Shorthand

Short Story by Catherine Vance

Shorthand

When I went to live with my three-fourths sister Dora, I was fourteen years old.

Dora and I had the same father, and our mothers were sisters. Her mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and a few years later Daddy married her younger sibling, my mother Isabel.

When I was four, he died, leaving nine children from two wives. I do remember we used to sit on the front porch together and I would examine his hands: the calluses, the dirt in the whorls of his fingerprints. It fascinated me. Split and broken nails. His palms were hard as board. Oh, it gets really complicated after that.

My mother remarried when I was twelve—a man she never should have. He had these binges where he drank, and when he drank he acted in ways he shouldn’t have. For certain, he acted in ways he shouldn’t have with me. At first, I wasn’t sure it was wrong. He was friendly, and asked me to sit on his lap, like a daughter might do with her papa. I missed having a father, and I wanted the attention. But there came a time when things went too far, and I told, and Mother grabbed me up and left him.

She brought me to Dora for safekeeping.

Dora had never taken kindly to my mother as a stepparent but had always been partial to me. Dora married a wealthy man, but, for whatever reason, could not have any children of her own. She was seventeen years older than me, and I brought out in her whatever maternal instincts she was ever going to have. When I needed a place to live, she was happy to open the door of her mansion a crack and pull me inside. She watched to make sure “Isabel” (she called my mother, her stepmother/aunt, always by her first name) went back down the sidewalk and got into that taxicab though, and left. This was around Halloween, as I recall jack-o-lanterns leering from a bench by the front door.

“Come here, honey,” Dora said. “Let’s go see your room,” and she opened a door to some princess wonderland, canopy bed, carpeted, with a desk and a chair, and a private bathroom. There was a tabletop radio and an array of movie magazines. Any time I wanted, I could turn on music or open some pages to study the life of a film beauty and float away into a dreamworld. My favorite place was the walk-in closet lined in cedar: Sometimes I would just go in there and stand breathing the wood and running my fingers over the pretty red boards.

I did not start school again until January, after the Christmas break. Dora never talked about what had happened to me. That’s how she was. Mama had outlined the story to her, but Dora just acted like things had turned out the way they should have been all along.

“Come here, sweetie, and let me brush your hair,” and I would sit on the vanity stool and she would fix me up. I was meant to be her child and not my mother’s, she thought. What my trauma was, what my stepfather did to me, made Dora so uncomfortable she just wanted to put candy coating over all the dirt and move along.

A few months after I had been there, there was a story in the Knoxville newspaper about a girl my age who had been abducted from her home in the middle of the night. It was said she had beautiful white blonde hair in pigtails that got her noticed. She was dragged around the countryside by a homeless man who told her God had a higher plan for her life. It was six months before someone reported having seen her and she got rescued. When her family got hold of her, her mother cried a little bit and then apparently said, “Let’s take you to the beauty shop and cut your hair, then we will go out for ice cream sundaes.”

I never wanted to get in touch with somebody so much in all my life. I had only read about her in the newspaper, but I felt like I understood exactly what the girl was going through. Did she say, “No, Mama, a haircut and a sundae are not at all what I need?” She probably did not know what she needed, but certainly it was not a different hairdo. The newspaper did not go into further detail.

The first chance Dora and her husband J.C. got—as soon as I had settled into my new room and was enrolled in my sophomore year of high school—they hauled me off to Myrtle Beach for the weekend. “There’s a big amusement park by the water,” Dora said, as if she had put it there just for me. I have memories of sound and color all blurred together. The sounds are red and yellow and blue, and the ocean seems to make a noise like a calliope.

Dora would not ride any rides; she made J.C. go on the Ferris Wheel with me. When we got stopped at the top, our basket swung back and forth and J.C. got sick over the edge. People on the ground looked up and said, “Ewww, son of a bitch!” Dora was mad the rest of the day, even though she was the one who made him go in the first place.

Sometimes I had conversations in my head with the abducted girl. I never knew when she would show up. She whispered to me what it was like, out in some field with the stars over her head like a veil about to drop. The man would come and take hold of her and her mind would go out and skip from this star to that until it was over. And I would whisper back to her and tell what happened to me and she would say, “Just you never mind. You are safe now. Take an extra shower now and then and you will feel fine, and one of these days you will meet a good man who will erase it all, erase, erase, erase. Won’t that be nice?”

