I left the cordless phone face down on my bed and padded down the hallway towards the den. My parents were watching Seinfeld, so I leaned against the doorway and waited for Kramer, Jerry, Elaine to give way to Nabisco and Ford. My father muted the TV immediately when the commercials came on. He used to watch like that, his finger on the mute button like an outlaw who rests his hand on the butt of a holstered pistol. It was because my mother hated commercials; after twenty-five years of marriage, this was the language of their love.
“Dad. I have a hypothetical question.”
“What did you do?” My mom peered at me from where she lay curled into the corner of the couch under an afghan.
“Nothing. I’m talking to Dad. Dad, if someone pretended to be someone else on the Internet, like sent a few emails and signed them with a fake name, could they get arrested”?
My father looked at me appraisingly. “No.” he said, turning his head back toward the soundless television.
“Annabel, what did you do?”
“Nothing! Dad, I’m not done. Could a person get expelled? Suspended?”
My father sighed. “Was there any libel Annie? Any slander?”
“I don’t see a problem then.”
“I do!” said my Mom, but then their show was back on. I retreated to my room as Kramer burst into Jerry’s apartment, swinging his wild head in all directions.
“Talley?” I said, picking up the phone.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“He says you’re fine…or we’re fine…it’s fine. It’s definitely fine.”
“Good.” she said, then silence. “Let’s never talk about this again.”
Chris Henderson likely wasn’t our first act of revenge, but I remember him as the beginning in a series. At twelve, we were coming into our full power; the window was opening and, for the next five years, our meanness, untarnished by empathy or consequences, would have a certain brilliance, a sparkling peculiarity. I believe it was an expression of something we didn’t have language for yet. The manacles of childhood were starting to chafe. We hungered for more than sports and school and parents and safety, but we were already unsafe, our bodies fast becoming bright beacons, ripe fruit, fresh meat. Cue the wolf whistles tossed out the windows of passing cars: Hey baby. Looking good. Hey baby.
Girls are hunted. Girls are an endangered species. I remember this and I also remember how often we were mean, how we said unspeakable things, how we even betrayed each other. I’m convinced there’s some relationship between these facts—the senseless cruelty is in response to a real threat; it’s merely misdirected.
But now I sound like an apologist.
This is how Miss Williams incurred our wrath, or incurred Talley’s and then mine as an accessory.
She was mean. And strange. And had deeply unfortunate hair. It was her first year on the job, teaching seventh grade American history and, over the course of a class period, she’d become perceptibly unhinged, veering from Paul Revere to ‘what’s wrong with this country??’ to doling out lunch detentions to graphic details about her gastric bypass surgery. In retrospect, her size was probably her worst crime in our eyes—it scared us; we sensed our budding power had something to do with cuteness and cuteness was smallness, so we watched our frames closely, dabbed grease off our pizza at sleep-overs, tried on restraint and got praised for it. If we could do it, why couldn’t Miss Williams? What could possibly be the difference between our barely pubescent metabolisms and that of a woman in her late thirties? If largeness could happen to her, then could it happen to us? We either had to hate her or pity her to put her at a safe distance and her ill-temper was an excuse to chose contempt.
I didn’t even have Miss Williams for American History, but my friends kept me up-to-date on her reign of tyranny during recess and at lunch. On days when members of our party were missing, held back in detention by Miss Williams, our talk was particularly bitter. The principle’s daughter was keeping her mother abreast of all Miss Williams developments, but we heard they couldn’t fire our nemesis because of teacher’s union contracts. Unions. Ugh. We didn’t know what they were, but we hated them.
Miss Williams had a special animosity reserved for Talley, or perhaps we only perceived it that way, since it was shocking to see anyone punish Talley at all. Talley was the boss of us. Talley was our chosen queen. In academic, social, and sartorial realms, we looked to Talley for guidance. Not even five feet tall with a ribbon tied up in her hair, Talley wielded absolute power and her influence extended to our teachers as well. In class, Talley wasn’t always well behaved, but she rarely got punished. More seasoned teachers probably sensed they’d lose the whole class if they crossed her.
