Ingrid lived with her family in a ramshackle farmhouse twenty-five miles from town. To get there, you had to drive over rolling hills, past the lowing and milling of cows, past the cemetery where her little sister was buried.
There were goats and ducks and cats in the yard, a matted collie who sighed and scratched, bit savagely at his sores. The parrot trilled in the kitchen, imitating her parents’ hushed arguments, the ringing of the phone. Ferrets and chinchillas scrabbled in their cages, the smell of urine-soaked sawdust jabbing the air.
There was a small room off of the kitchen, barely bigger than the piano it housed. Ingrid called me every day as she played, placing the phone on her lap as I sat silent on the other end. Für Elise and Riders on the Storm spangled through the wires, muffled by her jeans, the strong legs she hated hidden beneath.
In the living room sat the couch her father overturned the day their horse ran away, spilling us onto the floor.
Mary’s gone, he’d said, looking hard out the window, as though the sight of us made him sick. Go find her.
In the front room, Ingrid’s little brother hunched in the dark in shapeless t-shirts, playing frothy, explosive computer games.
Sometimes I saw him peeking through the curtains as we came and went.
Upstairs, Ingrid’s bedroom, with its queasy waterbed where we lay next to each other on weekends, my arms plastered to my sides.
One night, lying in that bed, I told her about the girl I liked.
At first, I thought she was asleep. I talked and talked. I watched her closed eyes, the rise and fall of her chest, her steady breaths in and out. But then she thrashed her legs. She punched the bed. She turned away so she was facing the wall.
You’re not gay, she said. I’d know if you were. Still. It’s embarrassing the way you sound when you talk about her. You should stop.
After that, I made sure to talk only about boys. I lay on my back, detailing miniature encounters in the school halls. The water sloshed as I moved my hands for emphasis.
This, Ingrid liked.
But then what did he do, she’d ask. But what did he say?
I didn’t! the parrot shouted from downstairs around dawn, as Ingrid slept and I tossed and turned. Brrrrring! Not me! Not me!
Stuck in one corner of Ingrid’s mirror was a photograph of a boy. We watched him after school from the window of her father’s pickup truck. Running down the soccer field. The blotched bloom of his cheeks. Sagging socks, legs stippled with goldeny-brown hair.
We’d drive off into the scrubby underbrush, wildflowers tangling with weeds. She’d put her schoolbag over her lap, snake her hand down her jeans.
I get so anxious, she’d tell me.
I’d stare out the window, my face burning.
Tell me if anyone’s coming, she’d say. Keep a good watch.
It’s an obsessive friendship, my father always said when Ingrid dropped me off afterwards, the truck idling in our driveway long after I went in.
There was a wrongness in one of us, is what he meant by that. But I could never tell where he imagined it began. Who he held accountable.
After awhile, I’d hear Ingrid backing out onto the street. The thunder rumble of the engine, wheels spitting sharp stones into our yard.
I’d sit in my room and imagine her progress home: the thrum of air racing through cranked-down windows as the truck hurtled down country roads. Ingrid’s eyes fixed forward, her mouth set in a line. How she always tried not to look as she flew past the cemetery.
I’d trace Ingrid’s steps through her house: in the front door and past the kitchen, the parrot flapping and singing. Up the stairs and into her bedroom. Past the kicked-off shoes, the crumb-littered plates, the jars on the dresser with their loamy, wilted flowers, their ever-evaporating water.
I’d follow her off into the corner, where I knew she liked to sit, her back to the wall. The corner with its cobwebs, its downy clouds of dust and fur, the wicker wastebasket she never emptied. And in the wastebasket, the letter I had labored over for hours, trying to get each word right, in the days after her little sister drowned in the pond behind her house.