling elated.
That night, I worked on my unfinished blog entry in my dorm room. I was over one hundred lines into it, seated in the quiet of the school library editing the entry:
My thoughts on Unrequited Love
I’ve liked him a long time. Too long. This boy is seriously close to perfect. Sometimes I wonder if I’d like him as much if his eyes weren’t so blue or his hair not so blonde or he wasn’t part of the football team. I know someone’s worth is not how they look. Appearances can be deceptive. Some of the prettiest girls I know are not so pretty on the inside.
No, the perfection of this boy – the hottest of the hot boys, in my opinion - lies in his perfectly sweet heart. Tonight, I found a note under my door. He left it there and on the cover he’d scrawled the first letter of my name! J! Then, he folded it into a paper plane! He wants to be a pilot.
I’ve never let myself feel this happy or hope this hard. It’s taken a long time for him to notice me as anything other than a childhood friend but paper planes don’t lie! Finally, I think we might become more than just friends. ARGGHH! May the next post be the best post lol oxo… Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
I’d tied my hair up using a pen after writing a few notes in pencil in the side margin; before I typed up my entry and pressed publish. This had been my habit from my first year at middle school when I exchanged my paper journal for a blog. Basically, my blog entries (one hundred and twenty-eight before this one) were all about a girl who was rejected and ignored by her thankless family and searching for happiness in a new social circle; boarding school. Sound familiar?
I looked up from my keyboard when I heard Jenny’s voice.
Jenny waved two pieces of paper in my face.
“Guess what? We’re going on a hiking trip this weekend.”
“With the Socials?”
“Yes but that’s just the excuse to get parental approval.”
“Oh.” I thought that was unlikely.
“Don’t worry, the adults are sure to be thrilled about the fresh air and exercise and if they aren’t, I’m an excellent forger.”
And that is how Ben and I got to know each other again: two days of hiking with a school group; a walk in the park; pitching tents; a campfire under the stars; and a few whispered assurances that he’d looked forward to seeing me again since the first moment we’d met.
The morning after the hike, Ben, Harley, Jenny and I went off to find extra firewood. I lagged behind and managed to trip over a forgotten branch. I slipped and fell ten feet down a ravine. Ben ran back to get me as I clutched on to a branch and dragged me back to the raggedy edge, a true hero. I was (thankfully) uninjured and the trip served to inspire within me, even more confidence in Ben.
He had climbed down the ravine, took my hand in the afternoon sun and lifted me to safety. My smile betrayed pure relief that the accident hadn’t been more severe than grazed knees and elbows. Ben smiled assurances and didn’t let go of my hand until we were safely back on track. There was strength in his touch. We were just teenagers but I was definitely half way in love with him by then. I can’t tell you how I knew. You just know.
I promised I’d tell you and I have: that is how the great love affair began; with a cliff; a strong grip and a few words of comfort.
Wish Fulfilment – Junior Year
Boarding school was boring no more as girls jostled to be part of the Ben Wentworth fan club. His brother was clearly a one man woman…
Confessions of a Teenage Hermit
After our hiking trip, we started making excuses to meet up at school.
The following Monday I was flicking through the required classic reading list in my English Lit folder: Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice as well as two Shakespearean plays, Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Caesar. I felt uninspired. I was wishing we were doing Romeo and Juliet when Ben tapped me on the shoulder and smiled.
“Hey, didn’t I fix your family’s beach house one summer?” He asked as if it was the first time we’d seen each other in recent years.
“Hi.” I said, beaming from ear to ear. “That joke’s getting old.”
“How’s your knee?”
“Fine, thanks to you.” I changed the subject. “How come you’re in my English Lit class?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders
“I transferred from History. This group seems like it’ll be better. They’re combining Junior and Senior classes now. Not enough takers.”
We looked into each other’s eyes from behind our lockers and before I knew it he’d planted a first kiss on my lips.
I smiled. It was perfect. He looked around the corridor and said, “I like you. I mean, I really like you. I only talked to Serena to make you jealous.”
