Doctor Diane Writes of Love

by Martha Conway

In high school I could not decide if I liked the good boys or the bad boys.

Good boys are easy to miss; they blend in. There is a certain uniform: Levi's corduroys, button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up, sneakers. Summer, they substitute short-sleeved golf shirts for the button-downs. Bad boys are a different story. Their hair is long. They wear t-shirts and too-short cut-off shorts. And how they look at you -- that was different too. Where I lived you could feel bad boy eyes in a crowded school corridor, pairs flicking on you and flicking off just because they could. Where I once lived the good boys always looked at their lockers or past your shoulder or over your head.

Where I lived was Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights, Ohio, is two things: it is Shaker Heights and it is Ohio. Around Cleveland the trees grow fast and thick and flying squirrels once jumped state to state without touching ground. This was in the days before industry. Before steel, and coal, and oil -- especially oil -- and all the sooty factories that made a Shaker Heights possible. The Van Sweringen brothers had a plan for the area: they built themselves a mansion and connected it to Cleveland by rail. Others followed. The houses were laid out carefully on precisely planned streets, getting smaller and smaller as the money ran out. But still, it looked good. Or as they say today: it worked. Building codes were just about invented in Shaker Heights. Zoning ordinances. Statutes about garbage cans and visible clotheslines. The brothers planned and built and then lost everything in the crash. But look what they had now, instead of money! They had started a city.

Bad boys looked at girls and good boys did not. This is what made them interesting, and unapproachable. At home there was my father and myself, only the two of us; my one older sister was at Wellesley and I intended to follow her when I could. The house where we lived was in the suburb's middle -- it had a large back yard and there was a tiny trickle of a creek down at the end. My grades were good, I wore button-down shirts and crewneck sweaters and tied a striped ribbon around my ponytail. For the most part I was unexceptional. But I liked it when a tall, skinny boy named Seth looked at me hard and said he'd never seen me before, was I new here? It was the end of the year, he was graduating and I had one more to go. He stood next to my locker with his hand on the metal door and I had a hard time meeting his eye. When in my awkwardness I made a small joke Seth let go of the door to take hold of my arm saying, "You, you," as though I'd done something charming and out of character. A ripple went through me from the bottom of my belly to the place on my arm where he touched me, pleasing me with surprise.

Some weeks later Seth showed up soaked at my front door in his dark jean jacket and long hair just after a cloudburst. All those trees in Cleveland needed buckets of rain and the weather went from cloudy to showers with maybe a day or two of sun in between to make you feel, unexpectedly, like everything was grand and in your favor. But that summer the rains were greater, longer, with most of the state's corn crop failing and homes far away in Zanesville and Millersport being lifted off their front yards to drift down blocks, dangling stray branches like oars. That was the summer there were nine heavy thunder storm warnings and two tornado watches and one real tornado warning but it never touched ground. A real flood summer. I liked the watches best, the chance they may become warnings, they may become real. My father and I watched from our screened-in back porch the wind whipping flat the grass and moving broken branches down the yard.My father was in his wheelchair -- he was crippled in a car accident years before -- and I sat next to him on an old rattan couch belonging once to my mother. We saw how the before-storm flurry bent back the fir trees and washed the crab apple tree bare of its lowermost leaves. We watched the sky turn deep blue then yellow then greenish-purple-gray and how moving in from one direction or another the buckets of rain would start finally falling to the ground filling the creek at the end of the yard and dropping so fast they made like a screen beyond the porch screens where we watched.

When Seth showed up soaking at my front door after one of these flood summer watches he told me he had heard my voice in the shower, and I felt a thrill thinking it was from me thinking of him in the rain. I told him this that same night as we drove in the streamy streets, the all-fallen rain moving under curbs like lost direction, and when I'd finished Seth stopped carefully to surprise me again at a stop sign, the first kiss we had.

"I think we're going to like each other very much, Jen," he said slowly, as if he knew something no one else did. I liked his certainty, even though I told myself I myself did not know. I thought myself cautious by nature. Later, after the movie, Seth kissed me again, a long kiss that seemed practiced but which moved me nevertheless.

