By Barbara Borst
Maria slumped onto the brown plaid sofa in her friend’s combination living room, dining area and kitchen. She was tired. Not from bathing and dressing Janet and changing her sheets and serving her supper. She was used to doing that all day at the hospital.
Janet had always seemed the lucky one to her, with her bright blue eyes, her good-looking husband, her four children, two born before the war and two after, and her seven grandchildren all nearby. But now she was going. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease everyone called it, as if Janet had ever played a game of baseball.
And with that, Maria knew she was losing the one friend she could really talk to, one of the few who had welcomed her here in the north country, where she still didn’t fit in after two decades. She was still the girl from Brooklyn, the I-talian, the papist. Not that they said that to her face. They didn’t say much at all, just looked. And she looked different.
Maria waited for Janet’s husband, Ray, to return from his job at the paper mill, smelling faintly of sulfur. She would chat a little with a man she had always found attractive.
Then she would head home to silent Fred, who managed to make his customers happy with just a few vague comments that kept them talking. But she had never quite felt that “You don’t say” and “So it is” amounted to a conversation. Of course, Fred could say even less to the summer people who stopped only long enough to pick up an out-of-town newspaper, never to share their thoughts on local events.
She longed for the constant jabber of her old home. Her father’s twisted English sprinkled with Italian dialect. Her mother’s brogue. Her sisters’ gossip and giggles, their children running through the house in Carroll Gardens a short walk from the docks.
As she waited for Ray, she wondered if she had ever fit in even in Brooklyn. She certainly hadn’t followed the plan everyone seemed to have for her. The nuns at school started talking to her early about a vocation, a calling, a life like theirs, limited to the classroom and the convent. They never talked to the pretty girls about such things. But Maria had only pretended to listen. It wasn’t a lack of faith in Jesus. It was that she wanted to live out in the world. Besides, she had discovered at the age of eight that the nuns cut off all their hair when they took their vows. Her own silky, dark brown curls were her finest feature. Not cutting them off, she had decided.
That decision didn’t open the path she really wanted – to become a doctor. Not possible for a girl, especially not for one from a poor immigrant family. But nursing, that was a calling, too. She studied hard in science and math, though she was told that girls were not good at those subjects. She liked the uniform – crisp white, not flowing black like the nuns. Her parents seemed to sigh in relief that at least she would have a way to earn a living, supposing no one asked her to marry him. A respectable life, though alone.
It was different caring for her best friend. In the hospital, she could be attentive but professional; she rarely carried the burdens of her patients home with her, except in the cases of small children. But Janet, what would she do without Janet?
Maria heard Ray’s car pull into the gravel driveway. He shut the car door, entered the mudroom, slid off his boots and came into the main area.
“How’s she doin’ tonight?”
Maria reported on Janet’s condition and what she might need in the coming days, when Ray’s daughters would take turns caring for their mother. He thanked her for all the details, then headed toward the bedroom. Maria heard the sweetness of his voice as he told Janet that he had brought her favorite – chocolate ice cream.
“Snow’s acoming,” Fred said as he and Maria rose early on an October morning. He handed her the keys to his pick-up truck.
The snow was falling thick and wet, splatting hard on the road, covering it quickly with a slippery blanket as she started on her long drive to the regional hospital. Fred just had to walk across the street to reach the gas station and general store he had inherited from his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. Supposed to have gone to his older brother, who didn’t come back from the Pacific war, so Fred took it on.
Fred was a good man, Maria thought as she steered the truck through the gathering slush. Most men wouldn’t let their wives drive a truck. Not proper. But he was concerned about her safety, not propriety. And they both understood that her job paid the bills during the long winters when the summer people and their money were away.
Old truck. The one in which he had taught a Brooklyn girl to drive, to double-clutch, to downshift early on the steep hills up here, to bounce along the rough dirt tracks. She had confidence that it would get her through. Any machine he handled would be in perfect working order – car, truck, tractor, jeep, plane. That’s the one way he seems to express himself, she thought, with a wrench and motor oil.
She saw a car, broken down. The driver waved for her to stop.
“Can I drive you to work?” she called out.
“Thanks, Maria.” Two neighbors crowded into the cab with her.
