I ran to the other side of the world to get away from myself. It’s not that I really thought I could escape myself through travel; it’s that I needed a transformation and there was no way I could have one in the confines of my town or my high school. I’d spent my whole life, my 17 years, trying to fit in and disappear in the crowd. I’d been so successful that even the people standing next to me didn’t see me. I became beige paint. If you asked twenty different people to describe me, they’d all probably say the same thing, or a variation of the same idea: nothing special.
I chose Australia because of its sleek brochure in the student exchange program packet. I imagined myself, new and improved, walking through manicured city parks, going to special events at the famous Sydney Opera House, and learning to surf at nearby beaches. Yes, sign me up for all of that.
The exchange program chose a host family for me in Townsville, Queensland. It’s a small city way up north, near the Great Barrier Reef. So not the Sydney adventure I’d fantasized about, but still, a fresh start.
I imagined the new me in a new school. The teacher would announce, ‘Class, let’s all welcome Sarah. She’s an exchange student from America, and she’ll be spending her senior year with us.’ Everyone would want to hear all about life in America and me. I could make up anything.
* * *
It’s my first night in my host family’s home. We’re all sitting around their dining room table for my welcome dinner. My host father, Bill, grilled up chicken, peppers, and onions. I notice the family eats differently than I do. They hold their forks in their left hands and their knives in their right hands. And they keep the fork and knife in the same hands the whole time—cut, bite, chew, cut, bite, chew. I’m used to cutting a few pieces of meat, putting down the knife, switching the fork into my right hand, and then taking a bite. Their way is much more efficient and elegant. I vow to learn to eat this way too.
My host mother, Linda, is sitting across from me. She says, “Matt wants to study in America.”
I turn toward Matt. He is 16 years old and plays rugby at an all-boys private school. He is handsome with a crooked smile. I’ll be going to a public school, but I hope he’ll introduce me to his friends and invite me out to parties.
He smiles and takes a bite of food with his left hand, fork prongs down. I expect him to say something, but he doesn’t.
“That’s great,” I say, filling the space.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” Linda says, “so we can learn about the program, and, you know, see how it goes with you before we decide—”
I stop chewing and look at her, not sure I heard her right. Linda breaks her train of thought at the sight of my wide eyes. Her pointed nose, thin lips, and pronounced wrinkles had startled me when I first met her at the airport. She is a tiny woman, all angles and lines, and aged beyond her years. There seem to be no soft edges to her.
They ask about my family, and I tell them about my mom and dad, and their jobs. I tell them that I’m an only child. “So I’m excited about having a host brother and sister,” I say.
“Jen’ll drive you crazy,” Matt says.
We laugh along with him, even Jen. She’s 12 years old and awkward. From the family’s photograph that arrived with my information packet, I hadn’t been able to tell whether Jen was a boy or a girl. She wore her hair short and had on a baggy t-shirt and jeans, the same clothes she wears tonight. I was grateful she had an obvious female name, and not Taylor or Casey or something like that, because even in person, it’s hard to tell.
“Oh, I brought you gifts,” I say. “I’ll get them after dinner.”
Jen looks up from her plate. She smiles in my direction. “Awesome. I’ve never gotten anything from America before.”
After Jen, Matt, and I clear the plates, I go into my bedroom to get the gifts. I wish I had wrapped them. A journal for Jen, a candle for Linda, a beach towel for Matt, and a belt for Bill. I regret getting Bill that belt. It’s a ridiculous gift. They’re all ridiculous, really. They don’t have anything to do with America, or my home state of Connecticut. They’re all probably made in China anyway.
Jen is excited about her journal, promising to write in it every night. Linda lights the candle right away and sets it on the kitchen counter. She smiles a genuine smile, and I relax for the first time since my arrival. Matt and Bill are probably confused by their gifts, but they thank me graciously. Bill says he needed a new belt.
We are all on our best behavior for the first couple of weeks. I had learned the rules of “how to be a good exchange student” from the program’s packet: never eat the last of something in the fridge, offer to pay your own bus fare and restaurant meal and movie ticket, keep your room clean, help with the dishes, don’t invite friends over without permission, don’t say anything about your host family that you wouldn’t say in front of them.
I follow these rules to the letter. Well, at first.
