I don't know why they called it Grove. The campus was surrounded by roads and telephone poles. An invisible fence kept us in, encapsulated in a world formed by specific standards and rules. I stumbled over boundaries right away: fell in love with the wrong boy, made the wrong friend. Patrick and Gwen taught me how to resist feeling entrapped by Grove. It was supposed to be a special schoolprogressivebut it was just another loony bin. We were delinquents, addicts, mental cases, orphans and kids from broken homes. We ranged from nuts to normal. Everyone had a peculiar story, a schism in their past through which they'd fallen into Grove. Except me. I didn't know why I was sent there, not at first.
It was 1973. Meeting Gwen was the beginning. We met on my second day at school; I was one day ahead of her in the Great Grove Indoctrination, but she knew so much more.
She was due at any moment and I had to get ready fast. I rushed into our room directly after classes, and dropped my books on my neatly made bed. Gwen's, across the room, was still a naked mattress. I didn't want her to find me in the blue woollen jumper that fit Grove's dress code, but not me. My real clothes were faded denims with ripped knees, a black tee-shirt with a big yellow sun on the front, and my good old beat-up red ProKeds. The jumper had a long zipper in the backthe kind you can never reachand just when I got it halfway down, the nasty metal teeth took a bite of my bushy hair. I only brushed it once a day, in the morning; the rest of the time it went wild. Now it was snagged in the zipper. I arched back and just managed to reach the knot of metal and hair.
'Practicing your yoga?'
I twisted round and saw a blond girl with two huge suitcases standing in the doorway.
'My hair's caught!'
She walked over, gently freed my hair and pulled the zipper down.
'There,' she said, and looked around the room: at the unclaimed bed in the corner, with its old stained mattress and pile of starched white sheets at the foot; at the small beaten dresser next to it; at the warped wooden floor; at the cream-colored cinderblock walls.
'I guess that's my bed,' she said. 'I guess you're my roommate.'
Gwen was wiry and cute. Her hair was silky straight and defined by a perfect side part. A sky-blue tee-shirt clung to her small breasts.
'It's not so bad, I guess.' Her voice strained as she dragged her suitcases across the room, clomping in platform shoes. 'I've been in worse. Posters and throw rugs will help, maybe a little incense.'
I am an only child and wasn't used to undressing in front of others. So I sat on my bed in the blue jumper, zipper fanned open across my back, and told her about what she'd missed on the first day of school.
'We're only allowed off campus on Saturday afternoons,' I said. 'We can go to the mall down the road and get what we need. Usually after classes you get half an hour to change for activities. Activities sign-up isn't until tomorrow, so this afternoon is free.'
'I don't believe in schedules and rules,' she said, and snapped open the latches of the biggest suitcase. She was so neat. Clothes came out of her suitcase in perfect piles and went into her dresser in perfect piles. She made her bed with hospital corners, then covered it with a red-striped Indian bedspread, making sure the edge fell to an inch above the floor all around. She carefully arranged her things on her dresser: comb, nail file, jewelry box, lava lamp, roach clip. I mentioned that, according to school rules, roach clips were strictly forbidden, not that I cared.
'Because if they catch you doing anything wrong'
'What's wrong about a roach clip? Jesus.' She rolled her eyes.
'No drugs, no drinking, no sex. No drug paraphernalia.'
'Sure, sure, sure.'
'No, really. They'll expel you for that. Patrick told me all about it. He's my boyfriend.'
She eyed me. 'Boyfriend?'
'How long have you been here?'
'Just since yesterday.'
'Fast worker.' She winked.
'Patrick was here last year and he told me all about it. They'll expel you for any little rule you break.'
'Let them. I don't want to be here anyway.'
'But if they know you want to leave, they won't expel you, they'll room you or anything but let you go. It's complicated. Basically what it comes down to is they won't let you have what you want.'
'Yeah, just like every-fuckin-where else.'
'If you do want to be here and they expel you, then you have to talk your way back in. Patrick said that means telling them what they want to hear.'
