During the summer I was 17 about five of us made frequent trips to a town near the beach in New Jersey called Somers Point. Only two or three went at any one time, though we each went often enough. The only person who made every trip was Bob Wharton. He was older than the rest of us by several years, just returned from three years in the Marines. He had more money than the rest of us, who were still for the most part dependent upon our parents, and of course more freedom. The car we used was almost always his.
It was a grey Dodge sedan, an utterly anonymous-looking car. But it had air conditioning and push button windows even in 1959, and an oversized engine—one that had been designed for a bigger, heavier car. Bob kept sandbags in the trunk to steady the Dodge, but when he really put his foot to it, the car would veer and shimmy at the start of acceleration; and cruising at high speeds, you knew you were going too fast, but you knew too that the car would go much faster, that the engine wasn’t straining, that whatever strain you felt came in fact from holding back.
Bob was an extraordinary driver, with quick reflexes that let him drive a little faster, turn or stop a little later than other people, so that driving with him always had about it an unsettling unfamiliarity. He drove slouched in the seat, small hands cupped loosely on the bottom of the wheel. He had a long flat face, the hairline already receding in two sweeps, and, whether by calculation or nature, his eyes were held narrowed in a slight squint.
Even at the end of the summer, when I had begun finally to acknowledge that I was bored by him, I still occasionally found myself trying to follow his gaze, wondering what he was studying, remembering only after I had puzzled the landscape for a time that the look was merely habitual.
He drove the same way whether he was driving a hundred or a 120 miles an hour, as he fairly often did on the trips to Somers Point, or, as was more often the case, simply driving around. We drove, it seems in retrospect, interminably that summer, occasionally going someplace new but for the most part going over and over the same neighborhoods, the same streets, doubling endlessly back on ourselves in mesmeric, time-killing windings.
Occasionally someone peripheral to the immediate group would reveal some fear of the speed or erraticism with which Bob drove, say something, or begin to fidget. Such occasions were the only ones on which Bob’s eyes left the road. He would drive still faster, glance across or back intermittently at the person.
“Fast enough?” he would say. And then after a while perhaps: “Nervous?” For the rest of us it had become a matter not so much of pride as of simple stubbornness not to reveal such qualms. We knew that speaking up would only goad Bob to go faster, for he was quite open that ownership of the car carried with it control of choices. One Saturday when all of us were at his parents’, sitting on a grassed incline that overlooked the pool, drinking beer, and talking of girls we might call, Bob suddenly got to his feet. He was not big, but he had the extraordinary quickness I had mentioned. None of us wanted to fight him and he knew that. Still, off and on, out of the blue, he would issue a challenge. His legs were splayed, and he was crouched in the steep crouch that karate people use, arms lifted, hands rigid, The crouch tensed his muscles and, so, exaggerated the peculiar effect they had of seeming grafted onto him.
“Hai,” he called out. His right leg raised and kicked out, and he stepped after it, hands slashing. He bounded into a crouch again, swayed there for a moment, feet steady but body listing, kicked out with the other foot, followed again.
The patterned geometric quality of the movements, his intentness, the contrasting torpor of the summer afternoon lent the performance a quality of mime. The flashing and chopping of the hands seemed less the movements of violence than the signings of some obscure ritual.
“Anybody want to try me?” he said conversationally.
No one said anything.
“Cause if you do,” he said after a while, “I’m ready. You know? Like a battery, Ever ready.”
There was some antipathy between Bob and myself which at such moments focused in open dislike. I believed that his eyes met mine particularly in those moments, that his taunting was addressed particularly to me. I did not know him well. I had moved to that section of Philadelphia only a couple of years before, after he had gone to the Marines. And then he seemed simply to have turned up, always ready to do something or to go somewhere. I do not even remember meeting him.
Perhaps in consequence, when he was not around, I occasionally made some remark about the incidents, was apt as well to take up comments others made about his driving. We were pretty generally agreed that it was dangerous and that Bob’s insistence on it was unpleasant, but we needed a car to get to the places we went. To get anyplace for that matter. We lived spread out. There was no likely public transportation. Even driving around without specific goals, there was at least the possibility of coming upon one. Without a car, given the suburban distances between things, that seemed impossible, and we could not rely on parents’ cars. Bob always had one. At any rate we all did go. I don’t think any of us thought seriously of not going.
