She wanted to get married so badly. Even engaged or pinned. Anything but to have someone to call her own. A need to belong that pushed her to be prettied up when the occasion demanded it and to act cheeky or humorous or artificial or superficial. She didn’t really know what marriage was all about, but it looked simple and pleasant enough. Marion, who had been engaged for years and had married Ed; was now working in the corner drugstore to support each other while Ed was still working on his Masters in agriculture. She seemed happy enough, and she had a place of her own? Not much, but a small room and kitchen and bath. A place of her own! After two years of dorm life where everything was shared, from the bathroom to the dreams, after a life long of oppression in a secluded home where peaches were counted on the counter and the dust miraculously swept off the mahogany chests before it lay on it, it seemed like a little room with a window overlooking anywhere it could be green would be paradise, a pure paradise of freedom and bliss. Cooking for someone you love, managing their socks, waiting for them in the evening, if nothing else with a pair of warm slippers in winter! She dreamed with open eyes while she was in DR; from classes of government and listened to his consular experiences. Why did she have to take that awful class? Curriculum. She never read the newspaper, what went on in the world was out of her control and therefore out of her interests. The world existed in so far as she walked through it and felt touched by its movements.
But lately she had felt like walking through a cloud of smoke. She had almost cried while she saw Meg and her boyfriend one evening coddled in the piano room, staring into each other’s eyes, holding hands, she with a glowing ring on her left finger. She had not been able to uproot herself though she had heard the steps of Mother Jane approaching. Then she had to run to the lavatory and shut herself in sobbing hysterically. Nobody had noticed it. She was conscious that she would have made a fool of herself.
And then there had been the evening when she had had the date with that friend of Margy. He was lame and small, not too appealing. But Margy had said that he was smart and certainly of good family. He came to pick her up in an old bleached Plymouth and they went to the movies together. But when she noticed him holding her hand she kind of jerked it away, slowly, it felt burning hot. She tried not to think about it anymore while the lights were out. But during the intermission she couldn’t keep her attention on what her escort kept saying, and was thinking only how to put her hands so that it wouldn’t look like they were out of his reach. Poor boy. She had found out soon enough that he was harmless. Holding hands must have been a natural gesture for him, like smoking. But it wasn’t for her. Her mother had taught her never to give confidence to a boy unless one intended to marry him: men are all wolves. They like to play with girls, but they don’t like to marry the one with whom they play! She didn’t want to play, she wanted only to get married, so she reminded herself of mama’s advice every time that the feared and desired hand approached and managed to dispel the haze that had formed in her mind. Yet, she wasn’t entirely sure of mother’s advice. The boys seemed to cool off after she had made it understood that necking was not for her, but for cheaper girls. And how would she ever get married if she couldn’t even get hold of one to invite her out more than a couple of times? One for courtesy towards a friend and another not to let her think she had become bored?
There was really no one in whom to confide. The other girls would have laughed at her or at least regarded her with sole sort of skepticism. It wasn’t enough that she was one of the tops in her class. Their ideal of a perfect young college girl entailed that one must not only be first in studies but also in the social graces, in sports, in popularity. One had to be sort of rounded up. She was sort of pointed, spearing away shy approaches.
How had she met Ted? It had been because of Jo. And she had met Jo in the art building, while she was working on a plaster figure. He had said that he had seen her work photographed in Lake Village. How she has been flattered. She liked Jo right away. He told her of his dance trials and of how he would go back to the army in a couple of weeks, after vacations would be over. He was a budding writer and wanted her to read his first play, about Cain and Abel: their sense of responsibility, she remembered this exactly. She was so excited, at being noticed and at being smiled at without anyone fixing her a date! They went to Georgie’s for a coke together. He dropped in often the following week; she made sure that she would always be in the building, except for running to the dorm for a quick bite. She awaited his steps with trepidation, watched his shoes appearing at the corner of the steel door, as he climbed gingerly on a tall painter’s stool and cupped his face in his hands, eyeing her work of art. He didn’t say he liked it: just found it interesting, quite interesting, but very inhibited. She didn’t mind that. She was garrulous with Jo. She felt free to talk and laugh and joke because their meeting had come up freely, accidentally; there was nothing she could lose. She felt excited, full of life, of plans, of ideas about her work, about Jo’s plays, about life as a whole, happy glittering way toward celebrity and happiness.
That week stood out in greyness of the winter drudgery to make good grades like a lantern in a cloudy evening. She would remind herself of it when she was worn out at night and falling limb on her bed, too tired to undo her shoe laces and too defeated from her artistic insuccesses to think about the next day. She would think about Jo and about the many letters he had written to her during his permanence in the army. Long letters, brotherly letters in which she sought to catch an inclination of his affection, of ideality, of passion. No, she hoped not to find passion in them? She feared passion, passion being like a hot wind that destroys the delicate flowers of love with its arid potency. Passion terrified her in her ignorance of it. Passion belonged to the lower animals that rolled behind the bushes and spent their instincts in one long growling, grasping fight about their entrails, leaving each other exhausted and vanquished. Passion was something for brutal people, for sensual people, something that debased and annihilated the spirit, something cheap. She didn’t want to be cheap. She was too sensitive and idealistic for it. One had to keep true to one’s ideals in a world ridden with sex and perversity and scandals, so as to bring still more beautiful gifts of purity to the one that would pluck the flower of one’s virginity.
