Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 14

A Surprise

Rod MacDuff apologized for being disorganized and said to Tom,

"I was up late last night, arguing with John Austin."

Austin was a visiting English philosopher who was giving a series of lectures and making quite a splash at Harvard. Tom knew that he should have been going to the lectures, but they conflicted with weight lifting, and he hadn't. MacDuff probably wanted to talk about those lectures, but Tom forestalled him by laying one of his own papers on the desk. MacDuff shook his head, as if recovering from a hangover, and said,

"You know, you might send some of these little papers to the journals. There's nothing to lose, and it'd advance your career considerably if one were accepted."

Tom made some modest noises, but agreed to do so. Then, after a half hour's discussion, he mentioned that he had met Sharon. MacDuff immediately asked,

"What's she like?"

"Eccentric, but not really crazy. There's just a little something wrong. I've started going out with her."

"Really? I suppose that has its risks, but so does everything. Bring her around when you have a chance."

Later that afternoon, Tom called Allwyn and spoke with Ann as usual. The latter said,

"Sharon had a great time with you down at Harvard Square."

"So did I. Did she have any reaction afterwards?"

"I see you're learning. A little, but not bad. You might come out here next time."

"It was Eric who alerted me to the possibility that Sharon might have more difficulty with someone she likes than with someone she dislikes."

"Eric's an amazing young man. It is true, of course. Many of us know how to deal with enemies, but there are so many different ways you can go when you do like someone."

A few evenings later, Eric and Tom proceeded to the Allwyn Institute for dinner. After two treatments and a regimen of Chinese pills Eric had been less troubled with nausea. Indeed, in the last few days, he hadn't vomited at all. He put this very carefully to Tom, adding,

"This may not mean anything at all, and the nausea may return full force at any time. But, at least, it's not yet another bad sign."

"Ann may also be improving your morale."

"That's an understatement."

Tom had a feeling, both from speaking with Ann and from observing Eric, that they had had sexual intercourse on the second of their two dates. It was a little surprising, and even shocking. Nice girls didn't do that. And Ann was certainly a nice woman. But perhaps grown women didn't have to go by the same rules. And, apart from everything else, she might have thought that it would be good for Eric. Perhaps she even wanted him to have sex before he died.

It was the first time that Tom and Eric had come upon something that they couldn't talk about. But, then again, Tom had gotten the message, and he thought that Eric probably knew that he had. They could go on from there. The only question was whether Chinese medicine or sex, or both combined, could do Eric any permanent good.

Tom had never knowingly seen it before, but he recognized it when he saw Ann. She was a woman in love. She was discreet, of course. No one in the large lounge would have thought that she was anything other than a good hostess. There was nevertheless a marked contrast with Sharon, who was very pleased to see Tom, but was definitely not in love. Moving flippantly across the room in regal fasion in a long slim green dress, she looked as if she were designed to inspire all sorts of emotions, love among them, without returning any.

It turned out that Sharon had spent most of the day playing tennis and swimming in the heated outdoor pool. She remarked,

"I'm beginning to like the life of the idle rich. You spend all day playing, and then you have a maid to help you get dressed to the nines for dinner."

Tom replied,

"It also goes well with philosophy. Most of the prominent philosophers of the past lived lives of leisure."

"Was that because they were rich?"

"Some were. Others, like Socrates, hardly spent anything. A lot, like Leibniz, had wealthy patrons."

"Unless I manage to produce some fairly alarming symptoms fairly soon, I'm likely to find myself a schoolgirl in socks and saddle shoes before long."

As if to illustrate the difference, Sharon advanced one foot in an expensive-looking high heeled pump. As she playfully twisted her slim ankle so as to wrinkle her stocking, Tom suggested,

"If your father can maintain you here, he should be able to keep you in elegant clothing, even when you're back in school."

"Yes, but I could hardly go to a high school dance like this. For one thing, the boys would be afraid to dance with me. I'd be a very tall wallflower sitting on a little metal folding chair on the edge of the gym floor."

"That does sound depressing. Would you mind if I shared the experience with you?"

"I'd be delighted. You're hereby invited to my senior prom if I have one."

They were standing apart from the others at this point, and Sharon whispered,

"I think Ann and Eric have gone all the way."

"I think so too, but what makes you think that?"

"She told me how great she thinks he is. And she's too sensible to hold back if he wanted to. She might even have suggested it."

