Chapter 5

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Sept. 24, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

It turned out I didn’t have to join the sailing club after all; to my great astonishment, Dr. Rosenau offered to give me sailing lessons on his boat. At this point I know what you’re thinking: (a) I never study and (b) Dr. R. is a lecher intent on seducing your only daughter. No and no. I hope the A+ I just received in my primate evolution exam will dispel the first apprehension, and as for Dr. R., he’s even older than Daddy and a bit long in the tooth for me. Very proper, not to worry.

Forgot to mention in my last letter that Norma and I went to see War and Peace a week ago…

 

When the telephone rang Monday evening I was studying in my room, sitting barefoot at my desk, with my hair loose and my feet tucked beneath me.

“Hello, Kate? This is David. Excuse me for interrupting you. I realize you’re busy, but can you spare a few minutes?”

“Of course.”

“Would it be all right if I bring over some additional typing? I meant to give you the work on Friday, but I forgot. I’d like you to include it with the next batch, if you can; it’s semi-urgent, but fairly short.”

“Yes, that’s fine; I have time. When will you be here?”

“In about ten minutes. I’m calling from the office.”

“I’ll wait for you by the driveway.”

“No, let me meet you inside the dorm. It’s pouring. What’s the procedure once I get to Blaine Hall?”

“After you come in the main door there’s a telephone on the reception desk. The system’s internal. Give the operator my room number like you did just now and I’ll be right down.”

David arrived with a dripping umbrella in one hand and a sheaf of plastic-wrapped papers in the other. “Do you have a few minutes?” He peered into the living room, where several couples were studying together under the watchful eye of the housemother. “Not here, though; let’s go out for coffee somewhere.”

“I’ll be ready in a second. Let me put these papers in my room and grab a coat.”

Outside the residence hall the rain was coming down hard and David held his umbrella over us as we ran to the car. He put the key in the ignition.

“Kate,” he said after a long pause, “I was exaggerating on the phone when I told you the papers I brought are important. I came over this evening because I want to talk to you.” He glanced at me, as if to assure himself I was listening, and then stared down at the dashboard. “There’s something I need to tell you … something I should’ve told you long before this, but I haven’t … for one reason or another.” I knew what was coming. A hand wrapped around my heart and started to squeeze; my mouth went dry. I was sitting so far from David that the door handle was jammed against my ribs, and I had a sudden desire to turn it and bolt from the car, back to the safety of my room.

“I’ve been racking my brain all day, trying to think how to phrase this, but … ” He paused and looked at me again. “Kate, I’m married.” There was a long silence punctuated by the tattoo of raindrops on the roof and the pounding of my heart. I was shivering.

“I know. Frank told me … by accident.”

“When?”

“The day all three of us went sailing. When he drove me back to the dorm.”

“Did he tell you I have children?”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “I was wondering if someone told you or if you guessed. I thought it was odd you never asked me any questions about my life here in Seattle.”

“I thought it was odd you never said anything about your life in Seattle. It’s like you stopped living after you got your Ph.D.”

“That sums it up pretty well.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before this?”

“At first … well, what difference did it make at first? Later … I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure how you felt about me. I thought perhaps you considered me as simply a genial old man, or you were politely pretending to be fond of me, just to be kind … and if I came out with a solemn confession, I’d sound like a fool. I tried to mention it casually, but I never found the right opening, and the more I waited the harder it became. Saturday … I realized maybe you do care for me … a little … and then it was even worse because once you discovered the truth, you were going to think I’d deliberately deceived you. I wanted to tell you, Kate, believe me. After our sail on Saturday … dinner at Sam’s … I knew I couldn’t put off telling you any longer, but I was afraid when I did, you’d never want to see me again. And maybe you don’t.”

Neither of us spoke for several minutes. I rested my head against the window, trying to fight back my tears, and then looked over at David, who was sitting with his left elbow resting on the wheel, cradling his chin in his hand and staring through the windshield. I began to sob.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’ve really let you down, haven’t I?”

“It’s not that. I’m not crying because you’re married. It’s what I told you the other night. No one has ever talked to me before the way you do. I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know what you expect of me. I feel like an actor in a play and I’m the only one who doesn’t know the lines. I don’t even know the p-p-plot.”

David slid over on the seat toward me.“Come here, dear.”

He put his arms around me and, still sobbing, I buried my face in his shoulder. David reached in the glove compartment, took out a small package of tissues, and handed it to me. I blew my nose and wiped my eyes.

“If it’s any consolation to you, I’ve never played this role before, either. We’ll just have to make up our lines as we go along. Look at me for a moment, Kate. After what I told you, do you still want …”

“Yes.” I slid my hands under his coat and around his back, hugging him tightly. I couldn’t hear the rain any longer; I was only conscious of David’s breathing, the scent of his hair and the warmth of his body. We sat with our arms around each other for a long time.

