Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris. Part of it was the war. The world had ended once already and could again at any moment. The war had come and changed us by happening when everyone said it couldn’t. No one knew how many had died, but when you heard the numbers—nine million or fourteen million—you thought, Impossible. Paris was full of ghosts and the walking wounded. Many came back to Rouen or Oak Park, Illinois, shot through and carrying little pieces of what they’d seen behind their kneecaps, full of an emptiness they could never dislodge. They’d carried bodies on stretchers, stepping over other bodies to do it; they’d been on stretchers themselves, on slow- moving trains full of flies and the floating voice of someone saying he wanted to be remembered to his girl back home.
There was no back home anymore, not in the essential way, and that was part of Paris, too. Why we couldn’t stop drinking or talking or kissing the wrong people no matter what it ruined. Some of us had looked into the faces of the dead and tried not to remember anything in particular. Ernest was one of these. He often said he’d died in the war, just for a moment; that his soul had left his body like a silk handkerchief, slipping out and levitating over his chest. It had returned without being called back, and I often wondered if writing for him was a way of knowing his soul was there after all, back in its place. Of saying to himself, if not to anyone else, that he had seen what he’d seen and felt those terrible things and lived anyway. That he had died but wasn’t dead anymore.
One of the best things about Paris was coming back after we’d gone away. In 1923 we moved to Toronto for a year to have our son, Bumby, and when we returned, everything was the same but more somehow. It was filthy and gorgeous, full of rats and horse chestnut blossoms and poetry. With the baby our needs seemed to double, but we had less to spend. Pound helped us find an apartment on the second floor of a white stucco building on a tight curving street near the Luxembourg Gardens. The flat had no hot water, no bathtub, no electric lighting— but it wasn’t the worst place we’d lived. Not by a long shot. Across the courtyard, a sawmill buzzed steadily from seven in the morning until five at night, and there was always the smell of fresh cut wood, and sawdust filtered in under the windowsills and door frames and got in our clothes and made us cough. Inside, there was the steady report of Ernest’s Corona in the small room upstairs. He was working on stories—there were always stories or sketches to write—but also a new novel about the fiesta in Pamplona that he’d started in the summer.
I wasn’t reading the pages then, but I trusted his feeling about them and trusted the rhythm of every day. Each morning, he’d wake early and dress and then go upstairs to his room and begin the day’s writing. If things weren’t hitting for him there, he’d take the notebooks and several well- sharpened pencils and walk to the Closerie des Lilas for a café crème at the marble table he liked best while Bumby and I breakfasted alone, and then dressed for a walk or went out to see friends. In the late afternoon, I’d head home, and if the day had gone well, Ernest would be there at the dining table looking satisfied with some nice cold Sauternes or brandy and seltzer, and ready to talk about anything. Or we would go out together, leaving Bumby with our landlady, Madame Chautard, and find a plate of fat oysters and good talk at the Select or the Dôme or the Deux Magots.
Interesting people were everywhere just then. The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Saint- Germain to his apartment in the rue des Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh. We could walk into any café and feel the wonderful chaos of it, ordering Pernod or Rhum St. James until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together.
“Listen,” Don Stewart said one night when we were all very jolly and drunk as fishes at the Select. “What you and Hem have is perfect. No, no,” he was slurring now, and his face contorted with feeling. “It’s holy. That’s what I meant to say.”
“That’s swell of you, Don. You’re all right, too, you know.” I cupped his shoulder lightly, afraid he might cry. He was a humorist, and everyone knew the funny writers were the most serious sort under their skins. He also wasn’t married yet, but there were prospects on the horizon, and it was all very important to him to see that marriage could be done gracefully and well.
Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.
This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen. Her easy smile. Her fast smart talk—while in the bedroom, scruffy and unshaven and laid flat out on the bed like a despot king, Ernest will read his book and care nothing for her. Not at first. And the tea will boil in the teapot, and I’ll tell a story about a girl she and I both knew a hundred years ago in St. Louis, and we’ll feel like quick and natural friends while across the yard, in the sawmill, a dog will start barking and keep barking and he won’t stop for anything.
The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, "It's possible I'm too drunk to judge, but you might have something there."
