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GINA WILLNER-PARDO

Gina Willner-Pardo’s work has been published or will appear in South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Louisiana Literature, Pleiades, Peauxdunque Review, The Fourth River, and other journals. Her story “Everything That’s Lovely” was a finalist in both Narrative’s Spring 2020 Story Contest and Pithead Chapel’s 2020 Larry Brown Short Story Award contest. She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Gina has a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and a (much-regretted) M.B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley.



CODE


Hannah had her license, but she let Amy drive most of the time, because Amy’s parents had given her their old Mustang. “Because Mom wants a Jaguar,” Amy explained, and Hannah nodded, pretending this was a circumstance in which she might find herself, willfully ignoring the impossibility of her own parents allowing her to have a car, or her mother wanting anything more glamorous than the olive-green Dodge Dart she currently drove.

“If he’ll even get her one,” Amy said. She hated her father, who she said was a drunk and also stupid, an assessment Hannah believed, although on the rare occasions when she’d met him, Mr. Hotchkiss seemed pleasant enough: handsome in a fatherly way, red-faced, wondering aloud if it would rain, and if it did, whether Raoul would get to those hedges. Amy never answered any of his questions or even indicated she’d heard him. Hannah tried to imagine hating her own father and couldn’t.

That was the winter they spent as much time in the Mustang as possible: driving the winding streets of the pristine East Bay town where they lived, crossing the bridge into the city on Saturday nights, heading out to Stinson on the weekends, although the curvy road made Hannah carsick—something she would never admit to Amy, as it seemed a further mark against her. (Amy never voiced a tally of Hannah’s inadequacies, but gave the impression she was keeping one.) They kept the radio tuned to KFRC, blasting “Jungle Boogie,” “Tubular Bells,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Spiders and Snakes.” Sometimes they listened to news of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping. “My mother keeps telling me to be careful,” Hannah said.

To which Amy replied, “Like anyone would want you,” and they both laughed, though hearing her say it hurt Hannah’s feelings: Amy hadn’t said, “Like anyone would want us.”

A lot of rich people lived in their town, buying the grandest houses or simply inheriting them: two- and three-story Colonials, Beaux-Arts, and Tudors built in the early part of the century, surrounded by lush lawns and gardens. Amy lived in a more modest home: the Hotchkiss house was smaller and built in the fifties, bought by Mrs. Hotchkiss’s parents—who lived up the street—as a way of letting Mr. Hotchkiss know his salary was a source of ongoing displeasure. It did have a small pool, though, something the Rosenthals (who lived at the very outskirts of town, where Hannah’s father’s job as an insurance adjuster and her mother’s work as a secretary had allowed them to scrape together enough money for a two-bedroom bungalow) could never aspire to afford.

The very richest sent their children to Santa Catalina or Anna Head, but most people were happy with the public schools, because the town was largely white, with few Jews and fewer Black people. Hannah had learned this from Amy, who knew things Hannah didn’t: how you were supposed to eat the yogurt first and then the fruit on the bottom, how driving over the rumble strip on the offramp could give you the beginnings of an orgasm, how some girls graduating from their high school went away to college and returned a few years later with boys they’d met there. “You can tell those guys,” Amy said. “They’re the pussy-whipped ones,” which was an expression Hannah had never heard before. She didn’t mention what Amy had told her before: that her father was from Fresno.

Hannah had arrived in ninth grade from Oakland, her parents opting to “move up in the world.” She was appalled at girls wearing real pearls, talking about second homes in Tahoe and summer vacations in Spain and Tahiti, but Amy had taken her under her wing—told her who the best teachers were and where to hide when you were cutting P.E—confiding that her previous best friend, Claudia, had moved away. “Divorce,” she whispered, as though it were an unspeakable horror.

By now—eleventh grade—they talked mostly about boys. Who was cute, who was on a team, who was stupid. Amy had boasted a boyfriend the year before: Steve Bellamy, who ran track. Based on the fact that she’d blown him twice, she and Hannah tacitly agreed she’d be the expert in anything related to romance. (“What’s it like?” Hannah asked once. “Salty,” Amy said, shrugging. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.”)

Amy continued to instruct her: tampons leaked less than pads; vodka didn’t make you as hungover as bourbon; chocolate-chip cookie dough was better raw than cooked. Whenever she learned something new, Hannah wondered how she had gotten along without knowing it before, and this made her feel her parents, whom she loved, were not infallible; had, in fact, done her a disservice by not preparing her for the world into which their move had thrust her. Their only guidance had been to study hard and be nice to everyone. “People might say things,” her mother cautioned, not specifying exactly what she meant, although Hannah already knew from Rabbi Hoffman how to spot the slights, the thinly veiled insults. “Just don’t take things too personally.”

