The next person to return to Cincinnati, all set to go to work, was Jane. Brenda had just bought the old mansion which we had been renting and, in conventional terms, it needed a great deal done to it.
America was obsessed with houses at the moment. In addition to the frenzied building of horrid little shacks, there was a movement to renovate and refurbish the splendid old houses of the last century, such as ours.
Jane said we should have a designer in, just to see what he recommended. He was delighted by the house, particularly the many mouldings, the crown mouldings at the ceiling, the chair rails, and even the baseboards. One room on the ground floor, octagonal in shape, fascinated him because of the angles at which the mouldings were mitred. The only thing, he said, was to have all the mouldings in the house removed, dipped in a solution to remove a century of layers of varnish, and then tricked out in colors he was prepared to recommend with contrasting lining. That, of course, was only the beginning. We were assured, however, that the end product would make a great impression on the elite of the city. That, we could well believe.
At this point, Brenda's fortune was such that the expense didn't matter much. However, we all found appalling the scope of the problem. As Jane said,
"If we do anything even vaguely like that, we'll be living in plaster dust for a good two years."
In reaction to that prospect, we turned to the extensive back yard and got workmen to dig a swimming pool which, two lanes wide, wended its curving way for over a hundred yards before completing the loop. It was really more of a canal, with a central island, than anything to be found in an ordinary back yard. We arranged for flow and purification to keep it from becoming like an industrial canal with fetid waters, and we put in heating with the winter in mind.
On the theory that the swimmer at water level has little sense of perspective or size and distance, Jane hired a Chinese man she found somewhere to help her construct miniature towns and scenes on the banks. We even had them served by a model railway, although I wasn't optomistic about the possibility of keeping the rails clean enough to provide reliable service. Even so, each of the sixteen circuits constituting a mile swim would amount to a guided fantasy.
Finally, returning to the less interesting reality of the house, Jane suggested,
"Let's just get slapdash workmen who don't consider themselves craftsmen, and have them fix only things that are about to fall down or apart."
We spent a couple of weeks at the college, and, when we returned, the windows had been fixed, the main staircase shored up, and a new roof put on. The workmen, going at a frantic pace, left imperfections everywhere, but everything they did looked strong and solid. As Jane said,
"The main thing about a house is that it not fall down. Nothing else matters very much."
The house did have nice big windows, and the main cosmetic problem was that almost every interior wall was covered with faded dingy wallpaper. Jane suggested painting over all of it with white paint. Thirty painters worked at once, and that was done. The floors were of hard wood, discolored in many places, but bright and cheery rugs, most of them Chinese, were thrown around. As Jane said,
"Once the house is solid, the next thing is just to produce an atmosphere that's bright and clean, like the better sort of art studio."
We were aware, of course, that, in the eyes of traditional Cincinnatians, we had committed something close to sacrilege. But we could still be exciting eccentrics who ran a college which would accept as students any of their young people who flunked out of the Ivy League.
We decided to wait for Ralph to return in order to have our painting weekend, at which point, each of us, armed with buckets, brushes, and bright temporary colors, would decorate our home. In the meantime, we bought any miscellaneous furniture we happened to like. Jane and I even constructed some chairs and tables from wood left around by the construction men.
During that autumn of 1947 the change that Brenda had sensed in Maria, and which had temporarily disappeared on our trip to Seattle, made itself felt in a number of ways. Most notably, Maria began to conspicuously attract boys. We, being with her from day to day, didn't notice any change in her appearance, but, when Helen came to visit in October, she noticed immediately. I pointed out that Maria didn't have much figure. Helen replied,
"Neither do I. She'll probably stay that way. But she's grown up. She's well on her way to being a cool beauty like Brenda."
I was much surprised, indeed almost shocked. I had always known that Brenda was beautiful, and that Jane, while perhaps not exactly beautiful, was even more extraordinary in her own way. But it had never occurred to me that Maria was anything of the sort. There was nothing particularly wrong with the way she looked, but there was nothing unusual. She was simply a slim girl of medium height with black hair, black eyes, a light pale skin, and no noticeable assymmetry of feature. While I didn't think her plain, I could imagine that some persons might think so. It seemed, in any case, that she had little in common with Brenda. When I said so Helen, she replied,
"You've made Brenda into your goddess. That, incidentally, is why you don't want me as more than your friend. It also keeps you from seeing that Maria is potentially just as good looking in a different way."