***

At Dora’s I realized I did not know how to behave in what was now my home. At first I just sat on the edge of the bed in my new room, and if I got up, I smoothed over the spread as if to assure anyone who walked in that I had never been there. The house, bought and paid for with money from J.C.’s large grocery and mercantile, was like a palace to me. My mother and I and my stepfather had lived in a small shotgun house way over in the poor part of Knoxville. It was in need of new paint. It was clean because my mother kept it clean, but cold cold in winter and with the simplest of furnishings. I had an iron bed and a dresser and an Indian princess calendar on the wall for art. There were wooden floors with cracks running the length of the room, and crickets and mice came in at night through the boards.

Since I could not go back to my stepfather or on to my uncle’s farm (where my mother had gone—there weren’t any good schools there for me, or an extra bedroom), I had to go along with whatever Dora wanted to do with me. She was dominating, but not in a terrible way; I knew she loved me and wanted the best for me. After a while I began to enjoy it. She bought me new clothes. She found cantaloupe, a favorite of mine, in November! and surprised me with it at breakfast.

Also: Dora had friends at the Business Women’s League of Knoxville, and she arranged for me to meet some of their daughters at a luncheon. One of them took me under her wing and invited me to her house, and from her I learned how to behave in society. I learned to pretend, if not believe, I was a person of breeding and quality.

Hanley. I had never heard of that name before. I found out that it was not unusual for wealthy girls to have a surname for their given name. She, in turn, was intrigued by me: Dora had introduced me by my full name, Janeyre. “After the novel by Charlotte Bronte, it was her mother’s favorite book,” she told Hanley.

“Creative.” Hanley nodded in approval.

“But please call me plain Jane,” I insisted.

“You are anything but plain,” Hanley said, and ran me up and down with her eyes.

***

“But we can definitely fix you up.” We stood in front of Hanley’s mirror while she arranged my hair and drew a red mouth on me with her lipstick. Hanley herself was striking, buxom, and with glossy, shoulder-length brunette hair. “There’s some Italian in—ah me, my mama says.” She bunched her fingers underneath her lips.

But her main attractiveness was her confidence and the force of her personality, which came from having money, I thought.

Her bedroom was much like my own, but ordinary to her, not amazing, like mine was to me. Hanley threw herself face down on her bed and rolled over to pick up her movie magazine, not thinking twice about messing the spread. They had a maid who cleaned up behind us and brought us snacks. The abducted girl went around Hanley’s house with the maid; they were both invisible. She made dramatic faces at me while Hanley taught me what to wear and discussed various boys in high school.

“We’re going to double date,” Hanley told me one day. “I’m arranging everything.” There was going to be a swim party at another girl’s house. The boy that Hanley was fixing me up with was in our geometry class. He looked all right, though he was a little on the runty side. I didn’t care anything about him one way or the other. He was the manager of the football team, and a good friend of the quarterback. Hanley was dating the quarterback.

Dora was in favor of it. She had wanted for years to get to be better friends with Hanley’s mother at the Business Women’s League, and I had opened the door. But I sat there feeling more or less flat about the whole idea of “dating.”

J.C. took my side. “Let her stay here with me,” he told Dora. “Why should she do something she doesn’t want to do? We can go to the movies. Or out for ice cream. Can’t we?” He winked at me.

I had decided I wanted to marry someone like J.C. I did not feel flat about J.C. I loved him halfway between a father and a boyfriend. A man like J.C. would never ask me for favors; he would just look to see what I wanted. He was naturally kind, and not good looking, so he would never have the assumptions a handsome man might have about how lucky a woman was to have him.

“Go ahead and go out with Hanley,” the abducted girl whispered to me. They never published her name, just called her The Victim. I had started to call her Vicki. “Dora wants you to try and be normal,” Vicki said.

