Don't Ask Forever By W.B. Martin

Unable to sit still any longer, I rose from my bed and walked over to the window, where I stood staring down at the fast-darkening street and wondering what was keeping Linda.
 Don't Ask Forever
 Don't Ask Forever By W.B. Martin

Suddenly my cheeks burned with the fear that she was not coming, that it was all part of her scheme to keep me from going. I would put my recently dented Triumph TR-4A in the shop, as I had; be dependent on her for getting to the airport, as I was; and she would claim the five o-clock traffic or car trouble and I would miss my flight. She was capable of it, just as about a year ago she had been capable of leaving Thornhurst and a childless eighteen-year marriage to a shift foreman at the slip factory and coming to Savannah to make as fresh a start as an overweight thirty-seven-year-old woman with only typing skills can make.

My fear subsided, though. I knew Linda too well. She might not approve of what I was doing, but if I really wanted to do it, if I had thought it through and was willing to accept the consequences, good or bad, she would not stand in my way. Certainly she would not trick me. Besides, it was only a little past 5:45 and hadn’t she said she couldn’t possible get here before six? “Relax, darling. There’s no need to get so worried,” I could imagine Laura saying, could indeed remember her saying so many times in the past when for one reason or another I had become, as she called it, “manic.”

Turning from the window, I walked across the room to the stuffed bookcase on which were several of my many weightlifting trophies and the small cedar box I had made in high school shop and now used for Laura’s letters. Opening the box, I took out the top letter, then went back over to the foot of my bed and sat down. Despite having read the letter enough times to have it almost memorized, I still noted with tingling cheeks the unique Laura-way my name and address were written on the thick blue envelope--the S and the H in Savannah high and symmetrical like bookends holding the small letters in place.

The letter read:

Tuesday Night

Feb. 5, 1968

My dearest Levi,

This is absolutely wild! I’m in an unbelievable state. My mind is whirling. So many things are happening that it seems almost impossible to concentrate on any one. There are millions of things that I want to think about; they pop in and out of my consciousness. It’s not just that my job as well as my personal life up here are running or keyed to such a high level (there will hardly be a free moment until you come). But there is that CONSTANT, EVER PRESENT, UNDERLYING EXCITEMENT that revolves around YOUR COMING! Oh, and then you had to send me that record, “L’Amour est Bleu”--I hear it constantly and, of course, you thing, you wonderful thing--I think of you and whatever I’m doing or thinking about is completely disrupted.

As I “motor” (your word) around Boston I’m further distracted by thoughts of new and additional things to show you, to tell you, to share with you. For example: Today Kathleen told me that the building for the Widener Library at Harvard, where she works, was donated by the mother of a man who went down with the Titanic. It made me think of your fascination with the Titanic--I started thinking again of how you compared our meeting on the Thornhurst railroad tracks that Christmas Eve afternoon of 1966 to the collision of the ship with the iceberg--and I get goose pimples all up and down my arms. Isn’t that something? Anyway, I mentally carry on conversations and write letters to you. My romantic side and my calm logic clash. My cautious side reacts, but it is impotent in its ability to restrain my pleasure. I am emotionally, mentally, physically ready for your coming, for our meeting. A year’s accumulation of feelings is bursting forth.

I have--perhaps recklessly or foolishly in some eyes (though not in my mother’s, believe it or not) decided to forget about the future, the forever, “to make a space in the life that I’ve planned,” (there’s a song with this line in it by Buffy Sainte-Marie that I want you to hear when you come), and enjoy my present feelings. Thanks to your effect on me...I feel...I feel for you. Maybe it’ll be like in “The Fantasticks” and we’ll get burned--but I think it will be worth it. Anyway, I’m past the point of thinking about it now. I will--I would do anything to keep from hurting you, me, us, anything but deny us the pleasure that we can bring to each other now. Thank goodness my strong will has weakened, “that I’m a willow now and can bend” (that’s in the B.S.M. song too), that I’m willing to give us a chance. I am beside myself with joy--Anticipation--it will be glorious--”fantastic.”

Speaking of “The Fantasticks”--do you know what? I learned this afternoon from a friend who plays the part of El Gallo himself that a little theater group here in Cambridge--The Patriots Street Players--is putting it on NEXT WEEK! Can you believe it? I mean, my play, our play here in Cambridge, the very week of your visit? What would you say about that--a divinity shaping our ends? Anyway, I have tickets already for opening night, which is next Thursday, and I can’t wait. After so long you’re finally going to see it, and with ME! I just can’t believe it, Levi. It almost scares me—

Two hours later. This letter is getting to be like our phone calls--I just can’t seem to hang up. Oh, Levi, I do so wish you were here with me. It’s so nice now, so quiet and cozy and I can write so much easier now that Kathleen and Nancy are gone--they went to Harvard Square with Flanagan to see “The Graduate” (I’ve already seen it. Have you? If you have, didn’t you love it? Ben reminded me so much of you, when you worked at the bank, in the way he hated phonies and Babbitts)-- and I am by myself in the front room on the little sofa by the window. It’s nice and warm, I’m in my new robe and red fuzzy slippers, Vivaldi is playing softly, and outside there’s a rind slice of Cambridge moon cutting through the bare branches and making the snow twinkle with a million tiny diamonds. It is so lovely, so New Englandish, and I so wish you were here to share it with me.

There’s a thousand things I want to tell you, things that pop in and out of my head--I know I’m repeating myself, Mr. Jordan, so let it pass, okay? Like a dream I had about you the other night. It was so real it scared me. You were sick and had lost all your muscles, and when you’d hug me I could feel the sharp bones in your arms. Maybe you’d been in another car wreck or something. Anyway, I hadn’t heard from you in several days and I almost called you to make sure it was just a dream, that you were all right. Hey, that’s another thing--I can hardly keep from calling you now, this very minute. And it’s so funny, Levi. I can’t believe this is happening to me, to you, to us. I know we’ve talked about it enough, but it all seems so totally unreal, so much larger and more intense than real life. But it is real, you are real, and if I need tangible proof I have only to look at, among other things, my picture of you pressing that big barbell over your head (I can’t remember exactly how much you said it weighed--325 pounds, 335?) in that contest. I find it so difficult to believe that it’s really you. You were so skinny in high school, such a little thing. And now you’re...Your body’s just one of the many wonderful things I can hardly believe about you, Mr. Levi Henry Jordan.

I just read what I’ve written and I can see that I’m rambling on like some silly teenager with a bad crush. Will you forgive me? I don’t want you to think I’m too silly, even if I am sometimes. After all, I’m a twenty-six-year-old Boston girl now! Ha! I think that’s what’s wrong with me tonight. Most of the time I do love Boston and my work for the Youth Commission. I really do, Levi, despite what you say about do-gooders, you mean old Nay Sayer. And I like most of the people I come in contact with. But there are times, like now, when I think of the piney woods of Georgia and how slow and easy things are down there. It’s not that I really want to go back there to stay--I don’t--it’s like your Thomas Wolfe said--”You can’t go home again”--but it relaxes me and makes me feel sad in a nice, sweet way to think about little Thornhurst and the person I used to be there. And really, Levi, I’m not so different from the girl I was then, though I sometimes can’t believe that I spent hours practicing twirling a burning baton for those football games or worrying my head off that I was too chubby to be pretty. Goodness, it all seems so terribly long ago!

Anyway, I think about home, and you. Not that you’re slow and easy. Don’t think I think that. You won’t, will you? If only you were here with me I could tell you what I mean and make you understand how I feel about you. It makes me blush--I’m blushing now--to think about those things and the other, more intimate things, but if you were here it would be different and I could tell you easily. It would seem so natural and nice with you, as everything does, but I just can’t write them. You know how I am. Written words are so cold and inadequate and depressingly final. And honestly, Levi, I still can’t believe that you--Levi Henry Jordan, Robert E. Lee High, class of ‘60, the shy, skinny, boy in the back seat on the last row of senior English--have made me feel this way. It really is too much, our worlds are so drastically different--how different you’ll have to see for yourself. But then, Levi, you are so overwhelmingly real, so incredibly alive, and so strangely, disturbingly sweet and sensitive, in spite of your “demons.” Or is it because of them? The opposite sides of the same coin? Anyway, I am so lucky to be loved by you.