The portables were little trailers set up by the basketball courts, meant to accommodate overflow from the main building. Miss Williams taught her class out there. It was impossible, literally, to get from the third floor out the portables in the time allotted between bells and God help you if you had to pee or forgot an assignment in your locker. Teachers adjusted their expectations, accommodated; it was a non-problem for everyone except Miss Williams, who’d wait on the porch, blocking the way in to the classroom while a small pack of her students ran, panting across the basketball courts, trying to make it on time. Talley was good at sports. Talley was fast. Talley could win any footrace. Talley was maybe even going to the Olympics, but even Talley couldn’t make it to class in time. She’d get close. Miss Williams would smile, vengefully. The bell would sound. The door would slam in Talley’s face.
Here are the facts: In late 2002, Miss Williams exchanged a series of emails with man named Chris Henderson. Chris wasn’t real. It was a basic cat fishing, but long before there was any term for that. I helped compose at least one email, the first, and perhaps more, but Talley first conceived of Chris on her own, starting with an AOL screen-name. He messaged Miss Williams Hi. Not sure how you got on my Buddy-list. After some light flirtation, Miss Williams gave Chris her personal email address. Then Talley came to me. For my whole life, I’d been on the margins of the cool-group, never really ‘in on it’, except when someone needed something written down. When two of my slightly cooler friends would get in a fight, they’d come to me separately and I’d compose both sides of the letters they’d pass back and forth, writing the accusations and then defending myself. I didn’t care so much about who was right or who would win as I cared about voice and style and the chance to get inside my friends’ heads.
In the first email, we gave Chris his occupation (lawyer, associate in a small to mid-size law firm) and sketched his personality (jokey, humble, self-deprecating). Miss Williams responded almost immediately. Talley, as Chris, wrote back. Talley would keep me up-to-date on their budding romance and I liked sharing this secret; it made me feel close to her, made me glow warm in my chest. Once Talley arranged for Chris to meet Miss Williams at a party. She told him what she’d be wearing. He told her he was average but good looking. She said she was curvy. After he didn’t show, he apologized (family emergency).
An unrelated incident occurred just before Miss Williams and Chris began passing emails back and forth, which my memory cues up whenever I recount the saga. Talley, our friend Claire and I had gone to sunbathe in bikinis in the middle of the schoolyard. It was late August or early September, which, in South Carolina, meant it was still warm enough to warrant relative nakedness. We all lived walking distance from our middle school, so we’d hang out there on the weekends whenever we got bored of watching television and eating crackers topped with cheese we squeezed from an aerosol can. It was unusual for us ‘lay-out’ at the schoolyard, but we must of thought it would be an interesting change of pace or a way to avoid the hassle of the shade trees we always had to work around in our own backyards.
On the walk over, I said something like “I want to roast myself,” which was a phrase I’d picked up somewhere and had been waiting to try out.
Talley snorted derisively and in my head I deleted “wanting to roast” from my vocabulary.
The schoolyard was a quarter mile all the way around. Ringed by a track on the outside, the middle was patchy grass, littered with broken pencils and cigarette butts. I feel a sort of retroactive parental panic when I imagine how exposed we were that day, three girls, laying belly down on our towels in the middle of a field, our eyes closed. Our Georgian school bordered us on one side of the field, but, from the other three, we were visible from the street, our barely clad bodies obscured only by a low chain link fence.
We didn’t see the man as he approached. “Hello” he said, now standing over us. He was in his late thirties or early forties, wearing the same outfit our Dads wore to the office on casual Friday: khaki slacks and a button-down shirt, cuffed and tucked in. I noted his hair was kind of long, not like a woman’s, but like more like a medieval page. It fell over his face as he looked down at us and he brushed it behind his ear with one hand.
“Umm…hi?” Talley said.
The man looked displaced, as if he was also confused about how and why he’d gotten so close to three pre-teens in their swimwear.
“I wanted to…I just wanted to say hi.” he said, sounding embarrassed.
