When my mother tucked me in that night, I was half asleep, my face sore, my belly full of chicken-?broccoli casserole. She kissed my cheek carefully, not wanting to hurt me, then walked to my doorway and stood there in silhouette, her hand curled over the doorknob. “Good night, honey,” she said. “I'll see you in dreamland.” I was too tired to answer her. That night, I didn't find my mother in my dreams. But for the first time since she'd left, I saw Cass.
The dream itself was long and complicated. Eliza Drake was there, and Corinna, and Mrs. Garver, my fourth grade teacher. We were in the Lakeview Mall, searching for something having to do with aluminum, running to the far end, near the Sears store. I was passing an empty storefront, just glass and empty inside, when I saw Cass. She was standing a few feet away, on the other side, but when I stopped she came closer. “Cass?” I said, and Mrs. Garver was yelling at me to come on, hurry up, now, now. She smiled at me, cocking her head to the side. She was wearing this bright red sweater and I remember wondering if she was stuck in there, trapped somehow. “Good luck,” she said to me, raising one hand and pressing her palm against the glass separating us. As if she could see the future, hers and mine, everything. “Wait,” I said, “Cass”
“Go,” she said, as Mrs. Garver grabbed my arm, yanking me away. “Go ahead, Caitlin. Go.”
“Cass” I said again, but I was already running, looking back to find her, but now all the storefronts were empty glass, and I knew I could never find her, even if I tried. When I woke up I was sweating and my jaw ached, a throbbing pain that seemed to match my heartbeat. I sat up in bed and turned on the light: It was only 10:30. I could hear the TV on in the living room as my father watched the early news, and next door Boo's kitchen light was on and she was sitting at the table, reading a book. I lay back against my pillows, still seeing Cass in that red sweater, her hand pressed against the glass. It was just a dream, I told myself. That's all. When I pulled my dream journal from under the bed and flipped to a blank page, I didn't know yet what I would write. I put a hand on my aching cheek and just began: Dec. 20 Dear Cass, I don't know if you'll ever read this. Maybe I won't want you to. But something's happening to me and you're the only one I can tell. I had this dream about you tonight and it scared me into doing this: In the dream, I lost you for good. Lately I've been feeling like I'm losing myself, too. This is why. My boyfriend, Rogerson, hit me tonight. It wasn't the first time. I know you can't believe I'd let this happen: I can't either. But it's more confusing than you'd think. I love him. That sounds so weak and pitiful, but lately, it's been enough for me to forgive anything. But after tonight, I'm not so sure. He really hurt me, Cass. It still hurts now....
“Caitlin?” I blinked, opening my eyes. My English lit teacher, Mr. Lensing, was standing over me, a well-?worn copy of T. S. Eliot's collected poems in his hand. All around us the room was quiet and I could feel everyone watching me. “Yes?”
“Did you hear the question?” He shifted the book to his other hand, then lifted his glasses off his head and put them on while flipping a few pages with his fingers. “I asked you about the symbolism of the mermaids in Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'”
“Oh,” I said, looking down at my own book, which was closed, and frantically flipping through the pages, the words blurring. “I, um, think”
“Page one-?eighty-?four,” Richard Spellman, class president, whispered from behind me. “Bottom of the page.”
“Right,” I said, One-?fifty, one-?sixty-?two, one-?seventy-?four. Where the hell was it? “Um, the mermaids. Well” A few rows back, someone snickered. Then coughed. Mr. Lensing took his glasses off again. “Can anyone help us out here?” he asked, a tired look on his face. “Yes. Richard.”