"Jen, this is going to be something," he told me, meaning him and me.

My father and I from our screened-in porch watched the sky turn greenish purple and the shadow-colored clouds move low. I liked the silence that came just before a clap, and the silence after. I liked being behind the porch screens and the mostly wound-up glass panels, feeling sometimes a wind on my face, hearing the thunder gather and crack as though we were out there but all the while safe inside watching the watch that could become a warning. But no tornado ever hit. One never came down on Shaker Heights. We could look out at the storm and only imagine how it might have been before all that planning, before the rapid tracks and the houses and the rules about clotheslines. Why George Washington himself would have claimed the area then scurried back to Philadelphia to the house he kept there. Not that we wanted those days back; no, no sir. We liked our house, my father and I; we liked living there. We had lived there all my life.


Seth liked to follow the rapid transit train tracks driving himself and me and Seth's friend Tom into the city on Friday nights, crossing the bridges over roads and water that first were concrete then were stone. I live in California now, but if I take the train to San Francisco there is a section above ground, in Oakland, that reminds me of Cleveland. There are the same beautiful houses along the rails: large with magnificent, crumbly front porches and everywhere in need of paint. There are old men sitting on loose-stuffed couches out on the street, kids playing foursquare on tarred church blacktops, ditches sloping suddenly down from the tracks strewn with old car tires and Coke cans and netless basketball hoops and God knows what else. This is Oakland. It is also Cleveland. The old men (but not so old, really -- poverty makes them so), the ditches, the beautiful, rotting houses. The haphazardness. A wave of nostalgia rises up in me when the train goes through the area. I can't explain it.

Seth drove Tom and I into Cleveland on Friday nights passing the churches and the ditches and the large old crumbly houses, the places where planning has fallen to time. At the end of the line we came to the Flats, the area between downtown and the lake. This was where the oil business started, the money pumped out of wells in Pennsylvania and brought back here. Companies clustered here elbowing for stone-brick building room and there were high-ceilinged coffee shops on every corner, men in white caps flipping burgers I suppose like in movies. This was before the crash. Now there were bars and restaurants struggling to belie their habitat. Now it was a place you go to drink and not get carded. Seth and Tom and I drove around, got out of the car and walked.

"Look at that building," Seth said.

It was made of beautiful dark brown stone and there were delicate, curved windows at the very top, some cracked, some with missing panes. Its reflection fell on the iridescent water, shiny with oil and gasoline.

"This is completely amazing," Seth said. "Someone could make a shit-load of money cleaning these places up and renting them out."

"Too far from the center," Tom said.

Seth told us that you start with one building, clean it up, go to the next. He said that's how the neighborhood changes.

"It can go up or down," he explained, "it's a matter of investment."

Tom and I looked at each other.

"Seth, the city is bankrupt," I told him.

"Well," Seth answered. "Maybe not forever."

"Jen's right. Everyone's leaving," Tom said.

"Not everyone. And plus they're coming back. Hey, I know about this -- I read it in The Wall Street Journal. Investment is on the way up. Mark my words, it will be sky-high by the time we're ready to get in on it. Tom, you should tell your Dad to start now. You too, Jen."

Seth never backed down, he did not change his mind ever. You could not get him to compromise, and sometimes I reached out to hit him on the arm I would get so mad but still he didn't change. He wore bright t-shirts and too-short shorts and smoked pot brought up from the southern part of the state, the flat part. He lived on the upper story of a duplex near the border of Cleveland with his sister and divorced father. Tom wore button- down shirts and sneakers and had a clean-cut look, a Navy look. At school I had seen Tom not seeing me where I hadn't seen Seth. His house was near mine in the suburb's middle, and whenever he came over with Seth, afterwards my father would say, "That Tom sure is a good-looking fellow. Reminds me of me in my youth," with a grin that was only slightly self-mocking. Tom's mother died when he was young and he was quiet, with a cynicism that seemed forced. Tom and I had this in common, mothers who had died, but it was so obvious a tie that we never mentioned it. Seth was loud and there was always something going on with him. His mother was alive and living in New York City.