Virginia was utterly convinced of these thoughts and of their true beauty. She never dreamt of thinking of herself as crepuscular and old fashioned. If she had glimmers of the possibility she chased them off: I am going to become like all the other girls, and the very idea of lowering herself to such humble and earthy levels made her shiver with self disgust.
She has a strong will, though she appeared great and will-less when it came to make daily decisions or even to think in practical terms about life. Her tenacity sprouted when she had to fight something. Life at an easy price and reach did not attract her. She has to put herself all out in order to enjoy the feeling of “becoming”, of being alive with hope and self-realization. Making a grade in an easy class like sculpture did not fascinate her, but making one in philosophy absorbed all her powers, since she had no training in it, in the nun school that she had attended. She would study for the sake of having the professor’s attention fixed on her and she would often ask questions for the sake of showing off her interest in the class. She realized that this was cheap in its own intellectual way, but it did not matter. Her goal was all she wanted to attain. She wanted to be noticed. Yes, Jo had noticed her, without anybody telling him about her, all on his own, and she was grateful to him for that. She dreamt of him suspended in trees, singing, appearing like a space man and snatching her into space? She wrote long letters inciting him to abstinence and studious self plotting, analyzing his urge to creative output and the ultimate meaning of life. She expected his letters with a naïve joy, and exultance pertaining usually only to the poor of spirit.
And then he said he would come and visit her, during one of his trips back home, at the beginning of the summer. How she prepped herself out for him. She started one week earlier to watch her nails grow, that she had religiously kept from biting. She washed her hair the day before and had Mary curl it for her, pointing to a dinner at the president’s house. She prayed fervently every evening that everything should be as perfect as possible and that nothing should happen to mar the beauty of the day. It was so tremendously important for her. She didn’t expect anything definite, just Jo to come back to her, his presence, waiting for her to greet him, that was all. His image shown like a saint’s picture in the hollow recesses of her mind making her ebb of joy and shudder in apprehension. She had lived over and over again the scene in which she would meet not Jo in flesh and blood, but the Jo who had written all those wonderful letters about friendship and loyalty and ideals. A current of warm desire sweet in her veins and she felt giddy as she walked to the art building. He would probably come over there.
He did. She noticed him standing in front of her suddenly, holding on one of the metal frames of the veranda on the sculpture porch. The image never left her mind, though in later years it had become faceless, like a silhouette in the figure. She stopped thinking and her awareness grew to a purely automatic and sensorial level, almost out of shock. They greeted as though they had seen each other the evening before. A million thoughts, desires, interrogations leaped to her mind but only the banalities of daily encounters escaped in a slow, precise rhythm from her reddened lips. They were casual like old friends between whom everything had been said. And indeed, it had almost been so. Almost any subject matter had been explored throughout their letters, short of love. She remembered the cricket that on that day chirped mercilessly punctuating the seconds as they slid by. Jo sitting on the rail, she standing there, fiddling with the chisel. Then another figure appeared over the concrete path, a thin scrawny figure of a man with observant blue eyes and nervous gait. He stopped in front of them looking inquiringly to Jo. It had been Ted. She had felt angered against him for interrupting with his presence their tete a tete. She had stopped talking and had waited. Jo had explained, a pal of his returning home with him from the army. Her giddiness had vanished, so had her sense of being elsewhere on a cloud and her expectation of something wonderful to happen. All had been erased back to this clumsy world by Ted’s sudden apparition. She hated Ted and she hated suddenly for having brought him along.
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. They had gone swimming, while Ted visited with some friends. She had felt let down. Her shyness had returned and she felt tied up, invested into herself. She didn’t know what to say to Jo, what to do or what to think, everything had been put upside down by the inopportune presence of Ted. They drove back to the dorm and he held her hand as they said goodbye and she felt that something terrible was happening and she felt that she must be calm, terribly calm not to show him what she felt and she hoped fervently that he would do something, kiss her maybe? Why not? Now it would have been all right it would have sort of engaged them. But Jo looked tired of the long drive behind him and anxious to start on the long drive ahead to Texarkana and he gave her a long hand shake, as to an army pal, she thought afterwards, and she smiled wishing him luck and a good vacation and he walked briskly back to his bleached Plymouth and the crickets absorbed the noise made of the grinding wheels on the gravel. Then for a minute she stood there, in front of the dimmed lights of the dorm. It was Saturday and all the other girls were out somewhere making love. That reality wounded her in the sharp of her open heart and she fled to the basement, hiding in the garbage room. Nobody would search for her there.
Afterwards she wrote a poem about it to sublimate for wounded feelings. She assumed a proud and scornful look around boys, making herself invulnerable to further approaches. The rest of the summer passed in hot blazes of wind and long stretches of dry grass and long hours at a lab’s bench drafting to earn some pocket money. Her parents sent her plenty but her pride prohibited her to use it for amusements or frivolities. She moved out of the dorm in the fall. The air of connubial “gio vitality” of those pink rooms had depressed her to an extenuating point. She could no longer see a smiling couple holding hands that her stomach revolted her. She had become allergic to the idea of courtship.
