I am standing on the terrace of the Alumnae House, listening to a classmate from Pem East whom I remember chiefly for her gentle wit and acne—which has cleared up completely after 25 years—and the egg stains on her pale blue woolen bathrobe.
Suddenly I notice a familiar face from the Class of ‘47. (They’re the ones with owl-shaped name tags; ours are round with “25th” in large Gothic print.) It is a fairly long face, with a nose that is too large for the close-set eyes above it and skin that has been leathered by the sun. From the simple dress the woman’s wearing—lime green linen—and gold bracelets on her wrists, I can tell she’s rich and social—the Miss Porter’s type that always slightly frightened me.
As she leans her shingled gray head back to laugh, she shows a set of teeth which bite into my memory so deeply that I wince with pain. The same kind of pain I felt this morning when I walked through Pembroke Arch and passed the bicycle rack I fell backward over once when Hugh Patterson—the only man I’ve every loved in the reckless, headlong way that Cathy loved Heathcliff—was kissing me goodnight.
I fell, sad to say, not from the force of his passion, but from clumsiness. Absent-mindedness. Not noticing the thing was there.
A chaste peck on the cheek was all Hugh Patterson ever offered me in Pembroke Arch, though around us other couples writhed like tangled worms beside the bicycles or beneath the limestone owls that stared down from a shield with the motto: Veritatem Dilexi: “I chose Truth.”
A rather sad choice I have always thought. And I use the word “sad” the way my mother, a former member of the Sweet Briar May Court, uses it: “She’s a nice girl, really. It’s a shame that she’s so sad.” Because it was her firm belief, halfway passed along to me, that Bryn Mawr girls chose truth because they didn’t have a better option.
“But I didn’t take the job,” my classmate’s saying now. “Because I need some time, you see. I’ve just been through the grueling, if useless, ordeal of the Ph. D.Raised three children and lost one. I’m 46 years old and I have this premonition—if I can give myself a little time this summer, I just may be about to grow up!”
We all laugh at that remark. Me included, though I’m still staring at the teeth of that woman from the Class of ‘47, moving the unique shape of them across the jigsaw puzzle of my past. Suddenly, they fall right into place. She’s Hugh Patterson’s cousin. Or, more accurately, the rich girl from the Main Line (was it Bailey, Banks, or Biddle?) who married his cousin. Generally, Hugh’s family was as hard up as mine was. But he did have this one cousin who was married to a rich girl with a farm out in Paoli. It had fieldstone fences, I remember, and a long, thin swimming pool, and best of all, a pond where Hugh would take me ice skating at night.
A wave of undiluted longing for Hugh Patterson washes over me. I see him kneeling in pine needles, lacing up my ice skates, his tight blond curls so close to my knee that I can easily reach out and run my fingers through them. But I know, of course, I mustn’t. The basis of my strategy—my Five Year Plan to win him—is to hold back all this feeling, since he measures out his love for me in demitasse spoons.
So I have to be content to anticipate the moment, not very far away now, when he’ll knot the laces, pull me to my feet and slip his arm around my waist where it will burn through my wool sweaters, as we wobble down the bank in silence. Then step onto the moonlit, pine-fringed pond of ice. Helen is her name.
My eyes are still OK for reading at a distance, so I work them like two plumber’s snakes around the bodies that block me from the woman’s name tag. Before I have a chance to read it, a tanned arm reaches across it.
Twenty-two years I have waited to find out what has happened to Hugh Patterson. Here, at last, may be a woman who can tell me. My patience at this moment is inexhaustible. Eventually, that arm will move away.
In the meantime I will stand here, pretending that I’m listening to my classmate’s chatter, for this time I am determined to make contact with Hugh.
At my tenth reunion I passed up a chance to see him. Back then one of my classmates—long since divorced and moved with her four children to California—lived down the street from him in a section of Philadelphia called Fairmount that was just then beginning to be restored. She told me they were having a neighborhood street fair the Sunday afternoon of our tenth reunion weekend and that Hugh was going to be the auctioneer. What I ought to do, she said, was stop off at the street fair on my way back to the airport. That way I was bound to see him.
I played with the idea all weekend long, imagining Hugh’s face when I stood up at the auction, rehearsing what I’d say when we ducked into a restaurant afterwards to have a drink together. I’d heard rumors that he’d taken up with a Swarth-more girl five years older than he was; that at one point he was actually living with her, unusual in those days, for Hugh particularly, who cared so much about appearances and had been agonizingly celibate with me.
The arm has moved away now, but the woman in the green dress has turned her body slightly. I still can’t see the name tag.
In my fantasies, over tenth reunion weekend, I discounted the rumors. Or rather, I decided that if that older woman did exist, she would be out of town. It was only fair that Hugh and I should have one final talk during which I could finally justify my actions to him.
Actions that most certainly did not deserve the box he’d sent by parcel post the week after my engagement was announced. When the mailman brought it to the door, I assumed it was a wedding present. I ran back to the dining room, got the carving knife and cut the package open right there in the hall. Out spilled the mementos from the five years Hugh and I had known each other. Theater programs from ballets and plays that we had seen together. The expensive leather belt—with his initials on the buckle—I’d given him one Christmas. Even the five-pound rock we brought home from a hike in the Poconos because we both admired its striated colors. He was going to use it as a doorstop in the house he had just bought in Fairmount to restore.
