The Melancholy Boys didn't discuss personal matters unless they had an abstract basis. When Jones brought up the subject of free love, they all laughed. Leo offered,
"That suggests the twenties in New York or Paris. People who felt that they were terribly advanced, far beyond jealousy or any other bourgeois conception. Many felt a positive duty to make love to anyone who came in off the street."
Someone else put in,
"It usually involved at least a triangle because that generated more complexities and possibilities for excitement."
"And then, at midnight in the cafe, one must impale one's hand to the table with a steak knife to show that one takes life seriously."
"This all seems to be something that happened in the aftermath of the first world war."
"I'm sure there was free love before that, but this form probably came out of Dadaism. And that was a movement started by young Germans who didn't want to fight in the war. They went to Switzerland, wrote poetry, and put on happenings."
Another Melancholy Boy pointed out,
"It takes a lot of independence to desert your country in time of war. After that, it must have been a snap to make love to someone else's wife. Or, for that matter, to help your own wife undress so that your pal can go to it with her."
"None of us went off to Mexico just after Pearl Harbor. It's rather hard to picture any of us in a cafe in Mexico City writing poetry at the time of Guadalcanal or the Bulge. Does that mean that we're not up to any of this very exotic and rarefied free love activity?"
Yet another Melancholy Boy replied,
"Anyway, Jones, we all know who you're talking about. A couple of us have been around the block with her."
Jones, taken aback, whispered a name. Some people chuckled, but one man, evidently one who had been around the block, summarized,
"Very beautiful. And she has everything else, too. The man with her is inclined to think that she's God's gift to mankind. It's a wonderful experience. But a short one. She always needs the excitement of someone new."
Another man, who also seemed to have pertinent experience, replied,
"The problem then is, not only losing her, but knowing that the next woman won't measure up in important respects."
The former man around the block continued,
"The main question is where you happen to be. About to be allowed into Eden? In Eden? Or just ejected from Eden?"
"How does her husband figure in this?"
"Roger? He knows that she needs him. And he may even get the best share. Not bad."
"I suspect, Jones, that you've been invited in, but haven't yet figured out what to do."
The first man, not himself a particularly glamorous figure, added,
"It's great in the short term, and quite painful thereafter. I think, though, that it's something I may savor in my old age."
"There's also the problem that I've just been given a job for life. I certainly can't afford to get involved in something that might come out in, say, a divorce action."
"I don't think Roger would be fool enough to divorce her, but you never know."
"See how a promotion dims Melancholy recklessness. By the way, Jones, did they give you a key to the building?"
"Well, yes, I think they did."
The most rotund member of the group then piped up,
"And you let us climb in just the same?"
"I don't have it with me today."
There was a certain amount of snorting, but Leo pointed out,
"We can't go on being failures forever."
The Ohio River was generally higher and flowed harder in the late winter and early spring. On this Sunday, in the March of 1950, there was a light snowfall with ice still on the public landing from a previous storm. Jones parked at the top, where a snowplow had gone through, and eased the boat all the way down. There was some scrabbling at the water's edge, but he managed to get in without getting very wet.
Having set out, Jones could row just hard enough to overcome the current. But to do more than inch along against it, he played the eddies near shore. In places, there was actually water moving upstream.
This didn't work when he got to the L & N Railway bridge. The current was concentrated under the arches, and there weren't any eddies. It took some ten minutes of full- out rowing, and it was only by seeing that he was making slow progress along the great stones of the bridge that he was able to keep himself at it. Even here the current was a little stronger in some places than others, and, when stymied, it was important to let the boat be taken a few feet to one side or the other. Jones had wondered at times whether he ever would meet a current he couldn't overcome under the bridge. It was close on this day.
Once through, it took hard rowing all the way up, but it was the sort of thing that Jones enjoyed. He had read that galley slaves were able to keep up a good pace for only short periods of time. But that was probably because they didn't enjoy rowing. And, of course, their diet might not have been of the best.