She recommended that they call Fred when they reached the factory, gave them the number for the pay phone at the gas station. “He’ll come with the tow truck,” she assured them.
Too early for more talk than that. But here in a land of paper mills, maple sugaring and odd jobs, something beautiful in the way people looked after each other, she thought. We had that in Brooklyn, too, she remembered, but it came in different forms – people lending food during the Great Depression or coming together to listen to the radio news about the war and looking after the families that lost someone in battle.
Here, it was physical. A person could die in these mountains in a blizzard, and so you stopped for anyone on the road who needed help.
A good, solid life. Fred had seen to that. But mostly life passed her by – no great passion, late marriage, no children, no grandchildren.
She pulled herself together. She had passengers. Two men, OK, so she would have to be the conversation starter. But they were almost to the factory gate. She let it go, dropping them off and wishing them well.
Maria had left so early, because of the snow, that she arrived ahead of schedule at the hospital parking lot. She sat in the cab a moment and thought about how nursing had brought her to a life in the north woods.
The Army needed medical staff in 1942. Maria stepped up. She worked at the enlistment center, where the Army registered and inspected the men it had drafted. A huge hall in Manhattan full of men in their undershorts. All day, day after day, she took their temperatures, measured their height and weight, charted their statistics, did her part in the war effort. Some were a little scared, others joked around as if they were not. Some came in groups of brothers or friends, some came alone. They walked through the process, thousands of them, and left.
One day, she took a brief break on a bench near the enlistment center to eat a sandwich her mother had wrapped in wax paper for her. A young man asked if he could sit on the bench. Very polite. Sat at the far end, waiting for something. Not a draftee, already in a private’s uniform.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said quietly.
She looked up, surprised because he had sat so long without speaking.
“Could yah tell me how to get to Pennsylvania Station?”
“Yes, of course. How soon you need to be there?”
“In three days.”
She giggled slightly, then stifled it so as not to offend him. “It takes about 15 minutes by the IRT subway.”
“You must be from out of town.”
She had never been farther than the street cars and subways could take her. “Do you have mountains?”
“All around,” he said.
She looked up at the tall buildings that encircled them. “I would love to see mountains someday.” The bells of a nearby church rang one o’clock. “Excuse me,” she said, quickly wrapping her unfinished sandwich. “I have to go back to work.”
“May I wait for you?”
The question startled her. She was surrounded by young men every day, but none of them asked to see her, though a few made off-color suggestions as they stood in their undershorts. Here was a nice young man interested in her, specifically.
“Yes,” she said, though she didn’t think to tell him what time. She was sure he didn’t mean it.
She worked until four thirty. On her way out, she glanced across the street to the bench and was surprised to see him there, whoever he was. Surprised to have a man pay attention to her. She walked over and said ‘hello.’
“Good afternoon.” He stood up to greet her, glancing at her name tag. “Miss Car Lucky.”
She laughed with delight.
“Well, how do you say your name?”
“What sort of name is that?”
“You’re from Italy?”
“No. My father is.”
“We don’t have I-talians where I come from,” he apologized.
She laughed again. “Do you mind telling me your name?”
“Fred,” he snapped to. “Fred Stephens, miss.”
“Is that the way they do it in New Hampshire – two first names?”
“Good to have a spare,” he smiled.
They walked around the park, talked about the city and the countryside. She knew it would be short lived. He would be sent somewhere for training soon. But they talked on.
Fred met her for lunch and then a stroll after work each of the next two days. On the third day, he came at the start of her work day, with all his gear in a pack on his back.
“’Bout time you told me how to get to Pennsylvania Station,” he said gently. They knew they were parting, without having to say so.
She told him where to get the subway. He said he had no money; he planned to walk. She told him the route.
“Thank you, Miss Car Lucky.” He paused, standing very close. She moved closer.
“Marry me,” he whispered. She kissed him and then turned away. It was over, her last chance at a life.
Weeks later, there was mail for her. It was as close as a taciturn Yankee man could get to a love letter. He asked her to come to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to marry him. But he wanted first for her to know the truth: that he was divorced. Not by choice. He had come home early one day and found his wife in bed with another man, and she had demanded a divorce. The other man pulled some strings to get it. But the judge still ruled that Fred had to pay alimony and child support for their two children.