I was stunned by this evidence of bitterness from a man who almost never showed emotion. And embarrassed, deeply, for Hugh and for myself. I put the things back in the box, before anybody in my family could see them, lugged it out to the garbage can, then went up to my room and wept. If Hugh had shown that much feeling two months earlier, none of this would be happening, I thought. I’d be engaged to him instead. Then suddenly my head popped up from the tearsoaked pillow. Hey, wait a minute. Where were all my letters?
The crafty bastard. He was still saving my letters—on the slim chance that I might fulfill my rapidly diminishing potential and become a famous poet after all. Then he could step forward and reveal to the world that he was the one I had lavished my first fine careless rapture on. Or maybe he was hoping he could sell the letters. God dammit, I thought, it’s almost worth the effort of becoming famous to find out what Hugh will do with all my letters.
Even in this final gesture, Hugh could not bring himself to go all the way. And that fact took the sting out of the gesture. Made it easier for me to tell Sam about it when he took me out that night. Actually, I’d found that I could tell Sam anything, which was one reason that I felt relaxed, if not particularly happy, about the fact that I was going to marry him.
But I would not have told Sam if I had stopped off to see Hugh on the way back from my tenth reunion. And it would have been the first time I had deliberately held something back from him. In the end I didn’t go; I took the limousine straight to the airport.
It was probably too soon for me to see Hugh anyway. I was still getting postcards signed “As ever, Hugh” which drove Sam up the wall. He had always understood how strong my love for Hugh was, even if Hugh didn’t. And I guess I was afraid of Sam’s reaction. Maybe even more afraid of my own. For there was always that small chance that if I heard Hugh’s voice again, it would catch me like a fish hook in the heart. And there I’d be—in the same old situation—using every ounce of wit and energy to keep the hook from tearing any further, following so fast, to keep the line of pain that tied me to him slack, that I appeared to be moving on my own.
If the hook sank deep enough, it might mean that I would have to leave Sam. And probably, my children, too. And I truly loved my children, though by that time I knew that I would never love Sam the way that I’d loved Hugh.
What I felt for Sam was much more basic. Sam could never be called handsome, except, perhaps, when his brown eyes are burning with a new idea, or amusement at the human situation. He has a dime-size bald spot on the back of his black head which has spread over the years to the size of a golf ball—an emblem of his own mortality I find particularly poignant since he can’t see it himself. What I felt for Sam was too day-in-and-out—quotidian would be the word—to work up to the Olympian intensity of my love for Hugh.
If I had seen Hugh then, I might have had to leave, not only Sam, but my children, too. For how could Hugh put up with my runny-nosed, poorly disciplined, frequently nauseated children? I remembered all too well the night he explained to me why he’d decided to switch from general surgery to ophthalmology:
“Because I’m sick of all those people vomiting,” he said. “And—if you want to know the truth—I’m also sick of blood.”
I figured he was overworked, half kidding when he said that, since it was the middle of his intern year and he was averaging less than four hours of sleep a night. But he was serious. The very next week he took the necessary steps to change his field to ophthalmology.
The eye—he explained, another night when we were necking in his mother’s car—the eye seemed to be detached from the rest of the body. Aesthetically interesting. Elegantly fashioned. More appealing, surely, as a lifetime’s work, than bursting bowels or spurting arteries.
By the time that tenth reunion came around my youngest child was nine months old; my oldest, barely six. I was absolutely mired in blood and vomit. And I figured that if Hugh swept me off my feet and back into his life again, he might very well refuse to take my children. Even though my oldest daughter and my youngest son are blond.
I remember how he used to say, as if it were a joke, “I can’t help it, Tompkins.” He sometimes called me Tompkins, as my roommate, Harriet, and the hockey coach did; it made me feel that I was still a long-legged, sexless schoolgirl.”God knows I’ve tried, but I just can’t help it, Tompkins. As a rule, I like blondes best.” And there was absolutely no way—short of wigs or bleach—that I could ever be a blonde, though I did point out that I had been a blonde as a child and the chances were my children would be, too.
The only time Hugh came to visit me—in New York, two years before my parents moved back to Virginia—I made him look through a book of photographs of my sister and myself as children.”See there, I’m the smallest one. The blonde one. Sitting on the swing.” I even engineered an evening at my sister’s apartment, ostensibly so that Hugh could meet her husband, a neurology resident at Bellevue, but actually to show him that my niece was blonde, although both of her parents had hair that was darker than mine.
It was pitiful, the way I dragged him down to Peter Cooper Village, changing from the E train to the BMT and then a crosstown bus, to impress on him the fact that I was probably carrying a recessive gene that could give him what he wanted. Beautiful blonde daughters.
By the time we got there, my niece was asleep. So I marched Hugh back into her bedroom and woke the poor child up, and she stood there at the crib rail in her feet pajamas, rubbing sleep from her blue eyes and shaking that bright golden head that was meant to serve as proof that I could be the mother of blonde daughters.
