John Hill
John Hill

MISSING TRAINS

 

 

Seeing Dora the first time was a surprise, like finding a five-dollar bill on the street. That he was at a mixer at all was unusual. Most Friday nights he would either have gone home to New Jersey, which was only a two-hour train ride or a lucky hitch on the Pennsylvania Turnpike away, or be out somewhere drinking Schlitz with his friends. And Tim, who did the introducing, had little credibility. But Dora was pretty, had wonderful dark brown eyes, and was from somewhere else. The hint of a Southern accent proved that. Maybe she was like a Faulkner character, clawing her way out of a moonshining family in the Georgia mountains. Or better yet, a disturbed Tennessee Williams belle who would get the vapors if he left her, on her way to her eventual suicide in her forties.

In 1961 he was going to school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not by choice but having arrived there the way a piece of driftwood arrives on a beach. He had been admitted to Yale on condition of attending a year of prep school. The Yale admissions people found his odd combination of bad grades and good test scores mildly interesting; the other colleges he applied to less so. They just said no. So Evan's father, Robert, unwilling to spend another year listening to Evan playing his blue sparkle electric guitar and smelling the Pall Mall smoke coming out from underneath his bedroom door, sat down and in one evening typed five copies of this letter:

Dear Sirs:
My son, Evan Tanner has a C- average and has a combined College Board score of 1440. We are in a position to pay your tuition. Please advise if you would have space for him in your freshman class.
Sincerely yours,
Robert Tanner
So Evan went to Lancaster.

But even in Lancaster, there were surprises. Meeting Dora was one of them. Dora went to school in York, a short road trip away. Tim had told Evan it would be worth his trouble to come to this party, that his girlfriend had a very pretty friend he'd introduce him to. The fact that the party was being held at Phi Kappa Tau, which had rightly earned the reputation as the frat for outcasts, didn't bode well. But the girls didn't know that, so anything was possible.
Evan had temporarily given up imagining what Dora would look like. He was in the pause between the third and fourth beers when he saw Tim and his girlfriend Elaine. He saw a very pretty girl with them, too pretty for him really, with long dark hair and a jumper that said "I read the New York Times, even in Pennsylvania, and I would try the Village Voice if someone gave it to me." Both her hair and her jumper were the slightest bit too long for her. She was quite short, five-two at most.

He had a girlfriend from New Jersey who was actually prettier, and who already had a subscription to the Voice, but they went to high school together and she knew him too well. He could be anybody with this new short girl that was walking toward him and smiling. That she was smiling was a good sign, because she would have seen him by now.

Then they were being introduced.

She shook his hand and said, "It's nice to meet you, Evan. Tim has told me a lot about you."

Her hand was warmer than he would have thought, and soft. He noticed himself not wanting to let it go.

He waited a second too long before releasing her hand somewhat awkwardly, and said, "Me too. I mean, Tim and Elaine have said a lot of nice things about you." They kissed that night. Evan was thrilled that it seemed fluid and effortless to kiss her, and had the feeling that she was about a minute from having initiated a kiss herself.

Evan was not a conspicuous, showy success with girls the way his roommate Chris was, sneaking a different girl into the dorm each weekend, each more beautiful than the one from the week before. But he was never without a girlfriend. This had been true since he was 15. After being turned down by the first girl he asked, he was so grateful to Christine for saying "yes" that he dated her exclusively until he met Alice, his current nominal girlfriend.
It was with Christine that he went through the exquisite but painfully slow process of discovering what a girl's body was like. It felt to both of them like the trip that Evan's hand made from Christine's shoulder, to the outside of her blouse, to the outside of her bra, to the bare skin of her breast took years. In fact it was only weeks, and took place almost entirely on her front porch.

One night, after taking a walk to escape the eyes of Christine's parents for a while, they quietly went to a dark spot in her back yard between a maple tree that blocked the view from the kitchen, and the garden shed. They lay down together. After some delicious moments of kissing and touching each other, the unimaginable happened.

Christine drew in a breath, and in a very tiny voice said, "I want to touch you down there."