My hand is near paralysis and I’m nowhere near through with what I want to say, as usual, but it’ll just have to wait. My poor little hand is truly about to fall off--I wish you were here to kiss it and make it well. I’ll call you soon. Nite, nite, my dear sweet one. Don’t get sick and skinny, or in any more car wrecks, okay?

Loads of love from your lonesome and languishing (only six more days left).

Laura

P.S. See you in 237 hours at the Logan International. I’ll be the cutie with the wraparound smile.





***





I was downstairs, in the mustard haze of the street light, sitting on my suitcase and thumbing through the photograph pages in the book Laura had recently sent--the new biography of Thomas Wolfe, by Andrew Turnbull--when I heard then saw Linda’s one-eyed old Pontiac turn onto my street and limp its noisy way toward me. I had warned her about the light, the muffler, the inevitability that when she least expected it the grime-encrusted old Star Chief would die in its tracks. But she never listened. “You’re the car nut, Lee, not me,” she would say, chiding me, as she often did, about my love of cars, especially fast ones.

The moment I closed the door the Star Chief stumbled off, snapping my neck and reddening the night with the unmuffled, fume-spraying WACA WACA WACA’s that burned my eyes and made me wince.

Before I could warn her again about the muffler or even say hell-o, Linda took from her pocketbook beside her a white envelope and, her eyes never leaving the road, thrust it at me, her bracelets clinking like ice in a glass.

“This is for you, honey,” she said with the old peremptoriness that, though loving, admitted no argument.

I knew what it was. For almost as long as I could remember, beginning about the time I had gone on my fourth-grade class excursion to the pool and skating rink at Jaybird Springs, she had always given me “a little something” for my trips.

“Linda, seriously now, I’ve got plenty. You keep it. Spend it on a new muffler,” I said, easing her chubby hand away, knowing how little she made as a typist for a loan company.

“Lee-ee!”

I hesitated, then tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of my sport coat. “You’re sure, now, that you can afford it?”

She seemed not to hear me. “As long as you’re going, you just as well have some fun,” she said, sighing. “I don’t want you going all the way up there and being embarrassed.”

“I won’t be. I’ll have plenty,” I assured her, then added gingerly, “Laura paid for the plane ticket.”

“She what?” Linda snapped as she glared at me.

I cuffed her gently on the shoulder. “She’s just trying to be nice. Don’t be so mean.”

“I’m not being mean. I just don’t want you hurt.”

“Laura wouldn’t hurt me. At least not intentionally.”

“Dream on.”

“No, Linda, really. She wouldn’t,” I said, looking down at my book, the dust cover picture of Wolfe shadowy, moss-green in the glow off the dash. “You just don’t know Laura. If you did, you’d know that she’s one of the kindest, most decent people alive. She paid for the ticket because she works and I’m in school. She has more money, that’s all. She’s not buying me.”

“Why do you have to go all the way up there, then? Why can’t she come down here if she wants to see you so bad?”

“I told you,” I said patiently, wishing she wouldn’t get so upset. “She wants me to see Boston and New England and her job and how she lives. That sort of thing. And her friends. Plus she says she can’t relax and be herself in the South anymore, not her real self. You ought to know about that. The Thornhurst syndrome. We ran from it too. We’re still running from it.”

“I know what I ran from,” she said archly, cutting her eyes at me, “and it wudn’t no damn syndrome, whatever that is.”

Both of us laughed. Then she took my hand and squeezed it.

“Oh, honey, I know I’m being bitchy, but I don’t mean to be,” she said, her voice lowering, becoming soft as she shook her frosted blonde shag-cut and looked through the windshield and off into the night. “You know I don’t blame Laura for wanting to put Thornhurst behind her and find something better. God knows I want to, and I want you to too, and forget that cruddy little shitpot of a town and everybody in it. I just wish I’d got out twenty years ago before I got”--she sniggered--”forty and fat.”

“Come on now, you’re not forty yet,” I chided, trying to steer her wide of the self-pity that was always lurking.

“But I am fat,” she said quickly.

“A little heavy perhaps, but hardly what I or any man with the right glands would call fa...”

“You’re a doll, honey, really, but I know what I am. I’m ignorant but I’m not dumb. And I’m too old to lie to myself any more. I’m fat,” she said, slapping her bare, ample thigh. “My dresses are too short and I wear too much make-up and I didn’t go to college and ...well, I’m just kind of low rent. That’s all there is to it.” She sighed deeply. “But I guess I ought to be glad it’s Laura and not that married Shelia hussy you were panting over last year. I mean, it could be so-o-o much worse. Tell me something, honey, and don’t fib.”

I knew what was coming, the questions she had asked about every girl I had ever been with.

“Sure,” I said.

“Is it good between y’all?”

“Is what good?”

“You know.”

Blushing, I was tempted to sidestep, to profess “Great, terrific!” and by so doing spare myself and, maybe more important, leave intact her cherished image of her baby brother as a tomcat. But I couldn’t tell an outright lie.

“It’s great, at least potentially,” I said.

“Potentially? What in the world potentially?” she asked, her voice keen with interest. “You mean y’all haven’t done it?”

“That’s what I mean. We haven’t done it.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I’m serious. We haven’t. What’s so unusual about that?” I asked, feigning naivete but remembering my own amazement on realizing, as I had on New Year’s Eve of 1966 in my window-fogged Triumph, that the only male hands aside from my own to have touched the bare breasts of Courtney Laura Brinson had not belonged to her former fiance or to her several serious boyfriends but to her gynecologist.

“It just is, that’s all,” Linda said. “I mean, she’s twenty-sixx and everybody does it nowadays and she’s not exactly Elizabeth Taylor but she’s not what I’d call ugly, either. I bet she’s cold. I bet that’s what it is. I bet she’s got more hangups than I ever had. It’s either that or she just thinks she’s too good for you.”

“Linda,” I said softly, patting her on the shoulder, “I love Laura. I truly love her, okay?”

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said, covering my hand with hers, her sad little smile flooding me with guilt for being so happy.

“It’s okay,” I said, returning her squeeze.

“I don’t mean to be so mean,” Linda said. “I know Laura’s a nice girl, a beautiful girl. I like her, honest I do. She was so nice when y’all were just starting to go out, when I was still with Hugh Fred. I remember she just loved looking at all those pictures of you in my scrapbooks. She talked funny, Yankee-like, but she wudn’t stuck up or anything. What it mainly is, I guess, is the way her bitch of a mama has always looked down her nose at us.”

Pausing, she snorted contemptuously. “But she must think I’ve got a mighty bad memory. I haven’t. I never forget a blessed thing. I knew Alice Brinson when she was Alice Carter just come Thornhurst from Uvalda and didn’t have a pot to pee in. I know what I’m talking about. You think we were poor? Honey, compared to those Carters we were rich! Why, they didn’t even have an automobile when they come to town.”

I nodded. “They didn’t have much when they moved into that little house down North Jackson from us and Mr. Brinson seemed always to have his truck or one of his chain saws in for Daddy to work on.”

“No, but they were rich compared to what she’d been. I’ll tell you what. Marrying Courty Brinson was the best day’s work that woman ever did, because it seemed like one day they didn’t have a dime and the very next they’d moved in that big white house on Veterans’ Hill and Laura was twirling that baton of hers and going off to a ritzy college and getting her picture in the paper--her and her snotty sorority friends--for being over in Paris, France, Europe, or somewhere. And Alice driving around town in that big new Buick with her nose up, forgetting where she came from and acting like her you-know-what don’t stink. It just burns me up. Why, if anybody’s too good for anybody, it’s you being too good for Laura. That‘s what it is and if Alice Brinson or anybody else wants to know, all they gotta do is ask me! I’ll tell ‘em!”

Her chin jutting, her hands tight on the wheel, Linda was ready for Alice Brinson, for the entire world. Grateful, wanting to hug her, I could not help smiling and, as always, being embarrassed, even a little frightened by her vehemence. Inherited from our daddy, it was in our blood--this hot, furious energy forever ready for some enemy to blast with oaths, threats, and, when enriched with alcohol, violence.

