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In the turbulent summer of 1968, four high school friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.
As the Vietnam War rages overseas, four friends make a vow. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. Then, at the end of the two weeks, they will sacrifice themselves on the altar of their friendship.
Loyal Kay, our narrator, dreams of being an artist and escaping her stifling family—the stepmother and stepsister she gained after her mother’s early death, and the father she no longer feels she knows. As she struggles with her weight, her schoolwork, and her longing for her mother, she feels loyalty only to her three friends, determined to keep their group together at any cost. Brilliant, charismatic CJ appears to have everything—though even those closest to him can’t see him as he really is. Steady, quiet Saint wants to do right by everyone, trying not to let his emotions destroy himself and those around him. And beautiful Vera’s family secrets are too dark to share, even with her closest friends; caught in a web of family dysfunction, she can only hope the others won’t get tangled up in the danger she senses around her.
In the two-week span in which the novel takes place, during the summer before their senior year of high school, the lives of Kay, CJ, Saint, and Vera will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine the novel’s outcome. Once, in Lourdes is a gripping, haunting novel about the power of teenage bonds, the story of four young people who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years. As the heady 1960s shift the ground beneath their feet, all of them must face who they are—and who they want to be.
Praise for Once, in Lourdes
“After writing a spate of short stories, [Sharon Solwitz] returns to the longer form with a ravishing sense of place . . . and a heightened, almost surreal, feel for how intense emotions alter our perception of the world, especially in youth. Solwitz’s surging, many-threaded, complexly insightful tale dramatizes not only personal crises, but also the violence of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Timely and timeless.”—Booklist (starred review)
“What makes Once, in Lourdes such a moving read is how deeply and finely Sharon Solwitz has observed and portrayed her characters. They are recognizable teenagers with recognizable desires and miseries and hardships, but they are so well rendered in their particulars that we follow them less and less as familiar types and more and more as the actual friends with whom we attempt to struggle through this part of life, making promises and pacts, breaking and keeping them, living and dying by them.”—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers and Enon
“This is a story that reads achingly true to young angst, then, now, and always. It’s an achievement of remarkable empathy—and gorgeous prose.”—Janet Burroway, author of Raw Silk and Writing Fiction
“Sharon Solwitz has an ear so attuned to teen speech, teen humor, and, finally and most convincingly, teen angst that her novel crackles with urgency. She follows the rise and fall of adolescent moods, patient with their extremes and sympathetic to the neediness her characters struggle to hide. Once, in Lourdes will make you think you’re eavesdropping on what you’re not supposed to hear.”—Rosellen Brown, New York Times bestselling author of Before and After
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Once, in Lourdes
I wasn’t strong, I was shy and accommodating and—as nice people put it—on the heavy side. But my ambitious, ruthless stepmother had hopes for me. She had signed me up for Teen Slimnastics, sit-ups and jumping jacks in a group of kids all thinner than I was. The hour before that was summer school physics (likewise her arrangement), five mornings a week with the ripple tank and those strange nodal lines, where troughs met crests and canceled each other out. I was unsettled by nodal lines, by physics in general, concepts with no footing in my daily life, that couldn’t even be diagrammed. But ever dutiful, I was battling through it all.
But every once in a while, for no reason you understand, you do something your known, familiar self could not have imagined. One August morning, the air thick as usual with damp summer heat, instead of taking my usual aggrieved, bewildered physics notes, I cartooned the chinless teacher as he tried to convince us that hot water could freeze faster than cold. Not in general, not most of the time, but it could happen, he said. Huh?
To my left, asswipe Gary Landry said, “That’s counterintuitive.” To my right, Andrea Holden rolled her mean-girl eyeballs. “Could? Do you mean in an alternate universe?” People laughed, though they probably didn’t know what they were laughing at, and Mr. Carstairs turned red, and I felt his pain but of course said nothing. Then in my exercise class, after some rounds of torturous knee bends, I got stuck in my squat. The one good thing: We were aligned according to weight and I was on the end. Before shyness or reason could stop me, I had rolled out of line, grabbed my book bag, and was out the gym door.
In the parking lot a wave of terror flowed through me, though no one had followed me. I lay low, crouched between two cars, while my heart slowed down. It was a cusp moment, as we were starting to say. It was 1968, good people had been assassinated, enraged people were burning down their own neighborhoods, craziness was spreading, and in Lourdes, Michigan, population ≤11,000, nervously, inadvertently, I had joined in. I pulled on my skirt, stuffed my sweaty gym tights into my bag, and set off on foot to the park we called the Haight or, with humility, the Haight, Midwest. Even now I can see myself: clumping along in my ankle-length flowered skirt and extra-large leotard, like an immigrant dazed by the strangeness of it all.