"Jen, Jen, Jen," Seth said. "You watch. This city has a future still. Keep the faith."

I thought myself ready to move on. But Seth liked Cleveland, liked the Flats; he liked to roam around imagining himself, I thought, taking chances and cutting deals, making some money, imagining what it would be like for him someday, after college if he could wait that long. It did not matter that there was no money there. He took us to bars underneath the broken buildings and iron-wrought bridges where we drank standing up. We ordered drinks with names that did not call to mind alcohol -- Manhattans, Mint Juleps, something written on the blackboard called a Perry Mason -- and when they wouldn't serve us those we ordered two-percent beer. We listened to the conversations around us, men who didn't talk much, and always one or two woman with an eye on the TV. I felt like a visitor. Seth joked with the bartender, with the men and women who were seriously trying to drink and not talk to some kid, and often I would feel embarrassed when I saw how he was trying too hard, how he wanted to belong wherever he was. Tom like me was more cautious and rarely spoke.

Sometimes instead of the Flats we went to Horseshoe Lake Park, to the lake that was really a pond and closed after dark. We hid the car in a nook in the trees and walked to the edge of the water -- it was so dark we had to form a chain and go slowly: Seth, then me, then Tom. I felt Tom's fingers on my shirt, a faint pull as I followed Seth. We carried a blanket and a radio and a six-pack of beer. There was a flat spot above the pond where we could hear its faint lapping in the darkness beyond. We drank the beer and listened to the radio and everyonce in a while one of us would get up to pee far away but on an incline, keeping the sound of the others with us, making our way back to them.

"Hey, how about another beer here, dear," Seth said to Tom and Tom gave him another, saying to me,

"For you?" He put the bottle carefully in my hand, making sure I had a grip, cupping my fingers for a moment with his other hand. The clouds moved over patches of white polka-dot stars then uncovered them again. Tom sat close, his knee sometimes touching mine, with Seth on the other side. Sometimes the side of my body near Tom, after he hand-cupped a beer to me, say, would feel extra-alert, aware, a feeling I had in dance shows when I was waiting next to move. There were times I thought he touched my knee on purpose. From far off away I could hear heat thunder or real thunder -- I was never sure until I felt the great wet drops. First there'd be only a couple of splotches on our hands and faces, but soon they quickened growing smaller and hard and Seth would cover the radio with the blanket and tell us not to forget the beer. We ran, trying to find where we hid the car in the trees. And when we had made it at last we stayed settled down soaking in the car in the dark, just sitting, listening, taking in the scent of our cold wet selves on rubber upholstery. I could hear Tom's soft breathing in the back seat. Seth was right, we saw a lot of each other, and we saw a lot of Tom. We had the whole summer and the next fall. Seth was going to college in January, Ohio State, while Tom and I stayed behind to finish high school.

I could hear Tom breathing softly behind us, and then the surprising feeling of his hand on my hair.

"Jen's soaked," Tom said, pulling at my ponytail. "A drowned rat."

"Oh thanks. And what about you?" I asked turning around. Tom's hand confused me, this touching outright. I wasn't sure I liked it. His smell, when he came close, reminded me of freshly washed sheets. And his hair was as fine as a baby's, with a cut that probably hadn't changed since he was six. His face was very pale, and I imagined his skin to be soft, smooth: the fine line where his neck met his shoulder blade, the curve of his shoulder underneath a button-down shirt.


Seth and I went back to the pond in daylight to watch the geese on the still, murky water. But instead of sitting where we sat at night or walking the tiny trail with the girl scouts, Seth showed me a tree above the water that had a platform way up in the branches; we climbed it and could see over the entire pond. Those days we were always looking for the places behind the places people go. We liked the underbellies of things -- at the very least, what might be forbidden. Seth took a pipe out of his backpack and our exhaled smoke floated off the platform and over the trees and broke up invisible above the water. We watched the dappled unaware-of-us geese paddle by on their murky-pond down, prodding the water with their cartoon bills.

