Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 26

An Italian-American Couple

Eric said to Mrs. Seymour,

"Dr. Sun has been trying to work out a mathematical way of predicting how many of us will show up for treatment each week. Your presence will give him a new challenge."

"There are also some other kinds of challenges we could give him. Our dog, Cynthia, is even crazier and more in need of treatment than the rest of us in the family. I hope Dr. Sun wouldn't be insulted if I asked to bring her next time."

It was a moot point, but the consensus of the other four people in the car was that Elaine would be detailed to broaden her expertise by massaging Cynthia.

Tom had supposed that Mrs. Seymour would be driving her car, but it turned out to be Sharon. It was noticeable that she drove more slowly than the last time, and that she signalled for turns with her long white arm extended far out to the side of the car. Tom and Eric were in back, with Mrs. Seymour between them. The latter was very like Sharon physically, within a couple of inches of her height, and even having many of the same facial expressions. She was also dressed with similar elegance, the main difference being that she wore perfume. Tom had remembered her as being rather pale, very much in the background in her home with her husband and daughter. But, now, she was much brighter and more animated. Best of all, she seemed disinclined to criticize her daughter.

A bit further on, Eric pointed out the place where he had once vomited into the middle of a church rummage sale. Mrs. Seymour, who had now established herself as Barbara, seemed unsure whether to laugh. When she wound up doing so, she asked Eric,

"Do you always deal with problems by laughing at them?"

When assured by the others that he did, she replied,

"That's wonderful! I seem to have lost my sense of humor in 1939 or thereabouts."

She looked quite appealing as she spoke, and Jimmy, out of nowhere, said to her,

"You're almost as beautiful as Sharon."

Jimmy seemed puzzled at everyone's reaction, and Tom explained,

"Jimmy thinks it's all right to say anything that he happens to think true on any occasion. At first, we thought it had something to do with being Chinese, but he's recently decided not to be Chinese."

Barbara replied,

"I'm actually complimented to be thought even half as beautiful as Sharon. But, how can you not be Chinese, Jimmy?"

Before he could answer, Sharon said,

"Jimmy's also, at the same time, acquired a Chinese girl friend and been practically adopted by the Sun family."

Jimmy tried manfully to explain that there had just been a series of accidents which really didn't affect his underlying decision to switch cultures. Tom asked,

"Is Elaine not really Chinese either?"

"Well, Elaine's a teen-ager with metropolitan and global inclinations."

"And Dr. and Mrs. Sun?"

"They practice healing arts that happen to have originated in China, but might just as well be Peruvian."

Jimmy always liked to be teased, but, of course, it gradually became clear that he just didn't want to be like his father. No one wanted to tell Barbara just who Jimmy's father was, and it was decided that Jimmy should simply declare himself a scholar at large in the world. Jimmy seemed to like that, and Barbara said,

"I wonder how Sharon and my husband would feel if I declared myself an artist at large in the world."

Sharon immediately replied,

"I'd love it, and Daddy would get used to it. He can hire people to housekeep."

"But I thought I was holding things together. Somehow or other. At this point, I'm not sure exactly what and how."

Eric said,

"Jimmy half believes that he isn't really Chinese, Tom half believes that he'll someday be a major league pitcher, and I have various half beliefs about Dr. Sun's program of therapy.

Barbara replied,

"Okay. What does Sharon half believe?"

"I would guess that she can escape the various traps involving responsibility and guilt. Even when they're baited with goodies."

As on the last trip, Sharon's concentration lapsed. There was again a mad squealing of brakes with, this time, a small bump at the end. The occupants of the back seat all wound up on the floor, wedged against the backs of the front seats. Barbara was mostly on top of Tom with her legs up in the air. She swore softly as she tried unsucessfully to get her skirt in place, but, giving it up, she crawled over Tom and got the door open. Once out, she helped him untangle himself from Eric and the car.

