Give Me Your Hand’s narrator, Kit, is a scientist working on groundbreaking medical research in women’s health. As her career moves in the direction for which she’s long hoped, she reflects in flashbacks on high school, when she met and befriended Diane Fleming. Her work at the lab is inextricably linked to her memories of Diane, who both inspired her drive and passion for science and burdened her with the weight of a terrible confession.
Later, too late, I would understand how important my first encounter with Diane Fleming was. How everything was right there, if I chose to look.
It was more than a dozen years ago, at cross-country camp, the summer after my sophomore year. She was running next to me, and you don’t forget a gait like hers. Legs that went on for miles; she seemed to float. No matter the temperature, she never had more than a fine arc of beads at her hairline, like a halo.
I sweat all the time, wildly, like a sorrel mare in heat. The first day, I sweat so much I ended up tearing off my T-shirt and tucking it through the racer back of my bra and got detention, which I didn’t even think you could get in camp.
She was fast, but I soon figured out she was not as fast as the promise of those long legs. Sometimes I’d think if she let herself sweat, she’d be unstoppable. Her jaw so tight, her brow furrowed like our bull mastiff’s. I wanted to try that hard.
“You’re a sprinter at heart,” Coach Holmby had told me. “Fast-twitch all the way.”
Fast-twitch. I looked it up after and found a picture of a cut-up chicken, just like we served up at the Golden Fry. The dark meat is where the slow-twitch muscles are, the legs. The white meat was fast-twitch, for flying. When, I wondered, would a chicken have to fly? I guess when it needed to the most.
I know I wanted to beat her. In part because she didn’t seem to be competing with any of us. She never even looked at other runners, only the shimmery aerosol haze on the horizon.
But neither Diane nor I was ranked top tier. I always had to duck out for my afternoon shift and if I left early, I could get a ride with Malcolm, the good-looking fry cook. And Diane spent most of her time off studying under the awning by the Y’s snack shop or talking on her phone, her hand over her mouth. She was one of the overnight campers even though she lived over in the Foothills, only twenty miles away. Mornings, I’d see her walking, head down, from the bunkhouse showers with her little toiletries bucket, rubber flip-flops inexplicably silent on the concrete. Someone told me she had trouble at home.
I kept my eyes on her. She was always reading, and sometimes I’d write down the book titles and get them at the library. One was about Marie Curie, and though Marie wasn’t nearly as pretty, something in her photo on the cover reminded me of Diane, that same determined expression she wore while facing down the camp’s dust-cracked trails. I never knew anyone before her who read books no one had ever heard of. It seemed like she might have some kind of secret knowledge.
“Is that good?” I asked her once, pointing to the Curie book. “Listen to this,” she said. “My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame.”
I paused, turning the words over in my head. “Marie said that?” “Yes,” Diane replied, looking down into her book again.
My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame.
“Jesus, it’s great,” I said, even though I didn’t know what it meant, yet.
The last week of camp, Diane’s mom visited for the first time. She’d missed all our meets, but now I spotted her huddled with Diane at one of the picnic tables, sharing a tin of mini cupcakes and whispering conspiratorially, their gazelle legs twisted under the wooden benches. She was as lithe and long as her daughter, both of them model-tall, and she kept playing with Diane’s hair, pushing it into updos and side knots.
I liked my mom, but the only time we ever cuddled that cozy together was the night we ate a whole box of stale Russell Stover one of her bad dates had given her two weeks after Valentine’s Day. One of her crowns came out in the molasses chew and it cost twelve hundred dollars to fix and two years to pay off.
Later, I saw them saying goodbye, Mrs. Fleming stepping into her car, which was large, sleek, and so white it hurt your eyes, like looking into the sun.
Even though we hadn’t met, she waved at me too, like a pageant queen making a grand exit, greeting all her admirers.
I walked over to get a better look at the car. Inside was white too, like the smooth curves of a giant molar. And the gold trimmings like molar crowns.
“Mom,” Diane said, untangling her hair, “this is Kit.” “Kit,” she said. “Pleased to know you.”
“That’s some car,” I said.
Her smile, which reached up to the bottom rims of her gold sunglasses, was so warm it made me sweat a little.
“Honey, this isn’t a car. Do you know what this is?” she said, sliding into that white leather front seat.
It sounded like something my dad would say, and that made me feel sorry for Diane.
“My boyfriend is trying to entice me to move in with him,” Mrs. Fleming said, tilting the sun visor down with a flash of her hand, showing a big, fireworks-size sparkler on her ring finger. “To entice us both. Don’t you think Didi would love celebrating her sweet sixteen on the beach?”