“Kate,” he said at last, “there’s one more thing I want to add. I don’t know how much Frank told you, but I’m sure you can guess … my marriage isn’t a happy one. I’m not going to tell you my wife doesn’t understand me or give you some hackneyed excuse to justify my behavior. I realize the world takes a dim view of old married men who get involved with younger women, and I held this opinion too, only a few short weeks ago. You said you don’t know what I expect of you. I don’t know what I expect of you either, or of us, or of myself, except to hope we’ll be kind to one another. You’ve heard the cliché – he’s old enough to be her father – and in my case it’s literally true. The difference in our ages isn’t what bothers me, though, it’s your naiveté. Taking advantage of your trust would be so easy, and I don’t want to do that. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

“I think so”. David drew back to look at me and ran his finger gently under my eyes. “You’re still crying. What’s the matter, dear?”

“Nothing. I’m so relieved, so happy. I always cry when I’m happy.”

“I see I’ll have to buy stock in the Kleenex company. Living in this climate is bad enough without your trying to drown me.” David rummaged in the glove compartment for more tissues and, finding none, gave me his handkerchief.

“No lipstick, please,” he added with a sad smile.

I wiped my eyes again. “I’m sorry to be such a blubbering baby. It’s like I’ve just ridden an emotional roller coaster and I’m still not sure which way is up.” I sighed and laid my head back on his shoulder. “I wondered how it would feel to be in your arms.”

“They say anticipation is better than realization. Is it true?”

“Emphatically not; the realization is infinitely better. The world could come to an end this very minute and I wouldn’t care.”

“I had another reason for wanting to see you this evening.”

“What?”

“Andrés Segovia is performing here in Seattle Friday night. I bought two tickets to his concert and it would make me very happy to take you.”

I looked at him appraisingly. “Are you inviting me because you’re sorry for me, because of what I said Saturday about never going out on a date?”

“No, you little ninny. I’m inviting you because I’m sorry for myself, because I have these two wonderful tickets and no one to go with, because I know you like the classical guitar, and because there’s no one in the world I’d rather take than you.”

My eyes started to fill with tears again and I turned away. “Yes, David, I’d love to go, very much.”

“I don’t know if it will make a difference to you, or lessen your guilt feelings, if you have any, but I did invite my wife first. She’s made other plans for the evening, so it isn’t as though …”

“I understand. You don’t need to explain. Can I take you up on the offer of coffee?”

“Great idea.” David started the engine and turned on the defroster. I couldn’t repress a smile as I watched the fog on the windshield receding from the blast of warm air.

“What’s so funny?”
“I was thinking of all the times I’ve walked down this path at night and looked at the parked cars with their steamy windows. Somehow I never pictured myself inside one.”

David smiled. “Can you sit closer to me? You’re perfectly safe so long as I have one hand on the wheel.” I slid over and he put his right arm around me. “That’s better. Do you want to go any place in particular?”

“Could we go to a drive-in so I can stay in the car? I don’t want you to see my red eyes and runny nose.”

David pulled into the first drive-in we passed, blinked the lights for service and bent over to whisper in my ear. “Now that we’re in public I think you should move to your side of the car.”

I looked up at his laughing eyes. “You’re making fun of me. Okay,” I said, resuming my usual position to the far right, “I shall be the soul of propriety.”

The waitress brought two menus and left. “How about something else besides coffee? I don’t think they’ll give us car service for such a small order.”

“May I have a slice of apple pie?”

“You may have whatever your heart desires. A la mode?

“No, thanks. Just plain”

I took off my shoes and tucked my feet beneath me. I sensed David was trying to steer the conversation away from our relationship; I was emotionally wrung out and glad to engage in small talk.

“What were you doing this evening when I called you?”

“I was working on a term paper for one of my classes in anthropology. I’m fairly well along on the research, so I can afford to take a night off.”

“What are you writing about?”

“You’re going to laugh; it’s about the sweet potato in Polynesia.” I couldn’t help laughing myself at how ridiculous it sounded.

“Good Lord, how can you write a term paper about a sweet potato?”

“Well, the sweet potato is the one solid piece of evidence for pre-Colombian contact between the cultures of Polynesia and South America. You see,” I said, warming up to my subject, “in Peru the sweet potato was known as the kumara; in Tahiti it was known as umara, in the Marquesas it was called kuma’a, and on Easter Island it was the kumara, like Peru. But the fascinating thing is the plant’s unquestionably indigenous to the New World. That’s very suggestive, don’t you think?”