Tom never came with us, those times. He wanted to be a politician so he drank a lot but never did drugs. Seth and I smoked, not speaking, watching the geese and settling down to where we were at last, and after awhile even the world outside our two bodies seemed to come together in one even pattern. Everything seemed to be of a piece: the still pond, the dark brown rim of muck where the water met shore, Seth and me sitting on the hard wood platform above, and even the condom wrappers and a man's black dirty comb left on the leftover autumn leaves that Seth and I would jump on when we felt sure enough of ourselves to climb back down. Everything that makes me think now of high school, of Shaker Heights behind the planning, the other part of it, especially somehow the sight of an old dropped comb lying on leftover leaves. Seth told me a story up there of how his mother once hit him with a hairbrush; his backside, he said, was so hard that the hairbrush broke. I laughed thinking of his hard hard butt, and because I saw that I was meant to. I told him my father never hit me, never even raised his voice. He was the kind of person who really did count to ten before he spoke. We were careful with each other, I told Seth. Very, very careful.

"Yeah, well, my mom left soon after that, so maybe it would have been better to be careful," he said.

But he said it in a joke, and I liked it that he could laugh about being hit. My father didn't hit me with a hairbrush but he didn't joke either, and when he moved around in his wheelchair making our dinner, always a vegetable and a starch and either chicken or meat, I could almost see in the way he fixed his shoulders the worry, No Mother, or, Handicapped Father.

"Did you have a good day, sweetheart?" my father asked me when I got home from the pond. "Did you go to the pool?"

"Yep. I went with Tom," I told him and put my dry pool towel in the dryer. My father did not think it was a good idea for me to see only one boy. He thought of himself when he was young, dating around, taking one girl to a movie and going to a football game with her friend.

"You're young," he liked to say. "Don't tie yourself down."

"I did a one-and-a-half off the low board," I told him. "We went to Dairy Queen afterwards."

"Sounds like you had a fun day," and he smiled in his careful, thought-beforehand way to show that he approved. It did not feel like I was lying.

Once when Seth and Tom and I really were at the pool -- it was night, we were trespassing -- Seth was in the water by himself and Tom and I were watching him. Seth performed dive after dive off the high board, over-extending his body, hitting the water with a slap. He did swan dives, back flips that made me gasp. I was ashamed because he did not dive very well, and yet he approached the board with such spirit and knowingness. Tom sat beside me on the grass, picking at the gray-green blades in the dark. He ran one tiny pointed blade up my arm then over his own cheek. Seth was in the water, swimming back to the edge of the pool. Tom said,

"Why do you like him?"

Why do I like him.

I could have thought about it, maybe I should have, but I wondered instead about Tom himself, about his quietness and how he hung around Seth even though he wasn't as daring and did not seem to want to be. I thought about how he cupped my hand when passing a beer. It didn't occur to me, then, to take anything at face value. This was growing up, I thought, to see things as they were: complex and mostly hidden.

Some days later Seth and I went into the city and stood on a corner on Carnegie to score pot from a guy Seth knew. I watched two hookers lean back in doorways or walk out casually, almost indifferently, when a car slowed to take the turn.

"Don't worry, Jen," Seth said, even though I wasn't.

"This is supposed to be good," he told me. "This is flown in from California. Someday we'll go to California, okay? Just you and me. We'll lay out at the beach all day and work on our tans. We could go to school there. We could go to Santa Cruz. I'll go to Business School in Berkeley. What do you think? Would you go?"

The hookers ignored us. We were not moving cars. We walked a little along the sidewalk and I felt a warm breeze that held some scent of rain. All breezes smelled of rain. The summer was almost over.

"Sure," I said. "What about Tom, too?"

Seth didn't look at me. He watched the street.

"Tom we'll leave behind. He wouldn't appreciate California."

A car came around the corner and slowed. We looked with the hookers straight into the windshield.

"That's for us," Seth told me. "Here we go."

