A moving story of a girl who had nothing to remember and a boy with too much to forget, by the first prize winner in Maclean’s 1945 fiction contest
IN THE smoke-filled room the noise swelled and burst and swelled again like the rush of angry waves. A gavel sounded meekly, and then more loudly; and finally the waves subsided into a froth of muffled tittering.
The sorority president got up from her chair. “Please be quiet, everybody,” she said. “Now that we’ve disposed of the rushing list, there’s one more thing. At the Panhellenic meeting yesterday each sorority was allotted a number of returned servicemen to look after. The Government helps them financially, but the Dean of Women thinks it should be our job to help rehabilitate them—I suppose she means socially or something.”
“Anyway,” she looked down at a crumpled piece of paper, “we have eight names on our list, and I thought it would save argument if we just drew lots.”
Christine Anders, deep in contemplation of a tiny hole in her last pair of nylons, looked up at the president. Oh, for goodness sakes, she thought crossly, Jenny would manage to dream up something like that. How much simpler it would be just, to allot the names to those who wanted them—there were always a few girls even in this, the highest rating sorority on the campus, who had trouble getting dates. The men would never know the difference, and the girls probably would be glad to go out with any kind of a man—even a rehabilitation case. Christine, as a student in social service, did enough, it seemed to her, for mankind every day without dragging cases into her social life.
Suddenly it was her turn to choose one of the tiny slips. Lil Hodgins, dumpy and plain, beside her, said, “Did you get one, Chris? I didn’t, darn it,” and Chris, turning her back abruptly—Lil was such a dope, she had known it was a mistake to pledge her—-unfolded the slip of paper and saw the words, “Matthew Hastings, Faculty of Engineering.”
What awful luck. Fred would be furious. He and Chris had more than the tentative understanding prevalent among college students. They had known and liked each other always; their tastes, aspirations and backgrounds coincided nicely; even their parents approved of each other. They would be married in a year or so, as soon as Fred was settled firmly in his father’s law firm. And although Chris had outside dates once in a while, always with Fred’s fraternity brothers, her forced preoccupation with a complete unknown would upset him thoroughly.
She got up and left the chattering group of girls. If she had to launch this Matthew Hastings’ social career, the sooner she started the sooner she would be through with the whole stupid business. She went into one of the study rooms and began to search through the welter of broken pencils and elastic bands in a desk drawer for pen and paper. At last she found a piece of violent lavender notepaper, and on this, with a blunt red pencil, she scrawled hurriedly:
“Dear Mr. Hastings:
I have been asked by my sorority to get in touch with you. The idea seems to be to help returned servicemen to become adjusted to life on the campus. Perhaps we can plan something if you will let me know where and when we can meet. Just put a note in the women’s letter box.
She walked from the sorority house to the letter box outside the men’s lounge, deposited the note and then looked at her watch. It was after six and she would be late for dinner. Mrs. Anders was as punctilious about overt social behavior as she wras about the moral precepts of her life, and being on time for meals was on approximately the same level
as being faithful to one’s husband. Fred would be annoyed, too, if she were late. This was his night to come for dinner.
It wras not until Mrs. Anders was pouring the coffee before the crackling fire in the living room that Chris said, as casually as she could as if it were quite in the order of things to usher strange young men into the bosom of the family-—“Mother, darling, would you ... I mean, do you mind if I ask someone for dinner some night soon?”
“Your friends are always welcome, dear.”
Chris giggled nervously. “He’s not a friend—he’s a returned serviceman. I drew his name out of a hat, and so far as I can see, I’m stuck with him.” She could feel Fred’s eyes turned toward her. He had been talking quietly with her father—something about a system of beating the income tax—and his voice stopped now, suddenly, in midsentence. She looked at him carefully. His eyes— those weak eyes which had exempted him from military service—seemed very large and pale behind their thick, rimless glasses. His fair straight hair, smoothly groomed as always, shone dully in the reflected light from the fire, lie placed his cup gently on a table beside him and leaned forward a little, so that the light shone obliquely on his glasses and she could not see his eyes at all.
“What’s this all about, Chris?” he asked. “Surely a girl like you doesn’t have to go around picking names out of hats to get dates. Or is this more of your social consciousness?”
“My goodness,” Chris said crossly, “it’s only something I have to do for the sorority. I just got stuck ... I told you that already.”