And do you know what Hugh said when he saw her? “I think she has inherited the tendency toward strabismus. That means slightly crossed eyes which can produce a condition called amblyopia—the loss of sight in one eye. You should tell your sister to have her eyes examined. Right away.”
Two of my own children have inherited the tendency toward strabismus. The youngest one, Sammy, had to have an eye muscle clipped when he was barely four years old. I remember how he stood there by that hospital bed that was taller than he was, his short, plump toes sticking out from his seersucker pajamas, while Sam and I listened to the casters of the stretcher coming down the hall to take him off to Surgery.
His cornflower blue eyes looked up through the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses, as he said: “Dr. Cary’s gonna move my eye. Right, Daddy? Right, Momma?” Then softly, to himself, “He’s gonna move my eye. But just a little bit.”
When the orderly came in, he took Sammy’s glasses off and set them on the night table against the water pitcher. Then he hooked his thumbs under Sammy’s armpits, swung him up onto the stretcher, and rolled him from the room.
For the next two hours, while Sam tried to read a book and I, a newspaper, those tiny horn-rimmed glasses, propped against that water pitcher, stared at me, reproaching me for my genetic flaw, for my stupidity in not taking Sammy to the eye doctor sooner, for all the unnamed failures that mothers carry around with them like birdshot in the heart.
My children have that awful power that Hugh once had of absorbing me completely. And in the process wrecking all my plans.
Back when I was in high school—and my freshman year in college—those plans were all I had. And as long as that was so, anything I put my mind to I could do. But then one February afternoon my sophomore year, I looked up from a snowball fight outside of Pembroke West and saw Hugh Patterson’s profile. And a voice inside me said with quiet certainty, “That’s the man I want to marry.”
It was a sign of things to come that Hugh did not notice me as he stopped one of my friends to ask where Bitsy Smith, a girl he’d met in Europe, lived.
His eyes, I noticed, were a pale, transparent blue, and as he talked, he held them open wide, as if surprised and slightly shocked by what they saw; yet through them came no clues to what he might be feeling. His nose was short and straight with a sudden childish up-tilt at the end, which had the same effect on me as the snubbed nose of a puppy. It made me want to hug him. But what really tore my heart that afternoon and claimed the next five years of my life, was the sight of his sharp-peaked, perfectly formed lips which, when he wasn’t speaking, he kept pressed together, as if holding back some sorrow that he could not talk about.
I loved Hugh instantly, and decided I was probably the only person in the world who could draw that sorrow from him. Suddenly I was possessed with a joyful sense of mission. My only problem now was how could I get close enough to him to do the job?
Luckily, Bitsy Smith—the girl he’d come to see—was already engaged to a law student at Penn. So later that same afternoon I dropped by Bitsy’s suite and joined the crowd that was having tea and cocoa by her fire. I’d hoped to find Hugh there, but by that time he had left. So I took Bitsy aside and asked if she would fix me up with him sometime.
I “set my cap” for Hugh, as my grandmother would put it. She was much more optimistic about my chances for success with men than Mother, who thought I was too smart for my own good. Nana’s theory was that everything depends on strategy.”Any woman but a hunchback can get the man she wants,” she said, and I believed her, deeply grateful that although I’d never be a beauty, with my long face and flat chest, I did not have a hunchback. Moreover, I had damn good-looking legs.
There would be times, of course, during the next five years when I questioned Nana’s wisdom. The more schemes I devised to show Hugh why he ought to marry me, the more reasons he found why he should not. It was only after I gave up that he came around to almost asking me.
And by that time I’d met Sam. He had slipped into my life the summer I was living with my parents between two teaching jobs. I started going out with him on weekdays— when I couldn’t see Hugh—because I liked to be around him. He was so affirmative and interested in everything around him—politics and history, and people. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between Hugh’s mincing progress and Sam’s reckless careening toward commitment, his eagerness to offer me everything he was and would be, accepting in return anything I had to offer, including the possibility that I might never love him.
It nearly broke my heart to watch Hugh work around to the conclusion that I was probably the best that he could get. I could almost hear him thinking: “Her hair may be brown and her genes ambylopic, but she is well educated, sensitive to the arts, and surprisingly effective socially,” as he proceeded, step by cautious step, to the point that he could tell me he was “looking for engagement rings” though he still could not come right out and say who the ring was for. Me, obviously. Wasn’t I the only girl he was dating?
When he started all that talk about engagement rings, I could easily have asked him: “Who is the ring for?” But by that time, I was trapped in my own strategy of indirection. Fearful, too, that if I chose the wrong words—honest, blunt, direct words—he would vanish.
As he had vanished once—for my entire senior year—after he had forced me to stand up to him in public.
It happened at a dinner dance that Hugh’s class, the junior class, at the medical school was giving for the seniors. One of Hugh’s classmates took out a cigar and asked me if I’d like to try it. I debated for a second, then decided to say no. But before I could speak, Hugh said, “Don’t smoke that cigar.”
Then he announced in the silence that had settled on the table, “I swear to you, Tompkins, if you so much as take a puff from that cigar, I’ll never take you out again in my whole life.”
