Posted: January 30, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Dec. 15, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve mentioned sailing. You must be thinking (and hoping) that I do nothing but study. Finals begin next week, but I’m caught up, so when Dr. Rosenau and Frank suggested going for a sail Thursday evening, I decided to go with them. It was divine – there was no moon and the stars were like diamonds in the sky…
The chimes were ringing three o’clock the following afternoon when I ran up to David’s office in the Health Sciences Building but, instead of finding the lights on behind the glass door and hearing the sound of music from twenty feet down the hall, his room was dark and a piece of paper was taped to the door:

P.P.M. Meeting 3-5

Inquire at office for messages

I read the note several times. What was a P.P.M. meeting? Why hadn’t David called me? I could just as easily have come at a different time. A cold hand clutched my heart as I began to wonder if he was avoiding me. “Inquire at office for messages,” had to mean the typing. I continued down the hall to the departmental office where Iris Williams was bending over a typewriter; she glanced up at me without breaking the rhythm of her fingers on the keys.

“With you in a minute,” she said, returning her gaze to the note pad at her side. Iris’ unwashed hair was falling in front of her eyes and across her forehead, reminding me of a sheepdog. She finished the page, pushed her hair to one side, and looked up.

“What can I do for you?”

“I work for Dr. Rosenau. Did he leave anything for me?”

“Oh, you’re Kate Collins, aren’t you?” A lightbulb of recognition flashed on over Iris’ head and we stared at each other for a moment. I felt infamous; she Knew Who I Was.

“Yeah, he asked me to give you this.” Iris took a heavy manila envelope from the corner of her desk and handed the package to me. “He’s very nice, isn’t he?”

“Who?” I said stupidly, and then recovered myself. “Dav… Dr. Rosenau, yes, he is.”

Feeling foolish, I turned and left the office. Frank was waiting for me outside the door and fell into step beside me.

“Frank, what’s a P.P.M. meeting?”

“That meeting of David’s? Geez, I don’t know. I think it’s got something to do with the premedical curriculum. I wouldn’t wait for him if I were you. He probably won’t be out much before five. Don’t the two of you usually go over to the HUB around now?”

I nodded.

“How about joining me for a cup of coffee, instead.”

Frank was too full of Christmas spirit to notice my lack of enthusiasm and he managed to keep the conversation going with a minimum of input from me. He told me he was driving to Spokane the following week to spend Christmas with his fiancée. Frank had never talked much about her, but that afternoon, encouraged no doubt by the prospect of seeing Kathleen after an absence of several months, he related the complete history of their courtship. They’d met in high school as cheerleaders, which I couldn’t picture – Kathleen sounded too shy and Frank was fresh off the boat from Italy. After meeting Frank, Kathleen had converted to Catholicism and, as sometimes happens with converts, she became more Catholic than Frank himself, going so far as to spend two years in a convent before deciding to marry him. They’d been engaged for three years, and while Frank completed the work on his Ph.D., Kathleen was studying for her teaching credential at a Catholic women’s college. When I asked if their long separation was physically difficult for them, Frank looked at me aghast; he babbled something about the wife’s being the vase of chastity of the family and how he’d never done more than kiss Kathleen and hardly any of that.
“She’s very pure, you know; she’s with those nuns all day long.”
I was several years younger than either of them, but I suddenly felt old, very old.

“Are you still typing those articles for David?” Frank asked, glancing at the envelope on the table.

“Yes, we haven’t finished yet. He thinks we’ll be done in a couple of months.”

“Can I see what he gave you?”

“Sure, go ahead, but everything’s in Spanish. You may be a biochemist and fluent in Italian, but I don’t think you’ll understand it. I read Spanish as well as I do English and even I don’t know what half of what I’m typing.”

Frank removed a sheaf of papers and thumbed through them as I finished my coffee. He stopped at one page, read it, and looked at me with a frown. “You’re right; I don’t understand.” Frank replaced the manuscript in the envelope, bent the metal tabs carefully in place, and handed me the package.

When I reached the dormitory, I hurried along the hall leading to my room, key in hand, hoping the telephone would be ringing, but the room was silent. I sat down to study with one eye on the clock. By 5:45 I knew the meeting must be over and David still hadn’t called, but I didn’t dare leave the phone, even though I needed to go to the bathroom. I thought of calling the biochemistry department and dismissed the idea. David wasn’t likely to be in his office so late and if, for some reason, he was avoiding me, I had too much pride to let him know I was hurt. At six Norma knocked on my door to ask if I was going to dinner; I threw a final glance at the clock, another at the telephone, and left the room.

After dinner we sat for a long time in a small alcove overlooking the garden while Norma told me about her hunt for a cheap apartment in the university district. The residence hall restrictions disgusted her and, being over 21, she could live where she pleased. With enthusiasm, Norma described the place she’d found, a converted sun porch, large and airy, within walking distance of the campus, if two miles could be called “walking distance” and cheap, because the apartment was perched on the top of a steep hill. Norma wasn’t deterred, however; she was a great walker and big on views. I tried to share her excitement but, in truth, I was going to miss her. Norma wouldn’t understand, of course, for she was too self-sufficient to need anyone, just as I’d been before allowing myself to become so dependent on David. The problem of David was weighing on me. I was depressed Norma was moving out and even Frank’s engagement seemed like a sort of defection. I was wallowing in self-pity.

“Norma, do you think it’s true a man loses respect for a girl if she allows him to be too intimate with her?”

Norma lifted her eyebrows in surprise at the unexpected turn in the conversation. “Unfortunately, I’ve never had an opportunity to test that theory. I suppose it depends on the people involved.”

