June 29, 1945. A Friday. Pattie Anne’s twenty-first birthday. She awakes at six o’clock for some last-minute studying and by 6:30 feels prepared, falls back asleep, and dreams in half-Spanish. She awakes again in time for breakfast at eight. Eggs and toast, which she enjoys at the small corner table in the parlor while reading the sweet birthday card and letter from her parents.
Walt passes by just as she’s finishing. He’s headed down the hallway, no doubt leaving for Mrs. Allen’s.
“Goodbye!” she calls. Her voice surprises her a little.
Walt enters the parlor and stands next to Pattie’s table. She folds her napkin over her lap, then folds it again. Her face feels tight as she smiles up at him. They exchange pleasantries. This is her last full day in Rochester. Tomorrow it’s back to Harriman, at least for the summer. Perhaps for her whole life. But she doesn’t say as much.
“Be good and all that,” Walt says before leaving with his hands in his pockets. His usual good-bye.
Just the other night, Mary Jean told Pattie Anne that Walt said he was going to kiss her — Pattie Anne — before she left. Said he’s thought about it a couple of times and even dreamed once that he did. Well! How funny! Seems to Pattie that Walt is afraid of her. Much like all men.
She walks to school in time for her 9:00 Spanish exam. The air is thick, more akin to steam. The bottom of the sky threatens to fall out at any minute. While Pattie and her classmates rack their brains, a thunderstorm rages. She sweats in the sauna-like conditions of the classroom, but the test is easy. She finishes by eleven o’clock.
“Have fun in Tennessee,” Mr. Harvey says.
Back at the boarding house, Pattie opens and reads a birthday card from Betty Laft and a letter from Greta. Then she begins the sorting process. So much packing to do in so little time! Walt is out in the hallway on the phone with the operator. “Betty Purple,” he says again. “No, Betty Purple…” Then he laughs. “Not Myrtle Turtle!” Pattie laughs, too, folding clothes. “Betty Purple!” he says. “Yes… Thank you.”
Walt makes arrangements with Betty and hangs up, chuckling. The phone rings. Pattie hears him answer it, and soon he is singing her name with hilarious gusto. It’s Vi, her friend from Stephens College. Pattie takes the call. Birthday wishes are received, gratitude expressed, apologies given for having to keep it short.
Walt lingers in Pattie’s doorway for a moment and watches the trunk fill with dresses, scarves, hats, shoes. “I see you’re easily entertained,” she says. But then Betty Purple drives up in his car, honking away, and Walt departs. Pattie wishes she’d asked him why he was afraid of her. She’d like a frank answer.
About 2:30 she throws her hands up in the air, calling a halt. She is starving. If she hurries she can still make lunch at the Baptist Temple.
March 19, 2003. A Wednesday. Laura’s twenty-first birthday. But also the day the nation goes to war. She hates the idea of it. And through the blinds on the window above her bed, she can see the weather is still and again terrible — wet, grey, foggy, cold, windy. She has to study, anyway.
Her father calls as she’s eating breakfast at the table, staring at the cows on the other side of the stream between proofreading paragraphs of last night’s journal entry. He tells her she’s getting a new car — the $10,000 Nissan Sentra that she test drove awhile back. She can’t believe it. Weeks ago, when her father was contemplating spending that much money on a car, the look on his face was the most unhappy thing she’d ever seen. But now he’s done it.
“Happy birthday, Laura.”
She thanks him profusely and has to cry because she feels so guilty. It’s all too much, everything he does for her.
She gets dressed for class and drives to the mall, waiting in the warmth of her Chevy Blazer (also purchased by her Dad, but a total lemon) until she sees the bus round the bend of the building. She hurries to the stop and steps into the bus, slumps into a window seat and sighs toward the passing world. Cold. Grey. Wet.
Her mood lifts slightly when Nathanael comes to Playwriting class with a big smile that says he knows it is her day. He leans down and hugs her before sitting at his desk, directly in front of hers. He unzips his yellow book bag and retrieves her gift: three burned CDs (CSNY, Neil Young, Bob Marley) and a card. Class begins and Nathanael faces front. Laura opens the card. Inside, Nathanael has quoted Ernest Hemingway: “An intelligent man (woman) is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” A little light turns on inside her. But then it’s out. They are just friends. She could never trust him and he doesn’t feel that way about her anymore, anyway.
