Ria Parody Erlich
The Summer of Abby
I often imagine making a movie about Abby Chapman and me featuring one of those intense cloudbursts that roll through New Orleans on summer afternoons.
Crackling, dazzling lightning. Roaring, spine-tingling thunder. A single raindrop, then another, then another, then a pounding multitude—like ripples of applause swelling to a deafening ovation in anticipation of relief from the relentless heat and humidity.
The movie, titled The Summer of Abby, begins in June 1960, on the Saturday I said goodbye to Dani Abelson, who was moving to Connecticut. We had known each other since kindergarten and had just completed seventh grade.
I was a shy child. I didn’t make friends eagerly or easily and often wished for a sister to be my live-in companion, kindred spirit, and playmate. When my parents informed me in no uncertain terms that a real sibling was out of the question, I settled for Dani, who lived next door.
Dani and I weren’t kindred spirits. She was organdy dresses, Tonette home permanents, and Tiny Tears dolls. I was blue jeans, boy-cut hair, and Roy Rogers two-gun holster sets. Our friendship, however, became my conveniently located safe harbor, where I felt protected from the shifting seas of childhood alliances at Octavia Elementary School and the undercurrents of adolescent hormones flooding the halls of Claiborne Junior High.
I came home from Dani’s filled with grim thoughts of spending the next two years eating lunch alone in the dingy Claiborne cafeteria. I face-planted on my bed and wallowed in self-pity until my mother reminded me Aunt Ida, my father’s older sister, was coming to dinner.
Aunt Ida chain-smoked cigarillos and drank Jim Beam neat. She owned a double shotgun house—yellow with blue and white trim—located in the French Quarter among avant-garde artists, jazz musicians, and Tennessee Williams wannabes. Her residence was on one side, her contemporary art gallery on the other.
Early in its history, the gallery was raided by police, who confiscated several sexually explicit paintings from an exhibit they called a “peep show.” After a judge ruled the paintings were not legally obscene, they were returned to Aunt Ida, who sold them for twice the original price.
“Nothing succeeds like controversy,” said Aunt Ida in an interview published in the Times-Picayune morning newspaper.
Aunt Ida’s wardrobe comprised custom-tailored three-piece men’s suits—navy blue serge for fall and winter, white linen for spring and summer—accessorized with silk pocket handkerchiefs and ties in appropriate seasonal colors.
“My husband divorced me because I looked better in pants than he did,” she would say, followed by her trademark high-pitched laugh that rolled from the top of her head to her chest, decreasing in shrillness and volume as it faded to a stop.
Aunt Ida was my champion and hero. She accepted my preferences for boys’ clothes (more comfortable, she said) and boys’ toys (more fun, she said). And she was not shy about offering her opinion to my mother, who occasionally complained to Aunt Ida while I was in earshot that she wished I were more feminine.
“Aw, leave the kid alone. If she obeys all the rules, she’ll miss all the fun,” said Aunt Ida, quoting Katharine Hepburn.
I once heard my mother tell my father that, like Hepburn, Aunt Ida was an iconoclast. I wasn’t sure what an iconoclast was, but I announced to my parents right then I wanted to be one.
My father and I were assembling his new hooded barbecue on the covered back patio when Aunt Ida arrived. She joined us, lit a cigarillo, and poured some Jim Beam into a plastic tumbler on the picnic table.
“It’s never too early for pre-dinner cocktails,” she said, hoisting the tumbler in our direction. “Cheers!”
“Bernie Wiseman,” my mother yelled from the kitchen, “you’ve been so busy with that barbecue you forgot to pick up the steaks I ordered from Chappy’s.”
“Sorry, Ruthie honey,” my father said. “I’ll call right now and have them delivered.”
Chappy’s Market was a fixture in our uptown neighborhood. The faded, hand-painted sign in the window told the story: Chappy’s Fine Groceries and Meats. Est. 1935. Butcher on Premises. We Deliver.
Much to the relief of the locals, Louis Chapman, Jr., son of the original Chappy, kept the store open after his father died and ran it in the same friendly, personal manner. He even moved his family from their ranch-style suburban home to the cramped apartment above the store “to be genuine members of the community like my Mama and Daddy.”
My father asked me to wait for the delivery in the screened-in vestibule leading to our front door because we were seeing flashes of lightning and hearing rumbles of thunder—signs of the impending storm.