“You know how you read in advice to the lovelorn columns something like ‘I’ve been going with this boy for six months. He’s pestering me to prove my love to him, but I want to save myself for marriage. I’m afraid if I give in he’ll lose all respect for me…’ and so on.”

“Yeah, I’ve read those letters. I’m dying to see one that goes ‘Dear Ann Landers, you’re all wet. I’ve been screwing with my boyfriend every day for six months and we just got married. He said if we had sex first and he still wanted to marry me, that was proof he was interested in more than my body. Signed: Glad I did it.’”

I laughed in spite of myself.

“Judging from the conversations I’ve overheard around here, this dilemma seems to be fairly common. Something tells me your interest in the topic is more than academic.”

A group of girls sat down near us and we left the table to go to my room.

“You’re right,” I said as I unlocked the door. “David and I went sailing last night. I didn’t come back here; I slept on his boat.”

“With David?”

“No, he left around midnight. When I went to his office this afternoon to pick up the typing, there was a note on his door saying he’d gone to a meeting. He could have called me, but he hasn’t.”

Norma was sitting on my bed with her back against the wall; she stuffed a pillow behind her. “Hey, wait a minute, that’s a non sequitur. What does David’s going to a meeting have to do with your spending the night on the boat? What happened last night?”

I sighed. “I think David invited me to go sailing so we could talk; I’m sure he didn’t have any other intentions, but somehow we both got carried away.”

“You had sex?”

“Not exactly, but it was pretty close. Oh, Norma, it was all my fault. David didn’t want to – I practically threw myself at him. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid.”

“So now you think he’s changed his mind about you, lost his respect for you, or something like that?”

“One minute I’m this virginal teenager and the next one I’m pulling a box of contraceptives out of my pocket and begging him to spend the night with me. He’s probably in shock.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Just before he went home he said he was leaving the boat before I raped him – he was laughing and I took his remark as a joke, but now I’m beginning to wonder.”

“You think he went to the meeting because he’s avoiding you?”

“He hasn’t phoned me, either. What else am I supposed to think?”

“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, but you’re too busy painting the Devil on the wall to see it. What if the meeting came up unexpectedly? Suppose someone was with him when he wrote the note? Is that all it said, that he was going to a meeting?”

“The second line said to inquire at the office for messages.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, he left the typing for me with the secretary.” I gestured toward the envelope on the bed.

“May I?”

“Help yourself.”

Norma opened the package just as Frank had done a few hours earlier, and examined the contents page by page.

“What a bunch of gibberish. This is what he’s having published in Argentina?”

I nodded.

She smiled triumphantly. “Well, here’s one page that isn’t. It starts ‘My dearest Kate, I lay awake last night for hours…’” She broke off and handed me the letter.

“I’ll leave you to your ‘typing’ while I go search for a job as an advice columnist.”

I smiled my thanks and Norma closed the door behind her. Trembling, I sat at the desk and read David’s letter.

My dearest Kate,

I lay awake last night for hours reliving everything we said and did on Sturmvogel, feeling both anxious and elated, wondering if we reached any decisions, and whether I ever succeeded in making clear to you the nature of my misgivings. I’ve tried to apply the scientific method to our situation but, sad to say, logic is not applicable to affairs of the heart, or perhaps it is, and I’m unwilling to accept the conclusions. I made a mental list of the pros and cons, and while the pros number three at the most, the cons run on for pages.

Seriously, dear, I decided to hold the meeting this afternoon rather than see you, to give you more time for reflection. Please think over everything we discussed. I’ll call you Saturday morning.

All my love,


P.S. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas – Blaise Pascal

I finished the letter and laid my head down on the desk, suffused with relief. I knew I was foolish to have doubted David; with his letter in my hand I had trouble remembering the apprehensions which were worrying me a mere hour before. Suddenly I realized Frank had seen it when he was leafing through the manuscripts at the HUB. I read David’s note again, trying to imagine Frank’s reaction, and when I finished I knew what he meant by saying he didn’t understand.

A nightmare awakened me at two in the morning. David and I were together on Sturmvogel. I was leaning over the side of the boat, trying to run a line to a mooring buoy, but every time I was on the verge of success, Sturmvogel drifted away, and my body ached with exhaustion. I awakened with a start and sat up; I had fallen asleep with my head on the desk, and my neck was stiff. I tumbled into bed fully clothed and turned off the light.

I was still sore the following morning when the telephone rang.

“Hello, Kate? This is David,” he began as usual.

How funny, I thought – as if the caller could be anyone else.

He hesitated for a moment. “Did you get my note?”

“Yes, I found it.”

“After I left the papers with Iris I realized you might not open the envelope right away. I’m relieved.” I smiled and said nothing. “Are you free now?”

We agreed to meet after lunch outside the residence hall and David’s green DeSoto pulled up beside me on the driveway at one o’clock

“Are we going to the boat?” I asked as I opened the door. “I can dash upstairs and change to pants in a minute if we’re heading for the marina.”

“No, let’s go somewhere else. How about the zoo?”

“To see the fennecs?”

“I don’t care what we see. I just want to be alone with you. But not too alone.” David took his eyes off the road long enough to give me a quick smile.

Thursday’s clear sky had given way to a leaden overcast with more than a hint of rain in the air. Except for a couple of women pushing baby carriages and a few elderly men walking down the paths with their hands clasped behind them, Woodland Park was nearly deserted. David parked the car and we strolled past the rows of empty cages whose occupants had fled to the heated interiors. We sat on a bench facing the polar bears, the only animals that appeared to be enjoying the weather; across the moat, two cubs were playing tug-of-war with a huge piece of meat, romping and somersaulting from one end of the cage to the other, and we watched them, in silence, for several minutes.

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