In 1983, Mandy Everett was the most beautiful girl at J.H.S. 104, and if she wasn’t the most beautiful seventh grader in all of Manhattan then she was certainly on the short list. The blessings of her genetics played only a small part. She was possessed of a grace and humor that separated her from the crowd of her peers, and when adults referred to her as a young lady it was meant as a high and very apt compliment. If there was a flaw to her it was the understanding that Mandy lacked a certain gravitas, that she was doomed to forever be a beautiful little girl, too precious to be taken seriously. Her beauty would unquestionably rob from her certain opportunities, but this seemed a minor quibble barely worth mentioning. In the jostle of the school hallways she stood apart and above without being aloof, and teachers and students alike, her friends and peers most especially, loved her so much that they couldn’t begrudge her superiority. She was luminous, and only the most bitter of us minded at all the way that she made everyone else seem drab.
And in comparison to her we were all as drab as the disfigured pigeons that pecked at the crumbs on the playground behind the school. Was there a boy who wasn’t too clumsy an oaf to be worthy of her? We could understand why the girls all fawned over certain boys, and didn’t doubt that most of the boys in the neighborhood would grow to be fine men, but when we thought of them in relation to Mandy we could see them only as squeaky-voiced rodents, unable to complete coherent thoughts and always smelling slightly of sweat and junk food. The girls fared no better. In the shadow cast by Mandy Everett the girls of Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy were all lumpy twits, differentiated from the boys only in their ability to keep their mouths closed while they breathed and by the fact that they smelled better most of the time.
I was among the lumpiest of those twits. A time-traveling mirror might have been able to tell me that in time I would grow to be a perfectly normal woman with a strong Germanic build and little to be ashamed of physically; a more sensitive appraisal of myself at that age might have noted that my brown eyes were pretty and alert and gave my face a sort of sweet playfulness. Looking back at pictures I see a pretty girl, and I love her for all that she was and would someday be. But I remember being her, too: of being blissfully unaware of myself in one moment and then suddenly flung into the profoundest despair at the sight of my thick arms or the hair that never worked in any style. And I kicked myself then and I kick myself now for feeling that way about how I look, which after all isn’t even bad, when I have so much else to be proud of, but so it is.
I wasn’t fat, but my body kept growing in proportion to itself from my toddler years on, so my stomach remained soft and my arms kept a roll on them until well into my teenage years. I was a good singer, but I sang low, lower, I felt, then a girl should sing. I couldn’t dance for shit and had no idea how to dress myself. The haircut I received at Astor Place when I was nine I kept until I was nearly twenty because I couldn’t picture it any other way, even though it made me look like I’d scalped a hound dog and put the prize on my head.
I’ve since learned from my own teenage sons that boys feel the same way, and it makes me feel better to know that I wasn’t wallowing in some uniquely feminine hell during those years. The boys felt like the musky mouth-breathers that they were, no matter how charming their smiles and baggy shorts. They were unfortunate in that it was acceptable for them to hide their insecurities behind filth and indifference; this provided them a shelter from which many would have a hard time escaping.
Mandy and I had both attended P.S. 40 around the corner from 104. We’d been classmates in kindergarten and first grade, but after that we were separated and proceeded to evolve independently of each other: she became slimmer, took to putting bows in her hair, and cultivated her tiny femininity. I stayed pretty much the same as I had been, just bigger. My breath smelled slightly sour in kindergarten, and I believe it continued to do so until middle school.
In the fifth grade I joined the East Village Children’s Ensemble, and after school I and a small group of classmates walked down First Avenue to Eleventh Street to rehearse. I’d played (or, rather, “played”) clarinet for a year by then with Mrs. Sorrelli, a parent volunteer who led about fifteen kids through thirty minutes of cacophony twice a week inside P.S. 40’s dark auditorium. She didn’t play clarinet but knew more about it than I did so she made a fine enough teacher for about a year. I was interested in the instrument in the way that many lumpy twits are vaguely interested in music: girls should play music, I reasoned, and a general lack of imagination led me to the clarinet, an instrument that seemed like a logical progression from the recorders we used in music class. When I stuck with the instrument for a full year despite no apparent progress, my parents made good on a promise and enrolled me in a proper music school. It was there, and more specifically on the walks to and from the parlor that served as EVCE’s home, that my friendship with Mandy began to take root.
Mandy had been a member of the EVCE since second grade, playing violin, piano, and cello. The cello had been acquired by a brother at a flea market on the West Side and was never played until Mandy one day picked it up. It was half-size and fit her well enough. The teachers at EVCE insisted that she learn the piano as well, as she appeared to have a natural affinity for it, and the violin was a gift from a wealthy parent whose interest in Mandy fell somewhere between that of a mysterious benefactor and a secret admirer.