The date was not a success by any means. Something had happened to me and I did not act the way I should. My flatness was still on me, and Arthur was not the one to break it through. The boy had no experience at all with girls, that was obvious, and I had no interest in giving him hints. The only one I could follow with any enthusiasm was Hanley, because by watching her I could see what a girl might be, I could see what a girl might feel.

Arthur and I sat in the back seat of the quarterback’s car. It smelled like gum and sweaty shirts and dust. Arthur agonized over what to say to me, and I tried to answer his questions. How did I do on the geometry quiz, what church did I go to, was I a member of the yearbook club, he thought I was? No, I wasn’t. “Oh, I thought you were.” Arthur fell back into silence, and gathered a new topic of conversation in his head while I watched the sexual energy crackle between Hanley and her boyfriend. It was almost like I had X-ray vision and could see straight through the front seat, see how urgently their hands rubbed on each other’s legs. I could tell how their hands twined, just waiting for a chance to be alone.

“One of these days, that will be you.” I heard Vicki speaking.

“Do you think we can make it to State in the basketball tournament?” Arthur asked.

“I hope so.” I answered Vicki and Arthur with the same sentence.

While I never was a great date, I was a diligent, well-behaved student. I was not an intellectual, but I worked hard and my grades were respectable. About February of my senior year, Dora sat me down on the living room sofa and took up my hand. “I can’t believe you are about to graduate,” she said. “Two and a half years have gone by fast.”

The grandfather clock in the foyer played Westminster chimes and hit four strokes. Dora waited until it was done, then said, “What do you think you would like to do after you finish? What kind of work do you feel suited for?”

I had been thinking about this myself but hadn’t come to a sure conclusion. I assumed that Dora already had a plan in mind for me, though, and this was surprisingly comforting. I was a wonderful project for her—she was mostly well meaning and had fun managing me, and it took the pressure off. I could always do whatever she wanted until a decision became firm in my own mind. She probably was mulling something involving the store that J.C. owned. It was quite large and successful, and their two-story brick home in a well-to-do neighborhood verified that.

Dora had gone to work for J.C. as a young woman just off the farm, and it had proven to be her ticket to a better life. She had sized up the situation from Day One, seen J.C. in all his homeliness and his quiet misery with a wife who doted on her son and hated the business. Slowly Dora ingratiated herself and won J.C.’s affections. She learned how to do all the jobs, from cashier to merchandising to decorator to cleaner and stock person. In time, J.C.’s wife saw the lay of the land, gathered her pride and the delicate son, and divorced him. This suited my three-quarters sister’s plan precisely.

Dora was a pretty woman, if somewhat on the plump side. She had thick black hair that she wore ear length. Every night she curled it up with bobby pins in a circle around her head like a crown of thorns, and every morning she brushed it out and put on a pair of chunky ear clips to match whatever dress she was wearing. She had over fifty pairs of earrings.

She took one off now; it was sky blue with a rhinestone flower in the middle of it and rubbed her earlobe while she waited for me to speak. I said, “I was considering going to business college, taking typing and stenography and shorthand and bookkeeping. I’m not sure which one I might like best.” I knew I did not want to be a nurse, and I did not feel smart enough to go to a big school like The University of Tennessee.

Dora smiled. This suited her plan precisely, as well I knew. The thing she hated to do most was bookkeeping, and I was pretty sure she wanted to hand that over to someone, and if it was someone she did not have to pay much, if at all, so much the better.

And so it was decided. I wrote my mother to let her know what was happening. She sent me a note back—

Dear Jane,

I am so proud of you it was always my dream to get more education and I am glad it has happened for you I wish I could come to the graduation ceramony but your uncles can’t break away from the work to bring me. I also wish I could be the one to help you go to business school sense since that is what you want but if Dora and J.C. are willing to finance it then we must all appreciate it

Things are well here with us all. The peach trees are showing a good crop I hope I can send you some jam later on. Here is a money order for $20 I hope it will help you buy something nice or maybe use it for your books

I love you and miss you so much. As ever, Mother

After graduation Dora and J.C. took me to Charleston, South Carolina, to celebrate. We stayed at a pink house near the beach—Dora really liked the ocean, though she wouldn’t go in the water. We went to a restaurant run by a Negro lady and had shrimp and grits for dinner; they are my new favorite food.