'I'm not sure. So far I think it's just Silvera. He's the principal.'
But from what I had heard, you did follow the rules or get into big trouble.
After a while, Gwen began to tell me about herself. Her parents had been divorced since she was a baby. She said she'd had so many stepmothers she couldn't even count them, and that her father was engaged again. Her mother was an alcoholic who managed to hold down a job as a secretary, but had let everything else fall into disarray. Gwen alone had kept their home in New Jersey clean. But no repairs had been made on the house since her father had left fourteen years ago, and it was falling apart. Gwen said, 'It's hopeless, you know?' with a matter-of-factness that saddened me. She seemed so tough and cool. She swore she would never go back home, ever.
'So what about you? Parents divorced?'
The question startled me. 'No. Mom and Dad are pretty solid.'
'So why'd they send you here?'
'I don't know, they just did.'
'You shitting me?'
'There's something they're not telling you.'
'I don't know, but take it from me, when the closet door's locked there's always a skeleton rattling inside.'
'Actually,' I lied, 'I wanted to go away. Nothing ever happened. I got sick of it, you know?'
'Do I know! But what I got sick of was something was always happening. Every time my mother heard about my father getting married again, she'd go on a binge. Drunk for weeks. It was terrible.'
'How would she find out? Do they speak?'
'Nah. I guess she hears about it from me. I know it would be better if I kept my mouth shut, but you know how it is.
One thing leads to another.' She curled her toes until the joints cracked.
'I'm glad my parents aren't divorced,' I said.
'It's not as bad as it sounds. They lose their united front routine. You get to do more what you want. That's sort of why I'm here. I mean, I got to doing some things my therapist thought were putting me on the wrong road.' She grinned. 'Anyway, it really wasn't so bad. I was selling a little dope on the side, made some bucks. So they took it all and sent me here. Raw deal. Parents are all crooks. I know as a fact my last step-mom got high all the time. She turned me on once.'
'Do you smoke?'
'I never liked cigarettes.'
'Oh! Yeah, sometimes.' Another lie. The truth was, I had never smoked marijuana. She opened an enamel box on her dresser and pulled out a fat white joint. She ran it under her nose, then twirled it between her thumb and forefinger.
'Maybe later I'll get you off.'
I shrugged. 'Sure, maybe.'
She threw her legs over the side of her bed. 'Hey, I'll show you something else if you promise to keep this between us.' She leaned over and pulled a suitcase out from under the bed. She popped open the latches and lifted the top. From under neatly folded piles of sweaters, she extracted a glossy magazine. Before I could see what it was, she tossed it over to me. I just barely caught it. It was a copy of Playgirl, picturing a hairy, musclebound man in a pair of black fishnet underpants. His hands rested on his hips and he smiled coyly at the reading public. I dropped it on the floor, where the pages fanned apart and fell open to an article titled 'Woman, Know Yourself: The Male Animal in All of Us.'
Gwen laughed. 'Oops.' She jumped up and retrieved the magazine. 'Guess you're not quite ready for this.'
'That's okay,' I said. 'It's just not my thing.'
She smirked. 'Girls don't have things. Or maybe you haven't discovered that yet.' She hid the magazine beneath the sweaters and slid the suitcase back under the bed. 'Any time you want to read it, you know where it is.'
She had a black lace negligee hidden in a rainboot at the back of the closet, a pack of rolling papers in the pocket of a pair of old jeans which she kept permanently at the bottom of her laundry hamper, and a can of forbidden hairspray concealed in a deodorant wrapper right on the bathroom shelf. She told me that no one else in the whole world knew about any of these things, and made me swear on my life that I would never breathe a word of it to anyone, even Patrick. I promised. But as the first week of school progressed, I realized she was putting various other girls in the dorm through the same paces. It was her way of creating a network of trust: secrets bound people to her. I didn't understand her, and thought she was different. But she wasn't that different in content, just in style. Other people had secrets, too.
© Katia Lief