“Well, Linda,” I said calmly, wishing I could be as certain of my worth as she was, “I don’t like Mrs. Brinson, either. But I guess I can understand how she feels about me. She just wants the best for her daughter, that’s all.”

“You're not the best?”

“Seriously now, Linda. Just for a minute forget I’m your baby brother. Be honest. If you had a daughter you’d worked so hard to give nice things, would you want her getting involved with me?”

Glancing over at me, Linda chuckled. “There’s not a blessed thing wrong with you except that every now and then when the moon’s wrong your Jordan streak comes out and you get crazy drunk and wreck a car or get in a fight or something. And you don’t do it all that much anymore, not like you used to when you felt all cooped up at the bank. But you shouldn’t feel that way, honey,” she said, her violence softening as her hand again reached for mine. “I know you can’t help it. I mean, with Mama dying when you were just a little thing and Daddy being crazy and then getting killed and all, and us living where we did and not having anything. But all that’s gone now, for you anyway. You got out of it in time. You made a new life. You’ve been to the Marines and college and can quote Shakespeare and that Thomas Wolfe writer you like so much half the night and talk to anybody. And nobody I know’s got such pretty muscles and all those weightlifting trophies and gets their pictures in he-man magazines and all. Why, you might even go to the Olympics! Think about that. You ought to be proud for all you’ve done. And you’re just getting started. I’ll tell you something else too!”

“What’s that?” I asked, returning her squeeze.

With an arch smile, she nodded. “She’s flying you up there, paying your way and all, so she can show you off. I don’t care what you say. She wants her Yankee friends to see her big, handsome, strong, smart, Southern---stud! That’s what it is!”

“You really think so, huh, Linda?” I said, forcing another laugh as I looked down at Thomas Wolfe and thought about reading it on the plane.

“I sure do, honey. You just wait and see. She wants to show you off. And you know what? I don’t blame her!”





Chapter Two





Even had I not seen the snow falling on the wing or on the overcoats, mittens, and galoshes of the people waiting in the night outside, I would have known that I was in the North. The window beside me, breath-fogged and cinematic with the flickerings of airport energy and purpose, seemed a square of ice when my cheek touched it; and from the front of the plane, around and above the passengers crowding between the two smiling stewardesses, crept a chill as alien to me as the accents I had begun hearing after layovers in Atlanta and, especially, Washington.

Turning from the window, I reached beneath my seat and took the long slender box containing the dozen red roses I had bought at the Atlanta airport with most of the twenty dollars Linda had given me. Clipped to the crisp new bill had been a note: “Have fun, Lee. Don’t bring any of this home. Love, Linda.”

With the roses in one hand and my book in the other, I sat for several more minutes, looking out the window then watching as the seats emptied and the cabin took on the look of a deserted theater. Only when the stewardesses up front exchanged glances and the tall, pretty one seemed about to start toward me did I get out of my seat and walk up the empty aisle.

Feeling the cold, the snow, the rumble of distant takeoffs as a final stewardess warned, “Watch your step, sir,” I took a deep breath and started down the staircase. Seconds later I was on the tarmac, my loafers sliding over the slush as I hurried toward the lighted terminal and looked for Laura among the waving figures oozing from behind the gate to greet and hug and meld with the arrivals. For several seconds I did not see her--everyone seemed too alike, too dark and thickly bundled--and I feared desertion, a wreck, the worst.

Then I saw her. Apart from the crowd, in boots, a dark, fur-collared coat, and a Cossack hat, she was straining on her toes and waving like mad. Vapor puffed rapid-fire from her mouth and I could distinguish her shrill, wonderful, slightly lisping cries of “LEE-VI! THIS WAY! LEE-VI!”

Strewing my wake with “‘Scuse me, please! ‘Scuse me!” I clung to my roses and my book and made my way toward her, my misgivings vanishing as she, seeing that I saw her, became still. Her eyes met mine and her smile, though not “wraparound” as she had promised in her letter, was serene and loving.

“Levi, oh Levi!” she said, shaking her head, closing her eyes as I dropped my book and flowers and seized her in a fierce hug. I lifted her aloft and spun her around, then set her down and exulted in her face so flushed with cold and excitement.

“Laura, oh my beautiful Laura!” I said, hugging her again, burying my face in the snow-flecked fur of her collar, in her neck, in the good clean female smells that in a flash redeemed the lost year.

“You were the last to get off...I was...You took so-o-o long!” she said, hugging me hard. Releasing me, she eased back from me, her gloved hands holding my elbows.

“Laura, oh Laura!” I repeated softly, blushing for the long and solemn moment that she seemed to compare my face with her memory of it. Smiling, she brushed a flake of snow from my brow, then touched my cheek, her cold glove slick on my skin.

“Levi...oh, Levi,” she said, laughing softly, hugging me again. “I just can’t believe it’s you. Is it? Is it really you?”

“Kiss me and see,” I challenged, smiling, my heart pounding as I squeezed her hands and again exulted in her eyes bright and blue and full of me.

“You promise not to vanish?” she asked.

“Hope to die if I do.”

Glancing at the people passing, her smile giving way to the steady-eyed seriousness that I loved and called her “kiss look,” she rose on her toes and closed her eyes.

With the takeoffs booming far out in the night, the people shuffling by, and the silver flakes melting on her face, I bent down and kissed her warm lips, and kissed them again, and kept on kissing them until she, laughing, insisted that I stop, that “People are watching.”

A few minutes later, as I carried my suitcase and Thomas Wolfe and she carried her roses, we were out in the short-term parking lot tramping toward the far end and the car she had bought only two weeks before--as much for my coming as for her work, she said--and about which she refused to say no more than “You’ll like it.”

She was far from reticent about anything else, though. I had never imagined her so effusive, so full of plans, so confident. Despite the length and ardor of her phone calls and letters and her repeated assurances that she had a year’s worth of emotion to share—“share” was one of her favorite words--I still was not prepared for such an outpour from a girl who previously had seemed so content to follow my lead in conversation or lovemaking or anything else.

When we neared the end of the lot and my extremities, especially my hand on the suitcase, felt frozen, she said, “Here we are,” and stopped.

Only two cars were nearby, a green Volkswagen Bug and a 427 Corvette coupe, both new and dark and overlaid with snow. For one grand instant I saw us in the Vette, myself at the wheel and Laura so beautiful beside me, the FM on, the 427 barely breathing as we swept past snowy woods and rock walls and history and Harvard boys gawking with envy.

“Well, what do you think?” she said, gesturing with Thomas Wolfe toward the Bug.

“It’s not an automatic, is it?”

“Goodness no! It has four gears, just like your Triumph. And it’s the same color, British Racing Green,” she said proudly, delighting me with her memory. “And you know what else?” she asked, turning to me, her smile that of a little girl.

“What else?”

“It’s my very first car.”

“Well, I’ll be!” I exclaimed as I put my suitcase down and seized her in my arms. Playfully I kissed her cold forehead, her nose, her warm smiling mouth. “Your very first car!” I said, shaking my head, wondering how else she had changed.

Several minutes later, with her at the wheel, we turned out of Logan and headed off into the night, The Bug warm and new-smelling and, with the radio on, seeming like a jukebox on wheels. At either side of the four-lane and heaped into tiny sierras along the median was slush the color and consistency of frozen Coke; and against the wiper-swathed windshield, like bugs in the South during the summer, crashed flake after flake of swirling, dream-silent snow. At intervals along the road were glowing green rectangles with names that for me had previously existed only on maps and in books--Lexington, Concord, Gloucester, Cape Cod--and which now seemed as simultaneously strange and familiar as Laura herself.

Physically she seemed little changed. She had shed her coat and Cossack hat and in the dim dash light her body seemed as rich as ever beneath the black-striped lilac mini-dress, the dark hose, the slick black boots rising to her knees and encasing in soft supple leather her fine firm calves. Her face, I had noted earlier, was the same--the silvery blue eyes, the Botticelli skin, the lips I could never see or remember without thinking of wet roses and the skinned innards of pink grapefruit. And her hair was still honey-blonde, undulant, and center-parted, with the ends scrolling in rather than out.