It still seemed to me that the only thing extraordinary about Maria was her mind, but the boys seemed to agree with Helen. The first one I noticed was a blonde boy from the neighborhood who walked his dog up and down the riverfront. I later found that the dog, a large mongrel, had been encouraged to sniff ladies in indelicate ways, an encouragement that hardly seemed necessary. The owner, who looked as if he came from a wealthy but decadent southern family, would then rush up full of apologies. Jane and Brenda gave him short shrift, but Maria, rather expertly fending off the dog, had been willing to converse. Before long, the boy seemed almost constantly on our doorstep.
When it got too much for Maria, she responded by inviting Biff over at a time when the blonde boy was sure to be in attendance, and then went off on the former's arm. She did this, however, without ever promoting Biff to the status of boy friend. He was what an older woman might have called a "dear friend", and I am quite sure that I heard Maria use that phrase.
It was at this time that Brenda was ready to carry out the role of mother to Maria as she saw it. She said to me,
"I know a great deal about the handling of men, and I can save her from many difficult and embarrassing situations."
She then added,
"Thelma also knew a great deal about men, but she never helped me at all. All she did was turn me loose and tell me she could arrange an abortion! A girl like Maria needs some sensible rules."
I pointed out that Maria was managing the blonde boy pretty well.
"He and his dog sit out there with their tongues hanging out, but Maria gives him only about an hour a week in three or four installments."
"Her strategy seems to be to control one boy by always having another one or two in the wings. I've often done that, but see where I've ended up. That method precludes real intimacy."
"I rather like the way you've ended up."
"With all due respect, Thomas, I ought to have long ago married someone my own age. Anyway, I'll see that Maria doesn't make the same mistake."
I was uneasy. When people set out to see that other people don't make mistakes, they are generally making a mistake themselves.
At that time, both Maria and Brenda were still seeing Pettigrew. I don't know what he said to either, but my suspicion is that Maria told him that she didn't want any advice, still less any rules, from Brenda. It would only have been sensible on his part to tell her that she could avoid rules from Brenda by making rules for herself that no one could take exception to.
Maria's first real grown-up date was with Biff on a Saturday night. They went to dinner and a movie across the river, and were back by ten thirty. Maria brought Biff in for coffee with us, and he left an hour later. That evening set a precedent in a clever way. Maria might have thought of it herself, but I thought I detected an older hand.
I also noticed at this time that Maria was seldom alone with Brenda. Whenever an intimate little chat seemed to be looming, Maria would engage one of the rest of us and draw us in. Brenda was certainly capable of insisting on having talks alone with Maria, but my speculation was that Pettigrew was urging her to go easy. I could imagine him asking Brenda if Maria was getting into trouble with boys. She would have had to answer negatively, at which point he could easily have suggested that advice should be given only when solicited. Of one thing I am fairly certain: that Maria never did ask Brenda how to deal with boys.
Maria's dates all started from the Covington house. It gradually became clear that she would go out only on Saturday nights. A succession of boys appeared, all of them suitable. It seemed to me that she would get home a few minutes later each time, but she never remained out after eleven. Biff wasn't ignored, but he was most often invited, along with his sister, on a Sunday afternoon.
During this period, Maria did talk with Jane about clothing, sometimes in the presence of Brenda or myself. Jane was by then our acknowledged expert in all matters aesthetic. Maria could ask Jane, as one woman to another, whether a particular dress suited her. Brenda sometimes asked Jane the same questions on her own behalf, and took her advice. I noticed, however, that Maria modified Jane's advice. She got clothes that were extremely plain and devoid of ornamentation. Sometimes, having gotten a dress, she would remove fancy touches with scissors.
I turned out to be Maria's favorite shopping companion, not least because I was delighted to buy her whatever she wanted.
Having been shopping with many women, I have come to realize that the manner in which they do it speaks volumes about them. There is a kind of pretty woman who will emerge from the fitting room in a new dress, and, no matter how well she looks, will scowl at herself in the mirror.
There is, unfortunately, a little of that in any woman. In all my experience, there is no woman, no matter how beautiful, who doesn't think that there's something profoundly wrong with her appearance. Very often, she thinks that her breasts are defective, but, if not that, something else is wrong.
It happened that both Jane and Brenda were nearly immune to that tendency. Jane, if she didn't like what she saw in the mirror, would flounce back to the fitting room, where, one felt, she might tear off the offending garment without bothering to unfasten it.
