The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Francis rolled down his window and craned his head outside to see. “Oh, Jesus,” I heard him say. “Stop the car. There’s no way we’re going to—”

  “We’re not stuck.”

  “Yes we are. You’re making it worse. Christ, Henry. Stop the—”

  “Shut up,” Henry said.

  The tires whined in the back. The twins, sitting on either side of me, turned to look out the rear window at the muddy spray. Abruptly, Henry shifted into first, and with a sudden leap that made my heart glad we were clear of the hole.

  Francis slumped back in his seat. He was a cautious driver, and riding in the car with Henry, even in the most propitious of circumstances, made him nervous.

  Once in town, we drove to Francis’s apartment. The twins and I were to split up and walk home—me to campus, the twins to their apartment—while Henry and Francis took care of the car. Henry turned off the engine. The silence was eerie, jolting.

  He looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “We need to talk a minute,” he said.

  “What is it?”

  “When did you leave your room?”

  “About a quarter of three.”

  “Did anyone see you?”

  “Not really. Not that I know of.”

  Cooling down after its long drive, the car ticked and hissed and settled contentedly on its frame. Henry was silent for a moment, and he was about to speak when Francis suddenly pointed out the window. “Look,” he said. “Is that snow?”

  The twins leaned low to see. Henry, biting his lower lip, paid no attention. “The four of us,” he said, at last, “were at a matinee at the Orpheum in town—a double feature that ran from one o’clock to four-fifty-five. Afterwards we went on a short drive, returning—” he checked his watch—“at five-fifteen. That accounts for us, all right. I’m not sure what to do about you.”

  “Why can’t I say I was with you?”

  “Because you weren’t.”

  “Who’ll know the difference?”

  “The ticket girl at the Orpheum, that’s who. We went down and bought tickets for the afternoon show, paid for them with a hundred-dollar bill. She remembers us, I can assure you of that. We sat in the balcony and slipped out the emergency exit about fifteen minutes into the first movie.”

  “Why couldn’t I have met you there?”

  “You could have, except you don’t have a car. And you can’t say you took a cab because that can be easily checked. Besides, you were out walking around. You say you were in Commons before you met us?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then I suppose there’s nothing you can say except that you went straight home. It’s not an ideal story, but at this point you don’t have any alternative to speak of. We’ll have to imagine you met up with us at some point after the movie, in the quite likely event that someone has seen you. Say we called you at five o’clock and met you in the parking lot. You rode with us to Francis’s—really, this doesn’t follow very smoothly, but it’ll have to do—and walked home again.”

  “All right.”

  “When you get home, check downstairs in case any phone messages were left for you between three-thirty and five. If there were, we’ll have to think of some reason why you didn’t take the calls.”

  “Look, you guys,” Charles said. “It’s really snowing.”

  Tiny flakes, just visible at the tops of the pines.

  “One more thing,” said Henry. “We don’t want to behave as if we’re waiting around to hear some momentous piece of news. Go home. Read a book. I don’t think we ought to try to contact one another tonight—unless, of course, it’s absolutely necessary.”

  “I’ve never seen it snow this late in the year.” Francis was looking out the window. “Yesterday it was nearly seventy degrees.”

  “Were they predicting that?” Charles said.

  “Not that I heard.”

  “Christ. Look at this. It’s almost Easter.”

  “I don’t see why you’re so excited,” Henry said crossly. He had a pragmatic, farmer-like knowledge of how weather conditions affected growth, germination, blooming times, et cetera. “It’s just going to kill all the flowers.”

  I walked home fast, because I was cold. A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape. Snow was falling in earnest now—big silent petals drifting through the springtime woods, white bouquets segueing into snowy dark: a nightmarish topsy-turvy land, something from a story book. My path took me beneath a row of apple trees, full-blown and luminous, shivering in the twilight like an avenue of pale umbrellas. The big white flakes wafted through them, dreamy and soft. I did not stop to look, however, only hurried beneath them even faster. My winter in Hampden had given me a horror of snow.