“If the rain’s coming down heavy when the delivery boy gets here, you might have to push open the screen door and grab those steaks on the fly, Julianna,” my father said.
As I waited to spring into action, hand at the ready on the door knob, the sky grew heavier, the lightning more frequent, the thunderclaps louder. Raindrops began to dot the sidewalk, increasing steadily, until—boom! The deluge!
Suddenly, a yellow apparition furiously pedaling a coaster-brake cruiser materialized in the distance, parting the dense curtain of rain like the Red Sea. As the colorful cyclist got closer, I noticed a Chappy’s grocery bag in the wire basket attached to the cruiser handlebars.
The cyclist turned the bike sharply onto our slippery walkway and tried to stop. Brakes squealed. Tires skidded. Bag, bike, and cyclist—now revealed as a lanky girl in a floppy hat and slicker—went sprawling onto the lawn.
I dashed outside, scooped up the bag, and went to check on the girl, who by then was on her feet, struggling to right the bike.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I hope the steaks aren’t ruined.”
As if on cue, the contents of the soggy bag fell through the bottom. The girl and I stared at the pile of meat in horror for a moment before dropping to our knees. We frantically brushed as much wet grass off the steaks as we could and stuffed them into what was left of the bag, which sent us into a fit of giggles.
By the time we rolled the bike around to the patio, giggling all the way, the downpour had dwindled to a drizzle. My father was wiping down the barbecue. Aunt Ida was drinking and smoking.
The girl presented the bag to my father as if it were a newborn baby.
“I’m Abigail Chapman, your delivery girl,” she said. “Here’s your meat. And thank you for being a Chappy’s customer.”
The earnest solemnity was too much for Aunt Ida, who began to laugh uproariously. Even my father, to whom grilling was serious business, managed a few chuckles as he anxiously examined the steaks for water damage.
Abby called her parents to let them know she was invited to stay for dinner. Then she and I went to my room to change into dry clothes. We talked non-stop.
We discovered that although we hadn’t actually met at Claiborne, we knew each other by sight. I had seen Abby practicing after school with the tennis team while I waited to take beginner lessons on the adjacent court. I was awed by her graceful moves, powerful groundstrokes, and unreturnable serves—like the professional tennis player Katharine Hepburn portrayed in Pat and Mike, which I saw on the late show with Aunt Ida when I spent the night at her house.
Abby had seen Dani and me eating lunch together in the cafeteria.
“You always looked like you didn’t want to be there,” Abby said.
I was amazed by Abby’s accurate perception. It was kindred-spirit-like.
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“It was pretty obvious. What’s-her-name—Dani—always seemed annoyed and bored when you’d get silly or start to joke around. I don’t think she got your sense of humor,” Abby said. “But I get it, and I think you’d be a really cool friend.”
Disarmed and embarrassed, I shifted my attention—and hers—to our reflections in the full-length mirror on my closet door. I barely came up to Abby’s shoulder, and I was what my mother called more well-endowed. My jeans looked like capris on her long, slender legs. My tee shirt hung loosely on her upper body like a pillowcase with sleeves.
Abby grinned mischievously. She raised her arm then lowered it dramatically until her hand rested on top of my head.
“I hereby dub thee Short Stuff,” she said.
I usually bristled when other kids teased me about my height. When they reminded me that I had been the shortest kid in class since nursery school. That it looked like I hadn’t grown an inch since then. But I sensed Abby meant the nickname to be affectionate and playful. So, I played along.
“Thanks, Tall Stuff,” I said.
We collapsed onto the bed amid another round of giggles and nudges until we were exhausted. As we lay on our backs—bodies close, not quite touching—I felt a surge of excitement. I wondered if Abby felt it, too.
“Short Stuff, I have a hunch you and I could be best friends,” Abby said.
Once again, like a true kindred spirit, she seemed to have read my heart and mind. I was hopeful, but skeptical.
Abby and I were May/December in teenage years. I was twelve, turning thirteen next month, and would be a lowly eighth grader when school started in the fall. Abby was fourteen. She would be a mighty ninth grader come September, officially a high school freshman, and would be fifteen by the end of the year. I couldn’t help worrying about the possibility that the older Abby got, the less she’d want to be friends with me—that I would be alone again.