Sharon and Jimmy were already on the pavement, where it was seen that they had run into the back of an old pick-up truck stopped at a red light. Tom was wondering what Barbara might have to say to Sharon, but she remarked only,

"Sharon's driving is actually improving. She doesn't hit as many things as hard as before."

A middle-aged man with a little cap emerged smiling from the truck and quietly inspected the almost non-existent damage. Anyhow, the truck already had so many dents and scrapes that it would have taken a much harder bump to make a difference.

In view of his general demeanor, Tom expected the man to wave dismissively and drive off. But, then, he got a good look at Barbara and Sharon. Something seemed to click in his brain, and he began to yell and scream, all the while pointing to the back of his truck. They were given to understand that it was a very valuable truck indeed, and that its rear bumper had been substantially deformed. Then, clapping both hands on top of his head in an apparent attempt to contain his grief, he shouted to the woman emerging from the truck,

"Looka these people, Mary! They're rich! Our ship has come in!"

He then ran solicitously to his wife, shouting back at them,

"The shock almost killed her! Her breathing's bad, and her kidneys may go into disfunction."

As if on cue, the woman collapsed her ample girth against the side of the truck while clutching herself and letting out a sort of yodel. The yodel was follwed by some heavy breathing and the exclamation,

"I got pleurisy, and my sciatica's killin me!"

Tom hardly knew what to think, and, like the others in his party, stared speechlessly. Then, after a few more histrionics, the man approached Barbara quietly with a half bow and said,

"Tell ya what I'm gonna do, maam."

Barbara looked as if she might be about to apologize for her daughter's driving, but, before she could, he said,

"Gimme a buck, and I'll forget about the whole thing."

The man then began laughing uproariously. Barbara, seemingly with diminished ch'i, fished hopelessly in the little pocket of her skirt, but Eric had a dollar out quickly. The couple in front of them waved in a friendly fashion and drove off.

Eric was the first to speak, and said,

"You know, I'm half Italian, but even I can't always tell when Italians are joking."

Barbara, quickly recovering ch'i, replied,

"It was really a beautiful performance. Worth much more than a dollar. I bet it'll leave a lasting impression on Sharon."

Tom explained to Barbara,

"We've already had experience with her driving. She does very well until she turns to attend to someone in the back seat."

"Since we can't all cram into the front seat, someone else had better drive. How about you, Tom?"

Sharon demurely handed him the keys and got into the back seat beside her mother.

Dr. Sun was delighted. His formula had predicted that an additional person would show up for the aggregate K-Entry appointment that morninng. While he was exulting, Elaine gave her mother a look. Jimmy whispered to Tom,

"In the old days, you couldn't do the washing unless the day was propituous for it, according to the Book of Changes. In this household, you can't do things unless they fit into Dr. Sun's mathematical model."

"Well, anyway, that isn't very Chinese. You must like it."

"In some ways it's worse. Elaine's already sixteen, but she has to wait three months to apply for her driver's license."

It was decided to do the boys first, and then the ladies. Eric, as always, got the full and detailed attention of Dr. Sun, sometimes consulting with his wife. Jimmy and Tom got just simple massages, Jimmy from Mrs. Sun and Tom from Elaine. They were on two portable tables in addition to the main one, and Tom had the impression that Mrs. Sun was carefully checking a prospective son-in-law for defects of body and character. Meanwhile, Tom enjoyed considerably the feel of Elaine's strong little hands as they moved over him. Oddly, however, what was quite thrilling in the first few seconds diminished gradually. It still felt good at the end, but, by that time, he was thinking about Sharon.

When they were finished and dressed, Dr. Sun came out with them into the waiting room. It seemed that, while the women in his family massaged men, he didn't ordinarily massage women. Elaine and her mother stood smiling as Barbara and Sharon went in for their treatment. When the door closed, Dr. Sun exhaled and remarked,

"Life without ladies would be much simpler and more mathematically elegant, but the element of charm and mystery would be altogether lacking."