The next day we went shopping and bought a handmade basket at the market, then took a ferry out to Fort Sumter. It is a little island of concrete with old iron cannons pointed out through small arched openings. A little museum has been installed where visitors can read about how “The Civil War Started Here” and see old parchment and ink documents under glass and pictures of soldiers in Confederate uniforms.

For all it was about a terrible era, Fort Sumter was a pleasant place, sunny and fresh, and it gave me hope. A war cannot go on indefinitely, though it might seem like it at the time. At some point all the conflict becomes the past and people can breathe again and forget their fears. I stood at the railing and leaned in against J.C. He wore pleated wool trousers in any weather, and the fabric itched my leg where it touched. J.C. is such a calming person to me, bulky and with his dear homely face with the glasses and weak chin. I trust him utterly, except for his judgment in choosing Dora. “You know there must be good men in the world,” I told myself. “Gentle gentlemen, like J.C.”

“Bad times don’t last,” J.C. said, looking across the sun-starred water. He put his arm around my shoulder.

“Of course not,” I agreed. I started to relax, and so when I turned around I was surprised to see Vicki across the open quadrant of the fort. Before, she mostly hid when she spoke to me, and her picture had not been in the paper, but I knew it was her. She did not have braids any more, just a normal pageboy, and she was sitting on a bench reading a book. “I see someone I know,” I told J.C. “I’m going over to say hello.” But when my glance went back to her again, I saw I was mistaken; it was actually a grown woman with pale straw-colored hair. She was indeed reading a book, and beside her, I didn’t know why I had not seen it before, was a baby stroller that she pushed forward and back with her foot.

***

In the fall, I went to business school, and it seemed like I came into my own for the first time. There were only two or three girls from my high school. Otherwise everyone was new to everyone else. I discovered I liked shorthand, with all its mystery and appearance of Arabic. Knowing it gave me a confidence that brightened my attitude considerably. Soon I felt like Vicki might have found someone else to talk to; I missed her just on rare occasions.

Shorthand, or “Gregg” as we called it, after the textbook author, was like a secret hieroglyph, another language. It was made up of hooks and loops and brief lettering. We learned it gradually, beginning with a variety of small circles for vowels. Soon, I no longer needed real English words. Language now flew rapid and free, and I used shorthand for everything from my personal diary to notes on phone calls.

“ANBA:” I wrote the abbreviated phrase—“I have not been able.” Or just a small arch, like that, meant “can.” In dictation in class, I received the highest marks and was the fastest at following the spoken word. I wrote over 200 words per minute. I had never been at the top of anything before.

I kept living with Dora and J.C., but at last I started dating some young men and felt comfortable. Hanley was at the University of Tennessee; we wrote occasionally and she cheered me on. She had broken up with the quarterback, of course, and her new boyfriend was pre-law. On the home front, Dora was suspicious of any male attentive to me, and had to approve of his family before she allowed me to go out.

I got tired of this after a while. I was now eighteen years old, almost nineteen. During my second year of business school, I started to do things without telling Dora. It was not my style to be particularly rebellious and angry. But I had never developed a sense of independence, and I did it now intensely, occasionally lying to her and saying I was studying with a friend when I had actually gone dancing with a date. I knew what was best for me now, and some of those things I kept to myself.

Frances, a girl in the business school, took Hanley’s place. She was sincere about her studies and already had a receptionist’s job at a doctor’s office. “I might be an office manager or an executive secretary eventually,” she told me. “If I can work and complete this business course both.” Executive secretary seemed to be her top aspiration, barring marriage.

We sat together on concrete benches under the trees between classes. We gave each other silly childish sentences to translate into shorthand: “Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town. Old Mrs. Jones was hiding some bones.”

Frances was several years older than the rest of us, worldly in a mysterious way that bespoke “experience.” She had thick red hair. There was a white streak in it over her right eye which she said was natural, and she wore tight short-sleeved sweaters in unusual colors like green apple or pale orange. Girls wanted to understand her or judge her; boys wanted to spend time with her. “I know some people think I am showing off,” she confided. “But this really IS my hair, and the sweaters were just mark-downs of mark-downs off the sale rack—I don’t have money for good retail clothing.”