Our Haight was Lourdes Metropolitan Park, named for Georges and Catherine Bellechasse de Lourdes, the first European settlers in our part of the state. When nothing else was required of us, it was where we hung out, we being my three best (in fact my only) friends. At the entrance was a large stone fountain fed by a spring that had saved the town from a drought in the 1830s; its water, some folks continued to believe, was curative. Every once in a while a crutch or an old wheelchair appeared at the base of the fountain, as if a cripple had drunk and been miraculously healed, though the items probably came from kids playing their idea of a hilarious prank. There was also a wooden sign we called “fascist”—picnic only in designated area. no alcohol. no loitering. hours 6 a.m.–11 p.m and beyond it a parking lot of shoebox-shaped cars where moms unpacked coolers to be hauled toward the picnic area (“Everyone helps, Doreen—did you hear me?”). By the restrooms that day, a mom was saying into the pay phone, “Haven’t we had this conversation before?”
I passed the baseball diamond, empty that hot noon, and the tennis courts with a couple of college boys hitting back and forth. I crossed a wide, grassy, weedy field where kids flew kites or caught bugs. And there, sprawled in the shade of our spreading maple by the bluff, their heads together, their backs to me, were two of my blessed three. Their transistor radio was on, they didn’t hear me approach, they were talking intently—and all of a sudden I was afraid to insert myself. I stood in the sun outside their oasis, wobbly with the heat and the pleasure of seeing them, waiting for something in their conversation to reach out a hand of welcome.
“If you were a homo,” said Saint, “you might have an inkling, don’t you think? It wouldn’t just pop up out of the blue. What’s so funny, jackass?”
CJ was squeaking with hilarity. He’d try to stop, then look at Saint and burst out again. “Man oh man, are you naïve!”
It was one of their games, insulting each other, their training program for the world’s hard knocks. Saint as usual was on the defensive, but he was putting up a fight. “Let’s say you’re thirty years old with a wife and kids. And one day you wake up and go, ‘Oops, sorry, honey, I have some bad news’?”
CJ shrugged elaborately. “I don’t know this thirty-year-old guy of yours, but according to Freud—remember Freud?—we have drives we aren’t conscious of.”
Saint threw him a fake punch. Saint was tall and unusually strong; he could have picked CJ up like a suitcase and tossed him off the bluff. But he was a gentle, Ferdinand-the-bull sort of boy. He had strength he didn’t use, that he protected us from. Verbally, though, he was no match for CJ, who had scored so high on the PSAT that he was invited to a genius camp in Telluride, Colorado. CJ had business cards that read have brain, will travel. “Seriously,” said CJ to Saint, “we’re not one hundred percent rational beings. We do things and we don’t have a clue. We’re driven by our unconscious.”
“And how would you know?” Saint replied. “Are you?” CJ shrugged. The radio news praised a kid from the next town who’d been badly wounded in Vietnam, then played “God Bless America.” Saint laughed, pleased with himself. “Is there something you’re trying to tell me?”
“By definition,” said CJ, “we don’t recognize our unconscious drives. None of us! By definition!”
“All right, you win. Fuck you.”
The radio was playing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” my favorite Dylan song. In the blowing wind, they lit cigarettes. They looked out toward the lake in different directions, in a cloud of smoke and annoyance with each other.
And, ta-da! Now I was needed, to clear the air. “Hello-o! Surprise!” I called out as if I’d just arrived. I stepped forward. Then my book bag slipped off my shoulder. I tried to catch it and tripped and fell—into them, onto them, sweaty arms and damp shirts. Freudian slip? The handsome pun came whole to my mind, and I’d already gauged it worthy of being said, but I couldn’t say it while I was apologizing, and then Saint was helping to rearrange me, while CJ said, “You ditched physics, babe. Shame, shame.”
I knew he was kidding, but I couldn’t help it. Tears of genuine shame welled in my eyes. “Trust me, all I missed was fat camp,” I said, feigning lightness. I feigned often in those days before Prozac, and I had another refuge as well. In my book bag were my stepmother’s outdoor bridge cards, a metallic deck with a magnetic board that kept them from blowing away. Once a week she played contract bridge with her lady friends, and that summer the four of us were playing almost every day.
My life then, even with my friends, was High Anxiety, eased from time to time by gusts of Mild Anxiety. But bridge I found completely absorbing, more than movies or television. We started playing our junior year, reading bridge books, teaching ourselves with help from CJ, whose parents played. At school we were all on the same academic track (Accel) and got a hand in whenever possible, sometimes on top of one of our desks in the five minutes between classes. In the park now, in the shade of our wide-limbed maple tree, I dealt the cards onto the magnetic board, where they magically stuck. With three we could play Bid for the Dummy. But where was our fourth?
We didn’t name her—it seemed disrespectful to talk about one of us who wasn’t there—but I was a little anxious on her behalf. I’d called her the previous night, and her father hung up on me. Later I got Garth, her brother, who didn’t know where she was, but his voice shook, which wasn’t his style. Garth was a year younger than us, a quiet kid, but with gravitas. He played in a band and had friends in every group and clique in the school, freshmen, seniors; he transcended barriers. At the beginning of the summer he and his guitar had disappeared from Lourdes; not even Vera knew where he was; their father said good riddance. Then suddenly he was back home. A mystery.