The river wasn't high enough to allow him to row down city streets, but the high water covered up everything ugly on the banks, and the thickening snow obscured everything ugly on the shore. Jones could imagine someone in Tensy's or Leo's journal claiming that beauty consisted only in the absence of the ugly. But, then, he caught sight of the outline of the church atop Mt. Adams where he went with Tensy. There might possibly be a positive element.
Coming down was all kinds of fun. With only moderate work on the oars, Jones swept by houses, shacks and tributaries. The landing was, as always, somewhat challenging. Jones had to jump out of the boat in the ice and slush at the edge of the river. There happened to be a middle-aged man there who helped pull the boat out. The man had a fur hat contrasting with a rather scholarly expression, and, the boat grounded, he looked in it and said,
"Why this looks like a floating junk shop."
There were, in fact, remnants of Jones' many attempts to modify and improve the boat, and he admitted as much.
Dinner at the Blakey-Fentons always involved some peculiar oriental dishes which, according to Tensy, produced various benefits. Jones nibbled at them, but Reggie remarked expansively,
"All over Asia people eat these odd things. They also die at forty one."
There was, in fact, roast beef as an alternative. Reggie and Jones had thick slices, and Tensy, after some soybeans and miso soup, had a small slice. She made Jones recount the events at the Adams' party and afterward in detail. Reggie was impressed by Janet Adams' manoevering, and said,
"It's too bad such skill is wasted on such small things."
"Roger Ennis didn't think it was a small thing. They had me over the evening of his tenure appointment."
"Did the beautiful Octavia proposition you?"
"Well, not exactly. But she certainly was friendly. She wants me to meet her for lunch, and Roger seemed happy about it."
"It's actually better in the daytime. One doesn't have too heavy a lunch, of course. Then, it's off to some convenient location. You're the perfect extra man, Jones."
Tensy smiled and said,
"Reggie means that husbands don't have to worry about your stealing their wives. Roger and Octavia don't actually accept money do they?"
"Sarah Swift tells me that Octavia loves expensive clothing. The lovers help out in that area."
Reggie took notice abruptly,
"I keep hearing about this young Swift lady. Didn't you tell me that she's having it off with Roger Ennis, dear?"
"Yes. You'd like her. We'll have her over. But, you haven't said whether you're going to accept, Jones."
"Well, Octavia is awfully hard to resist. But she's had goes with a couple of my friends and dropped them suddenly and painfully."
"Yes, she does that. But she's not mean. She doesn't take pleasure in getting her men too upset to work, or anything like that. She just gets a sudden yen for a new man, and, since there's only so much time in the day, one of the others has to get dropped. What did you think of her when we had them over, Reggie?"
"She is beautiful in a rather uncommon way."
"That's it, Jones. There's nothing wrong with the way I look, except that I look like a million other women. The really beautiful women have some odd feature, such as a big nose or wide mouth, which happens to blend in perfectly. And, of course, they have an aristocratic freedom of movement and lack of inhibition that can't be learned or imitated. My plebian origins militate against that."
"And make you delightfully American, my dear. The other sort are two dozen to the tuppence. I would, however, consider hiring Octavia as one of my company hostesses if it comes to that."
"Notice how American Reggie's become, Jones. Instead of saying 'whore', he says 'company hostess.' He also checks them out occasionally."
"One has to keep track of the quality, my dear. They're extremely useful in cementing industrial sales. The man must already want to buy, but the good hostess makes sure that he isn't tempted by other companies with inferior hostesses. I think I can imagine Octavia in that role."
"Has Reggie already made her seem less glamorous, Jones."
Reggie then addressed Jones,
"You need only say the word to consort with one of our people."
"Thanks. I'm not quite there yet, but I may be."
"If one does take a fancy to someone of that sort, the downside, as the Americans say, is limited. She won't play any silly hard-to-get games, and a good tip is all it takes to make her very happy. Of course, one may turn up one day and be told that she's no longer there. One is disappointed, but it's nothing like being dished by a romantic partner."
