"So, we're writing letters?" asked Josie
"Right." said Nina
"Why?" asked Josie. "It sounds kinda dumb to me."
"Come on Jose," said Wyn, "it's such a great idea, sort of a time capsule thing, right, Nina?"
"Right. I read about it in Seventeen magazine. You get together with your best friends and write a letter to yourself and seal it. Then you put it away with some items that commemorate the time and agree to open and read the letters together at some time in the future. I think we should make it a minimum of a year before we read them, maybe longer."
"Definitely longer, I think it should be five or maybe ten years, so we'll have accomplished something significant in our lives." said Wyn.
"Okay, I still think it's dumb but I'll do it. We never have to let anyone else read it, do we?"
"No," said Nina. "When we open them we'll each read our own letter and then decide if we want to share them with each other. The whole point is to see how we've changed and matured over time. And I think we should try to predict what we'll be doing, too."
"Well, we'll all be back for our ten year reunion, won't we? Let's say our tenth reunion we get together and open up our little time capsule." said Wyn.
"Good idea, Wyn, our tenth reunion. And I think we should include the Virgins Club Charter. In ten years that might get a good laugh." said Nina.
"Yeah, especially if you're still holding out!" exclaimed Josie.
"Shut-up!" squealed Nina as she hurled a pillow from Wyn's bed at Josie.
"Cut it out, you two, this is serious." said Wyn. "Now we have to decide who holds the time capsule until opening time. Do we all agree on ten years? Good. I volunteer to keep the capsule, this house has all sorts of places to hide something and I'm pretty sure it will still be my family's home in ten years."
"Sure." said Josie.
"Fine with me," said Nina. "I guess I'll hang on to the club charter until I call the final meeting, even if it takes ten years. Then we can put it away with the letters."
"Okay, girls, let's write." said Wyn. She handed out pens and paper to Nina and Josie. Forty- five minutes later they were finished. Wyn lit a candle to melt the sealing wax that was used to cap off the envelopes. When each blob of wax was cooled sufficiently they each pressed their right thumb print into the still malleable wax on the letter addressed to their respective future selves. Wyn tucked the letters into her top desk drawer. They would find an appropriate hiding place later when the club charter could be included.
* * * * * * *
Wyn was one of two seniors who had been chosen by the members of the class of 1975 to speak at graduation. Joining her in this distinct honor was resident funnyman Oliver Conner. They were each allotted ten minutes to represent their class by expressing their hopes and dreams for the future. Wyn smiled graciously at Mrs. Lindermann when she handed in the notes for her speech at the main office. All student speakers were required to turn in a final draft of their speech one week prior to the graduation ceremony. This practice was to assure that appropriate content and language were used and that the ten minute limit was adhered to. The final draft notes were then returned to the students when they ascended to the podium just before they spoke. Generally such speeches were innocuous and forgettable. Benign platitudes were earnestly articulated as the senior speakers encouraged their classmates to go forth into the world and conquer and be prosperous and to hold dear the values that their families and education had instilled in them.
Wyn was determined to change the dull protocal of this process by giving a real speech. She'd start off slow to engage the audience and then forge on with what was really on her mind as she was hurled forth into the world to make her way. She wanted to talk about spiritual growth and responsibility without the hindrance and dogma of religion. She wanted to politically motivate her class to take part in serious issues like race relations and feminism and how she intended to further these causes by becoming a lawyer and effecting change through laws and the courts.
Wyn wasn't interested in making nice-nice, she was going to talk about what she felt were aberrations against humanity. Starvation, disease, and the Viet Nam war and our moral obligation to re-integrate its veterans into our communities with the respect and honor they deserved. She was confident that her notes sounded safe enough, she had employed a sort of code in writing them out so they would look like the pablum that was expected. There were key words within the notes to remind her of what she would actually speak about and for the most part she had memorized what she wanted to say. She had practiced for Nina and her mother and sister. Wyn felt secretive and disloyal over not including Josie but she wanted to be assured that her plan would be executed without flaw. She loved Josie to a fault but was afraid she might slip and say something, this was just too big to leave to chance.
Josie hadn't noticed her exclusion from Wyn's speech rehearsal, she had other things on her mind. The mortar board, in her opinion, was a stupid hat. If you could even call it a hat. It was a hat only by virtue of the fact that it was worn on top of your head. Couldn't they just wear a more normally shaped hat? One that didn't goof up your hair so much. Josie's soft, springy natural curls did not work with the mortar board. She sat on the little bench in front of her vanity mirror and tried every possible style augmented with clips, barrettes, and copious amounts of hair spray but it was to no avail. She had washed it twice and started from scratch but it was no use. If she was required to wear the damn mortar board some of this hair would simply have to go. She opened the drawer in front of her and pulled out the small, sharp scissors that she used to snip off split ends and set them on top of the table. In the bathroom she washed her shoulder length hair for the third time that afternoon.
She felt a little shaky as she positioned herself in front of the mirror once more and took the scissors in one hand and her comb in the other. This can't be too hard, she thought, I've watched pretty closely when Signe cuts my hair. Soon there were light brown curls falling into her lap and onto the pink carpeting on the floor. Curls fell with accelerating speed onto the table top and down the sleeves of her bathrobe. When she finally had the nerve to put on her glasses and look in the mirror she was astounded and then horrified at what she saw. Her hair was uneven and had the appearance of having been styled with an egg beater. The cowlick on the left side of her head, relieved now of the weight of the long hair that normally held it at bay was sticking straight out. Josie burst into tears and wondered if she had enough hair left for Signe to fix. Too embarrassed to call the salon she pulled on her jeans and a sweatshirt and tied a scarf over her handiwork. A brief stop in the bathroom to pop in her contacts and she was ready to go. She stole down the stairs and through the kitchen, grabbing her purse and making sure her checkbook was inside. A beauty emergency was no time to find yourself without means to pay.
"Well, well, lets see what we have left to work with." Signe Neilsen pumped the chair up to a comfortable working height. "Oh, my," she sighed as Josie pulled off the scarf. Josie's face threatened another seige of tears until Signe laughed reassuringly. "This is going to be just fabulous, let me get the book with the pictures of the new short styles this spring. I've been hoping you'd let me give you a whole new look, all that long hair was just too much for you as tiny as you are. I'll be right back." Josie sighed deeply and slumped in the chair. Signe had sounded hopeful, so maybe she hadn't messed up too badly.
Maxie knocked and poked her head into the study. Wyn and Nina were sitting in the middle of the floor poring over various college catalogs and comparing such pertinent information as the ratio of male students to female. "Miss Wyn, Josie is here, shall I send her on up?"
"Thanks, Maxie, no, we'll come down."
Bounding recklessly down the staircase competing for lead position Wyn and Nina stopped dead on the lower landing. They stared wordlessly at Josie and walked slowly toward her and then circled her as if she were some alien life form they wanted to study.
"Say something," Josie begged. "But only if it's good, lie to me if you need to."
"It's beautiful." said Wyn. She reached out and touched the short, frothy curls on Josie's head.
"Really, beautiful," echoed Nina. "I didn't know that you had such a long neck. But that's good, I mean, you look like a swan. And your eyes look different, too."
"I had her wax my brows, they're still a little red. But with all my hair gone I think it makes my eyes really stand out. Don't you think?"
"Yes. Absolutely. You look fabulous." said Wyn. "Let's celebrate. Nina, we're taking Josie and her new look out for pizza and then we're coming back here. My mom bought a case of champagne for the graduation party next week and she won't mind if one is missing. At least I hope not."