I stayed on the sidewalk, leaning back on the corner of a building while Seth went to the car. The building across the street was cracked and unpainted, with huge warehouse doors on the second floor for windows. It seemed solid to me, real. It was a building waiting for demolition. Still, I couldn't imagine the corner without it. Next to it was a newer building, pre-fabricated, a Popeye's Fried Chicken. There came from it a smell of old oil and heavy breading.

"Hey, how ya doin'," Seth said into the driver's window, as though he'd been seeing this guy all his life.


In the fall Tom and I went back to high school, our last year, and Seth got a job at a stone-cutting plant in Cleveland to make money for college. I had transferred to public school the year before from St. Anne's and the bells still gave me a sudden start when they sounded the end of the period. The crowds awed me. The banging of lockers, the voices, the occasional high- pitched shriek. There were many types of groups, I found; I usually stayed with the girls worried about board scores and G.P.A.'s. Tom hung around the male equivalent.

Tom and I didn't have any classes together and we never spoke to each other in the hallways. It was like we had a life where we knew each other and no one else from school, and we had a life in school. Sometimes when we passed we smiled privately, a half-smile, Tom always looking away first past me over my head. I liked the secrecy of seeing him this way, as though we were doing something forbidden.

Wednesdays we had sex education classes where we were drilled on health and modern love. We read a pamphlet containing a column on a certain issue and letters from concerned teenagers, teenagers like us, all answered by Doctor Diane. Many of these letters were by girls who loved their boyfriends but didn't feel they were ready for sex. Doctor Diane assured them that it was their right to wait until they were older, that they could make up their own mind and not be influenced by the crowd. Doctor Diane promoted choice. It is your choice not to have sex, she wrote.

We could choose not to choose passionately, but to choose reasonably. With our head. Our intellect. With our future in mind -- our plans for college, for career. We could still date, Doctor Diane told us, have fun, go to parties, but always with the thought of a good night sleep afterwards in mind.

We could choose not to choose. When you do someday decide to have sex, Doctor Diane wrote -- and she made it sound like years from now, after school, after college, she made it sound like right before our future husbands retired -- when you do decide, she told us, make sure you love him. Make sure you trust him. Sex is a commitment. It is important. It is -- did she actually use the word? -- sacred.

The G.P.A. girls understood this. They kept their eyes on boys like Tom, boys who blended in, boys who would not make too visible their desires. They watched for boys who would be politicians, who were careful. They were serious girls.

I still wore ribbons and in winter a pink crewneck sweater with my monogram sewn in white thread. I did not wear very much makeup. I tried out for school plays and the dance club.

Sometimes Seth and Tom would pick me up after dance rehearsal if they had been out together shooting pool or just doing nothing, watching TV, and were bored. They came early so they could watch the end of the workout when we were lined up in our leotards on stage. I wouldn't look at them after I saw them come in but I imagined their eyes picking me out, following me, Tom looking at me full at last. I liked thinking of him watching me. Later the girls would glance hard at me in the locker room, not moving their heads. I revealed nothing, though. I talked about how I was taking a Stanley Kaplan course as I brushed out my hair and pulled it back with a wide barrette. Call me tonight, I would say to someone. I'll be doing Trig.

What they didn't know was this: sometimes, early in the morning before he went to work in the plant, Seth threw patio gravel at my window. I lived in the back of the house and my father had pills and a white-noise machine to keep him asleep. He never heard me go downstairs and open the back door for Seth. My father woke up at seven, by the alarm, in time to shave and dress and go downstairs by the electric chair we had installed on our stairs and make eggs and bacon for our breakfast. By that time Seth was long gone. And when my father called from downstairs I responded slowly, as though awakened from a deep sleep.

My father called, Up and at 'em, sweetheart.

When I came downstairs I would see, folded neatly on the table by the front door, my leotard and tights that my father had washed for me. At breakfast we talked about dance rehearsals, about what the next show would be like, and what I was doing in History or Health class. I did not talk about Doctor Diane. And my father did not talk about his pills or his physical therapist who was trying to keep his spine from curving even further into an S, wrapping itself around his colon, his pancreas, crowding out his liver. The wheelchair hummed as my father moved around the kitchen, the counters built low, the cupboards knee-high. We talked about what it would be like for me at Wellesley, and about my sister who was already there. I felt grown-up and secret, sitting at the breakfast table with my father, and also at the same time like a little kid.