She began to wonder at the vastness of what adults didn’t know.


The Valentine’s Day dance was fast approaching, and both girls had been asked. Amy’s date was Mark van Bergen: tall, gangly, suspended from school twice for smoking weed under the open window in the teachers’ lounge. “He’s an idiot,” Amy said on the phone, “but it’ll drive Steve crazy.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to get back together with Steve.”

“I don’t. He’s just someone to go with. Like you going with that guy from your church.”

“Temple.” Rafe Grinberg had been in Hannah’s confirmation class last year. He was shy and sweet and studious. Once, waiting for their mothers to pick them up, he confessed that chronic ear infections had kept him from learning how to swim. At school, he never raised his hand in class and did homework in the library at lunch.

“Yeah, but I’m not trying to get back at anyone,” she said and then instantly regretted it. She was careful around Amy, trying not to be snide or critical, afraid her deficiencies and transgressions would become too numerous to tolerate. (She’d always made friends easily, had never worried about being ostracized or alone. It was different now. She didn’t know why, didn’t know what had happened to her.) “He’s just the only one who asked me,” she added, laughing at herself—her undesirability—as a way of making up for her cocky retort. But the silence on the other end of the line was long.

When Amy finally said disdainfully, “You know he’s in the Philosophy Club, right?” she was almost dizzy with relief.


They bought gowns at Little Daisy—Hannah’s in a modest blue, Amy’s a figure-hugging floral that caused Mrs. Hotchkiss to purse her lips disapprovingly and say, “Maybe a little less cookie dough and a little more tennis.”

“Fuck her,” Amy said when she told Hannah, who was momentarily grateful for her own mother, oblivious to her daughter’s weight. Mrs. Rosenthal wore a messy ponytail and read books or watched the news after work, while Mrs. Hotchkiss had her blonde pageboy done at the salon every week, played golf obsessively, and guzzled white wine after four in the afternoon. She regarded Hannah with cursory disinterest, as though she were the gardener’s daughter and Amy had been asked to babysit her.

Amy’s “Fuck her” raised her spirits: she felt she and Mrs. Hotchkiss were battling for Amy’s soul and she, Hannah, was winning.


The four of them met at Amy’s house and drove to the center of town together in Mark van Bergen’s Thunderbird. The dance was held in the community center, festooned in banners and red crepe-paper hearts. Under low lights a local band—its members almost certainly high, Amy said as they shucked their coats at the front door—played covers of “Rambling Man,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Dance, Little Sister, Dance.” Rafe gyrated enthusiastically as classmates twisted and swirled about them. During the slow songs Hannah and Rafe sipped their punch, relieved that the cacophony prevented small talk. Hannah watched Amy and Mark—her arms draped over his shoulders, his hands on the small of her back—as their steps slowed to stillness, his gaze glued to her face as if he could read what the night would bring on her fluttering eyelids.

Later, in the car, Mark passed a flask to Amy, who drank and then offered it to Hannah in the back seat. She took a sip, but Rafe held up his hand and said, “No thanks.” Hannah knew he was ready for the evening to end.

But Amy asked, “You guys want to swim at my house?” and before Rafe could protest, Hannah said that sounded fun.

“We don’t have suits, though,” she added.

“My parents are at a party. We can just swim in our underwear,” Amy said.

At the house, their four cars lining the curb, Amy turned the radio up. They stripped off their clothes without speaking. The pool water was warm as they slipped into it; above their heads, a mist of condensation hovered like fog. Little waves lapped at their arms, each crest sparkling with light reflected from the living room lamps. They were suddenly shy with one another, their near-nakedness a part of the watery landscape they didn’t know how to look at. With a darting glance, Hannah took note of Amy’s black bra, her deep cleavage, the freckles on her upper arms. She was aware of Rafe’s thin-shouldered presence next to her, but she couldn’t bring herself to face him.

Mark reached over the pool’s lip and pulled the flask from his discarded jacket. This time, even Rafe took a sip. It loosened them up—all of them drinking together—and the mood shifted. Mark splashed Amy playfully and she splashed him back; when he tried to lick the droplets of water off her chest, she shrieked and pushed him away, a shallow gesture with no force behind it. Mark lowered his head to her skin, his hands holding her upper arms still as she batted at him underwater. “I’m all chlorine-y!” she said, giggling, then went silent and frozen as he buried his face between her breasts.