So there it was, the offer, and its flaws, but an offer, for the first time.
Maria read it so many times that she thought the paper would wear through. She weighed the choices and decided on life. She saved her wages.
“You are not taking the train to North Carolina to marry a man you’ve known for three days,” her mother declared. “Tell her, Angelo.”
Her father just gestured – two hands, palms down, moving apart – it’s finished.
“A man who would leave one wife will leave another,” her mother warned.
“Un peccato mortale,” her father declared, without specifying whether the sin was marriage or divorce or disobedience.
Maria stared at them, suitcase in hand. It pained her that her parents were content to see her as a spinster, although it didn’t surprise her.
She had never defied them, but she did have a question: “I am nearly thirty years old. Do you have another man in mind for me?”
Her father threw up his hands.
Maria said goodbye.
She bought a ticket to travel to North Carolina – by train to Fayetteville and then by bus to Fort Bragg. Her first time outside the city, and traveling alone. It took her three days because the passenger train was often sidelined so that trains carrying troops could go ahead. She slept in her seat; she worried that she would look awful by the time she reached him.
Fred was waiting for her at the bus stop. Quietly, he thanked her for coming. He reached out his hand, as if uncertain that she would accept him. She took it and smiled up into his face.
The Catholic priest on the base refused to marry them. The Protestant chaplain agreed, but Maria felt that was wrong. Fred found a justice of the peace and then a hotel room. They used a condom; he said he didn’t want to leave her pregnant, in case he didn’t return.
Fred explained that he was in a new kind of unit, training to parachute behind enemy lines. He would ship out with the 82nd Airborne. She was sure she would never see him again. She returned to Brooklyn alone.
In a brief letter the next spring, Fred told her his unit had invaded Italy, where her father was born. Later, another letter telling her he was wounded behind German lines on the night before D-Day but was getting better and soon would be back in the fight.
When Fred’s unit sailed to New York aboard the RMS Queen Mary in January 1946, Maria didn’t tell her family. She went alone to meet him. The man who came home, was that the man she had known so briefly? Now he had a permanent limp, the least of the changes. The quiet smile was gone. The heart was heavy and silent.
Although she had no idea how they would make a life together, Maria chose to try. She did not believe in divorce. She did not want a divorce. She had never been wildly in love with him, but he was her only chance for a full life, a family. Imperfect both of them, but together.
They walked hand-in-hand across the Brooklyn Bridge and all the way to Carroll Gardens, slowly because of his leg, mostly in silence, as if the city itself could span the gaps between them.
The meeting with her parents was awkward. Maria remembered their warnings about marrying a divorced man. She trusted him, but she saw that her parents never would.
Her sisters, married with children, fluttered around Fred. But they were thinking of their own husbands, due back any day.
At night, when a car backfired in the street, Fred woke suddenly and dragged Maria under the bed, believing they were under bombardment.
Fred joined his unit in the victory parade. Maria and her sisters cheered him along. Maria and Fred left the next day on the train to Gorham, New Hampshire. She doubted she would ever come back to Brooklyn and turned her mind to making a new life in the mountains.
Maria drove through the slush, straight to the general store and service station under the hand-painted sign “STEPHENS GARAGE.” She knew Fred would need the truck to restock the store the next day. Bad weather meant more customers for milk and other essentials they didn’t want to drive eight miles into Gorham to get.
She hopped down from the cab, still in her uniform, and walked into the store. The door slammed behind her. The worn floorboards creaked as she called out to Fred. But only his dog, a shaggy old mutt named Betsy, came to greet her. She heard banging in the garage and went to look for her husband there.
“Underneath,” he said. Lying on his back on a set of wheels, he rolled out from under the car that had been stuck in the snow earlier in the day. “Nearly done. Rob helped.” He rolled back under.
Maria was glad to hear that Fred’s nephew was learning the trade. Fred’s own son was absent from his life. Fred could use a hand as he got older, she thought, and someone should take over the business. He had the easy commute, but that was about the only thing in life that ever had been easy for him, that and his skill as a mechanic.
