6.11 / September 2011

The Paris Times

listen to this story

My mother had sent me the newspaper clipping all the way from Paris, Texas, and I read it that very day. My picture was beside it, almost as big as life.  It was my high school senior picture taken in May of ’62, just a few months before I arrived at the seminary.  I was smiling that fake smile my mother hated. “That grin will get you no where you will ever want to be, Harriet.” I never knew exactly what to make of her words. I’ve been plenty of places I’d rather not have been, but I’m not sure it was that grin that got me there. And as much as I didn’t want to be at that seminary that year, I was more devastated in the leaving than I let myself imagine, even then. “Harriet Leigh” was written in bold lettering below my picture and above it the headline read, “Local Graduate Awarded Scholarship to Florida Women’s Seminary,” which, like most things, was only partly true.

Take Florida.  It was cold.  I thought Florida was warm, sunny, by the beach.  It was winter, and there was no beach in sight.  In the early 60’s, it was pretty raw still, no high-rise condos, no tourist resorts, no attractions to speak of really, not there in the panhandle. There were only sandy washboard roads, overgrown vines, mosquitoes and trees with gray moss draping from them like ghosts tangled in the green of the leaves.  They said this was the Real Florida, the lush, wet, green Florida no one tells you about.  It was not the Florida or the Seminary, for that matter, from the brochure I’d picked up from the YWCA.  I was overjoyed and entranced by the brochure with the young woman in a cap and gown, her diploma tucked under one arm, smiling in front of a large red brick building just at the edge of a sandy path to the beach, palm trees everywhere.

The truth is, I never found that building.  And I never found any woman around there smiling, save Connie and me alone in our room.  The women came all solemn and gray, like the moss on the trees, and they left thinner, grayer and with a look of emptiness about them.  The truth was they were there because they were in trouble. I’d heard about places like this.  And it explained, discretely, at the bottom of the brochure in fine print, that the seminary provided a special service for women like me, and for couples who needed women like me.  I could go and have the baby. The people there would make sure a good family adopted the baby.  It was just perfect, I’d thought. No one in Paris, Texas would even have to know, and I was more than ready to leave that two-bit town.  But the Seminary there in that gaudy part of Florida was not the refuge I’d hoped for.  The walls, outside and in, were gray, cinder block. The floors were pea green spotted linoleum. And there were bars on most of the windows, so you couldn’t see in, nor out, with any clarity. It was as cold inside as it was outside, and the people there, colder still. The clergy at the Seminary spoke to us like dirty souls in need of a good cleansing.  We may have needed cleansing, but we also needed guidance and support.  We were mostly alone in our trouble, and I don’t think that was what the Lord intended.

Before Connie came, my baby was the only one I talked to, and I talked all the time.  “Sweet child, if only you could see this day! It is dreary, but almost warm enough to go without a jacket.  Warm enough to walk on the beach if there was one!” I’d say. The baby inside me was so much a part of me I couldn’t bear to think about giving it up as I smoothed my blouse down over my slightly rounded belly. Though I knew I would give up the baby-I’d have to.

Connie moved into my room in late October when I was feeling more alone than I had ever felt. The walls were making a monotonous crawl toward me in my little dorm room.  Or maybe it was just my swelling with pregnancy.  I was only a few months along, but I could see it everywhere, even in my face.  Jackson, my boyfriend and the father of my child, hadn’t written in over two weeks, since my birthday. My parents, to keep up appearances, only sent a monthly care package with snack foods, soft drinks and pamphlets about the horrible things teens get themselves into-though they had little room to criticize.

The pamphlets came from church and were littered with pictures of straight kids dressed as hippies, moms dressed like Go-Go girls, and normal people dressed like the homeless. The clothes were cheap and all wrong. The people were all wrong. On the cover they passed joints under reefer madness warnings or were depicted in still versions of psychedelic dancing under blood red warnings of Satan’s power. These same faces that had been smiling deliriously on the cover were make-up smeared, teary and wild-eyed on the inside fold of the pamphlets. I scoffed at my parents’ intentions, at their gall. They were afraid I’d been a bad influence on my little brother, but I worried more about their influence than mine.  I worried more about Satan’s control over them than over me.