Nina looked at her watch. "Just give me a minute to call my mom." she said. Climbing the stairs up to the study she tried alternate plans out in her head. She was already covered for the night as far as her mother was concerned, Belle had a date with Stan and they were driving all the way to Marshall City to have dinner and wouldn't be back until late. The best thing to do at this point was to have pizza with the girls and then beg off with a headache or cramps or something. Ethan was meeting her at the apartment but now she would be at least an hour later than they had planned, good thing she'd had a spare key made for him. She just needed to call and say she wouldn't be home until later. Good thing she had her mom's car, too, if Wyn and Josie dropped her off the last thing she needed was for them to spy his car in the parking lot.
* * * * * * *
May 25th, 1975 dawned clear and sunny. Mamie Lindermann sat at her desk in the main office of the high school. She was stacking the graduation programs in small, manageable piles as they came off the mimeograph machine. She then fed them into the folding machine that creased the 8 1/2 by 11 sheets neatly down the middle. The next step was to collate and staple the programs together, the deep green sheet on the outside and the gold sheet on the inside. Three hundred and sixty two candidates for graduation this year. From Kindergarden to senior class there had been students who arrived and left along with the waves of this mobile society but Mamie thought this class had been lucky. From the core group of students who had started school together this class had lost only one, Billy Felberg. The class had chosen to dedicate the graduation ceremony to Billy and had insisted that his name be listed along with theirs on the program.
Mamie Lindermann was a practical woman. She had to be to watch over this ever increasing flock of adolescents. She gave the principal his due but everybody knew that she was the one who really ran things. She was the one that students came to with their problems, she was the one who was up on every shred of gossip that floated up and down these halls. Thirty-two years ago she had taken the job as the central office secretary in the old building when it still housed all twelve grades. She had watched that first group of seniors go forth, some of them she never saw or heard of again, but over the years she had seen some of them come back as teachers and coaches and then had followed their children's accomplishments and disappointments as they moved through the school system. She recognized the old names in town, Paxton and Parker jumped out at her from the printed page as she looked over the program. Anderson and Johnson and Dahlgren had been there for generations. Then there were the relatively new names, Bradbury and Fortner and LaFleur.
This was her last class, Mamie was retiring this year. She was moving to Florida where her sister owned a condo, she would fight the perils of winter no more. Just the perils of hurricanes and skin cancer. She would miss them, the kids. She had married but hadn't been blessed with children of her own so she had become a surrogate mother to the children of the community instead. When she lost her husband five years earlier her dedication to "her kids" had gotten her through. At least this last graduation that she would oversee would be a pleasant one, the contingency plan to hold graduation in the gymnasium could safely be abandoned. It looked to be a lovely day, high in the mid seventies with only gentle breezes predicted. She felt a little sad, it was the end of her era here, and the graduations from the past melded together in her memory. Nothing but a blurr of fresh, hopeful faces and speeches and the seemingly endless processions in and out and across the stage. It didn't look like today's ceremony would be particularly different in any way, but she had hope of coming away with something distinct to mark this last graduation, something that would keep it special for her to remember.
* * * * * * *
To say that Wynifred Wilhelmina Paxton's graduation speech was memorable, or perhaps distinct, would be like saying the Himalayas were some nice hills. After the ceremony Wyn found herself in the main office, seated with her mother while Mrs. Lindermann paced nervously. They were waiting for Mr. Mahr, the principal. Wyn was calm and collected while Miriam Paxton was concerned, not worried, but more than interested in what sort of punishment Mr. Mahr thought he could level against Wyn. She was an honor student, she was a popular and responsible member of her class. Granted, she had used some strong language in her speech, anyone who had been in danger of dozing off in the middle was taken by surprise. Particularly when she had uttered the word "penis". A perfectly acceptable word, thought Miriam, the proper name for that particular part of the male anatomy. Wyn had been making a point about feminism and had elicited a cheer from her female classmates when she suggested that the lack of a Y chromosome and a penis was the only thing that made women different from men. She had continued her speech with great enthusiasm and had finished to a standing ovation. It wasn't until after the closing prayer that Wyn had felt Mr.Mahr tap her on the shoulder and request her to meet him in his office with her parents. Mrs. Lindermann had come with them to unlock the office and Mr. Mahr had apparently been held up.
"Wyn? Mrs. Paxton? Please step into my office." Mr. Mahr flew through the swinging doors and headed directly for his office door without giving a second look behind him. He needed just one quick moment to check his hair before they followed him in, he did hate to have a hair out of place.
"No, Mom, I can take care of this myself," Wyn said as she rose from her chair.
"Are you sure, dear?" Wyn nodded and smiled. "All right, but I'm out here if you need me." Wyn strode confidently through Mr. Mahr's door and closed the door behind her.
"Please sit down, Wyn." said Mr. Mahr.
"If you don't mind, I prefer to stand." she answered.
"Very well." Mr. Mahr was uncomfortable now. Should he sit, as he had planned, or remain standing? Either way he felt he had lost advantage, Wyn was taller than he by at least a couple of inches when they both were standing and if he sat she would loom over him like a vulture. He was intimidated by this young woman, anyway. She was always so calm and a shrewd observer, she wasn't going to volunteer anything, he was going to have to drag an apology out of her. That was all he had hopes for, there was little he could do at this point. Wyn's diploma was signed, sealed and delivered and he had nothing else to hold over her head. "Your mother, isn't she coming in?"
"If you insist, certainly, but this is really between you and me, isn't it?"
"Yes, well, I suppose it is. Wyn, you're an outstanding student, someone I have considered to be a leader among your classmates. You have never had a disciplinary problem before today and I must say that I am disappointed in you for grandstanding the way you did. I feel you misrepresented the class, the very ones who chose you to speak for them today."
"Mr. Mahr, I received a standing ovation from my class. The entire class, if you noticed, not just the girls. Although I feel I am better qualified to speak for my own gender."
"That's not the point. What about all of the dignitaries and other adults present, don't you feel that you offended them and insulted them? And the children, the language you used. I believe that you were deliberately inciteful and you strayed entirely from the content of the speech that you turned in."
"I will apologize for my deceptive behavior, but if I had turned in notes reflecting the content of the speech I gave today, I would have been forced to change it. Or I may have been dismissed from being allowed to speak at all. I felt that I had some serious concerns to voice and I wasn't about to let such a great opportunity go by without addressing them. And I certainly wasn't going to gloss over our society's problems with a flowery, disingenuous soliloquy. In my mind, that would have been offensive and insulting. And as far as the children are concerned, it either went right over their heads or else they're going to hopefully have some meaningful questions for their parents. Isn't that what's important? To start a dialogue? To have meaningful discussions instead of sweeping unpleasant realities under the rug?"
Mr. Mahr sighed deeply and sank into his chair. "Wyn, I have to face the fact that there is little I can do about your behavior this afternoon. You have your diploma and as a graduate of this school you are no longer under my authority. I must admit you have given this considerable thought, that your intent wasn't just to shock. I couldn't hardly let it pass without calling you in here, so consider yourself chastised." He stood up and held out his hand. "You'll go far, young lady, and we'll be watching."
Wyn grinned and shook his hand heartily. "I don't know if this is appropriate, but if you can, please come by Winbrook this afternoon for my party. You may find it interesting, all of us Paxtons are pretty outspoken."
Mr. Mahr opened the door and gestured her out. "Thank you, I'll try to make it."
Mrs. Lindermann and Miriam stood and looked inquisitively at Wyn and Mr.Mahr as they exited his office. They had been talking about the other Paxton girls, Miriam had been amazed that Mrs. Lindermann remembered all three of them and was interested in what they were all up to now. Miriam had invited her to the party at Winbrook as well so she could see how they were in person.
"Thank you, Mr. Mahr, for the helpful advice." said Wyn.
"You're welcome, I hope it serves you well."
"Come on Mom, we need to get home before all the guests get there!"