“The mermaids represent what is ultimately unattainable by the speaker,” Richard said, and the same person in back snickered again, at him. “When he says they won't sing to him, he's talking about his separateness from the rest of the world, the kind of dream-?state he is in, all by himself. He says he's underwater, with these mermaids who both accept and reject him. But it is the human elementthe real worldthat ultimately does him in, as is seen in the last line.” I had finally located the right page, my eyes quickly scanning the very end of the poem: Till human voices wake us, and we drown. “Very good,” Mr. Lensing said, clapping his book shut just as the bell rang. “Read and be ready to discussThe Waste Land tomorrow, people. And don't forget, papers are due in one week!” Everyone was talking now, books closing, backpacks zipping up, the sound of voices and shuffling in the hallway coming in through the open door. I shut my notebook and stood up, looking out the window at the parking lot and the gray, February sky above it. “Caitlin.” I looked up. Mr. Lensing, now behind his desk, was watching me. “Yes?”
“Wake up,” he said. “Okay?” I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Okay.”
I walked out into the hallway, past the lockers and into the girls' bathroom, which was thick with the smell of cigarettes and hairspray. A group of girls were crowded by the mirrors, checking lipstick and gossiping, but I pushed past them and went into a stall, locking it behind me. “My point is,” one of the girls by the sinks was saying, “I just can't even think about the prom yet.” There was a hiss of hairspray, and then someone else said, “I heard Becca Plaser already bought her dress, in New York. It cost, like, five hundred dollars or something.”
“Oh, please,” the first girl said. “It doesn't matter if you spend a million on your dress if you can't get a date.” I sat down on the toilet, then reached over with my right hand to carefully roll up my left sleeve. And midway up my forearm, I could see the bluish-?black edge of the bruise coming into view. “Well,” another girl said, “all that matters is that we will be beach-?bound the night of the prom. It's gonna be so cool!”
“So your parents said yes?”
“Yep. I mean, I was subjected to the whole Trust Talk and all that. But we are in, for sure. No worries.” I kept rolling up my sleeve until I could see the whole bruise. It was turning yellow in the center, less black than the day before. “Yes!” I heard a slapping of palms, then someone laughing. The bell announcing the next period rang, ear-?splittingly loud in the small space. I touched the center of the bruise with my finger, smoothing my fingers over its width. It still hurt, but the swelling was down. I sat there, listening as the girls left, then ducked my head to check for feet under the other stalls. Nobody. I was alone. I rolled down my sleeve, pulling it tight to the edge of my wrist. As if by silent agreement, since the night I'd told my parents how I had “slipped on the ice,” Rogerson had taken to only hitting me where I could cover it: arms, legs, shoulders. I wore only long-?sleeved shirts, big sweaters, and turtlenecks, but at least now my face was off-?limits. After that night it was okay for a little while. He seemed sorry although he never said so out loudbut I could tell. It was in the way he kept his hand on my knee, or placed his fingers in the small of my back, always keeping me close. In the Cokes and candy bars he bought me without being asked, CDs or magazines I liked dropped like offerings in my lap, surprising me. And most of all it was in the way he kissed me, his lips on my neck, or trailing down across my collarbone, as if I was beautiful or even sacred. On Christmas Eve, I went to the pool house, where Rogerson cooked me dinner. Afterward, he slid a box across the table to me: it was white, and long, tied with a red bow. Inside was a silver necklace made up of tiny, interlocking squares, so shiny it glittered as he lifted up my hair to do the clasp. I thought then, as I had so many times before, how impossible it seemed that he could ever have hurt me. That night, I slept with him for the first time. And it hurt, too, but in a different way, one I'd been expecting. And the pain didn't linger, easily overshadowed by how good it felt to lie in his arms afterward, my head on his chest. I could see my necklace shining in the moonlight that was slanting through the window, and made a wish on it that things would be better now. Each time we had sex from then on, I told myself that this was the closest you could get to another person. So close their breaths become your own. So I gave him all of me, believing I could trust him. Then, on New Year's Eve, I talked too much to a guy at a party while Rogerson did business in another room. Outside he yanked me by my hair and pushed me against a wall, where I'd clocked the back of my head against a planter, making it bleed. I saw in the New Year at Corinna's, stoned, with a warm washcloth pressed against my headRogerson explained how I'd been tipsy, too much beerwhile everyone counted down and clinked champagne glasses. Corinna gave Dave a long, sloppy kiss and said, “This is our year, baby.”