Fred picked up his cup again. “Why don’t you turn him over to one of your sorority sisters who doesn’t get many dates? I can think of a couple who’d be tickled to death.”
“I couldn’t do that. I’d feel silly ... as if I were scared or something. Anyway, the whole thing is the Dean of Women’s idea. Each sorority has so many of these fellows to look after. No . . . I’ll just have to make the best of it and hope he isn’t a complete drip . . . and at least has all his arms and legs.”
IT WAS not until three days later that, Chris again thought of her duty toward Matthew Hastings. She was walking from one lecture room to another between classes when Jenny caught up with her, and whispered, “How’s the rehabilitation scheme, pet?” and scurried away before Chris could answer.
Slowly and reluctantly she walked toward the women’s letter box. There she found a plain sheet of notepaper, folded carelessly so that the contents were only half hidden, and addressed to her in aggressive, masculine strokes. She opened it quickly, furtively, and saw the words:
“Barton’s Snack Bar. Third booth from the door. 3.30 Friday.”
Friday. Today was Friday. She looked at the note again. No “Thank you very much for your kind interest”—nothing but a few terse words which would have boen more at home in a tourists’ guide. There was a heavy scrawl at the bottom, which she presumed was his name, and that was all. Only her inherent neatness prevented her from tearing the offending note into tiny bits and scattering the pieces flagrantly in the hall, but with the fortitude of the well-bred she jammed the crumpled paper into the pocket of her jacket and proceeded with flaming cheeks to her next class.
It was impossible to concentrate on any of her lectures for the rest of the day, and by three o’clock she had made up her mind to let Matthew Hastings wait for her in vain. But when Lollie Carter came up to her and said slyly, “You’ve hit the jack pot, Chris. I’ve seen your serviceman . . . You should see what I got,” curiosity overrode her resentment and she thought that it would do no harm to see what he was like, at least.
On her way to Barton’s she decided the right approach would be charm and a touch of coolness. Then she realized that she was unaccountably nervous. There was no reason to be nervous, she assured herself. She met much more difficult situations every day in her social work; this was really only another case.
As she opened the door of the restaurant she glanced quickly around to see if there was anyone in the place she knew; the college crowd had usually begun to filter in by this time, and she hoped the meeting would not have to take place under too many knowing eyes. Another black mark for Matthew Hastings. If he had possessed any delicacy he would have known that Barton’s was exclusively Greek Letter Society—was avoided almost subconsciously by outsiders. But her fears were needless, for when she looked cautiously over at the designated booth she saw that it was empty.
The possibility that he would not be there first had never occurred to her; she who was never late had dawdled purposely in order to keep him waiting. Now she was more unsure of herself than ever. She could not leave without looking unutterably silly—she had already removed her raincoat and hung it up at the entrance—and she would have to sit in the third booth because it was the only one« vacant. Still—she could have a coke, and if he had not materialized before she finished she could leave without loss of aplomb. Mac, the counter boy, would testify that she had put in an appearance if Matthew Hastings should lower himself to ask.
Her nervousness increased as she drank her coke, and when she reached into her purse for a cigarette her hands fumbled and seemed cold. She had seated herself purposely with her back to the door, and when, after an interminable length of time, a deep voice behind her
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said, “You waited, eh?” a tremor of anger at the words and resentment of her position went through her like the sickening plunge of a hypodermic needle.
“No,” she said, bating the ladylike feebleness of her voice, wishing she could scream like a lusty fishwife, “I didn’t wait. I came two minutes ago, exactly, and I was just going to leave.”
Although he had sat down opposite her, she didn’t raise her eyes from her purse. Frantically now she searched for some change. It came to her with a shock of horror that she bad switched purses that morning before she left for classes and must have forgotten to transfer her money. She would have to ask this oaf to pay her miserable check.
“You might look at me,” he said. “I don’t bite little girls.”
So he was the type that leaned toward heavy humor; or was it his idea of the whimsical touch? Of all things, she had not expected this. She closed her purse with a snap and looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. They were tired eyes and very wise and there were little lines at their comers, as if he had looked into a great deal of wind and sun. The rest of him was very big and brown and he looked out of place in the tiny booth—like a solitary man at a tea party.