Mandy played as beautifully as she looked. She held herself with a guileless poise, at once wholly self-conscious and childishly unaffected, and her movements were so graceful that she seemed to present three notes with a motion designed for just one. Her passion was for the cello, and her talent appeared to be for the piano, but the violin was the instrument we all wanted her to play, for it afforded us the most unencumbered view of her–her legs and back stiff and straight while her arms glided through the air, her little face held in joy restrained by intense concentration. At times a lock of her hair would fall in front of her face, and we knew that it irritated her but that she was committed to the music and had to soldier on and finish the piece. This seemed to us an extraordinary act of discipline, even courage.
I sat lost amid the woodwinds. We were planted like a patch of weeds on the edge of a garden, surrounded by instruments shinier, prettier, more elaborate and more dramatic. I could never get over how stupid I must have looked with my mouth puckered over the reed. On performance nights my mother would curl my hair so I could look more like a fluffy sheep choking on straw. I singlehandedly accounted for half of the squeaks heard on any given night.
After practice we all walked home, in smaller groups and often with a parental escort, especially in the winter months. Mandy and I both walked up First Avenue from Eleventh Street, shedding companions every other block or so. After passing Stuyvesant Town we were alone for another block, parting ways on the corner of Twenty-Second Street. She lived there, overlooking First Avenue; I lived closer to Second Avenue. On nice days we’d stop for a slice of pizza or a soda. There were three pizzerias and a diner to choose from, and we weren’t especially loyal to any of them. We stopped at whichever had the shortest line or an available booth.
From her upbringing Mandy had assembled nearly the best of all possible personalities. She lived with her father in a humble two-bedroom on the third floor of a walkup. He worked at a hardware store on Second and Twenty-Third. He’d grown up in the apartment over the store and had worked there since he was fifteen, one of three men who kept the place going year after year. He knew everybody in the surrounding neighborhoods. He’d married the daughter of the pharmacist next door and they had two boys; when the youngest of the boys was thirteen she’d come down with cancer. After the doctors told her she’d beaten it they had a third child to celebrate–Amanda Jean, always just Mandy. A year later the cancer came back. The older boys moved out as they finished high school, one moving into Peter Cooper Village and the other to Brooklyn. Mandy was both an only child and the youngest child. She didn’t receive undivided attention and understood that her place in the world was quite small, but she did receive a lot of doting nonetheless. Her brothers taught her to be funny and gave her a sense of belonging without providing any competition or everyday stress: they were a force of nearly pure benevolence. She looked after her father as a dutiful daughter should and shouldered the responsibility of keeping the house while enjoying the freedom accorded to the youngest and the adoration given to an only girl. Even the lack of a female role model worked well for Mandy: her mother was an idealized woman who embodied all the best of femininity without any of its darker sides, which Mandy only experienced vicariously through friends or in passing on the street. Her mother’s absence required her father to play both roles as parent, which presented to Mandy a complex view of human nature and a fluid sense of masculine and feminine that helped her to appreciate the myriad shades of gray in the character of New York City. She was playful and serious, mature and a scamp, ambitious and contented. And being the only girl in a family of men taught her to appreciate and respect the charms of her sex, which wasn’t a bad thing, either.
I lived with both of my parents in a railroad apartment on the second floor of an ancient brownstone. My parents’ bedroom overlooked Twenty-Second Street; mine, at the far end of the house, overlooked laundry strung up on wires. In between us were the living room, kitchen, and bathroom, as well as the nook we had carved out for a dining room. My father was the manager of a grocery store in the West Village and my mother was a dentist’s assistant in Midtown. I was an Only, which was often brought to my attention by my parents and relatives. My parents’ middle class dreams and hopes were presented to me from a tender age like dishes at a buffet, with the understanding that I could take anything from the table as long as I filled my plate and came back for seconds.
It wasn’t bad, and I don’t mean to sound hard on myself or my family. It was only in comparison to Mandy that it all seemed gray. Without her my life was bearable at least, and something close to wonderful at best. If at times the pressure to make good on all the opportunities before me felt overwhelming, there were plenty of afternoons in the park tossing bagels at pigeons to make up for it, afternoons where time stood still and the future hung in the air like a frost promising snow. And on cold days I could count on my father’s giant hand wrapping around mine to keep it warm on the way back home.
And then I’d stand in my bathing suit at the pool and see how my thighs pushed against each other, and together with the roundness of my belly formed a fleshy frame for the triangle of dough at my center. The fabric of the one-piece clung to my belly but soared over my ribs like a span of the Brooklyn Bridge, touching my skin again at the breastless mounds of my chest. And then I’d want summer to be over. Or I’d want old-timey bathing costumes to be back in vogue. Or I’d want to be Mandy Everett.
