Jan rummages through her purse, actually a crammed tote bag, for her wallet with her driver’s license, vowing she’ll never try to cash a check at a strange branch again, but this one was next to the car parts place that had insisted “cash only” once she got there. She’s banked at the branch across town forever – they should have a system that identifies her, maybe through her eyeballs like in sci-fi movies.
The high ceilings and vast room hollows out sound: the grumbling behind her as the minutes pass, the tisking of the teller, the squeals of a toddler stumbling around and waving a lollipop. People smile indulgently but edge away, while his mother, oblivious to the sticky menace he presents, leans into the other teller’s window. Jan, fishing inside the heavy canvas, watches him stagger in her direction. His mother, transaction completed, assesses the situation and swings him up into her arms with an apologetic smile. She grabs the lollipop a second before it smacks her cheek and assures him over his protesting wails, “You can have it in the car.”
In the relative silence after they leave, Jan realizes how impatient the muttering behind her has grown. She’s located a half-finished paperback novel, an appointment book, aspirin, tissues, the kid’s allergy medicine, make-up, but not yet the wallet.
“Like that game you played as a kid,” she tells the teller trying to make light of it.
“Where you feel around inside a bag and try to guess what you’ve gotten hold of.”
The teller doesn’t even try to look sympathetic.
A man’s irritated voice shouts, “Why the hell don’t you just step out of line, lady?”
Any guilt Jan feels falls away at his tone. She straightens her shoulders and continues searching. The teller’s eyes, magnified behind thick-lensed glasses, flicker over the disgruntled row of people who are assessing which lines might be moving faster, and she tightens her mouth disapprovingly at Jan’s stubborn refusal to step out of line.
“Another minute,” Jan says, feeling she’s waited too long to lose her place.
She spins around at the angry, “For God’s sake, Lady,” to snap something smart-aleck at the broad-faced, balding man behind her, when a voice to her left says, “It’s fine, Nancy. Cash the check.” And at the sound of that voice she’s suddenly eighteen again, fluttery, worried about how she looks. She resists the impulse to smooth back her hair but glances down at her blue linen shirt and jeans, pleased that she’s still as slim as in high school, maybe even looks better, her breasts fuller since the kids. She turns back to the teller, needing time before she can face him, face Will, before she can say, thanks for rescuing me.
The teller counts out bills into Jan’s palm while the man behind her groans, “Finally.” Jan takes her time counting it to annoy the bastard, an impulse her husband has labeled “the bitch persona,” but also because her face is flushed, heart pounding a little too quickly. She plunges the money into her jeans pocket, turns and smiles sweetly at the man who snorts in frustration, throws her arms wide in front of Nancy’s cage, and tells him, “All yours.”
She takes a deep breath and turns to Will. “Thanks.”
Gray runs through the close-cropped hair, a bit more weight on the narrow frame, a touch of middle-aged dullness to the once glistening skin. Something in her melts down to a pool of want. She’s surprised at how much still remains.
“You’re welcome,” he says and dips his head.
Without remembering how she got there, she’s in his office seeing through the open door Nancy’s look through the open door before she turns to help the next person on line. Jan’s fists clench. “Drop dead,” she thinks, then, “forget it; she’s nothing but a goddamned teller.” She smiles and faces Will who’s stepped behind his desk with its brass nameplate: William James, Manager. A photograph beside it is turned to face his chair. His desk is orderly, papers stacked in a way that implies he can put his hand on anything. The office walls are decorated with a couple of bland seascapes that could have been stolen from a motel and a few artificial plants recently dusted.