As he spoke, he gestured to the closed door, as if inviting them to imagine what might be happening behind it. Tom, knowing that Sharon and her mother were about to be undressed, was happy to imagine that process in detail. He suspected that Dr. Sun had something more abstract in mind, but, then, perhaps not. Just then, two of Jimmy's students arrived, teen-aged girl friends of Elaine. Dr. Sun had decided to teach them mathematics while Jimmy taught history, mostly one-on-one. The girls, both Chinese-Americans, were led to an alcove that had been fitted with desks.

As Eric and Tom left to take a walk around town, Eric said,

"Dr. Sun will either teach that girl some real mathematics or reduce her to a gibbering idiot."

"Yes. He's quite intense. Elaine apparently makes him slow down when she doesn't understand, but the other girls may not."

"Tom, can you imagine Jimmy teaching Elaine history in one of their tutoring sessions? It must have its humorous elements."

"Jimmy can get pretty intense himself when he's discussing, say, the industrial revolution. I bet she humors him."

"She must be used to humoring her father, who's a brilliant man in his own right. He's really a lot like Jimmy."

Tom burst out,

"I've just realized! Jimmy's in the process of substituting Dr. Sun for his own father."

"You're probably right. A vast improvement."

"Certainly. Of course, he'll just about have to marry Elaine to stay in the family. And she's just a kid."

"But an unusual kid. Chinese intellectual precocity combined with an American flair for masquerading as a nurse with a chemical warfare badge on her cap. How can you beat that?"

"Yeah, I guess it'll be all right. Life won't be dull for Jimmy."

When they returned, Sharon and Barbara had just finished. Barbara wasn't as euphoric as Sharon had been after her first time, but she was obviously pleased, if a little flustered. Jimmy and Dr. Sun wound up things with their tutees, who ran to Elaine giggling and speaking some mixture of English, Chinese, and teen slang. In the confusion, Sharon whispered to Tom,

"There've been all sorts of developments. I'll tell you when I have a chance."

"Good developments?"

"Probably on the whole. But I'm not sure how you'll feel about them."

There wasn't time to say more as they headed off for lunch. Elaine was still in her nurse's outfit, but with high-heeled white pumps of Italian manufacture that Jimmy had given her.

The restaurant was, by general acclamation, the usual Italian one. They surrounded the large round table more or less randomly, Barbara ending up between Eric and Elaine. Since Elaine had her girl friends and Jimmy on her other side, Barbara talked mostly with Eric. There was a little space between Eric and Tom, and Sharon, on Tom's other side, said quietly to him,

"Mother's been moving through confusion and new experience today. She may tell Eric all about it."

"Just as well. He'll be sensible and calming. What happened?"

"Well, first, we had a long talk in the waiting room while you were being treated. About things we don't usually talk about."


Sharon laughed and continued,

"I made so bold as to say that there was more wrong with her than me."


"She didn't take it badly. She even said that my problems were probably traceable to her, and to the dynamics of her marriage. She considers that abnormal and unsatisfactory."

"Things looked pretty good to me, at least compared to most marriages."

"I know. She and Daddy are amusing together, and it's easy to think that their conflicts are pretty minor. But I don't think she likes sex with him."

"I shouldn't know about that, should I?"

"I wasn't sworn to secrecy, and she never said so directly. But nothing else seems to account for the things she did say. What's unfortunate is that she attaches so much importance to it."

"There are times when K-Entry talks about little but sex."

"Sure. Most people are obsessed with it. But Ann says that the majority of women don't get much out of sex, except insofar as it convinces them that they're loved. I don't think that Daddy is much for explicit declarations of love, and his appetites are strong. He wouldn't be rough or hurtful, but I don't think he'd be big on nuances."

"Most men probably aren't."

"Anyhow, she thinks that her relative lack of sexuality is a reflection of her inability to enter into any kind of intimacy with anyone."

"The conclusion would seem to be that she shouldn't complain to people about you."

"Did she to you?"

"Once on the phone, just after you'd gone back to Allwyn."