The trips to Somers Point were not to the beach. We went to the beach in Ocean City, across a bay from Somers Point, drawn there by its reputation for pretty girls who worked as summer waitresses. We went to Somers Point for the bars, which thrived on business from Ocean City because Ocean City was a dry town. The pretty girls of Ocean City, of course, were among those who frequented the bars. And we went to the bars, of course, to pick up those girls.
In retrospect it was an unlikely business. We didn’t know the girls, had no place to take them, couldn’t split up because we had only one car. Still we made a lot of trips that summer. We would leave Philadelphia shortly after dinner, around seven. It was about 80 miles to the Point and we would get there around 9:30 or 10:00, having stopped at various bars along the way. Occasionally, if we arrived before 9:30, we would go across the bridge into Ocean City first and cruise from place to place in vague quest of girls.
There were about five of us including Bob who made the trips with some regularity. For a two-week period at the end of the summer a fellow named Fred Hunt, who had gone to school with Bob and then, like Bob but a year later, joined the Marines, also came along. He was home on leave. When he began to come along, something changed about the trips. Bob Wharton changed for one thing, those characteristics that bothered me in him becoming exaggerated. Some ugly things happened. Finally I didn’t want to be around Bob or Fred anymore and stopped going places in Bob’s car. But Fred didn’t come, as I say, until the end of the summer.
The drinking age in New Jersey then was 21 so that, except for Bob and, when he was along, Fred Hunt, there was some tension about the trip for the rest of us. Most of us had false identification. But that served only to make the tension double-edged. We remained unsure about getting into the bars in the first place; then, once in, we were afraid of being caught in a raid or by an ABC man.
As it turned out, we got into the Somers Point bars that summer with rare difficulty. The ride down, however, was another story. The little bars in which we stopped—road-houses really—tended to have a steady, largely local business. They didn’t much want strangers or kids in the place. Sometimes they served us, and sometimes the bartender would simply tell us to get out. At other times he’d joke with us, tease us about the ABC, which of course paid little attention to such places, though we didn’t know that then.
In some places, however, there was an antagonism; something in us offended the people in these places, something in our dress or youth or glib carriage perhaps; it is hard to say because I was only vaguely aware of it at the time; something perhaps in the possibilities that plainly remained for us, for they were mostly poor bars and we must have seemed to them rich kids.
One time Tommy Clark was in one of those bars with Bob. I was not along. They’d already stopped in several places. Tommy had had a few beers and started kidding the bartender, who refused to serve him. Meanwhile Bob was drinking his beer, listening with a smirk as he did in such situations. Bob ordered another beer. When the bartender brought it, Tommy said something else to him. Perhaps it was out of line, overstepped some boundary. At any rate a woman seated a little way along the bar turned to him and said, “Why don’t you be quiet?”
She was in that bleary state that precedes real drunkenness, a thick woman about 40—or so I imagined her—in a house-dress. Tommy, who after all was just trying to have a good time, hesitated for a moment. Then he turned to her.
“You think I’m 21, don’t you?” he said. He turned his profile to her and jutted his chin out.”Tell the man I’m 21,” he said.”He’ll bow to woman’s judgment.”
“You,” she said then with abrupt bitterness. She snorted. “I lived in New York when I was your age and I flushed better men than you into the Hudson.”
Bob Wharton gloated about the incident for weeks. “Told you, didn’t she?” he would say.”Good old broad, she was. Told you. Punk Kid.”
I would think about it when we went into such bars or, as sometimes happened, while a couple of us waited in the parking lot, perhaps splitting a quart that Bob had brought out to us while he drank his two drafts unhurriedly inside. He was adamant about that: if he stopped at a bar, he drank in it. I would try to imagine what the woman had looked like, what her tone had been, I wasn’t sure precisely what her phrase meant; its more general meanings were clear enough but about the technical details I was unsure; I thought she might have been talking about douching or disposing of contraceptives; I imagined the apartment and bathroom in which she’d done whatever she’d done as small and bare and streaked and yellowed light like glaze. Anyhow, though the technical aspects intrigued me, it was the abrupt access of brutality that baffled and haunted me, and the undercurrent of violence it suggested.