Nothing bothered her; she took people’s opinions in stride and never seemed stressed by grades or finances. She had a bawdy sense of humor and a sparkle in her eye. But if I seemed troubled, as I was when she found me one afternoon in a booth at the Rexall Drugs, she was ready to sit and listen.

I had just been stood up for the first time, and by someone I had started to like. The boy was to meet me and take me to a concert, but he hadn’t shown up. I couldn’t go home because I had lied to Dora, so I was waiting out some of the time with a book and a grilled cheese sandwich for my supper.

“I don’t know why you would give Lloyd another thought,” said Frances, hearing my lament. She lifted her hand and whiffed it back like a scrap of paper released to the wind. “I went out with him a time or two myself last year. His grades are horrible and his car is dirty and he was rude to our waiter. You don’t want to waste any energy with him, trust me.” She settled into her side of the booth and ground one of my French fries down into a pool of ketchup. “Look, have you heard me speak of my fiancé Robert?”

I shook my head no.

“Well, he’s a salesman for a pharmaceuticals company, and he will be home this weekend.” She looked me up and down the way Hanley used to. “Lloyd!” she said closing her eyes and shuddering. “Wouldn’t you like to go out with someone worthy of you? I have just the man in mind, and we could double date.”

“A blind date?” The little room where I kept my lies to Dora, my secrets, showed me its door again.

“I have a cousin…” Frances began, eating the French fry she was toying with.

“Of course you do,” I put in. “Why does everyone think I am the kind of girl who needs to be set up with their cousins or with pitiful friends of their boyfriends?”

Frances threw her head back and laughed, slapping her hand on the table. “Now, I wouldn’t do that to you! Gary is a catch, believe me. I will warn you though, he’s a bit older. He’s been in the service, the Army and the Navy, both. He’s been in California working as a pilot until just recently. He’s a Tennessee boy though at heart. Missed us all, he said that’s why he came back. He’s living with my aunt, his sister, and looking for work. But he’s TALL. GOOD looking. You’ll see.”

I pulled my food out of her reach. “Right,” I said. “Lloyd was tall and good-looking, and he had a job, and look what your opinion of him was. So now you think I’d like to go out with an unemployed ex-soldier relative of yours, practically middle-aged, and living with his big sister.” I looked out the plate glass window beside me. It was getting dark, and the store would close soon. It was probably safe to go home.

“Aren’t you living with your sister?” Frances persisted. “It’s just temporary, we don’t hold it against you! You’re one of the prettiest and most sincere people I know. Gary’s bright, has a wonderful future ahead of him. But he doesn’t have the right job yet.” She paused. “Or the right girl.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m just imagining,” she said. “It seemed worth a try to me.”

“How old IS he?” I asked her. I thought of how J.C. was the only man I really loved, but he was already taken, and sadly, he really was too old. But what if there was a J.C. out there, slow and safe, only a little younger, and in a tall handsome body?

***

Frances picked me up at Dora’s. We raised our eyebrows at each other as Dora opened the door for our departure. “You girls have a nice time at the book club.” She waved us down the sidewalk into the evening.

Robert and Gary met us at the Captain’s Table Steakhouse for prime rib and potatoes. He was twenty-six, Frances had told me beforehand. Six feet plus, slim and neatly dressed in well-ironed slacks and a plaid shirt. Wholesome as a male model scissored out of the Sears Catalogue.

Our eyes met, we smiled and shook hands, and I felt happy with what I saw. Vicki, whom I hadn’t heard from in over a year, popped in to whisper an opinion. “He is a man, not a boy. But he’s not worried about pleasing anyone. No agenda. I would tell you if he wasn’t safe. But there’s something… something a little sad about him.”

Over dinner, Frances kept busy selling me to Gary. Then selling Gary to me.

Gary turned to his cousin with his bright blue eyes and held out his palms. “Frances, am I all that, and the kitchen sink? The war hero, the pilot, the jack of all trades, the high school basketball star?”

