Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 19

A Modest Proposal

As Howie set out, he realized that it was his first genuine date with Barbara. He had visited her at school, and there had been the double-date with the Wintons, but, in both cases, there had been other people around. It was just as well, really. He was now confident that they would have plenty to talk about, and he knew that Barbara liked him. After all, she had allowed him to put his arm around her and kiss her on the drive back from Willow Grove. Even though he was conscious of not having kissed very well, he was sure that he would do better this time.

Sister Rose greeted him cheerfully when he came in and warned him,

"I think Barbara will be quite elegant tonight. Last time, she was trying not to compete with Mrs. Winton."

Howie looked down at his own suit, made of some synthetic material, and said,

"Perhaps I should get some new clothes myself. This suit is all right for court, but I guess it isn't really the thing."

"You look very nice."

Howie noticed that Sister Rose's compliment was directed to himself rather than the suit, and replied,

"I got it from a friend in college in trade for an old bicycle. He was on a state championship basketball team, and they bought them all suits after the championship game. His was too big for me at the time, but I've grown into it."

Sister Rose began to laugh, and replied,

"I was just trying to imagine Barbara trading a bicycle for a dress, much less one that didn't fit. What a difference there is between boys and girls!"

It occurred to Howie that there might be more to it than that, and he asked,

"Have you met Barbara's parents?"

"Only her mother. A lovely woman. It wasn't her idea to send Barbara here, and she isn't even Catholic, but she was extremely gracious about it."

Barbara appeared at that moment, looking like an ad in the New Yorker. Howie found himself too confused to greet her properly, but did manage to get through the forms. She said immediately,

"I heard on the radio that you won your case. Congatulations!"

Sister Rose also added her congratulations, and Howie, having already told them of his ambiguous attitude toward the case, replied,

"I didn't really win it. The jurors listened to the radio even though they weren't supposed to, and Waldo Weston convinced them that the bookstore owner hired someone to shoot at me."

Sister Rose only smiled, and Howie concluded,

"Anyway, I've made Ken Seitz happy. He wanted it just before the election."

When they were outside, Howie said to Barbara,

"You look amazing tonight. I've never seen anyone like you."

Barbara, getting into the car, replied,

"This business of looks isn't to be taken seriously. It's just fun."

When Howie got in, she continued,

"When my best friend and I were eleven, we'd wear 'big lady' outfits, which meant dressing up in our mothers' clothes. This dress doesn't actually belong to my mother, but I still feel as if I'm a little kid in a big lady outfit."

"Wow. The people who see you in the Bollinger House dining room aren't going to think that."

"I guess some people do take it seriously, but they shouldn't. It's just a bag of tricks. I've got on lipstick, make-up to camouflage me, and even false eyelashes that I can bat at you while we're eating. Will that make you go wild with desire?"

"I think my desires are pretty well developed already. Are we still under the Ann Landers rules for teen-agers?"

"Certainly. I feel even younger than I am tonight. I may get embarrassed when we go into the dining room and people look at me because I'm with the victorious prosecuting attorney. It's one thing to put on big lady clothes in your mother's bedroom, and another to carry it off in public."

"Speaking of your mother, Sister Rose seems quite impressed with her. Is she an elegant woman?"

"In a way. She certainly looks the part. But she doesn't carry it through and demand the place in the world that she has a right to."

"Do you say that because your father has affairs, and she doesn't?"

"That's part of it. I don't think Mother would dream of having an affair. But, if a man she liked kissed her at a party, she'd walk around for a week being thrilled."

"That sounds rather appealing to me. Perhaps she's just going by the Ann Landers rules for women in her situation."

Barbara crossed her legs, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees, and said,

"One problem with these clothes is that you have to move cautiously and sit carefully. I hope there isn't bubble gum on the seats at the movie house."

"I've never been in it, but I'll check the seat before you sit."

"The movie house at Orrville may be cleaner, but I thought this movie would suit us better. There's Ava Gardner for you and James Mason for me."

