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Twice Shy

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

Ellen Medlar sits in her kitchen reading her mail. She slits open an envelope addressed in her mother’s hand. Inside are newspaper clippings, carefully cut, some with handwritten notes beside the print. Since Mr. Medlar’s illness, Mrs. Medlar rarely writes her daughter a letter. Instead, she clips articles from The Atlanta Journal and jots on the envelope, “Just enclosures, but lots of love!”

Ellen unfolds a short article headlined “Hepatitis Linked to High School Clinic.” The high school isn’t the private academy Ellen attended. Hepatitis? No one Ellen knows either has hepatitis or has ever had it.(Her father’s disease is arteriosclerosis.) She can’t imagine why something on this subject has been sent to her, yet her mother hasn’t felt any marginal comment necessary.

Then she reads: “The outbreak has been traced to a needle used to pierce the ears of several students.”

This makes her smile. Her father always hated the thought she might pierce her ears. When she was in junior high school a decade ago, they argued about it numerous times. His hair was thicker then, his figure more robust. She remembers sitting, reading quietly with him in the living room once when he looked up from his newspaper, then rose and came toward her, saying, “What have you done to yourself? Have you pierced your ears?”

She flipped her bangs and bent more earnestly over her book, answering him in a sour tone. “No. You told me I couldn’t, so of course I didn’t.”

He said, “Let me see, please,” but she wouldn’t move.

“Ellen?” He remained standing by her chair.

With a deep sigh, she lifted her hands and, not looking up from the page, she swept her hair from her face. “See? My earrings are made to look pierced, but they’re not. So are you satisfied?”

“Yes. That’s a relief.”

He sat down again, shook out his paper, adjusted his glasses, and added, “I know you think I’m unreasonable on this subject, but once you’ve done something like piercing your ears, you can’t take it back. I’ve always been grateful to my mother for talking me out of getting tattooed. Have I told you this?”


“Just think of it, though—” He put down his paper and leaned forward. “What would your father look like today with a tattoo? Imagine going swimming with me at the club. Suppose I had one of those—?” He gestured vaguely at his biceps. “Something like an eagle, or a slogan of some sort.”

She suggested a naked lady sitting in an open rose and laughed. “Or a name that’s not Mother’s stenciled inside a heart?”

“Exactly,” he said.

“I think it’d be great! You’d be unique then, and not like all the other dull old daddies.”

He lowered his head. Immediately she spoke apologetically. “Not that you’re dull or old, of course. I didn’t mean that.” She smoothed back her hair to let her earrings catch the light before saying, “But I don’t see what you’ve got against pierced ears.”

“I’ve nothing against them. Not if you’re older, with valuable jewelry.”

She told him she wanted to do it not as an act of self-mutilation but simply because there was a better selection of earrings for pierced ears. “That’s all. And everybody’s doing it.”

“Everybody?” He opened his eyes wide in mock surprise.

“Practically the whole school.”

He shook his head. “Don’t you realize you’d risk infection doing such a thing?”

“Nobody’s died yet.”

“Mark my words—next you’ll want a ring through your nose.”

A phrase like “mark my words” particularly annoyed Ellen. Her father tended to use antiquated expressions to make himself sound more authoritative.

“I’m talking about just two teeny-weeny ultraminuscule holes, here and here.” She pointed.

It became obvious the discussion wasn’t about piercing one’s ears, for suddenly her father seemed crestfallen, his expression deeply and inexplicably sad, as if he wanted to gather her into his arms for a sort of farewell. Whenever Ellen saw this look come over him, she felt fearful yet adamant. Why did he insist?

He relaxed and shrugged. “Suppose you do it and don’t like the result. Then you’ll regret it.”

She said, “The other girls, I see them in the halls every day—and they don’t seem filled with remorse.”

“But why risk doing something that might backfire?” He looked genuinely perplexed. “It’s because I don’t want you to be unhappy that I urge you to think of consequences. Don’t take drastic steps and do irrevocable things.”

Ellen puts the article in the box full of other clippings. Much more than usual, it bothers her that her mother rarely writes a full-length letter. She takes a brief walk. When she comes back inside, she sits and brushes her damp hair from her perspiring forehead. She has been spending her summer in Boston, letting Southern heat be her excuse for her refusal to travel South, though her apartment is stifling on the dog days and her parents’ home is comfortably air-conditioned. For several minutes, a sheet of paper rests in front of her before she begins to write. She promises she will visit them at Christmas.