“So you’re doing your bit for the boys,” he said, his voice low, almost caressing. “So you’re going to sacrifice some of your valuable time to help us get back into the swim of things. I suppose you’ve taken one or two psychology courses . . . that should help. Well, let’s get started, baby. What do we do first?”
She sat numbly silent, watching him as a fascinated child will watch a wriggling snake. He had stopped smiling now and his expression puzzled her. She could not tell if it was hate or anger or disgust that hardened the straight line of his mouth, and she looked down quickly at the table between them.
“I’m a lucky fellow,” he said. “One of the campus lovelies draws my name out of a hat and now she’s stuck with me.”
She picked up a cloudy, fingermarked salt shaker and turned it slowly around and around in her hands. “I don’t think you understand ... It was just that someone asked me to do what I could. Naturally I thought anyone in your ... I mean, I guess I thought you would be pleased.”
“Pleased!” he said. “My God, what a word . . . Pleased! A year ago I wouldn’t have believed there were still people like you in the world. But I guess I’ve lived a pretty narrow life for the past few years. Horror and violence and death tend to limit one’s scope.”
She started to get up and he reached out and held her wrist with a big brown hand. “Just a minute, I haven’t nearly finished.” She sat down again.
“Aren’t you curious to know what made me so sure you had drawn my name out of a hat? Ah, I thought so . . . You see, I put in three years of engineering here before I joined the RCAF. My old man was only a small-town farmer, so I didn’t get bid by any of the best fraternities. But I was fair football material, and I got a bid from one that was struggling hard for membership and needed quantity more than quality. In those days there was always the odd fellow who had a sister nobody wanted to date. We used to draw lots and then the guy who got stuck either hoisted her off on a pledge or paid some-
body else to take her. Once in a while one of the girls would find out, and it wasn’t very pretty.”
She moved uneasily, and he said, “Oh, no . . . not yet. I remember other things too. I remember a little guy we finally pledged because we wanted his brother. His brother was an asset. He wasn’t. Once in a while somebody would ask him to pass the salt, or get him to write a term paper—he had his uses—but no one ever seemed to be able to remember his name.”
He paused, and when Chris tried to free her wrist he released it abruptly, looking dowh at it as if it were some inanimate object he had picked up to investigate and for which he had no use whatsoever.
“It’s your turn to be pleased now,” he said. “The little guy’s name was Johnny Forrester, and he was just about the best pilot in my squadron. He had it over Belgium—he bailed out, and when he got down there couldn’t have been much left of him. His esteemed fraternity brothers are holding a memorial service for him tonight . . . his D.F.C. and bar raised their prestige no end.”
Careful schooling in all manner of niceties had not prepared Chris for this kind of hostile social intercourse and she could not think what to say or how to make a graceful departure. He seemed to have forgotten her existence completely, and the longer she sat the more superfluous and indecisive she felt. Finally she got up and said flatly, “I’d better go now,” and then, stopping in consternation, feeling like a child who has been caught in some shameful misdemeanor and is being publicly punished, added jerkily, “I’m afraid you’ll have to pay for my coke. I forgot my money.”
He looked at her, nodded slightly as if she were an acquaintance whose name he had forgotten, and returned to his contemplation of the greasy, cluttered table top.
She walked out of the café without looking back. The streets were wet and the air cold and she shivered a little, remembering her raincoat hanging limp and warm on the hook inside the door. It could rot there before she would go back for it.
That evening her mother said, “Chris, dear, you haven’t told me what night you would like to have that young man—I don’t believe I know his name —to dinner.”
Chris said, “Forget it, mother. He apparently has other plans. It seems we’re not his type.” She escaped to her room. She could not bear to discuss Matthew Hastings with her mother; she could not bear to think of him herself.
IT SEEMED to her that they had been a very long time on the way and that Fred’s words were like the tedious cadence of a dripping tap. He took her to dances because it was expected of him, and he prolonged the going and coming to make up for wasted time. In particular, he hated tag dances. Such indiscriminate pairing off annoyed him; he had never been interested in sampling the charms of a variety of girls. Chris’ dancing suited him very well and he saw no reason to experiment.