I could not tell Tom, when he asked me about Seth that night at the pool. And I couldn't ask him what he really meant. Besides, why would I want to? Tom was cautious, deliberate. He would be careful not to thrill. He would never throw gravel at my windows in the early morning, kiss me with cold lips while keeping his gloved hands on my face; he would never figure out which back stairs steps could be walked up creakless and which you giant-stepped over.

He would not whisper, "Well, Jennifer Michaels," in my room once we closed the door as though he knew me through and through but still I could thrill and surprise.

There was in my mind a picture of Seth I liked once in a while to look at: him lying on my bed in brief full sleep before he made his way silently out ahead of my father's alarm going off. My arm across his back feeling a long shudder as he sunk down and then another and then a stillness like he was concentrating. Me staying awake next to him making sure he left on time. Me on the watch. The few minutes of this, watching him sleep so seriously, waiting for the time to wake him, listening to the house creak and settle and the far-off whirr of my father's white-noise machine.

That was it. That was the picture I liked.

Still, I sometimes held Tom out to myself as a safeguard. There's always Tom, I thought, as though he might come forth in some unforeseeable threat or emergency and make himself known.


Seth and I without Tom smoked on the platform above the pond or drove out to the country or went into Cleveland to drink or score or, once, went to see Monster Trucks at the Richmond Coliseum, metal crunching solid metal as cars rolled over one another and flattened hoods like milk cartons. We went out more and more after school and sometimes during. I wasn't studying as much and my grades would start to slip, and then I would study in a last minute flurry, staying in my room with my books. It got harder and harder. But so far I always pulled it off at the last minute. I told myself it would change in January when Seth left. I told myself then I'd go back to regular life.

On Friday nights Seth and Tom and I began to play Risk. Sometimes we played in Tom's three-story brick house, playing on the coffee table by the fireplace, his stepmother bringing in Planter's peanuts and ginger ale at eleven o'clock which was our cue to call victory or truce. Sometimes we would play in Seth's upper-story duplex on the edge of Cleveland while his father was out with his girlfriend. Those times we could play until two or three in the morning, we could stay as long as the game played out or Seth's father came back with or without his girlfriend. Seth and I smoked while we played and Tom always clobbered us, although sometimes Seth and I would make a team, and then -- once in a while -- our colors would be all over the board, an impressive show of dominance, and Seth would say "We're hot now, here we go, hold on, Jen," ashe rolled the dice. It lasted until we did something impulsively, trusting our luck, and Tom came up from behind. He had a six pack which he drank deliberately, with purpose, as he played. At times I thought Seth watched me when I watched Tom play and I felt a kind of dangerous thrill but I couldn't be sure if he was.

Once, in the beginning of all this, when Tom first met me, he told Seth that he didn't think much of me. He thought Alison, Seth's old girlfriend, was more of a woman. Those were his words. Seth told me this during one of our fights, and afterwards I thought about it carefully -- I didn't know exactly what it meant, but it seemed true to me also. Mostly I think because Alison was tall, whereas I was not, and she acted older somehow, somehow more settled. She didn't joke so much. Tom joked in a flat, wry way, as though the words slipped out of his mouth without his real knowledge. His mother died of cancer and he never spoke of her, although when it happened he was old enough to remember. My mother died in a car accident, the same one that crippled my father. I was in the back seat with my older sister and a younger sister, a baby, who died also. Long ago I learned that when people ask me, it's best just to say it straight out, give them the information as matter of factly as possible. But I wondered if Tom had found the better way, the way of keeping people from asking in the first place. His mother was private, a mystery to the rest of us.

I figured Tom must have changed his mind about me. Or that the difference didn't matter so much, the woman part. He touched in friendliness the top of my ear, my hair, a shoulder blade when Seth left the room. I thought about it but did not touch him back.