It's October 1920 and jazz is everywhere. I don't know any jazz, so I'm playing Rachmaninoff. I can feel a flush beginning in my cheeks from the hard cider my dear pal Kate Smith has stuffed down me so I'll relax. I'm getting there, second by second. It starts in my fingers, warm and loose, and moves along my nerves, rounding through me. I haven't been drunk in over a year --- not since my mother fell seriously ill --- and I've missed the way it comes with its own perfect glove of fog, settling snugly and beautifully over my brain. I don't want to think and I don't want to feel, either, unless it's as simple as this beautiful boy's knee inches from mine.
The knee is nearly enough on its own, but there's a whole package of a man attached, tall and lean, with a lot of very dark hair and a dimple in his left cheek you could fall into. His friends call him Hemingstein, Oinbones, Bird, Nesto, Wemedge, anything they can dream up on the spot. He calls Kate Stut or Butstein (not very flattering!), and another fellow Little Fever, and yet another Horney or the Great Horned Article. He seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to know the same jokes and stories. They telegraph punch lines back and forth in code, lightning fast and wisecracking. I can't keep up, but I don't mind really. Being near these happy strangers is like a powerful transfusion of good cheer.
When Kate wanders over from the vicinity of the kitchen, he points his perfect chin at me and says, "What should we name our new friend?"
"Hash," Kate says.
"Hashedad's better," he says. "Hasovitch."
"And you're Bird?" I ask.
"Wem," Kate says.
"I'm the fellow who thinks someone should be dancing." He smiles with everything he's got, and in very short order, Kate's brother Kenley has kicked the living room carpet to one side and is manning the Victrola. We throw ourselves into it, dancing our way through a stack of records. He's not a natural, but his arms and legs are free in their joints, and I can tell that he likes being in his body. He's not the least shy about moving in on me either. In no time at all our hands are damp and clenched, our cheeks close enough that I can feel the very real heat of him. And that's when he finally tells me his name is Ernest.
"I'm thinking of giving it away, though. Ernest is so dull, and Hemingway? Who wants a Hemingway?"
Probably every girl between here and Michigan Avenue, I think, looking at my feet to keep from blushing. When I look up again, he has his brown eyes locked on me.
"Well? What do you think? Should I toss it out?"
"Maybe not just yet.”
A slow number starts, and without asking, he reaches for my waist and scoops me toward his body, which is even better up close. His chest is solid and so are his arms. I rest my hands on them lightly as he backs me around the room, past Kenley cranking the Victrola with glee, past Kate giving us a long, curious look. I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton--and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.
There's a song from that time by Nora Bayes called "Make Believe," which might have been the most lilting and persuasive treatise on self-delusion I'd ever heard. Nora Bayes was beautiful, and she sang with a trembling voice that told you she knew things about love. When she advised you to throw off all the old pain and worry and heartache and smile--well, you believed she'd done this herself. It wasn't a suggestion but a prescription. The song must have been a favorite of Kenley's, too. He played it three times the night I arrived in Chicago, and each time I felt it speaking directly to me: Make believe you are glad when you're sorry. Sunshine will follow the rain.
I'd had my share of rain. My mother's illness and death had weighed on me, but the years before had been heavy, too. I was only twenty-eight, and yet I'd been living like a spinster on the second floor of my older sister Fonnie's house while she and her husband Roland and their four dear beasts lived downstairs. I hadn't meant for things to stay this way. I assumed I'd get married or find a career like my school friends. They were harried young mothers now, schoolteachers or secretaries or aspiring ad writers, like Kate. Whatever they were, they were living their lives, out there doing it, making their mistakes. Somehow I'd gotten stuck along the way--long before my mother's illness--and I didn't know how to free myself exactly.
Sometimes, after playing an hour of passable Chopin, I'd lie down on the carpet in front of the piano and stare at the ceiling, feeling whatever energy I'd had while playing leave my body. It was terrible to feel so empty, as if I were nothing. Why couldn't I be happy? And just what was happiness anyway? Could you fake it, as Nora Bayes insisted? Could you force it like a spring bulb in your kitchen, or rub up against it at a party in Chicago and catch it like a cold?
Ernest Hemingway was still very much a stranger to me, but he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn't any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness. His eyes sparked all over everything, all over me as he leaned back on his heel and spun me toward him. He tucked me fast against his chest, his breath warm on my neck and hair.
"How long have you known Stut?" he asked.
"We went to grade school together in St. Louis, at Mary Institute. What about you?"
"You want my whole educational pedigree? It's not much."
"No," I laughed. "Tell me about Kate."