After Playwriting she spends an hour in Crossroads, a warm and dimly lit coffee shop inside the Student Union. It is her birthday, so she treats herself to a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. She people-watches between bullet points, studying notes for Sustainable Development. A terribly boring class. She thought it would be inspiring.
After Conversational French — taught by a half-deaf septuagenarian who lacks an adequate grasp of circumlocution and fails to understand what Laura means when she says (in French) “house of light” because she doesn’t know the word for “lighthouse” — she walks to Oak Street. Maybe Evan and Tyler will smoke her up.
They’re seated on opposite low-slung love seats, shooting the shit. She mentions her birthday and they cheer, clap, pack the bowl and insist she take greens.
She lingers for over an hour, enjoying their company, how Tyler runs his hands through his hair, and at 2:30 Evan offers to drive her to her car. Tyler comes along for the mile and a half ride. He recently lost his license after two too many DUI’s.
“What are you going to do for the rest of the day?” he asks.
“Study,” she says.
At least it has stopped raining.
Back at the house, revived by her repast, Pattie begins packing in earnest. She dreads calling the baggage department because you have to tell them at least four times what you’re calling about! But this time it isn’t so bad, and a great relief to have it over with.
She’s just beginning on a big box of books — the last of the packing — when a car drives up, streaking light across her bedroom walls. Pattie peers through the window pane and sees Walt in the driver’s seat. He is alone. She figures he forgot something and returns to her bookshelf.
Seconds later, he’s knocking on the door. Pattie gasps at her sweaty, dust-covered reflection in the dresser mirror. She might collapse any second. But Walt knows she’s in here and she’d hate to be so vain as to deny him entry because she looks a fright. So she opens the door, a shy profile, and tries to keep her back to him as she empties the shelf of, and fills a box with, books. “Whatever would we do without books?”
“I think I could last awhile without ever seeing another book again,” Walt says. “You’re really going to keep all of those?”
“Well it’s not as if I’m going to throw them away. If I were coming back, I’d try to sell them in the fall.”
“I’m coming back,” Walt says. “I can sell them for you.”
“Oh, I’d hate to trouble you with all that.”
“Pattie would you like to ride out to the airport with me to pick up something? And maybe we can cruise around the field if a ship is available?”
Talk about out of the blue! He’s asking her to maybe go flying with him! She must refrain from falling upon Walt’s neck with joy! And she hasn’t even told him it’s her birthday.
The doorbell rings and Pattie rushes to answer it, nodding an enthusiastic yes in Walt’s direction, which seems to lift a great weight from his entire body. In her last glimpse of him he seems to be glowing. Through the glass in the front door Pattie sees a delivery man. For one awful moment she fears it is a telegram, from which she always expects the worst.
But it’s a special delivery from Kimmie, back in Harriman. Up to her old tricks, Kimmie has drawn question marks around Pattie’s name on the envelope. “What’s all the mystery about?” the delivery man asks.
“Oh, it’s just her sense of humor.”
Pattie returns to her bedroom and finds Walt closing the now-full box of books. With one arm he lifts to his hip a stack he set aside. “I bet I can sell these next semester.”
“Oh you don’t have—”
“—We should really get going. In case we have to wait for a ship.”
Pattie likes his urgency. So in record time, she washes her face and combs her hair and they are off.
Even though studies prevent her from drinking later, Laura wants to do something to commemorate her birthday. So she stops at the liquor store on her way to New China and buys a bottle of Amaretto. After picking up dinner for herself and her roommate, she catches the worst red light in town, at highways 321 and 105.
A small group of protesters has gathered on the corner up ahead. Laura assumes they are against the war, but as she inches closer before having to stop again for God knows how long, she can read most of their hot pink homemade signs. “We’re for the war.” “Support our troops.” “Bomb Iraq.” There are six of them, all appearing to be college kids.
“What?” she says to herself, to the Chinese food smells filling her car. Is she seeing this right? Other drivers start honking their horns, but why? Do they agree with these protestors? Although actually they aren’t protestors, just supporters? Or are they honking out of hopelessness, anger, bewilderment? Just as she would be honking right now if she believed in honking for any reason that wasn’t life-threatening? And maybe this is life-threatening?