Whenever his health permits, Mr. Medlar returns full time to his work and makes occasional detours on his business trips to visit his only child. In October he phones Ellen from New York and reaches her at her office. She hears his voice saying, “You’ll be home for Christmas, I know. But would you have time to see an old man now?”

The next day, when she arrives home from work, he is waiting for her at her apartment. She notices his gloves on a chair in the hall, the elegant winter gloves which she gave him years ago. He seems to have been saving them rather than wearing them, for they look almost new. He is sitting bolt upright in the living room, his overcoat still on. With nervous curiosity, he is observing the two young women who share the place with Ellen. They are talking to each other, seated on the sofa, having kicked off their heels and propped their feet on the coffee table, oblivious of him.

When he sees his daughter come through the door, he leaps to his feet and almost runs across the carpet.

“Daddy!” She hugs and kisses him. “Did you meet Sally and Faith?”

“Yes.” He turns bashfully to the women, who pause and smile and nod.

He and Ellen leave at once. He holds her hand as they descend the stairs. Walking to the waiting car, he crooks his elbow, inviting her to take his arm, and he says, “Are those girls your close friends?”

“Not all that close, but we get along. Why? Don’t you like them?”

“Of course I do.” He opens the car door for her. “But isn’t there anyone you’d especially like me to meet?” His tone makes it clear he is hoping there’s a young man in her life. “No,” she says, and slides quickly into the car, annoyed. She straightens her skirt, wondering if she should have worn a dress. He has invited her out for an early dinner.

“Where shall we go?” he says. He starts the rental car after an awkward search for its emergency-brake release. “Where would you like me to take you? You must know your way around here pretty well by now.”

The fact is Ellen doesn’t. She has been to a few superb restaurants but isn’t sure exactly where they are, much less if they serve at this hour. At least once a week, she and Sally and Faith eat sandwiches at a local bar, which isn’t the sort of place her father would like. “I don’t really care,” she says.

“Where do the fellows take you? Where do you eat on a special date?”

Her father is smiling at her. They have begun to drive past a local college campus. Evidently a class hour has just finished, for a flood of students carrying books pours over the lawns ignoring the paths. Students cross the road in front of them without paying heed, and Mr. Medlar has to slow the car to a crawl. “I remember you as a student like these, Ellen. Not so very long ago.” He peers through the windows, turning his head from side to side, watching in fascination. “You know, I can tell I’m getting old. When I was in college myself, I was very very choosy. But now, every single one of these young ladies seems beautiful.”

They find a seafood restaurant, posh and virtually deserted. The hostess tells them to sit wherever they wish. The walls are covered with framed prints of sailing vessels. Mr. Medlar gives Ellen an elaborate explanation of the difference between a ship and a barque. He is allowing himself two drinks, he tells her. Over his second, he will wink at his daughter and say, “Don’t tell your mother, you hear?” His doctors have forbidden him liquor and have put him on a low sodium diet.

As their talk becomes more relaxed, Ellen remains careful to steer clear of any references to her social life. She talks about her clients at work and her prospects for early promotion. She describes an eclipse of the moon she has witnessed from her apartment’s roof. When it comes time to order, she orders scallops.

“No,” he says. “Have the lobster.”

“But I want the scallops, Daddy. I like broiled scallops.”

“Now come on. A bachelor girl on her own? I know you can’t afford to eat lobster every day.”

“I can’t afford scallops either.”

Ellen remembers eating lobster with her lover—the violent crack of shells splitting apart in his hands, the incongruous bib around his neck, and his insouciance in feeding her the dripping, butter-dipped morsels.

Her father is saying, “Well, I want you to remember our good times together. I want this to be special.”

“It is.” She reaches out and pats his hand.

He looks suddenly as if he is about to add, “I want you to remember me when I’m dead.” Of course, he doesn’t. He stiffens his facial muscles, shamed by his feelings of self-pity. This conscious rearrangement of his features, which betrays a strength of emotion in him far more than words, has always moved his daughter.

He has a beautifully globed forehead, high and magisterial, and his eyes are memorably blue, a shade of light turquoise that is water-pure and aquamarine, a shade Ellen will see again and recognize ten years later, incongruously, in the undersides of cresting Pacific waves on a sunny day. However, at this moment, she is thinking how as a small child she hated to have him touched by anyone but herself. Once she screamed and cried, having come upon her parents in an embrace, and they laughed at her as she beat wildly at their legs.