Pointing to the bright yellow shell high on stilts several hundred yards ahead, I said, “How about pulling in at that station for a minute, will you?”

“What is it?”

“I want to stop for a minute.”

She smiled. “You have to go to the little boys’ room?”

“It’s more urgent than that.”

“You’re not sick?” she asked, suddenly apprehensive as she glanced over at me.

“Just pull over.”

Changing lanes, she geared The Bug down and whipped into the lot.

“Pull over there, out of the light,” I said.

With another curious glance at me, she obeyed.

“Now turn the lights and the engine off but leave the radio on,” I said when she eased to a stop in the shadows away from the pumps.

Again she obeyed.

“Levi, what are you up to?” she demanded, smiling, no longer alarmed now as I, grinning, lowered the volume of Herman and the Hermits’ “There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight.”

“You don’t think he’ll come out, do you?” she asked, indicating the attendant reading a newspaper in brightly lighted building across the lot.

“He didn’t even see us. Besides, it’s snowing,” I said as I turned in my seat and reached for her.

“Mother came out,” Laura said archly.

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “That Christmas Eve when I got so drunk and gave you hickeys and didn’t even remember.”

“Really and truly now, Levi, you promise you don’t get that drunk anymore?” Laura asked, suddenly serious.

Kissing her hand, I said, “Believe it or not, I haven’t been that drunk since I quit the bank and went back to school. I’m a changed man. I help old ladies across the street and I don’t get into violent arguments with liberals anymore. Not as much, anyway,” I said, grinning.

“Levi, do you have any idea just how much I’ve missed you and all your craziness?” Laura asked, her eyes shining.

My cheeks tingling, I took her in my arms and knew the instant her kiss became passionate that my fears were groundless. I was flattered and reassured to receive an exact repetition of the lessons I had taught, with nothing added or subtracted or in any way modified. There were the same warmth, the same cool nails on my cheek, the same maidenly parting of her lips that seemed to ask “Is this right?”

Hearing Herman and his Hermits sing about the hush all over the world as the snow fell outside and the beautiful loving girl clung to me in the snug little car, I was happier than I had ever been.





“To Marblehead. It’s not far and I made reservations at an incredible old inn up there. But there’s a sight you just have to see first,” Laura said.

By then a toll tunnel, downtown Boston, and an old cobblestone bridge were behind us and The Bug had turned onto a boulevard flanked by a frozen river and a series of squat gray cupola-capped buildings that looked like Roman temples.

“You know what that is?” she asked, pointing to the temples.

I shook my head. “Some kind of school?”

“It’s some kind of school all right. This is Memorial Drive and that’s MIT. They had a demonstration there this morning. I saw it on my way to work. It was over the North Koreans’ seizure of the Pueblo or something,” she said, consulting her rear-view mirror, then gearing The Bug down and whipping out of traffic and into a parking lot. Once again I was impressed with her driving. It reminded me of my own.

Minutes later, with Laura again in her coat and Cossack hat, we were holding hands and crunching through the snow leading to the esplanade and the steel fence that in the moonlight streaked like a frosted rail along the bank. Below us was the Charles River, wide and frozen into a sheet of lunar-gray lead. Across from it rose a hill brocaded with lights that, near the summit, commingled with the stars and the frecklings of light on the dark obelisks of the downtown skyscrapers. From out of the night a wind howled like misery across the river, swirling the snow like dust over a desert.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Laura asked.

“Truly,” I said, snuggling behind her, with my chin in her collar fur and my hands in her coat pockets, holding hers.

“I just wish you could see it in the spring and summer. It becomes a regular carnival. The Boston Pops has under-the-stars concerts in the Hatch Shell--that’s on the other side--and there are sailboats and Harvard racing crews on the river and marathon runners running by and the smell of hot dogs and peanuts and...just everything,” she said, her excitement mounting. Taking her right hand out of her pocket, she pointed across the river. “You know what the hill over there is?”

“Bunker Hill?”

“No, darling. Bunker’s over there to the left, over by the Old North Church,” she said. “Straight ahead is my favorite place in Boston, Beacon Hill. It’s so lovely, so like London in the way it’s laid out and all. All the nicest old houses and streets and Louisberg Square. We’ll go all over it next week and I’ll show you my favorite of favorite streets--Pinckney Street--and maybe we’ll even have lunch with Mar and Janie Sue.”Pointing again, she said, “You see the biggest building, the one on the left? That’s the Prudential Building where I used to work. I was on the seventh floor.” She sighed. “Shuffling papers and feeling useless. Like you felt at the bank. The only thing I liked about it was the view. On a good day I could see the exact house Mar and Janie Sue live in, and I remember thinking how lucky they were to have found something on the Hill. And they are lucky. They have just the loveliest little place.”

“Why don’t you live with them?” I asked, remembering Mar and Janie Sue as the Duke roommates Laura had originally come to Boston with.

“I’m happy in Cambridge.”

“Y’all haven’t fussed or anything, have you?’

After a moment Laura said, “In a way I guess we have. We didn’t really fuss, I mean, but we do disagree on certain things. Janie Sue and I do anyway. She thinks I’m a goody two-shoes.”

“Why?”

“I’m not a prig,” Laura said, shaking her head, her eyes fixed on the lights across the river. “I used to be, I admit, but I’m not anymore. I’m not a racist, either. And I try not to be self-righteous.”

“But?”

“Janie Sue Thompson of Jesup, Georgia,” Laura said, slowly, a note of derision entering her voice, “despite what she says, has become what Mar calls a ‘black groupie.’”

“Is that what I think it is?”

She nodded. “In the three years she’s been up here I don’t believe she’s dated more than three or four whites. The rest have all been blacks.”

“Big Jim Brown stud types?” I asked.

“Some of them were. Carl was. He was the biggest thing I ever saw. Her current one, Willy, isn’t. He’s kind of skinny, and nice. He’s very funny. You’ll like him. He’s a drama major at Boston University. He was a Marine too. He’s from--guess where?” Laura said, taking my hands out of her pockets and turning toward me.

“Not Savannah?”

“You’re close. He’s from Charleston, South Carolina.”

Laughing as I looked down at the snow rolling like tumbleweeds over the lead sheet of a river, I said, “A pair of Southern ex-jarheads, one black, one white, come North after Southern white women who wouldn’t give us the time of day back home. Now if that don’t beat all!”

“You beat all, Levi Jordan,” Laura laughed, hugging me hard.





Chapter Three





The inn in Marblehead was exactly as Laura had described it. Off to itself and clinging like a great white barnacle to a promontory overlooking Massachusetts Bay, the old house was a two-storied relic of gables and gazebos, of slanting roofs and storybook windows, and of a porch that girded like a sash and had as its knot the wide stone steps that rose to its entrance. A weathercock atop the highest turret perched black across the moon, his iron plumage erect and proud, his beak pointed seaward; and from the Atlantic below came the long sad roar of breakers, their foam scudding white and ragged along the beach, among the rocks, commingling with the snow that never ceased.

“Laura, this is just...just wonderful!” I exclaimed, twisting in my seat, trying to take it all in at once.

“You’re sure now that you prefer it to a Howard Johnson’s?” Laura joked as she switched off The Bug.

Looking around the deserted parking lot, I said, “Are they open? There’s a porch light but I don’t seen anything else.”

“You know why you don’t?” she asked, taking my hand.

I shook my head.

“You don’t see anything else because it’s the off season. We have it all to ourselves,” she said in a whisper.

After looking again at the inn, I turned back to her. “The stuff of dreams,” I said, kissing her softly on the lips, on the cheeks, on each of her shining eyes, then hugging her fiercely. “You’re the stuff of dreams!”

“You know what I told the lady when I phoned about the reservations?”

“What?”

