When we reached the residence hall, Norma was waiting for us in her room, surrounded by stacks of cardboard cartons, all taped and neatly labeled. David shot me a look of dismay. I knew he was wondering if we'd be able to move Norma’s possessions in one trip, and I was thinking the same thing myself.
From his trunk of his car, David removed two cans of bottom paint, a hose, several boat fenders and an old sail, making space for three of the smaller cartons, and while Norma and I carried his boating gear to my room for safekeeping over the holidays, David lugged her boxes to the car, crammed most of them into the back seat, and with a long rope, tied the rest to a roof rack. As we started up the steep hill leading to Norma’s apartment I worried the boxes on top were going to slip off, but David’s lattice-work of rope held, and when we reached the crest not only was everything intact, but we still had more than an hour and a half to spare before my bus left.
Norma’s apartment was a converted sun-porch, glassed in from floor to ceiling and occupying the entire wing of a private home. The owner had partitioned off one end to make a small kitchen and bath; the rest, a good thirty feet long, was the “living room,” containing a convertible couch, a bookcase, and nothing else. Norma’s newly purchased supply of kitchen utensils, pots, bedding and miscellaneous household articles lay in a heap along one wall.
“Isn’t it airy!” Norma exclaimed as she let us in. “It’s almost like living in a greenhouse; and just look at that view!” Norma gestured with a sweep of her arm toward the panorama of houses on the hillside opposite. “Of course the place isn’t much now, but I’ve got nearly three weeks and I’m simply bursting with ideas. It’s going to be Italian Renaissance out of Salvation Army. I’ve been down to the thrift shop and they have some tables and chairs for only a couple of dollars; they’re dilapidated, but I can refinish them. I’m going to rent a sewing machine to make drapes and a cover for the couch. What do you think?”
“It’s going to be great! I wish I had an apartment of my own.”
David gave me a sly smile. "I wish you did, too." He rubbed his hands together. “Is there any heat?”
“Well, not at the moment, but my landlord says he’ll install a Franklin stove. He has a couple of fireplaces in his part of the house, and a lot of wood in the garage.”
We carried the boxes upstairs and I went into the kitchen with Norma while she brewed a pot of tea.
“What’s this, a shopping list?” I asked, pointing to a long strip of paper taped to the refrigerator. Similar strips fluttered above the counter and the sink and another one was stuck to the bathroom mirror. I looked more closely and saw they were lists of German words with their English translations on the other side.
“Oh that!” laughed Norma. “Remember the German course I was taking to prepare for the Graduate Reading Exam? It was so slow I decided to drop out and study on my own. I put up the word lists so I can learn the vocabulary … a hundred words while I’m washing the dishes, a hundred words while I’m brushing my teeth and so on. I’m going to take the test next month.”
“You’re planning to cover an entire year’s work over the Christmas vacation?” I asked incredulously.
Norma shrugged. “I attended class for two months and I still have another three weeks ahead of me; that should do it.”
When we finished our tea and got ready to leave, Norma turned to David. “I can’t thank you enough; I don’t know how I could have moved all those things without you. I’m having a housewarming party after winter quarter starts. Nothing fancy, just a few friends from the Romance Language Department, and I’d be happy if you could…”
“I’d be delighted. May I bring a date?”
A momentary look of horror crossed Norma’s face and I knew, however irrationally, she thought he meant his wife. I linked my arm through David’s. “He means me. You do, don’t you?” I asked, giving his arm a squeeze.
Norma sighed with relief. “I’ve already invited Kate, so that solves her transportation problem.”
David offered to bring wine, and with a round of Christmas greetings on all sides, we were on our way.
“Your friend is a very determined young woman,” David observed as we drove to the bus depot.
“Norma? She’s the most determined person I’ve ever met. If you hadn’t driven her to the apartment, she would have found a wheelbarrow and pushed her boxes up the hill. Can you believe she’s the first one in her family to graduate from college? After high school Norma got a clerical position in the Foreign Service; she learned Spanish in Panama and Guatemala, saved her money, came back to the United States and worked as a secretary full-time in Cleveland while attending Western Reserve at night. It took her seven years, but here she is. If Norma told me she was flying to the moon tomorrow I’d bet my life's savings on her making it. Norma’s my role model.”
“How old is she?”