Not so Chris. When the first tag dance started she began to count childishly the number of times her partners changed, making no attempt to sort out names and faces. In the end, it was not with whom you danced but how many times you changed hands that determined popularity. And then the smooth, pleasant aura of innocuous conversation and easy movement was shattered by the deep, slightly blurred voice of Matthew Hastings saying,
“Cut, brother,” and she stumbled a little as she went into his arms. Words seemed to have deserted her and yet she needed desperately some weapon to combat this feeling of closeness, this intimacy that had the familiarity of a half-remembered dream. The music seemed to be coming from a great distance, the dancers to have receded like foreshortened figures in a convex mirror. She could feel his warm breath ruffling her hair; she could feel, each as a separate entity, the fingers of the hand pressed hard on her back.
After an appropriate interval Fred claimed her and she said, her voice stilted and faint, “I have a headache, Fred. Please take me home.” She was as bewildered and cold as if she had suddenly, for no reason, been deprived of a warm coat and left to shiver in a freezing wind.
Her own room was snug and warm. When she had undressed, leaving her clothing in an untidy heap on the bedside chair, she, who always slept immediately, dreamlessly, lay for a long time sleepless, her mind a careful vacuum, her eyes staring at a fixed point on the ceiling.
The next morning she was listless and exhausted, and when her mother said, “Can’t you eat your breakfast, dear9 Are you ill?” she answered accusingly, as if it were her mother’s fault, “I didn’t sleep.”
Everything seemed unreal; her mother’s composed face, the carefully arranged bowl of flowers on the breakfast table. Her father, anonymous behind his newspaper, said, “Union Copper’s gone up again. Took a war to do it,” and Chris looked down at her hands. They were soft and white, the oval nails smoothly lacquered. Like boiled macaroni dipped in blood, she thought, and pushed her chair away from the table.
“I’m going out,” she said.
The path to the beach was rocky and difficult and when she reached the bottom she was breathless from the unaccustomed exertion. She had not been down here since her freshman year, when everything was new and exciting and it had seemed so wonderful to think of a university built above the sea. Then she had come down once in a while to study. But when she had been told by girls wiser than herself that no one inhabited the beach but grinds and odd characters who like to sit and brood in solitude, she had stopped coming and gone back to work in the main library, where you were sure to meet everyone you knew or hoped to know.
She pulled a cigarette from her pocket and began to search for a match. Her exasperation grew as she hunted, and she thought, petulantly, this is too much.
“I haven’t one either, but you can get a light from this.” Matthew Hastings’ words were very clear in the still morning air. She turned her head slowly. First no money and then this. Her heart was beating very hard and when she reached out to take his cigarette she saw with disgust that her hand was trembling. She found it difficult to manage the meeting of the glowing tip with the unlighted one, and when she finally raised her eyes to meet his she was grateful that he was looking not at her but out at the grey, softly lapping water, his face, in profile, stern and a little sullen.
“It’s a free beach, isn’t it?” he said, and the soaring thought that perhaps he had seen and followed her came to earth.
“Yes,” she said. He must have come by one of the other paths—probably the one leading down from the men’s residence. She wanted to ask him where he stayed, but she could not complete
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the simple act of returning his cigarette. Never before had she been ill at ease with anyone; with a complete stranger she would be, by this time, talking casually, even gaily. But she and Matthew Hastings had progressed far beyond the weather and the beauties of nature, and at the same time they had not begun at all.
“Look,” he said abruptly, “I suppose I should say I’m sorry . . . about yesterday, I mean. I realized after you’d gone that it wasn’t fair to take my feelings out on you. I just felt like being rotten to somebody, and you were there. Not that anything’s changed now, but next time I’ll try to pick on somebody my own size.” He was smiling now, but there was no mirth in the blue eyes, and she watched, fascinated, a small nerve twitching in his cheek.
She felt tears burning behind her eyes and she rose, turning away quickly so that he would not notice.
“I’m sorry too,” she said. The words came out mincingly, like those of a little girl saying a recitation, and she walked away rapidly, stumbling a little over the rough stones.
When she was sure he could no longer see her she began to run as if pursued by some tormenter. Once, when she was a little girl, two bigger boys had chased her down an endless lane, shouting words she did not know, yet understood instinctively. She remembered the terror and the strange temptation which had beckoned then, even as it pursued, and she thought, I’m being morbid . . . certainly I’m not afraid of Matthew Hastings.
When she finally reached home she crept up the stairs noiselessly, threw herself, heedless of her muddy shoes, on the immaculate bed, and cried without sound, choking the hard sobs down into her throat until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
SHE awoke to find her mother sitting beside the bed with a tray of tea things and dainty sandwiches. She wanted to cry, please help me, mother, please tell me what to do, and her mother said sharply, “Goodness, Christine, don’t frown like that . . . you’ll have wrinkles before you’re 25.”