“Ha. Ok. Hi.” said Talley, looking at Claire and I, who were sitting up and wrapping beach towels around the lower halves of our bodies, watching her for further instruction.
The man lingered with his hands on his hips.
“We were about to leave. We have to go home, so…” Talley stood, pulling her towel up under her arms in the same deft motion.
“Oh. No you don’t have to go. It’s OK. I’m…I’m sorry.”
I turned my back to him while I gathered myself, looking instead at Talley and Claire, who looked back at me and each other and I don’t think we felt afraid, I don’t remember feeling afraid, but I know none of us wanted to look at the man anymore and we kept our heads turned away as we walked towards the gap in the chain link fence were we’d entered. I didn’t turn around until we were on the street and by the time I did, he was gone.
Further emails required further details about Chris. Talley continued to determine then describe his habits and activities. She decided Chris was a Baptist and that he attended Unity, like her family. He knew a few parents who were active in the church, including Mr. George, Katie’s dad. Katie was a goodie-two-shoes/teacher’s pet and Miss Williams loved her. Talley figured an association with Mr. George would further endear her victim to the Trojan horse. It worked.
Oh you’re Katie’s teacher? Katie is a wonderful girl. So smart.
Yes. She’s a joy.
For a while, the whole affair was delicious. Miss Williams would slam the door in Talley’s face and Talley would be the one smiling, thinking See you in your inbox, bitch. Though, curiously, the weeks when Talley was emailing with Miss Williams marked a period of unprecedented kindness from the teacher. Her students suspected she’d gotten on meds.
Then Chris Henderson showed up as answer C on a multiple-choice test. This filled Talley with both glee and terror. She’d done it! She’d totally tricked her! Chris was as real as General Sherman! But didn’t this mean Miss Williams was invested? Might investigate? Could there be consequences?
When they got the test back the next day, they went over the answers in class. Jackie Tate, who was a clown, made a big deal about Chris Henderson. “Like who is he?? Is that even a historical figure??”
Miss Williams smirked secretively. She said, “He’s a friend of mine. Katie, your dad knows him too. From church.”
Talley saw all twelve of her years flash before her eyes.
Jackie Tate: “That’s not fair! Katie knew he was an actual guy, not a history person! She had an advantage!”
Talley gripped the bottom of her metal chair.
Katie got defensive. “Just because my dad knows him doesn’t mean I do!”
Miss Williams: “Katie, out of curiosity, have you met Chris?”
“Ummm. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve met him, but that name sounds familiar.”
Katharine, I love you! Talley thought. That name sounds familiar?? It was as good as confirmation. Chris lived and Talley was a Dr. Frankenstein in Limited Too track pants, tiny and victorious.
That night, I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, cradling the handheld phone between my ear and shoulder. “It’s too intense” Talley said. “It’s not fun anymore. But I’m worried if I stop, she’ll try to trace him and what if I get in trouble? Is there anyway she could find out it was me? Could I get arrested???”
“I don’t think so. Hold on, my dad’s a lawyer. Let me ask him.”
We learned nothing from this. Revenge was a constant theme until we graduated from high school and college offered us other outlets—most people got serious boyfriends and I started seeing a therapist.
The late high school incidents had their own special flavor though. They were more abstract, less venomous, as if we were no longer sure why we were acting like this. Our missions devolved into what was, essentially, performance art.
Picture this: two white-haired blondes, visible in a wash of streetlight and star shine. They are identical from a distance, wearing open full-length trench coats as they move across a sprawling lawn, spinning, arms outstretched, each holding an open bag of baking flour. The white powder hangs in the air, a vapor rising and falling, as though each girl is leaving a trail of ghosts behind her.
I watched this from the getaway car. My conscience was becoming meddlesome— only half-formed, it was allowing me to participate less and less, but it still couldn’t overcome my near clinical need to feel close to my friends.
The damage was light: a couple bags of flour, a few rolls of TP, a half carton of eggs from our friend Claire’s parents’ fridge. We were punishing a guy friend of ours for dating someone who wasn’t Talley. Talley didn’t have a crush on him, but, until this new girlfriend, he’d always been at her beck and call. She shrugged “I know this is bad to say, but I like how I used to own him.”