"Yes, we do." answered Miriam. When they were alone in the hall she couldn't help to ask about the helpful advice. Wyn had just smiled at her mother. She knew she was going to enjoy being a lawyer. She knew there was more to it than debating issues and winning the argument but those aspects were so enjoyable that she could tolerate the downside.
* * * * * * *
Nina was counting the days until her eighteenth birthday. Nine days to go, just a little over a week. Then she and Ethan could come out of hiding. There were basically two plans to choose from at this point, they could pretend for the sake of observers that their relationship was just beginning and they would take it slow and casual out in public or they could just be honest about it and come out of the dating closet without pretentions. Nina was leaning toward the slow, casual but deceptive plan. That way she could put off calling the final Virgins' Club meeting for a couple of months. She would rather just be honest about it but then she would have to admit to lying and withholding at earlier meetings and she didn't want to do that. What a tangled web she had woven herself into. She wondered briefly if Wyn and Josie had been holding back any secrets but dismissed the idea, they had told right away about falling from the ranks. Their relationships were less complicated, though. Kirby was just a couple of years older and Justin was the same age as them and they both had been with their boyfriends a long time. Then it seemed like as soon as they had become intimate it had ruined things. That was the crux of the matter, thought Nina, Wyn and Josie weren't in a real, mature relationship, they had been involved with boys. She, on the other hand, was involved with a man and since girls develop maturity at a younger age they were better suited for one another despite their age difference. She believed that things would work out with Ethan, even if he was so much older. Nina was in love and didn't realize that she was living right smack in the middle of one big, fat rationalization. Her survival had depended upon rationalization since the day her father had died even though she wasn't familiar with the term. She would never have thought to scrutinize something that came to her naturally, she just felt lucky that she had found her match so early in life and wanted so much to be able to tell her best friends about it. But if she told all, would they still be her best friends? It would just have to wait.
"Time to turn," said Josie, "it's been fifteen minutes, we must have an even tan."
Wyn groaned as she rolled over to her back, she had dozed off in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. She fiddled with her straps to get the right arrangement to avoid those dreaded tan lines. Half sitting up Wyn leaned back on her elbows and observed the awkward positioning of her bikini top. "You know what, this is silly. We're all girls here so it shouldn't matter at all." She reached around to the hooks on the back of the top and undid them, then casually dropped the top on her towel. "In Europe they sunbathe and swim practically nude. Makes sense to me."
Josie gasped. "No way am I taking off my top! Wyn, aren't you afraid someone will see you?"
"So what, there are trees all around us and this is private property. Nobody swims from the other side because it's too muddy over there. Don't worry, when we swim at your house I'll keep covered up so I won't offend anyone."
"Good." Josie replied emphatically.
Nina sat up and examined her own cleavage. Not to be outdone she removed her swimsuit top as well and tossed it aside. "What a sense of liberation. No more strap lines for me, either." Stretching and lying back once more she half opened her eyes to get Josie's reaction.
"Both of you, you're a couple of perverts!" Josie squealed.
"Be careful, we may corrupt you!" said Wyn as she pretended to move toward Josie with ill intent.
"Just keep your distance, pervert. This girl is keeping her breasts covered so stay on your own towel."
Nina sat up. "We're bigger than you, we could make you strip if we wanted." she said as she looked to Wyn for her to agree.
"Nina's right." Wyn said. "We are bigger than you as far as height is concerned. But anything can be argued, it just depends on how you look at it. You will note that four out of six breasts are bared at this moment which would be two thirds if you're using fractions but if you're talking sheer volume Josie is actually covering more all by herself than the two of us are showing."
Nina and Josie started to giggle. The sight of Wyn half naked and seriously and logically expounding over fractions and volume was ludicrous. She was gesturing and using her sunglasses to make a point just as if she was at debate camp. Soon Wyn was giggling, too and the three of them laughed until they were in danger of rolling uncontrollably into the river.
"I'm thirsty." announced Josie.
"Let's go up to the house. There should be iced tea or something to drink." said Wyn.
"Don't forget to get dressed, pervert." said Josie as she tossed Wyn's bikini top to her.
"I think I may just go topless from now on, all of the time, no matter who may see. They're just glorified sweat glands. And mine are particularly nice." Nina did a pirouette and bowed deeply.
"You sure don't act like a frigid virgin," said Josie.
"Who said I was frigid?" asked Nina.
Josie blushed as she shook out her towel before wrapping it around her waist. "Nobody." She turned to walk up the hill.
"I was kidding," said Nina. She was busy putting on her swimsuit top. "Wait, Josie. I was kidding but you know something, I know you do, you can't keep a secret for anything."
Josie stopped and turned around. "Just let it go, Neen. It's not important."
"Maybe not to you. Who said I was a frigid virgin? And isn't this something you should have brought up during a club meeting?" Nina was feeling a little riled. Josie had walked back down to the grassy bank and sat down with a sigh. Nina and Wyn sat, too.
"So, can I still call a meeting, considering that I've fallen from the ranks?" asked Josie.
"I think we can dispense with formalities. Spill it Josie, what do you know?" said Wyn.
"I was going to save this until Nina called the last meeting, you know, when she finally gets around to getting laid. So I didn't say anything because I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings." Josie looked at Nina with tears in her eyes. "I went to Foodland for my mom last week and Tommy works there, you know, so he was wheeling out the groceries for me and we were just talking about stuff and then out of the blue he asks me how the frigid virgin is and I didn't know what to say. I assumed he meant you, Nina, and I said you were okay and then he said something about how maybe you'd found some older guy to thaw you out. I didn't know what he was talking about, an older guy, I mean, and he just said that I ought to know. But I don't, so, what's going on?"
Nina was carefully picking at the short blades of grass in front of her crossed legs and trying to come up with something to say. The invisible blush was creeping up her neck and her cheeks were beginning to feel warm. Inspiration and relief hit simultaneously and her cheeks began to cool. She looked up and smiled as she shook her head. "Poor Tommy, I was so embarrassed. Remember the weekend before last when your parents had me and my mom and Stan over for dinner when your dad was trying to get Stan to join the country club?" Josie nodded. "And you were helping your mom in the kitchen and I was bored out by the pool and your mom called out for me to go knock on Ethan's door so he could run an errand for her? Well, I was bored and I went along with him to Foodland to get ice cream for your mom and we were in the store together and goofing off in line and Tommy was working and he gave me this horrible look and wouldn't even say hi to me. I don't think Ethan noticed at all and I just felt like an idiot. I mean, we were just buying ice cream together, it wasn't like we were out on a date or something."
The worried look on Josie's face disappeared and it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. "That's all? That's what Tommy was all worked up about? Guess I'm the one who should feel stupid. I thought he meant that you and my brother were, you know, sneaking around together or something."
Nina rolled her eyes toward heaven as if the possibility of her being involved with Ethan was too gross or just too weird to be imagined. They all laughed over it together before heading up to the house for something cold and wet and to plan the summer evening that laid ahead. Nina brought up the rear as Wyn and Josie walked ahead, her thoughts were chasing around in her head. It was disturbing how quickly and easily the lies came to her. She told herself that it was okay, that in the end it was best for everyone this way, and what she had said just now was essentially true, she just had left out a few minor details. Like how Ethan had pulled around to the rear of the Foodland store near the loading dock before they had gone inside for ice cream. And how they had taken that stolen moment of privacy to get some kissing in. At least they thought they were alone, neither of them had been aware that the employee entrance was also back there, and that was when Tommy had seen them. They hadn't heard the door open or close and then all of a sudden, there was Tommy, standing ten feet from the car holding his bright yellow and red Foodland apron in his hand. He must have just gotten off work and he just stood there, staring in disbelief at the two of them. Nina had been startled by the sound of running footfalls and had looked up, in time to see Tommy's back heading for his car that was parked at the edge of the lot.