Mercifully, I didn’t have time to dwell on such dire consequences. The rain had stopped, and though the air hung heavier and hotter than before, we had dinner on the patio, where everyone complimented my father on his perfectly grilled steaks.
“They even seem a little juicier than usual,” Aunt Ida said, winking at Abby and me.
After dinner my father loaded Abby’s bike into our Ford Fairlane Woodie station wagon, and we drove her home.
“Do you want to ride bikes tomorrow, Short Stuff?” Abby asked.
“Okay, Tall Stuff,” I said.
Abby flashed an “our-little-secret” smile.
“Meet me here at ten-fifteen,” she said. “I need time to change after nine o’clock mass.”
Elated by today and impatient for tomorrow, I slept fitfully. I woke up in the morning earlier than usual. I was barely able to down a glass of milk and a piece of dry toast.
I got to Abby’s at ten and was surprised to see her already there.
“Ducked out of mass early,” she said.
Abby confidently horse-mounted her beach cruiser, which I noticed with envy was a boy’s model. She waited patiently while I straddled my girl’s model step-through frame, bent my knees, and propelled myself off the ground once, twice, finally onto the seat.
With Abby in the lead, we zigzagged our way from Chappy’s through a maze of alleys and streets to the playground on St. Charles Avenue that Dani and I had frequented almost every weekend until she declared the two of us had outgrown such childish places.
We stopped to rest on the iron lace bench near the entrance, where we watched the streetcars lumbering past on the neutral ground—New Orleans-speak for a median dividing a wide street. We hadn’t been there long when Abby leapt to her feet.
“Race you to the swings,” she shouted above the cacophonous clanging and rumbling.
“You mean, you don’t think we’re too old?”
We joyfully pushed each other on the swings until we touched the sky. Rode the merry-go-round until we were dizzy. See-sawed until we were seasick. Slid down the slide until our bottoms were sore.
I was giddy with enthusiasm until we got to the monkey bars, an apparatus I hadn’t mastered. I watched with admiration as Abby speedily negotiated a round trip. Her landing was balanced and steady. I acknowledged her perfect performance with enthusiastic applause.
“Okay, Short Stuff. Your turn,” she said.
“Can’t reach,” I said after a few half-hearted jumps and misses.
“Hold on,” she said, grabbing me around my waist and hoisting me up. “Now—go!”
I reached for the bar and clung to it with both hands, palms sweating. With Abby’s encouragement, I relaxed a bit and grabbed the next bar with one hand, then the other, then repeated the drill. Hand-hand-cling. Hand-hand-cling. But when I got to the last bar, I slipped when I was supposed to cling.
The next thing I knew, Abby was lowering me gently to the ground.
“I’ve got you, Short Stuff,” she said, her voice as warm as a bear hug.
The surge of excitement I felt when Abby and I were lying on my bed returned. It was confusing, frightening, and thrilling. And I wanted it to last forever.
We biked back to Chappy’s for lunch. Mr. Chapman cut extra-thick slices of his finest baloney. Mrs. Chapman opened a loaf of Sunbeam bread and a jar of Blue Plate mayonnaise she plucked right off the shelves.
“Let’s grab a couple of Cokes,” Abby said.
She lifted the lid on the red console Coca-Cola ice chest near the store entrance. The blast of icy air felt good on my overheated face. We devoured the sandwiches, drained the bottles, and recounted our adventures. Abby wanted me to stay all afternoon, but I saw the clouds gathering.
“I’d better go,” I said.
“Do you want to play tennis at ten tomorrow?” Abby said.
It was as if Katharine Hepburn had asked me.
“I’m not very good,” I said.
“That’s okay, Short Stuff. I’ll teach you,” Abby said.
I pedaled home so fast it seemed my bike was airborne. Little did I know, a storm was also brewing there.
“Thought we were going to have to send a search party,” my father said.
“Next time, Julianna, call to let us know what time you’ll be home so we won’t be worried,” my mother said.
I promised for the next time. We ate supper and watched The Ed Sullivan Show, during which I was sure my parents gave me an accusatory look when Paul Lynde sang, “Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today….” I went to bed feeling apprehensive about my tennis, but excited about my playing partner, who called the next morning at nine.
“I have to help at the store today,” Abby said, “but I can play tomorrow for sure.”