Brenda would emerge slowly in a new dress, price tags dangling and often doing herself up. She would then grasp the skirt, feeling the fabric, and twist it around herself as she glided to a mirror. It was altogether a sensuous experience for her, and she sometimes, perhaps in fun, gave herself sultry looks in the mirror.
Maria was nothing like that. When she first came out in a new dress, she would have a shy somewhat embarrassed look, one which wasn't at all characteristic of her. I could see that she wanted my compliments, as opposed to a critical appraisal. Only then would she stand in front of a mirror. When she did, she would neither frown nor smile, but would give herself a grave look as she turned in an elegant way and looked over her shoulder. We would then buy the dress.
Like other teen-agers, Maria was always hungry. The purchase of a dress was always followed by a snack, or, for that matter, a full meal. These occasions often seemed a continuation of our time in Washington together, and, indeed, we often talked of the people at NIL. Maria corresponded actively with Anna Louise while I, never much of a correspondent, sent and received messages through her.
At times, I teased Maria quite gently, asking her what the others would think of the clothes we had bought. Such a question was, for her, a loaded one. I knew that she chose clothes so as not to risk the disapproval of Brenda, but Maria would be careful to answer as if only purely aesthetic questions were at issue. One day, I remarked,
"You know, most girls your age have fights with their mothers over clothes."
Maria gave me a quick smile and answered,
"The girls at school all want to wear high heels and nylon stockings."
"Are they allowed to?"
"Most of them are for special occasions."
"Would you like to?"
Maria had just devoured half a hamburger, but stopped with a pensive look. She would normally have denied any such desire, but I caught her with a look. She nodded shyly and said,
"I imagine Brenda will say something when she thinks it's time."
Out of curiosity, I later raised the issue with Brenda, not letting on that I had already discussed it with Maria. Brenda replied,
"She's certainly getting to the age. At dances they wear flat dancing slippers, but they hardly show under the long dresses. If Maria asks to wear high heels occasionally, I think I'd agree."
"I seem to be the one who takes her shopping. I could get her some."
Brenda's expression took on a certain resolve as she replied,
"I think she should ask me first."
There it ended. Maria was obviously not going to risk coming home in high heels, and Brenda wasn't going to volunteer anything. It wouldn't kill Maria to ask Brenda, but it seemed to me more likely that the former's heels would get higher at the rate of about a half inch a year.
I was concerned that Maria's rebellion, low-key though it might be, would nevertheless alienate her from Brenda. I therefore told Maria that I had had a conversation with Brenda on the subject of adult clothing for girls, and added,
"I think that, if you asked to wear high heels, you wouldn't be refused."
Maria looked a little pensive, but did nod. I nevertheless felt fairly certain that she wouldn't rush up to Brenda and pop the question. Indeed, nothing was said until, a few days later, we were discussing the best way of greeting Ralph when he arrived. Jane wanted to hire a dancing girl to run up and give him a big kiss on the station platform. The rest of us were rather doubtful until Maria suggested,
"I could dress up like a grown-up lady with a hat that almost comes down over my eyes. I bet he wouldn't recognize me."
We couldn't resist such an idea, particularly in comparison with Jane's. It went without saying that Maria's costume would include adult cosmetics and high heels. And, of course, it would set a precedent. Brenda gave Maria a hug. I was sure that she wasn't deceived.
Ralph broke his long journey with a two day stay in New York. He was now finally safe from his relatives, though I doubt that he made much, or any, effort to track them down.
When he did hop down on to the platform at the Cincinnati Union Terminal, he looked much refreshed from his time in Little Venice. Brenda, Jane, and I were peeking out from behind pillars as Maria, in dark and sophisticated clothing, approached. She walked authoritatively in her unaccustomed heels, and I guessed that she had practiced. The seams of her stockings were absolutely straight.
Ralph obviously had no idea who she was. Even when she spoke, there was a moment of terrified confusion in his face before he reacted.
At the lunch that followed, in the spacious restaurant with potted palms just off the rotunda, Ralph told us about his most recent efforts in Little Venice. He now owned two dozen houseboats, and had found appropriate tenants. One longboat was let to the two artists, now past thirty, from whom Ralph had bought his original boat before the war. He said,
"Their present boat is much grander and more comfortable than mine, and they can now afford not to live in their studios."
Since Ralph charged almost nothing for rent, almost anyone could afford to live in one of his boats. I knew that Muggs was now installed in one, but Ralph didn't mention that fact. He instead described the other tenants. Some were young faculty from the universities, but there were also some business people. He said,
"I didn't want there to be the ideological tinge you get in an exclusively academic society."
