He couldn't “fix” the problem of Cass running away, but through work he could still do his daily miracles, smoothing tensions and reassuring nervous administrators. Whenever I see my father in my mind, he is wearing a tie. They were the only gifts Cass and I ever gave him for his birthday, Christmas, and Father's Day, year after year. In all, he owned hundreds by now, the collection carefully hung and organized in his closet by color and degree of loudness.
(During our grade school years, we were enamored of polka dots and big stripes.) It had become somewhat of a family joke, at this point, and we'd taken to wrapping them in strangely shaped boxes and tubes, even folded up tiny in a jewelry boxjust to make things more interesting. But he wore them, proudly, each day to work, and prided himself on remembering not only the giver and the occasion, but the year as well.
If my mother was the emotion of our family, he was the fact-?keeper. He remembered everything. “Caitlin, Christmas, 1988,” he'd say, smoothing his hand proudly over a tie I myself didn't even recognize. “You had the chicken pox.” The other thing my father lovedbesides ties, and uswas sports. Whenever the university basketball or football team played, Cass and I would find our way into the living room and plant ourselves on the floor at his feet to watch and scream and trash the refs together.
It was the only time we got to see him lose his cool, get so emotional and ecstatic, and we loved it. The rest of the time, he was like the player with nerves of steel, the only person you want to get the ball to when it's a tie game with only seven seconds left. He'd never let you down. But now, Cass had done something to him: an intentional foul, illegal movement, the biggest of penalties. I'd been there the day Yale called to check on whether Cass was still coming, and saw my father's face as he explained, no, not this semester. Then he sat back down in his chair to watch baseball while I went to her room and sat on her bed, breathing in that pent-?up air, and pictured that world, too, going on without her.
I'd been back in school about a week when my best friend, Rina, finally convinced me to try out for cheerleading. She argued that it was one of the few things Cass had never done, and therefore I was pretty much required to do it. I wasn't so sure about this. “She never did it for a reason,” I told her as we walked to the gym for tryouts after school. Getting adjusted to school after a long, lazy summer had been tough, not to mention the occasional whispers or stares from people who knew about Cass running away. She'd been well-?known at school, and it was great end-?of-?summer gossip, earning me a newfound notoriety that made me very uncomfortable.
“And what reason was that?” Rina asked me. “Because she was an athlete,” I said. I was realizing that more and more I was referring to Cass in the past tense, as if she was dead and not just gone. “Not a Barbie doll.”
“Cheerleading is a sport,” Rina said firmly. “And besides, you get to go to all the good parties.” I sighed, shaking my head. Rina and I were mismatched as friends, but somehow we'd stuck together since seventh grade, when she moved to town with her mom from Boca Raton to live with Stepdad Number Two, the dry-?cleaning king, across the street from us. All the girls at school hated her immediately because she was flat-?out gorgeous, even then: tall, with a perfect figure, strawberry-?blond curls, huge blue eyes, and full lips in a heart-?shaped face. Her arrival at Jackson Middle preceded the breakup of two well-?established couples, as well as marking the beginnings of a reputation built more on speculation and wishful thinking than truth, which had followed her since.
But I knew Rina. I knew she only chased boys because her father, who hosted a cartoon and kids' show in Boca called Harvey's Heroes, had refused to acknowledge her as his daughter, even after a blood test proved otherwise. She once told me that as a kid she watched his show every day, and that he was great with the children in the audience, so funny and silly, pulling rabbits out of hats or telling stupid jokes. “He just seemed like he'd be the perfect dad, you know?” she said. “And all I could think was that he hated me. But I still watched, every day. I don't even know why.” Rina's mom, Lisaalso tall, blond, and gorgeouskept remarrying, and Rina got trips, clothes, jewelry, and big rooms in nice houses with her own TV and phone.
The love she wanted she'd learned to look for elsewhere, with mixed results. At the beginning of ninth grade, Lisa had an affair with her boss and moved Rina across town, divorcing Number Two to live with the man who would soon become Number Three. My mother breathed a sigh of relief, thinking now I could find a “nicer” girl to be best friends with. But I knew Rina, like me, didn't make friends very easily.
And she was good to me: strong, fun, and fiercely loyal. And if I didn't have many other friends because of hermost girls were intimidated by her looks, or thought she was too pushy, or just flat-?out feared for their boyfriendsit never bothered me. I never missed having a wide, thick circle of girlfriends: Rina was more than enough. We were comfortable with each other's flaws and weaknesses, so we stuck together and kept to ourselves.
And once my mother realized that I wasn't going to start wearing tight skirts and dating half the basketball teamso Rina-?esqueshe relaxed and got used to her as well. She always liked to see Rina as needing structure (it was all those divorces), so she took to inviting her to dinners and holidays and on our yearly beach trip, folding her into our extended family.
Now, as we walked into the gym, a pack of girls by the bleachers turned to look at us, narrowing their eyes, mouths already whispering. This was the standard reaction to Rina, anywhere we went, from Wal-?Mart to the movies, from both strangers and schoolmates. It always bothered meI was protective of herbut she didn't even seem to notice anymore.
“I don't want to do this,” I complained, even as she was writing both our names down at the sign-?up table, which was manned by Chelsea Robbins, head cheerleader, runner-?up to Cass for Homecoming Queen the year before.
“Sure you do,” Rina said easily, flashing her million-?dollar smile at Chelsea, who smiled back just as fake, tossing her blond ponytail.
“It'll be fun.”
“So Caitlin,” Chelsea asked me, “how are you doing?” I looked at her. Her head was cocked to the side, her face serious. “Fine,” I said. She nodded, sympathetic, and dipped her blond head and her voice a little lower before adding, “I can't believe it about Cass. I mean, she never struck me as that type.” I had a sudden flash of Chelsea standing on the Homecoming Float, in her runner-?up sash, waving with a perky smile that couldn't completely hide the fact that she was bitter she'd been beaten.