Classic Love: 7 Vintage Romances

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Whispers
Dorothy Fletcher

Avon, Massachusetts

1
.

Christine Jennings sat, at ten in the morning, drinking her breakfast coffee. The
Times
lay on the floor at her feet, neatly folded and still unread. She would get around to it sooner or later, but she was a person who came together slowly in the mornings, not ready, at first blush, to slog through its pages. The dining room table, with the detritus of the others’ morning meal, was sun-streaked in random patterns: four flowered table mats looked like individual small gardens blooming on the polished wood. The terrace, with its massed plants and bright blooms, seemed an extension of the room itself: beyond sliding glass doors the brilliant vista was rather like a fanciful
trompe l’oeil
, inordinately pleasing to the eye.

It was a big apartment, like a house, with a private feeling to it, spreading out expansively, rambling, almost. They had lived here for just under three years and Christine was still, at times, able to see it with a fresh and favorable eye. In the mornings like this, with the rest of them gone and the place her personal domain as she listened to the sounds from the street outside, all seemed well. She had left her bed from childhood with a sense of great expectations: something wonderful would happen today, because why not? She was an optimist, she supposed.

She buffed a fingernail thoughtfully. The trouble was that in these latter days she had been unable to put her finger on what wonderful thing would be likely to happen. Everything she had considered one’s rightful due had come to pass. What was left to anticipate?

You tell me, she said to the newspaper, nudging it with a slippered foot. You know everything, you prepotent rag. Even if your typos rapidly become insupportable.

The coffee urn was empty. Well, that was that. She must get going, she told herself, but sat there twisting a strand of her hair. She must get going, granted, and since she knew exactly where she was going
today
there was no need for a decision about that. How about tomorrow, though, and all the other tomorrows: what was she going to do with the rest of her life now that the children were no longer children? Go out shopping every day? Play bridge? Join a health club?

She wasn’t sure how many of the women friends she was lunching with today had reached this unpleasant crisis point, but she did know, having discussed it at length with her, that Ruth Alexander was in similar straits, which was one reason, Ruth confessed, that she could scarcely bear to remain indoors, as all she ever did was brood. Ruth said she had difficulty even reading a book, not being able to keep her mind on its contents for drifting into endless introspection and self-examination that led nowhere.

She said that sometimes these fruitless trains of thought — where was she going and why did a woman have to come to this stinking impasse — made her hyperventilate. “I press the panic button and it’s anxiety time, then I start to gasp in this
awful
way, ending up with a migraine.” This was something that happened to weak sisters and Edith Bunker types, Ruth had always thought, certainly not to intelligent persons, enlightened women, women with
minds
.

Christine didn’t hyperventilate and she didn’t have migraines. She was not as passionate about this textbook, case history, housewife blues syndrome as Ruth was. She was inclined to feel grumpy about it, or aggrieved, or even wryly amused. So it hits us all, she reflected. The kids grew up and Daddy was out in that big wide world and what did you have left? A house. It’s happened to this woman and it’s happened to that woman and now it’s happening to me. And I always thought I was so special. But it didn’t make her gasp in any “awful” way and most of the time it seemed to her that she was overstating the case, that most of it was a very natural fear of the future that anyone would have as the years wore on, that a lot of it was not wanting to grow old.

Nothing, of course, had changed for Carl. Her husband, working to the limit of his capacities, admired in his profession, gifted in it and dedicated to it. He had only, in some ways, just begun: he was growing all the time, learning all the time, new methods, new professional operandi, meeting people in many walks of life, an octopus with arms reaching out in all directions, a big man physically and a big man in his field.
He
certainly wasn’t in danger of having an identity crisis, not Carl.

There was their son, Bruce. On the brink of manhood, in some ways a man already. Leaving for Yale in another year, ready for new worlds. There would be lovely young girls and eventually one special girl whom he would marry. And who would one day sit at a breakfast table wondering where all the glitter had gone. There would be, for Bruce, Med School and internship and ultimately a practice.
Tel pére, tel fils
. LIFE, in caps, held out a welcoming hand to him.