Mrs. Anders leaned forward, appraising Chris like a biologist with a new slide. “What has come over you, Christine? You’re behaving very oddly. You’ve been gone half the day —goodness knows where. We kept lunch waiting for ages, and you know how dreadfully that upsets Ruth. If this sort of thing keeps up she’ll leave . . . then wouldn’t we be in a mess?” Ah, wouldn’t we, Chris thought, and what would we do if a bomb dropped on our heads? We’d certainly be in a nice mess then.
As though from a great distance she heard her mother give a soft, exasperated sigh. Mrs. Anders said, “Sit up now, dear, and drink this nice hot tea. And when you’ve finished you’d better get dressed. Fred called to say he’d pick you up at five for the tea dance.”
She walked to the cupboard and brought out a dress, hat and shoes.
“Oh, no,” Chris said, “I can’t wear those. They’re not what I want at all.” She got up from the bed and walked into the bathroom. “I’m a big girl now, mother, I know what I want to wear.”
She lay full length in the oversize tub for a long time, the water an impregnable, perfumed wall around her, and she thought, I wish I could stay here forever.
When she came back into the bedroom the tea tray and her mother were gone.
She dressed slowly and with great care. Only rarely did she use cosmetics, but she noticed now that her face was pale and a little drawn, her eyes tired and strained. Far back in a drawer there was a make-up kit given her the Christmas before by a smitten youth whose name she could not remember—she thought vaguely that he had been listed missing—and it had lain there forgotten ever since. She opened it and placed the contente in a neat little row on the dressing table. She tried some rouge on one cheek and then angrily rubbed its garish unevenness away; she experimented with green eye shadow and mascara and a claret-colored lipstick. When she had finished, the dark obscurity of her eyes and the insolent extravagance of her mouth were strangely satisfying.
For a long time she gazed at her image in the glass and then rose and walked to the cupboard. Inside, arranged almost geometrically, were dresses, shoes and hats of all descriptions. Far in the back, still covered by the tissue cloak in which it had come from the shop, was a dress she had never worn. She had bought it one day, in a spirit of pique and bravado, in a defensive response to the relentless urgings of Sue and Jenny, and she had never summoned enough audacity to wear it. It was a simple dress, with the subtle, revealing plainness of complete sophistication—and it was very red.
She slipped it on and walked over to the mirror, and she did not turn away until she heard the muted, silvery chiming of the front door bell. Then, hastily assembling her bag, gloves and coat, she ran down the stairs and opened the door, not asking him to come in but saying only, “Hello, Fred . . . I’m all ready. Let’s go, shall we?” hoping that he would not notice anything strange about her in the hazy half-dusk of the autumn evening.
As they drove she sat far away from him, her face averted. She was irritated, with the vexation of someone who is disturbed while engrossed in a deeply absorbing book, when Fred spoke sharply, “I asked you, Chris, if you’d like to have dinner and see a show after the dance.”
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so,” and turned away from him again. Rudeness and inattention always made him furious. And if he were upset and confused now, she thought perversely, he would be progressively unsettled when he saw the dress and what she had done to her good, serviceable face.
He was not, however, exposed to disillusion until they were seated at a table and he had helped her to remove her coat. As he sat down opposite her he surveyed her closely with the impersonality and complete objectivity of a man appraising horseflesh or the lines of a new automobile.
“Quite nice,” he said. “But is it your type?” He laughed a little, humoring her, “I must say it makes you look different. Is it supposed to be glamorous?”
Chris had a sudden vision of what marriage with Fred would be like. Everything, from crumpets and jam on Sunday mornings—plain toast on week days—to the proper spacing of children, would be meticulously planned and, oh, so properly executed. Just like an automat, she thought wildly, you would always know just what to expect.
“I like this dress,” she said. “And I’m sorry you don’t, because I intend to wear it quite a lot.”
If she suddenly had told him that she intended to do a strip tease in the exact centre of the crowded dance floor, he could not have looked more amazed. It seemed to her that she was seeing him for the first time: the colorless, bland
face, the moist, pinkish mouth, the pale, myopic eyes with their strawcolored lashes. His smooth, wan hair was already beginning to recede at the temples, and within the next few years he would be, she thought maliciously, as bald as a peeled onion.