"I think he would want it, at least with any encouragement at all."

Sharon nodded in agreement, and said,

"I can't imagine doing it myself."

"I've never gotten at all close to it. I guess I could ask Peter for a blow-by-blow account."

"Would he give you one?"

"I'm not sure. He certainly doesn't boast about it, and he might regard it as private."

"Could you peek in the window the next time he has a girl up there?"

"Actually, it'd be possible to peek into the front room from the porch, and probably not be noticed."

"I bet you've done it!"

Tom was embarrassed, but continued,

"Kent and I did manage to, once, but they moved to the back room for the finale."

"How much did you see?"

"They hugged and kissed, standing up, in the front room."

"Were they fully dressed?"

"At the beginning. Then Peter helped her take her dress off, and they hugged and kissed some more."

"Would you have been embarrassed if you'd been caught?"

"Very much so. Peeping Toms aren't well regarded."

"No, there's an aura of degeneracy. But it's unfair. People like us would have to be curious about sex. I would've watched in your place."

Tom, laughing, replied,

"I'm not sure whether I can imagine you on the porch with us peeking in the window."

"Sure you can! I'm still just a kid. I'll sneak candy from the cupboard at home, and I'll peek in any available window."

They were in a corner of the room by this time, and, happening to look toward the front door, Tom saw Mary Ellen blow through it to be greeted effusively by a large solid- looking gentleman. Tom was aware of making a strange noise, and Sharon said,

"That's the director. You look as if you're in the middle of a weird savage ecstasy. He doesn't have that effect on most people."

"The lady he's embracing is my mother."

"My God! I never thought! Mrs. Williams. It's such a common name. Let's get around the corner before she sees us."

"She'll recognize Eric."

"He'll be tactful. He'll just say he's a friend of Ann's."

Having moved into the library, Tom asked,

"Have you met Mary Ellen?"

"Many times. She's a volunteer here, and she's supposed to just converse with iffy people to keep them from going off the edge. We've talked a lot, and I think she likes me. I certainly find her interesting."

"Then I guess it's okay."

"No it isn't! She may think I'm the best patient in Allwyn, but that doesn't mean that she wants her only son to be trapped by me. Besides, she knows I'm interested in philosophy, but she's never mentioned you at all. That means that she doesn't want me to meet you."

It was hard to argue. It was so like Mary Ellen to be charming to a girl she wouldn't think of introducing to her son. She would instead introduce the girl to some other woman's son.

Tom remained in the library, peeking around the corner, as Sharon went in to explain the situation to Eric and Ann. Unfortunately, Mary Ellen saw Sharon, and almost ran to intercept her. There was an embrace, Mary Ellen hardly coming above Sharon's shoulder, and some spirited conversation. Tom was morally certain that his mother was telling Sharon how wonderful she looked. And, of course, she was right.

The director then came up to them, and it looked very much to Tom as if were interested in Mary Ellen. There had been suitors before, and he knew the signs. Moreover, Mary Ellen had never mentioned to Tom that she spent so much time at Allwyn. She always had ulterior motives, and she might, this time, be herself interested in the director. His prominent status wouldn't be lost on her, but she wouldn't tell her son until everything had been worked out. Tom could imagine her saying,

"Dear, I didn't tell you before because I was afraid it might upset you. But there's this very interesting man who's terribly anxious to meet you. I really do think you'll like him."

When Sharon finally came back to Tom, she said,

"Ann suggested that you and I go out for something to eat. She also gave me money in case you don't have any."

"Great, let's go."

"We'll have to wait. The only door out of here goes into the main lounge."

Tom inspected a window at the far end of the large room, and saw that there was a minimal drop to the ground. The window was unlocked, and he dropped out easily. Sharon approached smiling, and, by sitting on the sill, she managed to swing her legs out without lifting her skirt. As Tom prepared to hold her, he said,

"See if you can get the window closed as I lift you away."

A moment later, Sharon, heavier than she looked, was in his arms as she struggled with the window. She got it almost down when, with her arm on his shoulder, she hopped lightly to the ground. Tom said,

"This is a lot like one of Peter's infiltration exercises, except that we start by sneaking the girls in."

"I'm to call Ann when we finish dinner. If your mother's gone, we can go in the front door. Otherwise, there's a back door I can slip in."

"I hope this doesn't pose any risk for Ann. Won't you be missed?"

"Not with all the visitors around. I think it'll be okay."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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