“You recognized me?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, and wants to say, “I’d recognize you a hundred years from now when we’re nothing but hollow bones and sockets, but it’s so melodramatic and, really, so inappropriate at this juncture in their lives.” Something wells up inside her and she steps out of view of the open door and holds out her hands to him. Will glances at the tellers, at the photograph, then moves slowly out from behind the desk and takes them. His big palms are warm and dry. A pit hollows in her stomach as she stares at the long black fingers and muscular arm revealed by the rolled up sleeves of a crisp blue shirt, and at her own naked arm, hair bleached white by the summer sun. There’s a rushing in her ears like standing at the edge of Meyer’s Falls. She straddles a border where she can slip into the past or stay here, in a present that suddenly exists only as his hands holding hers. They’re quiet for how long she can’t say because everything is suspended, time and the voices outside his office and their breathing and their separate lives.
“You recognized me?” he’d asked. She’d know him merely by scent: starched shirts and clean warm sunlight and something indefinable but solely his. Her knowledge defied the passing years, Will unique while every other boy in high school identical; identical ambitions, identical parents, identical houses with hostas and watered lawns and rosebushes, identical rules about what was allowed, especially about what was allowed.
Will ran track, ran so fast he blurred. Watching him, the only black kid on the team, was like a dream, thin arms pumping, all elbows and wrists. She thought of him as a series of long angles defiantly jutting out into the world, loved how he glistened after a run, something clean and fresh in the sweat pouring down, all that energy so extravagantly spent without concern for what the cost might be. Afterwards, the boys on the team cheered wildly, slapping him on the back as he bent over, hands on knees, sucking deep gasping breaths. They understood he was their only shot at winning the inter-district trophy. She loved seeing them caught up in the magic of his speed, slaves to its promise.
She came to watch him, only him, and he knew it; all that jumping and cheering, “Go team,” squirming on that hard, splintery bleacher, raking back the hair blowing in her eyes so she could see him every second.
She’d call, “Great run,” when he walked down the long tunnel to the locker room, where, he told her later, he had the one on the end next to nobody’s. He’d look up, wiping sweat from his eyes with a ratty white towel, and say “Thanks.” That was allowed. Short discussions about history class in the crowded study hall, their arms bumping was allowed. “Hi,” while passing in the corridors was allowed. A few words waiting on line in the lunchroom was allowed. They understood the rules.
Listening to him in class, she knew they thought about things the same way, had similar feelings about the world, doubted what they were told about the myth of America. She never said anything in class, she understood even then that she was not courageous, would never be a freedom rider, a marcher, a believer handing out petitions. She hoped, even knowing it was meaningless without her taking a stand, that he’d see how closely she listened to him in class and understand that she was on his side. She thought about a phrase she’d heard, “first do not harm,” and knew that showing her interest more clearly would put Will in danger, but she also understood that her inertia helped enforce the status quo and that was doing harm; life is a conundrum. She was fascinated by Will’s skill in expressing his doubts as carefully composed questions, innocently couched, that made the teacher fumble, often throwing a look of pure hatred at him. The teacher was angry that there was no opportunity for retaliation by lowering his well-deserved marks because the team needed him, and to stay on the team he needed those A’s and she couldn’t risk being the teacher who got him yanked; she’d be hated.
They had been alone only three times. Astonishing that they felt what they did, what Jan was certain was far more than sexual attraction.
Their first time had been behind the squat grey gym during the basketball game. She watched him across the room joking with the small crowd of black kids that attended Haven High, saw the way he glanced at her. She began to meet his eyes. It left her breathless, as though they’d actually touched. In the middle of the third quarter he stood and leaned over to say something to his friends, then stepped over all the feet in front of him until he reached the steps and vanished. She made a need-to-smoke excuse for leaving the game at the most exciting time, a time that would involve the least risk.
Outside she searched until she saw a flash of white shirt moving through the trees in the direction of Meyer’s Falls and hurried toward it. The steady drizzle matted her hair and a linden branch left a scratch on her cheek. Shouts drifted from the open windows like a call to arms. The last of the leaves tumbled down in the wind.