  There were no messages for me downstairs. I went up to my room, changed my clothes, couldn’t decide what to do with the ones I’d taken off, thought of washing them, wondered if it might look suspicious, finally stuffed them all at the very bottom of my laundry bag. Then I sat down on my bed and looked at the clock.

  It was time for dinner and I hadn’t eaten all day but I wasn’t hungry. I went to the window and watched the snowflakes whirl in the high arcs of light above the tennis courts, then crossed over and sat upon my bed again.

  Minutes ticked by. Whatever anesthesia had carried me through the event was starting to wear off and with each passing second the thought of sitting around all night, alone, was seeming more and more unbearable. I turned on the radio, switched it off, tried to read. When I found I couldn’t hold my attention on one book I tried another. Scarcely ten minutes had passed. I picked up the first book and put it down again. Then, against my better judgment, I went downstairs to the pay phone and dialed Francis’s number.

  He answered on the first ring. “Hi,” he said, when I told him it was me. “What is it?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Are you sure?”

  I heard Henry murmuring in the background. Francis, his mouth away from the receiver, said something that I couldn’t catch.

  “What are you guys doing?” I said.

  “Not much. Having a drink. Hold on a second, would you?” he said, in response to another murmur.

  There was a pause, an indistinct exchange, and then Henry’s brisk voice came on the line. “What’s the matter? Where are you?” he said.

  “At home.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I just wondered if maybe I could come over for a drink or something.”

  “That’s not a good idea. I was just leaving when you called.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “Well, if you want to know the truth, I’m going to take a bath and go to bed.”

  The line was silent for a moment.

  “Are you still there?” Henry said.

  “Henry, I’m going crazy. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

  “Well, do anything you like,” Henry said amiably. “As long as you stick pretty close to home.”

  “I don’t see what difference it would make if I—”

  “When you’re worried about something,” said Henry abruptly, “have you ever tried thinking in a different language?”

  “What?”

  “It slows you down. Keeps your thoughts from running wild. A good discipline in any circumstance. Or you might try doing what the Buddhists do.”

  “What?”

  “In the practice of Zen there is an exercise called zazen—similar, I think, to the Theravadic practice of vipassana. One sits facing a blank wall. No matter the emotion one feels, no matter how strong or violent, one remains motionless. Facing the wall. The discipline, of course, is in continuing to sit.”

  There was a silence, during which I struggled for language to adequately express what I thought of this goofball advice.

  “Now, listen,” he continued, before I could say anything. “I’m exhausted. I’ll see you in class tomorrow, all right?”

  “Henry,” I said, but he’d hung u
p.

  In a sort of trance, I walked upstairs. I wanted a drink badly but I had nothing to drink. I sat down on my bed and looked out the window.

  My sleeping pills were all gone. I knew they were gone but I went to my bureau and checked the bottle just in case. It was empty except for some vitamin C tablets I’d got from the infirmary. Little white pills. I poured them on my desk, arranged them in patterns and then I took one, hoping that the reflex of swallowing would make me feel better, but it didn’t.

  I sat very still, trying not to think. It seemed as if I was waiting for something, I wasn’t sure what, something that would lift the tension and make me feel better, though I could imagine no possible event, in past, present, or future, that would have either effect. It seemed as if an eternity had passed. Suddenly, I was struck by a horrible thought: is this what it’s like? Is this the way it’s going to be from now on?

  I looked at the clock. Scarcely a minute had gone by. I got up, not bothering to lock the door behind me, and went down the hall to Judy’s room.

  By some miracle, she was in—drunk, putting on lipstick. “Hi,” she said, without glancing away from the mirror. “Want to go to a party?”

  I don’t know what I said to her, something about not feeling well.

  “Have a bagel,” she said, turning her head from side to side and examining her profile.

  “I’d rather a sleeping pill, if you’ve got one.”

  She screwed the lipstick down, snapped on the top, then opened the drawer of her dressing table. It was not actually a dressing table but a desk, college-issue, just like the one in my room; but like some savage unable to understand its true purpose—transforming it into a weapon rack, say, or a flower-decked fetish—she had painstakingly turned it into a cosmetics area, with a glass top and a ruffled satin skirt and a three-way mirror on the top that lit up. Scrabbling through a nightmare of compacts and pencils, she pulled out a prescription bottle, held it to the light, tossed it into the trash can and selected a new one. “This’ll do,” she said, handing it to me.