When that night's game of Risk was over we would stretch out on Seth's living room floor. We listened to music. I thought about Seth lying beside me, about Tom. I wondered what it would be like if Tom took me into his confidences. I thought of his smell like baby-soap and the button-down shirts his stepmother ironed.

After our game of Risk we would lie awhile on the living room floor, waiting for something or other to move us. Finally Tom would raise himself to a squat like he was throwing dice, four finger tips and a thumb on the floor for balance, and he look around for his coat. Everything shifted then, when he looked around; everything contracted. We felt it, Seth and I, there on the floor. Tom let himself out the front door and we listened to him go down the steps of the duplex. We listened to his car start and the slow warming up he gave it. It always took a little while to absorb the space Tom made when he left, to shrink back to couple.

Doctor Diane wrote: Dates in a crowd are just as fun.

That winter temperatures were quixotic and extreme, and the ground would freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw again. By December there was a long spell with no more fresh snow, but there was ice -- from almost anywhere you could hear it dripping from the roofs, from bedroom windows, dripping off before the great icicles re- froze in dark gray dirty cones. Late at night, without Tom, Seth and I took plastic trays I had stolen from the cafeteria at school and we went to the sledding hill next to the public pool. We went down, each on a tray, trying to hold onto the other's arm, leg, sometimes kissing, slipping down fast on the sleek iced ground. On one part of the hill there was a small pond at the bottom, and that side was roped off for sledding. But that was the side we chose, late at night with the wind chill factor pushing minus twenty. We tried to get as close as we could to the half-frozen dirty gray pond without plunging in. There were times we had to fall off the tray at the last minute to avoid skidding across the watered-up ice. We let go of the leg, the arm, whatever we were holding, and rolled over onto the gray, wet, old snow, listening at last to reason, but still in some way proud.


The night of the last dance show in December Tom came to see me alone. Seth was at the police station, he explained. He'd been caught buying beer with a fake I.D.

I had been standing in the hall after the show, waiting for him. My face grew hot when I realized he hadn't seen my dance -- he had promised to come that night, it was the last night he could see it -- and I felt ashamed because of where Seth was but still I was mad.

"What's going to happen?" I asked. Tom shrugged.

"It'll be all right," he said. "His father's on top of it."

In the large hall mirror I caught a glimpse of us. We were well dressed, tidy. We looked ordinary, like we belonged together.

Tom said, "Do you want to go get some ice cream?"

We went to a place not far from the high school. The winter clouds were low and full and Tom told me on the way there was a blizzard warning in effect. I saw in the ice cream shop a few other dancers there in a booth by the door, their faces raw like mine from scrubbing off orange foundation and red rouge number eight. They watched us come in and one asked if we wanted to join them; I looked at Tom but his face said nothing so I guessed and said no. We made our way with our ice cream to a booth in the far corner. I was curious; Tom and I had never gone somewhere together without Seth. I didn't know what we would say to each other. My ice cream was perfectly shaped in the dish, a smooth tennis ball of strawberry. Tom had coffee and a dish of chocolate chip.

"Why don't you put some of your ice cream in your coffee?" I asked. "I bet it'll be good."

"Would it? Do you think so?" Tom said, but he made no move to try it.

I asked him about Seth but he did not have much information. They had gone into Cleveland, they were heading for the Flats, but then decided to save money and Seth went instead to get beer for the two of them at a corner store. Tom stayed in the car. A woman, not in uniform, walked up to the car behind Seth and showed him her badge. Seth tried to talk himself out of it -- he was usually pretty good at that -- but he failed. Seth went with her in the police car. Tom called Seth's father from a phone booth and then came to find me.

"It was a stupid thing to do," Tom said. "Buying it there. Too close to a station."

"So why did you let him?"

Tom didn't answer. He didn't look at me. Outside some snow was falling lightly, harmlessly, and in the window reflection I could see the back of one dancer's head as she sat in the booth across from us and down. It bobbed once in a while in laughter, or down to eat her dessert.

"Do you think Seth will really go to school next year?" Tom asked me.

"Sure. He's accepted, isn't he?"