The falls was small, rocks worn smooth, a mummer rather than a roar, as though grown tired after eons. The stream this time of year was gray rather than blue with muddy foam churned by the rain, unlike summer when the water seemed shot through with glitter. Will faced her as she broke through the trees. He must have expected her but still seemed startled, warily assessing whether or not she was alone. Her eyes filled with tears when they exchanged Hello’s, the first words spoken with nobody else around. Something in his face shifted at her tears, caution dropping away. He stepped close to her and touched the scratch on her cheek, then said, “This is crazy.” She looked up into his face, the closest they’d ever stood to each other, then took his wrists in her hands and pulled his arms around her. He surrendered. Moved by his mouth, his long spine beneath her fingers, she wanted to hold him, kiss him until the afternoon had vanished and through the night and for as long as she could. It was Will who, trembling and edgy, said, “No.” He stepped away from her and asked, “What do you want Janis?” He didn’t wait for an answer, running back to the gym, the trees circling her as she stood there alone, closing her in.
She raked damp hair back from her eyes and thought, why is it so damned hard. But she knew. Haven fancied itself a liberal northern town in nineteen-fifty-four, marches and sit-ins the province of hard-core, segregated southern cities. Their small population of blacks had always attended Haven High with the white kids, shopped in the same stores, went to the same movie theatre, were spoken to pleasantly, but everyone knew the rules.
Jan stared in the direction of the gym, as though she could will him back…but, of course, she couldn’t change anything, she wasn’t courageous in any way that really counted. She walked across the damp grass, leaves funneling water down her face, her arms, then stood outside the gym, too weary to go back in, to face the noise, her friends. She went home instead, shaking off her mother’s concern at her wet clothes, stretching across her bed smoking and listening to rock and roll on the radio, every song one of unrequited love. She wanted to cry, but was afraid her parents would hear. When her friends called later to ask what happened to her, she pleaded stomach cramps.
What did she want? His question echoed in her head. She knew her future, it was the same as her mother’s, rushing toward both of them, Jan and her mother. Futures that were indistinguishable one from the other, Jan growing older, taking on her mother’s body and voice and the deepening lines of her face and graying hair, shaped by some irrevocable force to be a replacement fitted neatly in place once her mother was gone. Her future was to keep everything the same in this little town, in the country, in the world; Jan’s future was to maintain the status quo. She would acquire the hard-working husband, the house with its attendant chores, the two kids, the striving to not get fat, the decision to dye her hair, the search to fill up her time as the kids left home, the struggle to circumvent boredom and keep herself relevant by any desperate means. What did she want – she wanted it to be different, to chart a different course, to create something that would lift her above what she would be if she didn’t find a way. What she felt for Will seemed the answer if she could somehow find the kind of courage that other people find. She lit another cigarette hopelessly; she was her mother’s daughter with her mother’s fate.
It was a month before the second time – a month when they bumped into each other more often in the hall mumbling the usual “Hi,” their arms briefly touching, their eyes meeting then flickering past. For hours afterward the place where her skin touched his felt bruised and on fire. A few times she’d drop to the seat next to him in study hall to loudly ask a question about history class, deliberately brushing her thigh against his. Her friends thought it odd, their teasing a little too close to the truth, a little sharp sometimes like a casual warning, but she was a pretty girl who had no problem finding dates and wasn’t known to take chances, and he was the best student in class. Everyone said that despite being black he’d go somewhere in the world. His smile, when they met, was always that of one student to another and it was that very complacency that seemed charged, inspiring her impatience to get on with it…whatever “it” might be.
The day after a run that nearly broke the record, she’d stopped him just outside of school to loudly congratulate him on how fast he’d been. “Every boy on your team is awed,” she said. His smile was ironic and angry and he answered quietly, “Not so awed that one of them would take the locker next to mine.”
She was shocked; “It can’t be true. They rely on you.”
He stared at her, then shook his head and keeping his voice low, asked again, “What do you want Janis? You want me to tell you it’s really OK, that the guys on the team are color-blind? That they invite me to their house with the rest of the team after school? That being colored here is different than somewhere else in America? What kind of permission are you looking for?” He raised his voice and said as he walked away, “Thanks. Maybe next time I will break the record.”