As it did Nancy. She was pretty now; she would be exquisite, a blend of a healthy father and a healthy mother. She would almost certainly have a glittering future, as she was selfish enough to insure for herself what she wanted. When she was sure of what it was she would go ahead and get it. Nothing would stop her, certainly not pity. She had only contempt for what she called mawkish dogoodism.

And what about Mom? Not that they called her that, thank you very much. She had never allowed it. It was Mother, though she wouldn’t have minded Mama, which sounded European and quite classy, but Mom, or Ma, had been verboten from the very beginning. What about Mother, the lady of the house? Now that the rest of them had been accounted for, with everything coming up roses, what about Christine?

She lit another cigarette. The truth was she was ambivalent about this apartment. It added to the general finality of things. They would not be moving on, not from here, this symbol of the American dream, the costly cooperative that would only increase in value over the years. This was it. Here she was and here she would stay, with the proverbial “jewel” of a woman to do the cleaning and only meals to think of for herself. She would wake for God knew how many mornings with her hearty dreams and her appetite for living and face it anew, this arrogantly esthetic cluster of rooms with their Ethan Allen and Henredon pieces and spool beds and butler’s table and the Schumacher drapes. There it would be, complacent and orderly, everything in its place and staring at her smugly, the breakfront and the Georgian tea service and the Cuisinart and the microwave oven and the blender and the terrace that looked — or had been designed to look — like one of those charming overhanging balconies in Napoli. It had all cost thousands and thousands of dollars outside the purchase price and she sometimes hated it.

Or something very like that. It was a fake, it seemed to her, like a stage setting that looked authentic and homey to the audience but didn’t house real people, only actors who were there every night to say their lines and give a performance. It was just a replica of a home, in some arcane way, and it had nothing at all to do with her, not her soul and not her psyche. She would have preferred … well, almost, something like the apartment in the Village that had been hers and Carl’s first home. Bleecker Street, with most of the furnishings picked up at Good Will. That was real enough and it didn’t have to insist on anything. It had housed a young man and a young girl who loved each other and who knew, really knew, their priorities.

She hadn’t changed, not a bit. She was still Christine Elliott Jennings and she was a fun-loving broad with a passion for music and books and the graphic arts and she liked to wear her hair in different and various ways and keep her long legs smooth and shaved and entertain people with her mimicry and go out to dinner at lovely places and enjoy the eyes of men on her and wear sleek swim-suits and be admired and go to small Hungarian cafes where a zither tinkled out schmaltzy tunes and open her legs out of love for a man and lie on a hill of a summer’s day with sheep-in-the-meadow clouds you wanted to reach up and touch with your fingertips. She was only forty years old and it was her turn now.

Why not? She had done her stint. Cooked and scrubbed and ironed shirts, catered to the Man, made him comfy and filled his belly, listened to his discourse, accommodated his sexual needs. Christine done good, like a good wife should.
And
mother. So now what?

Once more she thought of a job. It chilled her. Nine to five, and in all sorts of weather. She had loved working once, being part of a crew, coffee breaks, gossip in the ladies’ room, friendship, common gripes, drinks after hours, the Barberry Room, Tony’s Wife, Piazzetta. But that was rather a long time ago. It would be stepping down now, and she wouldn’t fit into a
little
job, not her. A receptionist, something like that: that was what would be open to her at her age. A fancy, important post was out of the question. Young blood, that’s what they wanted. Crass kids, arrogant little sluts with crazy hair and blusher smeared all over their faces. Like her own Nancy.

Oh, but she loved Nancy. It wasn’t
that
. Just that there was, and had been for some years, a kind of war between them, but that was textbook too, and it didn’t hurt too much. When the chips were down it was Christine Nancy turned to. Feminine gender concerns, even if your father was a doctor, called for confabs with a female parent. “Yes, Mother, if the time comes when I am simply dying of love, we’ll talk it over and then decide.” That was in reference to the Pill, or at least about preventive measures for a headstrong girl: you had to anticipate these things. Nancy had used that poetic phrase and Christine had thought of the Song of Solomon. “Comfort me with apples, stay me with flagons, for I am sick of love …” And tried to imagine Nancy sick with love, her little girl.