Different bars were popular at different hours. One, the Dunes, didn’t get good until around 3 when the others were beginning to peter out. We would usually end up there. It was a large rectangular block building, like a warehouse, set in a large macadam parking lot, which in turn was set in a marsh. It had four service bars, but when the band went off and the crowd began to thin, three of them shut down. The only bar that stayed open then was the center one. It was immediately in front of the wide glass and entrance doors. We would stand and watch the sun rise—vivid and lovely, the effect dream-like—through those doors across the marsh and the parking lot and then we’d get in the car and go home.
I remember the first trip on which Fred Hunt was along. I’d begun to talk to a stranger on my right. Bob and Fred were on my left, talking to a couple of fellows on leave from the Naval Academy. When I looked back after a while, all four had disappeared. Outside, the sun had begun to rise. An arc of it showed above the horizon, an orange sun so clearly demarcated that it seemed to belong in a cartoon, and the sky was streaked with extraordinary clarity. And then in the doorway I saw two figures. They were profiled to me. Their front legs angled forward so that their feet seemed to merge; their arms also came forward, as though they were shaking hands at an odd angle. One of them jerked almost spasmodically, and then they were still again. And then the one who had made the initial motion lifted off his feet and flipped in the air. The other figure stepped back, all the movements jumpy in the way of old movies.
It took me a moment to realize that the man who had stepped back was Fred Hunt and the man who had lifted into the air and flipped onto his back was one of the midshipmen. After a moment they repeated the scene, everything subtly speeded up though the jumpy mimed quality of old movies remained. The other midshipman stepped forward and then Bob Wharton, A new tableau formed momentarily, the four squared off. Then the second midshipman came back into the bar and gathered his change and his buddy’s and went out. He looked angry. As he went out, he jerked his way between Bob and Fred, who were coming back into the bar laughing.
“I’m pretty good at judo,” Bob was saying, apparently mocking the midshipman’s voice.”Sure you are, buddy, Tell me about it. Why don’t you show me?”
The midshipman, it turned out, had mentioned taking judo at the Naval Academy. The lessons had been only in basic principles. Fred had pretended to be curious, and they’d gone outside so that the midshipman could demonstrate. And then Fred, who’d had some judo of a less theoretical sort in the Marines, had blocked the midshipman’s move and thrown him.
Bob and Fred thought the scene was hilarious. They kept repeating lines of dialogue from it on the way home. We’d been up all night, of course, and there was perhaps an edge of strung-out hysteria in their reactions.
I found it less amusing than they. Something bothered me about it. I felt separated from Bob and Fred in their raucousness, felt that that separation was in large part intended. Something in the incident itself also bothered me. I realized that such a thing would not have happened before Fred arrived. But I recalled the scene nonetheless, the sunrise, the startling freshness of the dawn sky framed in the blanched haze of the Dunes, the silhouetted body flipping through the air, getting up, flipping more suddenly. It seemed to me magical, strange, and compelling, somehow the most likely of all possible endings for the night.
In terms of their ostensible purpose, our trips to Somers Point were failures. All that summer I never picked a girl up at the Point, rarely even danced, came away only once that I recall with a name, address, and phone number. The only one of us, in fact, who did pick someone up was Fred Hunt. I was not along, but Tommy Clark was. Fred had some friends who were working that summer in Ocean City and had rented the upper floor of a big, run-down house there. When Fred met the girl, he talked Bob and Tommy into going back and spending the night at his friends’ house so that he could take the girl there.
The girl was a fat girl.
“What do you mean fat?” I remember asking Tommy when he told me.
“I mean fat,” he said.
All the way from the Point to the house in Ocean City Fred mauled at the girl in the back seat.
“Don’t do that,” she would say, “Please don’t. Not yet.” And, “You’re sure you care?” She breathed heavily, according to Tommy, in a way that had nothing to do with passion.
When finally they reached the house, Fred led the girl directly into a bedroom, leaving Bob and Tommy in the living room with a couple of quarts of beer they’d brought. The people who lived in the place, having jobs, were already asleep. One had shuffled groggily out to show Fred the room he could use. Bob and Tommy were to sleep in the living room.
Bob and Tommy drank beer. They began to sort about the room to figure who would sleep where and on what. The door to the bedroom into which Fred had taken the girl led directly off the living room. Suddenly it was tugged open, making a noise, which, falling away, seemed to leave the place momentarily stopped in time—preternaturally silent and still.