I had told my parents the truth that I was pregnant but was going away to this Seminary to have the baby then give it up.  My father was sitting on the back porch, hidden from the neighbors by the great big pine trees that lined our yard, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  As soon as the words left my mouth he promptly tossed the cigarette, grabbed me by my hair and slung me from one end of the yard to the other.  No one in the neighborhood could see this or my little brother hiding and pouting in the yard.  No one heard my mama crying and screaming on the steps for him to stop.  No one but us.  He yelled back at my mother, “Mavis, you just shut your trap.  If she wasn’t a spoiled rotten little whore, she wouldn’t have gotten herself knocked up!” At this my mother got up and went into the house to mix another cocktail, and I fell limp into my father’s sling and cried until he had worn himself out. They always had been Christians just for show. They were careful never to drink where the neighbors could see, and they went to church every Sunday, well at least every Sunday that counted, the holidays and occasions where the whole town was sure to be there to see them.

Connie came in to my little dorm room right after Chapel on a Friday night. Her things came the week before.  She said she almost changed her mind, thought about not having the baby.  I never considered you could do such a thing.

“Yeah, sweetie, it’s called an abortion and doctors do it all the time if you pay them enough cash.” She sounded so reasonable, so nonchalant, it gave me a deep guilt about even the mention of such a thing, but it intrigued me at the same time. “I decided that someone out there must want a little baby, and I can give it to them.”  Her voice was a little lower, a little shaky when she said this, and I knew that this wasn’t going to be any easier for her than it was for me. “I found the ad for this place at the bank and knew it had to be a sign or something.”

When Connie walked in that night her dyed blonde hair was in a makeshift beehive and her skirt just a little too short, an A line in bright pink and blue blocks, hippy like daisies littering the bottom half. She wore long, thick eyelashes and entirely too much black eyeliner.  Her lips were a shimmering pink.  She looked like she would own a pair of Go-Go boots to match and be more authentic than the uptight girls on those brochures could ever be. But the funny thing was, even dressed like that, she had a boyish look to her, thin and angular, with a sharp jaw and a solid stance.  Oh, she looked prim enough to get by the desk inspection, but that slight edge to her made me look at her differently.

When we were alone in our room just an hour before lights out, she started unpacking.  She had two dress suits, for chapel and class, each the spitting image of the latest Jackie Kennedy look with the little collars and huge plastic buttons down the front.  She also had a skirt that was so short I couldn’t see how she could ever sit down in it and a top you could almost see through, cut real low and about as big as my hand.  These were clothes no one in Paris, Texas would be caught dead in, no one unless they were a hooker or running away to Dallas or something. We just didn’t do such things. But this wasn’t the most surprising. The most surprising was the pants she pulled out all pressed and stiff as a board, not your brother’s or your dad’s denim hand-me-downs, but honest to goodness dress pants, like ones my boyfriend, Jackson, wore, and a jacket to match.  She even had a tie and a man’s dress shirt. Had I known what all she had in there I would have surely snuck a peek before she arrived instead of sitting there staring at it all week.

“Why do you have some guy’s clothes with you?  Are you planning on running away with your boyfriend or something?”

Connie just laughed. “I don’t have a boyfriend, Harriet-never have and never will.”

I didn’t understand what she was saying. “Well, how did you, you know, get knocked up and all?”  I was trying to sound cool, but those words came out of me sounding as horrible as they had when my father said them.

Connie stopped digging around in her suitcase and looked at me.  Her brow was all crinkled up like she would cry, but she didn’t. “Listen, there are just some things I’d rather not discuss, but if you must know, I was raped.  I don’t even know the slime bag that ‘knocked me up’ as you say.”  She turned her back to me and went on unpacking.

