by Carola Dibbell
Girl Talk is a novel I finished 20 years ago that broke my heart. I wrote and rewrote it and got so depressed by rejections that I finally vowed never to pick the thing up again, yet here I am.
The story of a romantic friendship between two schoolgirls on the eve of the great feminist movement of the late 60s, it was very ambitious. I wanted to explore the fine line between friendship and love affair, see what happened if I treated this book-length conversation about girl stuff as if it were Wuthering Heights—brooding melodrama, stormy weather! Revisiting the opening, with that Peyton Place joke I doubt anyone will get today (“Indian summer is like a woman,” Grace Metalious famously opened her 1956 potboiler), I was so struck by its zany energy that I immediately began to conceive ways to use what I’ve since learned about writing novels to get the rest of this one into shape.
It’s an odd feeling. Here I am, having debuted The Only Ones at 70, a slow writer with who knows how many productive years ahead. Do I want to devote who knows how long to giving this old novel the life I dreamed of for it? Or do I want to leave it on the shelf and see what else happens instead?
Indian summer came to Boston like a man that year. Played the gentleman at first. Helped you with your coat. Next thing you knew, half your clothes were off—down and dirty on the lawn, skirt up. Then it was over. You woke up and the sun was gone, the grass damp, and Indian summer had just skipped town like the guys your mother warned you not to trust. Too soon. Too late. By four in the afternoon the temperature was on its way to 50, and by half past, dark was already closing in when a bus stopped at a place called Gurleigh Corners to discharge a single passenger, who was no gentleman herself.
The Corners were on the gloomy side in the best light—an elaborately ugly old nursing home loomed across the avenue, while a grim iron fence rose behind the bus shelter where our traveler stood hastily buttoning a thin black jacket while the bus rolled away. It was a boyish jacket. She was a boyish girl—token breasts, short hair, and short and sloppy boots. She wore a skirt, true, but this was long ago. The year was 1965. The rules were different. Even boyish girls were obliged to wear skirts to classes and sometimes meals at the dull little college where she now headed, hunched against the cold, and shivering.
A sort of lane lined with bushes exited left a few hundred feet downhill. Our traveler took it at a run, then hung a right off that till she came to a vine-covered brick wall marked by a simple metal sign that read GURLEIGH WOMEN’S over an archway through which she scooted, ending up in a small, drab quadrangle comprising six buildings, three trees, and a dying lawn. She kept running, hands in armpits, hunched over so far with cold on her path that at first she failed to realize she was not alone in the darkening quad. But in a moment, raising her gaze to the end of the yard, where a flight of steps rose to a white door in one ivy-choked building, she noticed a very pale girl seated on a stone bench, staring into space.
The first girl slowed down. Even from this little distance, she could see how pale this other girl was, and how her body swayed. This girl seemed on the verge of some kind of collapse. Still, the first girl was still new to this school and unfamiliar with her classmates habits but had had the impression they collapsed fairly often. Perhaps this mattered less to them than her. Her dormitory turnoff was at hand; perhaps she should turn off, leave this girl to it and be on her way.
But she stopped.
She could hear a low growl from somewhere, like a dog’s, as she stood hesitating. It was the wind outside the small and sheltered space where these two were the only ones in sight. Finally she shouted, “Hello? On the bench? Is something wrong?” Her voice ricocheted from bare tree to bare tree to dirty brick to ivy-covered wall until it hit the other girl who stiffened, leaned forward, and shifted her gaze downward to the darkening quad till she recognized Sydney Gardner, shifting weight on her path, in the cold.
“I don’t know!” this girl shouted. Then she did collapse. Just fell forward, while Sydney watched helplessly, wondering why this always happened to her. Because, since her arrival at this second-rate little college, it always did.
She was always finding girls in trouble, damsels in distress. She was always volunteering to be their knight in armor. Yet when it came down to it she never knew what to say. “Want to talk?” she ventured.
The second girl merely held up one white hand; the other was pressed over her mouth. Then her hairdo collapsed. It had been a French bun.
Sydney Gardner’s hands were bare and red. So were her knees. The girl on the bench wore a skimpy crocheted mini, velvet jacket, and sheer white patterned stockings under patent-leather heels, which her purse matched. Both girls were seriously underdressed, but at least Sydney’s thin black jacket was lined. “Want to go inside?” she yelled.
Sometimes Sydney felt she’d read her story in a hard-boiled mystery. There had to be 50 colleges in 40 miles. Why’d she ever have to walk into this one?
There was an answer, though. Money. She’d needed some. Pronto. Gurleigh Women’s College had some to spare. For this was long ago, and scholarships grew on trees.