Then the girl half backed, half sidled through the doorway into the living room. She moved in a confused way, drifting. She was naked. She held her Bermuda shorts and panties and tennis shoes in one hand. With the other, she made a listless stuttered wiping motion before her face, as if the last swipe of a windshield wiper after it has been turned off were repeated over and over. She backed against a chair and made a startled mewing sound.
At that moment Fred appeared in the doorway. He, too, was naked and carried some of her clothes. The girl stopped when she saw him and again, her whimper abruptly truncated, the room seemed to still. Then Fred started across the room toward her.
“Go on,” he was saying, his voice hoarse and his words only half-shaped.”Keep going. Go on, fat bitch.”
He flung her blouse at her. As he spoke, she had begun to back away from him, again following a confused drifted path and now the hand with which she was swiping the air before her face began to swing more rapidly, perhaps to ward off the blouse. But the blouse opened in the air, hung there, drifted eerily toward the floor.
“Go on,” he was still saying, “go on, fat bitch.”
The apartment was reached from a flight of open exterior stairs which led to a small landing, also open, outside the door. Fred chased the girl out onto the landing. He went back through the room then, snatching her clothes from the floor. She must have begun to dress on the landing, to pull at least her panties and shorts on. Fred went back into the bedroom, got her pocketbook and returned to the door.
“Go on,” he said. “You can’t stay there. Go away you fat cow bitch.”
He threw the rest of her things out across the landing and down the steps.
Fred and Bob told the story, when they returned, as though everything had happened very fast, the girl rushing out of the room and Fred storming behind her roaring and laughing and flinging clothes like confetti. Told in that way, it conjured up an image as much antic as awful. But that is not the way it happened. It was a slow, ragged process. Fred was not roaring but speaking almost in a whisper. He was not laughing at all. His face, rather, was strained, veins jumping at his temples. Tommy was insistent about that.
“Jesus,” he said, “I thought he was going to push her off the landing.”
“But Bob said he was laughing, that it was all a joke.”
“He wasn’t laughing,” Tommy said. “He wasn’t laughing.
He was messed up, I never want to see something like that again.”
“What about Bob?” I said. Tommy shrugged.”What about him?”
The next weekend I made my last trip to Somers Point with Bob and Fred. And I took along a girl. She was not, I suppose, what would have then been called a date, She was plainly with me and not with Bob or Fred.
She was a girl who was around a lot that summer, though not much with us. She saw an older group. I suppose she was, like us, bored and uncertain about things, though we did not think of it that way at the time. There were three or four such girls that summer. Everyone knew who they were. This one’s name was Anne Carnett, She had dark shoulder length hair. Her eyebrows were straight rather than arched and grew low and close together on the bridge of her nose in a way that made exotic features otherwise regular. She was a good-sized girl, not fat but with solid arms, her back muscled so that the shoulder blades didn’t pop from it like hookups for wings, already womanly in contrast to the stylish slender girls I then dated,
I wasn’t aware of that distinction until the first time I put my arms around her on the Thursday night before the weekend. Anne and a friend turned up. I don’t know how. I don’t think anyone invited them. Though her name and her friend’s and a couple of others cropped up pretty often in our talk that summer, this is the only night I can remember any one of them being present. We were swimming in Bob’s parents’ pool.(Bob’s parents were away.) We came out of the pool together and started across the lawn toward a cluster of towels and beers. Everyone else seemed to have disappeared. We brushed against each other a couple of times as we crossed the lawn. We bent for the towels at the same time and when we straightened we were faced toward each other. She stepped into me and I folded my arms around her and even before I leaned my head back to kiss her I was aware that her body against mine was solider than those of other girls I’d known. After a while Anne Carnett and I went into the house and upstairs to an empty bedroom.
She herself went across the room—preceding me as she had up the short incline of lawn to the house, the strips of the white bathing suit glowing in the stippled night—and turned back the covers of the bed, sat up when I climbed in beside her and unhooked the suit’s halter. But after a while when I reached for the bottom of her suit she drew back.
“Not tonight,” she said.
“No reason, I guess. Couldn’t we just not tonight?”
She had drawn back some, the lines and planes of her face, especially the slash of her brows, simplified toward abstraction in the glimmer. Her eyes seemed unsure, the drawing in of the features forlorn,
“We don’t have to do anything,” I said. “Tonight or anytime,”
“Just tonight,” she said and ran her hand halteringly along the length of my body. Her eyes, holding to mine, remained unsure.