Her light turns green but not for long enough to permit her passage across the vast intersection. Just long enough, of course, for her to idle right beside the group of war-enthusiasts. She rolls down her window and lifts her voice above the hum of engines. “So, what are you guys trying to do?” she asks.
“We’re just sharing our opinion,” one of them says. He could be any college sophomore whose type dominated the social landscape. A business major in an AppState ball cap and a North Face coat. And now even more than usual, far too proud of himself.
“Nuke Iraq, quick and painless,” another one of them says.
In about eight years Laura will read Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — the chapter where he realizes in a flash that there’s no point in pursuing any kind of dialogue with a particular land surveyor because he’d be “talking to a madman” — and she will remember this moment. She knows it would do no good to actually say, “But if we ‘nuke’ Iraq, won’t hundreds or thousands of innocent lives be taken? And if what goes around comes around, won’t we one day be nuked? Our flesh hanging from our bones?” So with her heart in her lap, she looks away, rolls up her window, and succumbs, for a moment, to despair. The song on the radio is loud and upbeat, fuzz-soaked and string-swollen, titled “All You Need is Hate” (The Delgados). Maybe so.
The light turns green and she makes it through this time, glad to widen the distance between herself and the non-protesters. And instantly she wishes she’d said something! Something more! She should have pulled over and parked in the two-storey Wendy’s lot and had a conversation with those madmen — and madwomen among them, with midriffs showing as they cheered! She should turn around right now!
But no, that’s no way to spend a birthday. She need not be reminded that this is the world into which she grows faster all the time.
Walt takes Genesee Park, going through the River Campus toward the airport. The sun is out full-force now. Pattie wishes her window could lower more than all the way. Her face burns in the heat.
“What time are you leaving on Sunday?” he asks.
“Tomorrow I leave. Saturday. The nine P.M. train.”
“Oh, I thought it was Sunday. Wishful thinking, I guess.”
A slight dip in the road sends her stomach into somersaults. “How fast are you going?”
“About seventy. Just got two new tires.”
At the airport Pattie waits in the car while Walt goes in to see about a ship. She reads Kimmie’s communications. A birthday greeting followed by a letter bearing the latest news of home. Mr. Harris, the lawyer Pattie worked for the previous summer — her first and so far only job — might be on the brink of divorce. His drinking, no doubt. Poor Mrs. Harris. Her husband is a good man, but his bad habits get the best of him.
Pattie prays right there on the spot that she won’t end up marrying a man with an affection for the bottle. But in three years she’ll do just that. She won’t know it, though, for at least another ten.
Walt returns with the news that they can have a plane.
“Uh-oh,” he says.
“Your face. You’re getting cold feet!”
She is. But she’s also easy to persuade, prides herself on being fearless. When she can be.
“It’s a Taylorcraft L-2 Grasshopper,” Walt says as they approach the plane.
“Because it looks like a grasshopper?”
“Because it’s known for bumpy landings.”
Pattie stops short. “Don’t tease me.”
“Luckily my nickname around here is Smooth…”
“It is not!”
He laughs and she joins in to keep from crying. Still, she trusts him. He opens the door and helps her in. Side-by-side seating and nicely upholstered, much like a car. They cruise around awhile and Walt explains the various gadgets. Then with a green light from the tower, they take off. The first rise is sudden and steep, sending her stomach in a loop and her hand to Walt’s knee. Too scared to speak.
“It’ll be bumpy like this for just a bit longer. Then smooth sailing.”
He rewards her attempt at humor with a smile. And at two thousand feet, the sailing is in fact so smooth that they hardly seem to be moving at all. The houses and trees below look like toys.
“It’s true,” she says, shouting over the motor. “Seen from above, man and all his problems seem very small!”
“It’s a vastly different perspective!” he bellows. “And about nine degrees cooler up here!”
And what a wonderful thrill! They fly over the city of Rochester, shouting out landmarks, including 4 Portsmouth Terrace. And across the capillary street, Mrs. Allen’s. Without warning, Walt asks her if she can swim.
“How is that relevant?”
He smiles in a way that turns him very young-looking and softens her. She could’ve been soft all along.
“Yes, I can swim.”
“You’re probably a strong swimmer.”
“Yes, I think so.”
She laughs and must look away, back down at the earth so many hundreds of feet below. Walt puts his arm across the back of her seat and she knows: the time has come. Her first kiss. All she has to do is look at him. But her gaze stays fixed on the tiny model town until they make their bumpy descent. The poor boy never stood a chance.