“I feel like I took in three university students,” says Linda one afternoon as she looks at the store receipt. Brown paper bags sit on the kitchen counter. “Where is all the food going?”
I pause at the pantry door with a bag of bread and a jar of peanut butter in my hands. Have I been eating too much? My after-school snacks had become more like meals, or like a series of trips to the buffet line. I tell myself that biking to and from school in the tropical temperatures requires more fuel, but really, I am eating out of boredom, and to suppress the creep of homesickness.
Before I got here, I hadn’t thought about the details, the day-to-day. I didn’t have time to think; I just had to get away.
Lunchtime at school is lonely. I sit at a long table of strangers. I fill the hours after school with homework and TV, but the empty weekends are the worst. I sleep in as much as I can to shorten the days. I’ve met a few girls at school, but we’re merely acquaintances. I wonder what they do on the weekends.
An unexpected saving grace is my school’s uniform. In my blue polo shirt and pleated skirt, I blend in with my new classmates from the neck down. It gives me a sense of connection, a shallow replacement for anything real. Suddenly, in a strange country, without my family or friends, I grasp for the familiar. Homogeny is my safe space.
I look at myself under the harsh fluorescent lights in the school bathroom. My brown hair is still limp. My nose is still on the large side. The pimples on my chin are still red. This is the face I bring with me no matter how far I go.
School. Home. Homework. Bed. “Just get through,” is my new motto.
My host brother, Matt, is hardly ever home. Rugby practice keeps him after school every day, with games on weekends. I can’t find my way into his plans. Jen is the only one eager to spend time with me. She wants us to be like real sisters, or best friends, but she acts like a child, even younger than her 12 years. Frankly, she is just plain weird. Even her family thinks so. Her words and her actions are completely unpredictable, and I am always a little on guard around her.
Jen, stop being so silly. These words can be heard coming from any member of the family at least once a day. It is their go-to, catch-all phrase to stop her from continuing whatever odd thing she is saying or doing.
“Dad, what were you and mom fighting about in your room last night?”
“Jen, stop being so silly.”
“Did you know Matt and his girlfriend had sex at her house, while her parents were home?”
“Jen, stop being so silly.”
I don’t say anything. I smile empathetically at Linda, letting her know that I’m on her side. She winks at me. It feels like a thank-you.
After school, I don’t notice that Jen has come into the living room until she turns on the TV. I glance up from the computer for a second, just to point out that she is disturbing me. She flips through the stations and stops at Home and Away. I turn my attention to the show. Eventually, I move over to the corduroy couch where she sits, and I tuck my feet under me.
Jen is unusually quiet. She doesn’t explain the show’s earlier storylines or tell me about characters that are no longer on the show. She lets me be. I relax into my cushion.
And then she says something. I don’t hear her at first. “Hmm?” I glance over at her. She is looking at her hands, pressing her right thumb into the palm of her left hand. Her expression is serious.
“What’s that, Jen? I didn’t hear you.”
“My uncle,” Jen says. Then she hesitates.
“Hmmm mmm.” My eyes and interest return to the TV.
“I need to tell you something.”
I turn to her. “Okay.”
“I need to tell you — my uncle—”
“It’s just that — um.”
“Go ‘head, Jen.”
“He’s hurt me.”
I look at her, at her face, her eyes, her mouth, examining her.
She holds steady, letting her words fill the humid living room.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He — he touched me.”
I don’t ask for details, but she says it happened more than once. She says he is her mother’s brother, and that he lives in another city, a plane ride away.
“Does your mother know?”
“She doesn’t believe me.”
“Oh.” Do I believe you?
“I need you to help me.”
“Jen, I don’t —”
“Will you just help me talk to my mom?”
I look away, to the characters on the screen, to the tile floor. “I don’t know that I’d be any help.” I want to leave the living room, the house, the exchange program. I stutter and stumble my way through a list of people more qualified to help her than I am. I make it out of the room, leaving Jen slumped on the couch, without committing to anything. I want to tell her that in a few years she’ll be able to run away.
That night I find her at the kitchen table, ripping out pages of the journal I’d given her.
Bill sees her, too. “Jen, stop being so silly.”
Jen stops what she’s doing, and without a word, she takes one of the ripped pages, walks over to the other side of the room, and drops it in the trash can. She does this over and over until she throws away every single page.