The words knocked the breath out of my lungs; I felt as if I’d come down from a high jump and landed on my arm. All I could do at first was gasp to get the air back. By the time I was breathing normally again, I knew I had to smoke the damn cigar. Or give in to Hugh completely. Either way I’d lose him. So I might as well lose him with my pride intact.
I did not answer him. Instead I reached across the heavyduty tablecloth—by now ringed with stains from our drinks and smudged with ashes from our cigarettes—and plucked the cigar from Hugh’s classmate’s fingers, brought it over to my mouth and took two puffs from it. Then I passed it back to him—all in total silence, since everybody there, with the possible exception of Hugh, himself, knew how much those two puffs cost.
For the rest of the evening Hugh was exceedingly polite. And when the dance was over, he drove me home in silence, walked me to the door of Pembroke East, and bowed out of my life for a whole year.
The following September I looked for him at the Freshman mixer, which the medical school students usually came to. Finally, one of his friends asked me to dance and told me Hugh had gone to Edinburgh for the year on a research fellowship. It was March before Hugh wrote me. And July before I saw him, at which time neither one of us mentioned that cigar.
It had earned me, by the way, a modest fame at the medical school which provided me with dates to pass the time my senior year. But I had no interest in them. If I couldn’t have Hugh, I really did not want another man. Instead, I threw myself into my work, and to the horror of my mother—my grandmother had died before her strategy had worked— graduated first among the English majors, had a poem accepted by a major literary magazine, and won a fellowship to study medieval drama at Cambridge.
Ironically, it was these accomplishments, added to the fact that I had survived without him, that drew Hugh back to me, I think. I delayed sailing to Europe, so that I could see him for another month. And did not apply for a renewal of my Fulbright, but came right back across the ocean to a mediocre job, teachirig English and Latin at a private girls’ school, just to be in Philadelphia where he was.
And it almost worked. In fact there was a time—twelve blissful hours—when I thought that I had finally won him.
It happened on a Saturday in mid-December, the day before I was to take the train back to Virginia to spend the week of Christmas with my parents, Hugh had the whole day off, so he borrowed his mother’s car and drove out to the house in Ardmore I was sharing with two girls who taught at Shipley with me.
He arrived in faded jeans and a ski parka, with a cleaner’s bag over his arm.”Guess what?” he said.”We’ve got free tickets to a dinner dance tonight at the Radnor Hunt Club. I’ve got my tuxedo. Have you got an evening dress?”
“I’ve got a bridesmaid’s dress,” I said. The fact was I had several; that was the year so many of my friends were getting married. I was planning to cook dinner for Hugh there, at the house, since both of my housemates were going to be out. Yet I could tell he really wanted to go to that dance, even though there would be no one there we knew. Still, it was a free dinner. Better yet, a chance to dance with Hugh all evening long.
Hugh was a magnificant dancer. His tall, bony body always seemed to know what it was doing on the dance floor; and it managed to communicate that knowledge to mine. Whenever we assumed the ballroom dance position, with one arm at the other’s waist, the other stretched out almost straight, I marveled at the way our long bodies fit together. And as we started dancing we would press our bodies closer till the rhythm of the music merged them into one.
My most recent bridesmaid’s dress, smartly tailored in peach-colored organdy, was surprisingly becoming. Hugh had never seen it. The more I thought about that dress and the prospect of going to a dance with him that night, the more I warmed to the idea.
We spent the afternoon working on separate projects in my third-floor attic bedroom. For my birthday Hugh had given me a pine tavern table to use as a writing table. One Sunday afternoon we had driven all the way to the town of York, to a warehouse for antiques, to pick it out. And he had promised to refinish it for me on his afternoons off. We kept the tavern table and his electric sander in my bedroom, so that he could close the door whenever he was sanding and keep the dust from spreading through the house.
Every surface of my bedroom—the floor, the window sills, the jar-tops on my bureau—were coated with a saffron-colored dust, and my clothes and blankets smelled of ground-up varnish. But I loved to have Hugh there, doing his work at one end of the room, while I sat in the middle, at a rickety card table, doing mine.
On this particular day I was planning the assignments for my tenth grade English class. And Hugh was lying on the floor, with his long legs folded up, like a grasshopper’s, working on the underside of the tavern table. It was almost as communal as being married.
Except there was one difference. One enormous difference—in our tortured attitude toward my bed. The presence of that bed—tucked under the eaves at the far end of the room—made us both exquisitely uneasy. And we took great care to avoid even a glance in that direction.
In this respect, I felt a little less than honest. I had had far more experience with beds and sex than Hugh suspected, even though I was, like most of my friends, still technically a virgin. But Hugh blithely assumed that since I was four years younger, I must be four years more innocent than he.
It did not occur to me—concentrating all my thoughts on my strategy to win him—that my experience might be something Hugh could use, something Hugh might need. I was, in fact, reluctant to reveal it. In retrospect, it’s hard to reconstruct my elaborately fabricated attitude toward sex then. But I do remember this much. When I read the end of the best seller, Marjorie Morningstar, where the fiancé threatens to call the wedding off because he’s learned that the heroine is not a virgin, I did not get the point—that this attitude reflected on his character, not hers. I thought he had a perfect right to drop her.