Such mixed emotions. Fear and fight-or-flight. She felt like she was three people lately, her emotional and logical and hormonal selves were in a constant tug-of-war for control. And she seemed to always be on the edge of tears. Nina suspected that it was a side effect of being on the pill or maybe it was Ethan's effect on her, she didn't know for sure and speculating about it didn't solve anything. She was like one of those ducks gliding effortlessly and smoothly across the surface of the river. What you observed above the water was a direct contradiction of what was going on below, those webbed feet paddling furiously against the current while only serenity was above. Frenetic grace, she thought, is what I have become, I have turned into a living oxymoron and a duck can pull it off better than I can. Nine days to go. Nine days of frenetic grace if she didn't explode first. It was going to be the longest nine days of her life.
* * * * * * *
"But mom, it's my birthday this weekend. My eighteenth. Why do you have to go this weekend?"
"I'm sorry sweetheart, I won't go if it's that important to you. It's just that Stan won this free weekend up at that lake resort near Camden and it's for this weekend. Well, he could move it but the next opening isn't until the middle of September. Nina, this is important to me, Stan is important to me. We could do something special the week after your birthday, I'll take you out for dinner anywhere you want to go. You were going to spend your birthday with Wyn and Josie, anyway, it's not like you'll miss me terribly."
"I will miss you." Nina hugged her mother. "Will Stan come with us?"
"For what, dear?"
"For my birthday dinner. It would be nice if he'd come along, too. And I want to go to the Su- Linn Palace. Stan likes Chinese, doesn't he?"
"How sweet of you to think of including him, yes, we'll all go together. So it's all right, you'll be okay if I go away with Stan this weekend?"
"Sure, Mom. Wyn and Josie will take good care of me." It didn't take much, thought Nina, to make her mother happy. And that left her alone in the apartment for two nights. Two nights! She could actually wake up in the morning with Ethan. No dressing and sneaking off while it was still dark, they would finally get to spend a whole night together and she could make breakfast for him. As she reveled in her fantasy of playing house with Ethan another thought came stealing in, that of her mother and Stan playing house up in one of those cozy resort cabins. Nina's eyes flung open. Nothing was more sobering than the contemplation of your own mother's sex life. Especially when it so closely paralleled your own. She needed a soda, and quickly, this sudden, bad taste in her mouth wasn't going to go away on its own.
Josie, Nina, and Wyn sat crowded together into one side of the booth at the Italian Vista. Remnants of pizza and salad and garlic breadsticks littered the table. Nina seethed as she watched Ethan and Hope seated together on the opposite side of the table. Some birthday, she thought. I get to sit across the table and watch my boyfriend with another woman. She excused herself to go to the bathroom. The Italian Vista was a big complex, a favorite hangout for high school and college kids. It was divided up into a maze of rooms including a video game arcade and separate dining rooms for those under eighteen and those over eighteen where beer and wine were served. Nina was thankful that at least they had been seated in the adult dining room, she supposed that was due to the fact that Ethan and Hope had accompanied them. It was just so far to the bathrooms and getting there on a crowded Friday night was no easy task. She sighed in annoyance as she got in line for the ladies' room. Urgency hadn't led her to excuse herself from the table so it wasn't that she desperately needed the bathroom, she just needed a break from certain dinner companions. She felt a warm hand on her bare shoulder and she turned to see Ethan.
"The line for the mens' room is over there." She smiled her best ingratiating smile and motioned toward the mens' room door.
"There's no line," he stepped over and peeked through the door. "In fact, it's empty." Ethan grabbed her hand and whisked her inside. She protested and he locked the door. "Before you say anything, I'm sorry. I'm not out with Hope tonight, we haven't gone out for nearly two months. I think my little sister is responsible for setting this up and I'm sorry about the seating arrangement. Josie left with you and when Wyn stopped by to pick me up I didn't know what was going on, I didn't even know that I was invited until then but I thought, okay. Hope was waiting in the car and by that time it would have been a little odd to back out. Believe me, she's just as uncomfortable as I am."
Nina stood with her arms folded defensively and she did her best to frown disapprovingly at him. It was hard to do when all she wanted was to throw her arms around him and kiss him. She looked up at him and smiled. Then she threw her arms around him and kissed him. For a good long time. Someone was pounding on the door. "Just a minute." shouted Ethan. He kissed her again and promised to meet her later as they had planned. He slipped back the bolt on the door and they left the mens' room. Nina got back in the now shorter line for the ladies' room because now she really needed to go.
Ethan went back to the table and asked his female dinner companions why it was that the line for the women's bathroom was always so much longer, he had gotten in and taken care of his business and had come out to find Nina still waiting in line. Wyn offered her theory that girl's often go to the bathroom in twos or threes and then as long as they were there they tended to all sorts of feminine details. Then Ethan wanted to know why they went in groups of two or three, didn't they know how to take care of things by themselves. Wyn explained that this was just another example of male linear thinking. One track minds, one thing at a time. Conversely, women normally combine a number of tasks, they didn't just go to the bathroom for the obvious reasons, they discussed and would ultimately solve the problems of the world in the bathroom while men would just get back to their beer and billiards more quickly. Expedience, Wyn said, wasn't always the shortest path to a solution.
By the time Nina returned to the table Wyn had soundly stomped Ethan into an abject pile of male chauvenistic dust. He didn't remember picking the battle of the sexes with her but somehow Wyn managed to steer every conversation to that subject. She was still running on the head of steam she had built up during her graduation speech and it didn't look like any man was safe from her relentless process of examination and destruction. Wyn managed to do this in such a charming and humorous manner that she caught the unwitting men with their defenses down. She was just practicing for her day in court and you had to pity the man who would someday stand on the other side of the aisle.
* * * * * * *
"Well, I guess we all know why we're here. I now call this final meeting of the Virgins Club to order." Nina announced to Josie and Wyn as they settled into the cushioned benches in the gazebo in Winbrook's back yard. It was a mere three weeks since her birthday and as far as she knew neither of her friends had a clue concerning what she was about to reveal. "I have fallen from the ranks of purity and am here to confess what has been revealed to me about the pleasures of the flesh."
Josie giggled. "So, you made up with Tommy? I haven't seen you in over a week. We want details."
"Jose, first of all, it wasn't Tommy and you may not want to hear details and I'll understand if you hate me and never want to speak to me again."
"What's the big deal? Why wouldn't I want to hear everything?" Josie looked to Wyn who was uncharicteristically silent. "I mean, we gave all the details, why should you be any different just because you held out a little longer." Josie once again looked to Wyn. "You know, don't you? Wyn? Nina, what's going on, you told Wyn first, without me?"
Wyn looked up at Nina sadly. "No. She didn't tell me. But I can guess. I haven't seen Nina for over a week, either. But let's be fair, we had our turn and now it's hers. The whole idea of the club was to be able to speak freely without being judged so let's hear what she has to say. Nina?" Wyn looked solemnly at Nina and drew her legs up and sat huddled on the bench.
"This is so hard for me to tell both of you because I know that you both had other plans for Ethan. Jose, I'm in love with your brother so I'll spare you the details. Wyn, I know that Hope was involved with him but I swear to you I did nothing to break them up. It was over for them at least a couple of months ago and it wasn't until my birthday that I really looked at Ethan. Maybe it was because I'd finally turned eighteen and I thought maybe he'd see me as something other than his little sister's little friend. And I realized that I was attracted to him despite the fact that he's always giving me a hard time about something. And until just a few days ago I thought that all I would have with Ethan was just this back and forth thing where we give each other a lot of shit and that eventually I'd get over my infantile crush and nothing would happen." Nina paused to catch her breath. Josie wasn't about to budge and Wyn was waiting patiently for those aforementioned details. This was as far as she had practiced her speech, she had been sure that by this time they would have heard enough and asked her to stop. Maybe it was time to cry but she had never needed to cry on cue before. She looked back and forth at her two best friends but they just sat quiet. "Should I go on?" Josie and Wyn first looked to each other and then looked back at Nina and nodded.