Everyone tries to ignore her. Linda loudly dices some carrots. Matt puts his headphones on and returns to his homework. And Bill leaves the room all together.
I go to the computer in the living room to work on my college application essays. My essays sit, unfinished, on a disc labeled “Mr. Harrison.” I haven’t worked on them in months, since I stopped working on them with Mr. Harrison. He was one of the young teachers at my high school in Connecticut, and all the girls fell over themselves to get Mr. Harrison to notice them. But I was the one he’d noticed. Well, at first, he mostly noticed my writing. For a persuasive essay assignment, I wrote a mock presidential inaugural address. Mr. Harrison asked me to read it in front of the class, to deliver the speech as if I were the newly elected president. I was embarrassed at first, but when Mr. Harrison started talking about why my speech “worked” I sat up in my seat and absorbed his words. I could have sworn he winked at me when he said, “Sarah, maybe you’ve found your calling.”
After class, he held me back and sat down in the empty seat next to me. It was the end of the school day, and I didn’t need to rush off anywhere. I wouldn’t have anyway. He asked about colleges I wanted to apply to and what I wanted to study. He even offered to read my admissions essays, when I was ready. His elbow scraped up against my forearm and an electric charge ran up my arm and down to my stomach.
A few weeks later, I went to his classroom before school started. I gripped the printout in my hand and prayed my sweaty palms weren’t leaving marks. I tried not to imagine running my fingers through his soft, brown, curly hair. I tried not to imagine running my hands down the front of his crisp, blue, cotton shirt; down his slim, fit khakis. I tried not to.
He stood at the front of the room, writing something on the board. He saw me walk in and gave me a big smile.
I somehow managed to speak. “I know it’s kind of early, but I started working on my personal essay.”
“Oh, that’s great.”
“I was wondering if you’d maybe take a look.”
I thanked him and left the room too quickly.
A couple of days later, he gave the essay back to me. “I made some notes,” he said. “We can go over them if you want. Maybe after school?”
And that’s how it started. We met every couple of weeks after school to work on my admissions essays. I even added another school to my list to keep our meetings purposeful and necessary. I also used the essay prompts to reveal the best parts of myself. See, I’m kind. See, I’m generous. See, I have ambition. See me.
* * *
Since our talk on the couch, Jen has stopped speaking to me. I don’t know how to explain my own silence, so I pretend I don’t notice hers. Then, one afternoon, I find a note in my bedroom. It says, “Please.”
That night, at dinner, I work up the courage to say something. Bill is working late. Matt is at rugby practice. It’s just Linda, Jen, and I sitting around the kitchen table. We’re getting to our last bites. The sun has set. The pendant light hangs over our heads.
I need to get it out before we clear the plates. I turn to Linda and start talking before I know how I’m going to say it. “Jen told me something the other day,” I say. Linda wipes her mouth with her napkin and then sets it back down on her lap.
Jen sits motionless, waiting for me to continue.
“Um, I wanted to tell you about it. I’m not quite sure, but she said that she was, um, hurt by her uncle?”
Linda’s eyes glisten, but she maintains her masked expression. There is little time, no time at all really, between my words and her actions. She stands up and puts her face very close to mine. I see all of her wrinkles, the deep lines that tell her story.
“You listen to me,” she says, “and you listen very closely. This is none of your business. What happens in a family is for the family.” Saliva bubbles form on her lips.
I nod. My leg starts to bounce, or maybe I’m shaking.
“You are a guest in this house, and you will never speak of this again.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I will never speak of this again.
No one says another word. The house is screaming with hostile energy. I can’t even look at Jen. She walks off to her room. I pretend to do my homework in the living room, and I go to bed early.
“I need to borrow your house key,” Bill says the next day. “I lost mine at work.” It sounds temporary, but it isn’t. Another copy never gets made. If no one is home, I have to wait outside. Sometimes I go for long walks around the neighborhood, which has the feel of a middle-class neighborhood in Florida: single-story ranches with parched grass, skinny palm trees, and bleached sidewalks. Sometimes, when I just don’t have the patience to wait or walk, I break in through my bedroom window.
Jen begins to take out her anger on me any time we’re home alone. She screams and yells. She tells me everyone hates me and wants me to go home. She points out all of the things I’ve come here to change about myself. She calls me unpopular, unfit, boring, ugly.