She certainly did love Nancy, though it was not always easy. Bruce, who “took after her” and who didn’t despise do-goodism and who, after all, was her firstborn … well, there was a fierce maternal feeling for Bruce. Her son had a gentleness, a softness that sometimes turned her heart over. Like the time they’d watched a rerun of
Frankenstein
on TV. He was about ten then. At the end, when the poor, bewildered creature had been trapped in the flames, Bruce had struggled with tears. He had plumbed the allegory, sensed the symbolism. There was no savage hate in his heart.

“Darling, it’s only a movie.”

“I know, It’s just — ”

“He’s out of his misery. It’s better so, isn’t it dear?”

They were worthy kids. No longer belonging to her, as once they had, but to themselves, to what they would make of their lives. It was up to them now, her guardianship was just about over. Where were the infants she had carted around in buggies and taken to school on their first day? Why gone, gone forever, as was the little girl she herself once had been. You could never get those children back.

Well, time to rush now, she had dallied too long and would have to race the clock. Her lunch date was for twelve-thirty and it was a few minutes to eleven. She had to shower and do her hair and get dressed. But as she was meeting the girls at a restaurant not far away it was okay. Her spirits had risen. There would be Meryl and Clover and Ruth and Helene, and they had known each other for lots of years, were more au courant with each others’ daily lives and ways of thinking than were their own siblings. They got together, in a group, roughly once a month, for a lunch at places like Mercurio’s or La Grenouille or Le Bistro, and at La Scala, on the West Side. Sometimes they trekked down to Michael’s Pub, for a little pizzazz. Someone’s husband might be there, in which case there would be some table hopping, some kidding. “What’s this, Ladies’ Day?”

She got up and left everything just the way it was on the dining room table. Mrs. Chamberlain would clear it, wash the dishes, make some fresh coffee for herself and then get out the vacuum cleaner. In order to escape the housekeeper’s chatter about the latest lies in the
Enquirer
, Christine closed the door that separated the sleeping quarters from the rest of the apartment, and began her preparations. She was humming now, once more tranquil as she was a naturally cheerful personality, able to slip from one mood to another with the same casual unconcern with which she closed a door between one part of the apartment and the other.

Out on the street, at twenty past twelve, she felt content and at ease, the knowledge that she was an attractive, desirable woman a quiet delight in her. She was pleased that Nancy had beauty too. It would simplify things for her, grease the ways. She walked down Lex toward the restaurant, which was on Park, but stayed with the busier thoroughfare because it was livelier.

This was her city, almost the heartbeat of her body. She felt secure and serene on its streets, with the rumble of the buses and the gleaming storefronts and the welter of people, the familiar, well-loved hodgepodge of types. She could understand shopping bag ladies, who, going down in the world, preferred the intimacy of the streets to sterile shelter in some eleemosynary refuge, fettered by stone walls and pious structures. A fierce independence to which they clung tenaciously.

For herself, Christine would have had to think twice if asked to make a choice between New York City and her family. It was her turf, it was herself really, and leaving it would be like a demand to relinquish her identity.

She breathed deeply and easily, her face bright and anticipative. It was only in the confines of her luxurious prison, her well-appointed home that she wavered. There, she was categorized, committed, immured in a domesticity that seemed to have lost its meaning. I love you, she was thinking, meaning the scene of which she was now a part, but she thought too that she might mean herself as well, just herself, a woman and a person, an entity apart from the others, and of some awesome importance, in the middle of her life, and certainly of some true and meaningful worth. She thought, I can be selfish too, and was buoyed by the resolve. After all, you only passed this way once.

• • •

The four women who sat at a corner table adjacent to a window in the sun-filled, ivory-walled Upper East Side restaurant might have been stamped from the same matrix, Christine reflected as she crossed the room. Groomed, easy, assured, they were examples of a certain time and culture, and of a place, which was Manhattan, U.S.A. They were at home here because they had been raised here, never having to learn the idiom, the topography or the mores. They had matriculated only in other ways and now, having reached a certain plateau in their lives, were at liberty to come and go as they pleased, as well as where they pleased, which today happened to be Le Perigord Park. What had once been hurried lunch hours when they worked in the same business office — and then continued their friendship as they moved on to other fields — had become more leisurely, as well as more expensive. That the latter was not of any grave concern to them was gratifying.

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