"Jones, there you have the Reggie view of life. Different persons for different things. Limited passion and no hurt feelings."
"Yes. I wonder if it's possible to have some fun with Octavia without getting too involved."
"You might read authors like James Branch Cabell. Lots of
flirtation, and no sex. I guarantee that, if you do sleep with Octavia,
you'll be involved. Your only chance is to stay in restaurants and
other public places."
Jones had suggested a French restaurant downtown, thinking that it was the sort of place Octavia and her friends would like. Its owner had even been given a medal by the French government for upholding French culture in foreign (presumably barbarous) lands.
Jones believed in always scouting out the terrain in advance, and he walked past the restaurant some twenty minutes early. Looking in casually, he saw mirrors lining the walls and lots of red and gold. Many of the tables were against the walls with little couches for two diners. He had been advised by Roger Ennis to get what he called a "banquette", and Jones supposed that it would turn out to be one of these.
At the end of the block, Jones turned around. He imagined that Octavia would be late, and, ideally, he would see her first and come up for a simultaneous arrival. As it turned out, he couldn't bear to wait in his watching position until noon, the time of his reservation. He entered the restaurant eight minutes early, and was seated by the head waiter at one of the banquettes in a business-like manner without any flourishes. Jones had on his journal editor's medium formal outfit, which might have been a bit too much for lunch, but the man didn't seem to take any particular notice of him. It would be embarrassing if Octavia didn't show up for a half-hour or more, and still more embarrassing if she didn't show up at all. But life had its risks.
To Jones' delight, Octavia turned up almost immediately. She entered, looking surprisingly uncertain, and, with no coat, a little cold. Rosy of complexion and fluttering her hands, she seemed to look right at Jones without seeing him. She then looked for the headwaiter, who came rushing over. Standing in her long gray dress which might have been cashmere, but was certainly expensive, she was the perfect advertisement for the restaurant. Jones was ready to pursue in case she took flight, but, for the moment, he just watched.
Octavia's heels elevated her well above the head waiter as she questioned him. Even as he answered, she moved slowly forward, leaving him partly in her wake. Then, when she saw Jones, she accelerated powerfully, drumming the marble floor imperiously. He hadn't realized how narrow her hips were, or how tall and narrow she was in general. It was only her small but definite bust and her obvious wiry strength and athleticism that kept one from thinking of her as thin.
Jones started to rise as she waved and smiled, her wide mouth and narrow face reminding him for a moment of Wentworth Thurmond. But Went didn't have big violet eyes, wonderful skin, and blonde hair pulled back and up. It was as Tensy had said. Octavia had few of the features to be found on most movie stars, but she looked better for not having them.
Jones was partly caught in the table cloth, and Octavia rushed to him, calling,
"Don't stand, you'll pull everything off the table!"
He remained in his half-way position as she kissed him on the cheek, guided him down, and then went around the table to slide in beside him. With a sly look, she said,
"Roger told me you'd be early, so I'm early too."
They ordered wine immediately, Jones asking Octavia to choose. He had wondered how to begin the conversation, but she spoke up,
"There's something I wanted to ask you. I happened to show Tensy a little thing I wrote on Jane Austen when I was getting my M.A. in English. She says she wants to publish it in her journal. Do you think that's just because she's a friend?"
"Probably not. She didn't have to volunteer that if she hadn't wanted to. And the mere fact that she wants to be your friend suggests that she's impressed with you in general. That much I know. I've heard her speak of you."
"It's just that I have such an inferiority complex. I come from a bad section in Brooklyn, and I used to speak with an atrocious accent. I put 'awreddy' on the ends of sentences and said things like 'Izzat so?' and 'lon gisland.'"
Octavia had reverted briefly into a particularly low accent, and Jones was amazed.
"I assumed that you came from a household where people quoted Shakespeare and read Henry James."