  I examined the bottle. There were two drab tablets at the bottom. All the label said was FOR PAIN.

  I said, annoyed, “What is this? Anacin or something?”

  “Try one. They’re okay. This weather’s pretty wild, huh?”

  “Yeah,” I said, swallowing a pill and handing the bottle back.

  “Don’t worry, keep it,” she said, already returned to her toilette. “Man. All it does here is fucking snow. I don’t know why the hell I ever came here. You want a beer?”

  She had a refrigerator in her room, in the closet. I fought my way through a jungle of belts and hats and lacy shirts to get to it.

  “No, I don’t want one,” she said when I held one out to her. “Too fucked up. You didn’t go to the party, did you?”

  “No,” I said, and then stopped, the beer bottle at my lips. There was something about the taste of it, the smell, and then I remembered: Bunny, the beer on his breath; spilled beer foaming on the ground. The bottle clattering after him down the slope.

  “Smart move,” said Judy. “It was cold and the band stunk. I saw your friend, what’s-his-name. The Colonel.”

  “What?”

  She laughed. “You know. Laura Stora calls him that. She used to live next door to him and he irritated the shit out of her playing these John Philip Sousa marching records all the time.”

  She meant Bunny. I set the bottle down.

  But Judy, thank God, was busy with the eyebrow pencil. “You know,” she said, “I think Laura has an eating disorder, not anorexia, but that Karen Carpenter thing where you make yourself puke. Last night I went with her and Trace to the Brasserie, and, I’m totally serious, she stuffed herself until she could not breathe. Then she went in the men’s room to barf and Tracy and I were looking at each other, like, is this normal? Then Trace told me, well, you remember that time Laura was supposedly in the hospital for mono? Well. The story is that actually …”

  She rattled on. I stared at her, lost in my own awful thoughts.

  Suddenly I realized she’d stopped talking. She was looking at me expectantly, waiting for a reply.

  “What?” I said.

  “I said, isn’t that the most retarded thing you ever heard?”

  “Ummmm.”

  “Her parents just must not give a shit.” She closed the makeup drawer and turned to face me. “Anyway. You want to come to this party?”

  “Whose is it?”

  “Jack Teitelbaum’s, you airhead. Durbinstall basement. Sid’s band is supposed to play, and Moffat’s back on the drums. And somebody said something about a go-go dancer in a cage. Come on.”

  For some reason I was unable to answer her. Unconditional refusal to Judy’s invitations was a reflex so deeply ingrained that it was hard to force myself to say yes. Then I thought of my room. Bed, bureau, desk. Books lying open where I’d left them.

  “Come on,” she said coquettishly. “You never go out with me.”

  “All right,” I said at last. “Let me get my coat.”

  Only much later did I find out what Judy had given me: Demerol. By the time we got to the party it had started to kick in. Angles, colors, the riot of snowflakes, the din of Sid’s band—everything was soft and kind and infinitely forgiving. I noted a strange beauty in the faces of people previously repulsive to me. I smiled at everyone and everyone smiled back.

  Judy (Judy! God bless her!) left me with her friend Jack Teitelbaum and a fellow named Lars and went off to get us a drink. Everything was bathed in a celestial light. I listened to Jack and Lars talk about pinball, motorcycles, female kick-boxing, and was heartwarmed at their attempts to include me in the conversation. Lars offered me a bong hit. The gesture was, to me, tremendously touching and all of a sudden I realized I had been wrong about these people. These were good people, common people; the salt of the earth; people whom I should count myself fortunate to know.

