Life After High School
Life After High School
Joyce Carol Oates
Adult party chatter
Tobias: Sunny! Sunny Burhman? It is Sunny, isn't it?
Barbara: Tobias. After all these years. And now, your name up in lights.
Tobias: Not Broadway.
Barbara: Maybe not. But off Broadway is doing pretty well! Congratulations, the critics love it.
Tobias: Amazingly - as I don't write popular drama. Keep out of the mainstream, honey,
that's my line.
Barbara: Oh Tobias, that's how I remember you. All those years ago in South Lebanon High School - standing back, the quiet observer. Seems a long time ago.
Tobias: Thirty years ago, it is a long time! And you, Sunny, a distinguished academic, consultant to the president, no less . That I would never have guessed!
Barbara: Tobias, you always thought I was a lightweight, didn't you? Even now, I can see the look on your face. The all-American girl - pretty but brainless, right?
Tobias: Hold it, I'm not sneering! But let's face it, sunny by name, sunny by nature. The teacher who called you Sunny said it all - or so we thought. I'm glad you've proved us wrong, Sunny.
Barbara: Tobias, call me Barbara. I haven't let anyone call me Sunny since, since ...
Tobias: Since Zack, right?
Barbara: Yeah, right! Since Zack.
Tobias: Yeah ...
Barbara: Barbara Burhman, that's me. I've kept my name, even though I've been married twenty-eight years. Happily married.
Tobias: Okay, Barbara it shall be, I stand corrected. But I remain Tobias - to my friends at least. And you I would happily consider a friend, despite such a long interval.
Barbara: Well, thank you. I guess our class - that Class of 59 - would all remember me as Sunny. And you know, I do sometimes feel a small pang of nostalgia for that blue-eyed girl, the Sunny that I used to be. I also have to admit that Zack, in doing what he did, set me free.
Barbara: Oh, from South Lebanon - that small-town narrowness , that uptight religion that ruled our lives ... I'm where I am because of that poor boy.
Tobias: Zack did that?
Barbara: Yeah. Yeah, he did.
Tobias: Then he did it for both of us.
Barbara: He did? How's that?
Tobias: You've said of Zack, what I have always said. l owe him. But I never imagined you could have felt that, Sunny - Barbara. Apologies. You seemed so ... so untouched by him.
Barbara: Oh no, never that... The girl I was then, Sunny, she couldn't handle him. Or give him what he needed ... Poor Zack.
US High school corridor
Lucille:Did you see what she was wearing?
Barbara: I know. But did you see who she's going out with?
Zack: Uh - Sunny - Hi, Sunny.
Barbara: Hi Zack.
(The girls giggle)
Lucille:Sunny, that's the fiftieth time this week! He's after you, and you can't see it!
Barbara: Well, I can't ignore him, can I?
Lucille:Why not? Everyone else does.
Barbara: He just says Hi, like all the other boys.
Lucille:It's not like other boys. He's always around, hovering. Waiting to catch you. Let him see you can't stand him.
Barbara: I can't do that, Lucille.
Lucille:Sunny, why ever not? You're too nice with him. He's a creep.
Barbara: How can you say that? He's going to come first in our grade, anyone can see that.
Lucille:He may be bright, but so what? He's such a loner. And, ugh, those black plastic glasses. And so formal. Doesn't he ever loosen up some? Next time, Sunny, do yourself a favour, tell him to get lost.
Zack: Life is becoming clear to me at last, Tobias.
Tobias: You mean you have the answer to the biggest question of all?
Zack: Ah, come on ...
Tobias: Zack, we have known each other since seventh grade, and in that time, you have told me how your life is one long agony of doubts.
Zack: Come on ...
Tobias: No, it's true, Zack. You told me and I quote, you get on your knees every morning of your life and pray for your sinful soul, for your sinful thoughts, your sinful deeds. And when I asked you what you prayed for, you couldn't answer.
Zack: Yes I could.
Tobias: Oh sure. You said, I quote again, 'to get through the day.' What kind of answer is that, I ask you?!