"We're still best friends and just because we're a little surprised that won't change, right Josie?"
Josie sat quietly for another moment before speaking. She got up and came over to sit at Nina's side. Her childlike voice was clear and without hesitation. "I love my brother more than anyone else in the world and if you love him, too, I can't find anything wrong with that." Josie took Nina's hand in hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Soon Wyn was at Nina's other side. "I feel the same, Neen. Now give us the juicy details!"
Suddenly Nina felt embarrassed and shy. "Well," she started, "I don't think it's such a bad idea to do it with an older, experienced man." Wyn and Josie giggled briefly and begged her to go on. Nina smiled knowingly and obliged. She reached back for the quivery, new feelings from that first time six months before. Changing the details from winter to summer and the location from above the Parker's garage to her bedroom at home Nina unflinchingly told the story of her fall from virginity with Ethan's gentle and practiced collaboration. All three of them sat in tranquil silence for several minutes before joining hands. As her president's duties required, Wyn closed the meeting and declared the Virgins Club a defunct entity. Nina pulled the charter from the large manila envelope and affixed the date and her signature to the last page of the document. She then returned it along with their letters to themselves to the envelope and sealed it. She handed it over to Wyn. "Let's decide where to hide it, somewhere inside, right?"
"I guess that's what we decided but it just now occurred to me that you should keep it, Nina. What do you think, Jose?"
"It's okay with me, I mean, she is the secretary, we should have put this in the charter but it really doesn't matter. Sure."
Wyn handed the envelope back to Nina. "You're the most organized person I've ever known. If anyone of us can keep track of this for ten years, it's you. I think this calls for a drink. Pepsi Light, anyone?"
The girls walked across the yard to the kitchen as if nothing momentous had happened. Nina was grateful that they had taken it so well and vowed to never lie to her friends again. Wyn wanted to pump her for more details sometime when Josie wasn't around, she had the feeling there was much more to it than Nina had divulged. Josie was genuinely happy for Nina and her brother, Hope was kind of a pain in the ass, anyway, she'd overlooked that for Wyn's sake. And there was still so much summer left! There were the rose petals to gather for their perfume making project and the Summer Festival street dance next week. And their road trip to Minneapolis to see a play at the Guthrie Theatre, Miriam Paxton's attempt to expose them to some culture. Nina's mother had been right, this was their last summer to be children, college and responsibility loomed before them. But that would have to wait just a few more weeks. There wasn't nearly enough time to squeeze everything in.
* * * * * * *
Nina didn't see anything but black. Well, a few stars, but mostly black. Ethan said they were lucky that there was a new moon so there would be no interferance from moonlight. And it was colder out here than she had expected. "I thought this was going to be an incredible display of astronomical fireworks. Isn't that what you said? This was nothing more than a clever ploy to get me alone out here in the dark on a blanket. And I'm cold. Could we at least get back in the car?"
"Just a few more minutes, it's not completely dark yet, there's still a little light in the west. We need full dark to really get a good view."
"I'm going to get my sweatshirt out of the car. Be right back." Nina got up and walked the twenty or so feet to the car and found her sweatshirt in the back seat and pulled it on. She stopped for a moment and leaned against the car. She liked looking at Ethan from a distance even if it was just a few feet. In the near dark he lounged on the Aztec print blanket, his legs stretched out in front of him, his arms folded back to cradle his head. Her gaze lingered at his jawline and then moved on to the muscular curve of his upper arm. Nina wondered if it was normal or average, whichever applied in this case, for her to be so preoccupied with his looks. From what she had read, the female of the species wasn't predisposed to visual arousal. If that was true, she was making up for some nearsighted girl at the other end of the curve. She studied his relaxed pose and smiled to herself. It had been a year since they had met and even then she hadn't been able to tear her eyes away. And now she knew what he looked like without his clothes, too. She could never stay away for very long, looking at him led directly to her wanting to be near him, to share his space and his warmth. He'd had the sense to wear jeans but other than that only had a tee shirt on, he never seemed to get cold. She was freezing in her shorts and tank top so she was glad that the sweatshirt had been left in the car from a few days ago. She plopped down on the blanket next to him.
"Look, up there," Ethan said, pointing up and a little to the west. "Now you'll see some shooting stars." Streaks of light were more frequent than before and continued to intensify over the next hour. They sat cuddled together watching. Nina thought it was okay, not as dramatic as the Northern Lights that they'd be seeing in another month or so.
"What's this called again? Whose meteor shower?"
"The Perseid. Named for the daughter of Perseus and Andromeda. See? There? That's the constellation Andromeda right there. And that concludes the astronomy lesson for tonight."
"Will there be a test later? You know, I'm taking astronomy this fall. We could come out together and stargaze. That way I'd be studying and seeing my sweetheart at the same time. So what are you going to be doing? Your community service thing is done now, you could look for a job besides working for your dad. I mean, unless that's what you want to do."
"Been thinking about it. I applied for the coaching position at the college, it's just an assistant and it's not full time but it will get me back into my field. I need to look for a place to live, too, living over the garage is, I don't know, too easy. And it's weird when you're up there with me, I feel like I'm in high school again, trying to sneak a girl up to my room. And Josie wants to move in up there when school starts. So you and Wyn are moving into the dorm together?"
"Yeah, in just three weeks. It's going to be so cool. I can't wait."
"Three weeks, huh? Nina, I've been putting off talking about this but I've been thinking about taking a little trip to see one of my college buddies. I'm driving down to New Mexico next week, I'll be gone a couple of weeks. I've thought about it for a while, since Nick called me last month, I hadn't heard from him for a long time."
"I take it I'm not invited. Hey, it's okay, I have a lot to do, I need to go through my room and decide what to move and what to leave. And I start next week at the bookstore so I can get used to stuff before it gets really busy. So Nick's your buddy from college?"
"Yup. Played hockey together, chased women together. Guy stuff."
"Oh." Nina didn't know what to say. The idea of a two week separation wasn't pleasant at all. "But there's so little summer left. Why don't you wait and go when school starts? Then at least I'll be busy with classes and I won't have as much time to miss you."
"But if I get the coaching job I'll have to be here when school starts, if I'm going to go it needs to be now. I just want to get away for a while. Not from you, from here. I haven't been outside the city limits this year. Besides, missing me might be good for you. You'll appreciate me more when I get back."
"I miss you already. You will come back, won't you? I mean, you will, come back won't you?"
"Of course I'll come back. And I'll probably find a whole bunch of college guys lined up at your door wanting to replace me."
"No one could replace you. Ethan, I love you." There. She'd said it. It was taking him longer to respond than she liked. It had just slipped out. She hadn't meant to say it, but there it was, left there hanging with no way to reel it back in. "I'm sorry. You don't have to feel obligated to say it back just so I won't feel like an idiot. But I do love you."
"I love you, too." He touched her cheek and turned her face towards him. "I love you, Nina." As he kissed her he realized that he was admitting it to himself for the first time, he had known for some time but had never considered saying it out loud until now. It felt pretty good. No one could have been more surprised than he.
Later that night as Nina was falling asleep that's all she could think of. He loves me. He loves me. Nothing will ever be quite the same again. The Perseid meteor shower, August 11, 1975. We made love under a canopy of streaks of heavenly light and he told me that he loves me. She wrote this in her journal before turning out the light. He told me that he loves me.