“Really? Well that’s good to know.”
“It took a while. Let’s see… three football games, two social mixers, one fall down a cliff. I think I deserve a medal for my bravery.”
“An award should be arranged.”
“Let’s ditch this class and go to the library. I need to do some more research,” I suggested.
“Sure,” he said. “In the stacks?”
“Yes,” I replied, “definitely.”
As we headed to the library he said, “I missed you last night.”
“Me too.” This was not the moment to play it cool.
“I got used to sharing the night sky with you. We need to stay focused, though. We shouldn’t get too distracted,” he added as we kissed again behind a row of research files. What can I say? There was some kind of magic between us as I pulled him closer.
“Agreed,” I said.
I’d never felt so happy. Ben and I spent every waking moment together; talking, eating, at team practise. We discussed endlessly what we’d do when high school was over.
I hadn’t forgotten flying was his dream. Only the very best students would be considered for pilot training in the Air Force. They had to ace math and science and all the difficult subjects.
“You have to get serious about study,” I told him. “No distractions.”
He just smiled his wicked grin.
“Agreed,” he replied as we met in the bleachers after practise one day.
We tried to stop ditching class to make out. We decided to stop meeting between classes to do anything but study. We resolved to stop meeting up after lights out. Just to be together was a perfect distraction.
I didn’t envy Ben’s dreams but I admired them. After just a short while it became apparent that he had strength of character wholly untested in me, so far. For example, if someone criticized me, Ben always stood up for me. He had his own thoughts and ideas beyond the pack. I’d always done what I was told. I fell into line with the Socials and I was well enough liked because of it. I’d never had to struggle for anything, not even to be noticed. The truth was, I hadn’t wanted to be noticed, until now.
I looked into his face again as we walked back to class that day. Apart from kissing we’d spent the last thirty minutes planning the future. We talked about running away together after I’d finished school, but that would hardly be possible if Ben was accepted into the Air Force. He smiled as we walked to lunch together. I remembered a look of wonderment on Ben’s face as we watched a jet fly over the ocean together when we were children. We guessed the places it could be going and ended up with Hawaii.
“That’s where I want to be someday,” he had said. “Up there in the sky, flying.”
Every Wednesday, during my junior year, we had practise. Ben played football and I had cheer squad. As Liz noted, we’d become the perfect clichéd couple.
As Ben wandered off down the hallway I noticed he was one of the tallest boys in school. He looked bored with the confines of the walls already.
Ben carried Great Expectations in one hand (and held the weight of them), literally, in the other. I knew he would be streets ahead of the other students in English Lit. and not just because he was a senior. Ben seemed wise beyond his years.
By spring of junior year, it was pretty clear we were in love. Even though we were young, I considered Ben the most remarkable person of my sheltered acquaintance. Jenny couldn’t have been more thrilled with the situation. Meanwhile, Liz had given up trying to dissuade me. Melissa was apparently indifferent.
Because Ben was academically outstanding and also brilliant at sports, adding to his popularity, my sister Elizabeth seemed to come over to his side eventually, even listing him “top priority” at the Senior Bachelor Auction. Liz wrote, that’s if he’s not too cool to show.
“Oh, and Jane?” she added as an afterthought, “you can forget about bidding, that would be way too obvious.”
A Bad Ending
How do I describe the part where it all went wrong?... Confessions of a Post-teenage Hermit
It’s a long story, the part where it ended. It was a slow ending, yet it was fast. In retrospect our whole teenage relationship seems like an ending in disguise. The end began about a year after we’d started dating. I’d turned sixteen and took Ben home with me for dinner one weekend. To say he was not made to feel part of the family is an understatement.
The evening began with a few unwelcoming words from my father and some hostile looks from Melissa. Liz had also changed sides. I am ashamed to repeat how badly my family looked down on him and how powerless I was to prevent it. Ben left early.