Besides, that afternoon I experienced a pleasure that can come when one has to refrain from sex which surpassed any pleasure I had yet received from yielding to it.
We were on our honor not to misbehave in my bedroom. For me, it was as if I were back in my dormitory room with an unfinished exam book on my desk and a textbook on the shelf with the answers in it. The very proximity of the opportunity made it impossible to consider yielding to it. This was a moral test; if I cracked open the textbook, or fell onto the bed with Hugh, I would forfeit my ability to like myself.
Or so I thought, when Hugh dragged his bentwood chair up to the card table by mine—pulling the round wooden seat through the trim crotch of his jeans and sitting so close to me that his denim-covered thigh rested against mine. A liquid warmth slid through my body, as if I had just swallowed a mouthful of strong brandy. And I felt suddenly limp with longing for him.
“What are you giving them to read?” he asked as he bent over my papers. Hugh liked to read even more, perhaps, than I did, since he read purely for pleasure, while I read for my living now. As he hunched over the table, hugging his bony elbows, his posture struck me as inordinately boyish.
“Aren’t you skimping on my hero, Henry James?” he asked. “Just those two short stories? Why don’t you give them Portrait of a Lady?”
“It’s too long,” I said. “If you want to know the truth, I’ve never finished it, myself.”
“Oh, you’ve got to, Tompkins! It’s a wonderful book. Practically equal to a trip to England, First Class, with the perfect guide. And visually, it beats the Barnes Collection. It’s probably my favorite book.” He paused.”How can I marry you if you won’t even read my favorite book?”
I never knew how to respond when Hugh began to joke about the subject I considered so important. I didn’t answer him.
“At least I’m glad to see you’re giving a whole week to Emily Dickinson.”
“But I can’t decide which poems. Have you got any suggestions?”
“Will you really let me choose them?” he asked, delighted as a child would be. It was this hint of innocence, a core of innocence, that made me love Hugh most, I think.
He picked up my small Modern Library edition of the poems, propped it open on his knees at the Index of First Lines and began to check the poems he liked.
Later, after I had finished dressing for the dance and was waiting through that block of time before a date when a girl is too carefully coiffed and powdered to do anything useful, I had a chance to look over his choices. I was shocked to discover that every single one of them dealt with death.
As we were driving to the dance, I asked him: “Do you realize that those poems you checked are all about death?”
“That’s not so!” he said. “I know I checked ‘The Soul Selects Her Own Society.’ And that’s a love poem, don’t you think?”
“ ‘I’ve known her from an ample nation/Choose one;/Then close the valves of her attention/Like stone?’ Don’t those lines suggest a cemetery vault to you?” “A bank vault,” he said.
“A stone bank vault? And what about ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died’. . .’Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. . .?”
“OK, OK. You win,” he said. “Obviously I have a ghoulish streak in me. Now that you have forced me to the truth. . . .” He turned from the steering wheel to leer at me in the moonlight that was sifting through the windshield, “I’ll tell you my dark secret. The fact is I’m a vampire, cleverly disguised as a would-be doctor.”
On the way back from the dance, though, he brought the subject up again. At that point in the evening, those poems were the last thing on my mind. I was still basking in my unexpected success at the Radnor Hunt Club dance, where several Main Line bachelors who used to take out friends of mine from Pembroke East kept cutting in on me to find out what had happened to the girls they used to date. Each time one of them did, and Hugh came back to me, our long bodies would lock, and the pleasure we derived as they dipped across the dance floor seemed to have been intensified, rather than diminished, by the brief, involuntary separation. For once we did not even feel the need to talk.
I was still suspended in that totally relaxed and satisfied silence which we’d managed to carry from the dance into the car, when Hugh said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said on the way over. I guess the reason that I checked those particular poems is that death—my father’s death—is the most important thing that’s happened to me yet.”
Then in a steady voice, he started telling me what it had been like the day his father shot himself while he was cleaning some old guns. It happened two days after Hugh’s seventh birthday.
“He had given me a litter of puppies for my birthday. Beagles. And was going to help me raise them and train for the hunt. I was down at the barn, playing with the puppies, when I heard the gun go off,”
There was silence for a second, but this time it was a silence that I felt unqualified to deal with. I had never experienced a sorrow even roughly comparable to this one.
When he spoke again, his voice was flatter and more guarded: “And to this day the smell of puppies—that sweet oniony smell of a puppy’s breath—brings back all the bloody horror of that afternoon. It’s positively Proustian, don’t you agree?”
For once, I refused to follow his quickstep into intellectuality, as I would have followed the pressure of his hand on the small of my back, or his leg against my leg on the dance floor. I did not want this moment to degenerate so quickly into literary talk.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never had anything that awful happen to me. Did you train those puppies?”
“No,” he said, “We sold them three months later when we sold the farm.”
“But you still like dogs,” I said. “It didn’t turn you against dogs. You practically raised that last litter of beagles at your cousin’s.”
“That’s true,” he said. “And after I get married, I think I’d like to have a farm, myself.” “It was an accident, right?”
“Oh my God, yes,” he said. “I can’t believe he would have willed us into everything that happened after that.”