  I was trying to think of some way to vocalize this epiphany when Judy came back with the drinks. I drank mine, wandered off to get another, found myself roaming in a fluid, pleasant daze. Someone gave me a cigarette. Jud and Frank were there, Jud with a cardboard crown from Burger King on his head. This crown was oddly flattering to him. Head thrown back and howling with laughter, brandishing a tremendous mug of beer, he looked like Cuchulain, Brian Boru, some mythic Irish king. Cloke Rayburn was shooting pool in the back room. Just outside his line of vision, I watched him chalk the cue, unsmiling, and bend over the table so his hair fell in his face. Click. The colored balls spun out in all directions. Flecks of light swam in my eyes. I thought of atoms, molecules, things so small you couldn’t even see them.

  Then I remember feeling dizzy, pushing through the crowd to try to get some air. I could see the door propped invitingly with a cinder block, could feel a cold draft on my face. Then—I don’t know, I must’ve blacked out, because the next thing I knew my back was against a wall, in an entirely different place, and a strange girl was talking to me.

  Gradually I understood that I must have been standing there with her for some time. I blinked, and struggled gamely to bring her into focus. Very pretty, in a snub-nosed, good-natured way; dark hair, freckles, light blue eyes. I had seen her earlier, somewhere, in line at the bar maybe, had seen her without paying her much attention. And now here she was again, like an apparition, drinking red wine from a plastic cup and calling me by name.

  I couldn’t make out what she was saying, though the timbre of her voice was clear even over the noise: cheerful, raucous, oddly pleasant. I leaned forward—she was a small girl, barely five feet—and cupped a hand to my ear. “What?” I said.

  She laughed, stretched up on tiptoe, brought her face close to mine. Perfume. Hot thunder of whisper against my cheek.

  I grabbed her by the wrist. “It’s too noisy,” I said in her ear; my lips brushed against her hair. “Let’s go outside.”

  She laughed again. “But we just came in,” she said. “You said yo
u were freezing.”

  Hmmn, I thought. Her eyes were pale, bored, regarding me with a kind of intimate amusement in the jaded light.

  “Somewhere quiet, I mean,” I said.

  She turned up her glass and looked at me through the bottom of it. “Your room or mine?”

  “Yours,” I said, without a moment’s hesitation.

  She was a good girl, a good sport. Sweet chuckles in the dark and her hair falling across my face, funny little catches in her breath like the girls back in high school. The warm feel of a body in my arms was something I’d almost forgotten. How long since I’d kissed anyone that way? Months, and more months.

  Strange to think how simple things could be. A party, some drinks, a pretty stranger. That was the way most of my classmates lived—talking rather self-consciously at breakfast about their liaisons of the previous night, as if this harmless, homey little vice, which fell somewhere below drink and above gluttony in the catalogue of sins, was somehow the abyss of depravity and dissipation.

  Posters; dried flowers in a beer mug; the luminous glow of her stereo in the dark. It was all too familiar from my suburban youth, yet now seemed unbelievably remote and innocent, a memory from some lost Junior Prom. Her lip gloss tasted like bubble gum. I buried my face in the soft, slightly acrid-smelling flesh of her neck and rocked her back and forth—babbling, mumbling, feeling myself fall down and down, into a dark, half-forgotten life.

  I woke at two-thirty—according to the flashing, demonic red of a digital clockface—in an absolute panic. I’d had a dream, nothing scary really, in which Charles and I were on a train, trying to evade a mysterious third passenger. The cars were packed with people from the party—Judy, Jack Teitelbaum, Jud in his cardboard crown—as we lurched through the aisles. Throughout the dream, however, I’d had a feeling that it was all unimportant, that I actually had a far more pressing worry if only I could remember it. Then I did remember, and the shock of it woke me up.

  It was like waking from a nightmare to a worse nightmare. I sat up, heart pounding, slapping at the blank wall for the light switch until the terrible realization dawned on me that I was not in my own room. Strange shapes, unfamiliar shadows, crowded horribly around me; nothing offered any clue to my whereabouts, and for a few delirious moments I wondered if I was dead. Then I felt the sleeping body next to mine. Instinctively I recoiled, and then I prodded it gently with my elbow. It didn’t move. I lay in bed for a minute or two, trying to collect my thoughts; then I got up, found my clothes, dressed as best as I could in the dark, and left.

 
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