“Sure,” I said, looking over at Diane, who, with her ramrod posture and gold post earrings, her immaculate sneakers (scrubbed, no doubt, with a toothbrush and bleach each night), looked like no Didi ever in history.
“Didi,” she said, “think about what we discussed, okay?” Then, with one more flash of her hand, that asteroid-size ring, she turned the wheel and drove away.
Diane and I both waved until our arms ached, like this was the last time Miss Suncoast Peaches might visit our town.
Then, the last full day of camp, on the overnight trip to distant Rialto for a track meet, I had the talk with Diane that would knock around in my brain ever after.
We were bundled four to a room at Wheels Inn, which was what they called a family hotel, with an enormous foggy aquatic atrium at the center, like a hothouse for dying grandparents and abandoned children. Two waterslides and a bumper-boat pool and the sharp echo of kids screaming all night, their throats gurgling, as though about to meet their watery graves.
I shared a room with Diane and two girls from Valley East, Shauna and Sarina, and we swapped secrets all night, which is what you do on overnight trips, especially when you might never see these girls again, different schools, different worlds.
You felt like you could say anything. Be anyone.
Shauna confessed she’d stuck a fork in her brother’s ear when he was a baby and now he had only 80 percent hearing and no one but her knew why.
Sarina confided her boyfriend sometimes choked her until she passed out, which made me feel bad for her and for all the girls like her. Except girls like her made things harder for the rest of us.
Diane, however, wouldn’t share anything. She said nothing had ever happened to her.
“Not even at Sacred Heart?” Shauna asked. It was a private girls’ school so it seemed exotic. There were always rumors about it, about death cults and sex games and anything else we public-school kids could conjure, all of us piled on top of one another in windowless basement classrooms, no disposable income and no mystery at all.
“No,” Diane said. “We work really hard. There isn’t really time for anything else.”
“Are you religious?” Shauna asked. “Maybe that’s why nothing’s happened to you.”
“Did your dad make you go there so you wouldn’t get pregnant?” Sarina asked. “Because it’s always Catholic-school bitches who get pregnant.”
“My mom liked the idea,” Diane said. “She went to an all-girls school too.”
“But you live over by the Foothills. Big bucks. What’s it like there?” Sarina demanded, a look on her face I didn’t like, but what could you expect from a girl named Sarina?
I thought I saw a throb of panic at Diane’s temple, and it was my turn anyway, so I told them the story I wish I’d never told. About how I used to dogsit a pair of liver-coated baying bloodhounds in the Foothills for a man my mom knew from the rescue clinic. We called him Stevie Shoes because he was a sales rep for some sportswear company and always had a trunkful of sneakers. One night, he came back early from a business trip and offered to drive me home, which saved me a half hour and a bus transfer. On the drive, we got to talking about music and the way certain songs seemed written just for us and before I knew it I’d let him put his hands down my jeans, and it was all thumbs and fingers, hip bone pressing. The radio was playing old songs I didn’t like, the Eagles even, but somehow they sounded soulful at the time and he’d been telling me how hard his divorce had been on his kid and all these grown-up things and soon enough hands were in all places, both of ours, and my chin was buried in his shoulder, breathing so hard from all of it.
The whole time, I kept my eyes on the mini dream catcher hanging from his rearview mirror, its purple feathers tickling my chin whenever we pushed forward.
“We didn’t do everything,” I said, and I could smell the car freshener and feel the funniness of his business suit, his grown-up belt, its buckle pressing against my cheek. “But pretty close.”
“I bet he was married,” Sarina said. “No single guy has a dream catcher in his car.”
“He was divorced,” I repeated, “but he was still really old and not appropriate.”
Which was what Ms. Castro, the guidance counselor, had said. I didn’t tell them how, when he dropped me off, he gave me a pair of brand-new running shoes with pink spikes from his trunk, the same ones I was wearing now.
I found myself looking down at them, touching a finger to one of the rubber studs.
As if she could hear my thoughts, Diane was looking at them too.
And then I couldn’t believe it, but I started crying. Shauna and Sarina put their arms around me sloppily, patting me like a punched dog. They were crying too, for their own reasons and their own secret sorrows. We were just a quivering mess of hard shins and soft flannel, of Sour Patch–fueled girl misery.
Sitting on the opposite bed, Diane watched, immobile.
Finally, she looked at me, tucking a stray silk bit of hair behind her ear, and said she was sorry.
“It’s okay, Kit,” she said. “My mom always says, you don’t have a self until you have a secret.”