We pulled up to a stoplight. “And now, Herr Doctor Tompkins, we have reached Lancaster Pike. Would you like to get a hamburger before I take you home?”
With that, we dropped the subject. But later when we pulled into the driveway behind my housemate’s car, I abandoned my strategy for once and acted on an impulse. I slide over in the seat, slipped my arms around his waist, under his tuxedo coat, and hugged him.
He responded with a long, hard kiss. And when we broke from it, to breathe, I thought I heard him whisper, “I love you.” But a truck was groaning up the hill below, and I wasn’t sure. “What did you say?” I asked.
He did not repeat it. Instead, he kissed me lightly on the tip of my nose, then harder on my ear, then on my lips again, until I began to feel the same warmth sliding through my body I had felt that afternoon. Only this time we weren’t in my bedroom, bound by honor. We were in a parked car.
All the calculations that my roommate, Harriet, and I had worked out, sitting on the window sill of our living room at college, our feet firmly planted on the balcony outside, our cigarette ends glowing several inches from our fingers—all those rules about how far a girl could go and still not run the risk of being thought a slut, seemed suddenly self-serving. Artificial. Trivial. As Hugh’s passion rose to meet mine and we fell back on the seat, I would have given anything to him. If he had wanted it.
But in the middle of our lovemaking, he drew back and sat up straight behind the steering wheel, his white tuxedo shirt gleaming in the moonlight. “It’s all right, Hugh,” I said.
“But it may not be all right tomorrow morning,” he said evenly.”If we’ve waited this long, we can wait a little longer.”
Then he took me in his arms again, cupped one hand under my breast, and drew my hand into his lap. And held it there, hard, as he kissed me one last time.
“Now let’s get out of here,” he said, as he opened the car door.
Delirious with joy, I stumbled up the driveway, hand in hand with Hugh, and burst into the kitchen where my housemates and their dates were gathered round the TV set, hissing at some film clips of Senator McCarthy. At that moment I believed that Hugh and I were engaged.
But when I woke up the next morning I was not so sure. Had I imagined that he said “I love you”?
Before I took the train home for Christmas vacation, I stopped off at the hospital and had lunch with Hugh in the cafeteria, hoping he would do or say something to confirm my sense of a commitment.
But he behaved as if the night before had never happened. He had been working nonstop since six o’clock that morning and was preoccupied with the problems he was having with a patient.
For Christmas, though, he sent me an extravagant present. A gold pin from Tiffany’s, shaped like a tiny beagle. And he asked me to go skiing with him over New Year’s weekend. But it turned out there was no snow. So we canceled the ski trip, and he worked New Year’s weekend, covering for a friend whose wife had gone into labor prematurely.
The next thing I knew, the vacation was over, and I was working harder than I’d ever worked before. In addition to my full-time job at Shipley, I had signed up for two courses in graduate school. Three months of high-school teaching had made me realize that I would rather teach in college, and for that I was going to need some more degrees.
Hugh, poor thing, was even more overworked than I was. Since he was on call almost all the time, he would often get less than two hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. And when we managed to meet briefly at the hospital, the movies, or even at my house (where I sometimes had to leave him working on that tavern table while I rushed off to an evening seminar), we sat and stared at one another across a pool of mutual exhaustion.
I began to wonder if that night of the dance had ever happened.
“You were always so sure,” he said that final weekend in New York, at Harriet’s wedding. At that point Harriet and Hugh were the only people who knew that I’d decided to accept Sam’s proposal. And Harriet threw her bouquet at me with so much force that I had to catch it, though I would have given anything not to have seen the expression on Hugh’s face as the bouquet fell into my hands.
“You were always so sure,” he said again, when we were back in Harriet’s apartment, standing in her tiny kitchen because another bridesmaid and her fiancé—whom she would marry in a year and divorce in seven—were filling up the living room with a ferocious fight.
Beside two small gas burners and a chipped porcelain sink, we acted out our final scene, my face buried in Hugh’s bony shoulder, my tears soaking through his shirt while he held me, lightly, and watched the large electric clock on the wall.
The fact that I had been so sure was apparently the thing that had held him back. And now that I’d decided to marry someone else, he could suddenly afford to show his feeling for me. And I, in turn, had nothing to lose by showing mine.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like,” he said, “to have to argue for your life.Suppose I choose the wrong words? Then I lose it. Everything I’ve planned. It all means nothing now. You must know that, Tompkins. Surely you have noticed that when we’re in a room with other people, you’re the only one I see. The only one I want to talk to.”
But I could not turn back now. If I did, Hugh might retreat again. And even if he didn’t, if he went ahead and married me, I knew now how much another man could love me, what it was like to be able to help myself, greedily, to all the love I wanted, anytime I needed it. And knowing that, I did not think that I could live now on the meager rations Hugh would offer me.
At the time, though, I was choking on the sudden flood of feeling for Hugh, and now from Hugh, and could not explain a thing to him. So he thought I might recover from my impulse to marry Sam. Why else did he call on a Sunday morning, two weeks later, and announce that he was driving to Virginia to have a talk with me?
“Oh, Hugh. No,” I said. “This is the day that I’m announcing my engagement.”