* * * * * * *
Nina looked around at the bare walls of her bedroom. This had been her room longer than any of the others that she could remember. Whatever wasn't going along with her to the dorm room in Grimson Hall was neatly packed away, destined for the basement storeroom of the little yellow bungalow on Victoria Avenue. Her mother was moving in with Stan, he had just signed the mortgage papers on the house. That wasn't the shocker, normally married couples do take up residence together, it was the married part she was still adjusting to. They had done it so quietly and her mother wanted to wait for just the right time to break the news. Nina should have known that something was up but she was so preoccupied with Ethan being gone and preparations to move into her dorm room and starting her new job that she hadn't really paid attention. The conversation had started normally enough, did she need any furniture, what was there room for, she had heard that the rooms in Grimson Hall were larger than in the older residence halls on campus. Would she need new sheets to fit the bed there or would a set from home fit properly, by the way, Stan and I got married the weekend we went away together last month. Would you like to have the little TV from my bedroom for your dorm room?
Nina sat stunned for a moment while Belle continued with her explanation of how anything she didn't need could be packed up, that there would be a room just for her in the house Stan had bought, and wasn't it odd that there was that area of town that had streets named for the Queens of England. There was Elizabeth and Anne, Catherine and Mary. And then there was Victoria, the six hundred block. The little yellow Craftsman style bungalow with the enormous weeping willow in the front yard. Where she was moving with her husband. Her husband! She had worked out a sublease for the remaining months of her lease with the cooperation of the building manager but they would wait until school started so Nina wouldn't have to move with them and then into the dormitory. Of course she was welcome for weekends and school holidays, they wanted her to feel like it was her home, too. Belle would continue to work and Stan would be her house husband. Wasn't it wonderful! Nina had to admit that it was. Her mother had transformed into a fully dimensional woman over the months with Stan's attention. How could she object to something that so obviously made them happy. Maybe it was just her mood in general, she was in love herself so how could she deny that euphoric existance to anyone, especially her mother. Her mother that she hadn't taken the time or effort to know until recently. Maybe it was because they finally had something in common that they could talk now, about anything.
Nina checked the closet once again and decided to leave the few empty hangers there for the room's next occupant. All that was left was the bed and that would go in the next truck-load to the house. All the items she was taking with her to her dorm room were packed in the car, not a lot of stuff, just the essentials. Her clothes and clock radio, a couple of lamps and the typewriter her mother had given her for graduation. New posters for the walls and photos to set on her desk. All of her record albums, Wyn was bringing her stereo from home as well as a small refrigerator that would fit in the corner. Her brand-new laundry basket was filled with towels and bathroom necessities and her make-up bag was tucked into a corner. Then there was her blow dryer and electric hot rollers and her curling iron. Suddenly Nina envied Josie her short, maintainance-free hair but she knew she didn't have the courage to whack hers off. Not yet, anyway. She wondered how Ethan would react if she did, he loved her long hair but she was pretty sure he didn't love her only for that. Hair was hair, and it grew back but she wasn't ready to cut it yet. Even if she had to lug this basket of stuff around.
Ethan would be back tonight. Nina was anxious to see him but she was equally anxious over the contents of the letter waiting for him at home. Josie had told her that a letter had been sitting for nearly a week, a letter with a university athletic department return address. It must be about the coaching position he had applied for. He had been one of five chosen for an interview and had gotten that out of the way before he left on his trip to New Mexico. The interview had gone well, Ethan had been optimistic about his chances and the answer was waiting inside that envelope. She'd better get moving, if she was going to get this carload of stuff into her room and get a shower taken before the orientation session this afternoon she'd have to hurry. The phone in the room had been hooked up yesterday and she had posted her new number in a note on Ethan's door. He had promised to call as soon as he got in but in the meantime she had more than enough work to keep her busy. Nobody was going to catch her waiting by the phone. Not for another five or six hours, anyway.
I look like a freshman. This looks like a freshman's room. Everything is too new, she thought, brand new, full bottles of shampoo and conditioner, an untouched tube of Crest still in its box. Everything was precisely where it belonged, pens and markers in the cup on her desk, bed neatly made up, her clothes all stowed in drawers and in the closet. Maybe she'd learn how to be sloppy as the year progressed. Nina surveyed #311 Grimson Hall from her standard issue swivel desk chair. The room came equipped with two of everything, closets, desks with chairs, dressers, and beds. Her chair was currently in the middle of the room and she was turning around slowly while she hi-lighted what she thought were the dopiest rules in the dormitory handbook. She wanted to call Wyn to warn her what they were in for in the next nine months but she didn't want to tie up the phone in case Ethan would call. No alcoholic beverages. Members of the opposite sex must check in at the registration desk. No unregistered overnight guests. No visitors after ten-thirty pm on weeknights, midnight on weekends. Violation of any of these regulations could result in suspension for a first offense, expulsion for a repeated offense.
Wyn was spending one more night at home and would be moving in tomorrow, so for tonight Nina had the room all to herself. She looked at her clock radio for the time and compared the 9:35 on it's read-out to what her watch read. Well, they should be the same, she had set the clock radio to her watch when she plugged it in and that had been just that afternoon. Staring at the
phone didn't make it ring. Maybe staring harder would work. Maybe staring at it cross-eyed. Nina was startled by a knock at the door and hopped up to answer it. Just some girls from down the hall inviting her out to Italian Vista. She said no but as a local she recommended the baked rigatoni and the dark tap beer. When they left she checked her calendar to make sure her bookstore hours didn't interfere with any of her pre-registered classes. She wondered if the other desk would have been a better choice and considered moving her things over when she heard a second knock at the door. I don't want company, I want my phone call! Before she opened the door she picked up the phone receiver to make sure it was working properly. Yup, dial tone. She hung up and answered the door. And there he stood. Tanned and smiling in an orange I'd Rather Be In New Mexico tee shirt. She threw her arms around him and he held her tight, picking her up in the process and turning around.
"I hope you registered at the desk, I just moved in today and I don't want to set a record for shortest stay in a residence hall."
"You forget that I'm a local boy. I know the back way into every dormitory on this campus. I know where to hide the beer and where to hide an unauthorized overnight guest."
"You are a very bad boy. Why don't you come on in and show me just how much you missed me."
"I'm just a sex object to you."
"Don't you forget it."
"Whatever you do, don't get out the whip, these walls are like cardboard." She pulled him inside and closed the door, leaving four of Nina's floormates astonished in the hallway.
An hour later Ethan lay watching Nina as she dozed. He traced his finger along her jawline to the tiny cleft in her chin and marveled at the thick tangle of dark lashes against her cheeks. He wondered if it was natural, her eyelashes that way, or if she used mascara. He had never asked her or witnessed her applying any make-up at all so he wasn't sure. It didn't matter. The totality of Nina was what he loved, not little bits and pieces. Her own combination of intellect and eyes and turbulent emotions. The careful balancing act within her between the innocent and abandoned child and the fiercely independent young woman was visible to him now, her face showed him everything. He couldn't lie to this face that was now so beautiful to him. He would have to tell her, and soon, but for now all he needed was to watch her sleep.
* * * * * * *
"Come with me."
"Come with me, Nina."
"No. Ethan, I can't."
"Nina, I love you. Come to New Mexico with me."
"No." Nina turned to the window and stared without seeing. Why couldn't he understand. She couldn't leave. This was the first place that felt like home to her, if she left Wyn and Josie would forget about her and go on with their lives. Well, she'd still have a connection with Josie, they'd be related, but it wouldn't be the same. He'd been offered the coaching job and he'd turned it down. What was he going to do in New Mexico anyway. Just work some construction job. He said that he needed to leave, he wanted a place to start over, that he was withdrawing his shares in his father's business, actually his father was buying him out and wasn't happy about it. But it was enough money to buy some land and start building a home, their home. There would be enough to live on for at least a couple of years, and there were schools down there, as good as here, that they could be happy. They could be together. She heard the door open and close.