Then he swiveled to me, laughing. ”Where’s the truth in advertising, as they say? Much as I might feel I should give evidence to prove what she just said is overblown, why should I want to shoot myself in the foot? I’m happy for you to believe it. Believe it all.” And then he drew his hand in a slow circle, from me to him, and back again, encouraging me even as he mocked himself.

After dinner, we went downtown to see if there was a good movie on at The Joy, but the last feature had started thirty minutes ago. Still we stayed, window-shopping along under the gold light from streetlamps and talking more. Robert and Frances could not do as they wanted with Gary and me along, but soon enough we separated into pairs, Robert and Frances some yards ahead on the sidewalk, their easy familiarity on display. He picked up the white strand in her forelock and ran it through his fingers, then leaned in to kiss her. They spoke softly to each other, but remembered they were on the street, and pulled apart reluctantly, two magnets being separated.

Gary put his hand on the small of my back as we looked in a pawn shop window. The display contained old musical instruments, diamond rings, and guns.

“There’s a pistol.” I pointed at a small handgun. “Go ahead, shoot yourself in the foot. Tell me—why are you not all Frances claims you to be?”

He kept staring into the glass. “Well, for starters, I would be lucky if I could shoot myself in the foot. I was in Mobile, Alabama, for most of the war. Was in over four years, and never saw any combat. Was sent to Okinawa for several months to build some runways, but it was all quiet. It was before anything really happened there. Loved the beach. Got a good tan. So—conquering hero? Naaahh!”

He shook his head. “Lucky in war I guess. But unlucky in love.” He tapped the window in front of some wedding sets. “There’s the real reason I came back from California. I had gotten engaged. She had my ring, but she gave it back, decided she couldn’t go through with it.”

I felt his hurt. It was like a broken object in his hand. It was cutting him, but he couldn’t yet throw it away.

Vicki breathed out of the darkness and pinched my shoulder. “See? I knew something was bothering him.”

“What happens now?” I asked.

“I am indeed living with my sister,” he said. “Wearing out my welcome. She raised me and would do anything for me, but it’s been hard for her, having me in the house while I look for work. Yep, mostly I am looking for work.”

“What would you like to find?”

“Well, the jack-of-all-trades label, I do own that. I can do any kind of maintenance or repair—plumbing, electrical, cars and machinery. I’m taking my time, trying not to sell myself short by winding up in some local garage changing tires. Not that I think changing tires isn’t an honest day’s labor.” I watched him as he spoke. He had a beautiful profile in the street light.

“Something will turn up.”

“How about you?” He took my elbow. Frances and Robert had stopped at the corner and turned around. They bumped against each other, waiting for us.

“I’m living with my sister too, hopefully once I’m through with this business course I’ll get my own place, but I will probably end up helping with the family enterprise, which is groceries and dry goods,” I answered.

He listened, then asked another question. “Where are your parents? If you don’t mind my asking. My mother died when I was four, my father’s out in California with my older brother.”

“Well, my father died when I was four! I’m the youngest of nine children. My mother lives in Abingdon,Virginia, on a farm with her two brothers.” I paused. “Long story.”

“I’m the youngest of ten children.” Gary smiled at me in the semi-dark. “Looks like we have some parallels. I like coincidences.”

I nodded.

“Worth exploring?” He squeezed my arm just a bit.

“Yes,” I said. Frances and Robert were just one storefront away.

“I will call you,” Gary promised.

***

That is how it began with Gary. We began to spend time together, going to movies, dancing, often with Frances and Robert. Friendly but not romantic. He was adrift and lonely, the California girl still in his head. He was in recovery, which did make him safe.

But because I knew I was still a child in Dora’s eyes, I did not tell her and J.C. about these dates. When I was at home, J.C. and I sat together at the kitchen table. I worked on my studies and he went over accounts or read the evening paper. “Let’s have ice cream,” he said. He got up and fixed two dishes of vanilla.

“Nuts, or chocolate?” he asked.

“Both,” I would say impertinently, and he would smile. I was happy when he smiled.

Dora would be up in their bedroom, putting cream on her face, pin-curling her hair. I’m not sure how it was possible, but both of us could feel her attitude in the house, an entity in and of itself, ambitious and remote. On the stairs it lingered like an icy pocket of air.