Gurleigh offered an education major, a work-study program, and the chance to take courses at a men’s college nearby, but Sydney, who’d just lost an Ivy League scholarship due to pure carelessness was not the only Gurleigh girl whose motives were not strictly academic. The other girls were a mostly unambitious lot, for whom Gurleigh was a place to kill time before marriage.
In the end, Sydney simply took matters into her own cold hands, raced up the steps, opened the white door, and held it for the collapsing girl, whose name was Kitty Kane.
On the other side of the door was a stairway. The girls took it down one flight. They’d entered the small Gurleigh library. There was a counter by the entrance, reading rooms upstairs, and downstairs a sort of lounge—a bubbler and a hot drinks machine with a wood bench wedged between, where the two were soon seated.
Sydney cleared her throat. “What seems to be the problem?” For if there was one thing she’d learned from her six weeks here, it was that there usually was one.
They could smell varnish from the wainscotting, and disinfectant from the nearby ladies room. They could hear someone open a window upstairs.
This problem was usually boys.
Kitty Kane sighed.
Sydney Gardner waited uneasily.
Kitty sighed again. At 20, right smack on the cusp between girl and woman, she had a curved brow and chin, round eyes, a pout, an hourglass figure, and a tragic air—when she sighed, her breasts actually heaved, so violently that they looked like at any second they might just pop right out of her jacket. Sydney tried not to stare too obviously. If she sometimes read her own life like a hard-boiled thriller, this girl’s would be a bodice-ripper.
A window was slamming shut somewhere as Kitty’s bosom kept on heaving. Up—this was a breath so deep it looked like it would absolutely do her straining buttons in. Down—a little sound came out, a sort of sob. She slumped lower and lower on the bench until, when she’d gone as far as she could go, she covered her face; Kitty Kane was laughing, in sobs. Then, just as abruptly, Kitty dropped her hands, and before Sydney had even gotten her bearings was talking to her as if she’d done it all her life.
“This morning I had a call from Steven Geller? My ex-boyfriend? With the ex-girlfriend? Well! He said,” Kitty paused to rummage in her patent leather bag, found a pack of mentholated cigarettes, plucked one out, went on, “he’d just been thinking about me, and,” stuck its tip between her plump lips, murmured, “he was starting to appreciate me,” made a few stabs with a match, lit up, inhaled, and continued, through smoke, “I said, well, Steven, I’m really flattered that you feel that way . . . but . . .” Here her words trailed off, and her pale eyes began to wander aimlessly about the little alcove. They were huge eyes, made bigger still by sorrow and eyeliner, which was smudged.
Sydney cleared her throat. No reaction. Sydney tried again. Same thing. The other girl had lost her thread for good. Sydney leaned forward to help.
But Kitty got there first. “I’m not sure I feel the same!” she hissed. Then she fell silent again. So did Sydney.
There was a lull while they sat in silence, broken only by the muffled sounds of girls on other floors.
But Sydney was thinking: she never learned. She always thought one day she’d figure out the right thing to say. She never did. If she said something at all, it was the wrong thing. As a play for time, Sydney undid the leather buttons on her shabby jacket. Under these buttons were more buttons—Sydney’s vest. And under these, Sydney’s concave chest jumped slightly. Sydney was clearing her throat again. She’d thought of something to say.
Now, the new school of women’s rights just a few years down history’s road might go on to suggest that girls like Sydney, rising now to study the drinks machine, had no real choice in life at all. Whoever said that never saw this drinks machine. Coffee could be black, or light, or dark, or black with sugar, and so forth. The tea had all those variations, too. And there was soup. Buttons for everything. Sydney stood for a moment too overwhelmed to notice that Kitty’s sighs had reached gale proportions.
Up!—like a rogue wave in the ocean, then, boom! Down! “Actually, it’s a little more complicated than it sounds. It’s a pretty long story.” Up, up, up. Down! “We’ve always had certain—problems. We’d been together about a year. Steven can be very sweet. And he’s really pretty cute. But—” And here, Kitty’s small white fingers finally pitied those straining gray velvet buttons, which she freed. On the other side of the buttons was a gray crocheted dress. On the other side of the crocheting, the source of the heaves: Kitty struggling with her feelings. Up, down, up! “When I first met Steven I was,” and in the end, the feelings won, “—in love with someone else.”
From an upper stairwell there was a sudden whoop, a lot of clumping, and sudden silence. A cup popped out of the drinks machine. A stream of coffee gushed in. Meanwhile, something had happened to Sydney Gardner. This all seemed perfectly familiar to her, as if it had happened before. She mumbled, “Sorry, I just got one of those . . .”