“I told her we’d be on our honeymoon. I don’t know what came over me,” Laura said, looking again at the inn. “I’d planned all along to register us as married--I mean, just to be on the safe side. But she was so nice and chatty and wanted to know where we were from and the next thing I knew I had us getting married in Boston tonight and having a reception afterwards and...oh, just everything. I even bought these.”

She reached into the glove compartment for a small white sack from which she took two gold-colored wedding bands.

“This is yours,” she said, smiling as she slipped it on the finger I extended. “Fit okay? I got an eleven and half.”

“Fits fine,” I said, gazing at the ring, feeling its chill around my finger.

“That one’s yours and this one’s mine,” she said, starting to put her ring on.

“Let me do it,” I said, taking the ring from her.

She extended her finger, her eyes soft and shining as she waited.

“With this ring I thee wed,” I said, easing the ring along her finger. “I pronounce thee Courtney Laura Brinson Jordan.”

“For tonight,” she added. “We have to take them off before we get back to Cambridge.”

Hurt by the reminder, I looked at the rings and forced a grin. “What’s the guarantee? Twelve hours? Then they’ll de-alchemize and we’ll have to wash the green off?”

“The saleslady said they wouldn’t turn. Maybe they won’t. They really weren’t all that cheap,” Laura said, looking at the rings. “In any event they’ll do for tonight.”

Smiling, she raised her eyes to mine. “You know what l else I brought?”

“What?”

“Champagne for me, and for you too if you want it, and a Nehi orange and a little bottle of Smirnoff vodka--the Czar’s preference, as you call it-- for you. Just a little one, though. I wouldn’t want you to get drunk tonight,” she said as she leaned over and softly touched her lips to mine. “Would you?”

Grinning, I said, “And miss my honeymoon? Not on your life!”

“You know what else, darling?” she asked, a little laugh playing in her throat as she kissed me again.

“No. What else?”

“We don’t have to worry about babies.”

Loaded with the suitcases, Thomas Wolfe, and the roses, we locked The Bug and quickly made our way through the snow, up the stone steps, and beneath the rectangular white shingle on which in neat black letters was printed INN ON THE OCEAN, THE HYMAND FAMILY.

In the yellow bell of light from the bulb above, we stood for several minutes, smiling, self-conscious, and shivering, the ocean in our ears as we waited for a response to the buzzer Laura had pushed.

“You sure she said she’d wait up?” I asked.

“I told her we’d be late,” Laura said, nodding, her face intent, listening.

Seconds later, to the tinkle of what sounded like a little sleigh bell, the thick wooden door was opened by a short, middle-aged woman in a brown dress and a bright red shawl. Held to her bosom was a Reader’s Digest, and from above the half-lens reading glasses perching on the tip of her nose peered a pair of gray eyes that missed nothing.

“The Jordans?” she challenged, her mouth unsmiling and tight--New England wintry, it seemed to me.

Suddenly blushing, Laura turned to me, her blues eyes beseeching.

“Yes, ma’am, we are,” I intervened quickly, jauntily as I bowed slightly. “I’m Levi Jordan and this,” I said, smiling at Laura, “is my beautiful new bride Laura. I sure hope we didn’t keep you waiting too long. We got here just as soon...”

Before another minute passed we were inside, Mrs. Hymand had thawed, and I, with uncharacteristic flourish and legibility, had entered the following in the guest ledger: Mr. and Mrs. Levi Henry Jordan of Savannah and Boston, honeymooning, February, 1968.

Mrs. Hymand apologized for the inhospitable chill of the vestibule and of the large, dimly lit sitting room to our right.

“In the morning when you come down for breakfast I’ll have it nice and warm,” she said, removing her glasses, letting them hang on their black cord as she looked from Laura to me. “But I knew you’d be late and wouldn’t want to sit up, so I just didn’t bother wasting my heat. It’s plenty warm up in your room, though. Ralph--he’s my husband and he’s not well but he managed to build you a nice little fire this afternoon and it ought to be right cozy by now. There’s gas too, if you need it.”

Stopping to catch her breath on each of the two landings, Mrs. Hymand led us up a steep staircase, then down a short and narrow corridor, her loneliness obvious as she thawed into downright garrulity. She told us of her married daughters, one in New Haven, the other in Springfield, Ohio; of her son, who had dropped out of the University of Massachusetts his senior year to enlist in the army and go to Vietnam, where he now was; of her husband, Ralph, who had had a heart attack the day before Christmas and was just now regaining some of his strength.

Though I smiled, nodded, and was generally attentive, I could not take my eyes off Laura and the way her hair, quivering with each step, shone like the dark gold pine of the corridor’s walls, a lambent soft honey-wheat enriched by its contrast to the black Cossack hat out of which it seemed to fall. In a matter of minutes now I would be alone with this beautiful girl in a warm, fire-lit room, the two of us flushed with the grace of youth and health and the magic of fresh and untried desire while all around us were the night and the snow and the cold dark unceasing Atlantic. I was sure I was dreaming, that at any second I would awake and find myself back in Savannah, alone, wondering when or even if I’d ever see Laura again.

The corridor dead-ended in a wall half-hidden by a large reproduction of Winslow Homer’s “All’s Well,” its frame festooned with fishnet so gray and fine that for a moment I thought of Savannah and wondered what Spanish moss was doing in Massachusetts. To the right of the painting was a black door with a knob of dull brass, which Mrs. Hymand turned.

“I think it’ll suit you,” she said, her pride obvious as she stepped aside to let Laura then me enter.

The room could hardly have been better. In the fireplace on the right a log burned low, its flicker dancing along the brass frame of the screen before it. On the left, in the alcove baying out over the Atlantic, were two chairs and a white linen-covered table with a plate of canapes, two glasses, and a silver bucket from which sprouted the golden neck of a champagne bottle; and in the middle of the room, centered like an altar, was a massive brass bed turned down and waiting, its sheets and pillows ambered by the haze off the fire.

Dropping her roses, Thomas Wolfe, and her Cossack hat, Laura hurried over to the alcove.

“This is just so...Mrs. Hymand, you shouldn’t have! Really! This is just too nice!” she exclaimed, flushing as she looked at the table, out the window, around the room. “I mean...How can we...” she went on, looking to me for help.

I turned to Mrs. Hymand, who was still standing in the door, her gray eyes soft as she smiled and waved her Reader’s Digest in deprecation.

“It’s not a thing and I...” she began.

“It is too something!” I interrupted. “It’s just the nicest thing and you have to have a glass with us!”

“Yes. Do. Please,” Laura seconded, coming forward, taking my hand as she stood beside me.

“It’s way too late for me, thank you. You two are our only guests so you needn’t hurry down in the morning. I’ll cook you breakfast whenever you want it. Nighty night,” Mrs. Hymand said, nodding as she pulled the door to with a click.

Turning to Laura, I took her hand. She had never seemed more beautiful than at that moment, with her dark collar damp from the melted snow and her hair awry and her lips and cheeks afire with excitement. The assurance that had bothered me in her driving, in her planning, and especially in her announcement that she was on The Pill had vanished so completely that I wondered if I hadn’t imagined it. In everything about her now--her eyes, her silence, the squeeze of her lovely soft hand--I saw only the trust of the previous year, of that unforgettable January when for the first time she had opened to her sexual self and all seals but the last had dissolved in the heat that followed.

This time that seal too would pass, and I, for all my delight, was not merely scared but terrified. More than anything, more even than the pleasure we had actually enjoyed that January, I remembered her maidenly and wide-eyes musings on the joys to come, on the stupendous promise of that coupling she could never bring herself, except when I chided her, to call anything but “It.” And that promise, I knew from her eyes, was even more stupendous now than before. My memory of how eagerly and downright worshipfully she had taken me into her mouth, had swallowed me or smeared me on her breasts and belly--those “zillions of babies,” she had said so girlishly--filled me with dread.

Starting to sweat, I asked, “You thirsty?”

“A little. Are you?”

Nodding vigorously, I eyed the champagne.

“What are we waiting for then?” Laura said, squeezing my hand.

“I’ve got to do something first.”

“What?”

“Carry my beautiful bride over the threshold.”

“I was hoping you would,” Laura said, smiling as she watched me fumble with the last button, then remove her coat and drape it across a chair.