"I guess my mother has heard of Shakespeare, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. If she were to try to read Henry James, she'd be totally baffled."
"Wow! Was it in high school that you got into higher things?"
"I got good enough grades to win a college scholarship, but the atmosphere of the school was hardly elevated. When girls came down the stairwells, boys would sometimes lift their skirts and goose them."
"Did that ever happen to you?"
"Only a couple of times. I was thought to be too tall and thin."
"My high school certainly wasn't elite, but there would have been a hell of a row if anyone had done that."
"We didn't call the police or yell that we were being raped. We just struggled free, sometimes doing some damage with our elbows or purses. But there was one little blonde, Tammy, who probably liked it. I watched once when three boys grabbed her and lifted her up. They didn't take her panties, but she was all spread out, and the boy behind her had his hand between her legs. It wasn't voluntary in the beginning, but she would have had an orgasm if a woman teacher hadn't shown up."
"What happened then?"
"The teacher made them stop, as if she'd caught them smoking. Tammy was blamed, of course, and given some mild punishment."
"Did you know this girl well?"
"Fairly. She was sweet and dumb. The worst came in our senior year when the class had a joke will. One guy was given a lifetime supply of dog food so that he wouldn't go hungry, and I was given a padded bra. That kind of thing. Tammy was given a new body because the old one was worn out."
"And the teachers allowed that?"
"They probably didn't try very hard to prevent it. Kids who don't have much else do have lots of sex and get very casual about it. Anyway, that was my mind-set when I arrived at Vassar."
"That must have been funny."
"It was obvious that the Vassar girls weren't used to being manhandled by boys, so I tried to act as if I'd never been touched. I don't know how plausible that was, but, of course, the Vassar girls had no real idea of what I'd come from."
"There's a strong tradition of the poor but virtuous working girl."
"Yeah, that's what I was aiming at. Unfortunately, everything else was wrong. My name was Tova Smeltstein, which was obviously Jewish, and also sounded funny. If I'd had a chance to think about it, I might have tried not to be Jewish, but it was too late for that. I did tell people that 'Tova' was just a nickname for 'Octavia', and I've been Octavia ever since."
"Well, at least you have a first name. I don't seem to."
"We'll find you one eventually. Anyhow, my worst problem was my speech. I couldn't quickly do anything about that. Some people made fun of it more or less gently in front of me. Others with mean intentions did it behind my back."
"I bet you did well in your classes."
"Yes. The teachers didn't care what I sounded like. In fact, they may have given me favored treatment because of my background."
"We don't here grade students higher just because they come from the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee."
"No, I suppose not. But it really is a great disadvantage to sound like that. I've worked fairly hard on my accent, but I still sound strange with all sorts of nasal elements. Haven't you noticed?"
"No. I imagine your speech is better than mine."
"You have just a few quirks, perhaps from the navy. I wouldn't have noticed, but I had to become conscious of these things. I almost died when I heard myself on a tape recorder. I vowed never to speak again."
Having finished their first glass of wine, a second was poured as they talked of events in the department. At one point, Octavia, suddenly very earnest, asked,
"You were happy when Roger was promoted, weren't you?"
"Yes. I liked him when I took his classes, and it was weird when I was promoted over him. Not that I objected, of course. Anyhow, things are more normal now, and we can all relax."
"I certainly can. It did look as if he'd be let go, and my salary for teaching Freshman English hardly pays the electric bill. We would've been out on the street. Brooklyn girls know all about that."
"It's different in a small town. There's always some sort of work if you're even moderately industrious."
"And then the navy. Is it true that you've had women all over the world?"
"It certainly wasn't as glamorous as that sounds. The navy doesn't officially arrange for prostitution, but it has a way of dumping a thousand sailors in a port where there are a thousand prostitutes. Other than that, there have been a few women, mostly divorced and mostly older."
"Was it better with them than with the prostitutes?"