She could sense that even in his bewilderment he was hunting, like a woman for a hairpin, for the proper words to guide the derailed conversation back onto the tracks. If only he would be angry with her she was certain she would not feel so frustrated and forlorn. But any of these mild, subversive quarrels with Fred had the invariable result of convincing her that she was merely a spoiled, wilful, charming child and in need of nothing more drastic than a little careful handling.
Whatever he had planned to say was never uttered; he had just opened his mouth to speak when Rusty Wilson lumbered up behind him, clapped him heavily on the shoulder and boomed in his deep, bass rumble, “Mind if I steal your girl, chum?”
The prospect of dancing with Rusty, usually considered by Chris and most of her friends as something to be avoided, with or without tact, seemed now a glad hope of deliverance. She accepted his huge, bearlike clutch with thanksgiving, not waiting for Fred to remarshal his words to deal with this new development.
Following Rusty’s complicated and blundering steps required a slavish attention, but she was able still to I search the room with furtive eyes for a dark, close-cropped head and broad, slim shoulders. Finally she saw him, far on the other side of the room, standing with his back to the wall, watching the dancers, his mouth unsmiling.
“Please let’s go over that way, Rusty,” she said.“I think I see someone I know.”
Rusty said, “Sure,” and steered her clumsily in the indicated direction.
They stopped with an awkward little bounce, directly in front of Matthew Hastings. Chris said, “Hello, aren’t you dancing?”
“No,” he said, “just watching.”
“This is Rusty Wilson,” she said. “Rusty, this is Matthew Hastings.”
The men shook hands and Rusty stood shuffling his feet while the silence spread like ink in water. Finally Chris said, “I just thought I’d come over to see if you’re having a good time.” This was appalling. He might ask her to dance, at least. She would ref use, of course, but the request would cost him nothing except, perhaps, one small shred of his marvellous selfrighteousness.
“I’m having a fine time,” he said. “I’ve been watching you . . . along with a lot of other guys. I haven’t seen a dress like that for quite a while. I saw a girl in F rance who had one something like it. They took it away from her and shaved her head. She was very unhappy.”
His eyes were cold and steady on her face and she stood very still. Anger started in a tingling in her toes and rose in a licking flame through her whole body. “Why stick around?” she said. “Why not go back and play with your airplanes?”
He turned without a word, his face set and white, and walked away. Once, when she was a little girl, she had walked in her sleep, and waking had found herself shivering uncontrollably in the centre of the entrance hall, every light in the house turned on and focused on her with horrifying, glaring intensity. She had known that she had turned each light on precisely, with definite intent, but with her return to full consciousness the reason had escaped her. Then she had run blindly upstairs and climbed, still
shivering, into the big broad bed with lier mother and father. Now there was no refuge, no warm, comfortable security anywhere.
“Please, Rusty,” she said, like a tired child, “take me back to my table.”
Fred was still sitting where they had left him. By his look of complete calm and usualness, Chris could tell that he was prepared to ignore handsomely her failure to return at the intermission. It was quite likely, she thought, that he had read somewhere that women were prone to little inconsistencies of behavior. Lateness and vagaries of dress would be among the items in the book and therefore admissible.
The rest of the dance was like a wearily squalid marathon. She stumbled through it like a performer who is tired to death and as bleakly spiritless as a winter dawn. At exactly seven o’clock the music stopped with a brassy, crashing blare and Fred came toward her, her coat over his arm.
“I want to go home,” she said, “I don’t feel like going anywhere else.”
In the car he said, “Why are you sitting away over there? Come here,” and she moved cautiously closer. As her body touched his she shivered a little, but, refusing herself the luxury of withdrawal, kept on sitting there, taut and miserable, her teeth so tightly clamped together that her jaw ached.
After a while she felt the car stop. He turned to her and pulled her heartily into his arms. His breath was making little whistling noises in his nostrils, and his face coming so steadily toward hers reminded her of the enormously magnified head of a mosquito she had once seen through a microscope. The headlights of a passing car shone for a minute on his glasses, making his eyes look blanched and blind, and she shut her eyes and pushed frantically at his chest with both hands.