“Do you remember—” she begins, but he is talking earnestly. Interrupted, he pauses with a “Yes?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Please go on.” She keeps looking at him, seeming to pay close attention to his words, but meanwhile thinking of how later, as an older child, she’d become hopeful of catching her parents at it again. She crept about the house spying, curious to see exactly how kissing was done.

When he pauses, she says, “How’s Mother?”

“Oh, fine, fine. Nothing ever happens to your mother. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“I’m glad.” And Ellen is glad they have each other, though she doesn’t want to get him started talking of the joys of marriage.

Inevitably, he says, “You’re mighty close-mouthed about your love life.”

“I guess I am.”

“Are you having any fun? I shouldn’t be asking, I guess.”

She looks down at her plate and is silent, eating. Cautiously he says, “You haven’t—gone back—to—?”


“Well, I’m thankful. Having anything to do with a married man is—”

“Playing with fire,” she says for him.

“Yes, and I don’t mean to preach to you.”

“So don’t.”

He sighs. “You’re certainly lucky that episode is over and done with. But ‘once burned, ’ you know, you shouldn’t allow yourself to become “twice shy.” Life is so short.”

She hears a catch in his voice and looks up. His face instantly flinches, its look of grief freezing into sobriety. His eyes blink rapidly several times and he manages a small distracting flourish with his fork. “Not that I’m completely objective, but you should believe me when I tell you that you’re bright, you’re beautiful, you’re a sport. You’re the best sort of girl, sweetheart.”

She smiles. “But all of us girls look good at your age—isn’t that what you said?”

“Now don’t tease me, because I’m in earnest. You mustn’t keep hesitating to put yourself back into circulation. The sooner you’re involved with someone else—”

She gives a small, bitter laugh.

He insists, vehement, “Right now—for these are the years of your youth! Perhaps it’s only someone my age who can know what that means, and—”

“I’m doing fine,” she says calmly. “Just fine.”

“Yes.” He returns to gentleness. “But you don’t seem happy. That’s what concerns me.”

She shrugs and looks tired. “Please?”

“You’re wishing I wouldn’t bring up any of this.” He turns his empty glass between two fingers. “But to tell you the truth, Ellen, I don’t much care what I say anymore. I have a limited time in which to say it.”

She nods and looks away.

“Daddy, I’m okay. Would you please not worry? You should worry about yourself. I worry about you and so does Mother.”

“It seems to me—I mean, since whole years have passed and you’re now even more attractive—You mustn’t think that just one man—”

“I don’t think anything. The way I live my life suits me. And I do go out.”

“But you’re too careful.”

She looks up and gives him a smile. “Of course. And didn’t you bring me up to be careful?”

Their eyes meet.

He laughs at first, not sure how to respond. Then he shakes his head. “I guess I did. But, believe me, I never thought you’d be one to take me seriously.”

In the car again, she drives, conducting them along the familiar route to the airport. “Can you go a bit slower?” he says at one point, interrupting their conversation. “I’m getting a cramp from pressing this imaginary brake.” He points down to his foot which is pushed to the floor, and they laugh.

She eases up on the accelerator.

“Do you like the way this car drives?” He pats the dashboard of the late model Oldsmobile with power steering, power brakes, all automatic controls.

“It’s like steering a motorboat,” she says. “The road might as well be water.” Her foot and hand are longing for her familiar stick shift.

He doesn’t say anything again for a while, but leans his head forward in such a way that she feels he is about to speak. Finally he turns in his seat so as to watch her profile and says, “I noticed your VW looks pretty beat up. There’s no sense in driving it into the ground. You take the risk of driving into the ground right along with it.”

She nods, then talks of something else.

He brings up the subject again inside the airport, as they sit in a large lounge in a nexus of corridors leading to the flight gates.

“What would you say if I replaced your VW with something classy? Would you like that?” He is smiling at the thought.

She knows she should have predicted this.

“Don’t think about the expense,” he says. “I’ve stopped feeling I have to save. “You can’t take it with you”—and frankly, I’m delighted.”

She says carefully, “That’s very kind of you, Daddy, but my “little tin can” still works. It gets much better mileage than anything classier,”

“Now don’t be stubborn with me on this. Think of it as a birthday or Christmas present. Just a big present—from me to you.”

Ellen is all too aware what his idea of the perfect car for her would be, and she doesn’t want it. The cash to buy it, however, could make her happy in countless ways. Here they are on the threshold of a depressing struggle.

“Let’s not have one of our fights about it, okay?” She pats his arm and leans, touching her cheek to his shoulder. “I know you’d give me a car, but I need my independence.”