I gathered that he had pitched things so that there were spirited arguments, but a minimum of real rancor. His idea seemed to be that few members of the community beside himself would be comfortable enough to settle down for the duration, but that most would consider the years spent in Little Venice to be among the more memorable in their lives. Ralph was obviously pleased with the results he had obtained. I was rather surprised that a young man who had previously had such grandiose plans was now satisfied with such a modest achievement. Jane put my thoughts into words.
"Before, Ralph wanted to educate a whole generation. Now, he's satisfied to found an association of a few dozen people willing to live in discomfort."
Ralph, not in the least offended, replied,
"I learned something here. It's impossible to educate the unwilling, and not many people are willing."
There was a moment's silence, broken by Brenda.
"There are a lot of people willing to learn what they think they need to know, and a tiny bit more. Practically all our students are learning something."
"We're producing typesetters who'll recognize the word "commune" when they set it, and plumbing supply salesmen who'll know that the Romans built aqueducts."
"Fair enough! I'm impressed by people like that when I come across them in daily life. Why shouldn't we take pride in producing them?"
This question, really aimed at Ralph, seemed to me somewhat tactless. Ralph was, indeed, a little too proud to devote his life to the production of such persons. He also wasn't likely to admit to that pride. I, untroubled by the sort of modesty that won't admit a degree of arrogance, engaged Brenda in argument.
When we got home, Ralph rushed immediately to the canal and dipped his hand in. The heating unit had the water at about 68 degrees, and Ralph was the first in. The rest of us soon joined him.
I set off swimming in the opposite direction from the others in order to avoid the waves they created. I swim with the breast-stroke in such a way as to hardly disturb the surface. If swimming alone, I can thus have the pleasure of always entering virgin waters with my nose only an inch above water level while leaving behind only a few eddies.
Ralph, on observing my stroke, once remarked gently that I appeared to be in danger of drowning. That, of course, was absurd. I, on the contrary, imagine myself to be a great ship with two very small engines which propel me slowly but securely and sedately past any hazards to navigation which may be met with on the seven seas.
On this instance, we were entering a great river winding between rocky palisades on each side. Constantly on the lookout for hidden shoals, we steamed up the middle of the river, ready to go hard astern at any moment.
We passed a number of villages and towns, some primitive with thatched roofs, and some rather cosmopolitan. Assaults could be expected with anything from arrows to sixteen inch ordnance, but, in the event, one reach after another appeared and was traversed without incident.
A little further on, we drew near something more English than Asian with structures rather like Big Ben and the houses of parliament. Oddly, Big Ben seemed to have been influenced by pagoda architecture.
Then, suddenly, there was to be heard a great thrashing noise around a bend. Turning to port and going astern on the port engine, a course was shaped which quickly brought the ship close under the inner bank of the turn. No sooner had this position of relative safety been reached than an enormous primeval monster rushed by. I hardly had time to take stock of my circumstances before Ralph stopped, stood up, and apologized for having almost run me down.
Having turned to follow Ralph, I was soon passed by Jane. I was then overtaken by Maria and Brenda, who joined me in the breast-stroke, thus making conversation possible. It started to rain, rather hard, but, having become accustomed to the water, the rain pounding down created only a pleasant diversion. Indeed, we discovered, then and later, that there is a euphoria in swimming comfortably along in disgusting weather. In this case, as the exercise warmed us, we had the unusual sensation of becoming ever more comfortable as the weather deteriorated. In due course, we emerged from the canal for tea.
By the time of Ralph's arrival in Cincinnati, Maria was alternating her Saturday nights between Biff and two other boys. Each of the boys had his driver's license, and access to a car. While we had confidence in Biff's driving, we weren't so sure about the other two. On Ralph's first weekend in Covington, he happened to see a car with Maria in it skid dangerously around a corner.
Naturally, we were all deeply concerned. Teen-agers were continually getting killed in automobile accidents. I could vividly imagine someone saying how ironic it was that Maria had survived so much, only to be killed in such a meaningless way. Maria herself attempted to portray the incident Ralph had witnessed as an isolated occurrence. I, for one, didn't believe her. Ralph addressed Maria,
"It's almost impossible, psychologically, for a boy this age to resist the temptation to impress a girl by driving dangerously. I have doubts even about Biff."
Ralph was actually standing in front of the fireplace in the Covington house as he spoke. He then proposed to all of us,
"One solution would be to get Maria her own car, teach her how to drive safely, and then insist that the boys agree that she do all the driving."