When we met back at school the following Monday, something had changed. Deep down, both of us knew my family would be a problem in relation to our future happiness. I resolved not to take Ben to my home again until my family learned to “behave” themselves. But I wondered how many years it would take for them to change their attitudes. They were just snobs, plain and simple.
“That boy isn’t good enough for you,” my father had whispered as I cleared away dessert. Ben was standing at the door to the kitchen just about to ask me if I needed any help. He could not have mistaken my father’s meaning or the look of horror on my face.
I took my coat and announced that I was going back to school.
My father just said, “not if you want me to pay your tuition,” under his breath.
“I have to go, Jane.” Ben said. “We’ll talk on Monday.”
I didn’t blame him. I ran to the door but his car had already sped off.
“And there he goes,” Elizabeth said, “out with the trash.”
I threw my drink at her. Elizabeth’s shocked expression was nearly worth the face slap I received from my father after he walked back into the dining room. It was the first and last time he would ever hit me. After that, he apologised but was secretly quite pleased with himself, I think.
Back at school, I asked Ben to forgive me.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he replied. “I love you, your family hate me. It’s kind of like Romeo and Juliet.”
“Don’t say that. We both know what happened to them.”
Then, of course, there was the night of the bachelor auction that ended like a Greek tragedy.
Harley won. Ben arrived late from a debate night at another school. He stood in the corner with me and laughed as Harley was crowned “Bachelor of the Year.”
The next part was everyone’s idea. We decided to pile into the car after lights out and everything had closed down, all the teachers and other students were in bed. Ben, Jenny, Harley, Liz and Tom Winchester (his personality had improved under my sister’s influence – according to Liz) and I, drove to Wentworth Canyon, an area we knew. None of us were drinking. We made a bonfire; we were hiding out from the school, just relaxing and having fun. Nobody expected Jenny to go off and look for firewood with Liz and me trailing behind. No one could have known she would walk too close to a ledge that would, in a freak moment, collapse and drag her down with it.
What followed was the worst night and morning of our lives.
The searchers didn’t find Jenny for a long time. She fell so far into a ravine and our only comfort was that she had not suffered and was killed instantly.
After statements had been taken by police and investigations underway, we were all suspended. The school couldn’t expel us for drinking but a shadow fell over us anyway, since none of us were supposed to be out of school grounds. We had acted recklessly and there was talk of the school being sued for negligence - as if that would bring Jenny back. I already knew just how dangerous that ravine was. We had behaved badly. A part of me felt we were all somehow complicit in the whole horrible tragedy. We should never have been at Wentworth Canyon in that place, on that night.
And maybe if we hadn’t, Jenny would still be alive.
Afterwards, we said goodbye to her in our own ways. The Socials and all of her real friends including Ben and of course Harley, went to her favorite place on the beach with items we knew she’d love. Harley placed notes from all of us in a bottle and threw it out to sea. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t enough and none of us, especially Harley, knew how to get on with our lives.
In the end, the brothers both won a sports scholarship to various prestigious universities. Ben didn’t go. I applied and was accepted into a liberal arts degree (though I don’t know how since I could barely study for exams or concentrate during my final semester). In any case, I dropped out of college during first semester. I couldn’t study; it just seemed pointless. Elizabeth got accepted into her finance degree but lost some of her drive to finish and instead accepted modelling assignments that took her far from Bel Air.
Ben, who had already been scouted by colleges, joined the Air Force. By then, everything had changed. A soberness had fallen over our small world and even, it seemed, the town where our school was situated. Wentworth felt darker. It didn’t matter that they’d remade the boulevard and put extra lights along the pier. I missed my friend every day.
A year passed in a blur. Everything between Ben and me did too. Our relationship changed once we were no longer together. Ben was in college, I’d transferred to a local day school to finish high school. After the seniors graduated, there was no reason for me to stay and be reminded every day of the best friend I’d lost and I couldn’t help but blame myself.
People who knew Jenny tried to move on. Her family moved away but I was comforted by the ocean and the coffee shops we’d visited on the rare occasions we’d managed to ditch school and run away to the sea.