He loosened his grip and she fell back awkwardly into the corner of the seat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
“Something is, evidently,” he said coldly. “You’ve been flinging yourself around all evening in that red dress and then when a fellow tries to kiss you, you act like a cold fish. I’ve kissed you before, if you remember . . . after all, you’re my girl.”
“Oh, no, I’m not,” she said flatly. “Not any more.”
He smiled at her placidly, “Come now, Chris, if you want me to apologize I will.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said dully. “I’m sorry—I really am. But I meant what I said. I’d like to explain but I can’t. I don’t know why myself.” She paused and added wearily, “I don’t know anything any more.”
He started the car without speaking.
It moved forward in little jerks, like a balky horse, and she knew that he must be very angry—Fred always drove as smoothly and carefully as he did everything else. She waited a long time for him to break the taut silence, and when he spoke finally it was with the air of a man of law who has perused a brief and has come to the only solution compatible with the facts at hand.
“We won’t go into this any more tonight,” he said. “You’re tired for one thing—that work at the relief office is too hard and dirty for a girl like you. After a good night’s rest you’ll change your mind.”
The obscure hope that Fred might help her to sort out the confusion of her feelings was gone, buried deep in the cotton wool which so serenely and snugly muffled his self-sufficient little world. That world had been hers too, not so long ago, and she was causing quite a stir crawling out of her once warm and happy cocoon.
She waited in the hall until the sound
of Fred’s car had disappeared into the night, and then there was nothing but the thin ticking of a clock somewhere in the house. Everyone was out then, and she was to be alone for a whole interminable evening. How empty it is, she thought, like a house where everyone has died and where no one has ever been born. She turned on the hall light and walked over to the mirror, and after looking at herself closely, like an ageing beauty searching for telltale lines, she turned away abruptly as if the white, dark-eyed, frightened face in the mirror was that of a stranger.
She walked into the living room, turned on a small table lamp and sat down in a deep chair near the fireplace. The fire was not quite out and she sat on the edge of the chair, hugging her knees and shivering a little, not thinking of anything. The ticking of the clock on the mantel re-echoed achingly at the back of her eyes, and after a while its monotonous beat was joined by a muted chiming. She thought, how funny, the clock’s striking wrong again, and then she realized that someone was at the door.
THE tapping of her heels on the polished floor seemed very loud in the stillness of the house, like the footfalls of a lone sight-seer in a museum, and when she reached the door she opened it unwillingly, with the air of a harassed housewife who knows it will be only another peddler with a pitiful array of pins and shoelaces.
She said, “Yes, what do you want?” to the dim figure on the porch and then she saw that it was Matthew Hastings. Over his arm was the raincoat she had left at Barton’s.
“I’m not selling anything,” he said, and as she still stood silent, “when someone comes to call it’s customary to say, ‘Won’t you come in?’ ”
Parrotlike she repeated, “Won’t you come in?” and moved backward slowly as he walked over the threshold and shut the door.
They stood facing each other in the hall like two antagonists waiting to join battle, each furtively expecting the other to make the first move.
She said, “You’re in now, you may as well come into the living room.” “Thanks . . . Where do I put my coat?”
“You can put them both on that chair.”
“It was nice of me to collect your coat, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, wasn’t it?”
She turned and walked into the living room and sat down in the same chair before the fire. She heard the muffled sound of coats being dropped, and then his footsteps coming across the room. He stopped behind her and said, “Are you cold?” She shook her head.
“Why the fur coat then?”
She looked down at her arms and thought how strange it was that she could have forgotten to remove her coat. She stood up and shrugged it off, letting it fall in a glossy heap on the floor.
“Why did you wear that dress?”
“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”
“No? I think it is. If you have any sense at all you’ll know I didn’t come here tonight to bring back a raincoat.” “Didn’t you?”
“Don’t be flip. I’m not sure myself why I did come—maybe I was just curious. I don’t know.”
“When I was in high school I had to write ‘Curiosity killed a cat and it may kill me’ 100 times. Aren’t you afraid?” “Look, I’d like to be serious about this thing if it isn’t too big a strain on you. I just want to know one simple fact. Why should an oh, so beautifully brought-up girl suddenly blossom forth
in a dress that wouldn’t look too good on a daughter of joy?”
She pushed past him blindly like a stricken animal frantically seeking cover in a barren field, and he reached out for her arm and turned her around with a hard jerk.