She stood looking at his work boots as they stuck out from under the car.
Life with Fred was a little lonely, she thought, but not as solitary as when she first moved up here. Back then, whenever he had time off from working for his father at the garage, he laced up his boots and went hiking. Didn’t matter whether there was snow or mud, wind or rain. People in town found it strange; only summer visitors would hike without hunting. Maria didn’t know where he went, though she studied the map posted in the store showing routes up Mounts Washington, Madison, Adams and Jefferson. She didn’t know how he managed to hike, but slowly it seemed to heal his soul, if not his injured leg.
That first summer, he introduced her to the mountains. She stumbled over stones and tree roots as they followed a path named for his ancestors through maples and birches and pines. When they reached a brook bedecked with a series of waterfalls, he helped her climb down the boulders into the streambed.
Another day, he took her to swim near an inn filled with city people who could afford to summer in the cool mountain air. The “pool” turned out to be a pond cold as ice water, nothing like the beach at Coney Island where her father had taught his girls to swim. Fred dived under; Maria edged in slowly, and hurried out, though she admitted that the cold water killed the itch of insect bites.
He dug up part of the yard so that she could plant zucchini, garlic, peppers, eggplant – things hard to find in local groceries.
One cloudless, moonless night, he turned off all the lights in the house and coaxed Maria out into the darkness, picking her way across the yard. “Look up,” he said. She saw the sky filled with more stars than she ever could have seen in the city.
“Makes you feel small,” he whispered.
He seemed to need that, she thought.
She had not expected more, not expected anything except, eventually, a family. Instead, she had two miscarriages, and Fred had said maybe that was just as well, since what he earned went to alimony and child support. They had little money, usually just enough, but no extra for her to travel to her father’s funeral. A little lonely, both of them. But a life of kindness, affection, loyalty.
The January snow piled up against the windows of Janet’s bedroom, a cocoon swallowing her as she faded quickly. Maria tuned the radio to her friend’s favorite channel, playing all the hits of their youth. She held Janet’s hand as they listened together. Once her friend dozed off, Maria got up and cleaned the house, made supper for Ray.
Janet was asleep when Ray came home. He went in to see her, but retreated back to the sofa, listening to the music, his hand cupped over his mouth as if to shut down words that should not be spoken.
“Your supper’s in the oven, when you’re ready,” Maria told him as she slid one arm into her heavy winter coat.
“Stay a minute?” he asked.
She nodded and sat in an armchair, waiting in case he wanted to talk.
After a long pause, he said, “We used to do everything together – you and Fred, Janet and me.”
“I remember when you first came here,” he continued. “Janet and I gave a party to welcome you.”
She stopped to recall wading through the snow in high heels that she wore in order to make a good impression but that instead labeled her a city slicker. She still didn’t feel right wearing slacks instead of dresses, but she had made that concession to the cold.
Maria remembered the contrast between silent Fred and Ray, the life of any party, both back from combat. Neither man ever talked about that experience, but Ray had been ready to celebrate surviving. Maria was entranced with him from the start, but kept it to herself all these years. It was not just loyalty to Fred, though that ran deep; it was also that a man as outgoing as Ray, and with a beautiful blonde wife, would never have noticed a plain girl like her. She kept her feelings hidden, or rather, poured them into her friendship with Janet.
“You and Janet, what a beautiful pair,” she said. “Janet showed me where to get real winter boots.”
“And I took you on your first toboggan ride.”
“And she showed me how to cook New England-style, like Fred was used to.” She steered back to Janet, not wanting to intimate her attraction to Ray.
“After you had us over for spaghetti and meatballs – which we never saw before.”
“But you eat it now.”
“Only if you make it.”
This was getting personal. Maria was afraid. She found a reason to head home, and reminded him that his dinner – shepherd’s pie, not pasta – was waiting in the oven.
She left thinking forbidden thoughts – that Ray had always excited her heart in a way that Fred never had done.
Maria lay awake that night, as Fred snored softly beside her. It was true that she had always been attracted to Ray, that she had never felt at home here in the north woods, except at Janet and Ray’s house. Partly it was the tumult of their children and, eventually, their grandchildren, that made their home seem more like the one she had grown up in – filled with relatives, constant chatter, the occasional argument, the big family feasts.