"Do you think he'll like it?"

"Of course!"

"What I mean is," Tom said, "Not everyone has to go to college. It's not necessarily for everyone. I mean, it wouldn't be a disaster if he didn't end up going."

Everyone I knew was going to college. But I knew what Tom was trying to say. I could see Seth sticking around Cleveland another year, not sending in his tuition in time, rationalizing postponement. He was good at thinking up reasons not to do some things, like he was good at talking people into others.

"If he stayed," Tom said carefully, "You wouldn't stay with him, would you?"

The dancer's head bobbed towards us for a moment as though she'd heard him and wanted to know too. But she was just checking on us. After a moment, the girls began gathering their coats and purses. They put some bills on the table and left without looking back.

"No," I said.

Tom moved forward. He touched my pinkie deliberately, with his index finger, playing.

"You should go to college," he said.

"I'm going to Wellesley."

"Right," he said, still touching my hand.

And I thought: if he leans over, I will kiss him.

Tom said, "Are those girls still here?"

"No. They left."

He looked at me. The ice cream shop was noisy with teenagers, parents, babies. For all I knew -- we were in a back booth after all -- there might be others who knew us, who could see us. But I wasn't nervous. No, and at the time I didn't find that strange. I was as calm as though I was safe with my father, watching a storm come in. I was on the watch: would anything appear, touch ground?

Tom said, "We better get back before this blizzard hits." He leaned forward, pulled his wallet from his back pocket. I wiped my mouth carefully with a paper napkin. And I thought: of course, Tom would not kiss me here, in an ice cream shop, a woman he's never kissed before. That was something Seth would do. I got my purse and followed him out to the parking lot where the snow was snowing harder but the wind still held off. When Tom unlocked the car door for me he made a small movement, something I hardly even noticed at the time, but I've wondered about it since. It was so slight, so small, a movement towards me. I think now, was that it? Did I miss it? If that was it, and if I had recognized it at the time, then I might not have visited Tom at all, years later. Because I felt no warning, standing next to him in the dark parking lot -- no sudden lurch in my belly, no rush. What I'm trying to say is this: I just moved behind him and got in the car.

There is of course another end further down, after Seth and I broke up for good, after I began attending Wellesley, after my father moved to Tucson for its weather and I stopped going back to Shaker Heights. The less subtle, less interesting ending. The ending of when I went to visit Tom at Yale and spent a weekend in New Haven. In that ending there is a perfect setup: two unattached people who have been curious about each other for a while now. Students who dress alike, who go to classes in old buildings that have been renovated, restored, the ivy torn down because of brick damage, the stones cleaned by blasts of air.

That weekend in New Haven I couldn't help remember how the first time we talked Seth had grabbed me by the arms, how he said you, you, as though he knew me and the quick jump I felt inside, the nervous joy. Tom approached me slowly, with caution. We made deliberate, correct moves, moves that seemed and were probably planned ahead. During that weekend in New Haven I met the woman Tom would go out with, beginning almost right after I boarded the train for Massachusetts, the woman he eventually married. She had a saint's name. This is all I remember.

There is one thing I do know: once you begin wanting something a certain way, you can't just go back. And there is no guarantee of regret. Doctor Diane said to keep your eyes open. She said know what you're getting yourself.

But she was way off the mark.

I ask you: how can you predict such things? Watches become real invisibly -- you only notice after the wind has changed shape.

In Cleveland they are also renovating their buildings. Seth was right all those years ago -- people came back, made money, began new construction, upscaled the neighborhoods. I've been back there recently. Cleveland is a sight. But the renovation they are doing there is this: the old stone buildings are being torn down and skyscrapers made of chrome and glass are going up. They are beautiful, these new buildings, tall and shiny with investment. Buildings as good as any in New York or San Francisco. They rise above the Terminal Tower, once the tallest structure in Cleveland, the one that greets you as you curve around the highway from the airport and the city is there suddenly in front of you. What your eye stays on, as you drive past, is the Terminal Tower. The railroad end.

Copyright © 1998
episode 15