Dora was severe about nearly everything: When the store was slow, it was because J.C. was dense and old-fashioned, she claimed. We knew she would be angry somehow if she came down and found us enjoying ourselves. But why, for what reason? We could not put our finger on it, so we did not ask. J.C.’s sadness could lie about thick as fog, but we could not talk about it because we did not talk about the way Dora treated him. Everything in me wanted to help J.C., but how could I love him? I could not.

And then of course there was my own situation. My past, the elephant in the room, which we all colluded not to see.

I began to love Gary instead. There is something about taking care of someone who is wounded that makes you fearless. And when you are wounded yourself, there is something healing about a focus out of yourself. I thought of nurses in the war, how their patients fell in love with them. The women felt affection for the dependent men, men basically unable to get out of bed and pursue them. A woman might start to love such a man, someone with all his power and health not quite available, but coming back with the help of her touch.

Gary and I had started being affectionate. But one night, finally, after we had left Frances and Robert and we were alone, I knew he was thinking of just me, not of the California girl. He did not want to leave me alone; I did not want to leave him either.

“Goodbye, darling,” he said to me, reluctantly, as I got out of the car a block away from Dora and J.C.’s house. It was our usual procedure, to protect their knowing. He reached to pluck a piece of my dress back into his fingers.

“Goodbye,” I said back, not saying goodbye at all but throwing myself up against him one more time, with more kisses.

“Don’t you think it is time to stop this secret meeting?” he said finally. “Are you ashamed of me? I’d love to meet your sister and her husband…when is that going to happen?”

“Hopefully soon.”

“Good, I don’t like all this secretiveness. We are not doing anything wrong.”

I started to be afraid then, knowing how I wanted to touch him. I had told him about Dora’s protectiveness, told him about how I came to be living with her, that is—how my stepfather was a hard man to live with. But I did not tell him about what had happened to me. I planned to, but wanted to be certain it would not make a difference. To relieve some of the pressure I felt, I wrote my mother, the one who knew the most besides myself. I told her I was in love with someone. Her reply said:

Dear Jane,

I got your letter was happy to hear that you have found someone who means so much to you Sorry you are keeping it from Dora though, secrets always leads to troubles After all you are nineteen, a legal adult maybe you are afraid for no reason you know she does love you I hope to meet Gary one a these days but honey please don’t rush into things you are still so young and you have been thru so much Things in life does tend to chain together You grew up mostley without a Daddy and sometimes when I am not blaming myself I think maybe missing a father led to what happened you looking for love you did not have and then getting led a stray through no falt of your own

What did I need? And then I remembered; I needed Vicki. I called for her as I walked alone through the dark back to the house.

“Is it wrong?” I asked her. “To keep this a secret? Gary and my mother both seem to think so.”

“You little slut.” Vicki’s voice came like a slap and I stopped in my tracks in the near midnight.

“Seeing Gary is not the secret you are talking about, and you know it. You can’t begin to tell the secret you have, the one you really have, can you?”

“Don’t call me that.” I wished I had a knife, but where was Vicki really, if I wanted to hurt her? “You tell me, then, girl.” I called her out bitterly. “You tell me your secret, then. If I want to be with Gary, even if I hope to marry him, it’s good, it’s all good. I can tell Dora any time I decide. Tell me—how was it for you, out there in the field? Not what happened, but how did it feel? Tell the truth.”

I stood still while she whispered a new version of the story in my ear. Her voice was level, and the words went on and on.

When she was done, I began to walk again. I knew she was right. The stars exploding, the craving to lie there and go into the sky: That was real. “Yes,” I said. “No,” I said, and kept walking. “I understand exactly, exactly what you mean.”

About the Author

Catherine Vance

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Catherine Agrella lives and teaches writing in Houston Texas, where she also does social justice work. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, and was a recipient of the Dobie Paisano Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. She is completing a memoir, "Cheated," which is about infidelity, child sexual abuse, marriage and divorce, metoo--all of that. One of the pieces from the memoir was named a Notable Essay in the 2019 Memoir Magazine metoo contest. She is the author of the short story collection, The Orchard Camp.