She was unlike other girls: her short, erratic hair; the curious gaps in her worldly knowledge -- cars, movies, politics; her dislike of music, her inability to appreciate art; her melancholy expression when she read the newspaper. She was perfect. He would not have changed a thing. Even her flaws were not flaws; even her severity was not a shortcoming, because it was part of her Ada-ness. It didn't matter that he was in love. What mattered was Ada, whom he loved. Sex, which he had treated as pleasure, with her was new, had texture and depth it had lacked before. She surprised him with that -- she was more his teacher than his student. But she wouldn't live with him, and according to her rules that meant restricting the overnights at his place to fifty per cent. She tracked this by writing her initials on the wall calendar in his bedroom. He would have erased some of those initials, to steal more time, but she wrote in ink.
Summer session changed their tempo: the blocks of time were larger, with longer classes and less time together during the day, but evenings filled with each other. Time without her was marking time until he was with her. In late afternoon, at the hour he waited for, she came to his apartment and they studied and made dinner and after they'd eaten cleared the table and sat down with their books again. The hours, beautiful and irretrievable, passed in silent work.
The nights she spent in the dorm he walked her home and said goodbye at the door, and would have talked for hours then, suddenly full of things to say, except that she held him to a limit of ten minutes. She would not be distracted, would go in, and close the door. Later, when she was settled in bed, she would call to say goodnight.
The conversation might run for an hour. She usually dropped her phone on the floor when she nodded off and then they would both be startled and know they should end the call, but other times she fell asleep and he heard her steady breathing. He imagined her lying on her side, her hand around the phone, her hair pressed against the pillow, her eyes closed, her breath a slow metronome.
That summer was her first in Lawrence, and as difficult for her as winter had been. She was unaccustomed to heat; her home in the mountains had been high up, consistently temperate and rainy. She loved the sun, but was sometimes at the point of collapse from the heat. She insisted on walking around town on the weekends to look at houses, or pursued similar projects when she wasn't studying. She read outside even in killing heat. Wyatt arrived home one day to find her sitting on the steps again, this time without her books, her forehead beaded with sweat, a broken kite on her lap.
"I wanted to show you this letter," she said. "My father remarried! It was so difficult for him when my mother died. This is what he needs." She pulled a page from her shirt pocket and handed it to him.
"Who is she?"
"Maria. She's Tica, not Quaker. A widow. She had a tiny, tiny house near our school. She loved Henry and me. We usually stopped on the way home from school and she'd give us juice or coffee. She was lonely."
"Didn't she have any children?"
"One. He worked far away, so he didn't get to visit much. Sometimes Henry would go home and I'd stay and talk to her. She was the best listener. I can talk to Maria about anything and not feel stupid," Ada said. "All she wanted was someone to take care of, and now she can take care of my father, and my father has her to keep him company. It's a perfect match. I'm so glad for them. I wish I could have been there."
He sat next to her on the stairs. He read in silence, then handed the letter back. She folded the page and put it in her shirt pocket and looked off into the middle distance without speaking. The trees were lashing back and forth.
"What happened to the kite?" he asked.
"I've never flown a kite before. It caught in a tree."
It probably only cost a dollar, and he would have abandoned it, but Ada, typically, had retrieved it. She saved everything she could, she discarded nothing. She was good with her hands and with tools. She patched her jeans; everyone in the dorm came to her to fix broken hinges and locks, instead of waiting for the repair man. Now she would want to fix the kite, with knife and glue. He waited for her to stand, for the two of them to go inside so she could repair her toy, but she didn't move.
"There's something I have to ask you," she said. "Promise you won't laugh."
"I know you've been with other girls, but I haven't, I haven't had any other boyfriends." She blushed. "Is there anything you want me to do? Is there anything... Am I... pleasing you?"
"I'd like to try some other positions." He'd said too much, without thinking.
"Besides the missionary position."
She looked blank for a moment. "Oh! It has a name. There are others! It's embarrassing to be so ignorant."
"No -- "
"It is. I am. No one talked... We had a library, but there weren't any books -- I looked. And everyone knew everyone and I couldn't ask because my parents might find out. I watched dogs and cows and horses." She blushed. "But they're different from us. I don't know anything. You'll have to teach me."
"Just shake your head, and I'll stop."
"Yes," she said, "I like that. It's very hard for me to talk about this, to talk when we're... The only vocabulary is touch. English and Spanish and French, none of them have the words I need. Language is so broken, and speaking would spoil... I'm closer to you in the silence."