"That would fill a book, and I'm not sure I'm the fellow to write it." His voice was light, still teasing, but he'd stopped smiling.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing," he said. "The short and sweet part is our families both have summer cottages in Horton Bay. That's Michigan to a southerner like you."
"Funny that we both grew up with Kate."
"I was ten to her eighteen. Let's just say I was happy to grow up alongside her. With a nice view of the scenery."
"You had a crush, in other words."
"No, those are the right words," he said, then looked away.
I'd obviously touched some kind of nerve in him, and I didn't want to do it again. I liked him smiling and laughing and loose. In fact, my response to him was so powerful that I already knew I would do a lot to keep him happy. I changed the subject fast.
"Are you from Chicago?"
"Oak Park. That's right up the street."
"For a southerner like me."
"Well, you're a bang-up dancer, Oak Park."
"You too, St. Louis."
The song ended and we parted to catch our breath. I moved to one side of Kenley's long living room while Ernest was quickly swallowed up by admirers--women, naturally. They seemed awfully young and sure of themselves with their bobbed hair and brightly rouged cheeks. I was closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper. My hair was still long, knotted at the nape of my neck, but it was a good rich auburn color, and though my dress wasn't up to the minute, my figure made up for that, I thought. In fact, I'd been feeling very good about the way I looked the whole time Ernest and I were dancing--he was so appreciative with those eyes!--but now that he was surrounded by vivacious women, my confidence was waning.
"You seemed awfully friendly with Nesto," Kate said, appearing at my elbow.
"Maybe. Can I have the rest of that?" I pointed to her drink.
"It's rather volcanic." She grimaced and passed it over.
"What is it?" I put my face to the rim of the glass, which was close enough. It smelled like rancid gasoline.
"Something homemade. Little Fever handed it to me in the kitchen. I'm not sure he didn't cook it up in his shoe."
Over against a long row of windows, Ernest began parading back and forth in a dark blue military cape someone had dug up. When he turned, the cape lifted and flared dramatically.
"That's quite a costume," I said.
"He's a war hero, didn't he tell you?"
I shook my head.
"I'm sure he'll get to it eventually." Her face didn't give anything away, but her voice had an edge.
"He told me he used to pine for you."
"Really?" There was the tone again. "He's clearly over it now."
I didn't know what had come between these two old friends, but whatever it was, it was obviously complicated and well under wraps. I let it drop.
"I like to think I'm the kind of girl who'll drink anything," I said, "but maybe not from a shoe."
"Right. Let's hunt something up." She smiled and flashed her green eyes at me, and became my Kate again, not grim at all, and off we went to get very drunk and very merry.
I found myself watching for Ernest the rest of the night, waiting for him to appear and stir things up, but he didn't. He must have slipped away at some point. One by one nearly everyone did, so that by 3:00 a.m. the party had been reduced to dregs, with Little Fever as the tragic centerpiece. He was passed out on the davenport with long dark wool socks stretched over his face and his hat perched on his crossed feet.
"To bed, to bed," Kate said with a yawn.
"Is that Shakespeare?"
"I don't know. Is it?" She hiccuped, and then laughed. "I'm off to my own little hovel now. Will you be all right here?"
"Of course. Kenley's made up a lovely room for me." I walked her to the door, and as she sidled into her coat, we made a date for lunch the next day.
"You'll have to tell me all about things at home. We haven't had a moment to talk about your mother. It must have been awful for you, poor creatch."
"Talking about it will only make me sad again," I said. "But this is perfect. Thanks for begging me to come."
"I worried you wouldn't."
"Me too. Fonnie said it was too soon."
"Yes, well, she would say that. Your sister can be smart about some things, Hash, but about you, nearly never."
I gave her a grateful smile and said good night. Kenley's apartment was warrenlike and full of boarders, but he'd given me a large and very clean room, with a four-poster bed and a bureau. I changed into my nightdress then took down my hair and brushed it, sorting through the highlights of the evening. No matter how much fun I'd had with Kate or how good it was to see her after all these years, I had to admit that number one on my list of memorable events was dancing with Ernest Hemingway. I could still feel his brown eyes and his electric, electrifying energy--but what had his attentions meant? Was he babysitting me, as Kate's old friend? Was he still gone on Kate? Was she in love with him? Would I even see him again?