Evan whispered, "OK," but he really wanted to shout it.

His heart began to beat so hard that he was afraid she might hear it, and for a minute he thought he might faint. Just when her hand touched the outside of his pants with an almost imperceptible pressure, the light on the back of the house came on and they heard her father call her name, his Polish accent still intact after twenty years. They kept perfectly still, and in a few minutes he gave up and went back in the house. But the light stayed on, and the moment had passed.

Evan's introduction to girls and what they could do to him came a few years before, as he looked through the half opened window of a tent. His sister, Sally, had put it up in the yard of the cottage--or, as they said in Maine, camp--their family was renting for a month on Lake Sebago. He knew his sister's friend Ellen was changing into her bathing suit in the tent. He tip-toed the ten steps from the porch to the tent. His intention, if he had one, was to peek in the window and say something funny, causing Ellen to shriek with surprise. But at the exact moment that he put his nose to the fine mesh, Ellen was facing the window in the act of taking her shorts off. Her small breasts were less than three feet from his face, which began to turn red. He ducked below the window, and then began to walk away as quietly as he could. He stepped on a twig just before he turned the comer around the house.

"Who's there?" Ellen yelled with some alarm in her voice.

Evan broke into a full run and didn't stop until he was eight houses away. He never admitted it.

From that moment on, he had the same fantasy whenever he needed one. He was at Lake Sebago. Ellen would come over. He would ask Ellen if she wanted to take the boat over to the beach on the other side of the lake. She agreed, sometimes enthusiastically. Since this beach was on the far side of a point of rocks, anything that went on there was invisible to the summer houses. Only a passing boat could see anything. When they got to the beach, he suggested--and it was always his suggestion-- that since it was a hot day, maybe they should take a swim. They had no bathing suits with them, so they decided to go skinny-dipping. Ellen began to take her clothes off. Since Evan was very young, the fantasy seldom had to go further.

In a way, Dora reminded him of Ellen. There was the warmth just below his stomach that they both created, but in a sense all girls he was attracted to did that. It was more than that, though. They both had dark hair a little longer than average, and they both had full lips that drew attention away from the rest of their faces. But he had known almost nothing of Ellen. He knew more about the shape of her breasts from his single glance than he did about her day-to-day life. This is all he knew: she lived in Portland; her father worked in a Ford dealership there; her family was louder than his, in the way that Jackie Gleason was too loud for his parents. And much later, Evan found out that she had to get married when she was sixteen, and still lived in Portland.

Over the next few weeks, he began to learn about Dora. He learned that she listened to WLAC from Gallatin, Tennessee, late at night to hear black music she couldn't hear in South Carolina; and that she adored her older brother. He learned that even though her father was a well-educated chemist, he worked as a foreman at Rohm & Haas, and thought of himself as a failure.

He learned that she had a way of kissing that he had never experienced, or imagined. At a certain point, always the right one, she would gently take his lower lip between her teeth and flick her tongue across that part of his lip. As exciting as it was to experience, it was more important that it spoke of knowledge passed on from a place he didn't recognize, and secrets. He never asked or wanted to know where she learned to do this. But there was something sophisticated, and a little bit wicked, about the way she kissed that made Evan feel like a man of the world.

Evan stopped seeing Alice, the girl from New Jersey. He brought Dora home for the weekend. His mother, Doris, was not so secretly thrilled. She sensed good family in the way that only a Daughter of the American Revolution could. Doris didn't know that Dora's father didn't wear a suit to work, or that their house needed a new roof. It wouldn't have mattered if she did, because in a few weeks Dora invited him to come down to Charleston to a real honest-to-God cotillion. It required a tuxedo, which Doris bought the same day that he mentioned it.

At the cotillion itself, Evan learned more. He learned that the South Carolina kids played a game called "nigger-knocky," which started by driving in a group down the main street with an oar in the car. When one of the boys spotted a black person walking close to the edge of the road, they would stick the oar out the window and knock them down, thus the name. He couldn't visualize the kind of car in which one could hide an oar, and then quickly maneuver it out the window, but he got the point. He was gratified that Dora's point was to let him know who these kids who looked normal actually were. Evan had always wanted to be black, and Catholic, although the two didn't seem to go together very well.