I was disappointed. A whole day without Abby seemed interminable. I spent the day in front of my bedroom mirror, pantomiming forehands, backhands, and serves. But I couldn’t escape the truth. I wasn’t merely “not very good.” I was awful. I had fantasies of Abby stomping off the court, never to be seen again.
“I cannot be friends with the worst tennis player in history,” I imagined her saying as she disappeared in disgust.
My apprehension reached a zenith on Tuesday morning. I dumped balls into the net or missed them completely, no matter how softly Abby lobbed them to me. When she crossed to my side of the net, I clutched my racquet in fear. My fantasy was coming true. But instead of leaving, Abby planted herself behind me and lightly grasped my right forearm above my wrist.
“Grip your racquet firmly. Not too tight,” she said.
She guided my arm—gently, smoothly—back and forth, back and forth, tracing a perfect arc. We worked on my backhand next. The repetitive rhythm and movement put me in a dreamlike state. I envisioned a slow-motion movie scene—Katharine Hepburn guiding Abby’s arm while Abby was guiding mine—a holy tennis trinity.
“Let’s rally,” said Abby, bringing me back to reality.
I was astonished and delighted that I hit most of the balls back, but Abby took it in stride.
“I had a hunch you were better than you thought,” she said. “Just needed the right teacher.”
Again, I felt the now familiar surge of excitement, but stronger. I ached to tell Abby but didn’t know the right words.
“I really like you, Tall Stuff,” was the best I could do.
“I’m glad, Short Stuff,” she said. “I really like you, too.”
Abby headed off the court, then turned to kiss me on the cheek. I beamed with happiness. And when I looked at Abby, she was beaming, too.
The month before my birthday was a whirlwind of activities. In between bikes, playgrounds, and tennis, Abby and I hopped the streetcar to downtown Canal Street, caught a movie at the Joy or RKO Orpheum, sipped post-show chocolate sodas at Walgreens. We had sleepovers, where we flipped through the latest teen magazines, made Chef Boyardee pizza from a box, and shared secrets until dawn. When we weren’t together, we talked on the phone for hours, mostly about how glad we were to have found each other and to plan what we were going to do next.
As the official day of my grand entrance into teenagerhood got closer, I couldn’t imagine celebrating it without Abby. I had self-righteously announced to my parents, however, that I didn’t want a birthday party this year because those were for little kids.
They had planned “a grown-up dinner party at home for just the three of us,” my mother said. “Besides, you see enough of Abby.”
“One day without her won’t hurt,” my father said.
I woke up on my birthday feeling empty. After the traditional seven a.m. breakfast and presentation of gifts from my parents—a jeweled sweater set, nylon stockings, and portable hair dryer—I went back to bed and slept until noon. The two bright spots in my afternoon were calls from Abby and Aunt Ida, who was taking me to Galatoire’s the following evening.
“How about you bring her along, kid,” said Aunt Ida after hearing my sob story about turning thirteen without Abby.
“Can she spend the night with us, too?”
“If it’s okay with her mama, it’s okay with me.”
I raced through dinner barely speaking to my parents, even though they had my favorites—Cesar salad, shrimp Creole, and Brocato’s spumoni. All I cared about was being able to celebrate again tomorrow with my best friend.
The next day could not go by quickly enough. Abby and I talked at least five times on the phone about what to wear. Galatoire’s had a strict dress code back then—dresses or skirts required for girls and women. What would Aunt Ida do?
I almost didn’t recognize Abby, who was wearing a powder-blue shirtwaist dress that matched her eyes. Her blonde curls, usually in a ponytail, tumbled around her shoulders. Her freckled cheeks and lips glowed with hints of red.
“Wow,” I said. “You’re beautiful.”
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she said.
My father drove us to the restaurant. Aunt Ida met us dressed in a custom-tailored three-piece suit with a skirt in lieu of trousers. The maître-d’, a friend of Aunt Ida’s, showed us to our table. She asked him to stash Abby’s and my overnight bags behind the bar and to bring her a Jim Beam.
Abby had never been to Galatoire’s. She was enamored of the decor—bistro chairs, black and white tile floors, mirrors slightly above table height lining the walls. But what impressed her most was the corps of attentive waiters in tuxedos, who hovered nearby to clear the dishes a split second after we finished our food and to perpetually scrape ashes (the restaurant allowed smoking in those days) and crumbs off the white linen tablecloth.