Maria looked doubtful, but Ralph, without trying to be forceful, was a force no one cared to oppose. It was so ordered. I suggested only that he be present when the boys who took Maria out agreed that she drive.
The obvious thing, now that we had decorated our house with splotches of color everywhere, was to have a Christmas party.
Part of the guest list was obvious. It should include the uppermost stratum of Cincinnati society. That part of the list should be left to Margie Smith. On the other hand, we didn't want to give just an ordinary establishment party. We represented new blood ourselves, and we were fully committed to the introduction of new ideas to Cincinnati.
For better or worse, we were already regarded as being a bit zany, and, instead of attempting to deny that reputation, we should capitalize on it. We consequently decided to give a formal party with invitations suggesting that the guests also bring bathing suits. We then needed some people, in addition to ourselves, to glamourize the event.
There was, of course, Helen. She would be a definite asset. There were also Jack and his wife. While Lee's parents were already included as local nabobs, Jack would be displayed as the sort of student we could attract at our college. Brenda also thought that we should have some other handsome young people in attendance. Part of the solution was obvious. Jane would bring some of her most fetching students and followers, and they would wear clothes designed by Jane and themselves. Brenda suggested,
"Let's pay them as auxiliary hostesses. That way, we won't have to invite their boy friends or husbands, who might easily be wrong. Still, these girls can circulate as if they were guests, talking to anyone who approaches them and not grouping together in a block. If asked who they are, they can identify themselves as students at Hiram Mason."
The problem was then to find some correspondingly attractive young men to balance the girls. Ralph suggested,
"Let's hire some young musicians to play classical music. Perhaps a string quartet and a few other small ensembles. I could find some suitable young men at the conservatory. They'll be used to formal clothes, and they'll also be civilized enough to talk with the guests when they're not playing."
I said, in front of everyone,
"Let's let it be understood that this is, among other things, Maria's coming out party. It'll be in infinitely better taste than those silly debutante parties."
There was general enthusiasm for this idea, and I noticed that Brenda, whom I hadn't forewarned, seemed to have no misgivings whatever.
It was thus that things began to happen quickly for Maria. She was getting used to high heels, beginning to drive, and preparing for her coming out party. It was also about then that she got less than a perfect score on a history test, an event that her fellow students insisted that she celebrate with an impromptu party on a Friday night after school.
This party occurred at the house of another girl, and seemed rather less supervised than most similar events. When Maria, after calling to say that she would be late, returned, I suspected that there had been something to drink. It wasn't obvious, and I didn't think that any of the others suspected. I decided, however, to keep a close eye on Maria.
In the following weeks there was nothing to suggest, even to an eye as discerning as mine, that she had been at the sauce. She was, indeed, an equal partner, along with Jane and Brenda, in the preparations for our great party, which we decided to give in the second week in December. While that was over a month away, Jane said,
"We don't want it to look as planned as it will be. People should think we thought of giving it about three weeks before the event, and sent out the invitations immediately."
Some of our prospective guests would, by that time, have other plans. However, we had picked a date on which, according to Margie, no other major event was taking place. It wasn't bad to give a party which might force some people to re-arrange their schedules.
I asked Brenda whether Jane was going to make Maria's dress. She replied,
"I've convinced her to. I really don't think there's anyone who could do it better. We had thought of putting her in white, but decided not to. It's going to be light gray silk with trimmings of a darker gray."
I made the appropriate noises, but it didn't sound to me as if anyone wearing a gray dress was specially likely to take the world by storm.
Most of the other preparations centered around the food. There were to be dishes from all over the world, including a kind of shellfish from the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Many of these dishes would be unfamiliar to even the most elevated Cincinnatians, and some of the strong and hot tastes might overwhelm palates conditioned to bland midwestern food.
On the other hand, the exotic food would stimulate conversation. In the last resort, there would be plenty of cubed steak, chicken, rice, and beans for those who could deal with nothing else.
The week before the main party, we gave a large dinner party for Maria's friends, partly as a rehearsal for our expanded staff. The girls were all dressed up, the boys less so, and the dancing was energetic. The whole party later took to the water, and, as we adults sat with our tea cups, Margie Smith said,
"I don't see how any party for people over twenty could be as successful as this one."
Her husband, relaxing in one of Brenda's Polynesian chairs, said a little resignedly,
"Perhaps it's a good thing we don't know exactly how good a time those young folks are having in your canal."
It seemed to me, not for the first time, that this Smith, like Jane's former husband, was a man of sense.