"Not in purely physical terms. But most prostitutes hide their personalities. I liked talking with the other women. In some cases, I learned a lot about worlds that I'd never entered. I didn't mind their being older, but they all seemed to want to lock me up in one way or another."
"And, of course, you wouldn't let them."
"No. What about you and men?"
"I'll tell you about my best time if you'll tell me about yours."
"I'd love to hear about yours, but mine is going to sound very pedestrian."
"It might not seem so to me. Anyhow, to be fair, I should admit that I already know about one of your episodes."
"You do? With who?"
"You shouldn't have too much trouble guessing."
"Oh. Tensy must have told you. That wasn't complete."
"No, but it ranks well for imagination."
"I felt badly afterwards. It looked at first as if she might not come back to classes."
"Even with my background, which was much rougher than Tensy's, I never lost that sense of shame that goes beyond embarrassment. I would have reacted the same way, more so perhaps. Tensy did come back."
"Yes. She also told Reggie. He thinks it's funny."
"Reggie would. I bet he thinks I'm an actual or potential streetwalker."
Jones dropped a bit of pate he had balanced on a piece of melba toast on the tablecloth. Having made the appropriate negative noises, he asked,
"What was your best experience like."
"I'll tell you after we order."
The thing to have, Jones thought, was steak au poivre. He had had it once at one of JOAD's festive luncheons, and he liked those little black peppercorns. Octavia, on his advice, had the same. When the waiter left, she began,
"The canals of England are quite lovely. You rent a boat that you can sleep on and cruise through the countryside, stopping at inns and pubs to eat. This was just before the war when there was a kind of serenity that everyone knew couldn't last. One glorious evening, this man I was with and I got all dressed up to go to quite an elegant little place on the outskirts of Oxford. It was June, and still broad daylight when we finished. So we walked down a little hill to the canal lock where our boat was tied up. It was funny to be around the boats in high heels, but other people were doing the same thing."
"So this wasn't Roger?"
"No, it was an Englishman named Richard, a member of Parliament, actually. But that isn't such a big deal there. He was escaping from his wife and family for a week with me. He did call in every couple of days with a pack of lies. Once, he had me pretend to be a long-distance telephone operator so he could say he was in Scotland."
"With your American accent? I bet that didn't fool his wife."
"Probably not. I did manage not to giggle, but a lot of people cooperate in being deceived."
"I have noticed that."
"Our boat was named the BLUE PETER, which didn't mean anything to me, but another boat pulled up and moored just a few feet away. It was full of children with two rather stuffy looking women dressed in shapeless garments. Some sort of holiday trip. It turned out that Blue Peter was a character in children's books in England, and these kids all went wild. Richard was appalled at the racket and ducked down out of sight, but I stood at the side of the boat and talked to them. The rail came up to about here on me."
Octavia drew a line with her hand near the top of her shoulders and continued,
"I'd had some wine and got quite giddy with them, pretending to be all sorts of things. The women didn't look at all approving, but the children, some six of them, were laughing and yelling. I bet you can guess what happened next."
"He started undressing you?"
"Yes. I felt him at my skirt fastenings, which were well out of sight from the next boat. But there was a funny little hump-backed bridge down the way with people on it who might have seen. Anyway, I was soon out of my skirt. He then unbuttoned my blouse, moving up the front. This was tricky because the women, being higher up, had a fairly clear view of the tops of my shoulders. I kept carrying on with the children as I ducked a little for blouse removal, but then, when I came back up, I had bare shoulders with just straps on them."
"You could have taken off your shoes."
"You know, I could have. I didn't think of it. Besides, I think I liked shocking those eminently proper women. They, after all, had seen Richard and knew he was somewhere around. The next thing, he reached up behind me and slid my slip straps off my shoulders. A couple of the children were boys of ten or so, and they might have caught on to something. Both women were getting red in the face."
"They might have moved their boat."