Zack: But it's different now. I think I have an answer.
Mother: Hello, Burhman household. Mrs Burhman speaking.
Zack: Is Sunny there, Mrs Burhmann? May I speak with her, please?
Mother: Is that Zachary Graff?
Zack: Uh, yeah. How did you know?
Mother: South Lebanon is a small lown, Zachary.
Zack: Guess it is. Sunny, is she - can l...
Mother: I don't think she's here, right now. I'll just check. (Whispers) Barbara, it's that Graff boy again. And you've got so much homework. I've told him you're not here.
Barbara: Okay, Mom.
Mother: Zachary? She's not here. And when she does get back, she's got a long assignment to catch up on. Not everyone's got your brains, dear. Is that clear?
Zack: Yeah, I understand.
Mother: Good, I'm glad you do. Goodbye, Zachary. (Phone put down) There, dear.
Barbara: Oh Mom, I feel so bad. I just feel so - so deceitful!
Mother: You don't have time for all of them, honey.
Small town street in the 60s
Zack: Hi Sunny!
Zack: Uh, this is my car.
Barbara: It's .. it's very nice. Can't be very old.
Zack: Three years.
Barbara: Wow, it must be the newest car of any guy in our class.
Zack: I guess. Look, I'm not trying to impress you or anything. It's just a car. I mean, say, can I give you a ride home?
Barbara: A ride home? Oh but...
Zack: It's no trouble, really -
Barbara: Uh ...
Zack: In fact, it's something I'd very much like to do for you.
Barbara: Look. Zachary ...
Zack: Please ... ?
Car door opens
Zack: Okay? Jump in.
Barbara: Well, I guess this once ...
Some teenagers: Wow, hey, look at that... Take care, Sunny ...
Car driving off
Zack: What was all that about? Can't a guy offer a girl a ride?
Barbara: They're my friends ...
Zack: My father gave me this car. You know, a car is just a means to an end - it gets you around. Sunny, I cannot understand why so many of our classmates spend all their weekends doing things to their cars. Do you understand that?
Barbara: Uh, no, I guess not.
Zack: I mean, I believe we are here for some purpose. A higher purpose. Do you believe that, Sunny?
Barbara: I go to church every Sunday, if that's what you mean.
Zack: Kind of, I guess ...
Barbara: My family are members of the First Presbyterian. And Saturday afternoons, I do YWCA volunteer work, visiting old ladies, that kind of thing.
Zack: That's excellent, Sunny.
Barbara: You think so?
Zack: Yeah, I do. You don't mind me calling you Sunny?
Barbara: Oh no, everyone calls me that now.
Zack: I remember how you were Barbara right up to sixth grade. Then, Mrs Zuckerman, she said, "Tell you what, boys and girls, from now on let's call Barbara Sunny! Because that's what she is - " Together: "Sunny by nature, and Sunny by name."
Barbara: Do you go to church, Zachary?
Zack: I guess. Yeah, First Lutheran.
Barbara: You don't sound too sure.
Zack: Well, yeah, I go with my parents every Sunday. But... Do you ever feel you can be somewhere, and yet... you don't belong?
Barbara: You do believe in God, don't you?
Zack: I guess, but... You know, there are so many bad things in the world. The Korean War, the H-bomb ... How does God let that all happen?
Barbara: God works in mysterious ways. He knows everything, so He knows best.
Zack: But how can we be sure He exists? I have my doubts, Sunny.
Barbara: Of course you do, Zachary, it's natural. God has made us creatures of free will, so He allows us to have doubts.
Zack: But what if we doubt whether He is there at all?
Barbara: Because we must believe in Him. He gives us that choice. Out of His goodness, Zack.
Zack: There's so many questions. You know, the meaning of life, why are we here?
Barbara: I can't answer questions like that. But when I'm stuck, I pray. And so could you, Zachary. Pray to the Lord Jesus Christ for understanding.
Zack: Maybe. You know, Sunny, just to pose certain questions is, I guess, to show your hope they can be answered.
Car slows down
Barbara: How did you know I live here?