"That wasn't nice. But I'm more forgiving than usual today. And, then, there was a lot else. She said she wound up in your lap with her skirts up to her waist when we had that bump."

"That's a little exaggerated, but her skirt did get yanked back when she slid forward off the seat. As soon as I realized that we hadn't had a serious crash, I allowed myself to enjoy the inevitable."

"Well, that's okay. It was my doing, after all. She didn't get weird, did she?"

"No, she did some mild swearing, and it took a while to get organized, but she didn't seem all that embarrassed."

"I wonder if she didn't partly enjoy it. She laughed when I told her that you must have seen more of her than you have of me. Not many mothers and daughters can say that, and it was kind of fun. But that was nothing to the massage experience."

"I was wondering about that."

"We aren't a naked family. Daddy might be if Mother let him, but we almost never see one another less than fully dressed. The Sun mother and daughter obviously had no inkling of that, and the Chinese probably don't in general."

"I noticed that Dr. Sun didn't massage either of you."

"No. He's probably picked up on American mores to that extent. But I actually thought that Mother might flee when I was being stripped. If I hadn't whispered to Elaine to leave me in my panties and bra, she might have."

"She must have known that you couldn't be massaged fully dressed."

"She probably thought in terms of a little cubicle. I did tell her that it would be Elaine or her mother, and she may have expected a sort of faceless and anonymous oriental woman."

"The Suns are a long way from being faceless and anonymous."

"They also made much or her clothing, which, of course, is expensive and beautiful. Both mother and daughter know their French and Italian designers. But everything has so many catches and hooks and things that it took a while to get her out of her clothes. And, of course, I was curious to see how she looked. I may have ogled a bit."

"From what I saw, she looks very good."

"Indeed so. Her remaining undies were pretty revealing, and, really, she could pass for a woman fifteen years younger. But she was pink all over and practically hyper-ventilating from embarrassment."

"Did the massage cure that?"

"Yes, she was much calmer at the end. When we heard you in the outer office, we were still in our slips. Elaine had gone to recover our dresses from wherever she'd put them, and her mother was distracted by a phone call."

"Did you compare notes on the massage experience?"

"Not at all. Mother suddenly said that we're both defective. We'll just have to stick together and tolerate one another. She also said that she hoped that I wouldn't have children."

"By God, your mother can spring some surprises."

"Well, I knew immediately that she'd been thinking about it all the time she was being massaged by Mrs. Sun. I even wondered it Mrs. Sun had communicated some things to her non- verbally."

"We already knew that Mrs. Sun is more pessimistic than her husband. She initially didn't want to treat Eric."

"I didn't know that. Anyhow, I wasn't upset. It's not a bad thing for Mother to think that we're both defective and need to help and tolerate one another."

"Well, it's crazy, of course. You're super, and she's not far from being a very impressive woman. But there's nothing wrong with humility."

"Eric has humility, but doesn't think badly of himself."

"Eric is an impossible model. We have to be realistic."

"Yeah, so that's more or less okay. I really don't think I'm defective, but there's no need for me to argue the point with Mother."

"It's also an unusual woman who doesn't want grandchildren."

"We managed to discuss that as we were being helped into our dresses. She thinks that that is yet another symptom of her defectiveness. But she thinks that the grandchildren would also be defective, and that we can't afford that."

They weren't far from Barbara and Eric as they spoke, and Tom could hardly keep from laughing. He finally responded,

"She's certainly interesting. I'd like to see her artwork."

"That can be arranged."

"Does she also think that you shouldn't marry me? Or anyone?"

"That isn't so clear. She obviously likes you, and is inclined to think that you deserve someone less defective than myself. These things have rankled with me, but, now that we've talked about them, and joked about them, I feel better."

"You'll soon be having a long talk with Ann."

"Most certainly. Particularly after Eric's given her Mother's version of the whole affair."

Tom slid his hand tentatively under the draping table-cloth and put it on Barbara's leg. She laughed, and put her hand over his. When the food came, they withdrew their hands in order to eat more efficiently.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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