“Twenty-nine. She’ll be thirty New Year’s Day.”
“Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Norma? She doesn’t have time. I don’t think she’s ever been in love, infatuated maybe, but not in love. She’s so focused on getting her Ph.D. that there’s no room for anything else in her life. Norma doesn’t fritter away her abilities the way I do.”
“Are you referring to me?”
“I’m not referring to anything specific. Norma knows what she wants and she’s determined to get it. I don’t even know what I want.”
“Tis the season to be jolly, remember? When are you returning to Seattle?"
I consulted a pocket calendar. “Classes begin Monday the seventh; I guess I’ll be back on the sixth.”
“And you’ll check in at the dorm on Sunday?”
“It's not open before then.”
“How about leaving Utah on Friday and arriving in Seattle on Saturday? I can pick you up.”
“But where will I stay Saturday night?”
David took his eyes off the road for a moment and gave me a mischievous smile. He waggled his eyebrows a couple of times and I started to laugh.
“What do you have in mind?”
He grinned. “I have two weeks; I’ll think of something.”
The Seattle Greyhound depot was located in the most depressing section of the city, flanked by pawn shops and sleazy hotels. David’s patrician nostrils flared as we walked into the station.
“Jesus, what a dump. Why don’t you fly home instead?”
“Flying's too expensive. My parents are spending a fortune as it is to send me to a university out-of-state; I can’t very well ask them to fly me home every quarter. Anyway, I actually like the trip; it gives me a chance to think.”
After I bought a round-trip ticket to Ogden and checked my bag, we went to the lunch counter for coffee. Mine was tepid and David’s cup had a lipstick smear on the edge; he pushed the coffee away in disgust.
“David, why don’t you go now? There’s no point in your waiting.”
“With all the creeps and pedophiles wandering around this place? I’m going to stay and see you safely on the bus. Did you bring something to read?”
I reached in my purse and showed him a copy of Miguel Delibes’ La sombra del ciprés es alargada. “Norma lent me the book. I like to travel with Spanish novels. That way if someone disagreeable sits next to me and tries to start a conversation I’ll just tell him I can’t speak English.”
The PA system announced the Salt Lake City bus departure, and as I turned to say goodbye to David I felt the tears rush to my eyes. Suddenly I didn’t want to go home; I reached for his hand.
“This is absurd,” I murmured. “I know it’s only two weeks, but …”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, very much.”
“And I love you. What better way to end one year or begin another? So let me remember you with a smile on your face.”
We kissed, self-consciously, and I boarded the bus for home.
The moment my bus pulled into the Portland terminal, I dashed to the counter for something to eat; the bus was one of six in a convoy and they obviously couldn’t feed all the passengers in the 30-minute break. I knew the meal would be terrible, but the alternative of vending machine candy bars for dinner was even worse.
After eating a greasy toasted cheese sandwich garnished with a few flabby potato chips and a limp pickle, I went to the ladies’ room. It was nearly deserted. The arrival of the buses mimicked the ebb and flood of a current; first there was a surge toward the restrooms, followed by a mass movement to the food counter. Now the passengers were queued up two-deep behind the swivel chairs at the counter, and I had the restroom to myself. They’re all alike, those bus depot restrooms, with their stained walls, black and white hexagonal tiled floors and their pervasive odor of Lysol. I entered the one stall with a functioning door; its walls were covered with graffiti scrawled in lipstick and eyebrow pencil:
Beans, beans, good for your heart
The more you eat the more you fart
The more you fart the better you feel
So eat your beans at every meal
Linda C. your a cunt
I thought of David and couldn’t help smiling. How distressed he would be to see me reading such trash. David lived in a world of well-bred individuals who knew how to use the subjunctive mood in several languages, flew to their destinations, and never, ever saw graffiti on lavatory walls. David was a liberal, a concerned intellectual who favored unions, racial equality, day care centers for mothers and national health insurance. Yet he was light years away from the lower classes whose causes he espoused. For once I felt superior to David; I wasn’t one of the great unwashed either, but at least I could mingle with them without curling my lip.
When the loudspeaker announced the departure of the Salt Lake City bus, I was already aboard. As the passengers started filing in, an old man leaned over and asked if the seat beside me was occupied. I had hoped to keep it vacant, but fought back the urge to say yes; the bus was certainly going to be full and he was a more presentable traveling companion than some of the alternatives. I remembered Frank’s telling me prisons sent released convicts home by Greyhound. I just hoped the man wasn’t chatty.