I liked Garth, but their parents were straight out of Dickens: dad a bullying cop, mom a drunk—we knew though we didn’t discuss it. Abuse, dysfunction, we didn’t use those words. Nor did we discuss our fascination with Vera, though we all felt it. She had thick pale blond hair and blue eyes that darkened to gray at the rims of her irises, and narrow hips and high fragile cheekbones, and she moved lightly over the ground as if her personal force of gravity pulled less harshly than ours—and why not? She’d had dance lessons through grammar school, with no concern at all for her physical flaw, a malformed right hand: Her three middle fingers were barely emergent, with tiny fingernails, and the palm was undersized. It was a birth defect. Many people would have kept such a thing in their pockets or under long sleeves, but Vera wore tube tops and sleeveless blouses, and painted her tiny nails red, and when she raised a hand to answer a question in class it was always the bad hand. She’d wiggle her red nubs, daring anyone to react. My polyps, she’d say, my little anemones.
Even then, more than her physical beauty I linked the bad hand with her magnetism, the unmistakable power she exerted over us and others as well. She was utterly fearless. It was as if she had decided at a very young age that she had nothing to lose. She’d tell the truth as she saw it, regardless of social consequences; she’d say anything to anyone, harsh or sweet, cruel or kind, and sometimes your feelings were hurt but you trusted her. When she praised you or declared love for you, you knew she meant it. When she looked you in the eye, interested in what you said, agreeing, supporting you, you felt knighted, your shoulder tapped with her sword.
Waiting for her, I smoked a cigarette, though it hurt my throat. CJ and I played honeymoon bridge, Saint read the Tao Te Ching. The radio deejay was playing Highway 61 Revisited, all the songs in order, and we discussed whether Bob Dylan was as great as Shakespeare, whether God was malevolent or merely indifferent, where the h belonged in the word “rhapsodic,” and whether the kids who burned their draft cards were heroes or chickenshit. Saint’s draft card had come in the mail. He’d have to work like a dog this year if he wanted a scholarship to college.
The sun was right overhead when Vera appeared, a tiny figure across the field. So far away, hair to her shoulders, she seemed half-dissolved in light, like a fairy or an angel. I waited for her to come to us, but when I looked again she had vanished in the scattering of picnic tables.
I was the only one who’d seen her. Backs to the picnic area, the boys were discussing human consciousness, the phenomenon of it: that a mélange of molecules, made of the exact same stuff as the stars, had somehow organized itself to produce individual people with their own personal thoughts and desires. “And don’t bring up God,” CJ went on. “That’s such a cop-out.”
Saint and CJ usually took opposite sides on an issue, but not now. Saint sat up straight and almost clapped his hands. “The killer for me is how different we are. I grew up looking at grimy bricks out the window and you had plants and trees. I should hate you.”
CJ laughed, agreeing. “You were poor; we were filthy rich.”
“And you still are,” said Saint.
CJ often sounded mocking even when he was sincere, but he wasn’t mocking now. “So why aren’t we walking around locked in our separate consciousnesses? Formed by how we were treated since birth and all the accidents that happened to us . . .”
“The accident of how we look,” I said, joining in.
“The accident of brains,” said Saint.
“But we aren’t locked in,” CJ continued. “That’s the mystery. How, if we’re so different, did we get to be so close? That’s the central question!”
It was an opera now, our separate voices combining to create the whole. How had we managed to find one another? How did people ever learn to present themselves to one another and be understood? Even if only partially understood? Was that outrageous or what?
“Let us pray,” I said, a joke, as we were all doubters in our different ways. But nothing weakened the excitement of our push toward insight. What we worshipped were words, precise and truthful words, bridging the terrible gaps between people. I wanted to cry from the beauty of it. “To language,” we said. “Pass the joint,” we said, another joke, since we had no joint.
The union of our minds seemed so important, Vera shouldn’t be missing it. I went looking and found her seated on the bench of the most remote picnic table. The waistband of her cutoffs gaped at the back; her dancer’s spine was straight as a rod; she looked fiercely alone. I sat down with her. “Come be with us.”
She shook her pack of cigarettes, then turned it over. Empty.
“Are you pissed at something?” I said. “At one of us?”
“If I were, would I keep it to myself?”
“Right. Yes. I know.”
“Do you have any smokes?” she said.
I nodded toward where the boys were sitting. “CJ does.”
“Bully for him.”
I winced on CJ’s behalf. This was not where I wanted us to go. “So, how’s your brother?” I asked her. “I mean, is he talking yet about his adventures?”
She climbed onto the table and stretched out on her back in the bright sun. It was a hot day and she was shivering. Where were you last night, were you sick or something? I wanted to ask chidingly. “You look cold,” I said. She shook her head, eyes closing.
Sharon Solwitz is the author of a novel, Bloody Mary, and a collection of short stories, Blood and Milk, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction from the Society of Midland Authors, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Several of her stories have been featured in Pushcart Prizeanthologiesand Best American Short Stories. Other honors for her individual stories, which have appeared in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Nelson Algren Literary Award, and grants and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. Solwitz teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.