“What do you want, Janis?” She couldn’t say what. It was as though the words hadn’t been invented yet to describe a longing so complex and so out of reach.
Often that mild winter she walked to Meyer’s falls hoping he’d be there, but he never was. A dusting of snow never lasted more than a day or so, but closed in the sky and trees around her like a hollow cave. One afternoon after philosophy class, electrified by Heraclites’ statement that you can’t cross the same river twice, she stood above the falls and stared at the swiftly moving water. The concept was staggering, dizzying; the world changed with every passing second, people changed with every passing second in some infinitesimal way they were unaware of. Every act she regretted was over the moment it was committed. How many seconds before the world changed enough for Will and her to be together? How long before the current of time, like that of water, washed everything away? Sometimes she pretended that when she went back it would already have happened.
Their second time alone was accidental, the senior-day picnic. Jan’s head ached from noise and from a good long slug of cheap bourbon from the flask Sam Wentworth had in the pocket of his light jacket. She excused herself, saying she needed a bathroom, and circled behind the school along the path narrowed by the thick spring growth of wildflowers, sorrel, wild oat grass and vines till she stood above Meyer’s Falls – such a little falls despite the thick white wash of foam beating against the water-smoothed boulders like a hollow drum and the town’s pretense that it was a big, important state landmark. She turned at the rustling of branches and suddenly Will appeared, breaking through the green leaves into bright sun like a dream. He stopped abruptly when he saw her, keeping distance between them.
“It’s so noisy,” she said quietly. “I have a headache.” He nodded. “I’ve had something to drink,” she told him and smiled apologetically, although she wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for.
“Me too,” he said, then stepped into the shadows of the oaks. The water pounding rock was hypnotic and she felt light-headed. He was almost invisible behind the stand of trees. She said, “Come here.” He remained motionless until she added, “Please,” his body rigid as he slowly walked toward her. When she reached for him, he stepped into her arms so forcefully her back slammed against an oak, neck cramped at an odd angle as she claimed his lips, cheeks, eyes, the woods a green tent surrounding them. He kept whispering, “We’ve got to go back,” but she kissed him again and again to hold him there, not wanting to return to the swirl of kids giddily drunk at being done with high school and its rules.
He inhaled deeply, almost a snort, and pushed away out of her reach. “What do you want, Janice?”
“What else could there be?” she said.
“Maybe more,” Will answered. “It would take…” He shook his head. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not willing to explore the possibilities either.”
He vanished so abruptly it stunned her, fueling a sudden determination to find him, prove him wrong. She pictured making her way through the tight cluster of black kids that always surrounded him, her friends staring, wondering what she could be thinking of, turning away once they understood, Jan and Will welcome gossip in this dull, miserable town. Threatening phone calls late at night, her parents answering, their faces white and angry as they turned to confront her. People cutting her dead on the street and the impossibility of getting some shit-wage job here summers between college semesters. Her determination faded. She grew aware again of the roaring of the falls and turned to face the relentless sweep of blue wearing down the boulders. Jan gathered a few stones and threw them with all her might, watching them disappear.
At graduation the following week Will won both athletic and academic scholarships to a fine college. Her parents said it was wonderful that they lived in a town where colored could have that. When Will stepped up to receive his diploma she prayed nobody would notice her parents craning their necks to watch his family, seated with the other black families, applauding each graduate as their name was called.
After the ceremony, everyone milled around and joked that they were released from prison. Her father watched Will as though compelled. “They must be real proud,” he said noting Will’s embarrassment at his mother’s tears. Jan was annoyed by his proprietary tone, as though he was personally responsible for Will’s scholarships.
“As proud as you and mom are,” she snapped.
Her father spun to face her in surprise and put his hand on her shoulder at something he saw on her face. He stared into her eyes, then asked as if it was an accusation, “Do you know him well?”