She didn't cry until she turned and saw that he was gone. She looked out the window and saw him crossing the street and she wanted to call out to him. Yes. Yes, Ethan, I'll go with you. Just look up and I'll run after you, just look over your shoulder. Give me a sign. She watched him get into his car and placed the end of her finger on the spot on the window where she last saw him standing and kept it there as his car backed up and drove away. She didn't know how long she stood there like that, her fingertip pressed to the cold glass as if that somehow kept her connected to him. When her arm became tired her finger trailed down the window for a few inches leaving a narrow smudge that caught the sunlight and bent it into iridescent pastel streaks. She was letting him go, she knew he wouldn't be back to ask her one more time. But how could he leave like that, without looking back just once.
"I'm sorry, but your name doesn't show up on her visitor's list, and it is past visting hours. Would it be possible for you to come back tomorrow? You must understand, it's more of a security issue than anything, the visitor authorization list is there to protect our residents." The desk attendant smiled her professional, impersonal smile at the petite dark-haired woman in front of her.
"Please try again, see if I'm listed under my maiden name, Annie Parker." Annie Parker Louden had come a long way to see her sister and wasn't going to be brushed off until morning. It had taken thirty years and Josie's brush with death to bring her back home and she wasn't leaving now without some satisfaction.
"Annie Parker, it's on the list, but it's still after regular visiting hours."
"I thought that family was allowed in anytime, and I am family." said Annie.
"Let me call my supervisor."
Annie tapped impatiently on the counter as she waited for the call to be completed. Her hands looked older than the rest of her, she thought, they really give away my age. She was right. She was a forty-six year old grandmother but her short,dark hair showed no signs of gray and her trim figure was a testament to her years of active farm life. Granted, she was a modern farm wife, but she was fully capable of working side by side with her husband when hands were short. Her hands had become weathered over the years from work in her garden and yard. She tended vegetables and flowers and planted trees with those hands that had never seen a beauty-shop manicure until her daughter insisted they get one together when she had gotten married. For four whole days she had endured the plastic, sealed in feeling of the shell pink nail polish before finally getting to remove it the day after the wedding. In those four days she had attended a shower, the bridesmaids' breakfast, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception and dance with lovely decorated hands. Her daughter had scolded her for years that she should use hand cream or at least wear gloves when she worked outdoors but staying youthful had never been a concern for Annie. Her youth wasn't a time of glory that she wanted to preserve or be reminded of, she didn't mind wearing the mild scarring that reflected a life that she had grown to love.
"Ms. Parker? Ms. Parker?" queried the young woman on the other side of the desk who was now off the phone.
"Yes," answered Annie, unused to hearing her maiden name.
"I'll have a nurse show you the way to your sister's room. Sorry about the wait, I should have known just from looking at you that you're her sister."
A nurse appeared and led Annie down a long corridor to a private room. She let her inside and told her she could stay as long as she liked and to press the call button if she needed anything. Annie moved slowly and quietly to the side of Josie's bed. She took Josie's delicate hand in her two leathery ones and stood silent for a long while studying Josie's still face and was startled by a sudden twitching in Josie's right leg. That's normal, she reminded herself, Ethan had told her that periodic movement was involuntary on Josie's part but was common in a comatose patient. Annie pulled up a chair to the bedside and took Josie's hand once more. The last time she had seen her sister she had been asleep, looking much the same as she did now, curls tumbled over the pillowcase and those dark, thick eyelashes resting on her cheeks.
She began to tell Josie the story of her life since she had departed in the middle of the night thirty years before. Physically tired from the long car trip her mind was wide awake from all the coffee she had been drinking and now in Josie's presence she was animated as she told Josie of the rough life she had experienced when she left home. Of the son she had born and lost, of the drugs she had used to numb her memory of that loss, of the life she had made with a man she was still lucky enough to be in love with. Of her children and grandchild who filled her days, of the joys and difficulties living on and running a three generation family farm. Of her proud accomplishment when she graduated from high school with her son. Annie talked on through the night telling Josie everything, stories of incidents both significant and trivial, thinking that if she finally became tired enough that she could siphon off just enough of the sleep-inducing aura that surrounded and penetrated Josie that maybe that might be enough to let her wake up.
The sun came up in a blaze of colorful glory on the late July morning. The day promised to be hot and dusty. They needed a good rain to clear the air, a long, gentle, soaking rain that would calm the dust and refresh the leaves of the trees. There had been that brief torrent of a thunderstorm earlier that month that had been more noise and flash than water. What rainfall there had been had quickly run off of the hard-baked ground and contributed to the relative humidity instead of cooling things off. Weather aside there was still that day in particular to deal with and alarm clocks went off and morning routines were begun. People got up and showered and dressed and made coffee and the morning newspapers were delivered to front porches or plastic boxes mounted to mail-box posts.
The morning shift nurse knocked breifly on Josie's door before entering to check her vitals and to change the catheter bag that was likely to be full. She was surprised to see two women sleeping in the bed. Her patient of five weeks was in her usual position but next to her, on top of the covers, was curled a woman of similar build and coloring dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and sweat socks. There was a chair pulled up close to the bed and a pair of worn tennis shoes on the floor in front of the chair. She made a notation on Josie's chart and left to tell the charge nurse of the unusual situation. The door latched with a crisp metallic click that echoed around in Josie's head. Her eyelids fluttered for a moment and her myopic gaze investigated the room. She wondered where she was, whose books and flowers and Beanie Babies cluttered the room. Her nose was itchy but her hand felt impossibly heavy to raise and scratch it. She wasn't alone. Sharing her pillow was a familiar yet unfamiliar face. Annie, she thought, Annie is here, I must be in heaven. Josie smiled and closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep once more.
It's Wednesday, thought Nina, Evan and Marc would be playing golf this afternoon. She struggled toward wakefulness and tried to remember who was on for the morning shift with Josie. The bedroom door opened and Evan was there bearing a cup of fresh coffee. Nina stretched and sat up.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"You're welcome. Thought I'd let you sleep in this morning."
"Where's my baby?"
"Downstairs, in the playpen. You want me to bring her up?"
"No, I'll be down in a couple minutes. Anybody call?"
"Wyn called a few minutes ago and said she'd gotten a call from the nursing home. Seems that Josie already has a visitor today, her sister, I guess. Wyn was on her way there and said she'd call later."
"Annie's here. This could be interesting. I'd better get dressed." Nina kissed Evan on the cheek and hopped out of bed.
When the phone rang Nina's mouth was full of a bite of Frosted Mini-Wheats. She motioned for Evan to pick it up, pointing at her cheek and chewing in an exaggerated fashion.
"Hello," he said.
"Evan, it's Wyn, put Nina on, quick."
He held the phone out to Nina. "It's Wyn."
Nina swallowed and took a quick sip of coffee. "Hi. What's going on?"
"Just get down here, and hurry."
"Okay, but what's going on?"
"It's hard to explain, just get down here, Annie's here and she said that Josie opened her eyes earlier, she may be waking up."
Nina hung up the phone and hurriedly said goodbye to Evan and Isabella. She put on her sandals and searched for her car keys. "I have to go, they think that Josie's waking up. I love you. Bye." The garage was hot and smelly and Nina held her breath until the door was open, letting in a somewhat fresher breeze from outside. She reminded herself to calm down and to keep her foot light on the gas all the way across town. This was no time to get stopped for a speeding ticket. She parked in the visitors' parking area and did her best not to run toward the door. Once inside she didn't stop to check in at the desk but headed straight down the hall to Josie's room. Wyn and Ethan and a dark-haired version of Josie were in the hall. Josie's room door was closed.
"Hi, what's going on, why can't we go in?"
"Nina, this is my sister, Annie. She got in last night and came right here."
"Nice to meet you," said Nina. "How come we're out in the hall?"