She now lived in a professor’s house with two other girls, one of who was very sexy indeed, with bedroom eyes, and a score of boyfriends piled up on the Friday evening line? But she had sense too and played with the hearts of her friends like they were passing butterflies posing themselves on the perfume of her camise, in passing by. Marleen had almost eloped once and almost married in church another one and she was only 21. Virginia felt awe and admiration for her having held at bay all those aspirants for so long and having such good healthy fun with them. Besides, Marleen worked 40 hours a week and which girl, but a very smart girl can work 40 hours a week, go to school full time and have a score of boyfriends waiting? This was the utmost accomplishment for Virginia. She liked Marleen and secretly wanted to me more like her.
Then one Thursday afternoon, she remembered that day correctly, because on Thursdays Marleen worked the afternoons until late at night, there was someone at the door and wasn’t she surprised when she got up and saw Ted! Her old feelings of resentfulness awakened:
“Hello? Fancy seeing you here!”
“I came to look for Marleen, I didn’t know you lived here.”
So that was it she had fallen back on her usual reserve. He stood invitingly at the door and smiled at her, almost sneered at her:
“So you live here?” he repeated. She didn’t know what to answer. With a strong desire to shut the door into his face she twitched her lips and asked him in. It was awfully hot outside. He accepted, not seeming annoyed at not finding Marlene home. He sat down on Mrs. Maggy’s velvet cushions as though he belonged there and looked himself around the room with an air of self-assurance that irked her. With fright she remembered that she had been along home. Some of the apprehension in the way she opened the door and the way she sat there like a lump of clothes must have thickened his sense of humor because he started laughing, like that, for no reason at all, a hearty, wholesome laugh that seemed to clear the air of its dim tightness and give it some resilience.
“Jo’s little girl…” He muttered to himself looking her up and down as though she were some sort of exhibition article. “I have heard lots from Jo about you. The guy was really crazy about you. Jo is a funny guy. Do you know that we went to school together, to high school? We are both from Texarkana.” He continued without waiting for her to cut in, taking it for granted she would have nothing to say like another kind of sitting nullity. It angered her, but she did not have anything to say. “I like Jo, we were good pals, then my old man died and I had to quit high school and he went a year ahead.” She must have given a startled look:
“Don’t look worried, I finished high school. I am in medical school now.” A look of surprise came over her. From not finishing high school to being in medical school the jump was enormous. Medical students were considered like the luminaries of elect and humanity knowing and the beneficiaries of future riches and well being.
“I am down at the school in Little Rock; every been there?”
“Isn’t much, but didn’t have the money to go to another school, besides, it’s here in Arkansas that I want to practice. Perhaps I shall go for my internship in one of the larger hospitals in the east. Yup; that’s it. Guess I should go now. I am afraid that I am detaining you from your work lady. Right?” He smiled at her showing two rows of perfectly shaped, sharp wolf’s teeth; gleaming with health? He didn’t really look too sickly now. Just thin, didn’t have the musculature of Jo. But one couldn’t tell what was under his loosely fitted garments worn with a casual elegance that startled in anyone who was in that little university town, she was curious about him now. Perhaps he could stay for another minute:
“Marleen might be back any minute, might wait for her.”
“Is that so, maybe I will? It’s hot outside. I wanted to take her out for the evening, down to the Mexican place. Jo said they have good food there. I am to leave after tomorrow, you know. I shall try to come here in afternoon again. Tell her if I miss her. Haven’t seen her for a while? Is she her usual puckered self? All prim and fine and ladylike and then, jump, there’s my kitten?”
“I don’t know… I suppose so. Perhaps you should call her, I have her office number.” He took it down, then he looked up at her, holding the pad from which she had torn a sheet and asked her between the amused and the hierarchical:
“How would you like to come out to dinner with me instead?”
The idea of going out with him had occurred to her just a few seconds before in form of a sharp, curious possibility that she had dismissed as crazy. Now, in front of the real thing, she startled. She felt she wanted to go, but she couldn’t. One doesn’t just go out like that with a stranger. But he did know Marleen and Jo; he wasn’t really a stranger after all, and he was a medical student. That appealed to her, the fact that he was going to be a doctor, that he sort of “knew everything”. She felt that he knew “everything”. It was like a fascinating bait that was waved in front of her hungry but reticent mouth.
She found an answer among many perfunctory ones offered to too impulsive boys who have overstepped themselves. But he was not to be taken in by such freshmen stuff. He laughed at her.
“Think you’ll compromise your reputation? Don’t worry, there are plenty of people there, and I promise I won’t run out of gas!”
“Well? It’s once in a lifetime. Make up your mind. If you want to come I shall come back in about two hours time and we’ll go.”
She knew she would go. Something irresistible pulled her and the words came out naturally of her lips, half kidding, half serious, with self security and mirth. Half real, half play.
She would always remember that night in which her dreams were shattered like cardboard structures corroded by flames, when her self respect was destroyed and she had no strength to protest against it. It stood before her like a gravestone, her image, disheveled, pale and trembling, reversed in the back seat of his car while he leaned over the seat, his head buried in his arm, breathing hard, stentoriously; the lights of the town flickering madly from below the viewpoint on which they had parked on their return from the restaurant.