My mind was suddenly such a hive of unanswerable questions that I had to smile at myself. Wasn't this exactly what I had wanted coming to Chicago, something new to think about? I turned to face the mirror over the bureau. Hadley Richardson was still there, with her auburn waves and thin lips and pale round eyes--but there was something new, too, a glimmer of potential. It was just possible the sun was on its way. In the meantime, I would hum Nora Bayes and do my damnedest to make believe.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen to find Ernest leaning lazily against the refrigerator, reading the morning newspaper and devouring half a loaf of bread.
"Did you sleep here?" I asked, unable to mask my surprise at seeing him.
"I'm boarding here. Just for a while, until things take off for me."
"What do you mean to do?"
"Make literary history, I guess."
"Gee," I said, impressed all over again by his confidence and conviction. You couldn't fake that. "What are you working on now?"
He pulled a face. "Now I'm writing trash copy for Firestone tires, but I mean to write important stories or a novel. Maybe a book of poetry."
That threw me. "I thought poets were quiet and shrinking and afraid of sunlight," I said, sitting down.
"Not this one." He came over to join me at the table, turning his chair around to straddle it. "Who's your favorite writer?"
"Henry James, I suppose. I seem to read him over and over."
"Well, aren't you sweetly square?"
"Am I? Who's your favorite writer?"
"Ernest Hemingway." He grinned. "Anyway, there're lots of famous writers in Chicago. Kenley knows Sherwood Anderson. Heard of him?"
"Sure. He wrote Winesburg, Ohio."
"That's the one."
"Well, with your nerve, you can probably do anything at all."
He looked at me seriously, as if he were trying to gauge whether I was teasing or placating him. I wasn't. "How do you take your coffee, Hasovitch?" he finally said.
"Hot," I said, and he grinned his grin, elastic and devastating.
When Kate arrived for our lunch date, Ernest and I were still in the kitchen talking away. I hadn't yet changed out of my dressing gown, and there she was sharp and fresh in a red wool hat and coat.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I won't be a minute."
"Take your time, you deserve a little indolence," she said, but seemed impatient with me just the same.
I went off to dress, and when I came back, Kate was alone in the room.
"Where did Nesto run off to?"
"I haven't the faintest," Kate said. And then, because she clearly read disappointment in my face, "Should I have invited him along?"
"Don't be silly. This is our day."
In the end, we had a lovely afternoon. Out of all the girls in my class at Mary Institute, Kate was the boldest and most fearless, able to talk to anyone and make fun out of nothing at all. She was still that way and I felt bolder, too, walking along Michigan Avenue with her, and years younger. We had lunch at a restaurant across from the marble vastness of the Art Institute, where two regal lions presided over traffic and an ever- shifting sea of dark coats and hats. It was a chilly day, and after lunch, we huddled arm in arm along State Street, tucking into every interesting shop we came to. She tried to urge me to open up about things at home, but I didn’t want to lose my good mood. Instead, I got Kate talking about her summer up in Michigan, the fishing and swimming parties and general rambunctiousness. All of her stories seemed to involve rowboats and ukuleles, full moons and campfires and grog. I was desperately jealous.
“Why do you get all the young men?”
“They’re not mine, I’m just borrowing them.” She smiled. “It’s having brothers, I guess. And anyway, sometimes it’s a nuisance. I spent half the summer trying to encourage this one and discourage that one and all the signals got mixed and in the end no one even kissed anyone else. So there, see? Nothing to be envious of.”
“Is Carl Edgar still proposing to you regularly?”
“Ugh, I’m afraid so. Poor old Odgar. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I actually said yes—as an experiment.”
“He’d fall over.”
“Or run away in terror, maybe. Some men seem to only want the girls beating a path in the other direction.”
“What about Ernest?”
“What about him?” Her eyes snapped to attention.
“Does he like his women on the run?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“How young is he, anyway? Twenty- five?”
She smirked. “Twenty- one. A boy-o. I know you’re more sensible than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought I saw some interest.” She gazed at me with intensity.
“I’m just bored,” I said. But I’d always been a terrible liar.
“How about a new hat instead?” she said, and pointed to something towering and feathery I couldn’t see myself standing beneath in a million years.
By the time we made it back to the apartment late that afternoon, the place was chock- full again. Kenley and his brother Bill, the youngest of the Smith clan, were trying to get together a card game. A fellow named Brummy was playing a ragtime tune on the piano while Ernest and another cohort, Don Wright, circled each other on the carpet in a spontaneous boxing match. They were stripped to the waist, bobbing and weaving with their fists up, while a group stood around egging them on. Everyone was laughing, and it looked like great fun until Ernest lit out with a right hook. Don managed to dodge most of it, and the match went on good- naturedly, but I’d seen the killer look on Ernest’s face when he threw the punch and knew it was all very serious to him. He wanted to win.