He also learned, as they both got drunk during the course of the evening, that Dora drank even more than the considerable amount that he had already observed. So when they were making out in the back seat of Dora's father's car, the romance vanished quickly when Dora suddenly had to vomit. They barely got the window down in time.

Evan woke up a little after seven with a headache. He had been sleeping in Dora's brother's room, the front room on the second floor. Something drew him to stumble slowly over to the window before putting his clothes on and going to the bathroom. Dora's father was leaning over by the driver's side door of their car, with his back to the window. Then Evan saw the bucket, and the sudsy water inside it, and knew at once that he was scrubbing last night's vomit, now dried, off the door of the car. He wondered with something like a prayer if it were too much to hope that the subject would not be mentioned.

He observed with relief that Dora's father's place at the breakfast table was unoccupied. The half-eaten toast, undrunk coffee, and dirty plate told him that he had escaped an unpleasant conversation, at least for the moment. Dora's mother made them a Southern breakfast—eggs, Virginia ham and grits—and generally clucked over him in an approving manner.

"What are y'all doin' today, Dora?" she asked affably.

Dora and Even were seated on the same side of the dining room table, facing the place settings that her parents had used. They were sitting close enough together that Dora had been touching his thigh and knee under the table with her own. It was subtle, and could have been interpreted as simply the result of sitting too close together, at least until she began rubbing his calf deliberately with her bare foot every time her mother went in the kitchen.

She giggled as she replied, "Well, there's some things I want to show Evan. He's never been here before."

"You've never been to Charleston, Evan?" her mother asked.

"I’ve driven through South Carolina a few times on my way to Florida with my parents," Evan answered, then regretted having him made himself someone whose only life experiences happened with his parents.

When her mother left the room to answer the telephone, Dora put her hand on his neck and pulled his ear close to her mouth. "I need to go back to where we were parking last night. I think I lost my ring, and I want to take a quick look around, OK?"

"Sure," he said, and she gave him a little bite on the earlobe as a thank you.

The air smelled more like summer than spring. Late May in South Carolina was part of a different season than late May in New Jersey. It was warmer, almost too warm, had more flowers in bloom, and more insects singing songs he hadn't heard. Dora's mother let them use her powder blue 1958 Ford, as long as they promised to be back before dinner. They parked in the place they had been by the river, and got out to look around. They looked carefully at the whole parking lot, but for a few minutes didn't see a trace of anything shiny like metal, except for a Juicy Fruit wrapper. The lost ring was silver and delicate, with a tiny opal. Her grandfather, now dead, had given it to her when she was thirteen. Dora looked at the muddy river, and then back at the car.

"I think we were right in front of that oak tree," she said, and began walking to their left.

He ran a few steps to catch up with her. As they glanced at a spot in front of the tree, they both saw three things in the same instant. One of them was a flash of metal that was indeed her ring on the ground. The second was last night's vomit. And the third, and somehow most disturbing, was that next to the ring was the unused Trojan in its signature red foil wrapper, that Evan had thrown out the window in a moment of pique when Dora got sick. The sun made it look like it was being lit by a spotlight. Dora picked up her ring. He felt the impulse to pick up the Trojan and put it in his pocket, but knew it would seem like picking half a sandwich out of the garbage. They got back in the car. He stole a glance at her, and caught her looking at him with a smile. They both started laughing.

"You want to see someplace really neat?" Dora said, putting her hand on his leg.

It was a mannerism that he found particularly endearing; almost as good were the fairly frequent touches of his arm and bands that she used for emphasis during conversation. She smiled at him in a conspiratorial way, as her finger slowly traced her collarbone from her shoulder to the indentation in her neck. The gesture called his attention to the dewiness of her skin, which he attributed mostly to the heat of the day.

"But it'll take us twenty minutes to get there," she continued.

