CHAPTER 10

Posted: February 13, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Dec. 16, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

My last exam is Thursday afternoon. On Friday, Frank and I are helping Norma move to her new apartment and then he’s taking me to the Greyhound depot to catch the 5:00 pm bus for Ogden. It’s supposed to arrive at 1:30 pm Saturday afternoon. I hope Daddy can pick me up; if he’s not at the station when I arrive, I’ll call. I’m looking forward to coming home …

 

It snowed Saturday evening, the first snow of winter. In the garden beneath my window, two Indonesian girls from Blaine Hall ran barefoot across the grass in their white nightgowns, squealing with delight. They raised their arms to catch the falling flakes, like priestesses in a midwinter rite.

Long after the girls had come in, I stayed at the window watching the snow fall. For the first time in weeks I felt at peace with myself and with David and the crushing weight on my heart was gone. True, finals week started on Monday and I needed to call Dr. Libby’s office. Worse yet, I’d have pay Dr. Libby a visit, but Friday afternoon David was taking me to the Greyhound depot and I would be going home for Christmas. I thought of my parents and our rambling house on the naval base in Clearfield, surrounded by acres of farmland and pasture. I thought of the garden behind our house, where the rich soil yielded bushels of tomatoes, beans, and watermelons despite my parents’ desultory efforts at farming. The garden would be covered with snow now; perhaps at that moment Daddy had a fire blazing in the living room. Daddy was going to be so proud of my grades, so happy to have someone besides my mother to talk to. I thought how much he would like David if they ever met, but Daddy would never understand how I could love a man older than he.

On my bed the Pendleton wool robe I was making for David lay nearly completed, and I smiled in anticipation of giving it to him. David knew I’d been sewing recently; he’d even chided me for spending more time at the sewing machine than with my books, but he had no suspicion I was making something for him. Tuesday afternoon I would take the bus to Frederick & Nelson’s department store to buy a box and gift wrapping. It was going to be a very Merry Christmas.

Despite the approaching holiday, a hush lay over the dormitory. No one lingered downstairs after dinner to play records or watch television, and the halls were strangely silent. Every night during finals week at ten o’clock the girls gathered in the living room for doughnuts and hot chocolate, a Blaine Hall tradition. We trooped down in pajamas and hair curlers, giggling with nervous laughter, keyed up by the tension of finals week. The girls who were still preparing for exams brought their books and notepads and sat on the floor studying, while those who were finished laughed too much and discussed their preparations for going home.

My schedule was fairly well spread out; I had an examination in Spanish literature on Monday, Oceania and modern European history on Wednesday, and physical anthropology Thursday afternoon. After the Spanish final, I found a secluded phone booth in the basement of Denny Hall, and called Dr. Libby’s office. As I stood in the booth with my heartbeat pounding in my temples, I imagined the receptionist thumbing through her appointment book.

“This is for an annual?” asked the voice at the other end of the line.

“Yes.”

“We’re booked until the middle of January, but I do have a cancellation Thursday morning at ten. Can you make it then?”

“Yes.”

“Are you already a patient of Dr. Libby’s?”

“No.”

“Who referred you to us?”

My mouth went dry. I hadn’t anticipated this question. For a moment, I considered giving David’s name and then changed my mind. How was a person supposed to find a doctor if he didn’t have one? The answer came to me at once.

“The King County Medical Association.” Did such a thing even exist? I wasn’t sure. My reply must have been satisfactory, for the receptionist said “Very good then, we’ll see you Thursday at ten.”

I stayed away from David’s office all week, but we talked on the phone. Even though I felt prepared for the exams, I was tense; my face broke out as it always did when I was stressed, and I didn’t want David to see my pimples. Tuesday afternoon Norma and I went downtown to do our Christmas shopping or at least mine, since Norma planned to stay in Seattle over the holidays to get settled in her new apartment. We splurged and ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant, foregoing the free meal back at Blaine Hall.

Thursday morning I arrived nearly an hour early for my appointment with Dr. Libby and after registering at the desk, I sank uneasily into an overstuffed chair to observe the other patients. Dr. Libby shared his practice with another gynecologist; five women were sitting in the waiting room, four of them obviously expecting. I glanced surreptitiously between the fronds of a huge Boston fern at a couple of young women, girls actually, no older than I, who were comparing notes on their pregnancies, and listened in fascination as one related how she’d married her high school sweetheart, a sailor, the day after her graduation, when she was already three months pregnant; this was her second baby in less than two years. The girls prattled on mindlessly about breast feeding, morning sickness, and how much weight they’d gained. I sneaked another look at them through the fern; there they sat like a couple of complacent cows. One began telling the other how to predict the baby’s gender using a piece of string, a key, and a Bible. I turned away with a shudder of revulsion, embarrassed for my sex, and picked up a year-old copy of Fortune, the most intellectual publication in the waiting room’s magazine rack.