Ben came home for my graduation. It meant a lot to have him there but the ceremony itself didn’t mean that much to me. I was valedictorian of my new senior class. I’d had nothing to do but study. Without my sisters or Jenny there to be part of the ceremony, it was all pretty empty. Then Ben showed up unexpectedly. He’d talked about coming but wasn’t sure if he could take the weekend off.
Ben waved to me from the crowd and took a photograph. I was ecstatic. My father glowered at us. Now that Harley was somehow seen to have been involved with Jenny, “to have failed to protect her” according to my father, Ben was even more under the microscope.
He was going to take the high road, going to go over to my father and shake his hand, but I warned him against it. I was surprised that Dad had even showed up at my “second class high school graduation” as he put it. Though, I’m fairly sure, deep down, he was impressed I’d saved on school fees.
I didn’t care what dad thought. His true selfishness made me wonder if he was my biological father until I’d seen my birth certificate (aged eight) which confirmed it.
That day, I headed straight towards Ben. I wanted to run away with him and would have, if he’d asked. He was not impulsive. Ben liked to think things through. He slipped a note into the picket of my robe.
The proposal had been swift and to the point.
Sometimes good comes from bad, don’t forget it. Jenny would have wanted to see you smile today just like I did.
I have to go now, but I will see you again, soon.
I love you, I’ll always love you. You are the only person I want to dance with, be with, love with. Even though we are young and your family clearly hate me (and it’s a long time to wait, I know)… after I graduate from officer training, will you marry me?
New Days – Six years later
I turned the pages of the newspaper, spread across the kitchen table, immersed in the headlines, stunned but not surprised to see my family’s name embroiled in financial scandal… Confessions of a Post-teenage Hermit
I’d found that note when I packed up my things. My secret engagement had been so long ago it was largely forgotten by everyone except me.
My teaching assistant’s job had officially ended for the summer (and because I was only employed on contract I had no pay to go on vacation). My bank account, aligned with the family trust – the place I’d allowed my father to invest my share of the family savings and assets, was tied up in debt, frozen. It would be months before we knew the outcome of the investigation into the director of the financial organization we’d invested with. I had exactly one month’s salary to live on – for the rest of my life.
I was in some credit card debt (my fault from the shopping sprees I’d been encouraged to go on by my sisters) but still, it was the worst time to find a ‘real job’. There were so few vacancies and I didn’t have my degree. Unlike my older sister, Elizabeth, I didn’t panic. I’d allowed my father to invest money my grandparents had set aside for me, years ago, and although we had not been close in recent years, even then it must have been a very unwise decision. I had to take responsibility for my actions.
Besides, I loved The Beach Shack. Being a waitress was not the worst idea I’d ever had; it just didn’t pay well. It paid enough, almost.
“Keep telling yourself that, Jane,” Melissa said. “You’re in your twenties now, it’s time to wake up and smell the espresso – literally.”
I wished Melissa would keep her ‘helpful’ comments to herself. Teenage marriage had been her escape and she’d never had to consider how to earn a living since. It was typical of her to judge me for trying as hard as I could.
I wrote out the pros and cons.
At The Beach Shack, Keira and I get free coffee and food. I also get to sit and work on my blog before and after work and during breaks. It is wasted energy to worry about the lost deposit or the weeks I’d saved to go on the trip to Mexico, something I’d been planning for months.
The vacay money would have to go towards my debts and credit card bills.
Who said being an adult was fun? I threw the travel brochures away and picked up Pride and Prejudice instead. I read until early morning.
After I fell asleep, the telephone woke me up, ringing in my ear. I thought it had been disconnected. I let it go to messages. The only way anyone communicated these days was by text anyway, unless it was urgent. I thought I’d better check. It was Melissa, my younger sister. I heard her familiar whine: twenty-one, married and newly pregnant with her third child. Her first pregnancy, two years ago, had resulted in twins.