Arriving in town, Howie parked down the street from the Bollinger House and scurried around quickly to hold the door for Barbara. He generally held doors only when he was already in position to do so, and it had seemed to him rather showy to go well out of his way to do so. On the other hand, he had noticed that Chuck held doors and chairs rather elaborately, and he also hoped that Barbara's legs might be revealed as she got out. In the event, she was mostly out, the hem of her skirt in its proper place, before he could get to the door.

As they walked, Howie was aware of the stares of the people, some rather disreputable, who were scattered along the street. In one way, it was almost thrilling to be the object of such attention. On the other, it was somewhat uncomfortable. He had with him the young lady the other men wanted, and he wasn't used to being envied, at least in such an obvious and open way. He asked Barbara,

"Are you used to being around poorer people who want what you've got?"

"Not like this. I hadn't quite realized what Bollinger would be like. There are poor people in Chicago, of course, but there are usually so many people around that no one gets noticed much."

Howie was sure that Barbara was noticed even then, but she evidently wasn't forced to take account of it. In any case, he was rather relieved when they entered the hotel. The people inside also looked at Barbara, but with admiration rather than resentment.

At dinner, they soon settled into a conversation about books, and about the Wintons. Barbara said at one point,

"I may not be learning the science I would have at New Trier, but I'm meeting people and getting to know them in a way I never would have at home."

"Is the exchange worht it?"

"Yes. I think it probably is. The only trouble is, I'll have to spend the summer getting ready to be a freshman."

"Are you still thinking of going to Harvard?"

"I'm applying there. If I get in, I probably will."

"I'm sure you'll get in. Your SAT scores alone ought to do it."

It seemed to Howie that the date was going well. They weren't laughing as much as they had with the Wintons, but, without any tension, they were laying the groundwork for what he hoped would be a lasting understanding.

The movie house was rather tatty, but Howie inspected Barbara's seat closely before she sat down, and they then established themselves comfortably. There were previews of several movies Howie was thankful they weren't going to see, and then came the main event.

Howie liked Lauren Bacall best, but, as Barbara had surmised, he was by no means inpervious to the charms of Ava Gardner. In college and afterwards, he and his friend Shih- Ninh, neither possesd of anything approaching a girl friend, had come to a position on movie stars. He remembered the other saying, with his British English accent,

"Those of us who have no hope of romantic success must either fantasize about women we see or know, who would repudiate our advances, or about women who have no idea that we exist. Among the latter, actresses are likely to be the most desirable."

They had decided together that it was rather dangerous to foster in themselves any illusions about living breathing women. Those on the silver screen were safer. Howie hadn't gone to the extent of imagining movie stars crowding on to his doorstop and insisting that he take them to his bedroom, but, when he thought of women in a sexual way, he was likely to have one of them in mind.

Things, of course, had changed since then. He had supposed that, if and when he did find a woman, she would be, at best, quite ordinary. Amanda had considerably exceeded his expectations, and Barbara went way beyond Amanda. Indeed, he considered her just as beautiful as the movie stars in a younger and more innocent way. Even as he snaked his arm around the shoulders of the movie star beside him, he nevertheless found that the one on the screen was still worth a good part of his attention. Barbara whispered to him,

"Even when the dialogue is a little trite, the movie people are awfully good at building up an aura about a star."

Howie agreed. Ava was certainly displayed to advantage with her rich boy friend and his sports car as backdrops, and the movie as a whole wasn't bad.

An early climax occurred when the couple arrived at a beach in Monte Carlo, and Ava showed signs of going swimming. She obviously couldn't swim in her evening gown, and, as she reached for her straps, Howie came fully to attention. What followed was some tricky photography. Ava dropped the dress, and, even though she seemed to have no underwear, the view of her, from the back, was so fleeting and badly lit that she might actually have had on some minimal garment. A minute later, she was off and swimming. Barbara whispered to him,

"Did you like that?"

"Certainly. I just wish they'd taken it a little slower."

"Perhaps there'll be a good view when she comes out."

Howie squeezed Barbara's arm and continued to watch.

