from The Shallow End

Katie Cotugno
Photo courtesy jdurham,

The summer after sophomore year, my friend Emily had a miserable crush on this guy Steve from student government, which is how we wound up at that party where the hockey player got shoved into the pool and broke his neck.

The cops came to Emily’s house the next afternoon. We were sitting in her basement rec room in our pajamas, eating frozen grapes and pretending we were too cool for the iCarly rerun her sister was watching. Emily was using the flatiron on my hair. She flatironed both of us every day that summer, filling the afternoons with the warm smell of steam and burning—it was this thing she had us doing, along with wearing boat shoes and rope bracelets, because she thought it made her look less Jewish and me look less Italian. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop Emily from trying.

She was only half-finished when her mother came careening down the stairs, weirdly fleet despite her considerable bulk: “Were you at that party?” she shrieked. In addition to eavesdropping, which she considered her right as a parent, Mrs. Birnbaum watched Channel 12 incessantly, as local as local news gets; odds are she would have sniffed us out eventually, even without the aid of the two Sleepy Hollow detectives standing patiently in her cool, dark foyer. We’d told her we were going to our friend Amanda’s to eat brownies. “I swear to God, girls, don’t you dare try and lie to me.”

“Oooh,” crowed Tovah, Emily’s little sister, her skinny legs hanging off the arm of the leather couch. Emily’s eyes were wide and disbelieving. I could feel my heartbeat pulsing thickly in my throat. “You guys are in trouble.”

We weren’t, really. At least, not with the police. We sat at the Birnbaums’ dining room table for half an hour and answered their questions with the cowed deference of two habitual rule-followers who’d played against type and gotten caught: had we in fact been at Morgan French’s party on Birch Street the night before, along with roughly fifty of our classmates? Had we witnessed and/or participated in underage drinking? Did we know Greg O’Halloran, the junior who was now in a coma at Westchester Medical Center, and did we have any idea who might have shoved him into the pool?

“I had Chem with him,” Emily told them. She had reached for the closest thing to fiddle with, this bowl of fake Pottery Barn seashells her mom kept on the table in the summertime, and was dragging the jagged edge of a broken sand dollar under her thumbnail. Both of us were honor-roll kids. My dark hair was still only half-straight. “But other than that, no.”

I’d never talked to Greg either, this benignly likable kid with a noisy laugh and a pretty girlfriend; he wore cargo shorts even in the winter and a hemp necklace with a clay bead on it printed with the letter G. I thought of Fiona Blake, the most popular girl in our grade, and wondered if the cops had come to sit at her dining room table, too.

“Are you going to press charges?” Mrs. Birnbaum asked when they were finished, gathering themselves to go. One of them had written down everything we’d said in a little green spiral notebook. “For the drinking?”

“I’d say that’s unlikely, ma’am,” one of the detectives, not the note-taker, told her. His nose was big and red in a way that made me think of a strawberry. We’re more concerned with piecing together the events leading up to the assault at this point. There were a lot of teenagers in that house.”

Mrs. Birnbaum nodded grimly, a look on her face like teenager was possibly synonymous with ferret or grenade launcher. She thanked them three different times before she closed the door. “You,” she hissed at Emily once they were gone, her expression livid. “Get upstairs until I can look at you again.” Then she turned to me. “And you can stay right where you are, Gabby. I’m calling your mother.”

“Her mother’s not going to care,” Emily pointed out as she was crossing toward the staircase. She sounded pissed, though I wasn’t sure at whom. It was a bold move, I thought, playing snotty at that particular moment. I wouldn’t have been ballsy enough to try.

“Emily, I don’t think I’m talking to you,” Mrs. Birnbaum snapped, but I shook my head.

“She’s right,” I said. This was when I was fifteen, after my father lost all of our money in a bad New Jersey land deal and confessed that he’d been having an affair for seven years, but before my parents actually sold the house and got divorced. It was not an exaggeration to say that my mother, that summer at least, didn’t care one way or the other about much of anything. “You can call, though.”

Mrs. Birnbaum looked at me for a long minute. She’d known my family since Emily and I were in kindergarten, when she and my mom used to do playground duty together; she’d cleaned up my barf on two separate occasions. Finally she sighed and shook her head. “Are you staying for dinner?” she asked me sharply, and I nodded. She stalked into the kitchen without another word.

“Do you think this is going to screw up Avalon?” I murmured later, as Emily and I set the table. I’d spent the final two weeks of the summer at Avalon Beach with the Birnbaums every year since the start of middle school—sleeping on the bottom bunk in their mildewy-smelling cottage and wave-jumping in the freezing-cold ocean, Emily and I wandering down to the boardwalk for fried dough every night. It was the best part of the summer, always; this year it was basically the only thing I was looking forward to at all. “The cops and everything?”

Emily stared at me like I was insane. “That’s what you want to know?” she demanded. “Everything that happened at that party, and you want to know if it’s going to interfere with your vacation?”

I frowned, stung. “What happened at the party?” I asked dumbly, then: “I mean. Besides the obvious.”

Emily bumped the silverware drawer closed with her hip so hard that it sprung back open again, spoons rattling. “Nothing,” she said, shaking her head like I was perpetually a step behind her, like I couldn’t possibly begin to know. “Forget it.”

“What?” I asked again, and it came out a lot shriller than I meant it. Emily just reached for the plates.


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KATIE COTUGNO is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Mississippi Reivew, Apalachee Review, and Argestes, among others, as well as on Her first novel, How to Love, is due out from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in the fall of 2013. She lives in Boston.