Nothing would have made her think of it while she was devouring with anxious discovery a frozen lobster, the first one in her life, because her parents did not believe in wasting money in lobster and in the convent they never even dreamed of serving it. It was fun to crunch the paws and extricate the delicate meat with the long steel instruments, like surgeon work. He had been amused at her obvious apprehension and had told her amusing jokes about hospital happenings and cadaver dissections and resurrections and alike, to which she had dutifully laughed, not because she had never heard them before, but because she was in a laughing mood. The beer they had had at Georgie’s before leaving had relaxed her. She was used to beer, though she knew one mustn’t advertise the fact among the many Baptists of the dorm. At home they drank beer and wine, quite often. Her father was of Italian descent and he kept his tradition with pride. He was proud of his daughters’ honor, of his table and of his trade as bread maker. His house had been like a well regulated clockwork in which everyone had his part and was called on to absolve it, each one’s responsibilities were solely his affair and the communion of the household was sanctified by such things as the common evening prayer and rosary on Thursday nights. It was a serene household, but frightful and dull and limited. College had been her true escape into the world. It had found her naïve, curious, anxious and unspoiled.
Ted had been a perfect gentleman, helping her with the chair, what many young men didn’t do anymore these days, to her father’s horror. He had ushered her out helping her with the black woven stole and had admired her enameled earrings that she had done in her jewelry class. Attired in a dark suit with a silvery tie he looked anything but the stupid and insipid freshmen with whom the other girls used to go out. Virginia had felt very poor of being out with him and hoped that someone at the tables knew her. But she had not seen one familiar face. Feeling proud of having stood up to the charms of Marleen, she floated out of the Mexican eating-place feeling on the seventh cloud, brimming with self satisfaction, not a shadow of anxiety clouding her exalted little mind. The long drive home appeared to her as the perfect place where to relax at the side of this, wonderful companion who was so smart and so elegant and so solicitous. For the first time in her life she felt quite sure of her power over men and her own self knowledge must have showed because Ted seemed to be quite rapt at her swift giggling talk and crystalline laughter, willing to listen to it without indulging in smiles of irony or in looks of boredom. He looked at her curiously, like at something he had not really expected to his surprise, to find there; and now he was pleasantly surprised. As they stepped into his blue lined Buick, an old one at that; but well cared for, she had the comfortable feeling of finding herself encircled by his arm as he drove silently down the highway, exploring the way with the headlights. She felt at home, and it couldn’t have been the worst moment for it. She felt secure and peaceful and her very relaxation was the sign of her vulnerability. Inexperienced as she was she did not even notice his hand slowly mounting up to the collar of her coat and resting on the nape of her neck, until she felt his long soft fingers gingerly feeling the roundness of her shoulder. She felt so surprised at this awareness that for a moment she couldn’t even move. This was not the holding hands in the movie house, this was something else that she did not recognize in the composed and restful attitudes of the many engaged and pinned couples resting in the follows of the dormitory on the long Saturn day evening, while someone played the piano or the record kept playing away in the night. This was something else, she could feel it beating through her like a river of floating pins getting caught in the folds of her flesh, awakened by his slowly searching hand, nestled by his searching fingers, caressed, prickled, stroked, as he played with the loose strands of hair caught in the collar of the coat and under the opening of the dress.
She was so startled that she didn’t know for a minute how to act. Should she tell him? She wished she had the experience to know exactly what to do and do it right, with no regrets and no stupidity. But in the confusion in which she found herself, this was not the case. She was almost frozen solid, while a numb feeling pervaded her and she found it hard to formulate a thought through the heavy lips that had parted to the heavy breathing. Then, just about as she was going to do something, something she did not know what, Ted startled her, breaking swiftly the car, pulling on the side of the road and as though he had guessed her uncertainty, pushed his hand way down into the back of her dress and around her and deftly pushing her around, pinning her under him while passing his left leg over her uplifted legs. What she remembered was vivid in the emotions that she felt, in the confused mixture of hatred, repulsion, deep curiosity and anxiety and mainly as a receptiveness that amazed her to the point to which she felt all sort of will having left her, she felt her being, being opened up like one of the cadavers to which Ted had been alluding during his dinner jokes, violated by virile hands, caressed with infinite delicacy to the point of drawing sighs and contortions from her, forced into positions of which she had dreamt the like in her wildest dreams about love, opened up of all her womanly privacy, despoiled of her modesty in one unerring gesture of virile power left panting and tormented for only a few seconds while a new tide of torments and sinful doings were being performed on her. She felt it was sinful to the innards of her being, if she had some left untouched and yet she did not have the strength to protest against it, as though the very force of the event was taking away from her the right to judge it and evaluate it and do something about it. It was dark and she could barely see his form curved over her, if she had tried, but she kept her eyes tight shut as though to remain in the dream world into which she had suddenly found herself thrust. It could not be real. This was happening to someone else in a wild dream of which she happened to be the witness. What probably only took a few minutes marked the difference between day and night, of one work flowing into another, of the meeting of the urge of desire against pressure of self control. She was in a new world of which she could not measure the movements because unfamiliar with its laws. She was passively feeling the tide of emotions and mainly sensations aroused in her and exasperated to the pain limit, then left ebbing off, then exasperated again and again until she thought she could not bear any more of it. And yet she could, and she didn’t know how she got into the rear seat and how her dress got opened and her slip pulled off and her brassiere unhooked and her being naked and trembling under his deft searching hands, insatiable as in the search of gold. The awareness, the self awareness of her nakedness was what brought her to her sense, when she felt the softness of her own private flesh in contact with the otherness of the pubic hand, then the two sides of her, come so suddenly in contact, awakened in her the duality of the situation and her mind cleared in a flash. Her education, her beliefs, her instincts had been so long and carefully conditioned that almost instantaneously, as if she had touched live current, she erected herself on the seat and wildly attempted to cover herself, again finding no words to describe her horror, astonishment and defeat.