I start leaving for school a little earlier in the morning. There’s a phone box just outside the bike pen. If I get there at 7:00 am, I can talk to my dad for ten minutes before the bell rings. It’s 4:00 pm the previous day in Connecticut. Inside the scratched and marked-up plexiglass shelter, I feel safe. My dad fills me in on what’s going on back home. I close my eyes and picture it all, as if I’m there.
I don’t call my mom as often, because I’m afraid she’ll hear the sadness in my voice and want me to come home. I can’t go back, not until after graduation, and I can’t tell her why.
I don’t tell either of them what is really going on. I tell them I’m making friends and having fun. I tell them my host family is kind. I tell them I miss them, and I’m a little bit homesick. I can’t help but tear up when I tell them that part. Every time. But my dad says to stay strong and stick it out. Every morning before school, he gives me the pep talk I need to stay one more day.
“Thanks, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Honey. We’re so proud of you. Talk to you tomorrow.”
My history teacher takes our class to the school library to give us class time to work on our research projects. Angela, who showed me around my first day of school, sits at the computer next to me. She asks me how it’s going.
At first I smile. I know what I’m expected to say — that everything’s going well. But there’s something about her kind face that makes me want to tell her something real. “I’m locked out of my house.”
Her hazel eyes go wide. “No!”
I tell her what’s going on, except for the truth about my host sister. I just say that she’s weird and really mean to me.
After class, Angela invites me to sit with her and her friends at lunch. They are going to a field hockey game after school. Some of them play, some of them just go to hang out. They invite me to come along. They invite me along!
I leave a message for my host family on their answering machine.
“Hi, it’s Sarah. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to go to a field hockey game after school. Some friends invited me — we’ll probably get something to eat too. Okay — Bye.”
Field lights bounce off the aluminum stands. Our backpacks act as armrests and dinner trays and the McDonald’s bags as placemats. Angela is out on the field. Her friends and I watch the game, well, watch the running and the stick swinging. I don’t care much about the details.
Beside me, on the metal bleacher, the blonde girl named Tracy smiles. “Do you have a boyfriend back home?”
I decide not to lie. “Mmm, no.”
“Then you can have some fun while you’re here,” Tracy says, raising her eyebrows.
“I guess,” I say, trying to play it cool.
When I get home, the door to the house is locked. Jen lets me in, and she seems put out by the effort. “My parents are mad at you,” she says.
I walk past her to the kitchen. Linda is drying dishes. Bill is reading some papers on the counter.
“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Linda says.
Bill looks up at me but stays quiet.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I say.
Linda clicks her tongue. “Not coming home when you’re expected. Not telling us where you are?” she says.
“No, I — I — Didn’t you get my message?”
Jen speaks up. “Nope. I checked the machine when I got home from school. No message.”
“I’m sorry. I thought I left one. I must have called the wrong number, or something.”
“Make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Linda says.
“Of course,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”
“Are you going to ground her?” Jen asks.
I pick up my backpack and walk down the hall to my room. I know Linda’s response before I hear her say it aloud. “Don’t be…” and I close the door behind me.
The next day at lunch, I tell Angela what happened.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she says.
“I know,” I say. “I guess I’m just gonna try to keep my distance”
“I was going to ask you anyway, I swear this isn’t a pity invite, but there’s a party on Friday. You should come, and then just stay at my house.”
“Really?” I must look like a smiling fool. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
“We’ve got to get you the hell out of that house.” She smiles at me like an ally and a co-conspirator. I feel the relief that escape can bring.
* * *
I met him at this party, in a circle of lawn chairs in a friend of a friend’s backyard. My red cup is filled with vodka and red juice. His name is Philip, and he goes to another public school in the city. He isn’t the surfer-type I had fantasized about, but he pays attention to me. He is the first to do that. I take his attention as a replacement for attraction.
We kiss that night. It’s messy and awkward.
“You kiss differently in America,” he says.
I blame the vodka punch.
The next morning, I have something to talk about with my girlfriends, a story to tell. They let me gush before saying anything. They know him. They know about him.
Angela pours milk on her cereal. “He’s kind of a wanker, Sarah, I mean, from what I’ve heard.”
Tracy chimes in from the kitchen table. “I’ve heard he’s a real shit head.”