Her heart raced. Say it, she thought, tell them what you feel. Her mother stared over her father’s shoulder, frightened by the question. Jan saw in the faded blue eyes how exhausted her mother was by her life. I don’t want to hurt her, Jan thought, and knew that was a lie, she didn’t want to hurt herself. “In class or to say hello in the lunchroom,” she answered. “He’s the best track star Haven’s ever had. Everyone knows him.”
Her father continued to stare then dropped his hand and looked again at Will, whose father’s arm rested proudly on his shoulder. Jan’s mother released a deep sigh and smiled at Jan then turned to her father. “We’ve got to talk with Lori’s mother about tonight.” A bunch of the white parents were throwing a party. She watched Will over the heads of proud parents and kids waving their diplomas, friends hugging and whispering about the party after the party…the real one that only the white kids would go to. He looked past her as though she was a stranger. She should go to him, hug him, congratulate him; that was acceptable at graduation, everyone was doing it. For heaven’s sake, she was leaving Haven in a few months.
“What are you doing?” Lori’s voice startled her and she turned and answered, “Nothing,” then linked her arm with her friend’s.
Their last time alone was the week before they left for college. She went to the tiny take-out store in the black section of town where he worked. Curious eyes watched her walk up the hill past run-down houses whose porches sheltered little kids playing dolls or trucks, and older people fanning themselves in the heat. Some teen-agers stopped their ball game to stare. The crowded store fell silent when she entered, but Will was relaxed, as though white girls shopped there regularly. He asked pleasantly, “What can I do for you?” She bought a coke and sandwich and lifting her hair off her sweating neck said she was going to Meyer’s Falls to eat lunch, to cool off, although there wasn’t any place you really could cool off in this heat except maybe the movies. She watched his hands as they moved competently over the bread and meat and cheese. He wrapped her sandwich in wax paper and presented it to her with a flourish. His face was friendly, innocent, as he said, “Hope you find a breeze.”
She sauntered away in a carefully rehearsed walk designed to both tease and display nonchalance.
An hour later, he came, brushing silently through the trees, staring at her as though wondering who she was. At the sight of him she felt herself in the same dream-like state she’d felt at the picnic. She slowly held out her arms. Cradled, a moment later, in the rocky heart of circling boulders, she forgot everything but his hands on her, wanting him more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. He cursed her, even as he touched her, whispering, “What am I doing?” She pulled at his shirt, her hands sliding beneath it to feel the rigid muscles in his back, unbuttoning her dress, naked beneath it, thrilled as he caught his breath sharply.
It was Will who stopped yet again, sitting back on his heels and running his hands over his face as though he was a hundred years old. “Your father could kill me for this and get off in this town.” He touched her face gently in the place where the tree had scratched her months ago as though the wound was still open, then got to his feet, buttoning his shirt. He looked down at her. “I’m leaving Haven. I’ve got a scholarship. I’m black and I’m going to college on a scholarship. No white girl in heat is going to jeopardize that? Do you understand?” His words were deliberately cruel and she understood why he’d said them, how they needed to end this thing, that hadn’t really begun, with cruelty.
She turned on her side, curling her legs into her chest and answered, “Yes,” then shut her eyes to avoid seeing his lanky body vanish behind the wall of boulders. She lay quietly for a while, not crying but rocking gently as though she was her own mother comforting her, telling her she’d done the right thing. She wanted to believe that her acquiescing silence was for his sake, his scholarship, his future.
“Will,” she called tentatively, her voice hollow in the circle of rocks, but he was already too far away to hear her.
Jan didn’t know how much time they spent in his office catching up; her father dead of a heart attack, mother remarried, his parents living in Florida, his three brothers and her sister living far away. She had a degree in teaching but stayed home to raise kids, her husband earning a good salary as an engineer. Will had an M.B.A, had gone to school year round while his wife worked. He finished a semester early, maintaining his scholarship the whole way through. His wife had been great, pregnant his last semester but working to make ends meet so that he could finish.