Back at her house there are birthday cards in the mailbox, and a shoebox full of homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from her grandmother, and a ringing telephone with her sister Emily on the other end. Emily, whose middle name is Patricia because their father assumed that his mother’s name — Pattie — was short for that (but he was wrong), assures Laura that their father would not have bought the car if he couldn’t afford it. Also, “I’m moving to Philadelphia. It’s official.” For the past couple of months Emily has been trying to choose between Philly and D.C. Dave lives in Philly, but Emily swears she’s fallen in love with the city — not with Dave. It’s pure coincidence.
Laura doesn’t want her sister to move out of state and hopes she won’t stay away too long. But in five years Emily will marry for the second time (not Dave), thus establishing an arrangement from which she won’t be able to escape with a clear conscience. She will desperately want to return to North Carolina, but she’ll have two young daughters to consider and their father to appease. Bon voyage.
While sitting at the dining room table, their books and binders everywhere, and half-empty Chinese food containers, Laura and her roommate Dylan look up at the sound of a knock on the door. Neither of them are expecting a visitor. Dylan welcomes the distraction from his Geography homework and goes to see who it is.
“It’s Evan and Tyler.”
“What?” But the creak of the door and the sound of their voices drowns her out. She stares at them as they walk in. She just saw them a couple of hours ago. They smile at the confusion on her face, pleased with themselves.
“We got you a present,” Tyler says. He tosses a corduroy pouch at her, tied with hemp.
She peers inside. “You got me a bowl?”
“It’s a bubbler.”
“Oh my god…” She pulls the water pipe from its pouch. Clear glass swirled with grey-green and blue. For the third time today, she’s too shocked for words. “That is so nice!” she finally says. “Thank you so much!” She hugs Evan for the umpteenth time — she’s known him since middle school — and Tyler for the first time ever. His body is harder than she expected. The contact fills her head with static. Jesse will be so pissed that he gave her a bubbler.
“Well, let’s christen it!”
Dylan provides the weed and they pass it around a couple times.
“So much for studying,” Tyler says, a half-question.
“No, I can study stoned.”
“And after a beer over a friendly game of foosball?” Dylan says.
She has no choice but to oblige. It’s all very friendly, indeed. So warm. And it is early yet.
“I bet you could ace that test without studying at all,” Tyler says when their time is up.
“I’ve never aced anything without working for it.”
But he’s right. This particular test will be a breeze, all her studying in vain. Still, she sends them home at 8:30 and stays up past midnight reading, underlining, admiring between bullet points the grey-green and blue swirls of glass.
Walt drives more slowly back to the house as they talk about various things. He wonders what Pattie’s parents will say about their little jaunt. Neither of them has a watch, so he comes inside the house to check the time: five o’clock.
“Here.” Pattie opens her wallet and offers Walt some money. “For the ride.”
“Absolutely not,” he says. “It was a promise.”
She argues with him, foolishly, and of course he wins. She wants to thank him for making her birthday so exciting.
“Leave your address with Miss Hunt,” he says. “I’ll send you the money for the books. Minus a small fee for services.”
“Oh, I see!”
“Okay, Pattie. Be good and all that.”
“You, too, Walt.”
He leaves her then, alone with her regret. Another year will pass before a man tries to kiss her again, and she will let him, and she will marry him. At times like this, she hates to think of not coming back to Rochester. She will miss everyone dearly, here and at Mrs. Allen’s and at school. Darn it all anyways.
She takes a much needed bath. A good hot one. Then she’s back at the Baptist Temple for supper, where she sits with Miss Van Etten. Talking. Cooling off. Pattie invites her to the show and insists, when Miss Van Etten claims financial embarrassment, on handling the money. They go to the Century and see Claudette Colbert and Warren William in Imitation of Life, and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven. Both old pictures and the first extremely interesting. Claudette Colbert is fascinating.
The show lets out about ten and they wait for a Pittsford bus for a half hour. But it’s worth the wait because it drops them right at the corner of Portsmouth. Very warm still. Pattie goes to work on the finishing touches of packing and finally lies down for sleep at midnight. Her twenty-first birthday is over. Her bones are lead-heavy. But a storm comes up, the roof leaks, and then, just as she is drifting off, Ikey the cat jumps through the window and lands on her leg.