I was stunned, like I’d been interrupted mid-thought and gagged.

She sat down with a sigh when she finished, and caught my eye, briefly, still looking down.  “I never even went to the police.”  She looked up at me then, but I couldn’t respond.

Connie stood up, took up the clothes she was unpacking, and went on like it was nothing. “And these clothes are mine.” She hung the suit up in the closet, and just then she took that beehive down off her head.  It was a wig!  Underneath, her hair was short, dark and slicked back to the base of her head.

I must have had an awful look on my face because when Connie turned around, she started reassuring me, “Don’t worry, I’m not some weirdo.  Short hair is in, you’ll see.  And I stole the clothes from my old boss.  Let’s just say it’s for fun, or for protection, or whatever makes you feel better.”

“Oh, I don’t care, really.”  I lied.  The whole thing made me a little uneasy, a little scared. But it fascinated me all the same. And though I ducked my head, I couldn’t help but watch her.

“Here, let me show you. It’s like playing dress up.”  She pulled on the jacket and grabbed a hat from her bag and reshaped it. It was an old fedora with felt trim around the top. This gave her the look of a ‘40’s gangster, a sort of rough, sharply dressed man, not like the Kennedys or even Elvis.  It was different and somehow more intense.  She posed in front of the mirror pulling the hat down over her brow and then turned to find me still staring.  She grinned and then strutted across the room in an exaggerated version of a businessman’s stride.  She pulled out a cigarette and let it hang in her mouth without lighting it.

I giggled, and she tossed me her hat.

“Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to be a man?”

I shrugged my shoulders, but the truth was that the thought had never crossed my mind. But being at the Seminary, the very fact that I was there was starting to show me that had I been, my life might be easier. A man would never have to go through what I was going through, swelling face and arms and belly, six a.m. sickness.  A man would never have to face the disappointed, shame casting stares of the pretentious clergy, the house wives on the street, or his father, at least not in the same way.

I put on the hat but felt ridiculous.  Connie giggled at me.  My hair flipped out on both sides, and it took over my whole head.  I handed it back to Connie and watched her put on the rest of the suit.

“Aw, maybe a different style would suit you.”  She grinned over her shoulder in the mirror at me and adjusted the hat onto her head again.

This is what we did every night.  She’d take off her wig and put on that suit, and I’d watch, giggling, until lights out.  She wore that outfit every night until the buttons would no longer clasp on the pants, and it was too much trouble to tie the tie.  But oddly enough, this outfit was not Connie’s most prized possession.

She pulled a small lamp from one of her suitcases that first night and placed it like a trophy on the stand beside her bed.  “Bought that with my own money,” she boasted as she brushed away the dust.  It was ceramic and in the shape of two Siamese cats, one sitting, the other snuggled up to it.  Both were a smoky white with little blue jewels for eyes.  The light bulb was behind their backs, the switch at the rear. “I call them Addy and Elle.”   Connie had lots of things with this Siamese cat theme, little figurines, an alarm clock, but this was what she was most proud of.

Connie was a month ahead of me in her pregnancy but was only showing a hair when she got to the Seminary.  She wouldn’t show all that much, as it turned out, even when she was about to deliver.  She was still tall and slender, just looked like she swallowed a small kick ball.

Connie and I went to the long drawn out religion classes together carried on in the main hall, a large wooden building with a gymnasium no one ever used in the middle. The classrooms were small and dank, like mildew had set in long ago and was left to fester.  They were dusty with chalk and the desks hard and small. Some of the girls had to sit sideways because their bellies, swollen in pregnancy, wouldn’t allow them to fit forward. The teachers were all male and most taught as if it were the last thing they ever wanted to do, always with a preoccupied stare.  As bad as it was, at least I had someone to share it with.