He looks into her face. “Why?”


“Ellen, I can’t understand you. I’m talking about a beautiful new car.”

“I know.”

He mentions the car dealer he trusts in Atlanta. “And your mother would have the fun of driving it up here and presenting it.”

Through Ellen’s mind whips the appalling idea that she could accept the car, sell it, then use the money for her own purchases. She shakes her head to rid it of the thought. “No, no, I can’t.”

He looks bewildered. “Your mother and I have told you it’s your own life, and it is. You lead it just as you want.” He pauses, having lifted his intonation, perhaps hoping she will interrupt to contradict him.

She nods instead.

Sadly he says, “You make your own decisions now. We can’t tell you how or what to do.” He stands, takes up his coat, checks his pocket for his boarding pass, and—in a strange gesture of farewell—touches her forehead briefly with the palm of his hand, as if to discover if she has a fever.

Ellen rises from her chair. She’s become more aware how ill he is. She was alarmed by how hard it seemed for him to walk the distance from the parking lot to the terminal. Just inside the door, he had had to sit down and rest before he could stand at the airline desk. She thinks now of volunteering to carry something for him, but knows the offer would distress him.

His movements are quick. He seems formal, distant, already gone. Ellen steps back as he gathers his newspaper and briefcase.

When he walks through the guarded check-out point, the metal detector beeps. Two uniformed personnel step forward and ask him to empty his pockets. Into the small plastic tray they provide, he begins, somewhat flustered, to deposit the coins and keys, a cigarette lighter, a small knife, and a nail file.

The second time he passes through the mysterious, electrified shield, he is cleared. Looking relieved, he turns and catches his daughter’s eye. He halts facing her. There’s no question that he’s resisting a strong temptation to rush back to her, for the expression on his face is full of unabashed yearning and sorrow. She is shocked by the tug she feels— she wants to run and throw her arms around him.

He calls out “Good-bye!” in a voice that cracks with emotion.

“Good-bye, Daddy.” She waves and tries to smile.


As she promised, Ellen flies to Atlanta for the Christmas holidays. Mr. Medlar is back from the hospital, where he has undergone an operation on the arteries in his legs.

Mrs. Medlar exclaims, “My, doesn’t Ellen look pretty?”

“Who’s the lucky man these days?” he asks from his bed.

“If I were dating him, he wouldn’t be lucky, Daddy. I’d always be about to dump him.”

“Surely there must be someone,” says her mother, “but we wouldn’t blame you for wanting to keep him a secret—for a while.”

The furniture in the bedroom has been moved. Chairs have been placed strategically along a path to the bathroom. Ellen’s mother has trimmed a small Christmas tree, which sits near the window. The ornaments and lights are too large for it. Its slender branches sag.

“That tree!” says Mr. Medlar. “Ridiculous to burden a poor tree like that. You should have yourselves a big tree out in the front room like old times. And hang tinsel on this thing for me.” He points to the tall green cylinder of oxygen by his bed.

He likes to watch the football games on the television. “Sick or well, he’s the same about that,” says Mrs. Medlar, looking up at Ellen as they wash the dinner dishes together. Ellen sees that her mother is trying to be brave. “You’re very brave, Mother,” she says.

Mrs. Medlar begins to cry. She puts down the dishcloth and rests her head on her tall daughter’s shoulder. “He wants me to watch these games with him. He wants me to. And I hate football.”

“Hush, Mama. He doesn’t mind.”

“I always went with him. I cheered.”

“Of course you did.”

“Even when it was raining.”

From the distant bedroom, Ellen can hear the faint, omnipresent noises of the game.

“I know how much you’ve loved him, Mama.” She pats her mother’s hair. She is now much taller than her mother. Perhaps that’s why she no longer believes in her mother’s authority. Ellen leads her gently down the hall to the library sofa saying, “Can you rest now? At least for a little while?”

She joins her father in the dark bedroom. He lies there, silvery in the false moonlight of the television. She moves to the windows, saying, “Daddy, it’s too dark in here.”

“Fourth down and seven yards to go.”

She opens the drapes as the crowd on the set roars.

“Did you see that? Amazing, that fellow Finney. Ellen, come watch this on the instant replay.”

She turns and sees on the screen the players moving, their speed attenuated, slowed, stretched so that the bone-breaking tackle becomes like the dreaming embrace of lovers or the glide of birds in flight.

“Twelve yards and another first and ten!”

The television station breaks for the commercials and she switches off the sound. “Daddy?”