She had, I knew even then, no expectation of my accepting her demurral. My response, in consequence, surprised her and changed her way of thinking of me. We both knew that, I think, and it occurs to me, at least in retrospect, that such awareness showed itself in the way we behaved toward each other. There was some mooniness, I think, in her regard of me, some vague responsive gallantry in my attitude toward her. Both attitudes were quixotic and inappropriate in the circumstances and something about that no doubt grated on Bob Wharton.
Given Anne Carnett’s implicit promise and my assumed goals, it would, of course, have been simpler and more likely for us to have stayed in Philadelphia the next night. Instead we went with Bob and Fred to the beach. Someone had moved out of the Ocean City apartment at which Fred, Bob, and Tommy had stayed, leaving extra room. We planned to spend the night there and then go on the beach the next day. The trip was a spur of the moment thing and, although by this time the antipathy between Bob and myself had begun to grow open, I do not think that it occurred to me not to go.
From the first we made a point of doing things as we had done on other trips that summer. But the presence of a girl seemed to require something livelier than the desultory talk that had been characteristic of such trips. The strain, of course, is more apparent in retrospect. At the time we laughed a lot, struck poses substantially little different from those we had fallen into on other trips. The real trouble did not occur until we got back to the apartment in Ocean City, though from about one o’clock on an element of coercion entered into things, and some hostility. Anne Carnett and I, because we had brought less money than Bob and Fred and because we were looking forward to the beach the next day, wanted to return to the apartment earlier than Bob and Fred, and Bob, of course, refused in any way to accommodate us.
When we did get to the apartment, we discovered that all the bedrooms were occupied so that the four of us had to sleep in the living room. The door had been left open for us and two light blankets left out and a note, which made clear that only Bob and Fred were expected.
The room was dank and cool. A light had been left on in the small kitchen. It served to outline the heavy furniture of the place and to reveal occasional detail.
“There’s only two blankets,” Bob said.
“That’s no problem,” I said.
“Not for Fred and me it isn’t,” he said.
I laughed. “Give me a blanket,” I said.
He cocked his head and lifted his brows, held the piled blankets back as well.
“You could take it from me if you wanted,” he said.
“Hey, Bob, it’s three o’clock. Just give me a blanket.”
“The way I see it, there’s two blankets. Fred and I know the people. We get first shot at the blankets.”
“The way I see it, you and Fred get one blanket and Anne and I split the other and you’re being a pain in the ass.”
“like I say, you can always take it away from me.”
“We don’t need a blanket,” Anne said. “Let’s just go to sleep.”
Fred had gone into the bathroom. Now he came back into the room, He had taken his shirt off and as he started across the room he began ostentatiously to unbotton his pants. Anne passed him and went into the bathroom. Almost immediately he turned and rattled the handle there.
“Jesus, don’t you start too,” I said.
He turned and smiled at me, his boyish face dimpling. The top button of his pants was undone and his hands jutted into the waistband of the pants, his shoulders lifted and spread in consequence. His thick columnar body, long neck, long face seemed huge in the low ceilinged room. For the first time I could imagine him chasing the fat girl out of the apartment. Though it was his arrival that had precipitated the changes in Bob Wharton and our trips, I realized that, perhaps because of the antipathy I have mentioned, I had associated the changes with Bob, had never really credited Fred’s role in Tommy dark’s story. As I had riding home from the Dunes after he had flipped the midshipman, though more sharply now, I felt cut off from Bob and Fred and realized that that separation was a thing intended. It seemed almost plotted.
“Hey Bob,” I said, “don’t keep this up. It’s late.”
“What are you, Sir Galahad? We can all fuck her.”
“C’mon,” I said.
“C’mon yourself. I provide the car, Fred provides the place to stay. What do you provide? You’re just along for the ride.”
“This shit’s not funny at this hour.”
“I’m not trying to be funny.”
“You want to fuck somebody, you call her. I don’t want Anne bothered, Okay?”
“No, it’s not okay. What are you going to do about it?”
Anne Garnett came out of the bathroom. As she did, Fred, the amused smile held, began again to strip. There was something menacing in the sharp sound of his zipper being tugged down. Hearing it, Anne seemed to step more quickly.
“Keep the blankets,” I said then. “Where are you going to sleep?”
“Not tired,” Bob said. “Night’s young for us. Anne could help me sleep though.”