Zack: Oh, there are some questions I have found the answer to.
Tobias: So what's with you, mystery man? Who's the chick?
Zack: Tobias, you know who she is.
Tobias: Yeah, sure, I know Sunny Burhman, we all know Sunny Burhman. We all lust after her.
Zack: Will you do me a favour ...
Tobias: Well, no, I guess I don't lust after Sunny. To be honest, Zachary buddy, I have yet to find a single girl I could lust over. For me, lust and girls do not go together.
Zack: Look, me and Sunny, it's nothing to do wilh lust. I - I have a very deep and sincere feeling towards her.
Tobias: Sure you do, buddy, but honestly, how do you have the slightest chance against all those athletic types who're lining up right now to date Sunny Burhman.
Zack: How can you be so cynical? Sunny is too intelligent for them.
Tobias: Yeah, well, when she breaks your heart , I'll still be here. The friendship of men - that's eternal.
Zack: Muhlenberg College! I ask you, who has ever heard of Muhlenberg College. But that's what my parents want.
Barbara: I'm sure they mean well.
Zack : Yeah, they mean well. And you, Sunny, where do your parents want you to go?
Barbara: Yeah, sure. Do you think I'm not good enough?
Zack: Oh no, Sunny. But... Is that where you want to go? Not just what your parents want...?
Barbara: Sure it is. I'd love to go to Cornell . That's why Mom insists I work hard. She's right.
Zack: Sunny. if you go to Cornell, I - maybe I'll go there too. What do you think?
Barbara: If anyone in our class can get to Cornell, you can, Zachary. You're the brightest.
Zack: That's not what I meant... How do you feel about it, Sunny?
Barbara: Oh - it'd be nice.
Zack: You wouldn't mind, Sunny?
Barbara: Why should I mind?
Zack: You're sure?
Barbara: Zachary, it's a free world!
Zack: When I'm with you, Sunny, it's possible for me to believe.
Car slows down and stops
Zack: So, Cornell? In the fall?
Barbara: Uh, thanks for the ride.
Zack: We'll both go to Cornell?
Barbara: Sure, why not?
Lucille:Tell him to get lost. He's a creep.
Barbara: But he's so full of doubts.
Lucille:What's that got to do with it?
Barbara: He needs help, kind of like ... spiritual guidance, know what I mean?
Lucille:No, I do not. Look, Sunny, we all go to church, we all believe in God. But that doesn't mean we have to spend our whole lives thinking about other people.
Barbara: How can you say that?
Lucille:Look, I have a lot of respect for you. We all do. But this Zachary Graff, he's a creep. You can do better than that. I can name five guys right now who're nuts over you. They'd date you tonight if you'd let them!
Tobias: If that's what you want, it's good with me, the two of you, off to Cornell in the fall. Zack Graff, South Lebanon's brightest intellectual hope in years and Sunny Burhman, the all-American girl, too good to be true, who is, nonetheless, true!
Zack: Knock it off, Tobias, you're not writing the class year book.
Tobias: Oh but I am, haven't you heard? Mrs Zuckermann's nominated me editor.
Tobias: So don't get worked up when I dream up captions, it's my launch on a writing career!
Zack: I'm trying to be serious.
Tobias: That, my friend, is your problem.
Zack: I'm trying to tell you, for the first time, I believe.
Tobias: Knock it off, this is not Sunday.
Zack: Please, will you accept it?
Barbara: Is this - what I think it is?
Zack: Yup. 24 carat gold. Of course, I'd have liked the diamond to be bigger, but... well, I blew my college fund. It's worth it.
Barbara: Oh, Zachary, oh no. There must be some misunderstanding.
Zack: Well - will you just try it on? See if it fits.
Barbara: I can't.
Zack: They'll take it back to adjust it, if it's too big. They promised.
Barbara: Zachary, no. I'm so sorry.
Zack: I realize you don't love me, Sunny. At least not yet, but - you could wear the ring, couldn't you? Just - wear it? On your right hand, if you don't want to wear it on your left? Please?
Barbara: No, Zachary. That's impossible.