Under the rippling surface, Rafe took Hannah’s hand. She looked at him then: his white, hairless torso, tiny nipples fringed in curly black hairs, scrawny legs foreshortened and wobbling as wavelets peaked and broke.

“Are you all right?” she asked, thinking maybe he’d grabbed her hand out of fear in the water he didn’t know how to navigate.

He pulled her closer—she almost stumbled—and kissed her. She was surprised by his knowingness, his full lips landing with just the right amount of insistence and openness. She closed her eyes and sank against his cool, damp skin. “Another Park, Another Sunday” was on the radio, and she thought this song would always bring her back to the smell of pool chemicals, the feel of being partly warm and partly cold, half wet, half dry, the taste of sloe gin on a boy’s tongue.

She opened her eyes a little, to see if Rafe’s were open or closed—the latter—and saw the smallest movement inside the house: Mr. Hotchkiss, half concealed by the living room drapes at the open sliding glass door, peeking out at them. She closed her eyes again, hoping that when she opened them, he would be gone. And then she heard Amy whisper “Shit!” and the plash of disturbed water as she began climbing out of the pool. She and Rafe pulled apart.

“Got to get more towels,” Amy said, even though she’d already brought out a stack, from which she now pulled a pink one. She wrapped it over her shoulders and headed for the house.

Mark reached for the flask, and Rafe, holding onto the edge of the pool, made his way closer for another sip. They laughed together as they passed the flask between them, not seeing what Hannah saw: Amy entering the living room, Mr. Hotchkiss, his natural flush having gone purple, grabbing her wrist, not letting go, forcing her toward him, mostly behind the curtain.


She returned to the pool a few minutes later, no towels in hand. “My parents are back,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You guys have to go home.”

Quickly they dried themselves and pulled on their clothes, looking sheepish, the way you did when a fragile mood of gaiety and anticipation was disturbed by parents. Mr. Hotchkiss was nowhere in sight, though, as they congregated at the front door. “You guys go,” Amy said to Hannah, who knew she wanted to kiss Mark goodnight alone.

“Are you okay?” she whispered as they hugged goodbye.

Amy laughed sharply in her ear. “Just horny,” she said, loudly enough so the boys could hear.

Hannah and Rafe walked silently to their cars. She hoped he might hold her hand or suggest they drive somewhere dark and empty: the park, the cemetery. But he only stood quietly as she fumbled for her keys, then kissed her chastely on the lips and said good night. She drove home wondering what she’d done or hadn’t done—what had changed—only hearing weeks later from Debbie Zimmerman that Rafe had said he was too busy studying for his SATs to pay much attention to girls.

She didn’t even like him all that much, but she couldn’t forget his lips on hers, how safe she’d felt.


She and Amy began driving to the beach almost every weekend, shivering on towels, waiting for the fog to dissipate. “You burn more on cloudy days than sunny ones,” Amy said, but sometimes she skipped the Coppertone and slathered herself in Johnson’s Baby Oil. “I like how my skin feels raw.”

They set the transistor radio between them and talked over the songs they didn’t like. When the news came on, they listened for stories about Patty Hearst. “Tania,” they said derisively at once on an early Saturday in April, and then burst out laughing, Hearst’s pseudonym something easy to make fun of, just another part of an unimaginable life.

“That is not the name I would pick,” Amy said. “I’d pick Sally. Or Bitsy. Something Waspy, to really rub it in. Like, I live in Hillsborough, and I’m gonna fuck you all up.”

“Is Bitsy even a name?”

“It’s a nickname. One of my mother’s sorority sisters. Lane ‘Bitsy’ Yardley. Very posh, very Atherton.” Amy mimicked someone pinched and British.

Hannah thought of her mother’s childhood friend Miriam. All her mother had ever said about Miriam was that she lived over the bakery and her family’s apartment smelled like babka. Bitsy Lovitz. She made a mental note to ask her mother if Miriam had a nickname.

“How do you get ‘Bitsy’ from ‘Lane’?” she asked.

“God knows with these women.” Amy closed her eyes and tilted her face toward the sky, in search of sun.

“We should have nicknames,” Hannah said, pulling the edges of her towel around her, because the wind had picked up, and sand was sticking to her lotioned body. “Yours can be ‘Cookie.’ Amy ‘Cookie’ Hotchkiss.”