"If you think it's worth seeing, I want to see it." said Evan, beginning to feel a tingle. They drove without talking for a while. Dora had the AM radio on an R.&B station. He hadn't heard a lot of the songs they played, or even heard of the artists, except for Shirley and Lee and James Brown. The commercials were from another world too, with Royal Crown and Dixie Peach Hair Pomade being the most prominent. A lot of local stores, even a barbershop, seemed to advertise on this station.

They left the blacktop for a gravel road, and then after about five minutes, a dirt road that would have been hard to drive in the rain. In a little while, Dora came to a stop on a patch of tall grass that looked like it had been knocked down every so often by a car parking, but had kept on valiantly trying to regrow, hoping that each car might be the last.

They got out of the car, and Dora looked Evan in the eyes for a second She gave him a quick kiss, and then grabbed his hand.

"Come on," she said, leading him to what wasn't so much a path as the place a path used to be.

It led slightly down, through the bushes and the scrubby pines. She pushed aside the branches of a young maple tree that had sprouted a few years ago in the middle of the former path, and Evan saw what she was showing him: a lake, or maybe more properly, a kettle-like section of the fast moving stream that fed it. It looked to be fifteen or twenty feet deep and forty feet around.

They had to be miles from the nearest house. The only sounds they could hear were the water coming over the rocks into the pond, a few birds, and an insect that he didn't recognize. Maybe this is what cicadas sounded like. A few water bugs skittered over the surface of a bit of the pool that had been trapped between two branches.

Dora scrambled quickly down the last ten feet to a tiny patch of gravel, next to a big boulder that had a few initials written on it. Evan followed her, taking his time and checking where his feet went. He knew he was being shown something important to her, and he didn't want to fall down the path and look silly.

She began to unbutton her blouse.

"Want to swim?" she asked excitedly.

Evan suddenly felt nervousness in his stomach replace the tingle that he had been feeling. He didn't know exactly what he was going to be called on to do.

"Sure," he said, feigning enthusiasm that he did not entirely feel.

He would have been more comfortable if this had been his idea. He pulled off his shirt, knowing that not to do so would look odd at this point. Dora easily stepped out of her khaki shorts. She turned to face him in her bra and panties, and smiled.

"You OK with this?" she asked.

"What if somebody comes and we don't hear them?" Evan asked.

She had her hands behind her back to take off her bra, but stopped.

''Nobody's going to come,” she said, laughing.

''But what if they do?" he said in a voice that sounded squeaky to him.

"If it bothers you, it's no big deal," she said with a hint of what he hoped wasn't condescension in her voice. She rehooked the top hook on her bra, and put her hands rather deliberately in front of her. With her underwear still on, she climbed the big rock. Then, with almost no splash, she was in the water.

Evan took off his pants, and then his sneakers and socks, and placed them neatly on the branch of a tree. He didn't dare look down at his underpants; he felt like he had a partial erection, but if he didn't see it, it wasn't there. He walked carefully into the water, hopping from leg to leg as the gravel dug into his bare feet. Dora was swimming on her back in the middle of the pool. The way her breasts looked, covered in the white fabric of her bra, and raised above the surface of the water as far as her face, looked almost like a cartoon. He imagined a flat line representing the water, with two overlapping ovals representing her breasts, and a triangle for her nose. ''Dora Swimming While Evan Feels Uncomfortable,” he would call it.

Dora swam over and kissed him, wrapping her legs around his. He kissed her back enthusiastically enough. But he knew that the potentially primal scene of two young people eagerly kissing, naked in the water, on an early summer day had been replaced by something slightly different. They swam for about ten minutes. Evan was embarrassed to find himself more than once waiting until he knew she was looking away, then stealing a glance back towards the car to see if anyone was looking at them. When they left the water, they had to let their wet underwear dry on their bodies before putting on the rest on their clothes, so they sat on the rock facing the sun and talked, mostly about school and what courses they would take next semester. He tried hard to appear nonchalant.
He spent most of the rest of the summer in New Jersey. Dora wrote him a few times, and he wrote back. He never answered her last letter.