“You’re good at running away,” he said, “but this time there’s no place to run.”
His grip on her arm tightened and she stood very still. Suddenly she started to cry, with great hard ugly sobs, and she reached up to wipe the tears away with the back of her free hand, rubbing the knuckles into her eyes like a heedless child. She had seen women in railway stations and at funerals cry as she was crying now— with relentless, terrible concentration, and she had always turned her eyes away, despising them for their inability to wait until they were decently alone. As though through a muddy, rainstreaked glass, she saw him watching her intently, and she wondered that he could bear to look at her.
He released her arm and for an agonizing second she thought he was going to walk away from her. She made a convulsive, supplicating gesture toward him and he said softly, “Don’t be afraid, Christine. I’m not going. I’m not going at all.”
He put his arms around her very gently and held her head pressed close against him. “Don’t cry any more,” he said. “It’s not sad, you crazy kid. It’s wonderful.”
When she had stopped shaking, he said, “Here, your face is a mess . . . No, I want to do it,” and he wiped the streaked mascara from her cheeks and the lipstick from her mouth with simple thoroughness.
“That’s better,” he said, and kissed her slowly and deliberately, holding her face between his hands. She made a small motion of withdrawal, an abortive attempt to save some small part of her identity, and he said softly, “Don’t. This is the way it should be.”
She drew away from him and walked over to the blackened fire. With her back to him she said, “You know, don’t you? I don’t have to tell you.” “Yes,” he said, “I know. I had an idea that day on the beach, but then I wasn’t sure—and I didn’t want to give myself a chance to find out. After I’d danced with you I knew one thing for sure, though. I knew that it made me sick to feel the way I did about a girl I had no damn use for.”
She said crossly, “You’re pretty crude, aren’t you?”
“You wanted to know, didn’t you? Well—” he smiled grimly—“cheer up. It gets better as it goes along.”
“After our quaint little brawl tonight I walked around for a while, picked up the raincoat as an excuse, and came over here.”
She said, “I still don’t know why you came. You’re about as clear as mud.” “I didn’t think why I was coming,” he said. “I just came. I certainly didn’t come to apologize. But all the
time there was something that bothered me, and for some obscure reason I had to get it straight. It seemed to have something to do with that dress.” “Yes,” she said, “the dress. It’s important about the dress.”
“I know this, too,” he said. “You want me to be the one to tell it.”
“Yes. Otherwise none of it’s any good.”
He frowned and began to walk up and down the room. The room looked suddenly very small, and Chris hated it for its fragility and precise perfection.
“I haven’t got it straight myself,” he said. “And yet, when you stood there in that dress and started to cry, I knew whatever it was that had brought me here was the only thing that’s been right since I came home.”
She said defensively, “What’s wrong with home?”
He said, “Everybody’s in a fog and wallowing around in the same old malarky except the kids under 15. Kids seem to know instinctively what war is like. They don’t waste time—they’re realists. They just say, ‘Bang, you’re dead.’ It’s as simple as that.”
“We talked about it a lot,” she said slowly.
“Sure, talk is easy. College students talk more than anybody. We didn’t talk much over there—we just did a dirty job and were homesick as hell.” “We did war work.”
“When you had any time left over from your sorority.”
She said. “You belong to a fraternity.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It took a war to smarten me up. I didn’t know anybody when I came home, so I thought I might as well go over to the fraternity house. I walked right into a rushing meeting. They were tying into some poor guy on the list who wasn’t up to standard. I listened to them for a while and it seemed as if I had never been away at all, as if the war had happened a million years ago to some other people.”
“It was so far away,” she said faintly. “Yes,” he said, “but most college students can read.”
“Oh, Matt,” she said, “you’re hard on us.”
“I was in a war, that’s all.” He walked slowly over to her and took her hands in his. “You came out of the fog, Christine,” he said, “and you wanted me to know. The red dress was the only way you had to tell me.”
“Yes,” she said. There was nothing more to say.
They stood close together, staring at the dead fire, and suddenly he turned toward her, his expression in the dim light young for the first time, and a little shy. He said, “Do you like it? . . . The dress, I mean.”
“No,” she said, “I think it’s awful. I think it’s a perfectly appalling dress.” They laughed together, softly and uncertainly at first, and then with a thoroughness that was simple, young and unafraid, until the hollow being of the house was no longer empty. ★