Kitty went on without batting an eye, “So, since things started out like they did . . .”
One thin red hand was on Sydney’s puzzled brow. But even as she reached for the cup with the other—as if the words were written on its cardboard side—she saw a name for Kitty’s problem: “You blamed yourself.”
“I really did,” said Kitty.
Sydney handed her the drink.
Kitty was actually a very pretty girl. Her hair was a mess, her makeup too, there was a hole in one of her stockings, but she was the sort who looked good that way—she had a little too much symmetry for her own good.
Not Sydney—her nose leaned to the left, the knuckles of her hands were knobby, she had freckles, she had cowlicks, and while her haircut wasn’t that strange if you considered she’d done it herself, if you didn’t, it was. Kitty’s hair was thick and shiny. She had a curved brow and those plump lips. Clean fingernails, a charm bracelet, a tiny waist.
With those plump lips, Kitty took a sip.
Sydney cleared her throat in a businesslike way. “And that first boy—who you were in love with. What was wrong with him?”
Kitty nodded matter-of-factly, “I didn’t respect him.”
A girl rushed down the stairs and into the ladies room, looking back over her shoulder at the other two. But Sydney’s eyes were turning back to the drinks buttons. For there she seemed to see, as she’d seen the name for Kitty’s problem, its solution. “Kitty?” she said. She hesitated for a moment. “That boy you don’t respect?” Then she snapped her fingers. “He’s your man. I’m not kidding. I personally don’t sleep with any other type myself. I really recommend it. The sex is better—you can relax. You’d be amazed! Take matters into your own hands. Break men’s hearts. Someone has to be the bully. Why not us? Know what I mean?”
But Kitty didn’t seemed to. She looked scared.
So Sydney Gardner had done it again. Scared a girl. How could she? She always did this. All girls wanted was sympathy. All she gave was advice. Cut your hair. Change your point of view. It worked for her. She just confused them. Sydney tried to take it all back. “Of course, that’s just me. I could be wrong. I’m sure I’m wrong,” she went on, grabbing her own drink and sinking down beside Kitty.
A bell rang, first warning for dinner.
Kitty said miserably, “Sometimes I think I don’t respect any men.”
That was a complete surprise. “Now you’re talking!”
Kitty only sighed, adding, “But then sometimes I think I’m just really deceiving myself and really,” she sighed again, “I’m covering up for the fact that I’m hurt that they don’t respect me.”
Another girl emerged from periodicals and rushed to dinner. “Well,” Sydney said, brightly. But she was stumped. And she was hungry. Yet Kitty, looking closer and closer to tears, had more to say. “But then sometimes I think, well, if they don’t respect me, as far as me disrespecting them, even if that’s just a defense . . .” and she paused, as if to be sure Sydney was following her line of thought, before turning it inside out, “I’m right.”
Already hungry, Sydney was getting dizzy here too. “You probably just need a little time.”
“I told him I’d give him my answer tomorrow!”
“Fuck him,” Sydney said, exasperated.
Kitty lowered her eyes.
And Sydney, noticing again Kitty’s smeared makeup, sloppy hair, and general daze, realized, “You just did. How’d it go?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
They could hear girls thumping down the stairs above, on their way to their dorms to eat, but these two remained side by side, holding their empty cardboard cups, till Sydney asked, hopefully, “Going to supper?”
Kitty shook her head. “I’m off-campus. I just get lunch.”
Sydney said, “Well . . .”
Outside, everything had changed. Not only had night fallen, rain had too. Dormitory lights blazed across the quad; paths gleamed with puddles. The two girls buttoned up their jackets, shivering. Then, one white hand clutching her throat, dark hair falling in her face, Kitty collapsed again, briefly, in laughs. To her surprise, Sydney did, too. Kitty gasped, “We really must get together!” and stumbled off down the steps. But when she reached the bottom, she turned back. “I knew you would understand.” Then she was gone.
And Sydney stood utterly at a loss, hugging her books, watching the darkness swallow Kitty Kane.
Carola Dibbell grew up in Greenwich Village and graduated from Hunter High School and Radcliffe College. She taught infant school in London and pre-school in New York and participated in many women’s groups and actions before starting to publish journalism and fiction in the 70s. Her short stories have appeared in the Paris Review, The New Yorker, Fence, and Black Clock and her rock criticism, profiles, and reviews of books, films, and children’s media mostly in the Village Voice. Her debut novel, The Only Ones, is a dystopic tale about a bizarre reproductive experiment.