Kate seemed unfazed by the boxing and everything else going on in the apartment. Apparently the place was always this crazy in the eve - nings, a good- time Grand Central. Prohibition had been under way for the better part of a year, and that “noble experiment” had spurred the popping up, nearly overnight, of speakeasies in cities everywhere. There were supposed to be thousands of these in Chicago alone, but who needed a speakeasy when Kenley, like many resourceful young men, had stockpiled enough hooch to pickle a herd of elephants? That night, there was plenty of open wine in the kitchen, so Kate and I had some of that, and then some more. As dusk fell, purpling and softening the room, I found myself on the davenport squeezed in between Ernest and Horney while they talked over me in Pig Latin. I couldn’t stop collapsing into fits of giggles—and when was the last time I giggled anyway? It was surprisingly, intoxicatingly easy now.
When Horney got up to join Kate on the improvised dance floor, Ernest turned to me and said, “I’ve been thinking all day about how to ask you something.”
“Really?” I didn’t know if I was more surprised or flattered. He nodded. “Would you want to read something of mine? It’s not a story yet, more like a sketch.” He tucked his chin nervously and I almost laughed with relief. Ernest Hemingway was nervous and I wasn’t, suddenly. Not in the least.
“Sure,” I said. “But I’m no literary critic. I’m not sure I can help you.”
“It’s all right. I’d just like to get your take on it.”
“Okay, then. Yes,” I said.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and bolted halfway across the carpet before turning around. “Don’t go away, all right?”
“Where would I go?”
“You’d be surprised,” he said, mysteriously, and then ran off to fetch the pages.
Essentially, the story wasn’t a story, he was right. It was a darkly funny sketch called “Wolves and Donuts” set in an Italian restaurant on Wabash Avenue. But even though the piece was unfinished, the voice was acid sharp and hilarious. We went into the kitchen for better light and a little quiet, and as I read, Ernest paced the room, his arms swinging and pawing the air as he waited for me to answer the question he couldn’t bring himself to ask: Is it good?
When I’d turned the last page, he sat in the chair opposite me with an expectant look.
“You’re very talented,” I said, meeting his eyes. “I’ve probably spent too much time on Henry James. Your stuff isn’t that.”
“I’m not sure I get it completely, but I can tell you’re a writer. Whatever that thing is, you have it.”
“God that’s good to hear. Sometimes I think all I really need is one person telling me that I’m not knocking my fool head against the bricks. That I have a shot at it.”
“You do. Even I can see that.”
He looked at me intently, boring a small hole with those eyes. “I like you, you know. You’re a good clear sort.”
“I like you, too,” I said back, and it struck me how comfortable I felt with him, as if we were old friends or had already done this many times over, him handing me pages with his heart on his sleeve—he couldn’t pretend this work didn’t mean everything to him—me reading his words, quietly amazed by what he could do.
“Will you let me take you to dinner?” he said.
“What’s stopping us?”
Kate, I thought. Kate and Kenley and the whole drunken throng in the living room.
“No one will even notice we’re gone,” he said, reading my hesitation.
“All right,” I said, but slunk off like a thief to get my coat anyway. I wanted to go with him. I was dying to go, but he was wrong about no one noticing. As we ducked out the door together, I felt Kate’s green eyes flashing hotly over my back and heard her silent shout, Hadley, be sensible! I was tired of being sensible. I didn’t turn around.
It was a sheer pleasure to walk the chilly Chicago streets with Ernest at my side, talking and talking, his cheeks flushed, his eyes beaming. We went to a Greek restaurant on Jefferson Street where we had roasted lamb and a cucumber salad with lemon and olives.
“I suppose it’s embarrassing, but I’ve never had olives before,” I said when the waiter arrived with our order.
“That should be illegal. Here, open.”
He put the olive on my tongue, and as I closed my mouth around it, oily and warm with salt, I found myself flushing from the deliciousness but also the intimacy, his fork in my mouth. It was the most sensual thing that had happened to me in ages.
“Well?” he prodded.
“I love it,” I said. “Though it’s a little dangerous, isn’t it?”