"There's something else," she said. "Be honest. Everything. Completely. I want all of you, no matter what." Years later, she would remember this conversation, and wonder at her naivete, and Wyatt's patience. She would remember what he had tried to tell her. Had she listened, she might have been spared.
"I don't think that's wise," he said.
"You have to. You have to tell me everything you feel."
"I can't. You'll be disappointed. You'll drop me."
"No. That's not possible."
"I know how this works. I've watched my friends. They walk around in a rosy aura. But that's not real. When she starts to bug you, and you bug her, that's real. That's when you find out if you can deal with each other. You start having fights in public and you split up, or you figure out how to manage. Those judgments you make about other people, someday you're going to make them about me. I can't live up to what you expect. You think I'm someone else. You don't know me yet."
She was silent a long time. Finally, she said, "I understand."
"I sure hope so."
"I do. I do. We'll always be together. You can remind me."
He didn't reply.
"My father's letter... I've been thinking. After you graduate, will we marry? Or should we wait until I graduate too? When is the proper time?"
He didn't answer, and she looked at him, and then at the kite, and touched the broken strut. She said, "Wyatt, what are we going to do?" He remained silent, and she continued, "I want to be with you. Please," she said, "don't make me be the one to ask."
"Propose. That's for you to do."
"I can't, yet," he said. "The band's moving to L.A. in spring. Everyone's graduated, and Dave dropped out. I'm the last one graduating. Don't look like that. We can work this out... Ada, don't."
Her arms were around him, the kite abandoned and tumbling down the sidewalk and she was saying, "No. You can't do that. I need you here. You have to stay," and she was hurting him, her arms were squeezing his ribs, she was kneeling and leaning against him and forcing him off balance where he sat. "Why didn't you tell me before?" she asked, and asked again, "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"It hasn't been long, I mean, it hasn't even been three months since we -- "
"I didn't know how. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want you to disappoint you." It was easier.
She was determined not to understand, no matter how he explained that he had been in the band for four years, that when they'd started they'd made a pact to give themselves a year in L.A., that he would never leave her, that he was a musician and had always wanted to make his living as one, that the move would be temporary. Half an hour later he had nothing left but silence.
"I can't talk about this," she said. "It hurts too much. I thought you would get a job and stay in Lawrence." She let go of him and stood. "I want to be by myself for a while."
That evening, when the phone rang, she knew it was him, and didn't answer, even after twenty rings, even on the fourth call, at one a.m. Let him suffer and wait; it was nothing to what she was feeling.
In the morning she wondered whether she needed to apologize, and decided she didn't. She swung her feet to the floor and straightened her pajama top and looked at the calendar. She had always looked at the clock first, but not today. She counted how many days each month had, and how many were left in this month, mentally adding all the numbers to count the days before he left. About three hundred. Very few.
She tried to maintain the pretense of not living together, but now their time had a boundary, and soon nearly everything she owned was at his place. Her possesssions migrated somehow -- articles of clothing, books, all moved themselves. Little remained in her room but her family photo and the ancient teddy bear and the papers stored in her desk.
The first irritants appeared, as Wyatt had predicted. He threw his clothes on the floor and was annoyed when she picked them up and put them in the hamper, and further annoyed when she did his laundry, ruining two of his shirts by setting the heat too high. She began to plug her ears with her fingers when he played music on his stereo. Worst of all, she liked to tidy and rearrange his apartment, which resembled a pawn shop, or the disordered hoardings of a man having a nervous breakdown. There was paper everywhere: books, record jackets, old homework, sheet music, his journals and scribblings. He remembered where everything was until Ada brought order to it. Then he couldn't find anything.
The root problem was the move, the band, the music. She might tolerate his year away, and be easier to live with now, if she learned how to listen. He thought he could educate her. He dragged her to concerts of every kind in the hope of finding a musical idiom that clicked with her.
A quartet was tuning up for a concert of chamber music one evening. Wyatt was thinking that the cellist needed new strings, but that was the price of listening to students instead of professionals, when Ada spoke.
"Are we having a love affair? What they call a love affair?"
"Uh, yeah," he said. "Why?"
"I wondered. It sounds watered down." She gestured toward her heart. "The way you make me feel. The tightness in my chest when I see you, the dizziness when you speak to me, almost fainting when you touch me in bed. I feel so much. Words are so inadequate, like 'love affair'. Calling this a love affair is like saying the sun is warm. It's ridiculous. I can't describe the things you do to me. I didn't even have senses before I met you. Like being blind and having my sight restored. Like not knowing what color and shape and movement were, then seeing them for the first time, so much realer than I could ever have imagined. You brought me to life." She leaned toward him and grasped his hand with both of hers. "Don't leave. This is too good, too wonderful to lose."
