Sadie 1920 1271 Alexandra M. Matthews

At dusk, Sadie and I snuck into the woods behind her house. We found the large oak and balanced ourselves on its roots. Eyes closed, we whispered, Tell us the names of our secret admirers. We each peeled away a piece of the tree, and like tea leaves, the grooves in the bark revealed their initials.

Beneath the game was the prospect of experimentation. The end-of-summer ritual gave us a reason to squeeze the other’s arm at school, as we sized up C. M.s and J. R.s, possible dates for the last of the beach parties.

I hid the ceremonial bark in a candy tin under my bed. By Halloween, Sadie had forgotten the initials.


When we were in eighth grade, Sadie’s mother died of breast cancer. They caught it late.

The funeral was family-only, though I was allowed to go. At the burial, they gave us white carnations to throw on the lowered casket. I was nervous I would fall in or miss.

I realized later Sadie hadn’t cried once.


Sadie’s grandmother, Meredith, told us menstruation was sacred. A woman had to safeguard her holiness to protect the cycle, to ensure its return.

When one of us got her period at school, we would go into the bathroom together. If I had mine, Sadie bowed her head to me. She held her hands in prayer position around a tampon and said, It is your blessed time, oh delicate flower, struggling to keep a straight face. She opened her hands and I accepted the offering. We entered adjacent stalls, laughing.

Sadie said being holy lasted more than a week, and I believed her. Our bodies were there for us to enjoy.

Pleasure, unbridled, made us divine.


“If Dom is friends with Jamie, he was probably at that costume party,” I told Sadie. We went to different colleges, but talked on the phone every Sunday.

“I guess,” she said. “How do you remember this stuff?”

“Will you see Dom next weekend?”

Sadie exhaled. “I’m going to a party and I don’t plan on bringing a date.”

“Oh, right. I get that. Well, I might see Brett again.”


“He won’t stop texting me.”

“You can’t date someone out of pity. You know that, don’t you?”

She ended the call. The dining hall was closing soon, she said.

I ate granola bars from the vending machine, having already missed dinner.


Our first summer at home, we worked as counselors at the community center’s science and nature camp. We spent the weekends partying on the beach.

Sometimes I watched from across a party as Sadie flirted. A light touch of his arm. A remark that made him look away, smiling. If she caught me, she would flick her chin, urging me to do the same.

One night, we ran into nose-ring guy, a counselor Sadie had been with before. She picked at her cuticles as they spoke. The exchange was brief.

Sadie led me away from the bonfire, up a dune covered in sea lavender. We picked the wild flowers to make small bouquets. Facing each other, she made us promise we would never give in to marriage. We needed to visualize ourselves, free-loving and untethered.

We ran down and threw the flowers into the water.


That fall, Sadie stopped answering my calls.

The first week, I cycled through explanations: she had forgotten or stayed out late, she was with someone. I sent playful texts, previews of what I planned to tell her.

By the second, I started skipping meals. I stopped reading for class. I left Sadie long voicemails.

After a month, I contacted Meredith. Maybe Sadie had dropped out and was too embarrassed to tell me. Maybe she was sick. Meredith assured me she was fine at school.

Sadie called on a Tuesday. Her voice was neutral and cool. She said she wanted more mature friendships.

I hung up and vomited in the waste basket next to my bed.


After graduation, I accepted an internship with a plant pathologist researching beech bark disease.

We took photographs, analyzed samples. We looked for white secretions, left by the insects that fed on the bark, making room for tree-killing fungi. Or cankers so large they girdled a limb or worse, the trunk. Sometimes we found initials carved into sick trees. Beech bark, thin and fragile, cannot heal. Disease grows in the scars.

Yet healthy trees were equally vital to our research. The resistant ones, thriving while others died, could reveal the secret to survival.

Header photograph © Christine Owens.

Share This:
Back to top