Abby and I made faces in the mirror on the wall near our table while we waited for our order—oysters Rockefeller, trout almondine, and caramel custard for dessert, which arrived with a lit birthday candle inserted in my portion. Abby and Aunt Ida gave me my gifts—a Jack Kramer signature tennis racquet from Abby, a custom-tailored three-piece white linen pantsuit from Aunt Ida.
“Best birthday ever,” I said, hugging and kissing them both.
When we got to her house, Aunt Ida drank one more glass of Jim Beam, smoked one more cigarillo, and went to bed. Abby and I sat on the gold brocade Victorian sofa in the living room and paged through the leather-bound photo album on the coffee table. The album had lots of photos of Aunt Ida and Sadie Rosenbaum—the attorney who represented Aunt Ida in the “peep show” case—all over the world, including at Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and Niagara Falls.
“Aunt Ida and Sadie are best friends,” I said. “They travel together all the time.”
“Maybe someday we’ll travel together, too,” Abby said.
“What fun we’d have,” I said, happily imagining us at Wimbledon.
By then I was ready to call it a night, but Abby was intent on staying up to watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on the late show. I wasn’t a fan of horror movies, but when Abby mentioned it starred “that Tracy guy who played opposite Katharine Hepburn in that tennis thing you like,” I decided to give it a try.
We huddled together on the sofa under a Mondrian print blanket. I tried to be brave, but when the eerie theme music started, I chickened out and pulled the blanket over my head. Abby removed it, tucked it around my shoulders, snuggled closer, and put her arm around me.
“I’ve got you, Short Stuff,” she said.
“I love you, Abby Chapman,” I said, engulfed in tenderness.
“I love you, too, Julianna Wiseman,” Abby said.
Abby fell asleep with her head on my shoulder about five minutes into the movie. She looked so peaceful that I didn’t want to disturb her, but I wasn’t going to watch alone. I lightly shook Abby awake, helped her to her feet, and led her from the living room through the dining room to the guest room.
Abby and I changed into our pajamas and crawled into the antique mahogany sleigh bed that Aunt Ida used to tell me had belonged to Santa and Mrs. Claus. We lay on our backs like we had in my room on the day we met, except this time our bodies touched.
“Good night, Short Stuff,” Abby said, squeezing my hand.
“Good night, Tall Stuff,” I said, squeezing back.
I was not a back sleeper, so after a while I reluctantly released my hand from Abby’s and turned on my side. I was almost asleep when I felt Abby pressed against me. Abby and I slept separately in twin beds at my house, but we slept together in a double bed at hers, so I wasn’t surprised. She was a restless sleeper. She often encroached on my space but would move as soon as I awakened her.
“Abby, wake up,” I whispered.
“I’m trying to go to sleep. Will you move over a little bit?”
“In a minute.”
I turned to insist. I can still remember Abby’s face near mine. The faint scent and taste of mint. The softness and sweetness of her kiss.
Dazed and flustered, I pushed Abby away, catapulted myself off the bed, and fled to the living room. Abby followed.
“I’m sorry,” said Abby with tears in her eyes. “I thought you’d like it.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t exactly liked the kiss, but I hadn’t exactly not liked it either. I longed to embrace Abby, to tell her everything would be the same between us as it always had been. But I wasn’t sure. I was more confused and frightened than I had been by my feelings that first day on the playground.
I spent the rest of the night on the sofa. While we packed the next morning, Abby and I promised on our lives not to tell anyone what had happened. We hardly talked to Aunt Ida at breakfast, nor to my father on the ride home, except to profess what a terrific time we had.
For the next week, I pretended to be fine so my parents wouldn’t ask questions. I longed to see Abby but figured it would be better if I didn’t. But when I felt that if I didn’t talk to someone my head would explode, I called Aunt Ida.
I repeatedly swallowed hard to keep from crying on the streetcar ride to Aunt Ida’s because every inch of it reminded me of good times with Abby. The dam burst, however, as Aunt Ida embraced me when I arrived.
I confided to her how much I loved Abby. How I thought about and wanted to be with her all the time, but now might never be able to see her again. And how scared I was that something was wrong with me because I kept thinking about the kiss. The relief I felt telling Aunt Ida far outweighed the feeling that I had betrayed Abby by breaking our vow of silence.