And while I never explicitly had that thought until I was much older, that’s what I wanted: I wanted to be her. Not to be like her–I could always study harder and become a better musician, tell funnier jokes, wear better clothes, and imitate her until I was just like her. I could starve myself and pluck my eyebrows and learn how to tie bows around my hair. That would just leave me a phony version of myself. A phony and hungry version of myself. What I wanted was for everything else to go away, to rewind back to 1970 and replace my parents with better-looking people who embodied and embraced the best of New York’s blue collar; to trade our striving for a fundamental belonging; to overcome a personal tragedy and become a better person for it; to be so beautiful that it hurt to look at me.
Once I was watching TV with my mom and I remarked about the actress: “It must be nice to wake up every morning and look in the mirror and be able to tell yourself, ‘I’m beautiful.'”
“You can do that now,” Mom replied. I dismissed her at first because she was a mother saying I was the most beautiful blah blah; later that night, going over the memory, I wondered if I detected a hint of sarcasm in her voice. Is that what she’d meant? That I can tell myself I’m beautiful whether or not it’s true? And is that supposed to be encouraging or mean? It can be either or both with a mother, especially one who might think that her daughter just said something stupid.
In the sixth grade Mandy and I were both cast in the school production of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I was cast as a Who. Mandy, improbably, was the Grinch, and stole the show as she stalked about the stage, her tiny legs strutting in green leggings, singing in a clear angelic voice about the destruction of Christmas. By the end of the production she was my best friend, and we became inseparable. To those watching, the friendship of girls involves lots of giggling and screeching and fights that resolve quickly without anybody remembering that they ever happened until the next one comes around. From the inside all those things are invisible. I can’t believe that we were ever silly girls who fawned over boys and giggled over pictures of pop stars, although I know that we did. I remember talking, mostly. I learned about her life and her family. I learned about myself as I attempted to make myself understood. Most importantly I reveled in the sense of security from having a compatriot in a world that was beginning to grow very quickly and that needed to be understood just as quickly.
I had dinner with her family and she did so with mine. My parents took us to see Cats, her father took us to see the Rockettes. Her brothers got me a birthday present: half of a friendship necklace. Mandy got the other half at her birthday a few weeks later. We slept over at each other’s houses regularly, at first when her father had to go out of town or work late, but later whenever either of us felt the urge and one or the other parent was willing to put with us. They never heard our important conversations, only the screeching and giggling from behind a closed door.
A beautiful girl transcends, and teases you with the possibility that you can go along with her. Because she is beautiful she is treated with reverence, and because of this she is filled with confidence. She can afford to be magnanimous, she can bare her insecurities knowing that they will be understood and respected, and she can be as ambitious or as modest as she desires. In her youth she embodies the best of life. She is a totem for a purity that no adult can equal: to children she represents something adults can never have or ever again be, something that defies all their wisdom and power; to adults, she is the emblem of happier times, and in her smile they see that she will surpass them because she will avoid their mistakes. A beautiful girl challenges cynicism and dispels darkness. You are jealous of the boy who is unknowingly fated to be her lover; you are moved by a mental image of her in the not-too-distant future as a young mother, cradling an even more perfect child in her arms; you treasure her as the center of her own world, and everyone else’s.
A beautiful girl inspires you to find the same beauty in yourself. This is what makes her beautiful. Not a pretty face. Pretty faces are easy to come by, and often mask hideous souls. A beautiful girl would be just as beautiful were she deformed. A beautiful girl is an uncomplicated love. Mandy inspired me and I loved her. I learned that her grades were better than mine because she worked harder–much harder. She compensated for her natural weaknesses. In the seventh grade I realized from Mandy that even the most blessed must still work, and so I improved myself. I learned that she made friends easily because she knew that it wasn’t easy, and so she forced herself to talk to strangers and smile and listen. That year I did the same, and while my heart raced every time I put myself out there, I learned that the success was worth it. I learned to respect myself and to present myself as best as I could, and while I could never tie pretty bows in my hair I could certainly make sure my clothes matched. I was amazed at how these little things gave so much confidence.
In the spring we auditioned for the school play together, and nobody was disappointed when Mandy was chosen as Alice but I was thrilled to stand beside her at the curtain call as the White Rabbit. A big step up from an anonymous Who.
The clarinetist in me was doomed, unfortunately, but I enjoyed going to EVCE and became good enough at the damn thing that playing it didn’t interfere with my fun.
Mandy introduced me the neighborhood old-timers–her “extended quasi-family”–and I eventually realized that I could return the favor by introducing her to my actual extended family in Bayonne, who I had never until then realized were hilarious, lovable, and very, very strange.
And when she slept over, or I slept over, we stayed up talking about these things, making sense of them, and making sense of ourselves.