“No,” she said then. “I won’t,”
“Nobody’s talking to you,” Bob said.
“Dammit Bob,” I said.
But I wished that she would stay quiet. I knew—or thought I knew—that Bob finally would force nothing. But I knew too that anything Anne said would serve only to goad him. There seemed nothing I could do. Bob was stronger and faster than I. A fight seemed likely only to increase the stakes. I had no doubt now that if it came down to it, Fred would stand with Bob.
I chose a corner of the room out of line of the door and its drafts, one that also gave us some privacy by a couch. Anne and I settled there, using towels and bathing suits as pillows. The heavy tart smell of the sea which had lingered in my nostrils when I came into the apartment was run by now with dankness. Anne Carnett turned toward me, huddled herself. Her hair, pushed against my face, smelled thickly sweet.
“Think we ought to keep them company?” Bob said.
After a while we heard them settle for the night.
Anne Carnett gnarled her body close against mine so that my arms closed around her. She cried almost without noise, as though she realized that a sob would trigger more abuse, but her body in my arms shook and shook. All that I could do was hold her. Her hair pressed in my face, its smell sugary and muffling, the nip of its loose strands itching. I thought of the things that I thought I should want to do: cross the room and kick Bob Wharton bloody as he tried to stand; take my clothes off and Anne Carnett’s and in that glimmering eerie light slowly explore the strangeness of her body. I could picture both possibilities clearly. But in truth I wanted only to be warm and to sleep. The antipathy I had felt toward Bob Wharton throughout the summer was open and clear now. I hated his bullying, his arbitrariness, the way that, not really wanting much of anything, he toyed with violence and pain.
Gradually Bob’s comments ceased. I could hear then his breathing draw out and grow rough so that I knew he was asleep. I sensed that Fred was awake. Anne Carnett held tight against me, the curl of her body unsprung some by now. She too had heard Bob go to sleep. She leaned back on one side, lifted my hand into her breast and pressed it there. I left my hand there as long as I thought politeness demanded. I knew she was watching me and realized gradually that, like my acceptance of her demurral the night before, my behavior that night set me off and particularized me for her: while I had been shamed at my futility and cowardice, she had been surprised that I did not join with Bob and Fred. Bob was right; I realized we all could have fucked her. I let my hand drift down along her side, feeling obligated at least to hold her. But I would not look up and see her. I feigned sleep until I felt her lapse against me, then slept.
The next day when we reached the beach, as though by agreement, Anne Carnett and I spread our towels away from Bob’s and Fred’s. Anne herself said little except to remark on the brightness of the day. We slept intermittently on towels.
We had only about seven dollars between us. In the middle of the day we went onto the boardwalk and spent almost three of them on milkshakes and cheese steaks. When we returned to our towels, she fell asleep again.
I went across and behind us then to where Bob and Fred sat wearing sunglasses and vague smirks.
“When are you leaving?” I said.
“Not,” Bob said.
I looked at him for a moment.
“Gonna stay til tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe Monday.”
“I don’t have enough money,” I said.
“That’s your problem.”
“How the hell am I supposed to get home?”
“Mooch a ride. Same way you got down.”
Fred watched the ocean blandly.
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Don’t I sound serious?”
“You might have said something before we left.”
“Didn’t know then. Changed my mind.”
It occurred to me that I could at least borrow bus fare from him.
“Up yours,” I said instead.
He shrugged. “Anytime,” he said.
I turned and walked back to where Anne Carnett was waking.
“They’re not going back till tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll have to thumb.”
I did not see Fred Hunt again after that day. His leave must have been nearly over. No doubt he returned to the Marines. I did see Bob Wharton again, of course. I bumped into him only a couple of weeks later at a big party. He was slouched against a wall, dangling a quart of beer in one hand, staring out across the mulling room with his thoughtful seeming squint. As I went up to him, I realized for the first time that his eyes in fact were never really still, that all of his attention was peripheral. He watched everything from the edges. He rarely looked in the distant direction that his expression seemed to indicate.
“Get home okay?” he said conversationally.
“Should have stayed.”
“So you said.”
There was no difference in our tone from most of the rest of that summer. He did not turn toward me, though I realized now that his flickering eyes kept me in view. I swung around so that I was looking out at the party as he was. It was a big party, early in September, and a good many people are drifting in and out of the room. Some were beginning to dance.