She had been defeated, she had been slapped in her breasts, hard enough to shatter her ideal of womanhood and throw her back among the endless tows of girls of whom she deplored the easy manner. That was how it happened that was how… she kept repeating to herself as she groped in the darkness to dress herself as best she could, trying to disappear from the side of him, leaning against the front seat, disheveled and groaning. She finished and he still sat there, motionless. She got out of the car, gave a deep breath with the instinctive desire to run away: but where to? She got into the front seat, staring at the highway, barely lightened by the moonless night. She felt for her bag, her shawl, arranged her hair and waited. There was nothing to say. She fell straight in a trap of which she did not know the way in or out. She waited and what seemed to be dark and endless seconds slid by. She felt him moving to her side, adjusting his tie and pulling the seat closer. She couldn’t bear to look at him. He was a stranger yet he was so close to her as no man, no person had ever come, he had become part of her, whether she liked it or not. What had happened had carried with it the inevitability of a falling rock and the silence of the echoes death. It was over. Now she could start thinking, and that was what she dreaded most.
They didn’t exchange a word all the way home; he didn’t even try to touch her, as though enforcing the separateness of his being. She only saw his hands moving on the steering wheel, slowly, in turns, in curves steadily. He left her off in front of the house after having opened the door for her and having adjusted a strand of loose hair on her forehead. She didn’t even look back at him. She felt his car disappearing around the curve and automatically she mounted the front steps of the porch. Fortunately the others were already in bed.
After that night, memorable in her life like a dark inkblot on a white page, Ted became part of her, in his very absence. She didn’t see him for two weeks and on the third while she was already going almost out of her mind he walked in one afternoon like nothing had happened, with his mature and elegant manners and seated himself in the living room, looked at her and through her for a split of a second before resuming his usual air of curiosity and talking as though it was all set that they were going to have dinner together. Virginia just played along, brought by some mysterious tide that spoke through her blood and had obliterated the remnants of her good, alarmed, common sense. They went out as before, were gay and spirited as before, never mentioning what had passed between them and drove back as before, with the only difference that Virginia was no longer stunned at herself, but only ashamed. Their common silence was a league of conspiracy against their will that bound them together stronger than by words formulated for the occasion. How they could go on like this, against any law of common intercourse among civilized people, was above her understanding. She was normal in every respect except in the one of becoming completely succumbed to his will and her own when the car stopped after dinner. Their outings became more frequent as did his trips from Little Rock. They were taken for granted on both parts, with a sense of common responsibility. Never would Virginia have accused him of having violated her. She felt keenly her own part in the act and felt responsible for it. She felt only surprised at herself, at the discovery of a new face of herself, which had hereto, notwithstanding her 20 years, gone unexamined.
But as the weeks and months passed and their relation continued, a new theme of projection into the future took place, both were visualizing their life together as some matter of fact, though never clearly defined. He spoke of his internship in a big city and she of her artwork. Their common native intelligence sought to draw them together, if not in common interest, in sharing what the other had to offer and in getting a view of the other’s mind and emotiveness.
She remembered those evenings in the Student Union over a cold coffee or in the record room, embraced, but not lusty, anxious but not intense. She remembered and remembered also her happiness in them, the first and only happiness she had ever known, the happiness of belonging, truly belonging to someone of having fused her will to another’s, not being alone anymore. Was it love? She did not truly know having never been in love before, but it was certainly something wonderful and unique, with a peculiar and brittle quality of its own that rendered it still more enhancing and enjoyable. She lived only during the evening while they were together, his arm around hers, listening or resting on just being. For the rest of the day she lived automatically, doing the best she could to make the grades of her scholarship and meet with the approval of the professors she had slowly or suddenly dropped and occasions in which to face herself and realize that the situation was unholdable and non-realistic, breathing an air too thin to last without collapse imminent. It was natural that they went to meet his parents, natural that his father found him a nice boy, with his feet rooted in good ground, God fearing and serious. It was natural that they became engaged and were married. It all followed in an unchallenged chain of consequences and cause over a period of one year. No event had the finality of the impact, or the emotiveness of which similar occurrences among the dorm girls had been charged, neither her formal engagement, nor her wedding, all had been consumed by the broiling fire of that first night. Now there could only be reprisals and continuation and repetitions, but what was to be ultimately said, had already been said once, with the power of an ineludible shock.
The power of that shock continued over the first years of their marriage, during the continuity of his internship while she had a secretary position to keep going; without asking money from her father proved a slight diversion from the chore of going to school, keeping house, sleeping together and getting up in the morning to start a new day. Everything happened naturally, as expected as it should have, his degree, his beginning of a practice in partnership with a friend, the phone calls at night and the sleeplessness until he returned tired but contented, the anxieties over the arrival of a child, the fright of labor duly introduced and explained by Ted, the defeat felt at the birth of the child was the only note of what was expected. She felt sorry for it. The first impulse she had at seeing it was of crying: poor child, you have just come into the world to suffer.