I could hear Melissa’s flat, monotone voice, on the other end of the line, begging me to come and stay with her in Venice Beach. Well, I liked Venice Beach but staying at her place was like a living nightmare of sulking nannies and screaming babies.
At least she’d offered. Let’s face it, I was in no position to refuse but I knew my father and Liz were expecting me in Bel Air. I hoped it would only be until I got on my feet.
Nevertheless, Melissa sounded pretty desperate.
“The nanny needs the day off to go to her mother’s second wedding, so typical!” I pulled the receiver from my ear. Almost no one called me these days except my sisters, and only when they wanted something. I listened to Missy’s voice drone on, a litany of whinges ending with, “I need you here now!”
Turns out Melissa and Fred, (Melissa’s husband), had a function at Fred’s work they couldn’t cancel and Melissa needed me to drive to the beach house and deliver the keys to Liz who’d organised the lease with the new tenants. Missy had to get ready, then she wanted me to drive back to her place and babysit her children for the evening.
I knew it.
I loved children but Melissa’s infant twins were the most difficult I’d ever encountered. All of her previous nannies had quit and I didn’t blame them.
In a nutshell, my sisters and Keira are pretty much the only other “adults” I’ve spoken to in ages. How was it, I wondered, after more than twenty-one years on this earth, I’d managed to create a network of so few friends? It hadn’t helped that I’d dropped out of college. But now, my closest acquaintances apart from my family were the convenience store operator and the lady who ran my father’s local dry–cleaning store.
Reluctantly, I pulled on a sweater and picked up my car keys.
When I reached Melissa’s house near Venice Beach an hour later, I glanced at the note she’d left on her dining room table. I had to go to the grocery store. I’m out of formula! Keys are in the red envelope. Thanks Jane! Text me when you’re done.
The kitchen was shambolic. The maid had quit the previous week. There were papers piled up everywhere I looked. I brushed them aside as I tried to locate the envelope, then I glanced at my reflection in the hall. I hadn’t bothered with make-up but I thought I should wash my face. Before I left, I stacked the dishwasher, scraped my hair into a ponytail, secured it with elastic and rubbed some lip balm into my lips; not very glamorous but ready to go.
I loved driving my old car but suddenly the images of those who were lost to me in different ways – my father, Jenny, Ben – filled the small spaces in my mind that had room for any worldly cares. I was exhausted with worry yet the ocean usually revived me. I loved the coastline along the winding road that led into Wentworth. I turned up the music in my car stereo, but being alone gave me too much time to think.
I was lucky, really, I told myself. It was just the comparison with my sisters that made me seem somehow lacking. I was hardly old, but my sisters seemed to have their lives organised on the surface. Underneath, it was a different story.
Melissa met Fred at eighteen and married him three months later. Elizabeth was a driven career woman with a high salary and a passion for first kisses. I had it on good authority (via Melissa) that she was dating Tom Wentworth, but she didn’t want him to think she was “exclusive;” like I cared.
I was beginning to look like the sibling without direction, purpose or prospects. Since I hadn’t had a boyfriend who’d lasted longer than a week in three years, neither of my siblings held out high hopes for me.
When I arrived at Kellynch, the house was lit in afternoon sun. I unlocked the door and pulled on my painting shirt, which still had tiny, Dali-esque splatters along the collar, cuffs and front.
I was not surprised that my family didn’t arrange the necessary house makeover and repairs until after I left. Freshly painted, the place looked spick and span again and ready for the new tenants. Kellynch was full of memories of happier days.
You could practically smell the cloying sweetness of money in the damp Victorian hallway near the family portrait, which had been covered with a cloth. I breathed out heavily, determined not to cry anymore. I’d tried to slip out of the old house days ago, along the hedges of the flowers and fruit trees my grandmother had planted, but once again, I was dragged back.
I went outside and sat on the front porch, waiting for Liz to arrive (late as usual), and then I decided to go for a walk to clear my head. I knew I’d probably never live here again, certainly not as a tenant, much less the owner. I wanted to remember the sea air and the sand between my toes.