But it was also that she was still seen as exotic here. Only one Italian family in the area; they ran a pizzeria – good food to her, but considered foreign among the descendants of British immigrants and French Canadians. Maria never tried to get to know that family, in part because she shunned the Roman Catholic Church that disapproved of her marriage.
Fred’s parents had treated her like a foreigner. Not unkind, just not family. They wouldn’t come to dinner if she served something Italian, though Fred grew to like her cooking. She had to make the pasta and the tomato sauce from scratch because they were not available at the local grocers. She told Fred that his parents could call her Mary, like her Irish mother did. He said he liked her just as she was and that his family should, too. But they never did.
Ray and Janet, though, had taken them in, softening the pain that Fred lived with daily and the loneliness that trailed Maria.
Maria stopped going to the house after Janet died. Ray had his children and grandchildren all around him. Better not to bring her secret affections into their home.
The urn with Janet’s ashes sat on the wide plank above the fieldstone fireplace. When the ground thawed enough to bury Janet’s ashes, Maria and Fred attended the graveside ceremony behind the stark white Presbyterian church. They did not see Ray for weeks after that.
Then Ray called Maria one day to ask if she would come over and help him decide what to do with Janet’s clothes. She agreed. He had the radio tuned to Janet’s favorite station as they worked, sorting through the items that none of his daughters or granddaughters had chosen to keep – sweaters and wool skirts, boots and coats, the occasional summer dress.
They worked quietly for a while, holding up a few items to remember the occasions on which Janet had worn them. Maria asked about his grandchildren, said she missed seeing them.
“I miss seeing you,” he replied.
She looked at him to gauge how he meant that. “Come for dinner anytime,” she said, gesturing with both hands. “I’ll make you spaghetti and meatballs.”
Ray asked whether she was able to say anything at all without using her hands.
She was surprised by the teasing.
“Let’s test,” he said, putting his hands on top of hers on the bed.
Startled, she tried to pull her hands away. He grabbed them. She tugged.
“See,” he said in triumph. “Without your hands, you’re silent.” He released his grip.
She laughed. Their eyes met. The connection thrilled and frightened her. She felt it must be only on her side, just Ray feeling lonely. She turned away.
They went back to sorting clothes. The radio played Big Band songs from the forties – Doris Day singing “Sentimental Journey,” Perry Como with “Till the End of Time.” Ray swayed to the tunes. Maria folded the clothes to be given away and placed them in a box.
Harry James and his Orchestra came on, with Kitty Kallen singing “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
Ray reached for Maria’s hand. “Let’s dance,” he offered.
“You remember this,” he encouraged her. “It’s what was playing the first time we met. You in that royal blue dress. How could I forget?”
He remembered that? Yes, she had worn a blue dress, the best dress she owned. But why would he remember that? She leaned back to look at him anew. Keeping his eyes locked on hers, he took her right hand in his left, slipped his right hand behind her back. She followed stiffly, excited, alarmed.
He danced so well, singing along, “Kiss me once, then kiss me twice…”
This was not right, Maria knew, but it felt good, better than she could have dreamed. Not right – a double betrayal. So right – a breath of life in a life that had been stifled from the start.
The song ended. She felt the strength of his hand on her back, pressing her against him. A surge of desire coursed through her, made time stop. So much of life had passed her by, and yet here, late, forbidden, was passion.
Never to be acted upon.
She said she had to go. He held her as long as he could.
Maria’s heart pounded as she drove home. She resolved never again to be alone with Ray. This is enough; this has to be enough, she told herself. She had tasted passion. Indelible.
About the Author:
Barbara Borst teaches at New York University in the Journalism Institute and in the master’s program at the Center for Global Affairs, where she leads study groups to Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Previously, she was an editor on the international desk at The Associated Press and frequently reported from the United Nations. While based abroad for a dozen years, in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Paris and Toronto, she wrote for Newsday, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, Inter Press Service news agency, and others. Her recent work appears on her website, CivicIdea.com, as well as on The Huffington Post.