“I owe her everything,” he said.
Jan didn’t know why, but she felt ashamed. Perhaps he sensed it and changed the subject. “You look good, the same as when we graduated.”
“I’m not the same,” she answered pointedly, looking into his eyes.
“OK, you’re not,” he said. He reached for the photograph on the table handed it to her: his children – a tall girl with athletic legs in gym shorts, smooth full lips and glistening skin like his, and a boy around six, with liquid, serious eyes. Between them was a heavy-chested woman with a meltingly beautiful smile and strong mouth.
“They’re beautiful,” Jan said. She fished in the tote bag until she finally found her wallet and opened it to photographs of her own children. Their kids were nearly the same age, and she felt wounded, as though in a parallel universe all the kids could have been theirs. It would be different now, she thought, I could do it. I would have the courage now. She wanted him to know that, to believe it, but didn’t know how to tell him except to say, “I’m different than I was in high school.”
“Strange that we both wound up back in Haven,” she said. “Why did you come back?”
He smiled and looked quickly at the photograph, then back at her. “The guy, Todd, who owns the bank now, his dad used to, went to college with me. Funny, we were both on the track team, but didn’t become friends until we were far away from this town. Just before graduation he offered me the job, an opportunity to be the first black bank manager in Haven. It seemed like progress, the kind we marched for.”
Her heart began thumping, something in her alarmed at the story, as though suddenly learning about things that had taken place behind her back.
“How about you?” he asked.
“I came back after my father died, to be with my mother. I taught for a while then got married. She remarried, a nice guy and she’s happier now than she was with my dad. By then I had a baby, my husband liked living here, and it didn’t make sense to leave.” She thought about her husband before they’d married watching one of the civil rights marches on television and asking, “What the hell do they want?”
She blushed at the memory and lowered her eyes, then saw the clock on his desk. “My daughter,” she said. “I’ve got to get her from the school bus.”
She looked up at him. “I always knew you’d make it, but then, you know that.”
He shook his head at her. “I never knew what you thought Jan. I never knew what you wanted. Actually, I never knew you at all.”
His words stung. It hadn’t occurred to her that he didn’t know she believed in him. Sometimes that was the only comfort that she had when she thought about him; that he knew how special she understood he was. She realized, with a sharp ache that any assumptions she’d made about their relationship were her assumptions. She had no idea what he’d thought or wanted either. She didn’t really know him at all; she knew only the Will she had created.
As he walked to the door to show her out, she momentarily experienced that old feeling of loss she’d felt each time he turned his back on her. She followed quietly to the door.
“I’m sorry I never told you,” she said, finally.
“Good-bye.” He held out his hand as though she hadn’t spoken.
She took it, held it longer than she should have, but in the ensuring silence didn’t offer to exchange phone numbers or say, “I’d love to meet your wife. Our kids are the same age; they could play. Come on by for dinner.”
Then the silence had gone on too long to say anything. She walked through the hollow quiet of the empty bank while tellers counted up their drawers. The guard held the door open as she stepped through it, then it swung closed, locked behind her. The sun was so bright that she looked down at the glittering asphalt while she scrambled for her sunglasses. She imagined going back in, then thought of her husband, of the tall white colonials on either side of her house, curtains moving aside to watch his family come up her driveway. She thought fleetingly of sending him a note, asking if they could meet at Meyer’s Falls to talk, but that was crazy. “What do you want Janice?” he’d asked so long ago.
She wanted to have been brave, to be brave now, to have undergone her own revolution, instead of being left behind here in Haven.
She reached angrily for the handle of her car, swung open the door and slid over the hot leather seat. She remembered her philosophy class. The moment is already over, she thought. Anything I regret doing or not doing is past, but she didn’t believe it; she believed that what she hadn’t done had shaped, and would shape, every moment of her life.