Aunt Ida listened patiently and sympathetically. When I finally stopped for a much-needed breath, she lit a cigarillo and peered owlishly over the rhinestone-studded frames of her glasses.
“To begin with, kid, lots of girls your age have crushes on girls. Most of them are nothing more than that,” she said. “But if it is something more, you’ll figure it out. Hell, I figured it out when I was five years old.”
“What did you figure out?”
“That I’m—what’s that word we’re supposed to use these days—”
“That, too, kid,” Aunt Ida said, struggling not to laugh, “but what I’m trying to tell you is I’m gay. A lesbian. Do you understand what that means?”
What came to mind was a group of boys I’d seen at Claiborne making fun of girls who showed affection to each other by holding hands or hugging or kissing hello and goodbye. The boys would mock their hapless targets with derisive laughter and kissing sounds.
“Lezzies!” they shouted. “Pervs!”
What also came to mind, however, was my mother’s explanation, though she didn’t mention Aunt Ida, when we had “the talk.” She said that some men prefer men and some women prefer women, as if she were telling me some people prefer coffee and some prefer tea.
“But Aunt Ida, if you like women, why did you marry a man?” I asked.
“Aw shoot, kid, that was like masking for Mardi Gras,” she said. “I could blend into the crowd without anybody knowing who I really was.”
I steeled myself to ask the most important question of all.
“Do you think I’m gay?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. And if you are, so what? People who preach only their way to live is right will always try to get you to believe your way is wrong. But I say the best way to live is to be yourself—and proud of it—no matter what those people say.”
“If you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun,” I said.
“That’s my Julianna!” Aunt Ida said.
“I love you,” I said and hugged her tighter than I ever had before.
Aunt Ida’s laughter hadn’t quite rolled to a stop when I left to catch the streetcar. This time, I enjoyed the ride.
I phoned Abby as soon as I got home.
“Meet me for tennis at ten tomorrow?” I said.
Abby didn’t answer right away. The longer her silence, the more I feared she was planning to end our friendship. I held my breath, preparing for the worst.
“See you then,” she said after an eternity.
“See you then,” I said after I remembered to breathe.
When I got to Claiborne, Abby was at the practice wall smoothly stroking forehands and backhands, a dreamy reminder of Katharine Hepburn. I watched her for a while before she noticed me.
“Hi, Short Stuff,” she said.
“Hi, Tall Stuff,” I said.
We didn’t talk about Aunt Ida’s nor much of anything at all but launched almost immediately into a spirited set of tennis. I imagined Abby and Katharine Hepburn guiding my arm—the holy tennis trinity together again. I even won a game.
“Good playing,” Abby said.
“Good teacher,” I said.
“Maybe next time you’ll win two games,” Abby said.
“Next time,” I said—the most beautiful words I’d ever heard.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Abby asked me to bike with her to the St. Charles Avenue playground. I eagerly accepted, picturing a last hurrah—especially on the monkey bars, which I more or less had conquered—before school started.
“Race you to the swings,” I said after a brief rest on what we now called “our” iron lace bench.
Abby didn’t move. She looked uncharacteristically fragile. She spoke so softly, I could barely hear her above the din of the passing streetcars.
“My parents are sending me to a convent boarding school in Birmingham,” she said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
The news hit me with a force as powerful as the Mississippi River when it breached the levee. I felt like I was drowning. I wanted to scream for help, but couldn’t make a sound. Instinctively, I reached for Abby. We hadn’t touched since that night at Aunt Ida’s, but when Abby slipped her arm around my shoulders, it felt exactly right.
“Why?” I asked when I found my voice.
“They came home early from work last week and caught me making out with Ella Boudreaux on the couch,” Abby said. “They think something’s wrong with me and that the nuns will fix it.”
“But why do you have to go away?” I asked. “Can’t they just send you to the nuns down the street at St. Ursula Academy?”
“I guess they figure the nuns at boarding school will watch my every move, day and night—unless I give ’em the slip sometimes,” Abby said with a nudge and a hint of her mischievous grin.
I started to respond in kind when a distressing thought interrupted me mid-nudge. I blurted it out before I could stop myself.
“Do you like Ella Boudreaux more than you like me?” I asked.