Yet she did not suffer, her existence was complacent. Busy from morning till noon she fixed breakfast, fixed his lunch bag, hers to go out for her occasional mornings of work in the library, the art library, came home to pay the babysitter, fixed dinner, cleaned the house, did the diapers and fell tired on the evening room couch to watch TV while the baby slept and Ted worked upstairs on his papers and patient charts. Soon she was so accustomed to this routine of life that she did not expect anything different nor desired it. Her day was full and she did not have much time for anything else. When she was tired she turned on the TV and fused her grey and even life with the melodramas and tears of the heroes of “As the World Turns” or of “Dr. Maloney”. They became her life too. Their sons and infidelities became hers. She waited anxiously the minute when the programs would come on, forgetting the cries of the babies or the cake in oven. Something was missing from her day if she had not followed the development of their love or despair or adventure. She had friends, yes wives of other doctors who sometimes invited them for a dinner which was promptly returned at the first good occasion. They belonged to the Surgeons Club, the annual meetings at the country club. And she enjoyed showing special dress for the occasion. She had become quite good at all the household specialties, from being a good cook to sewing most of hers and the children’s dresses. For the girl it was easy, for the little boy she bought most of it, too: much trouble making trousers and pants, at Sears she got them cheaper and stronger sewn.
Her artwork had slowly become forgotten. Some of her best pieces of sculpture were adorning the white living room with the Danish sofa and desk drawer where the water plants were. Some of her enamel work was used on special occasions as dessert dishes or other plates. She had decorated her house and herself with the good taste she had developed at the nun’s home ec courses and the sense of art she had developed in college. Her BA degree, bound in leather, was kept in the drawer with the other family cornerstones and events. Their wedding picture stood in a splendid silver frame donated by a wealthy aunt over the chest of drawers reminding her of past days and of happy to come. She had spiritually fallen asleep.
Ted was not a Catholic and she felt she could not oblige him to go to church with her. Her novice faith had left the place for a reasonable, common sense attitude towards life that held place for Mass on good days but hardly on rainy or icy ones when it meant getting a babysitter for the child or walking half an hour to the chapel. The children had been duly baptized with Ted’s approval. Religion did not seem to bother him until it touched his utmost private zones of being. This Virginia tried not to have happen with some good will, compromise and deftness.
Their relations had become regulated and sedate. Ted was tired most of the evening he returned from work and he needed his sleep badly after having been woken up once or twice in the night. He asked of her what she was willing to give, on demand. She was chaste by nature, as her education had cultivated in her, and did not push extravagant demands that she would deem unfit for a normal well balanced wife. Her naïve intelligence told her to leave at her husband’s choice when and how to regulate his emotional life and it was all right with her.
With the regularity of clockwork she would prepare herself for their meeting as she called it. First she would shave her legs and then take a bath, put on her favorite mum deodorant and splash some eau de cologne in her hair, attire herself in her best flimsy nightgown (why did it always turn out to be the red one of translucent nylon) and place the pajamas on the side of the bed. She couldn’t possibly sleep in that flimsy thing; she needed something solid around her. Then she would place herself in a comfortable position, waiting for him to get ready. She would hear the crackling of the upstairs floor, their ceiling, while he got up from his rocking chair, put his books aside and slowly came down the stairs in the knowledge that perhaps she had fallen asleep. She felt him poke around for the light switch, enter the bathroom door, after a while flushing the toilet. He liked to sit on it for a while, then turn on the water of the shower, washing his head (he always did when he took a shower) and drying himself putting on his nightgown. Then she counted the times after she had heard the water turned off and felt him coming in the dark toward the bedroom, sometimes kicking some misplaced object the children had left around, slowly opening the door and leaving his nightgown on the chest at the bottom of the bed. She did not move so he would think she was asleep, breathing steadily as in sleep. She would feel the sinking in of his bed (they had twin beds attached one to the other, with separate sheets) and feel his pulling of the blankets on her side. Then she would sense his pressure along her back. She always lay down with her back turned away from him, so that on touching her he would touch her back first and sort of open her up while turning her towards him. It always happened regularly, as in a dream scene repeated over and over again. She would wait a minute, then he would touch her shoulder. She would be supple, opposing no strength to any of his movements, yet not stirring, as in a limp sleep and offering. She had never been active in their lovemaking since the memorable time of the first night. He had always been active, inquisitive and she had passively let him play with her giving responses indicated to awaken his interest or keep him going on the same tack until ready for further inquiries along the unfolding regimen of her being.
Her technique never failed and his always responded, slowly, no longer with fervor of those first months, but with a calm, rested movement indicated exactly for a certain effect and no more. His hand descended in circles over her opened up body until the signal on her side when the act should be performed. Then, after the mechanics of the thing, it was all over and he fell back rested and soon fell asleep. She continued lying there until she realized that it was time to go to the bathroom, change her pajamas and go to sleep also.
This had been going on for years, until she realized that Ted had become more remote. Sometimes he would forget to come downstairs after she had given the signal of turning off the TV and gone to bed. She said to herself that it was his work; he was tired. But it happened more often and it upset her. She did not dare talk with him about it because it had never been their habit to talk about their private affairs among them. There were certainly reasons for it. She did not know them, being out of his work. She tried to repress her need of more love and affection. But he was always civil and affectionate with the children; making math problems with them, mowing the lawn on Saturdays and taking them to the circus and fairs. He was a good husband as he had always been and she could not complain.
Sometimes he stayed longer at the office than usual. But wasn’t more money necessary now that the kids were going to school, and the more cases he got on the extra the better. She didn’t take lunch money for herself; she was not a luxury-loving woman. She liked a comfortable life, a secure life. She liked to belong and she did. What else was there to demand of life?