The visitors, the family who wished to lease the home, were to arrive at midday to exchange contracts and keys. I wasn’t sure why an estate agent wasn’t employed but suddenly Liz was on a savings drive and had decided to deliver the paperwork herself. She assured me the new tenants would, “look after the house as if it were their own.”
I glanced at the contract but their surname, Croft, didn’t ring a bell. The family were obviously not locals.
I couldn’t breathe that afternoon as I waited. It had been half an hour, already. Bored, I found my old swimsuit in a box and decided to go swimming. By then Liz had texted me to apologise for the delay.
I dived right into the pool. The water folded into my arms, sublime, drowning my memories – but not quite. The memory of Ben and the reality of my life now was way too clear. Stupid, stupid girl I was, letting myself be talked out of marrying Ben when I was eighteen, being convinced that hesitation would just mean delay. The idea that marrying the man I loved would be the answer to my dreams was so yesterday I nearly laughed. It was such an old fashioned notion to think that any other person had the power to fix your life, let alone a man, yet I felt I was being treated badly by my family because I had no one to stick up for me. Well then, I knew I’d have to stand tall and stand up for myself.
“If he loves you, he will wait for you, it will all work out,” Elizabeth had assured me. I wouldn’t have taken advice solely from her but my sisters had agreed. Somehow my Godmother and sisters convinced me that if Ben was more than a passing fantasy, our love would stay strong and survive distance. My father, of course, had shown his true feelings from the beginning.
“Besides”, my father had said, “any happiness between you and the Wentworth boy is sure to be short lived because truly, what are his prospects? Don’t you realize how hard it is not just to be accepted into pilot training but then to complete it?”
“Of course, he’d have to become an officer first,” Melissa interjected with a raised eyebrow, as if that was impossible.
My Godmother assured me if I could wait, so would he.
How wrong could they have been? I had not heard from Ben since the day I’d refused his proposal. Yet I still wore the plain gold band he’d enclosed with the note, around a fine chain on my neck. I always tucked it into my collars, though, so no one ever saw it.
Eleanor and the others had been so wrong. My hesitancy caused him to doubt my love. I had loved Ben more than words could say and here he was, returning home for the summer, an officer and a gentleman. He made the boys I’d met since look dull and average by comparison.
But no one forced me to do what I did. Not really.
Hadn’t I thought, deep down, that I was unprepared to be someone’s wife, to wholly belong to anyone until I belonged to myself?
“You have no sense of your own power,” Jenny had told me once and she was right. All I’d felt, in relation to my family, was the lack of it.
But what was worse, I had no sense of self-worth, and I’d spent years searching for it. Doing good works for others, looking after other people’s children might be a worthy occupation but how did it compare to having your own? And the only person I’d ever envisaged doing that with, was Ben. And now he was gone. And yes, I was still young but when you’ve lost the man you love all you feel is the distance of years spread out like an endless, empty road.
I had loved Ben with all my soul but I’d let him go. Now he was sure to be tied to another. In many ways, because of my hesitancy, I felt I’d deserved this half-world that was my life.
As I stood on the edge of the diving board, the higher one, the one I never climbed because heights scared me, I shivered. I could feel my hair dripping down my back. I lay down and closed my eyes. I rolled and felt almost light in the sun, faintly off balance, when a hand grabbed my elbow as I opened my eyes. I looked up, closer to the edge and saw Liz’s face.
“Are you alright?” My sister asked me. Liz was standing on the steps peering over at me through dark sunglasses.
“Yes,” I lied. “I was just getting some sun.”
Liz shook her head.
“You were miles away, you looked like you were about to roll off the edge of the diving board, eyes closed. I know you are scared of standing up in high places but this is ridiculous. I was yelling at you to come down. It’s not safe up here. The workmen are returning tomorrow to fix the slide. C’mon Jane, the new tenants will be here in twenty minutes, help me clear out the last of the boxes.”