He smiled and looked at me appreciatively. “A little, yes.” And then he ate a dozen himself, one after the other.
After dinner we walked under the elevated train and headed toward the Municipal Pier. The whole time he talked fast about his plans, all the things he wanted for himself, the poems, stories, and sketches he was burning to write. I’d never met anyone so vibrant or alive. He moved like light. He never stopped moving—or thinking, or dreaming apparently.
When we reached the pier, we walked along it all the way out to the end of the streetcar line.
“Did you know they had barracks and Red Cross units out here during the war? I worked for the Red Cross over in Italy, as an ambulance driver.”
“The war seems very far away now, doesn’t it?”
“Sometimes.” A line of worry or doubt appeared on his forehead.
“What were you doing in those days?”
“Hiding out, mostly. I sorted books in the basement of the public library. I’m told they eventually went to soldiers overseas.”
“That’s funny. I hand- delivered those books. Chocolate bars, too. Letters, cigarettes, candy. We had a canteen set up, but sometimes I went out to the line at night, on a bicycle. Can you picture it?”
“I can. It’s a wobbly red bicycle, right?”
“The boy was wobbly too after he got blown all to hell.”
I stopped walking. “Oh, Ernest, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry. I was a hero for a day or two.” He leaned against the railing and looked out at the lake, gray on gray, with just a ghost of white. “You know what I think about now?”
I shook my head.
“Silkworms. I spent a night in San Pedro Norello, a village on the front. Horney was there—that’s where I met him—and our cots were set up on the floor of this building, right? It was a silkworm factory. They were up over our heads, in the eaves, chewing away in racks full of mulberry leaves. That’s the only thing you could hear. No shell fire, no nothing. It was terrible.”
“I’ve never thought of silkworms that way. Maybe I’ve never thought of silkworms at all, but I can hear them now, the way you did.”
“Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I think I hear them chewing. I have to get up and turn the lights on and look up at the ceiling.”
“Are they ever there?” I smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
We headed away from the brightly lit shops and turned toward home—and I was struck by how rare it was to hear a near stranger share something so essential about himself. He told it beautifully, too, with real feeling. I think I was a little dumbstruck. Just who was this Ernest Hemingway?
Suddenly he stopped walking and faced me on the sidewalk. “Listen, Hash. You’re not going to run off on me are you?”
“I’m not much of an athlete,” I said.
“I like your spine. Did I tell you that?”
“I like it more than that, then,” he said. Then he gave me a winning smile and started to walk again, tucking my gloved hand under his arm. The next morning Kate came into my room without knocking. I wasn’t even dressed yet.
“I waited past midnight. Where were you?”
“I’m sorry. Ernest invited me to dinner. I wasn’t sure how I could say no.”
“No is the easiest word there is. Children learn to talk by saying no.”
I pulled my robe more tightly around my waist and sat down on the bed. “All right. I didn’t want to say no. It was just dinner, Kate. There’s no harm done.”
“Of course,” she said, obviously still flustered. “I just feel protective of you and don’t want to see you get tangled up in something awful.”
“Why awful? He doesn’t seem like a bad fellow.”
“He’s not bad, exactly.” I could see she was trying to choose her words carefully. “He’s just young. He likes women—all women, apparently. And I see you throwing yourself at him, blindly trusting him, and it worries me.”
“I’m not throwing myself at anyone,” I said, suddenly angry. “I had dinner with the man. Honestly, Kate.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” she said. “I’m getting carried away.” She sat down beside me on the bed and reached for my hand. “Forget I said anything, okay? You’re a levelheaded girl. You’ll know what to do.”
“I know. I’m terrible.” She rubbed my hand with hers and I let her, but my head was fairly spinning.
“This is all too much to think about before breakfast,” I said.
“You poor thing.” She stood, smoothing her skirt, and then she smoothed her expression, too, while I watched, righting and simplifying everything. It was a good trick. I wished I could do it.
The rest of that morning passed in a daze as I brooded over Kate’s words and her concern for me. Was Ernest really someone to watch out for? He seemed so sincere and forthcoming. He’d confessed to writing poetry, for goodness’ sake, and those stories about being wounded at the front—and the silkworms! Was this all part of some elaborate ploy to take advantage of me? If so, then Kate was right, I was falling for it, heaving myself at him like a dumb country mouse—likely one of dozens. I could barely stand to think about it.