Zack: Just, you know, as a gift? Oh Sunny - it would mean so much to me. lt would mean ... It's, you know, life or death, Sunny, ..
Barbara: Oh, Zachary, I'm sorry. I can't.
Barbara: O God, please help Zachary not to be in love with me. Have mercy on us both, O God. Help him to realize he doesn't love me - doesn't know me. And ... O God,please help me to sleep.
Zack: (Calling outside) Sunny?
Barbara: Wha ... what?
Zack: Sun-ny ... ?
Barbara: Oh God! Zachary. Oh no ... (Opens window) Wait there, Zachary. I'll be down.
Zack: Yeah, that's right, come on down.
Barbara: Sssshhh! You'll wake my folks ...
Barbara: Zachary, are you in trouble?
Zack: Give me your hand.
Zack: You've got to come with me. I've got to talk with you. Now. My car's in the alley.
Barbara: I can't come with you. Zachary, it's the middle of the night. Please, go. Go now, before my parents wake up.
Zack: I can't leave without you. I have to talk with you.
Barbara: Let go of me. Please.
Zack: I told you - I can love enough for both of us. Believe me.
Barbara: No! No! Go away!
Zack: Oh Sunny .... (Going) Life or death, Sunny!
Barbara: I guess the whole thing took, what? - two minutes? It felt like a lifetime. I was only seventeen.
Tobias: And that was the last you saw of him.
Barbara: It was. And next day, everyone had heard the news. "Promising son of local doctor found dead in his car. Death by carbon monoxide poisoning."
Tobias: Yeah, suicide. As he said in his note.
Barbara: April Fools Day, 1959. Every April 1st, I shudder at the memory.
Tobias: You blame yourself?
Barbara: Yes. Maybe a word from me, maybe if I'd offered him some hope ... Let's change the subject. This is a good restaurant. A good choice, thank you. I'm glad we've met up again, Tobias. truly.
Tobias: Me too. You see, there's something I think you need to know.
He takes out a letter
Tobias: Read this, it's from him.
Barbara: He wrote this? Zachary? To you?
Tobias: He did.
Barbara: It's a love letter.
Tobias: It is. We'd been close friends, for years. I suppose I might have been attracted to Zachary at times. I knew I was attracted to other guys - but of course I never acted upon it. I wouldn't have dared! Not with my parents and not in South Lebanon in those days. I couldn't have loved Zachary as he claims to have loved me, because - No, I just couldn't. But I could have allowed him to know that he wasn't sick, crazy, 'perverted'as he calls himself in that letter. But I didn't. I failed him. My only friend.
Barbara: Then it hadn't ever been 'Sunny' at all. She was an illusion.
Tobias: I don't know. Maybe. At the time, he made me believe that, yes, he'd chosen you.
Barbara: Because he had to look normal. And there I was, the all-American girl.
Tobias: I don't think that was it. You see, we all adored you. We were all a little in love with you. Even me!
Barbara: I wish you'd come and told me, back then after he'd - after it happened.
Tobias: I was too much of a coward. I was terrified of being exposed. I'm not proud of myself, Barbara, and I've tried to deal with it in my writing. But - that's how I was back then. There is one more thing - if you can bear it.
Barbara: Let's get it all on the record.
Tobias: After Zachary went to you, that night. he came to me.
Barbara: To you?
Tobias: To me.
Barbara: And - ?
Tobias: And, like you, I refused to go with him.
I was furious with him for coming to my house, risking my parents discovering us. I guess I got a little hysterical. And he fled.
Barbara: He fled.
Tobias: Then, afterward, I just couldn't bring myself to come forward. Why I saved that letter, I don't know. I suppose I figured no one would ever think of me. I mean - everyone knew you'd been his choice.
Barbara: Not me, I think. Sunny.
Tobias: Well, Barbara, Sunny, will you take an apology that's been thirty years too long in coming?
Barbara: Tobias, we grew up in a narrow-minded town. Of course you can have my forgiveness. But I can't give you Sunny's forgiveness. She died a day or two after Zachary Graff. God rest their souls.