I replied the seat was free and whipped out my Spanish novel. Looking fragile as a blown egg, the old man settled himself beside me, lowering one body part at a time, as though afraid of breaking something. With hands whose veins stood out like blue mountain ridges on a relief map, he extracted a candy bar from his pocket, carefully peeled back the first third of the wrapper, and offered me a piece, smiling benignly; I shook my head and mumbled my thanks. Many of the passengers had evidently gone without dinner, for the air cracked with the sound of cellophane, followed by lusty open-mouthed chewing, and the sort of smacking noise people make when they suck on their teeth.
My companion extracted a toothpick from his lapel pocket and began to investigate the crevices of his dentures. I shuddered. I wasn’t comfortable around old people, and I felt guilty for my lack of compassion. After all, I was going to be old myself one day and it wasn’t their fault if they reached their dotage ahead of me. I looked at my seat companion out of the corner of my eye and thought of David. In another twenty years or so David would be the same age as this man. I rebelled at the idea. David’s neck would never by creased with wrinkles. David would never have wattles, or white hairs bristling from his ears. He would never have foul breath, and he would never seem so … helpless. Never, never, never. I turned abruptly toward the window and concentrated on my book.
At ten-thirty, when I flicked off the overhead light and put my seat back, the old man was still sitting bolt upright with his eyes staring straight ahead. He had rented a pillow in Portland and stuffed it behind him so that his body was pitched slightly forward. He looked uncomfortable, but I thought perhaps he had difficulty breathing in another position. It wasn’t until I heard his hand fumbling at the side of his seat that I realized he didn’t know how to make it recline. My conscience bothered me and I turned around.
“Are you having trouble making your seat go back?”
“Yes’m. I don’t seem to have the hang of it.”
I reached over his lap. “You see this lever … this metal bar sticking out on the side? You push down on it, and at the same time you lean back.”
The old man followed my instructions and gave a sigh of relief. “Much obliged. I couldn’t hardly sleep sitting up like that.”
I said goodnight and turned again to face the window. Except for a few snores, the bus was quiet. We were traveling east along the Columbia River, and as we left the coast behind, the weather got colder. The windowpane was icy against my cheek and patches of snow lay scattered on the ground. I awakened once as the bus passed through The Dalles and glanced over at the old man; he was fast asleep with his head to the side, his mouth ajar, and a thin trickle of saliva falling on his lapel. For a few minutes I watched the line of buses ahead as they careened around the curves; it looked as though they were connected, like the cars of a train. When I awakened again, it was morning and we were in Idaho.
After a quick breakfast, exceeded in greasiness only by the dinner in Portland, my companion and I fell into conversation. Mr. Hyde was a widower, he told me, a retired telegrapher for some obscure railroad in eastern Washington. Every December he made this trip at Christmas to visit his married daughter in Burley, Idaho. This year, however, failing eyesight prevented him from driving, so Mr. Hyde was taking the bus for the first time. He told me, without the slightest embarrassment, that he talked with God and God always sent him money when he needed it. I had a mental picture of Mr. Hyde’s sitting cross-legged on the ground while coins rained down on him from heaven, but just the thought of mocking this gentle man made me feel guilty. He accepted the vicissitudes of life without complaining; he saw his wife’s suffering and his own infirmities as part of a divine plan. Mr. Hyde looked death in the face and he was unafraid. I envied him; he was the bamboo that bends before the wind, while I was the oak that resisted.
Later in the afternoon, when we arrived in Burley, I was genuinely sorry to see him leave. Mr. Hyde collected some packages from the overhead rack and put on his hat. “It’s been real good talking to you, miss.” He leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Do you want to know the secret of happiness?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “John three-sixteen.” With this cryptic message, and a "Merry Christmas", he got off the bus.
My father met me in Ogden and together we hoisted my suitcase into the back seat of the Volkswagen and drove home to Clearfield. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed him; physically I resemble my mother, but in every other way I am a Collins, with the same taciturn New England temperament of my ancestors, born from generations of struggle with icy winters and rocky soil. It was only at nineteen that David was beginning to thaw some of my glacial reserve.