Ava's destination was a yacht anchored off the beach, and, when she arrived, the lone occupant, James Mason, was ready with a large towel. There was again some quick work which revealed only a little of Ava, although it was implied that James Mason got a full, albeit brief, frontal view. The movie then became, surprisingly, somewhat philosophical.

As it developed, James Mason was portrayed as a manifestation of the Flying Dutchman, in this case, one who could anchor and receive visitors, but who couldn't leave his boat. Ava Gardner's character, and probably Ava herself, was much less intellectual. She had displayed a good deal of bitchiness with her abandoned boy friend, but, with James Mason, she was holding her passions in check long enough to hear what the man had to say. He was, at any rate, quite different from the boy friend. Howie whispered to Barbara,

"Do you like him?"

"I think he's the ultimate in smoothness and sophistication."

"Isn't the Flying Dutchman supposed to be wild, passionate, and desperate?"

"Perhaps. But I like this kind better."

After a while, Barbara gently removed Howie's arm, apparently finding it uncomfortable, but held his hand in her lap in both of hers. He let his fingers rest, lightly and gingerly, on her skirt where it covered her thigh. He liked the feel very much, but was careful not to give her the impression that he was intent on exploration.

When the movie ended, Howie said,

"There aren't many places to go for snacks, but I could make us something at my place."

"Ann says we aren't supposed to be alone in a house or apartment, but cars are okay. You could make great little sandwiches, and then bring them out."

"I don't think I've got the wherewithal to make great little sandwiches, but there's always the Krazy Karavan, where I go with Sam Herz. It'll be filled with high school kids at this time."

"That's just the place for us, then. I may be overdressed, but I probably won't be the only one."

There was only one empty booth at the Krazy Karavan, and they occupied it without being much noticed. Instead of dating couples, as Howie had expected, there were instead groups of boys and girls who had come separately, and who remained largely separate. On the other hand, there was calling back and forth between tables. As a group of girls in a nearby booth began singing, Barbara said,

"They may not be out with the boys, but they're still trying to show them how cute they are."

"You were never like that, were you?"

"I might still be, for all you know. They're two or three years younger than I am, but I can get pretty silly when I'm out with my girl friends at home. It wasn't so long ago that we had a water pistol fight in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant."

Even with the singing from the girls and shouting from the boys, Barbara and Howie managed to continue their conversation. Howie found himself saying,

"I was working on that wedding night scene for Portrait of a Lady, and I'm afraid that it's rather erotic."

"My version is a little too flippant. I'm trying to make it more serious with touches of the tragedy to come. Do you find Isabel Archer as exciting as Ava Gardner?"

"At least. I don't think Ava would make a good Isabel. I had you in mind while I was writing."

Howie was aware that he probably shouldn't talk in quite this way to Barbara, but he had always blurted out things to her, beginning with his account of the episode with Danny. She seemed not to be discomposed, and replied,

"I suppose you have me slowly removing layers of Victorian underwear and giving Gilbert provocative looks over my shoulder. I hope you don't have me totally exposed."

"Well, actually ......."

"As a matter of fact, I look much better with clothes on. The girls in the locker room always said that I was a lesson in human anatomy with all my bones showing. The display of skin is supposed to be terribly stimulating to the adolescent male, but I'm not so sure about the bones underneath."

"I suppose I do count as an adolescent male, at least in this context. I think I could deal with the bones."

"We're starting a short anatomy section in the general science course I teach. I suppose I could strip naked in front of the class and demonstrate the positioning of the fifth rib and things like that."

Even though she was joking, the image of Barbara standing naked in front of her class struck Howie powerfully. He admitted as much, and added,

"We seem to be able to say all kinds of things to each other. That's totally new to me."

"I'm used to doing it with my girl friends at home. Those girls over there who are practically hysterical with laughter are probably concerned with some intimate things. They may also get so carried away that they wet themselves. Men don't do that, do they?"

"They certainly don't wet themselves. Chuck and I have certainly exchanged some secrets, but I don't think we're comfortable in doing it. We do it only when it seems necessary.