Then there was that terrible night when Ted arrived home early, about 7. He was dark in face, circles were under his eyes, his breath was short and he threw his over shoes down the basement steps instead of leaving them and putting them side by side by the kitchen door so that she would clean them in the morning before he drove off for work. He went to the bathroom and stayed there for a while. He had said good evening to her but had not even kissed her as he had come in. He had said hi to the children as they sat in front of the TV. Dinner was ready; the children had already been put to bed by the time he had come out of the bath. He never said a word; he sat down, opened the TV and stood staring at the crude scenes of the “Untouchables”, then slammed it shut, knob and shutters of the cabinet and stood at the table with this hands over his face.
Virginia was watching him, asking him a few babbleties, waiting for him to unburden himself. He couldn’t for some reason. After a while he went upstairs and she for busy finishing the dishes, putting them out and setting the table for the morning. He didn’t come down. She couldn’t just go to sleep like that. She resolved doing something she had never done in all these years of married life; to go upstairs and see what it was bout. Talk to him, perhaps he would loosen up. She felt sad for his pain. She did the many steep steps that led to the attic that had been fixed as his home office. He was sitting in front of some papers, twisting a pencil in his hands, muttering things to himself, kicking his feet against the legs of the desk. He gave a jerk as he saw her at the head of the stairs:
“What do you want?” The very tone of his voice struck her. She stopped. But she had to go on, or what had she come up for? She went to him and put a hand over his shoulder. He twisted away as bitten by a snake:
“Oh, let me go, go downstairs to the kids. I have work to do. She couldn’t move. He had never spoken to her like that. There must be something terribly wrong with him:
“But Ted; what is it, can I do something?”
“Do something?... The hell with you….” She was stupefied, never in the many years she had known him had she heard such language from him except for the dogs and cats and some occasional vendor who tried to sell encyclopedias and other stuff at the house. With them Ted had neither pity nor patience. He threw them out mercilessly.
“Please Ted, don’t be like that, please…”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, leave me alone, go downstairs, go to the kids, go to sleep, go out of the house, wherever you want, but leave me alone! Leave me alone, do you hear me?!” He had gotten up, shouted red in face with the small veins on the sides of his cold blue eyes enlarged by his passion, screaming at her. She had gone a few steps back, then she had fled down the stairs in all speed, hurried out of the house and gone into the dark backyard to cry convulsively in dismay.
The next morning all seemed to have become calm between them. Neither spoke of the fact, waiting for the other, perhaps to start the argument. He gulped down his coffee and ate absentmindedly his cereal with banana, she helped the kids into the car and waited for him to bring them to school. Then she waited, waited for the day for him to come back home to her and say something, explain something. She waited all day, went to pick up the kids, hoped that he would come home earlier, waited in the evening, and Ted did not come. She called his office to find no answer, called his partner who said that Ted had gone out of town on business and was not coming back until the next morning. Then she knew something dreadful had happened; something of which she could not weigh exactly the consequences. She felt something breaking in her, the stability that she and Ted had achieved during the many years of clear marriage, years clear like starch soup, with the consistency of homeliness and the transparence of habit. She was numbed. She didn’t call on any of her friends, just waited. Not even the TV was turned on that night. The state of shock into which Ted had once thrown her, froze her again and held her in a grip of pain and anguish out of which there was no leak.
It was a night of despair, of tossing and welting in bed, of smothered cries lest the children would wake. She knew by instinct that there was another woman, yet she dared only speak it out to herself. She knew from his coldness towards her during the last months that something had happened to him. It was not his work, his financial worries, it was another woman.
She had sometimes thought about the possibility jokingly, knowing full well that theirs was a stable marriage, not given to such earthshaking quandaries.
Such things could not be happening to her. Had she not been a good wife for him? Of course her breasts were sagging and her hips had grown fatter, to be expected after two children and a miscarriage and the care of the household, yet at 32 she could still say that she was a young woman. She felt young. Why had he fallen for another one? Did she know her? The wife of another doctor? Who? The question burned a hole into her mind through which she saw gleaming sneering faces of loose women and her friends circling in a wild orgy. Her nerves failed her and she swooned while lying in her bed. She woke up in a sweat, finding herself half dressed with her shoes on.
He came back the next morning, he was dismayed, he had a beaten look and she felt relieved. Whoever it was, it had finished; thank god she didn’t want to know a thing about it, ever. She would forgive him, but she did not want to know and suffer some more. He was humble with her, gentle but nervous; finally, after a long pause of uncertainty he told her that he must talk to her, she waited breathlessly:
“I have a mistress”
So it had happened. She knew. She did not answer, but kept looking him into the face. He realized that she knew.
“She wants to leave me.” That sounded lineal, but she did not sound relieved. “I can’t stand it, I can’t. You must help me; you must.” The incongruity of what she heard struck her like an explosion at her feet. “I just can’t give her up. I am in love with her. Really in love. Something that there never was between us. You can’t understand, I know. But I can’t leave her or I shall go crazy! Crazy, my God, help me. You must help me…” He sounded almost hysterical, pacing in circles in front of the TV and she feared that the children would wake up. That would have been the end of everything, not just of her marriage. She had become a silent statue with two holes for ears, waiting, burning of an icy death.
“Virginia, I plead with you, you must call her. You must call that woman and ask her not to leave me or I shall go crazy, I shall do something insane.”