“What?” He has become very pale and thin. His cheeks are sunken and his eyes stare out of hollows. There is stubble on his chin. She thinks how much he looks like a wino, a derelict nobody loves or knows, her father who has cut such a figure in his dark suits.

“Your daddy’s a dresser!” the black maid Caroline said, handling his silk ties, holding them up to the light like a catch of fish. “Look here. Which one you want him to wear? He’s letting you choose.” And five-year-old Ellen would choose a tie, then be thrilled to see him wearing it out to dinner. Her father and mother would leave, waving to her in their beautiful clothes—like the moment in fairy tales when prince and princess married and the story ended. Ellen had hated for stories to end.

“Don’t cry, sugar,” Caroline would say. “They’ll be back. Sure they will. Didn’t your daddy let you choose his tie? Would he run off and lose a good tie-chooser?”

Now Ellen stands behind his bed. “Let me shave you,” she says. “Will you?”

“I can do that myself.” His eyes narrow and he looks annoyed.

“I know it, Daddy, but I need to feel helpful. Let me play nurse.”

He tells her where to find his electric razor and aftershave lotion. “And I want a mirror, so I can see myself as an invalid.”

“Oh, Daddy. Stop it.”

She gives him the hand mirror from the dresser, then she plugs the extension cord into the wall socket behind the television set.

“Turn it on! Turn it on!” he says, pointing to the screen where the game has returned. She quickly swivels the volume knob. The announcer’s voice and the crowd’s noise resume.

Ellen settles on the side of the bed away from the screen. The sun is low in the sky and a slanted light streams through the window. The veins on his neck and arms are blue and serpentine. When did his hair turn white? She can’t recall its being wholly white in October. As she flicks the razor’s switch, the television picture veers and shatters.

“No! No! Damn it! Right in the middle of the play!”

He pounds the mattress with a fist, then begins to whimper. He takes the sheet in both hands and covers his face.

At first, unaware how she has caused this, Ellen sits dumbfounded and immobile with the razor buzzing in her hands. Then she understands—and at once bends over the razor, groping frantically for its button.

Suddenly the buzzing stops. At the moment the razor is shut off, the players jump back into view.

“Here they are, Daddy. It’s okay.”

He keeps his face shrouded, the high ridge of his nose and his domed forehead molding the sheet. “Get out! Just get out of here!” And Ellen runs from the room.

It’s her turn to cry. Mrs. Medlar finds her sitting in the living room. She kneels beside her daughter and pats her knees, trying to look into her lowered face. “Now, now, Ellen, whatever happened and whatever he said, remember that he’s not himself. They give him so many drugs.”

Both women hold hands and crouch together in silence for a while. Ellen is thinking: my mother is too small and my father has withered to sticks. They’re like children.

“Look at the sunset,” says Mrs. Medlar, rising to go to the window. The sun is a last fiery rind on the hill. “Do you remember when you were little, he’d try to explain to you how the earth moves around the sun?” (Yes, she remembered. He had demonstrated with a tennis ball and a marble.) “You’d listen and seem to understand, but after he was finished, you’d say, “Why doesn’t the sun burn the grass where it sits down?” And he’d laugh and be frustrated with you at the same time. Oh, but he enjoyed you!”

When the phone rings and Ellen’s mother becomes absorbed in a conversation with a friend, Ellen goes down the hall and stops at the door of the master bedroom. She stands there looking in. He has shut off the television by remote control and lies asleep with the control device still in his hand.

Carefully she approaches the bed. She removes the plastic control box, separating his fingers, putting it beside him on the table that is full of little bottles. To subdue the light from the bathroom, she closes the bathroom’s door till it stands marginally ajar, leaving only a sliver of brilliance. She winds up the extension cord and returns the razor to its place. She draws the window curtains and turns off the lights of the tiny Christmas tree. Then she can withdraw, feeling as if she has helped him.

Three days after she returns to Boston, he dies.

“And he was doing so well!” Mrs. Medlar weeps over the phone. When Ellen arrives again at the house, she finds her mother sitting in the kitchen beside a full table of covered dishes and bowls. Caroline and a neighbor are rearranging the contents of the refrigerator to make room for the gifts,

Mrs. Medlar does not direct them, but sits hunched as if she is extremely cold, hugging herself.

“I’m here,” says Ellen, leaning down to her mother, kissing her. She feels pity, and she feels surprise but as yet no sorrow of her own.

She will be overcome the next day, bursting into tears at the graveside. What finally sets her off is the sight of the coffin being lowered. His coffin is large, sleek, metallic, and fitted with bright chrome handles. Like a “classy” car.