Soon I all but forgot about my boyfriend, Jackson. When he did write, I wrote short, hurried notes back.  And though I was miserable at the seminary, I didn’t miss my parents’ screaming and my brother’s sulking.  I didn’t miss the lies my mother told to our neighbors, our church, our friends.  I didn’t miss the lies everyone believed about the town, about my family, about me.  Though I was cold and claustrophobic in my little dorm room, I didn’t even miss the sunsets like great big scoops of ice cream melting across the wide, open sky in Paris, Texas.  I didn’t miss the fountain on the deserted downtown square, white and regal, even when Jackson and his buddies poured bath bubbles in it and it foamed over, the bubbles and water running down the steps and into the grass.  And I didn’t even miss the rocket at the park, where Jackson and I kissed for the first time.  I was happy to have Connie and happy to be away from home.

Connie and I sat together in chapel and even chose to have our meals in our room so we could talk.  She’d click on the little cat lamp and we’d share everything.

“Come on, Harriet, I never get letters.  Read me yours.  Besides I want to know what it’s like in Paris, Texas,” she’d say, and I’d give in. She rolled her eyes at Jackson’s sentimental apologies for what I “must be going through” without him and made me tell her again and again how it happened to me, how I ended up in this place with her.

So I’d begin all gushy sounding, and tell her the whole story like it was some sort of radio saga. Jackson and I’d been together for two years, and it was our anniversary.  We were necking-heavy petting is what my mother called it when she warned me about boys. That night, July 4th, in the backseat of his father’s Lincoln, parked down at the drive-in out on Airport Road, Jackson gave me the ring I thought I had yearned for for so long.  It was in a little green felt box, and he was halfway in the floorboard, trying to be on his knee as he handed it to me.  But he was not proposing. He made that clear. It was only a promise ring.

I opened the box, and he sat back up in the seat, looking over me, as proud as could be.  As I gasped appropriately at the sight of the dainty, gold ring with diamond specks in the shape of a rose, I saw us together, years from then but still young, still beautiful, running around the yard with a couple of kids trailing behind.  Then he started in on my neck.  His lips were coarse and wet, and I shrugged my shoulders long enough to get the ring on my left ring finger and look at it before he was on top of me in the seat.

He kissed me hard on the lips, then soft, then hard again, and I could feel him already rising between my legs. Then he unbuttoned my blouse and fumbled with the latch on my bra. When he touched my breasts, I felt a bolt of excitement flush over me like a hot blush.  He took off his shirt, unbuttoned his pants, and then it seemed like only seconds before he was inside of me. Hot pains shot through me.  The muscles in his chest and arms were flexed. I grabbed onto them.  A strand of hair fell onto his forehead. And then it was over. Jackson held me tight for a long time after, breathing heavy, sweating, then he sat up and buttoned up his pants. He looked good, tan, and muscular. He kissed me quickly on the lips, pulled on his shirt, dug out his pack of smokes and lit two, handing one to me.

“You’ve got to have a smoke after that,” he said. He was smug, but grinning.

I took it and smoked it, down to the filter, coughing every few drags, and looked at the ring sparkle as I moved my hand to and from my lips with the cigarette.  I could see our wedding, him in a tux that fit, not like the one he wore to our prom, and me in long flowing white lace, flowers everywhere. I had no idea what we had just done.

I didn’t get my period the next month or the next.  And the funny thing was, I felt like I had let him down, like I somehow made it happen with all my wishful dreaming of us together, the happily married couple. Jackson offered to marry me then, but it was like an afterthought, and he was devastated really, because he wanted to enroll in college classes that summer after having worked all year to save money.  And I really didn’t want to get married right then any more than he did.  I didn’t want to have a baby either, not yet. So I let him go.  I found the Seminary on my own, got the scholarship and left town that September.  It was a few days after The Paris Times interviewed me.

After I finished my story, each time, Connie would jump up and look at the article on the desk, running her fingers over the print, giggling at the little Eiffel Tower insignia at the top of the front page beside The Paris Times written out like a scroll.