“Downright sexy. Remind me to tell you sometime about the inhibition of glucose transfer by chloramphenicol in teichoic acid biosysthesis.”

We looked at each other and smiled.

“What’s your grade point average?

“Three point nine seven.”

He whistled. “I think you’re wasting your gifts on the sweet potato. Have you ever considered switching majors and studying one of the sciences, instead?”

“Never! I can’t even calculate beyond ten without taking off my shoes. I’m probably the only person you’ve ever met who failed algebra in high school. There were extenuating circumstances but, even so, I’m really a dunce at math.”

He frowned. “I’m sure that’s not the case. You must have been poorly taught.”

“David, you can teach me to sail, but if you’re harboring any idea of tutoring me all the way from simple addition to calculus, please forget it.”

After we left the drive-in, David drove slowly toward the residence hall, past the fraternity and sorority houses, past the botanical garden, through the campus, and back again. I can’t recall what we said during that ride. I only remember his arm around me and my head on his shoulder, the sound of the windshield wipers, the splash of raindrops on the roof, and the special feeling of belonging when two people are in love and there’s no need for words.

“When do you have to be back at the dormitory?” David asked as we passed Blaine Hall for the third time.

“Eleven.”

He held his wrist to the light and squinted at his watch. “So early? It’s almost eleven now. What happens if you’re late?”

“After they lock the door, you ring the bell and then someone lets you in. Once a week there’s an inquisition in the housemother’s apartment and the delinquents have to say their mea culpas in front of the creepiest bunch of girls in the whole dorm, the same ones who hold Monday night Bible classes.”

“Think what you’re missing – you could be studying scripture this very minute instead of going to hell with me.”

I wrinkled my nose at him.

“Were you ever late?”

“Only once. My friend Norma and I went to see War and Peace a week ago and the film lasted longer than we expected. We got back a couple of minutes past eleven, and the way they carried on you would’ve thought we were attending an orgy. Norma’s so disgusted she’s moving out after Christmas. To make matters worse, the movie wasn’t even good.”

“Have you read the book?”

“Three times. That’s why I know how bad the movie was. The director had an impossible job, though. You can’t make a movie out of a work like War and Peace; the book’s too vast. Tolstoy is my favorite novelist. Have you ever read War and Peace or Anna Karenina?

“I read War and Peace in German, years ago. I remember Tolstoy’s ideas of predestination in history better than I do the body of the novel, though.”

“Do you remember where Natasha and Nicholas go wolf hunting with Uncle – I think that’s my favorite part – or when they dress up as mummers? Every time I read War and Peace I discover something new, or a scene I passed over before takes on a new meaning, like the chapter about Prince Andrew and the oak tree. Do you remember it?”

“Not after all these years. Tell me.”

“Well, Prince Andrew is driving through a forest of birches in the springtime and he comes across an ancient oak tree. All the other tress are bursting with new growth, but this one oak is standing among the birches grim and misshapen, and it seems to Prince Andrew the tree is like himself, disillusioned and despairing of the future. A few months later, after he’s met Natasha and fallen in love, Prince Andrew is passing again through the same forest and he has difficulty finding the tree because now it’s covered with a canopy of green leaves. When he finally recognizes the oak, Andrew’s overcome with joy because he realizes that during the spring both he and the tree have been reborn. Oh, David, it’s so beautiful! Just remembering this part gives me goose bumps.”

David was studying me quizzically with a slight smile on his face.

“Why are you smiling at me like that?”

“Listening to you reminds me of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago between two girls about your age. One of them was telling the other that she’s been to Europe and Niagara Falls, and next year she’s contemplating – that was the word she used – contemplating – a trip to South America. This girl was worrying where she can go on her honeymoon since by the time she’s married she will have seen everything.” David laughed. “Isn’t that pathetic? Barely out of high school and already suffering from Weltschmerz.”

“What’s Weltschmerz?”

“World weariness. I love your enthusiasm, Kate. Promise me you won’t change.”

The rain was over when we reached Blaine Hall, and in places the clouds had parted to reveal a sprinkling of stars. As I got out of the car, I fixed my eyes on the brightest and recited:

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have this wish I wish tonight.

I shut my eyes and wished silently that David and I might be happy.

“What did you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you or my wish won’t come true.”

“Do planets count? That’s Venus, you know.”

“Don’t be so technical.”

We stopped near the door and looked at each other. There was an awkward silence.

“Have you forgiven me?”

“There isn’t anything to forgive.”

David drew me aside into the shadows and put his arms around me. “Kate, I’m so very fond of you. I don’t want to hurt you.” He leaned over, kissed me on the forehead, and said goodnight.
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