“Ooh. I like that.” Amy wiggled with pleasure on her towel. “And you’re so good at basketball. You should be Hannah ‘Dribbles’ Rosenthal.”

That’s not the same! Hannah thought, but she held her tongue, not wanting an argument, and also not knowing how to explain the difference, the way an elusive meaning lurked beneath the words themselves.

“Cookie’s good,” Amy said. “You should call me that. Really. If enough kids start using it, maybe I can put it in the yearbook.”

Hannah wanted to forget what she’d seen that night in February, and as time passed, it came to seem like something she’d imagined or misinterpreted. But that day, on the drive home from Stinson, something made her ask, “So really. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Amy said.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.” She signaled right. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. I just—” She paused, afraid. “I saw something weird. On Valentine’s Day.”

“Weird how?”

“At your house, after the dance. When you went in to see your dad.”

She glanced at Amy, who stared straight ahead, icy wind from the open window whipping her hair into her mouth.

“I didn’t go in to see my dad. I went to get towels. He was just there.” She brushed her hair away from her face. “He told me to get you guys out of the pool. He hates that pool,” she went on. “He’s terrified some kid’s going to drown and he’ll get sued.” She laughed a little. “He’s such a cheap asshole.”

“But it looked like—”

“You didn’t see anything weird,” she said firmly. And then, “Except him. He’s a weird fucking asshole.”


A few days later, Patti Hearst robbed a bank in San Francisco. It was the kind of news even the rest of Hannah’s classmates were paying attention to. “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” boys whooped in the hallways, wielding pretend carbines. The girls were more circumspect, whispering about Patti as though she might walk down the hall at any moment. Her circumstances struck a chord: they had long been told bad things would happen to them if they weren’t careful. There was talk she’d been hypnotized or brainwashed.

“You know she’s fucking those guys,” Amy told her one afternoon as they walked up the hill after school. “Now she’s doing whatever they say.”

At Amy’s house, they made chocolate-chip cookie dough and sucked huge dollops of it off their fingers. The sugar and butter made Hannah nauseous, but she couldn’t stop. They stuffed themselves; Amy washed out the bowl and put it away so her mother wouldn’t know. They took two Tabs from the refrigerator door and went up to Amy’s room. Each lay on one of the twin beds, too bloated and sick to talk. The empty house breathed around them. Hannah closed her eyes, drifted off, but startled awake soon after, heart pounding. At first she thought she’d dreamed something, but then it dawned on her that Mr. Hotchkiss might be home, that he might be lurking at the bedroom door. She strained to hear something—anything—but the house was silent, still.

She turned to see Amy lying on her bed, reading a book. “What?” Amy asked, not looking up.

“I know there was something weird that night. I know what I saw. He was there, behind the curtain in the living room, and he grabbed you, and then—” Her mouth was dry. She pursed her lips. “I just want you to know it’s okay if you tell me, and maybe together we can figure something out. I love you,” she added, and then, “I know what I saw.”

Silence.

Hannah said, “He’s an asshole, and you don’t have to—”

The book slammed shut. “Hey! Quit saying that about my dad!”

Hannah froze. It was so unexpected that she wondered if the words tumbling out of Amy’s mouth were real. “But you—”

“You’re crazy, you know that?” Amy laughed. “You are fucking insane. Jesus. You don't know anything.” She turned back to her book. “Quit being so pushy!”


Patty Hearst was finally arrested in September. It was said that when she was taken into custody, she weighed only eighty-seven pounds, a fact Hannah and Amy would have marveled at if they’d still been friends. (Amy wanted to be, had called the day after Hannah let herself out of the Hotchkiss home feeling as though she’d been shot in the chest. Called as if nothing had happened, nothing had been said.)

As it was, Debbie Zimmerman wasn’t interested in Patty Hearst, or anything, really, except getting into a good college. “Patty Hearst had everything anyone could want, and she totally blew it,” she would say when Hannah tried to bring the whole thing up. “It’s totally her fault.”

So Hannah puzzled over newspaper articles by herself. She worried about the psychiatrist saying Patty had lost twenty IQ points and much of her memory. She wondered if what Patty said when she was booked—"Tell everybody that I'm smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there"—was a code of some sort, meant to signal the SLA to bust her out of prison.

Mostly she felt relief that Patty had been found, that she didn’t have to tiptoe around her captors any longer. That the truth, however ugly, would be known.






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