Over the Christmas holidays Daddy and I talked incessantly. He was an avid reader and the only person I knew who could skim a page in seconds and recall everything on it; even David couldn’t do that. I often wondered how my father felt about his career as a naval officer, if he wouldn’t have been happier in the academic world like his younger brother, who'd left the Navy after the war and used his G.I. Bill to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, how he felt about my mother, or about me, but emotions were strictly taboo as topics of conversation. When I was fifteen he took me to the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis and showed me, carved on the wall, his favorite Biblical quotation: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” That phrase exemplified my father; when he died twenty years later, a truly good man left the world.
Mother and I didn't discuss Petrarch or the Battle of Lepanto. When David came up in our conversations, she prized from me most of the truth about him and her intuition supplied the rest. Her indifference to David's marriage amazed me. She considered him an extension of my university education; he would teach me sex and, being an older man, would make sure I was properly taught. One evening after dinner and three double scotches, she regaled me with her teenage misadventures: ripped condoms, clumsy groping in the back of a car, an abortion. David was going to spare me all this. I didn’t want to hear her stories, but it was Christmas and I felt sorry for her. That David and I loved each other never entered her head.
Sunday I helped Daddy put up the tree, a job which traditionally fell to us every year. Together we whittled the base until it fit the chipped enamel holder, and he guyed the trunk to the walls of the living room with piano wire, for the tree was too large to stand unsupported. Nothing evokes the past for me like trimming a Christmas tree. I can still see them, the glittering German ornaments I bought in Chicago with the money I earned shelving books in the high school library; the miniature cardboard houses with their mica-sprinkled roofs, ordered from a Sears catalog when we lived in Hawaii; the white feathered dove of peace that crowned every tree. They are all mine now, ghosts of Christmas Past.
Shortly after Christmas, I received an amusing postcard from my Spanish professor. The day of the final exam I had given him two cards so he could mail my grade, one addressed to me in Clearfield and the other to David at the university. Knowing I'd earned an ‘A’ in the class, I wrote on David’s “I told you I can sew and study at the same time!”
My card from Mr. Maldonado arrived with a border of holly leaves and berries he’d drawn around the edge in red and green ink. He wrote:
Catarinita – francamente, me parece requetetonta enviarte
una tarjeta postal. De todos modos es así. Feliz navidad y
próspero año nuevo de parte de
(Katie – frankly it seems extremely ridiculous to me to send you a postcard Anyway, so be it. Merry Christmas and a happy new year from CEM)
My parents invited me to a New Year’s celebration at the Officers Club, but I declined, not wanting to start 1957 in the company of drunks. About eleven o’clock the night of the party I got on my bicycle and pedaled past the rows of silent warehouses toward the club. Straddling the frame, I stood and looked through the window at the gaily-decorated room, filled with crepe paper streamers, balloons and bare-backed ladies. I was suffering an acute attack of Missing David, anxious for the New Year to arrive, yet apprehensive at the prospect of spending the night with him. I bicycled back home to continue a sewing project and watch Guy Lombardo ring in the new year on television.
Just before midnight the telephone rang. I recognized David's voice instantly despite the noisy background music and the sounds of a party.
“David? Where are you?”
“I’m calling from a public telephone in the Washington Plaza Hotel; it’s just before eleven Seattle time, so it's nearly 1957 where you are. I wish you were here – not at this party, it’s dreadful – but with me. Kate, dear …”
Just then he stopped and I heard a woman’s strident voice over the phone line.
“Why David, you naughty boy, where have you been hiding? I've looked everywhere for you. Be a sweetheart and get me a martini.”
The woman must have been standing at David’s side; her voice was slurred and she sounded like someone who'd been drinking heavily. I wondered if she was Arlene.
David didn’t bother covering the speaker with his hand and I heard his icy response. “I’m making a personal telephone call, Marion. I’ll go back to the party when I’m finished.” After a short pause David returned to the line. “Sorry for the interruption. I'm just calling to say I love you and I miss you. You’ll be here Saturday afternoon?”
“Yes, at four. David, I love you, too.”
Outside the house, an explosion of firecrackers heralded the arrival of 1957 and the strains of Auld Lang Syne poured from the television set.
“A happy New Year, dearest.” I wished him the same and we said goodnight.
Go to Chapter Twelve
Go to Chapter Twelve