It is September in New York City and Sarah Beth Weiss has just turned seventeen. For as long as she can remember, she has been called Sethie; her parents, her grandparents, even cousins and uncles who barely know her name at all, know that she is called Sethie. Only new teachers get it wrong. At school, when they go through roll call, Sethie has always had to interrupt to explain. It happened just today, the first day of her senior year. She thought all the teachers at her small school would know her real name by now. But there was a new math teacher today. It wasn't his fault, and Sethie knows it, but she was angry at him. She was frustrated that he made her explain about her name. She felt bad, later, for having been angry.
Sethie is rushing. She goes to an all-girls school, the Franklin White School, or the White School, or White for short, a name whose irony--or complete lack thereof--is lost on none of the homogenous student body. School has ended for the day, and all Sethie can think about is the boy, the boy, the boy. All summer long, she didn't have to wait until three-fifteen to see him, and now she can't remember how she managed before. And she remembers waiting even longer, last year, when she had yearbook editorial meetings that lasted past five, or appointments with her SAT tutor at the coffee shop after school.
Shaw, Shaw, Shaw. She sings it to herself, rushing, like a horse being taunted with a carrot on a stick--must get that carrot, must go faster, must get to Shaw.
There are two things that are true about Sethie: one is that she is always hungry, a mean, angry kind of hunger that feels like a piece of glass in her belly; the other is that she is always missing Shaw.
When Shaw says her name, Sethie feels it on her skin. Her name sounds serious coming out of his mouth, in his deep voice, a voice that belongs somewhere else--in an opera house, on a film screen, coming out of the radio. A voice that deserves to be anywhere but on her bedroom floor, actually speaking to her, paying attention to her, saying her name. Giving her name heft it never had before.
Shaw, Shaw, Shaw. The name that feels like it never finishes, like it's missing a letter at the end. She knows that he can't have missed her all day, not the way she has missed him. Shaw would never be bothered with missing anyone. Shaw doesn't believe in relying on someone else for his own happiness. Shaw's friends were mostly away all summer; he probably actually enjoyed his first day back at school, probably enjoyed seeing all of those other people, getting new books, pressing freshly sharpened pencils into loose-leaf paper.
Sethie knows Shaw's pencils are freshly sharpened, because last night she cleaned out his school bag. Shaw was in the shower, and she threw away all his chewed-up and worn-down pencils and replaced them with fresh ones of her own. A surprise for his first day back.
Sethie has approached this whole day with speed, rushing from class to class, running up and down the stairs, watching the clock, willing it to be eighth period. The other girls walked slowly between classes, catching up, complaining about this or that teacher, agonizing over college applications. Sethie arrived to each class early, turned to the first page of her notebook, and pressed her pen to the top of the page, ready to get on with things. Her classmates sat in the senior lounge; they'd waited years for that lounge, long and skinny, with doors to close the teachers out. It's very small; Sethie thinks that at another school, it might be too small to fit the entire senior class inside it. But all the girls at Sethie's school are skinny. Since most of the girls have been there since kindergarten, Sethie imagines the application process. No overly-sturdy-looking four-year-olds would have been considered.
The most exciting thing about the senior lounge is that it has a pay phone in it. All the girls have been waiting for it since they began attending White and were faced with the faculty's rigid no-cell-phone policy. Sethie remembers what a big deal it was when she was ten years old and her mother finally let her have a cell phone; having the pay phone in the senior lounge seems just as exciting. Sethie still has that same cell phone, in a box under her bed. Sometimes she recharges it and looks at the old text messages she and her friends sent each other in fifth grade. Today, Sethie's classmates all called the boys they like at other schools to give them the number to the senior lounge. The phone rang all day. Sethie has decided she won't give Shaw the number. That way it won't bother her when he doesn't call.
Sethie knows that for all of her rushing today, all of her running from class to class, Shaw has been strolling. Shaw takes his time. Shaw does not rush.
It's one of the things Sethie likes about him. He never worries about being late; he gets to the places he's going when he's ready to be there, and so it's always the right time. She would love to feel that kind of calm, would love to crawl up inside him for a day and feel what it's like to be inside that body: so assured, so smooth, so taut, so lean, and so slow. Shaw doesn't have to rush for her, after all--she does enough rushing for the both of them.
When Sethie finally sees him, Shaw isn't waiting for her. He's on the corner with his friends, but he's not waiting. Had they discussed that she would meet him after school? She thought they had, but now he looks so surprised to see her that she thinks maybe not; maybe she just decided she would come here, and now she's just lucky that Shaw is here.
"Hey, kiddo," he says, and she stands next to him. He does not kiss her hello. He does not put an arm around her. To show she is his, she takes his cigarette from him, and takes a long drag from it.
Shaw's school, Houseman Prep, is coed, so the circle on the corner of the block in which Sethie stands with Shaw includes girls and boys, not just girls, like the corners outside Sethie's school. All the different schools uptown are really just like one big school laid out on an enormous campus. It wouldn't even qualify as an enormous campus. Sethie bets there are some real campuses that are even bigger. In California, maybe, or in Europe.