“In that case,” he said evenly. “There’s no point in my coming. Is there?” And those were the last words I heard him speak.
Across the terrace, now, I see the woman turning her green linen torso, so that, finally, her owl-shaped name tag flashes into view: HELEN BAILEY PATTERSON, 1947.
Before I have a chance to think, I am striding straight across the terrace. Standing by the woman. Stretching out my arm to shake her hand.
I am appalled at my own gall. I never knew this woman, really. When Hugh took me to her farm, we would chat politely, for not one minute longer than was necessary, because we understood, even if the men did not, that we inhabited entirely different worlds. So there is no reason now—except the one huge reason, Hugh—for me to resurrect this accidental, obsolete acquaintance. Yet I will not die without talking to Hugh, once.
So I say, “Hello, Helen. How are you?” in a swooping social voice I have never heard before.”I’m Margaret Tompkins Baker.” Her flecked green eyes are glazed with lack of recognition. So I press on stupidly: “Margie Tompkins. Class of ‘57.I knew you way back in the fifties when your cousin Hugh and I used to come out to your farm.”
“Oh, yes. Yes indeed!” she says, and I detect a flicker behind the dull green gaze.”I know exactly who you are. Where are you living now?”
“In Virginia,” I say. Then I notice a plump woman with an owl-shaped name tag bearing down on us with two full tea cups rattling and sloshing in their saucers. I get right to the point.”How is Hugh? Do you ever see him?”
“All the time,” she says, “when he comes out to the farm. And he’s fine. In fact, I’d say Hugh’s thriving. He’s assistant head of ophthalmology at Jefferson Hospital now. Did you know that? And into art projects, of course, all over Philadelphia. Restoration, too, in the Fairmount section, mainly. He’s restored five houses over there. By now, it may be six.” “Is he married?” “Hugh? Married?”
She pauses long enough to break the rhythm of her talk, to open a small hole where a person more adept than I am at Main Line understatement might be able to deposit a meaning. But what would that meaning be?
“I don’t think Hugh is interested in getting married. He’s much too involved in other things. You really ought to call him while you’re here.”
“Do you have his phone number? I think it’s unlisted.” (Think. Hell, I know it is unlisted. At my 20th reunion I finally worked up the nerve to call him, slipped away from a class meeting and closed myself into a booth. But when I opened up the phone book to the page with Pattersons, Hugh’s name was not there.)
“Yes, I have it. Somewhere.” Helen’s freckled hand dives into her box-shaped pocketbook and retrieves a small red leather book. She thumbs through pale blue tissue-paper pages.”Do you want the one at work? Or home?”
“The one at home,” I say. As Helen starts to read the numbers, I pencil them lightly on the cover of my class reunion booklet. Very, very lightly. The first sign of my possibly adulterous intentions. I need to be able to erase the numbers, later.
“Here, Bailey. Take this,” A tea cup suddenly appears between us. But I have what I want now.”Thank you very much,” I say and whirl away before Helen Bailey Patterson is obliged to introduce me to her friend.
The next thing I know I’m marching with an electric sense of purpose off the terrace, out of Wyndham, back through Pembroke Arch, and straight across the campus toward the single room in Denbigh they’ve assigned me for the weekend. Miracle of miracles, it has a telephone.
I am exhilarated now, because I have a secret. After 22 years of shared thoughts and sheets—even toothbrushes, if pressed—I’ve discovered how liberating one secret can be. This must be the reason that married people find affairs so tempting. What we need is not the sex so much as the affirmation that each of us is still a separate being.
I remember when our youngest son, Sammy, started nursery school, I found an unfamiliar-looking matchbox truck in an ashtray and asked Will, the oldest, who was then about five, “Whose truck is this?” “Sammy’s. He brought it home from school.” “But where did Sammy get it?”
“I don’t know,” Will said solemnly. “I don’t know Sammy’s life.”
His statement pierced my mind. Until that moment, I had known the origin of practically every toy Sammy touched and every word he uttered. Now, all of a sudden, he had a life outside our life, a constant source of secrets.
Now suddenly, at 46,1 have a secret, too. I decide that I am game for whatever it may bring me. One secret breeds another, the way a little lie does, and may lead into a tangled situation. But at least it will be a different situation.
There was a time, five or six summers ago, when Sam considered having an affair with a young economist he was working with in New York City. She was single, bored, and liberated, and made him an offer with no strings attached. But he got drunk first and asked me would I mind.Open Marriage was on the best-seller list then. Everyone was reading it, trading it between the beach chairs, and I had expressed fairly liberal opinions on the subject. But the night that Sam got drunk and asked me did I mean it, I found out I most certainly did not.
I tried to analyze my unbecomingly conservative reaction. What I minded most was the thought of an ongoing deception. Being made a fool of. Having Sam call me up from dinner with his mistress in a fancy New York restaurant, while I was stuck at home, eating fish sticks with the children. And having him pretend that he was sorry that his business was taking him out of town so much. He’s a good sport, Sam. If he was considering having an affair himself, he figured it was only fair to talk to me about it, so that I could have one, too. Would I do the same for him? I hope so.