At last the receptionist called my name. “Catherine, doctor will see you now,” and I felt a surge of annoyance. It was demeaning to be addressed by my first name at the age of nineteen, and why had she said “doctor” and not “the doctor” or “Dr. Libby”?

A nurse measured my height, weight and blood pressure; handing me a shapeless blue gown, she led me to an examination room. “Take off everything including your bra and panties and put this on, open to the front. The doctor will be with you in a few minutes.”

I changed into the gown and perched on the edge of the examination table, wishing I’d had the foresight to bring the magazine with me to establish my bona fides as something more than a baby machine. I tried to think of a few conversational openers to impress the doctor, to show him my intellect clearly set me apart from the mass of vaginas and buttocks that slid across his table every day, but I was too nervous to come up with anything.

Five minutes later I heard a discreet knock on the door and, without waiting for a reply, Dr. Libby entered; he was about David’s age and coolly professional. While I balanced on the edge of the table with my feet dangling two feet from the floor, Dr. Libby took down my medical history on a pad of yellow paper. Sitting on the table reminded me of riding the subway in New York City when I was a little girl; my legs hadn’t reached the ground then, either. I was clearly at a disadvantage; Dr. Libby sat poised and comfortable on a folding chair while I faced him in that ridiculous position.

As Dr. Libby was questioning me, I kept looking for a good point to interject the real reason for my visit. At last there was a lull and I swallowed hard. “In addition to the examination, I would like to be fitted with a diaphragm.” I looked closely at the doctor. He kept on writing. No raised eyebrow, no glance at my ring finger. Nothing. Perhaps he hadn’t heard me. I was getting ready to rephrase my request when he glanced up.

“We’ll get to that after the vaginal exam.”

His nurse draped me with a sheet and directed me to place my heels in the stirrups at the end of the table. Dr. Libby was taciturn; his conversation was limited to asking me to slide father down, to take a deep breath and to lift my head. When he had the requisite smears on the glass slides, neatly labeled for the laboratory, Dr. Libby brought out a tray of diaphragms. He determined the proper size, explained how to use one and wrote me a prescription. Clutching the precious paper and a couple of pamphlets, I stopped by the receptionist’s desk on the way out.

“I’d like to pay for today’s examination now, if possible.”

The receptionist smiled. “How nice. That will save us the trouble of sending you a bill.” I smiled back, suffused with relief the ordeal was over, and paid the $15.00 charge with a feeling of benevolence toward her that I’d lacked before. I put on gloves before entering the pharmacy and presented my prescription with feigned nonchalance, as if a diaphragm and spermicide were everyday purchases.

David phoned me in the evening. We had to be circumspect, of course; everyone knew the dorm switchboard operators listened to the conversations.

“Well, how did the appointment go? David asked.

“It was fine, no problem. What a relief to have it behind me! By the way, you were right.”

“About what”

“W.L. He didn’t put me on a rack or pull out my fingernails. He didn’t even turn a hair when I brought up the subject.”

I could imagine David’s “I told you so” grin at the other end of the line.

“Are you still coming by the dorm early tomorrow afternoon?” I asked. “You said you’d help Norma move before we go to the bus station.”

“Yes, I should be at Blaine by two unless one of you has a change in plans. Your bus leaves at five?”

“That’s right. Are you going to be in your office tomorrow, before you come here?”

“Probably, why?”

“I can’t tell you; it’s a secret. I’ll see you then.”

Friday morning I packed my suitcase and gave David’s robe a final pressing. I didn’t know where he was going to wear it, unless his wife was so accustomed to David’s receiving gifts that he could take the robe home with impunity. I was doubtful; maybe he could keep it on Sturmvogel.

I raced down to the Health Sciences Building after an early lunch, carrying the gift-wrapped box concealed in a brown paper shopping bag. It must have been the hint of Christmas in the air that made everyone I passed so happy. Strangers beamed at me and I returned their smiles; one of the gardeners raised his watering can and wished me a happy holiday.

On the way upstairs to David’s office I ran into Frank.

“Merry Christmas!” he exclaimed. Frank took the package from me and folded back an edge of the paper, exposing the Christmas wrapping beneath.

“How marvelous of you to bring me a present!”

“The present’s not for you, silly. It’s for David. Is he in?”

“He was five minutes ago.”

“And a Merry Christmas to you, Frank. I do have something for you.” I leaned over, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and dashed up the stairs to the fourth floor.

When I knocked on David’s door he called for me to come in with the tone of voice he used with strangers; he obviously wasn’t expecting anyone. He was standing with his back to the door, bending over a couple of boxes on his desk, and he closed them hurriedly before turning around.