Talley and Claire returned to the car, laughing. We drove away.
Talley and I haven’t talked in years. I fell out of touch with her when I moved to Chicago. She got engaged recently and some mutual friends threw a shower. I considered flying back. “But you haven’t talked to her in forever” my girlfriend protested, “this person doesn’t seem very important to you.”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said, “I’ll always love her.”
I was surprised to hear myself say that, but as I did I knew it was true. We don’t have anything in common now. I have no desire to see Talley more often, or even a need to see her ever again, but yes, I do still love her. And if I try to find a reason for my enduring affection, I can only imagine it’s because we were bad together. When I was younger I used to have so much yearning cramped up inside me. It was undifferentiated, not for anything so much as it was a thing in itself. Being bad was a way to get it out, but I couldn’t do it on my own; by nature, I was neither a bully nor a rebel. Talley helped me be those things.
Six years after Chris, I’d compose Talley’s college admissions essays in exchange for a pair of A-pocket 7 jeans with pink stitching. We got in.
When my mom found out about our admissions fraud, she told me she was “deeply disappointed.” Her reaction surprised me, since writing someone else’s essay felt like a minor moral failing, relatively speaking.
Even in college and beyond, Miss Williams would sometimes come up when I was with friends from home and we’d all laugh about how awful she was, how we heard later she took kids to the liquor store and bought them weed. I’d sometimes talk about Chris. It’s interesting to note that when I talk about Chris, I can still picture him: a man with a wide pleasant face, an open smile, a checked shirt with a collar. I never hear his voice. I mostly see him walking in and out of doorways, raising his right hand to say hello.
Until recently, I felt ashamed about what we’d done, but I still half-believed Miss Williams deserved her fate—giving out all those lunch detentions…what did she expect?
Then Miss Williams died last spring, from an illness the paper only specified as “short.” This was over a decade after we cat-fished her, but it makes it feel worse, not because we had anything to do with her death, but because wrongs-done in a short life weigh more heavily.
When I first told her this story, my girlfriend proposed an alternative narrative: Miss Williams knew Talley invented Chris and was goading her on by putting his name as an answer on the test. I wish that were true. But Talley was a very smart girl and she had me to help her and together we were fully capable of telling a lie.
While it certainly feels cathartic to apologize for wrongs done in the distant past, I think it has very little effect on the person who behaved badly (though, as I make this claim, I know Alcoholics Anonymous disagrees, to the point that saying sorry to everyone you’ve ever hurt is the fifth of their twelve steps). In order for an apology to be transformative, I believe you have to be the same version of yourself that you were when you committed the misdeed. In that case, there’s the potential you might do it again unless you take stock and atone. If you wait too long, age and experience change you into the kind of person who’d never do that bad thing again anyway. It’s not that we all get better and better, but many of us do and, at the very least, our cruelty manifests differently in every phase of our lives.
Of course, an apology could still be meaningful to the person you hurt, but not in this case.
I do think it is productive to examine our old sins though, so we can find the flaws in our empathy that allowed them to happen and make sure those flaws are mended.
Miss Williams was not a nice teacher nor a good one, but her meanness and even her incompetence likely flowed from the same reservoir of hurt we used against her. There was what she did, then there was our fear of who she was, then there was our entitlement, how we believed we deserved to be treated. The last two factors multiplied the weight of the first factor exponentially in our minds. It doesn’t really matter that we didn’t fully know what we were doing, because we did it so effectively.
When I was twelve, I knew how painful it was to want to be loved by someone, to want to be desired, admired, and respected, but I didn’t know those same feelings could exist inside a grown woman. Now that I’m grown, I can confirm those desires persist. And there have been several moments in my life, odd stretches of months, one whole lonely year, when, if I’d found myself alone, up late grading papers, and a message from a friendly stranger popped up on my computer screen, I might have responded. I was lucky in those moments not to have made enemies with a young Talley or, as an accessory, a young me.