When I get to Denbigh, I walk straight up the steps into my room, deliberately avoiding contact with my classmates who are draped over the chairs and sofas in the showcase, smoking, gossiping, and reminiscing. But I do not try to make the call until I’ve had a bath and have almost finished dressing. My ride to our class dinner is leaving at six-thirty. Sam’s quartz travel clock, on the scratched, fake-maple desktop, says almost six o’clock.
I will call Hugh now, I think. And I plop down on the metal cot to use the telephone. A private telephone. Imagine. In my day, all we had to link us with the world of men was one pay phone and a bellmaid at the Pembroke switchboard who would buzz a student’s room if she had an incoming call.
Our old phone system was tedious and maddening, but oh my God, it was exciting. When my wall buzzer came to life, my legs would react long before my mind did, carrying me halfway down the corridor before I started wondering: Who can that be calling? Oh dear God, please let it be Hugh. And if it was Hugh’s voice, that thin, reeded, carefully articulated voice vibrating in my ear, I would collapse with pleasure, sliding down the rough, nubbed plaster wall to sit spreadeagled on the floor, surrendering to the ecstasy of talking to him, not caring that somebody down the hall was probably listening to our conversation, responding to the challenge of imagining the unheard half of it.
This private telephone, on the table here beside me, makes it seem too easy. Obscenely easy. To communicate with Hugh, all I have to do is pick up this receiver. Nobody will be listening, because I’ve taken the precaution of closing the door. I pick up the receiver, and dial the numbers lightly penciled on the cover of my class reunion booklet, as if they were no different from any other numbers.
I hear a click. Will Hugh be home at six o’clock? On a Friday night? Then a distant ringing.
Suddenly he’s with me. I know it is his voice that says “Hello?”
“Hugh! This is Margie. Margie Tompkins Baker. . . .” I meant to speak more slowly, but the words are sputtering. “I’m up here for my 25th reunion. So I thought I’d call you up and. . . .”
He does not let me stumble any further. “Good heavens. It is you. My God. I can’t believe it. I was just thinking about you. You’ll never guess where I was two weeks ago. In Virginia, In Williamsburg, no less. Giving a speech to the Southern Ophthalmologist’s Association. In Williamsburg! Can you believe it? The very place I’d planned to give you an engagement ring. We were going to go to Williamsburg the weekend after Harriet’s wedding. Do you remember that?” “Yes, I remember.”
“And I kept thinking about you the whole time I was there. So much so, I almost called you up.”
His words are so unguarded, plunging all the way back into our old relationship. So why do I feel parried? By the timbre of his voice? The faint hint of laughter vibrating behind it. I never could tell for certain, and I cannot tell now, whether Hugh’s laughter is ironic.
And why does he assume the role of the one who was rejected? Actually it’s my role, and he’s stealing it from me. Is this what I have called him up to tell him? Clearly, he doesn’t want to hear it. Any more than he wants to deal with me, the real, breathing me; I might destroy his artfully restored recollections. Hugh always did have a knack for making real things artificial. Once when I was taking a psychology course I gave him a Rorschach test for practice; and he kept saying, “That’s a picture of a cat. That’s a picture of a horse.” Most people looking at the inkblots will say simply, “That’s a cat,” or “That’s a horse.” But Hugh insisted even then on distancing.
What I have failed to recognize all these years is that Hugh prefers to keep it all out there—just beyond his reach—clean and cerebral while the rest of us slosh through the juices— semen, blood, and vomit. He has a mind too fine to mire in an ordinary physical commitment.
This knowledge settles like a ball of dough at the bottom of my stomach, as I chatter on. Answering his questions. Downplaying my children. My four wonderful children. For where are his? Those beautiful blonde daughters I was secretly afraid I could not give him? They may never now exist outside of Hugh’s mind, where they roam forever fair and free of acne. And I am sad that this is so.
He is chatting, happily, telling me about the party he is going to give tomorrow, a buffet dinner for 40 people. “Are you doing it all by yourself?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “with the help of a few friends. Tonight they’re coming over to tear up the lettuce for the salad. Tomorrow they will worry with the meat.” It has something to do with a fine-arts center opening, at which Hugh says, “We’re having carriage rides, no less.”
I have absolutely no desire to come to his dinner party. Or to ride beside him in a carriage. And he has clearly no desire to ask me to.
The fact is, Hugh and I will never meet again, though we are pretending that we will. To be polite, he asks me for my married name. Can he really have forgotten it? Obligingly I give him Sam’s full name, and our telephone number, and urge him to get in touch with us the next time he is down our way.
I say good-bye to Hugh then. And wait until I hear the click of his receiver, imagining the scene at his latest Fairmount town house.
His tightly curled blond hair is mixed with gray. Otherwise he is as handsome as he was the night we parted in that tiny New York kitchen. He’s been sitting in a wing chair talking on the telephone, but he gets up from it now, and walks over to a bookcase and pulls out a volume of stories by his favorite author, Henry James.
He settles back into the wing chair, opening the book at “The Lesson of the Master,” or, better yet, “The Jolly Corner.” Then, as he starts to read, his long fingers reach for the stem of the wineglass beside him, not because he wants to drink from it, but just to reassure himself that it is there.