Taking her hands again, returning her smile as she stood blushing and mannequin-like before me, I looked at her body, my own cheeks warming as my eyes moved from her black boots up to her thighs, hosed in grape-blue sheen, then up to her flat narrow belly belted by a chain of bright gold spangles. I stopped at her breasts, shaking my head, remembering, grinning, enrapt by the loveliness so obvious beneath the soft striped lilac, by the fullness, by the gentle bays that swelled at the sides and quivered so deliciously when she walked.

“My beautiful Laura,” I sighed, kissing her left breast, then her right. Raising my eyes to hers, seeing the warmth, the pride, the fear, I touched my lips to hers. “I’ve wanted you so much. I’ve wanted you ever since I was a sweaty little boy.”

“Well, you have me now,” she said softly, her gaze steady, unflinching.

“I know,” I said quickly, laughing, squeezing her hands. “But I can’t believe it. I keep thinking that...that I’ll blink my eyes and ...and you’ll be gone again. That all of this--the fire, the champagne, that it’ll all be gone.”

“No-o-o,” she said in little more than a whisper, her eyes still steady, waiting. “It won’t be gone. It’s ours. It’s our night, finally.”

“Did you really miss me, Laura? Really and truly?” I demanded. Before she could answer, I added, frowning, “You didn’t write me a single time the whole year and I just kept on writing you, pouring out my heart.”

For a moment she said nothing. Then, tilting her head, smiling, she said, “You said you forgave me.”

“I know, but...”

“Doesn’t our being together now make it all right?” she reasoned, squeezing my hand.

“I guess so.”

“You don’t know so?”

Seeing her disappointment, I quickly grinned and said, “You know it does. I was just kidding. Having you here like this restores all losses, ends all sorrows, and... just everything,” I said, trailing off as I leaned to kiss her.

“Then carry me over the threshold. Put those pretty muscles to work,” she said, kissing me quickly, then easing me toward the door.





***





The open suitcases, the empty champagne and vodka bottles, the ice bucket on the table, Laura asleep beneath the covers-- everything in the room seemed caught in the serene silver cast of Massachusetts moonlight, the silence total but for the sputter of the embers and the long soft roll of the Atlantic outside.

In a chair by the window, in my robe and slippers, I was sipping the last of the champagne. Unable to sleep, I had wanted to talk, to know exactly what Laura was thinking and feeling, afterwards, when we were entwined beneath the sheets, our feet warmed by the old-timey pink rubber hot water bottle Mrs. Hymand had left.

I had felt the same concern, and curiosity, in the early hours of New Year’s Day of 1967 when, unable to endure the cramped Triumph any longer, we had resorted to a pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room in her house and in the amber glow of the sloshing Maytag’s cycle light she had experienced the first orgasm of her twenty-four-year-old life. “Your first?” I had asked, hardly believing it. “But haven’t you ever...ever played with yourself?” I had continued, becoming increasingly importunate—“Do you feel good about it? Are you sorry you waited? Are you glad it was with me? Will you start doing yourself?”--until Laura, taking my hand in hers, had tilted her head and in a low but perfectly clear voice said, “Levi, please don’t be hurt, but I just don’t want to talk about it right now. I just want to go on up to bed and think about it. But I am glad it was with you.”

The next day she had answered all of my questions, in as much detail as I had wanted; and I knew that this time too she would answer them, would give me another glimpse into the murky enigmas of female sexuality. I had known from her voice, from the way she had assured me that except for stinging a little she felt fine, wonderful, just very tired, that she wanted to be alone with her thoughts, with the long-awaited new world that had finally swum into view. I had held her close, caressing her hair, kissing her, murmuring my love until her breathing had subsided into the rhythms of the ocean outside. I then had slipped from her arms and into my robe and the chair by the window.

Having drunk the vodka and most of Mrs. Hymand’s champagne, I was down to the final glass from the bottle Laura had brought; and my life, as I mulled over it, was beginning to seem every bit as silvered in enchantment as the room around me. I had come so far from the boy I had been, from the heat and ache of those dreams born the summer I had first seen Laura and which, maybe even more than Linda, had made me want to get out of Thornhurst and the welding shop, to join the Marines, to go to college, to lift weights, to read, to do anything that might make my life less unhappy than Linda’s had been, and was. When I had called earlier to assure her that my plane hadn’t crashed, the phone had been answered by a man--I knew from the “Yeah, she’s here” that it was Allan Walsh, “Big Al” as he called himself, the beer-gutted finance company chaser who was merely the latest oozing of slime to besmear Linda’s active but unhappy sheets. With Laura so loving beside me, I had almost cried over the contrast between my life and my sister’s.

Sometime later I realized with a mild start that Laura was sitting up, erect and still. Her shoulders and arms seemed sculpted from shadow and her hair, so richly disheveled, shone like a nimbus. Though I could not see her face, I was sure she was watching me.

“Laura? Sweetheart? You okay? I didn’t wake you, did I?” I asked in a library-low voice as I went over to the bed and took her hand, which I kissed, then held.

“Hold me, Levi.”

I knew from her voice that something was wrong. Shedding my robe and slippers, I stretched out beside her, beneath the covers, and took her in my arms. She felt like warm wax against me and my excitement was immediate, hard against her belly.

What was it, sweetheart? A bad dream? Did my sweetheart have a bad dream?” I said, softly kissing her cheek. “Is that what she had?”

“Just hold me,” she said, snuggling closer.

I held her, patting, kissing her hair as I listened to the ocean and gazed around the moonlit room and felt the embarrassment of my untimely, persistent excitement. I knew, or thought I knew, what the matter was--that the irrevocableness of what we had done had finally hit her--and I hated at such a moment, when she needed comforting rather than reminding, to be so excited. I had eased away from her once, but she had quickly eased back against me, slipping me between her legs, into her fur. I could feel her heart knocking wildly against my chest and I was again struck by how small and frail a woman, even one as richly fleshed as Laura, could make herself feel in a man’s arms.

Finally she released my neck and, moving out of my arms, turned to lie on her back, her head on her pillow, her eyes open, staring up into the shadows.

Pulling the cover up over her belly and breasts and tucking it snugly around her shoulders, I kissed her forehead, then hovered, caressing her hair.

“You okay now, sweetheart?” I asked.

“I think so.”

“What was it? A bad dream?”

“No, I wasn’t dreaming. Maybe I was. All I know is I woke up scared.”

“What of?”

“I just felt so alone. For a minute I didn’t know where I was, and I couldn’t find you. You were gone.”

“I was here. I was right over there in the chair, and then in the bathroom for a second.”

“You couldn’t sleep?”

“Too excited. I watched you. And I finished off the champagne and looked at the moon and just thought about things, about how lucky I am, mainly. And how much I love you.”

Her eyes were bright and loving and I waited, hoping she would at last say what she had repeatedly insisted that her conscience would not allow her to say until she herself was certain of it--that she loved me too. She did not say it, though, and I felt my heart swing out over a void.

“I’m just so glad you’re going to be up here with me for a while,” she said, finally.

“I am too,” I said, returning her squeeze. Then, hesitantly, I asked, “You’re not starting to feel bad about it, are you?”

“No,” she said after several long seconds.

“You wish we hadn’t done it? Tell the truth now,” I pressed, my cheeks flushing as I prepared for the worst. “Are you sorry we did it?”

She squeezed my hand. “You know I’m not sorry. It’s just that I feel...well, right this second I feel confused, yet I’m not confused. You know what I mean?”

“No.”

“I know,” she said slowly, “that it wasn’t wrong. I know it wasn’t. And that’s not it. I don’t feel any guilt. I mean, I care for you, Levi. I care for you so much. I didn’t do what Mar did. I could never have done that.”

“What did she do?”

“I didn’t tell you? I thought I told you.”

“You told me something about her coming to Boston and...I don’t know. Running wild. Or was that Janie Sue?”