“Maybe we should hightail it out of here before anyone stirs,” Kate said when we’d finished our coffee. “I don’t have to be at work at all today. What shall we do? The sky’s the limit.”
“You decide,” I said. “I don’t much care.” And I didn’t.
Another kind of girl might have suspected Kate of jealousy, but I was very simple and trusting, then. More than this, I was inexperienced. At twenty- eight I’d had a handful of beaux, but had only been in love once, and that had been awful enough to make me doubt men and myself for a good long while.
His name was Harrison Williams and he was my piano teacher when I was twenty and just returned home to St. Louis after a single year at Bryn Mawr. Although he was only a few months older than I was, he seemed much older and more sophisticated to me. I found it both appealing and intimidating that he’d studied overseas with famous composers and knew loads about European art and culture. I could listen to him talk about anything, and I suppose that’s how it started, with admiration and envy. Then I found myself watching his hands and his eyes and his mouth. He wasn’t an obvious Casanova, but he was handsome in his way, tall and slender, with dark thinning hair. Most appealing of all was his impression of me as exceptional. He thought I could make it as a concert pianist and I thought so, too, at least for the hours I sat at his piano bench working through finger- cramping études.
I worried a lot about my hair and dress those afternoons at Harrison’s. As he paced and corrected and occasionally praised me, I did my best to decode him. Did the tapping of his fingertip on his temple mean he had or hadn’t noticed my new stockings?
“You have a lovely alignment at the bench,” he said to me one afternoon, and that’s about all it took to send me spiraling into a fantasy of my alignment in white lace, his alignment in morning tails and gorgeous white gloves. I played terribly that day, distracted by my own swooning.
I loved him for a full year and then, in one night, all my wishing came apart. We were both at a neighbor’s evening party, where I forced myself to tip back two glasses of too- sweet wine so I could be braver near him. The day before we’d gone for a walk together in the woods just outside of town. It was fall, crisp and windless, with the clouds overhead looking like perfect cutouts of themselves. He lit my cigarette. I stamped at some yellow leaves with the toe of my lace- up shoes, and then, in the middle of a very nice silence, he said, “You’re such a dear person, Hadley. One of the best I’ve known, really.”
It was hardly a declaration of love, but I told myself he did care for me and believed it—long enough for the gulping of the wine in any case. I waited for the room to tip just that much off its center, then walked up to Harrison, picking each foot up and putting it back down again, getting closer. I was wearing my black lace. It was my handsdown favorite dress because it never failed to make me feel a bit like Carmen. And maybe it was the dress as much as the wine that lifted my hand toward Harrison’s coat sleeve. I’d never touched him before, so it was probably clean surprise that stopped him still. We stood there, locked and lovely as statues in a garden—and for several dozen heartbeats I was his wife. I had already borne his children and secured his loyalty and was well beyond the thorny rim of my own mind, that place where hope got itself snagged and swallowed over and over. I could have this. It was already mine.
“Hadley,” he said quietly.
I looked up. Harrison’s eyes were the pale blue of drowned stars, and they were saying no—simply and quietly. Just no.
What did I say? Maybe nothing. I don’t remember. The music lurched, candlelight blurred, my hand dropped to the lace of my skirt. A minute before it had been a gypsy’s dress, now it was funereal.
“I have a terrible headache,” I said to my mother, trying to explain why I needed to go home that instant.
“Of course you do,” she said, and her expression softened. “Let’s get our girl to bed.”
Once home, I let her lead me up the stairs and help me into my muslin nightgown. She tucked me into layers of quilting and put a cool hand on my forehead, smoothing my hair. “Get some rest now.”
“Yes,” I said, because I couldn’t begin to explain that I’d been resting for twenty- one years, but that tonight I’d tried for something else.
That was my one brush with love. Was it love? It felt awful enough. I spent another two years crawling around in the skin of it, smoking too much and growing too thin and having stray thoughts of jumping from my balcony like a tortured heroine in a Russian novel. After a time, though more slowly than I wanted, I came to see that Harrison wasn’t my failed prince and I wasn’t his victim. He hadn’t led me on at all; I’d led myself on. The thought of love could still make me queasy and pale, though, more than half a decade later. I was still gullible, clearly, and needed someone’s guidance—Kate’s, for instance.