We ripped through the care packages my parents sent me, tossing the pamphlets and gorging ourselves on the cookies or brownies my mother baked.  Inevitably there would be a newspaper or a woman’s magazine in the mix, and we would flip through the gossip and society pages and dream of hosting our own Sunday brunches with wild jell-o fruit molds and Bloody Marys.

Connie never received anything from home, no care packages, no letters, no postcards. And I never asked why.  I never asked about the rape. I never got beyond the basics when it came to finding out about Connie. And somehow I was content with this.

She was from Nebraska, or somewhere in the Midwest, but was headed for California next, she said.  Her parents were farmers, and their parents before them and so on.  When she told me this, I pictured her out in the fields, her sleeves rolled up and a hoe in her hands, the wheat whispering around her.  But she was bound and determined, she said, not to be “barefoot and pregnant” and stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere.  She taught me how to count back money, from a hundred on down, right into the hand.  She’d had a job at a bank for a long time, since sixteen.  She was twenty then and hadn’t wanted to give the job up but knew she had to get out of town quick before she ended up never leaving.

“Like me,” I said all perky and happy that we had more in common than being in trouble. “I couldn’t stand the suffocating stench of my father’s beer and my mother’s kitchen one more minute.  I had to git.”  Connie laughed at anything southern that came out of my mouth.

“Girl, you take the cake, you know it,” she said that like I was some kind of anomaly, but I was enjoying whatever attention she gave me, even if it did make me tense up all over and duck my head, blushing.

I looked up into her dark eyes, her deep red lips pursing out below and thought with a glazed excitement about what it would be like if we were in California instead of in the Seminary in Florida, what it would be like to be on our own together.  I wondered what it would be like to touch her, just once.  I thought about just running my fingers over her face and down her neck. Then I jolted back into reality and remembered that that glow she had about her was probably just because of the baby she had inside her, and I looked down at my own stomach swelling out so far I couldn’t even see my feet when I stood up.

It was in chapel that I really began to feel the guilt that came with the way I was drawn to Connie. I sat beside her on those dark, crushed red velvet pews, surrounded by candles and incense, the wood creaking as we shifted our weight.  My arm brushed up against hers, my finger against her finger, and I knew even in the thrilling dizziness that I felt next to her, that the Lord, or at least the clergyman, was staring down at me, shaking his head in disgust.

“Ye who does not honor thy Lord with all that they have, their mind, but most of all their body, their temple, shall answer to Him on the day of judgment. He shall cast you into the bowels of hell,” the minister of the evening would bellow the words as if he were trying to shoot them into our hearts. They were all grey and solemn, like so many boulders waiting to crush over us. I remembered my night with Jackson and cringed. I looked at Connie, and though I didn’t understand what it was that I felt for her, I knew it wasn’t what the Lord intended. My stomach shrank and knotted and the guilt ate away at me. I thought Connie felt the same guilt.

“It is not too late to accept the Lord as your Savior, to take Him into your heart, cleanse your soul of Satan’s filth, loosen his grasp.”  Each night the clergy held the altar call, pulling us in.  I felt that pull, but something would not let me go.  It was as if I knew I didn’t mean it. Maybe I wasn’t willing to give up my sin. I just sat and watched Connie go up to the altar, night after night, kneel and cross her chest the way Catholics do and just pray and pray until her eyes were red with tears. The cleansing was never enough for Connie, and the praying continued the entire time we were there.  But it wasn’t over me she was praying; she had no guilt about that.

That December, after we’d been there a good three months together is when it first happened.  It was so cold we could almost see our breath in the night air.  It was an hour after lights out, and I thought Connie was asleep when I came back from the bathroom and piled the blankets back on top of me.

“Harriet,” she whispered, and I could tell she’d been crying. “Harriet, you know, I think we’d be warmer if we were in the same bed.”