"We won't lose it. A year isn't long."
"It's forever. It's three hundred sixty-five days of twenty-four hours of sixty minutes of sixty seconds of longing. Of being without you. Of sleeping alone. Of not hearing your voice or touching your hand or face. Of not making love. Of missing you, every second, every minute, every hour, every week, every month, for twelve unending months."
"It's only a year," he mumbled. "My parents were apart for three years during World War II. They only got to see each other one time."
She gestured dismissively. "Is your band more important than us?"
"No, but... My third-grade teacher asked me what I wanted to be and I said 'musician'. It's all I've ever wanted. This is my only chance."
They had this conversation at first once a week, then twice a week, and by December nearly every day, getting better with practice. They learned how much they could safely get away with. He learned not to say "only a year". She learned not to accuse him of selfishness, or to say that he was breaking faith with her. She learned not to plead her own needs, but the relationship. The harder she pushed, though, the more resolutely he refused.
She used his stubbornness as a pretext not to visit his family during Christmas. "You won't stay with me," she said. "Why should I go with you?"
"Okay, don't!" he yelled. "Get caught in a snowstorm. Maybe a stranger will rescue you. Maybe he'll obey your whims."
She walked out. She expected him to call and apologize before his flight, but he didn't. For two days they neither spoke to nor saw each other, and the morning he was scheduled to leave, she watched her clock, willing the phone to ring, until she knew he was gone.
She stayed in the dorm, among the few other foreign students. The room's narrow confines would do, as they had before she'd known him. His apartment would only remind her of what she was losing.
He called as soon as he arrived. "My dad says this has to be short. Long distance. Too expensive."
"I should have gone with you," she said. "I miss you. I wanted to meet your family."
She heard a voice in the background, demanding, and Wyatt said, "I miss you, too. It was wrong, that fight. I'll make it up to you."
She kept her hand on the phone after they'd finished, trying to identify the odd feeling in her chest. It was only her old companion, loneliness, come to visit again.
Wyatt returned early, on the twenty-eighth, and went straight to her dorm, his bag in hand, without stopping at his own place. She opened the door, wondering who could be knocking, and he kissed her. He unbuttoned her shirt and reached around and undid her bra and pulled it down and kissed her breasts. She held his head in her hands and moaned. There in the doorway of her room they were visible if anyone entered the hall. They sank to the floor, prone. He fumbled with the snap on her jeans and yanked the denim below her hips and reached into her panties and thrust a finger up her vagina, and she moaned "Oh -- oh -- oh". He bumped a foot on the threshold.
"Get in the room," he commanded.
She pushed with her feet, squirming away from the door, and kicked off her sneakers, one of them flying into the hall, then pulled off her jeans and panties, not bothering with the shirt or bra or socks. Wyatt threw his bag into the room; it knocked a lamp to the floor and broke the bulb. He pulled his jeans and underwear down and elbowed the door shut and knelt with his knees between hers and plunged into her. He came in less than a minute, and groaned.
She opened her eyes. "What's wrong?"
"Must have been overexcited. I never thought that could happen."
"Neither did I." She laughed. "It's different. Not like it usually is. But exciting."
"Too bad. You didn't get off."
"I don't care."
He started to pull out.
She held him to her with her hands on the small of his back. "No. Wait. Where are you going? Stay there."
But the floor hurt his knees, so she let him up and they took off the rest of their clothing and moved to her narrow bed.
"We should go to my place," he said. "They'll kick you out of school if they catch us."
"Not yet," she said. "Put your arms around me. Tell me about your trip."
"Not successful. I sort of moped around," he said. "My dad got annoyed. Then I said I was coming back early and he was pissed. Pissed. I thought he was going to punch me out. I don't care. I'm graduating. I don't need his money anymore." He went on talking. She watched him, not listening, only looking at his face, her upper leg thrown over his, her hand on his chest.
Later, after a second round of lovemaking, long and energetic, they were
hungry and went to a greasy spoon and while waiting for their food inspected the other patrons,
all of whom looked like they had nowhere better to go, and Wyatt made up stories about them.
She watched him, and listened to the preposterous things he was imagining about the
other diners, who were variously staring into space, or bent over their food,
or reading the paper while they, too, waited for their orders to arrive.
She watched his face and wondered how it was possible to love him so deeply
and to feel as close to him as if he were all through her bloodstream --
and yet, how could he not know how she felt?
How could he not understand what his leaving would do to her?
Why was he abandoning her?