I didn’t know what she meant or how she meant it.
I remember looking up, my hair and Shauna’s hair tangled in my face. And Diane just kept looking back at me, those blue eyes like daubs of paint.
“Diane’s right. It’s fine,” Sarina said. “But did you let him put it inside?”
Later that night, just as we were starting to settle in, tank tops and shorts, sharing two bottles of beer we’d stolen from a room-service tray and rubbing our feet with smelly lotions, Diane started to feel sick and bent over the trash can by the bed.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” I said, holding her hair back in case. My hands kept fumbling because her hair was so soft. It felt like what I imagined Cinderella’s might.
“It’s probably the cheese sticks or the gummies,” Shauna said to me.
“It’s okay,” I whispered to Diane. “Most runners do it once in a while.”
“I’m not doing it on purpose,” Diane said. “I swear.”
“Bingeing is bad for your electrolytes,” Sarina said, overhearing us. Lying back on the other bed, legs swinging over the edge.
“She didn’t eat anything,” I said. I’d never seen her eat anything ever. Her legs like a stork’s in her running shorts.
“I’m sorry,” Diane kept saying, her chest heaving. Nothing was coming out, not even a long, lean spit string like when I tried to purge up a half a bag of Chips Ahoy or a whole jar of Jif or some other poor choice before cross-country weigh-ins.
I believed her and felt bad for her, her long face and pale eye-brows and ears with no lobes and still the prettiest girl I’d seen in real life.
“Just throw it all up, then. By throwing up you acknowledge your binge was bad,” Shauna said, “and you’re fixing your mistakes.”
Diane didn’t seem to be listening, her eyelids glistening, face flushed, like how I pictured Cathy in Wuthering Heights, which we’d just read for school. Cathy was wicked and wonderful and I’d never known a character could be both at once. Everyone in class hated her except me.
“Lie down, Diane,” I said. “Don’t listen to them.”
“It’s just my period,” she whispered. “My period must finally be coming.”
I said she must be right.
At last, I settled Diane into bed and got in next to her. From the other double bed, Shauna and Sarina watched like we were putting on a show, sniping and calling me Madame Lezzifer and making kissy faces, but I didn’t care. When I went to pull up the tatty hotel bedspread, Diane reached for my arm as if to hold it there, to comfort her. I’d never spooned with anyone other than my mom when I was little and she’d lock my dad out and he’d come pounding on the garage door all night till the cops came, shaking their heads, flashlights resting on their shoulders. But I spooned a little with Diane, or almost spooned, our bodies close enough that I could feel all her breaths, ragged and high. It was more like sleeping with a big doll.
For a while, it felt nice taking care of someone so timid and distressed. Until finally it felt strange, even though she never even moved. Strange because Diane was strange — wasn’t she? A locked box without a key.
The next day, camp was over, and that’s when I first saw Diane’s dad. He stood outside the field house, a man with a trim mustache, even though no one really had just a mustache then, not even cops. He was leaning against his car, jiggling his keys, his business suit blazing under the late-afternoon sun.
“Do you know Diane Fleming?” he asked. “Is she inside?” “Yeah,” I said. I’d seen her lingering over by the showers, brushing her wet hair in long strokes. “I think she’ll be out soon.” He smiled, nudging his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I was worried I had the wrong place. We’re driving to Johnny Hall’s for dinner.”
I’d never been to Johnny Hall’s, but I’d heard about it because it rotated while you sat and ate oysters, and its domed ceiling twinkled with artificial stars. “Do you want me to tell her you’re here?”
“She knows,” he said, waving his phone as some kind of proof. “Guess no one your age is in a hurry to spend the evening with her dad.”
I smiled at him without saying anything because there’s no good response to that.
“Well, if you see her . . .,” he said, and I felt a swell of feeling-sorry for him so heavy it ached.
When Diane came out of the field house, I watched. They were very formal together, her dad opening the door for her like they were on a blind date. She didn’t look at him.
“I don’t feel very hungry,” I heard her say, “and I need to see Mom.”
A few days later, I got a postcard from her. I don’t know how she got my home address, and I’d never known anyone under sixty who sent postcards.
Kit, thank you for making me run faster. Remember: you don’t have a self until you have a secret. Thank you for sharing yours.
I smiled, but then came a funny quiver.
“What secret?” my mom asked, holding the postcard up to the light as if it were a cipher.
“Just some running tips,” I said, shrugging. “Like where I got my shoes.”
From the book Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. Copyright © 2018 by Megan Abbott. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.