That week after graduation we headed down the shore for Senior Week. In those days “down the shore” was the place to go. With its huge boardwalk, mile-wide beach and tons of hotels, Wildwood was the preferred place for the thousands of kids spilling from the Catholic and public high schools. We weren’t the rich prep schoolers. Our parents couldn’t afford trips to Cancun or Florida or the Bahamas, and it didn’t matter. The drinking age was eighteen; the pot was easy to get; and we were without parental supervision.
Our house sat four blocks back from the beach. Ten of us had paid one hundred dollars, but fifteen to over twenty-five kids would end up crashing there at night.
I remember the cloudless sunny days when we would head for the beach to bake ourselves. Even though I was a natural blonde, I never burned and slathered my skin in baby oil. I knew how good I looked in my bikini. Jake told me every day I was hotter than the sun.
I wasn’t like Olivia. I wasn’t sure how Olivia had managed to get in with our group, but she just showed up in her pink flowered sundress with a suitcase. Everything about Olivia was big and squashy. She never wore a bathing suit, just shorts and a tank top that stretched across her huge breasts. She had long dark hair and a big smile, so no one bothered her, especially since she volunteered to make breakfast.
When you’re hung over or coming down, it’s kind of nice to have someone to make you breakfast, even if it’s just dry toast and tomato juice. We decided to let Olivia have the small back bedroom because no one really wanted to share a bed with her. Jake said it was kind of like having a maid.
We all had our routines. Get up eat, head to the beach or wander the boardwalk, maybe grab some pizza, and start drinking. I don’t know what Olivia did. Sometimes she came down to the beach and sat reading a book. She always looked like someone’s mother because in addition to the shorts and tank top, she always wore a big floppy hat.
Some of the guys called her “Orca”, and the rest of us kind of laughed. I don’t know if Olivia heard or not.
The last night I saw her we were hanging on the boardwalk, and I was standing with Jake. It was a little breezy and he put his arms around my waist. I remember cuddling into him, hearing the beat of his heart. All around all people laughed and screamed, and I could smell cotton candy and buttered popcorn, the meaty grilled odor of hot dogs; tinny carnival music played while people yelled from the roller coaster and tilt-a-whirl. In the circle of Jake’s arms, though, I felt safe and protected.
He said, “Look, there’s Orca.”
A couple of people started to laugh, and I glanced up.
She was standing near the fudge shop with a guy who was kind of in the shadows, but he looked pretty big. I couldn’t see his face, but Olivia was smiling. I thought for a moment she had a pretty smile.
A bunch of our friends came up then, and when I looked over at the fudge shop Olivia was gone. I thought I glimpsed her walking away with the big guy, but the crowd swallowed them up.
I never saw her again.
A lifeguard found Olivia under the boardwalk two weeks later. She’d been strangled and raped and lay naked in the sand. I thought she’d be so embarrassed to be seen naked.
A few of us went to the funeral at St. Anastasia’s. It was closed casket because after two weeks, I guess she was in pretty bad shape.
I remember that it was stinking hot, and the stained glass windows sent gashes of garnet light across the floor. In my black dress, I stood in line and sweated and wondered why I felt I had to come to this service. Jake held my hand, his face screwed up in puzzlement. He didn’t quite understand why we were here either.
“It’s not like we were friends with her,” he said.
“We were with her at the shore, Jake. She was in our class. Please.”
He kissed me. “Whatever you want, baby,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird.”
I remember Olivia’s mom stood stone faced by the coffin as Jake and I approached her.
“I’m really sorry about Olivia,” I said, and Jake mumbled something similar.
She just nodded. “We’re you her friend? I don’t remember you.”
“We had some classes together. She was a very nice person,” I said. “We were all staying at the same house.”
“Yet not one of you knew who she walked off with.” Olivia’s mother looked like she wanted to say more, and I felt Jake’s hand tighten over mine. “Well, thank you for coming.”
I went up to Olivia’s coffin and knelt down to say a prayer, but nothing came out. All I could see was the round girl with the shorts and tank top walking down the boardwalk hand in hand with a guy whose face remained a shadow. He was never caught.
Any one of us could have been Olivia that night, except we were a group, and she was alone.
I couldn’t get it out of my head. Jake and I broke up a month later because he said I was obsessed.
Olivia walked with me for a long while. I felt her beside me when I set off for college and met many of her sisters on campus–the kind of girls I always mocked in high school—chubby and smart. When I tried to be friendly, they were polite and distant.
“The sorority girl wants our notes,” one girl said.
They liked to call me a dumb blonde, sometimes when I was in the same room. I told myself I didn’t care because I was still pretty and popular. I went to parties had boyfriends, and still got good grades, but none of the really smart people wanted me in their study groups.
When I graduated and went on to law school, the smart girls surrounded me. I felt a kinship with them, though now they excluded me even more as if I was a reject.
“Our group is filled,” one of the girls told me. “Try one of the guys’ groups. I’m sure they’d love to have you.” When I walked away, I heard her say, “Could you feel her draining your IQ or what?”
“It doesn’t matter,” someone else said. “She’ll be fine. She’s just here to grab a husband.”
Over the year, though, they began to soften toward me because I worked hard. In the middle of my second year, one actually invited me into a study group. I learned we weren’t so different. We were all trying to do something important with our lives, and if I was the girl they hated in high school, they were the girls who intimidated me in college. I don’t know if I would have realized it, if I hadn’t been for Olivia.
At graduation the girls congratulated me. When I hugged them and wished them luck, I did so sincerely. They were women of substance and had made me better by forcing me to excel. Many of them went on to powerful law firms, two are federal judges, and one works for the Secretary of State. I went to work for a mid-sized firm and do pro bono work for a non-profit that’s fighting to stop a proposed oil pipe line. We all keep in touch.
I did marry another lawyer. The girls were right about that.
When I finally greeted our daughter, I held her in my arms, felt her warm breath against my cheek and touched her tiny perfect fingers. It was as if I held my own redemption in my hands.
“She’ll be as pretty as her mother,” the nurse said as she left the room.
Later that day I dreamed Olivia was standing in the doorway in her too tight shorts, tank top, and floppy hat. She gazed from me to my daughter lying in the bassinet beside my bed, her face frozen into a mask of indifference.
“She’ll be different, I swear,” I whispered, but my voice came out hoarse and raw. “She’ll be clever and good and kind. She’ll be better than me. Please don’t let anything happen to her.”
Olivia just turned away.