Before I could answer she was up out of her own bed and tiptoeing across the room to mine.  We wiggled into that little twin bed like it was made for the both of us, big bellies and all, and then she put her arms around me.  But I was rolling toward her at that very moment and her lips were on mine before I knew what was happening. They were so soft and smooth.  I kissed her back and felt an immediate throbbing, all over, like I’d never even felt with Jackson.  I didn’t stop to imagine where we’d be years later. I just felt that moment, her arms around me, her lips on mine.  We kissed and kissed and then her hands were on me, and I felt her softness, the smoothness of her hands, of her body, melding into mine.  But just as instantly as this feeling came, it was shaken from me like lightening.

I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but at that moment something awful happened.  A huge gulp of guilt crept up my spine and into my head, sending an ache right between my eyes. I remembered the day I told my parents about the baby. I saw my mother’s face, her astonished look of hurt and disappointment.  I saw my father’s angry hand whip across my cheek.  And then I saw my little brother’s eyes, frightened and alone, watching from behind the shrub.  I felt a thud in my chest and an ache in my throat. When I came back to my senses Connie was touching me, all over, her hands rounding my smooth taut breasts and belly.  As much as I wanted to touch her back, as much as I wanted to show her that I felt the same, I could see the clergy shaking their heads in disgust, and I couldn’t let it go any further.  I grabbed her hand and said, “No, we have to stop,” but I didn’t want her to leave my bed.

I could feel her disappointment, and something like a shy embarrassment crept over her face.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered and moved away from me like she would get up.  But she didn’t.  She put her arms around me, her hands on the small of my back.  I let her pull me close to her and rest her head beside mine on the pillow.  We fell asleep together, holding each other tight, breathing heavy and sweating under all those blankets.  And that’s when I began to laugh at the truth claimed in that article about me from The Times, the smugness of its assertions that I was an innocent Christian girl going off to make my family, my community proud doing the Lord’s work.

We were content with our closeness, but occasionally Connie would brush her lips across mine, touch me a little more tenderly, a little more deeply.  We never again went as far as we did that first night. Whatever the case was with our attraction to one another, we didn’t confront it, but we didn’t exactly deny it either. Connie and I never slept alone again until we were both about to pop and could barely sleep in our own beds much less next to each other.  It was getting warmer then.  Neither one of us spoke much about what was going to happen when the time came; neither one of us really knew what to expect.  We doodled names we thought our children should have even though they were going to live with someone else, and we dreamed about what their lives would be like with these other people.  But we never could imagine what our own lives would be like afterwards, after the babies, after each other. It was like we were suspended there, time was trucking along but our hearts were still, frozen, shunning time, weightless.  It was something that neither one of us wanted to face. And then it was time, and we had to face it.

Connie went into labor first, being ahead of me in her pregnancy, and she woke me up in the dead of night, sweating and tearful, her breathing rapid and shallow. “Harriet, he’s coming-
he’s ready,” she said in a loud whisper.  She’d always known it was a boy, she said, from the very beginning, and she wanted him to be called Todd, though she knew the family that got him would change it.  “At least it will be on his first birth certificate,” she said with pride.  I hadn’t found a name I wanted to stick with for my baby, and I had no idea then whether it was a boy or girl.

I jumped up and kissed her, like I was the happy father or something, and gathered her things.  She sat on the edge of the bed and called the operator at the desk downstairs, who had a wheelchair and two orderlies at our door in five minutes.

Small beads of sweat began to gather on her forehead and above her lip, and I was reminded, for a moment, of that first night we spent in my bed.  But she was pale, pasty really, and there was a look of terror in her eyes, especially when the pain hit.  Her strong shoulders were tensed and hunched over her belly as she grasped the arms of the chair.  Her knuckles turned white with the last contraction I saw her have, and then the pink came back in them as they turned the chair and wheeled her to the door.