"Would he discuss his sexual relations with his wife with you?"

"He doesn't, and, of course, I don't ask. But I think he'd be more likely to than most men if I pressed him."

"I think women sometimes do. I've overheard them discussing such things more than once. It seems usually to be when they're dissatisfied with sex with their husbands. They get worried and want advice from their friends. If men did it, wouldn't they be comparing conquests and boasting about them."

"I've known lots of men and boys who boasted about their sexual exploits, sometimes naming names, but they usually don't give details. Anyhow, it's usually sort of impersonal, like describing a sporting event."

"Have you and Chuck ever discussed me?"

Howie felt himself on very thin ice, but said,

"After you went to his office, and he told me about you, I asked him if he had seen you without your clothes."

Barbara didn't seem amused, and replied,

"I only had a cut finger. I can imagine the turn the conversation would have taken if I had been undressed. Or did he improvise and tell you that I was?"

Howie could only shake his head, and Barbara asked,

"When you found that out, did you and he decide that there was nothing else worth communicating about me?"

"Of course not. He was delighted with you, and everything he said made me want to meet you."

"But you wouldn't have if he'd said I was unattractive physically?"

"No, I suppose not."

There was a minute's pause. Barbara then said,

"I suppose one of the things I fantasize about James Mason is that he might have been interested in a woman who swam out to his yacht who wasn't unusually good looking, let's say just ordinary looking."

"He certainly didn't seem bowled over by Ava. And she didn't have to ask for a towel. He had one ready."

"I don't want men not to be moved by these things, I just wish there were a little more balance."

Barbara spoke in a way that wasn't angry, and smiled a little at the end. When he reached across the table and took her hand, she replied,

"It's okay, I forgive you. And I suspect that Chuck, despite being older, is less healthy than you. But the two of you had better be damned careful how you talk about me when I'm not there."

Barbara gave a little laugh this time, and she only removed her hand from his when her hamburger came. Howie felt that he had not only been forgiven, but had reached a new, and even more exciting, level of intimacy. He managed to say, in a light-hearted way,

"The stuffings of your hamburger are squeezing out in all directions."

Barbara, rather alarmed, checked to see that nothing was falling on her dress, and then bent even further over the table. When she was still in that position, her mouth full of hamburger, he kissed her gently on the forehead. It was only a second or two later when he asked her to marry him.

The last bit of hamburger actually shot out of Barbara's mouth and scattered over the table, a piece of onion landing in Howie's lap. She said only,

"I'm afraid you're not joking."


Barbara started to speak, but there was another outburst of singing and shouting, and she suggested that they leave.

Outside in the car, she began again,

"I guess we're miles apart in our assumptions. I really do think of myself as a schoolgirl even if I happen to be a temporary teacher. I'm at the stage of going out with boys, maybe having a favorite one, but then going away to college. People usually start going out with an entirely different set of people in college. Then, after sampling some more variety, Mother might expect me to get engaged along about my senior year in college."

Howie, much deflated and somewhat humiliated, nevertheless suggested,

"If we both go to Harvard, maybe we could marry secretly, and only tell your parents when you graduate."

"Oh Howie, that's completely crazy. You've had hardly more experience than I, perhaps not as much. Apart from Danny, am I the first girl who's ever been nice to you?"

"Pretty much, I guess."

"People almost never marry within a month of the first date they've ever had. You do realize that's absurd, don't you?"

"I suppose so."

Apparently to make up for his disappointment, Barbara moved close to Howie and let him put his arm around her. When they arrived at St. Monica's and parked, she took the initiative in kissing him. With both arms wrapped around her, he asked,

"You do like me, don't you?"

"Of course I like you. You just have to remember that it's against Ann's rules to propose marriage before the age of twenty-one."

"I bet that isn't really one of her rules."

"Absolutely. Girl scout's honor."

Barbara then kissed him again and slipped quickly out of the car. Howie drove back to Bollinger slowly, thinking deeply as he went.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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