“That was Janie Sue. Mar didn’t run wild. She just came home from her first date in Boston and said, ‘Well, Brinson, I did It.’ I said, ‘Did what?’ And she said, ‘It. I did It.’ I couldn’t believe it--she’d been as much of a Virgin Mary at Duke as I had. I said, ‘But you didn’t even know the guy.’ And she didn’t--she met him one afternoon and went out with him that night. ‘Did he sweep you off your feet?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t even like him very much,’ she giggled in that way she has. ‘It was just time for me to stop being a virgin and it had to be somebody.’ That’s what she said. ‘It had to be somebody,’” Laura repeated, shaking her head as if in disbelief or disgust or both.

“I remember now,” I said. “You told me that last year, when I kept pressing you to go all the way.”

She nodded. “Yes. I wanted to be sure.”

“Of me, you mean?”

“No, not so much you as of me. I didn’t know what I really felt. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just physical between us. I mean, you were so completely different from anyone I had ever dated or even thought I could be attracted to. I was on the re-bound from Sam too. And I guess,” she said, laughing softly. “I was kind of like Mar. You know it. You told me so. You remember what you said?”

“I said a lot of things,” I laughed. “I seldom shut up.”

“This was one of the truly unforgettable things you said. And I remember exactly when you said it. We were in Savannah, at the beach, in the Triumph, and you were a little drunk and all steamed up. And mad. You were mad with me. ‘Brinson, you know what you need?’ And I said, ‘No. What do I need?’ You don’t remember that, darling? Be serious now,” she chided, squeezing my hand.

“I don’t remember. Honest. It must have been awful,” I said.

“You said, ‘Brinson, what you need is some regular, rigorous, and remedial fucking.’ Three r’s and an f. Don’t you remember?”

“You’re sure I said that?” I laughed.

“Those were the exact words. I told Janie Sue and Mar about it and it became a joke among us. Janie Sue’s all the time saying it. And when they heard you were coming to stay with me, they really whooped it up. ‘Three R F! Stop the presses! The Virgin Mary’s finally going to get some Three RF!’ They’re a pair, those two,” Laura said, laughing.

Suddenly she was again serious. “I knew you weren’t just ‘somebody,’ Levi. Even then I knew it. We became so close so fast--there was so much magic, too much for it to have been just sexual. But I was scared. You scared me so much, along with thrilling me, with your drinking and wildness and wrecks and all. And your indirection. I just didn’t think it would work. I didn’t want to hurt us. I wasn’t strong enough then. You weren’t.”

“You mean if it didn’t work out?”

“Yes.”

“And now? You think it’ll work out now?”

“I think it has a good chance.”

“You do?” I said, trying to conceal my hurt over her lack of certainty.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “We were on the re-bound then, both of us. And you were miserable at the bank and I was in graduate school and at least a year away from even having a job. Now I have a job, and I love it, and I love my life up here. And you’re getting your degree and are so much happier. At least you say you are, and you surely seem it. Yes, I think it has a good chance to work. Don’t you?”

I nodded.

“At least,” she said, bringing my hand to her lips, kissing it, “we’re willing to give it a chance. That’s the important thing. We’re willing to try.”

“I was always willing,” I reminded her.

“I know you were, darling,” she said solemnly, again kissing my hand. “But I was such a baby then. I wanted everything to be safe and neat--like it’s always been in my life. I wanted guarantees. But there aren’t any, not in the things that really matter. You have to take chances. You just have to sometimes, even if you do risk getting burned. But I didn’t really understand that until I was on the ship, in grad school, with lots of time to be by myself and think.”

“What did you think about?”

“Everything, but again and again I kept thinking about how short and precious life is. Do you remember what you told me about learning that your father had been killed in the wreck, when you were in the Marines, on Okinawa? When seeing the obituary Linda cut out of the paper and sent you seemed to start a clock ticking in your brain and you realized for the first time that you would someday die?”

“Sure. Did you start hearing one too?”

She nodded.

“What started it?”

“Vietnam on the news every day. All those young men maimed and dying. That started it. At least that kind of set the stage. What really started it, though, was when this boy on the ship jumped overboard at the equator.”

“Suicide?”

“Yes. I was on deck and I saw him go under. It was terrible, so terrible.”

“Poor baby,” I said, kissing her forehead.

“That was a bad time for me,” Laura said, for a moment closing her eyes. “I wished so many times that you had been there to make the bad go away, like you just did.”

“I wish I could have been there,” I said, patting, then kissing her hand. “I surely wrote you enough times.”

“I know, darling, and those letters...Oh, Levi, they meant so much to me,” she said, shaking her head on the pillow. “They were so warm and loving--it was almost like you were there with me, they were so good. When I’d get depressed I’d get them out and read them over and over and sometimes--oh, this sounds so hokey, I know, but it’s true--I’d actually get tears on them. One or two anyway.”

“You never answered, though.”

“I just couldn’t until I got things sorted out. I wanted to be sure of how I felt, and I didn’t want to hurt you any more than I already had. You understand, don’t you?”

I nodded. “What finally made you give in? Was it my quitting the bank and going back to school, or the clock ticking in your head, or what?”

“Those things, yes,” Laura said softly, “but mainly I guess I just realized how much you mean to me.”

“How much is that?”

“A lot.”

“How much is a lot? As much as you mean to me?”

“I don’t know. I just know that, regardless of what happens between us, it’ll still be better than if we hadn’t tried. We might have spent the rest of our lives remembering our January and asking ‘What if?’ This way, we’ll at least know. And I’m hopeful. I really am, Levi. We’ve moved so much closer together in our thinking and all. Don’t you think?”

I forced a laugh. “Sure, but what if it doesn’t work out? Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof? Or in this case, the good?”

“The good, yes,” Laura said, nodding, then squeezing my hand and laughing softly.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“No, what? Tell me.”

“You’ll think I’m a hussy.”

“No. I won’t.”

“You promise not to?”

“I promise. What is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was just wondering if maybe you’d like to hear a little more music.”

I was immediately afire. Though Mrs. Hymand’s room was both downstairs and on the other side of the house, Laura had wanted the FM on during our lovemaking.

“You know I would,” I said, laughing nervously, kissing her hand. “But how about you? You’re sure you feel okay?”

“I’ve never felt better, darling.”

“Will you promise to tell me if you start to hurt? I couldn’t stand to think I was hurting you.”

Quickly sitting up, the covers falling away from her gorgeous breasts, Laura pulled me hard against her and began kissing my face, my eyes, my neck.

“ Levi! Oh, Levi!” she said. “How did I ever leave you? How? How could I have done such a thing?”





***





Upon waking, Laura and I had again turned on the FM and made love; and, after a shower together, had made love again. Momentarily sated, I had jumped at her suggestion that since she would be a while in dressing I should go on down for my coffee and maybe chat with Mrs. Hymand. “You’re sure you don’t mind?” I asked, kissing her shoulder as she stood so sleekly naked before the bathroom mirror and crackled the brush again and again through her splendid hair. “No, darling. Of course not. You go on down,” she had said, unsmiling, her silver-blue eyes intent on the unmade face looking back at her. She seemed as glad to have me go as I was to go.

After getting my coffee, Mrs. Hymand, at my invitation, had joined me for a cup at the only set table in the small dining room, the other five being bare because of the off-season. After thanking her again for the champagne and snacks, I had said, “Tell me about your son in Vietnam. George, I believe you said you name was.”

She had proceeded cautiously, her comments and manner seeming calculated more to elicit than to inform until I told her that I had been a Marine.

“George was at The University of Mass over in Amherst,” she said, beginning to pour forth. “He was doing so well too, studying biology, thinking about med school, a big strapping boy like you, Mr. Jordan, clean-cut like you and handsome. He said to me, ‘Mother, I’ve got to go. I can’t sit still any longer.’ And Patti-she was his girl friend--was awful, just terrible, always in blue jeans and an army jacket and hair like a rat’s nest. He said Patti said, ‘You feel that way? Do something about it.’ And he did. He signed up right then and there and that’s where he is now, flying a Cobra gunship, an ugly dragonfly helicopter he loves to death and named Babydoll. He sent me another picture this week. I’ll show you. He’s a first lieutenant. That’s one silver bar.”