"They're changing her and doing some tests. Annie, tell Nina what happened this morning."
"She opened her eyes. She opened her eyes and smiled at me and then she went back to sleep. I was up with her practically all night talking and when I was too tired to hold my head up I just crawled up next to her. When I woke up her eyes were wide open and she was looking right at me. I rang the call button and in ten minutes the room was full of staff and her doctor was on his way over."
Wyn's lower lip trembled just a little and she sniffed back a tear. Josie's door opened and a nurse and a nurses' aid came out, they motioned for them to go on in. Annie and Wyn went in first and Ethan tugged lightly on Nina's hand. The door closed once more and in the otherwise empty hallway they held each other tight. How odd, she thought, no butterflies. In the weeks since Ethan had proposed to her she had put him off at every meeting because she had no answer for him. Miriam had said that she would know and that it was her own doing that had gotten her in this mess. And unexpectedly she knew. She knew and she had always known but until this moment of no butterflies she hadn't been able to put it into words. "Let's go in." she said. She cradled his face in her hands and kissed him gently. She knew she would have to tell him, but not right now. Right now was for Josie.
This time when she opened her eyes there were four people in the room. Josie squinted and recognized her brother and sister and Wyn. The fourth person must be Nina. She tried to speak but only felt like coughing. Soon they were all in an uproar and there were two nurses in the room and then a doctor. He gave permission for the feeding tube to be removed and she felt a slithery tickle up in her throat and coughed and the nurse wiped off around her mouth and nose. "Can I have a Diet Coke?" she asked quietly. Everyone laughed. "But my mouth is so dry." she complained.
"I'll get some ice chips." said the nurse as she left.
What's the matter with everyone, thought Josie as she watched them laughing and crying and hugging each other and trying not to talk all at once. "So what's going on?" she asked.
Nina smiled a teary, joyful smile and leaned in close. "Have I got a story to tell you."
* * * * * * *
Josie was getting transferred back to the hospital. They wanted to run some tests and observe her sleeping/waking cycle for a couple of days before they discharged her. Then there was the psych evaluation, they had to determine her state of mind and be confident that she was no longer a danger to herself. She was still going to require a lot of care, lying in bed for eight weeks had weakened her considerably, she was going to need some physical therapy. Josie wasn't clear on how she had ended up in the hospital to begin with. Her short term memory would likely return in time, and counseling sessions would hopefully help her deal with what it held. It was remarkable, she seemed to be okay, she had asked for a number of different things to eat and had been disappointed that solid food was at least another day away. Clear broth and jello to start and then onto more substantial fare. Josie had come back to them. And not quietly. Josie had done only one thing quietly in her entire life, she had kept a secret that had eaten away at her until it had nearly done her in. It was a bit of a mixed blessing, to the bliss and chagrin of all those around her, Josie would never be quiet again.
Nina pushed the button marked Coke and anticipated the sound of the can issuing forth from deep within the belly of the vending machine. Nothing happened. She pushed the button again and noticed that the little red "empty" light was on. She pushed the coin return button and once more nothing happened. Annoyed she looked over the other buttons for a second choice and settled on Squirt. She had really wanted a Coke but anything wet and cold would do in this heat. She walked across the street to the park and sank into a shaded bench to open her soda. She laughed out loud over the fact that Josie had requested a Diet Coke almost immediately upon waking. As if nothing had happened, as casually as if she were talking to the first-class stewardess or a vendor at a ball game.
There was no rush to give Ethan her answer but the fact that Josie was on the mend and back among the living meant that his stay was no longer open ended. Nina quietly drank her soda and rehearsed a speech in her head of just how she would tell him no, that she couldn't marry him, that yes, she loved him but their time had passed. She wanted to be clever and light instead of heavy and serious, oh, hell, what difference did it make. She did this all the time, she came up with exactly what she wanted to say in precisely the manner in which she wanted to express it and then when it came time to talk her brain went blank and she blurted out something incoherent at best. From now on, she thought, I will write down these brilliant speeches and read them off verbatim from note cards and leave the extemporaneous to the experts.
Nina looked up and saw Ethan waiting for the light to change so he could cross the street. She couldn't tell if he had seen her there or if he, too, was seeking sanctum from the celebratory atmosphere that had developed in Josie's room. She waved to him as he crossed the street and he waved back. She took a deep breath. She knew she would get through this but there was still a tiny part of her that wanted to hang on, that had enjoyed being desired by two different men. It was quite a novelty to her, even when she had been in college and had dated a number of men her attention had always been focused on one at a time. Nina didn't like juggling, at least not affection, it seemed so shallow and self-congratulatory. She stood up and walked the few steps to meet him.
"Ethan, I ..." She choked and looked up at him and as usual, the entire speech evaporated away.
"I know," he said softly. His blue eyes looked ineffably sad and faded, like they, too, could stand a good rain to clear them of the July dust and heat. He opened his arms and folded Nina in close. Their tears were quiet and cleansing and redemptive. Hers, over him for the last time, and his, over her for the first time.
"I'll always love you," she said, "I should have told you sooner. I didn't take it lightly, you know, that you came to me after all this time. You didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, Ethan, but hearing you say it out loud, it took me a while to figure everything out. Maybe I didn't marry Evan because in the back of my mind I always hoped that you'd come to your senses and come back for me. Then when you did, it just made things clear to me, that this is where I belong. With Evan, and Isabella. I've been so conflicted over you for so long that now it feels good to have made up my mind."
"This is where I usually say something funny so you won't know that you've gotten to me."
"Did I ever? Get to you? I mean, it seemed so easy for you to leave. Both times."
"Do you really have to ask? I begged you to come with me and it was the hardest thing I've ever done, leaving you behind."
"Oh, Ethan, omigod, I'm so sorry. I was so stupid and so stubborn. I was only eighteen and all I knew was that you were asking me to leave and I'd left so many times already. I'd had more mailing addresses than I was years old and this was the first place where I had made real friends, the first place where it was my choice to stay or to go. And I chose to stay. I was so wrapped up in myself that I didn't know that I had hurt you, I thought you were just running away."
"I was running away. From here, from my father. You were the only thing holding me here and when I couldn't convince you to come along I knew I had to leave anyway."
"What about twelve years ago? What was that? Just a couple of hot nights together and then you disappear?"
"I don't know, maybe I thought I was getting even. It took me a long time to figure out that it doesn't work that way. There should never be a score card, not when you love someone."
"Think we'd still be together, if I'd gone with you twenty-two years ago? Tell me what would have happened."
"I don't know. You're the writer, you tell me."
"Well, you never would have become an artist, because you wouldn't have suffered enough. And I would have gone to college down there and started hanging out with a rough crowd. You would have started drinking and never would have finished the house. I would have run off with my wild friends to New York City to write trashy novels that would get turned into Lifetime Original Movies starring Valerie Bertinelli and Adara Adams." They laughed. It felt good to laugh together again. "I don't know, Ethan. It might have been good. It might have been very good. We'll never know."
They sat together on the park bench for some time. He took her hand and kissed it and held it to his cheek before finally letting go. She asked how much longer he'd stay and they went on to talk of everyday things. They laughed easily and conversed as only old friends can, any tension or rancor that had clouded their earlier relationship had been cast aside. Two miracles in one morning, Josie had awakened from her self-induced sleep and in a way so had Nina and Ethan. In seeking a final solution for her own long-held pain, Josie had unwittingly brought them together to reach their own conclusion. It usually takes wisdom and time to see the far-reaching effects of your own behavior but sometimes it just takes a little bit of luck. That, and that tiny moment of clarity when things hold still just long enough for you to see how they fit together, just long enough for you to focus on the heart of the matter at hand. The answer is frequently right in front of you, plain as the nose on your face, Belle would have said. If it had been a snake it would have bit you.