"They were probably thinking about it at that point. You know, most women have to take their slips over their heads, but my hips are so narrow that mine can come right down. So there I was, very exposed, telling the children that I was an Apache princess from the wild west. I suppose it was because I was a bit drunk that the shame thing never kicked in. When Richard pulled me slowly down by what was left of my underwear, I waved goodbye to the children. We could still hear their chatter as Richard and I made love."
"They might have heard you, too."
"Yes. When we finally finished, I went into the cabin to peek out a window. Their boat was gone."
"And a lot of stories about a most extraordinary American woman are still circulating at afternoon teas."
"I'm sure there are. But it makes me wonder if I want to go on being what the English would describe as a most extraordinary American woman with that curl of the lip of theirs."
"You mean being wild and crazy?"
"I suppose so. You too! Are you going to get some other woman to go behind the coke machine with you, this time to the point of completion?"
"No. For one thing, I don't want to jeopardize my position. For another, I want things to be calmer and more settled."
"Ah, I can see it now. A cozy home in the suburbs, a wife in the kitchen, and a couple of little Joneses in the back yard."
"I know. I was only teasing. But what is your idea?"
"Did Tensy tell you about the young lady in Washington?"
"Yes. We had quite a talk. The Jewish refugee that can't do sex."
"Heike's perfect in some ways, but there is that. Of course, I don't think that I'm really very good at sex myself. No woman has ever offered anything beyond a polite compliment."
"That somehow doesn't surprise me. I bet you also have no rhythm for dancing."
"That, too. I don't even try. Tensy, I think, is aware of it. She urges me to take Reggie up on his offer of beautiful prostitutes."
"I suppose they would be much better than the navy ones. But it does sound depressing. I can't imagine going to a male prostitute. And, of course, I have Roger. He makes love beautifully."
"Why go elsewhere?"
"The old feeling of inferiority again. I meet an interesting man, and I think he won't have much to do with me if I don't have sex with him. That's a neurosis, isn't it?"
"I guess so."
"And, then, Roger has others, including Sarah. Part of my sleeping around may just be to keep up with him."
Just then, Octavia ran her hand over Jones' thigh and said,
"But I don't want to be cold. I like you very much. Will you be my first lover who doesn't go to bed with me? I can be very affectionate in public places where it's safe."
"Heike likes us to be in public places for the same reason."
"That's interesting. She doesn't want to do it, but wants to play at it. I do want to do it, but also want to get out of a self-destructive pattern. Is there much difference?"
"Not really. I really do like sex, but there seem to be more and more problems surrounding it."
"Except with Reggie's ladies."
"Did Tensy warn you not to have an affair with me?"
"She, in effect, said that I wouldn't be able to handle the emotional involvement if I did."
"That's actually rather flattering to me. It makes me sound like a femme fatale."
"She also said that you aren't mean and don't want to hurt people."
"But I do hurt, sometimes. Probably we should all go back to square one. I wonder if I could get Roger to stop seeing Sarah. You haven't touched her, have you?"
"No. I thought she was too risky, even before I got my appointment."
"Now, there's the same risk for Roger."
"You're friends with Sarah, too, aren't you?"
"Not nearly as much as with Tensy. I've shared men with other women before, and it's a quirky thing. The women are polite to each other, but each wonders what the man tells the other about her."
"Women have told me interesting things about other men. One had a lover who would yell, 'I'm gonna come, I'm gonna come.' She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do."
"That's one I haven't come upon. But I'm worse. I often cry after sex. I really don't know why. But I do hope Roger hasn't told Sarah that."
"There isn't much privacy left at this point. Particularly where Sarah is concerned."
"I know. Despite her various airs, she's just a kid. She probably has a million girl friends who giggle about me when I go down the hall."
"Sarah's graduating this spring, and her friends will all be gone in a year or too."
"Well, it's time for me to be getting back. Besides, the desserts here would do very bad things to my tummy. If you walk me to my car, you can give me a big hug and kiss and pat me on my skinny little rear end."
"And meetings with me don't have to be this expensive. Next time, a pizza parlor will do nicely."