We tramped all over Chicago that day looking first for world- class corned beef and then for new gloves. I let Kate chatter away and distract me and felt grateful that she had warned me about Ernest. Even if his intentions were entirely above suspicion, I was far too susceptible just then. I’d come to Chicago wanting escape and I’d gotten it, but too much dreaming was dangerous. I wasn’t happy at home, but drowning myself in fanciful notions about Ernest Hemingway wasn’t going to solve anything for me. My life was my life; I would have to stare it down, somehow, and make it work for me.
I spent another full week in Chicago and every day of that time brought some new excitement. We went to a football game, saw a matinee showing of Madama Butterfly, roamed the city by day and by night. Whenever I saw Ernest, which was often, I strove to keep my head clear and just enjoy his company without conjuring up any drama in one direction or another. I might have been a little more reserved with him than I’d been before, but he didn’t say anything and didn’t force any intimacy until my last evening in town.
It was freezing that night—too cold to be out, really—but a group of us grabbed armfuls of wool blankets, poured rum into flasks, and then piled into Kenley’s Ford and headed out to Lake Michigan. The dunes were steep and pale in moonlight, and we invented a game around them, climbing to the top of one—drunkenly, of course—and then rolling down like logs. Kate went first because she loved to be the first at anything, and then Kenley went, singing his way down. When my turn came, I crawled up the dune as sand shifted under my feet and hands. At the top, I looked around and everything was bright frosted stars and distances.
“C’mon, then, coward!” Ernest yelled up at me.
I closed my eyes and let myself fall, barreling down over the hard bumps. I’d had so much to drink I couldn’t feel a thing—nothing but a thrilling sense of wildness and freedom. It was a kind of euphoria, really, and fear was a key part of it. For the first time since I was a girl, I felt the heady rush of being afraid and liked the sensation. At the bottom, I’d barely come to a stop when Ernest whirled me up out of the dark and kissed me hard. I felt his tongue for a hot instant against my lips.
“Oh,” was all I could say. I couldn’t think about whether anyone had seen us. I couldn’t think at all. His face was inches from mine, more charged and convincing and altogether awake than anything I’d ever seen.
“Oh,” I said again, and he let me go.
The next day I packed my bags for my return trip to St. Louis feeling a bit lost. I’d been so swept away by living for two weeks, I couldn’t really imagine going back home. I didn’t want to.
Kate was working that day and we’d already said our good- byes. Kenley had to be at work as well, but had been kind enough to offer to drive me to the station on his lunch break and save me the cab fare. After everything was stowed and ready, I put on my coat and hat and went to wait for him in the living room. But when a body appeared in the hall to fetch me, it was Ernest’s.
“Kenley couldn’t get away after all?” I asked.
“No. I wanted to do it.”
I nodded dumbly and collected my things.
It wasn’t much of a distance to Union Station and we passed it mostly in silence. He wore wool trousers and a gray wool jacket, with a dark cap pulled down nearly to his eyebrows. His cheeks were pink with cold and he looked very beautiful. Beautiful was exactly the right word for him, too. His looks weren’t feminine but they were perfect and unmarred and sort of heroic, as if he’d stepped out of a Greek poem about love and battle.
“You can let me out here,” I said as we neared the station.
“Would it kill you to give a guy a break?” he said, finding a place to park.
“No. Probably not.”
A few minutes later, we stood together on the platform. I clutched my ticket and my pocketbook. He held my suitcase, shifting it from hand to gloved hand—but as soon as my train appeared, its silverbrown body trailing smoke and soot, he set it down at his feet. Suddenly he was holding me tight against his chest.
My heart beat fast. I wondered if he could feel it. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you,” I said.
He didn’t say anything at all, just kissed me, and through that kiss I could feel all of him radiating warmth and life. There was so much I didn’t know about Ernest and even more I wouldn’t let myself ask or even imagine, but I found myself surrendering anyway, second by second. We were surrounded by people on the platform, but also entirely alone. And when I finally boarded my train a few minutes later, my legs were shaking.
I found a seat and looked out my window into the crowd, scanning the dark suits and hats and coats. And then there he was, pushing closer to the train, smiling at me like a maniac and waving. I waved back, and then he held up one hand like a sheet of notebook paper, and the other like a pencil, pantomiming.
I’ll write to you, he mouthed. Or maybe it was I’ll write you. I closed my eyes against hot, sudden tears, and then leaned into the plush seat as my train carried me home.
Excerpted from THE PARIS WIFE © Copyright 2011 by Paula McLain. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
The Paris Wife
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0345521307
- ISBN-13: 9780345521309