“Have you ever kissed a boy?” she asked me.
“I don’t even know who I’d kiss.”
And then she kissed me. A quick hummingbird kiss. We were in my room. My parents were asleep on the far end of the apartment. Between us and them was the entire apartment plus a noisy refrigerator, two air conditioners, and the lock on my bedroom door, kept locked because the door had a tendency to fly open otherwise, and my parents taught me to value my privacy.
The shock passed and I kissed her back. Was there giggling? I don’t remember any. I remember my heart racing against my ribs, and how her cheeks turned the color of cotton candy. I wanted to devour her somehow, to absorb her into myself. I wanted to scream and squeeze her. Instead we talked, and in time drifted off to sleep.
When I woke in the morning she was already dressed, her hair already in a bow, her skin already smelling of vanilla and strawberries. We never spoke of what happened, but through the morning I remembered the feel of her lips, and felt myself flush with excitement and anxiety, and tried to live in that moment as long as I could.
The following Tuesday we walked up from EVCE to the corner where we usually separated. She went home and did most of her homework, leaving the hardest on the kitchen table to be completed later. She went up to the hardware store to see her father, and from there to dinner at her brother’s house in Peter Cooper Village. This was how she spent most evenings. It was May and the sun was still out. The streets were still humming with activity. She said good-bye to her dad, left the hardware store and promptly disappeared without a trace. It was a seven minute walk from the hardware store to her brother’s apartment, and she never made it. By nightfall her father called mine, and the following afternoon the police came by to ask questions. No body was ever found, no witnesses reported seeing a little girl step into a vehicle or cross First Avenue. The story didn’t even make it into the papers. In 1983 in New York City shit happened, and the disappearance of Mandy Everett was just another quiet tragedy.
I held out hope for days and weeks, and then began to dread that they would find her, her face frozen in terror, or in decay. I hoped to never hear what awful things could have happened to her. I knew better than anyone how small and delicate and beautiful she was, and the slightest intrusion of a thought or image would make my lungs fill with anger and grief so I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t die and I wished that everything–life, the city, the memories, the truth–would cease.
But there was never a word or a clue. My mother said that Mandy had been an angel come straight from Heaven, and God wanted her back. The completeness with which she disappeared made it easy to believe she’d ascended straight to Heaven from the corner of Twenty-Third and First. I curled up on my mother’s lap and cried. She stroked my hair and my arms and my back and I buried my face in her chest and cried into her loving warmth for the first time in years, and the last time ever. My father sat beside us. He rested his head on her shoulder and she rested her head on his, and he kept his hand over the hand I used to clutch my mother’s arm.
Later I began to fear losing my friendship necklace. It was in the shape of half a heart and read “Be Fri.” She wore “st ends.” This was the last tie I had to her, and I couldn’t bear the thought of the chain snapping, or some guy yanking it away for the modest amount of gold it contained, so I took it off one day and put it in a box, and over time the box moved from my nightstand to my dresser to a bookshelf. When we moved to Mercer Street in the tenth grade it moved to a drawer, and it didn’t follow me to college. I had assumed once that Mandy and I would raise our families together on Twenty-Second Street in adjoining apartments; we had discussed this at great length. Now I live on East Eighty-Fourth, my husband only barely knows her name, and my sons–who I had believed once would know her and love her as a second mother–have never even heard mention of her. I don’t even know if I’m more protective of them because of Mandy or because times have changed and even though the city today is safer than it has ever been in its long and storied history, all parents now keep their children close. Mandy today would never be allowed to walk two blocks alone in broad daylight on a busy street. Maybe that’s because too many of us have stories of friends that never made it into the paper but that bind us all as an unspoken collective memory. Maybe it’s because we’re always fighting the last war.
The details I’ve left out are the details I don’t remember. What exactly did we talk about? Why was she so funny? What did she actually look like? She isn’t real to me anymore. Maybe she never was. A beautiful girl is an illusion. She is as bound to this world as the rest of us. Perhaps more so, as her beauty can blind those around her to the fact that she is human, and mortal, and as precious as fragile as any of us. She is not a totem, she is a girl, and if she is beautiful it is because all girls are beautiful, each in her own way. The attention can spoil her, or confuse her, or punish her. Or not affect her at all, if she overcomes her beauty and become something more. Her beauty is a lie, because she will grow up and stop being a girl, but continue being herself all the same.
I miss her. Mandy Everett was the most beautiful seventh grader in Manhattan and possibly all of New York City. The world was open to her in ways that it wasn’t open to all of us. When she was gone we soldiered on in the drabness of her absence, though it didn’t feel courageous or disciplined at all to keep going. We just did, until it faded away and all that remained were the memories of totems and the echoes of love.