It was a Polaroid shot, a study in green. The jungle in the background, the snout of the Cobra in the foreground, the uniform and helmet of the pilot beside it, even the sky--all were green. Only the BABYDOLL in loose cursive across the Cobra’s snout was of a different color, and it was white, bright and arresting, a relief from greenness.

As I studied the picture, I felt my usual stirrings of ambivalence over never having been in combat. On the one hand I was grateful that by some miracle of chance my unit had not been sent to Vietnam and I had left the Corps in better psychic as well as physical shape than I had been in when I had entered. On the other hand, the miracle had left unanswered the question of whether or not I was a coward. One of the results was that when I was around men who had been in combat--Tommy Lee Ford, for one, who had won two Silver Stars in Korea--I was deferential almost to the point of fawning, asking a barrage of questions the answers to which I listened as if to holy truth, always imagining myself in the scenes described and wondering if I would have turned tail and run or held fast and afterwards, if I survived, posed beside my Cobra and grinned into the camera with the swagger and sass on George Hymand’s recruiting poster face.

“He’s a fine looking fellow,” I said, returning the shot to Mrs. Hymand as she resumed her seat across from me and set the picture against the sugar dish, as if for study. “I know you and Mr. Hymand are proud of him.”

In the glare Mrs. Hymand’s face, now in complete repose after her outpour, seemed so much older than it had the night before.

”Yes,” she sighed, glancing again at the picture. “But we worry a lot. Especially my husband Henry. He gets so nervous about answering the door and the phone and opening the mail. I’m scared for him maybe more than for myself. He’s always doted on that boy so.”

She then asked about my family, but before I could tell her about Linda we heard footsteps on the stairs.

“That must be your pretty bride,” she said, turning toward the sound. Remembering my manners and rising, I blushed with pride as Laura descended the final step and started toward us. In flared gray slacks and a white silk blouse open to her breasts, she seemed more beautiful than ever. Her walk was brisk and scissoring, if perceptibly pigeon-toed; and her eyes, even more than her smile, proclaimed that she, at least for the moment, was a well loved and extravagantly happy young woman. In the glare the band on her finger, gold on ivory, seemed not merely to gleam but to flash like a Christmas sparkler.

When she was seated and Mrs. Hymand had poured her some coffee, I handed her the snapshot.

“This is Mrs. Hymand’s son, George, and his chopper Babydoll,” I said, watching closely as she took the picture in her sleek white fingers. I knew how she felt about the war, but I also knew how she felt about unpleasantness. I therefore was not surprised when, replacing the picture against the sugar dish, she smiled and said to Mrs. Hymand, “He looks like a fine young man.”

“He is, Mrs. Jordan, and it’s like I was telling your husband,” Mrs. Hymand said, nodding. “Henry and I worry ourselves sick about George, but both of us would rather have him doing what we know is right, even if he is in danger, than shirking his duty just to be safe.“

Though Laura sipped her coffee and said, “It’s good that you feel that way,” her eyes were only for me, warm with love, their silver-blue dazzling in the hard winter glare. It excited me to think that this same face, so cool now, so poised, even serene, had only an hour before been open-mouthed and panting, glassy-eyed and sweaty with lust.

Smiling, squeezing her knee under the table, I was about to steer the conversation away from the war when Mrs. Hymand, with an emphatic shake of her head, said, “I just couldn’t stand it if he was one of those cowardly protesters.”

“Not all of them are cowards,” Laura said in a soft but firm voice, her cheeks reddening slightly. “Some of them are quite brave.”

“Brave?” Mrs. Hymand asked, looking at me.

“Yes,” Laura said. “There’s a boy in Cambridge--that is, he used to live in Cambridge. He lives in Quebec now--who felt that killing is wrong, even in war. To live by that belief he had to give up his home, his good job, everything. That doesn’t take courage?” she asked, turning to me. “What about that boy on the plane with you? The one from Savannah going to Canada. Didn’t you think he was brave?”

Forcing a smile, I said, “Kelly? He was mostly just scared. Even he admitted that.”

“Well of course he was scared! Who wouldn’t be?” Laura said, reddening.

Staring at Laura, Mrs. Hymand said, “Mrs. Jordan, surely you don’t think my son enjoys being in war?”

Glancing at the shot of George so cocky beside his Cobra, I feared for a moment that she would answer yes.

“Of course not,” Laura said. “What I’m saying is that...”

“I know what you’re saying,” Mrs. Hymand said, her heat rising. “But what if everybody felt like that? Where would this country be then? I ask you. Where?”

“Not in Vietnam, that’s for sure,” Laura said, her tone suddenly arch, condescending, triumphant.

Until that moment I had thought Laura incapable of such a tone and the attitude behind it. I stared at her, so cool and beautiful, so supremely safe and untroubled, then at Mrs. Hymand, so graying and dumpy, so worried about her sick husband at home and her soldier son on the other side of the world. For an instant--and it hurt me to realize it--I wanted to see Laura suffer, to see those silver-blue eyes fill with pain and fear and helplessness.

“Mrs. Hymand,” Laura said, her face softening as she smiled and touched the old lady gently on the arm, “I can understand your feelings. I’m not implying or even thinking that your son isn’t a fine, decent young man. I’m sorry if you thought I was. I apologize. I was just...”

“I know you’re not. I know,” Mrs. Hymand said, shaking her head as she patted Laura’s hand and smiled wearily. “You’re perfectly right in feeling like you do. It’s just this awful war. People are so mixed up over it and it’s gotten so...Oh, I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she broke off, grimacing as she closed her eyes and continued shaking her head.

Then, opening her eyes, she looked from Laura to me and forced a smile. “But I’m the one who ought to apologize. The idea of me going on like this to my guests, and them on their honeymoon too! I won’t say another word. I want to hear about you two, your plans and everything. Will you settle in Cambridge or go back to Savannah?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am, back to Savannah” at virtually the same time that Laura said, “In Cambridge or nearby.”

I knew from the burn in my cheeks that my blush was as red as Laura’s, which was blood on alabaster. I also knew that Mrs. Hymand, her eyes moving from mine to Laura’s, was thinking that the war was not the only thing Laura and I didn’t agree on.

“What we mean is that we’ll be back in Savannah until his finishes his undergraduate degree,” Laura clarified, her blush fading as she smiled at me. “Then we’ll be back in Cambridge for his graduate work, hopefully at Harvard. He plans to teach.”

“How nice,” Mrs. Hymand said. “What subject?”

“English,” Laura said. “He hopes to get on at somewhere like Middlesex.”

My cheeks hotter than ever, I smiled. “If they’ll have me.”

“With a Harvard Ph.D., I’m sure they will,” Laura said assuredly.

“Of course they’ll have you!” Mrs. Hymand declared. “They’ll be glad to get you. Why, a fine young man like you, with your big shoulders and your service over”--she glanced at her son’s picture—“and a pretty new bride...You’re so lucky. You’re both so lucky,” she said, including Laura in her smile. “I know you’ll be happy.”

When Mrs. Hymand had gone to fix our breakfast, Laura, with her hand in mine, said, “It looks like you have a fan.”

“Do you think she believed us?” I asked.

“Why? You don’t think we were convincing?”

“You were. You were amazing,” I said. “Especially that about Harvard and teaching up here and all. You’re getting to be a quicker con than I am.”

“I was nervous at first, but I just feel so much like a bride this morning,” Laura said, smiling, her eyes dazzling, full of me. “And about Harvard--that’s not farfetched at all.”

“You mean me at Harvard? You gotta be kidding!”

“I’m not, darling. You could come to Harvard.”

She was serious, even more than before, and for an instant I tottered between joy at the future, our future implied in the suggestion, and an emotion just short of horror at the idea of actually attending Harvard.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” I said with a weak little grin. “I’m too dumb. And I’m poor. I couldn’t even afford the books.”

“They have scholarships, darling,” Laura said as she squeezed my hand. “And you’re not dumb. A 720 SAT verbal is not dumb.”

Caught in the grip of those eyes, of that smile, in the net of memory stretched so tightly around my heart, I would have agreed to anything.

“I guess maybe I could,” I said.





* * *

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