“I’ll never like anybody more than I like you,” said Abby. “You and I will be best friends forever, no matter who else comes along.”
“No matter who else comes along,” I echoed, desperately hoping it was true. “And y’know what, Tall Stuff? I don’t think you need to be fixed at all.”
“Y’know what, Short Stuff?” said Abby. “I don’t either.”
We said goodbye with hugs and tears and promises to write each other daily.
“I love you, Abby Chapman,” I said.
“I love you, Julianna Wiseman,” Abby said, then mounted her bike and rode away.
When I got home, I told my mother that Abby was going to boarding school. I didn’t mention why.
“I’m sure you’re upset,” my mother said, “but think of it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons.”
“No, Mother, I’m not upset. I’m way beyond upset. And my horizons are broad enough, thank you,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.
Before I could think of a milder retort, our conversation was interrupted by lightning and thunder. My mother ran to shut the windows in the front of the house. As I did the same in back, I realized I was crying because the real-life The Summer of Abby was over.
For the next three days, I refused to come out of my room for anything but meals. I considered boycotting school since my best friend and kindred spirit wouldn’t be there, but thought better of it because I didn’t want to get too far behind in my classes.
I called Abby’s parents to ask for her address. They told me not to bother writing because she wasn’t allowed to communicate with anyone except family. And she would be staying with relatives in Birmingham for Thanksgiving and Christmas—and maybe also next summer.
I felt like I was being smothered by an oppressive blanket of heat and humidity. Abby had disappeared from my life as suddenly as she had appeared. Had our friendship been only a heartbreaking illusion, like the promise of relief that came and went with the rain? I was devastated.
My parents sent me to a shrink, who diagnosed me with garden variety neuroses and mild depression. I grudgingly heeded her advice and acquired some friends at school who were tolerable lunchtime companions. And thanks to Bobby Goldman, with whom I sneaked away during athletic events and eighth-grade dances for awkward but toe-curling make-out sessions under the Claiborne bleachers, my shrink insisted I wasn’t gay, even though I never quite shook the memory of Abby’s kiss.
I returned to New Orleans after college, became a high school English and theatre teacher (I taught a unit on the history of movies, of course). I married someone other than Bobby Goldman and had two children—one boy, one girl. I buried my parents, whom I never told Abby kissed me, and as the executor of Aunt Ida’s estate, saw to it that she—ever the iconoclast and rulebreaker—was cremated, in defiance of Jewish law.
Aunt Ida left her gallery and house to Sadie Rosenbaum. They had been lovers for years.
“We would have gotten married if it was legal,” Aunt Ida once told me. “But we still had a lot of fun, kid, even though we couldn’t break that particular rule.”
With the help of my tech-savvy grandchildren, I reconnected with Abby via social media. We agreed that we had missed each other all these years and caught up on our lives. Abby had carved out a career as a club tennis pro in New York and married her longtime partner when the state legalized same-sex marriage. After her father died, she and her mother sold Chappy’s, which was razed to make way for a condominium development. We mourned the loss together over the miles.
Abby phoned me on my seventy-fifth birthday. We reminisced about dinner at Galatoire’s and that night at Aunt Ida’s.
“May I confess something, Short Stuff?” Abby asked at the end of our conversation.
“Go for it, as my grandchildren would say.”
“Over the years, I sometimes wished you’d call to tell me you wanted to be more than friends.”
“My turn to confess, Tall Stuff,” I said.
“Go for it,” Abby said.
“Over the years,” I said, ”I sometimes wished I could have.”
The clouds still burst on summer afternoons in New Orleans. The lightning dazzles. The thunder roars. The rain still ripples and swells to a deafening ovation, promising relief from heat and humidity. And sometimes, I think I see a yellow apparition furiously pedaling a coaster-brake cruiser through the storm.
Ria Parody Erlich, a retired educator and public relations professional, is delighted she now can devote herself to creative writing. Ria’s work has appeared in bioStories, The Circle Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Litbreak Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The Paddle Wheeler. Her short story, “The Goodman Girls,” was nominated in 2021 for a Pushcart Prize. Ria’s one-act play, “Toast,” was presented in October 2022 as a staged reading by the Alliance for Los Angeles Playwrights and produced by the SkyPilot Theatre Company in March 2023. A proud New Orleans native, Ria currently lives in Santa Monica, California, with husband Shel.