I watch the red light in the toaster, and say, “He seemed nice enough. Nice to me anyway.”
“Nah, trust us. A real shit head that one,” Angela says, taking a seat next to Tracy.
I look at them sitting there, waiting for me to agree. I nod and turn back to my toast.
But when he calls a few days later, my friends’ warnings are too distant to be heard. He wants to know if I’ll be at another party the next weekend. We’ll meet up there, he says. In my head, I call it a date.
I wear a white skirt and blue tank top. I wear a red bra, so he’ll see the straps peek out on my shoulders.
“You look like a slut,” says Jen. She’s standing in my bedroom doorway.
I don’t respond.
“Where are you going?”
I pick up my purse. “Nowhere, Jen. Just a friend’s.”
“You look stupid,” she says.
“Thanks. I gotta go.” I move past her, scraping my back against the doorjamb. I wait down the street for Angela to pick me up.
As soon as we walk through the front door of the house, I look for Philip. I find him in the kitchen, sitting on the counter with a beer in his hand. It doesn’t take long for him to hop down from the counter and lead me to a room down the hall.
It’s someone’s bedroom. The only light in the room comes from streetlights, through open window blinds. The bed is low to the ground and unmade. A dark blue blanket is pushed off to the side, tangled up with a wrinkled white sheet. He closes the door behind me. I want to go back out to the party.
“Hey,” he says as he moves in closer.
My voice quivers. “Hey.”
He kisses me against the door. I taste his beer and breathe in the salty sweat that dampens his skin. He lifts my tank top over my head, exposing my red bra. He grips my arms, still over my head, and pushes them into the wood door. Looking into his eyes, I don’t see Philip anymore. I see Mr. Harrison.
I see him lock the classroom door and I hear him say, “Shhh. It’s okay. No one can see us in here.” He steps slowly toward me, then, past the desks. I move away until my back hits the wall. Inches separate us. He unzips my jeans. I try not to breathe. I search his face for understanding, but up close his features are unrecognizable. With one hand on my waist, he turns me around to face the wall and holds my wrists in place. I close my eyes and go somewhere else, so I don’t feel the pressure between my legs, or the tearing.
I press my lips together to muffle my cry. When Philip is done, I lie still on the narrow bed, my eyes fixed on the ceiling. I stare at a thin stress crack in the plaster that winds its way toward the door. My skin feels cold and raw. I reach my arm off the side of the bed and feel around the carpet for my clothes. My fingers find someone else’s t-shirt. This is supposed to be the story I could tell my friends.
Philip rolls off the bed and looks toward the far window. I stare at his back, the movement of his back muscles as he picks up his clothes and pulls on his shirt.
He tells me not to talk about this with anyone. “Don’t be a fucking schoolgirl,” he says.
“I’m not,” I say.
He leans over the bed and puts his face up to mine. I think he’s going to kiss me. Instead, he steadies himself. He looks me directly in the eye, maybe for the first time. “Good. Then maybe we can do this again sometime.”
He pushes off the bed and stands up. I clench someone else’s shirt to my neck as he turns to leave. I roll over, toward the window, so I don’t have to watch him walk out.
The sheets feel moist and dirty. The dark blue blanket hangs onto the corner of the mattress. I give it a quick kick to the floor and find my underwear. My skirt and tank top are in a small heap next to the door with my bra — my red bra. I dress slowly and slide my feet into my flip flops. I leave the room, on shaky legs.
“You okay?” It’s Angela. She’s headed to the bathroom.
“Yeah. Yeah.” I follow her through the bathroom door.
I try to freshen up at the sink while she pees. I drink from the faucet and rinse the sour taste from my mouth.
“What happened?” she says.
I can’t look at her. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. In my head, I hear Linda’s dismissive voice, Don’t be silly. I don’t say anything; this is my secret to keep—my second. I splash my face with water to buy more time to think. Don’t be silly.
I still don’t look at her. “Nothing,” I say with my face dripping into the sink. I grab a hand towel and check myself in the mirror. I don’t look at my wet eyes. Don’t be silly. I let them go dull. “But you were right. Philip’s a loser.” I finally look at her, but not at her eyes. I focus on her nose, her forehead. I smile and go to the door. “Can we just leave? I want to get out of here.”