“But Ted… Ted…” It was useless to say that he didn’t know what he was saying. She didn’t know herself what she was really telling him; “I can’t I am your wife!!! Ted, have some sense of decency.”
“Decency?! What do I care for decency at this point! Do you see this?” He extracted a syringe from his pocket and thrust it under her nose. “Do you see this? It is a poison, a deadly poison. It is since yesterday that I had been trying to use it on myself, but I am a coward, I can’t and then there are the boys to think of. You can’t let me do this.” She was so appalled by the insanity of the situation that she recoiled in horror in front of the syringe that he put back with care in his pocket. She stammered.
“Who is she? Do I know her?...”
“No, she does not live in this town.” She was somewhat relieved, why she did not know. There was some hope yet.
“Ted, for the sake of the children, please, think, Ted, think, please,” she came closer to him imploring him with a face where all tears had become frozen with pain and panic. He turned away from her.
“It’s you or me. You understand?”
“I can’t bear this life any longer, I am sick of you. I can’t stand this mediocre, grey way of life anymore. Haven’t you noticed that I have become a specter of myself during these months? I kept telling myself that I was too old for such delusions, that was crazy. Perhaps I am crazy. Do you want me to be locked up? For the children to have a crazy father? Nobody knows of this woman she lives in another town; there will be no scandals, I promise you for our family’s sake. But she is afraid of you. She has left me. I told her you would call her up yourself to tell her there is nothing to worry from you.”
“You did?!” There was horror in her eyes, horror at imagining the other woman as he told her, pity for pity, pity for his enormous stupidity and foolishness and fear for herself, fear of loosing her dignity.
“All right.” She walked in a daze to the phone, “give me the number.” He gave it to her, mnemonically. She shivered, it was a long out of state number. Before ringing she hung up and asked him, “do you want a divorce?”
“No,” his answer was final. She didn’t even think of saying that she would divorce him. She loved him. She dialed the number, waited. A woman was on the line:
“Is this Miss Jennings? This is Mrs. Wilmer.” There was a heavy silence on the line, she was afraid that the receiver would be put down. She counted the seconds.
“Yes?” the voice sounded without tone. Virginia continues without looking at Ted, just continuing until the sound of her voice would carry her on.
“I would like to ask you not to leave my husband, he needs you. You can give him something apparently I can’t. Please.” She put the receiver on the table she couldn’t stand it anymore. She heard a voice in the phone, something she couldn’t understand. She stared at Ted. He picked up the phone mechanically and said something into it. She didn’t listen, she just waited, mechanically, for him to make the next move.
What days of agony she had passed! Unthinkable agony of body and mind. Fainting fits cured by her doctor with sedative of calcium shots, fits of weeping while her friends tried to console her. But she couldn’t say the reason. She couldn’t say that much to lower herself to the role of servant to her husband. Her pride kept her going. All along she hoped that her husband would wake up from this frenzy of this passion that was corroding him and look at her again as his obedient, loving wife. She tried her best as not to let the children notice her worries. She told them what she told others that she did not feel well. The zest of life was deserting her. She felt to be in an immaterial prison out of which there was only a leap into some sort of immaterial heaven, she did not know which. Her faith in God had left her. Could God send her so much misery? But then it was perhaps in punishment for having abandoned his images years later in the hollow of a dark car of their love making. God was taking vengeance on her now. She shuddered with fear. God was lost, there was no hope, nothing to keep her going. She took the medicines prescribed to her with the passivity of a sick person who knows that there is no remedy. Ted gave her the shots in the evenings, in the arm. It was painful business, because she had very small veins and he had to stab several times before he found the larger one for the micoren to be injected. Calcium reconstitutes! If only it could give her back her home, her life! She felt defeated by life and old to no end, tired and worn, afraid that Ted would do something crazy one minute or the next; she had become alarmed by finding a flacon of sincurarine in the bathroom. She knew what it was for, for anesthetics, but a powerful poison too. She had to watch Ted, or he’d do something desperate. She tried to be as nice to him as she could. She invited him to her bed again. At first he wouldn’t, then after a while he did, and slowly they became, apparently, partners again. Yet he was always elusive, never at home, never speaking to her. Only to the children he was the usual self, joking and cool.
Then one evening she was in bed, waiting for him to come, as he did now, usually, give her the shot and then relax together, without a word. Hell of silence, of waiting. He had a syringe in his hand, it was larger than usual. She looked into his eyes; but he diverted her looks and fixed hard the point so that it would not slip. Then she knew. He searched carefully for the vein in her arm, asking her to harden her fist over and over again, then as she bit her lip in order not to cry out to him, he found the vein and emptied the syringe into it. She grabbed his hand, held his arm. Perhaps… he turned around and left the room; silent like a shadow. The horror and the terror paralyzed her for a few seconds, then, as she was overcoming them to cry, she noticed that no sound would come out of her lips. She tried, but only a suffocated gulp for air came out. She felt an enormous pressure rising in her chest, the pressure of gas that was not being exhaled. Her throat was immovable, paralyzed by the slow action of the curare, slowly her whole body became numb and in the eternity of waiting for Ted to return and do something she prayed to God that he would come back and give her something, an anecdote or something, something so that the weight of her breath would not remain on him for ever. No Ted; not a murderer! Not a murderer… her children, her poor children. But she had known all this when she had given him the arm and ear she had given it to him without questioning him. It had to be his decision, as it had always been between her and Ted, to the very last. Why, she did not know. Someone probably did.