“Wait! I have to get some things,” I yelled but they stopped me. They wouldn’t let me go with her, and there wasn’t even time to say goodbye before they wheeled her away.  I didn’t give her a hug or even get to see her face. I sat in the dark, awake, all that night.  I was excited about the baby, though I knew it would be gone as soon as it was born.  And I was excited for Connie, that she’d be able to leave this place, even though I knew I’d be left there alone.  The loneliness didn’t set in until a few days later.

They wouldn’t let me near her after the baby was born.  They said it would be too much stress for her, but I think they just didn’t want me to know what I was about to experience myself.  I just lay there wide-awake, biting my nails and thinking about her alone in the infirmary.  I still felt guilty about her, about everything. I just didn’t know how to put the feelings aside, and I was beginning to think more and more about the baby rolling around in my belly.  I wanted my baby to know that I would miss it when it was gone.  Just like I would miss Connie.

I was already missing her and knew I had to go see her or I would worry myself to death. Later in the week, in the dead of night when I still couldn’t sleep, I decided to sneak in to the infirmary.  It was almost two in the morning and pitch black the whole way there.  The hallways were cold and damp, like there was an inch of moisture rolling down the cinderblock walls.  I rounded the corner of the main hall in the basement and found the swinging double doors of the infirmary. I pushed them open, looking around for anyone still awake.  It was dark, but my eyes were adjusting to the moonlight shining through the tiny slat-like windows along the top of the outside walls. Everything in the room seemed white or metal, sterile and cold.

I looked over the row of beds, mostly empty, and found Connie’s, her short, dark hair standing out against the white of the blankets. The bed frame was silver and rickety, and Connie was tucked in tight. She was gaunt, flushed and looked frightened almost to death. Her dark hair was uncombed and stuck up against her pillow. She spoke in sobs so it was hard to understand what she was saying, but I got that she was glad that I came, and that they wouldn’t let her hold her baby son before they took him away.  It would only make it harder, they told her, though they did allow her to give him the name.

“I couldn’t even hear him crying. I don’t even know if he was alive,” she said through her sobs.  I held her hand in mine, and she pulled me down to her face and kissed me there in that dark room with all those empty beds.  I cried too, and she pulled me closer until I was in bed beside her.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Con,” I said and tried to ease down. She winced but then kissed me again harder.  I wanted to tell her that I was sorry, sorry that I hadn’t been there for her the way she wanted me to be.  But it was already over. I could feel it, and it didn’t need saying.  Connie knew how I felt.  She’d seen my face, the look of longing I could feel in my eyes.

“You never forget me, okay? And promise me he’ll be fine, right? It’s the right thing to do, huh?”  She was pleading with those dark teary eyes, and I nodded.  “You are so much stronger than me,” she said and rested her head between my shoulder and neck.

Though she’d said that before, I could never understand it really.  She’d seemed so strong, so full of will until that very moment, and I knew what she had been crying about at the altar every night.  No, she never felt guilty about us, but that baby, giving that baby up, it hurt her so deeply.  I don’t think she could ever be the same after that.  Lying there that night, in that sterile room, I cried until my eyes were dry as a bone.  When I thought she had fallen asleep, I left her there curled up and tucked in tight again.  I walked back to the dorm, alone with my baby tucked inside me.  When I ran my hand over my stomach, it kicked, and I wished Connie were there to feel it.  But she wasn’t and wouldn’t be there when my baby was born.

I saw her again when she packed her bags to go, and her eyes were so distant and distracted it broke my heart. She seemed so far from me then, farther than even after she was gone.  When she hugged me, her arms felt limp and weak.  She barely looked up when she let go.  She didn’t even put on her beehive wig, but dressed in one of those skimpy little skirts she hadn’t worn the whole time we were there and strode out like a bombshell with slicked back hair.

I hadn’t noticed that she’d left the lamp behind until she was in the cab, already halfway to the airport.  There they were, the two Siamese cats snuggled up next to one another, jeweled eyes sparkling out at me.  I picked it up just to feel the weight of it in my hands, but when I did I found a note folded neatly underneath.