She offered me her hand and I took it. Women like my sister Elizabeth acted on instinct. They looked after themselves first, knowing that if they didn’t, they might be left out in the cold. Women like Elizabeth would never become women like me.
If only I’d been that much of a realist, with an iron grip survival instinct. I wouldn’t be the sort of person who almost fell off the edge of a diving board because her head was somewhere in the clouds.
I heard my Godmother arriving from next door. “Good news, Jane,” She exclaimed. “I mean, that the beach house has been leased.”
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I know it has been your home for the last few years but you are always welcome to stay with me until you are… on your feet again.”
“Thanks Eleanor,” I replied with a smile. I knew my Godmother meant well, but I’d already promised both Liz and Melissa I’d stay with them. “I’m fine,” I added as I walked back through the sitting room. Sarah Croft, our new tenant, had arrived. Her name didn’t mean anything to me, but her face looked vaguely familiar.
“She’s way famous,” Liz whispered as she hurried downstairs. “She’s on that soap, you know, the one that was filmed in Malibu with all of those glamorous people.”
I couldn’t resist a pause as I walked towards the doorway where Sarah stood, admiring the view. Sarah Croft was Ben’s (now) married sister. Formerly Sarah Wentworth, she’d taken her husband’s name.
She turned, looked up, smiled at me and said, “Hi, haven’t we met before?”
“I ...knew your family,” I stammered. Elizabeth looked surprised. I wanted to add, “but we only met once over a family dinner as teenagers.” I remembered how warm and welcoming the Wentworths were back then and the delicious food Mrs Wentworth had cooked. Instead, I said nothing. I’d been erased from Ben’s life as easily as our maid removed dust from the window ledge I’d once crawled out of when I was three.
I shivered and pulled my sweater close. My hair was still wet.
“I knew I’d seen you before,” Sarah said with a smile.
“I… I’ve seen you on television as well,” I stumbled, sounding not much more than pathetic.
“Oh, that show,” she said, dismissively, “I think being a mom suits me more than the world of show biz,” she laughed as her young son came running into the room.
“Don’t worry,” she joked. “He’s usually very well behaved,” she added as she wandered through the hall to contain her son while her husband talked with Liz outside and signed the paperwork, taking possession of the keys.
“I knew your brother once,” I said suddenly.
“Oh,” she replied, then she smiled. “Oh, now I remember you coming over for dinner when my family lived in Los Angeles.”
She paused, picked up Max and changed the subject. “Well, thank you so much for renting out your beautiful house. My husband… is working all summer on a movie and this place is exactly what I needed.”
I paused, “Uh huh…”
“I felt overwhelmed with my acting schedule and I needed a vacation, just to be a mom. It’s nice to have a break. But I never would have known about this place. My brother told me about it. Ben is so thoughtful like that. He read the notice online. Of course, we knew the town but not this particular area. Ben really is the kindest, best man I know, apart from my father and husband, of course.”
I smiled. I knew of Ben’s inherent kindness. It was a great attribute that I missed every day. I couldn’t help but be mildly annoyed that Ben was inadvertently responsible for my current situation.
“I remember now, you were both childhood friends.”
“We went to Hallowed Halls together.”
“I missed all of that. I was away at college.”
“Oh,” was all I said.
Sarah clearly had no idea about the extent of our relationship. It was probably better that way.
She continued, “I left college to go into showbiz when I got that series at eighteen, so this is a chance for Ben and I to hang out together before he starts his pilot training programme, in Texas.”
“Right,” I nodded.
“We’re having a bonfire party this weekend. You and your family must come. I’m sure Ben would love to see you.”
Before I could reply my sister called out from beyond the porch.
I went to leave then hesitated.
“I’ll try to come. By the way, look after the house. It’s my favorite place,” I said softly, and then I walked outside to the car.
The weather had turned. I told myself as the young couple and their son took possession of Kellynch that I was glad to be returning to Bel Air, but it wasn’t true.