Four days after the funeral, Ellen helps her mother sort his effects. They both find it hard to disturb the clothes, which still smell so much like him. Each suit hangs on a special wooden hanger inside a zippered plastic bag. The shoes are highly polished and upended in a metal rack. The ties are arranged by color: blues, browns, maroons, and grays were his favorites. They hang from individual hooks at the back of the large closet.

As Caroline unzips each bag and holds up each suit in turn, she keeps her eyes down, her face very sad. Occasionally she murmurs, “I remember him in this.” Mrs. Medlar looks at each suit in the window’s bright sunlight, searching for signs of wear and for stains. “This one ought to be cleaned,” she says, and Caroline hangs it on the knob of the closet door. “Let’s not keep this one a day longer.” Mrs. Medlar points to trouser cuffs that are almost frayed, and Caroline lays this suit in a pile for charity.

“How Randolph loved this one!” For an instant, Mrs. Medlar holds the sleeve of a lightweight brown wool as if an escort has offered his his arm. “I think someone will appreciate it, don’t you?” She looks over to her daughter for approval.

“It’s handsome,” says Ellen, knowing that her homely Uncle Evan is to be given the best suits. “Will you give away Daddy’s ties?”

“Why yes. What else should I do?”

“I’d like to keep them. The best ones, anyway.”

And so that evening Ellen folds the ties to pack them in her suitcase. She has wanted all of them and there are so many that she hardly has room for her own clothes. She will have to furl her bathrobe in a shopping bag.

“What are you going to do with so many ties?” asks Mrs. Medlar, who has stopped by Ellen’s room to say good-night.

Ellen doesn’t answer. Instead, she reaches with her arms and draws her mother close.

“Do you know someone who might . . . ?” Mrs. Medlar’s voice trails off in the way it does whenever she asks her daughter a question about men.

“No, Mama.”

When she’s alone, Ellen stands staring at the suitcase. What to do with the ties doesn’t matter. She knows she wants to keep them—that’s enough. The married man she used to love, and still loves, hated ties.

Mrs. Medlar has dressed too warmly for the evening and is carrying her big fur coat through the corridors of the airport. Because Ellen is carrying hand luggage, she can’t help. Mrs. Medlar insists, “It’s not too heavy. I’ll manage,” though she is obviously out of breath.

“But you shouldn’t be seeing me off. Couldn’t you have phoned Uncle Evan? Why didn’t you?”

They stop at the guarded entrance. The shopping bag with her bathrobe is scrutinized by X-ray. Ellen, torn by the feeling she shouldn’t be leaving, yet longing to go, tries to think of something cheerful to say. Her mother has tears in her eyes. She still holds the heavy coat, and its hem laps the floor. She is saying to her daughter, “Be careful.”

“I’m not flying the plane, Mama.”

“I know. But still, be careful.”

The plane to Boston, positioned at the gate, is an elongated capsule of bright light and maudlin music in the rainy dark. As soon as Ellen takes her seat, she leans against the window, cupping her hand to the glass. The darkness outside seems inviting. She fastens her eyes on the spacious, wet pavements, prickled with droplets, glistening.

Eventually the sound of the engines replaces the piped music. The lights of the runway speed by, and Ellen gives herself to the exhilaration of the thrust upward.

She enjoys the stewardess’s familiar ritual pantomime with the oxygen mask. She orders a drink. Out of the window, a huge net of city lights has been cast over the blackness. It’s as if she’s been hurled higher than the stars, so that now she looks down on the constellations.

When the plane is over Virginia, the stewardess brings dinner. Ellen feels strangely comforted to have her food sectioned by a plastic dish, like a baby’s warming plate. The meat, the vegetable, the potatoes are compartmentalized. The utensils come in plastic wrapping, sugar and salt in tiny papers, cream in a triangular box. Everything is in its place, compact.

After the meal, Ellen puts the small pillow by her ear and turns off the overhead light. The lover she still can’t forget, whose image is always present in her mind, is dim tonight. He has dwindled to the size of a figure on a postage stamp. The sight of her mother holding the coat seems as small as a light now, and as far away. Her father’s grave is infinitesimal. This reprieve from sorrows will not last, she knows. More grief will be stretching out before her, like a hard, paved ground to touch down on. But for the moment, she is resting in the sky, peaceful and suspended above her losses, miraculously upheld in darkness among contradictions, at once moving very quickly and sitting still.


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