“Thank you for keeping me warm.  Love, Connie.”

My baby was born two weeks later after only four hours of labor.  I learned from Connie not to call them too quick, as they would use you as a pincushion for the interns to practice on.  I delivered a beautiful baby girl.  I didn’t get to hold her either, but they let me look at her.  Her hair was dark and slick, and I knew right away that her name would be Connie.  As they took her away I was somehow comforted by this and slept for the next three days.

When I woke up, I remembered that Connie was gone, both of them, and I wanted them back.  I had an eerie emptiness creeping over me.  I ran my hands over my stomach where my baby had been, and I cried at its slack flatness.  I felt that I had thrust her, both of them really, out into the world unprotected, and I was ashamed that they would never know how much I wanted them.  I was ashamed that they were out there somewhere without me and ashamed that I could never give them, either of them, the love I wanted to.  I rolled onto my side, pulled my knees up as much as I could stand and cried into my hand.

“You go on home and you go to college or something, then you can marry that Jackson, or whoever it is you fall in love with next. Get the hell out of that town and do something. You show your parents what you’re made of.”  I imagined Connie whispering to me like she’d done so many nights before, though I’d always known she’d wished it hadn’t had to be like that.  So I took a deep breath and pulled myself out of that bed and out of that infirmary.  I packed up everything I’d brought with me, along with the lamp Connie had given me.  But the newspaper article that lay on my desk all those months in Florida was gone.

I’d seen Connie reading it over again one night after I’d turned out the light over my own bed, and she was still in hers, her cat lamp glaring into the night.  She didn’t know I saw her run her hand over my senior picture, like I wasn’t there.  And I think she read every word on that page, more than once.  I was sure the article gave all the lies I’d reported to save face, to uphold the reputations my parents had toiled for.  And I did it up right, exaggerating even the brochure I’d seen about the Seminary.  It probably even included that phony description I’d handed the paper about Florida, the “best beaches in the world,” I’d read somewhere before I left.  I’m sure it told about how proud my parents had been. How I had a higher calling and all to work with troubled youth.

Years later, I did end up working with young girls in trouble, doing the Lord’s work, just like the article said, but not in Paris. I talked to them about places like the Seminary, about how hard it would be to give up a child, but harder still in so remote a place with no support. I married Jackson the next fall, and we moved to Dallas shortly after. Neither of us ever finished college. I never saw my first child again, but we had two more children that we proudly raised ourselves. I never saw nor spoke to Connie again either, but I thought about her all the time. I wondered, still wonder, where she is, how she is, and if she thinks of me. At night, when it is cold out, and Jackson is far on the other side of the bed, or out late in a meeting, I long for her to be there with me, her arms around me. I run my fingers over the curve of the cat lamp I keep by my bedside, and I can still see her hovering over the article under its dim light, her sharp jaw moving with the words as she reads.

Jackson was waiting at the bus stop when I arrived home from the Seminary.  He was dressed in his best suit, his hair freshly cut and sharp on the ends.  He had a bouquet of white roses that he shoved into my arms and then kissed me long and hard.  I was stiff, but I kissed him back.  He had The Paris Times, that day’s edition, in his hands where there was a new article about me returning from the Seminary. It said that I had done well in all my classes, a model student devoted to the Lord’s work.  It said I’d earned a certificate.  He handed it to me, proud he had smoothed over the whole of the previous year, erased it really, and he was ready to forget, ready to believe the lies he had told them.  I took the article from him and smiled, but I was thinking of Connie.

Originally from Paris, Texas, Brandy T. Wilson earned a PhD in English / Creative Writing at Florida State University. She was named as a finalist for the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund Award and has received scholarships in fiction to attend the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging Writers and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her work has been featured in Ninth Letter and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove Press, 2005). She teaches writing and literature at the University of Memphis and has just completed her first novel, The Palace Blues.
6.11 / September 2011