“Look at them,” Bob said in that same flat voice, shrewd and a little mocking for all its offhandedness.”Asses. Punks. Gonna get drunk. Gonna get laid. Sure y’are buddy. Sure, kid. Tell me about it.”
A slender blonde girl whom I had dated a couple of times the previous spring came into the room at its far side in a group of three girls. She had spent the summer at a ranch in Colorado, and this was the first time I had seen her since her return. Her pale hair was pulled around in a French twist. She halted, gripping a drink in front of her with both hands, and stood with slightly awkward, expectant grace for a moment, her eyes big and clear in her thin face, shifting about. I caught her attention, and she smiled and I crossed the room to her.
“Hi,” she said. “I hoped you’d be here.”
Anne Carnett was also at the party. I did not see her until late in the evening. Even then I saw her only momentarily at a distance. I was dancing with the blonde girl. Her name was Susie Harrison, and I spent most of the evening with her. As I danced, I came aware of someone watching me, and I looked up and met Anne Carnett’s gaze. She was alone. It was a hot night, and her hair had plastered in a damp streak along her forehead. The solidity that I had taken two weeks earlier for womanliness seemed at that moment just too much damp flesh, like her breast as she pressed my hand on it in the Ocean City apartment. She could, of course, have been watching Susie Harrison, as girls do watch other especially pretty, well dressed girls, or could, for that matter, like Bob Wharton, have been looking somewhere altogether different from what her gaze indicated. But my impression was that she was watching me and that there was something in her look of the reaction she had had when I did not press her that Thursday night, something of the look I had refused to see in the Ocean City apartment after Bob Wharton had gone to sleep.
On the trip home from the beach, we had gotten a ride straight through to Philadelphia. After a couple of questions, the two fellows who provided the ride left us to ourselves, no doubt tired themselves from the sun. They dropped us in a part of Philadelphia distant from our own and we took public buses to a point about a mile from Anne Carnett’s house and walked from there.
The car in which we got our ride was an old Ford. I don’t think we went over 60 the whole way to Philadelphia. As we drove, the fellow who was not driving kept fiddling with the radio. The same songs played over and over, and the flat dark piney scenery repeated itself as though we had been moved into a nightmare. And then in Philadelphia we had to wait three times for buses, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, I had no idea how long, stuck on a corner in a strange part of the city, unable to do anything except wait.
Anne Carnett sat beside me on the buses, her towel and pocketbook plumped together in her lap, cut offs and blouse bulked out by her bathing suit beneath. We did not talk. She sagged on herself some with tiredness. She seemed passive and content, and finally as a bus idled through two changes of a single light while a fat woman trundled up the steps, rooted through her pocketbook, finally started down the aisle to permit people behind her to board, I turned and demanded, “Doesn’t it even bother you?” She looked over, smiled, flipped her hands.”I’m sorry things got messed up,” I said after a minute.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said.
Walking the final mile to her house, on familiar streets now, I walked ahead of her, stopped, waited, walked ahead again. We reached her house. With the door half opened she looked up at me. My hands were in my pant pockets. I grinned raggedly and shrugged.
“No one’s home,” she said. “Do you want to come in?”
I shrugged again. “I guess not,” I said.
“I’m sorry I was strange the other night,” she said.
“I didn’t mind,” I said.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come in?”
“Thanks anyhow,” I said. And even as I brushed past her and started down the couple of steps from the porch, I seemed to be walking in mechanical slow motion. It seemed forever until I heard the muffled closing of her door. I went back along her street with my hands still in my pockets in the summer evening. In the old Ford I had thought I was impatient to get to Philadelphia; then in the buses I had thought I was impatient to get to the section in which I lived; then walking from the bus to Anne Carnett’s house I had thought I was impatient to be away from her. And now, alone in the night, the air quick and sweet with summer smells, I was still impatient. All summer I had thought I wanted a girl like Anne Carnett and then I had walked away from her offer, and I still wanted something.
Now Anne Carnett was watching me as I danced with Susie Harrison, and I was avoiding looking at her, all the while remembering the awful moment when I stopped at the end of her street, impatience and wanting so strong in me that they seemed physical, as though they might tear some emptiness inside me, realizing that I didn’t know what I wanted or why I was impatient, starting back toward her house, then away again, my fists still clenched in my pockets.