“Why Kate, what brings you here?”

“This,” I said, taking his present from the bag. “Merry Christmas, David. I made it myself, and I hope you like it.”

David looked both pleased and embarrassed. “I’m overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting you to give me anything. Jews aren’t accustomed to receiving Christmas presents, you know. Shall I open your gift now or wait until the 25th?”

“Oh now, please. I want to see how it looks on you.”

David unwrapped his present carefully, without ripping the paper or cutting the ribbon, and he gave a gasp of astonishment as he lifted the robe from the box. “So this was your sewing project! You made it yourself?”

“With my own eleven fingers.”

“Eleven?”

I counted down the fingers of my left hand. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six … and five makes eleven.”

“Thank you so much, Kate. It’s beautiful.” David put on the robe and gave me a kiss. “How did you manage to get such a perfect fit?”

“Haven’t you noticed I’m always embracing you? I’ve been measuring you, secretly.”

David held out his arms. “Then come measure me some more.”

He gestured toward the boxes on his desk. “Santa Claus brought you something too, but you caught me in the act of wrapping it.”

“Oh David,” I said with dismay, “I don’t want you to give me a Christmas present. I mean it; please don’t ever give me anything.”

He looked hurt. “For crying out loud, why not? I didn’t get you anything like a lace negligee or a diamond bracelet. On the contrary, my gift is so utilitarian I was having second thoughts.”

“If you start giving me things you’ll begin to wonder if I love you for yourself or for what I’m getting from you; I don’t want you to have any doubts.”

“Not a vestige.”

“Maybe you don’t now, but … isn’t that the stereotype, the older man showering the younger woman with gifts, buying her affection, really?”

“My economic condition doesn’t allow much showering, only a sponge bath now and then. Besides I know you’re not that kind of person.” David nodded toward the boxes. “Look, Kate, I don’t want to take these things back. Won’t you at least open them and then decide? If you keep them, I promise never again to buy you so much as a candy bar. You can pay for our dinners at Sam’s. You can buy our coffee at the HUB. You can subsidize my gasoline bill. Wait, I have it. I’ll be your gigolo and you can pay for everything. Let’s see, my car’s getting old…”

“David, you’re so silly,” said, tweaking his nose.

“Yes I am silly with you. It’s a blessing, like something I’ve retrieved from the past or maybe I’m just learning it for the first time.”

I opened the larger package and took out a foul weather sailing outfit, a duplicate of David’s, complete with yellow jacket and yellow bib-and suspender pants; the second box contained a pair of high black boots.

“David! Thank you! Now we’re twins! I can’t think of anything more wonderful. I’ll try them right now.”

I put on the outfit and we stood looking at each other, laughing. David put his arms around me. “You get soaked every time we sail; these clothes should keep you good and dry. Dry anyway. You ought to accept the boots, at least,” he whispered, running his tongue lightly down the edge of my ear. “When your tennis shoes get wet they smell.”

“David, “I giggled, “that’s an outrageous thing to say!”

“Sad but true. Will you keep them? I can take the clothes to the boat and put them in the hanging locker beside mine.”

“Of course I’ll keep them.”

There was a sound of someone kicking the door, followed by “open up, my hands are full, it’s me, Frank.”

David opened the door and Frank stepped in, concealing something under his jacket. He began to sing:

We wish you a Merry Christmas

We wish you a Merry Christmas

We wish you a Merry Christmas

And a Happy New Year!

“Merry Christmas, everyone. Or do I have the wrong holiday? By the looks of you two I’d swear it’s Halloween.” Frank pulled out a bottle of wine and a stack of paper cups from under his jacket. David picked up the bottle and read the label.

“Tsk, tsk, an alcoholic beverage on university property? I’m surprised at you Frank Caputo.”

Frank poured the wine into the cups and proposed a toast.

“To 1957!”

“To your wedding!”

“To fair seas and following winds!”

We raised our cups and drank. Unmindful of Frank, David put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a kiss; I wondered what Frank thought. He started to refill our cups.

“No more for me, thanks,” David said, putting his hand over the top of his. “I’m driving Kate to the Greyhound depot. Which reminds me…” He looked at his watch. “It’s time we were going. I hope Norma has her boxes ready.”

While Frank finished the rest of the wine, I took off the sailing outfit and David removed his robe.

“Let’s bury the dead soldier.” Frank suspended the bottle over David’s waste basket.

David took it from him. “Not in my waste basket you don’t. What I do in this office is damning enough without adding drinking to the list. Dispose of this in your own office. Or better yet …” He took one of the paper bags from his desk, put the bottle inside and handed it to Frank. “Take the bottle home and throw it away there.”
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