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The Vacation

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i

She had never seen the ocean up close before. Standing on the shoreline, stretching unconsciously up on her toes and shading her eyes with her hand, Anne peered out over the little choppy waves, straining her eyes, but there wasn’t anything out there to be seen except water. It wasn’t blue, as stories always called it, or wine-dark, as the Greeks had said, but a sort of greenish color with white-bright reflections darting and flashing all over it in the sun.

I should have been seeing this three years ago, Anne thought, but then if I had I wouldn’t be here now seeing it. All in all I suppose it works out. Then she felt slightly guilty for thinking “all works out” about the war. After college graduation, the college graduation for which the two months’ vacation in England which she was just beginning had been a present from her parents, she had considered enlisting in the Women's Army Corps but had not quite managed to get up the resolve to commit herself to a military life of uncertain duration, so in the end she had gotten a job at a factory producing military aircraft a few miles from her parents’ house. Now that the men, including her older brother, were back from overseas and settling into civilian life again, a year after the war, most of the women who had taken the male workers’ place in the factory (now returned to automobile manufacture again) had been let go, Anne among them. Only the most skilled and experienced had been retained.

Anne was not as upset about this as some of her former coworkers; she had the good fortune to have a home with her parents, and was not reliant upon her own wages to keep a roof over her head, although her parents had been grateful for the extra income. She had studied child development at the University of Michigan and was due to begin a job teaching at the local kindergarten in September. Perhaps I’ll get my own apartment then, she thought idly, stretching like a cat in the sun. As she half turned her head to escape the glare, an approaching form caught her attention.

Anne had thought her own red-and-white striped bathing suit quite eye-catching when she had put it on that morning, quite as nice on her as it had looked in the pages of the Sears catalog, but the newcomer’s emerald green two-piece suit was far more glamorous. She was perhaps half a head shorter than Anne herself but far more emphatically curved, with elaborate blonde victory rolls that she couldn’t, Anne thought, be meaning to get wet. Unconsciously she reached up behind her left ear and tugged at her own short dark curls.

“Hiya,” said the green-suited one cheerily.

Surprise made Anne lose her tentativeness. She blurted out, “But you’re American too!”

The other woman tilted her head and grinned engagingly. “Give the woman a cigar,” she said. “Name’s Edith, Edith Markham. Saw you over here and thought I’d come say hi.”

“Hi,” said Anne. “I’m Anne, Anne Kinsey. I’m here for the summer is all.”

Edith, it transpired, was likewise there for the summer, though in her case it wasn’t a present but her own money. She had enlisted in the WAC, it seemed, and had risen to staff sergeant by the end of the war. She was out of the army now and was taking the summer to relax. Nothing, she intimated, could possibly be more relaxing than for Anne to accompany her on her walk along the beach. Feeling slightly out of her depth, Anne trailed a pace or so behind Edith as she continued on her way, chatting amiably about the lovely weather they were having, the charm of being able to go to the beach practically every day, what fun it was accidentally meeting a compatriot abroad like this. At first, she glanced over her shoulder at Anne repeatedly while talking, then slowed her pace to match her.

Anne was a person whose face had always said to strangers, this is a friendly girl who definitely will be interested to hear how your grandchildren are doing in school, but she was unaccustomed to be invited on walks by women who sashayed along looking so casually dishy. When Edith bent over to pick up an interesting stone, Anne swallowed and looked away after a moment.

“Here, take a look,” said Edith, coming over and holding the stone out for Anne to see. It wasn’t actually a stone, Anne saw, but a piece of glass, once clear but now worn to a smooth whitish tone by the waves, perhaps an inch wide and two inches long.

“I think it must’ve been part of a bottle once,” said Edith. “See how it’s curved like this?” She ran the tip of one finger, its nail shorter than fashion dictated but elegantly manicured in scarlet, along the side. She was standing far closer to Anne than was really necessary. Anne could feel the warmth of her reaching out across the short space between them. She swallowed again.

“Yeah,” she said. “I wonder what happened to the rest of it?”

“Maybe it’s out there in the ocean still,” Edith said lightly. She looked up at Anne through her eyelashes. “Waiting to be found.”

ii

Anne checked her watch again. Edith had said eight o’clock, she was positive it had been at eight o’clock they were supposed to meet for dinner at the little seaside restaurant. Edith had said eight o’clock, grinning and pressing the little piece of sea-glass into Anne’s hand. It’s only a loan, she had said, winking, I expect it back tomorrow when we see each other again. Anne had arrived at quarter till and had been pacing around in front of the building for nearly twenty minutes now, for she had forgotten to ask whether they were to meet inside or outside the restaurant and was anxious that Edith not believe herself stood up, even for only a minute or two, when she arrived.

It’s less than five minutes past, Anne told herself sharply, no need to worry just yet. You got here too early anyway. There had been no need to put on her most charming new sundress, the one with the dainty eyelet ruffles at the waist and neckline and the flirtatious string-ties for shoulder straps, either, but after a considerable period of experimentation with various outfits in front of the mirror atop the dressing table in her summer-boardinghouse room, while scolding herself for the unnecessary trouble, she had just happened to be wearing it when she checked the clock and felt she ought to be on her way.

Nervously Anne smoothed the blue plaid of her skirt and glanced down to check her décolletage. The gentle V of the neckline really suggested more than it revealed, but what had seemed only cute in her room now seemed daring. She wondered if Edith would read into it. Robert would have, but Robert read into a lot of things. It was something that she had realized afterwards she did not appreciate about him, though there were plenty of other things she had appreciated.

“Boo,” said Edith from behind her. By a heroic act of will Anne managed to twitch only slightly. She turned, intending to project an air of cool self-possession, but her mouth turned itself into a delighted smile without consulting her.

“Look at you all decked out,” Edith said, casting a favorable eye up and down her. Anne felt suddenly pleased with herself for having worn the dress, and also slightly amused at herself for having felt it daring, compared to the midriff-baring two-piece playsuit Edith was sporting. “Thanks,” she said. “You look pretty nice, too.”

“Aw shucks,” Edith said, affecting a hayseed accent and slinging her large handbag over her shoulder, “’taint’ nothin’.” She was wearing her hair down today, in an imitation of Veronica Lake, and she tipped her head forward and shook it across one eye, fluttering her lashes in a parody of a femme fatale. A laugh bubbled up in Anne’s throat.

The restaurant was decorated mainly in shades of blue, with paintings of ships hung on the walls and models of the same sitting on various surfaces. Her own dress coordinated neatly with the décor, while the tropical pattern of Edith’s playsuit stood out like a parrot on a palm tree. She was, Anne thought, the most striking woman in the place and she would have been even if she had been wearing a much less eye-grabbing outfit.

Over fish and chips, Anne discovered that Edith was three years older than she; that she, like Anne, was that rare creature, a non-smoker; that she was from California and had two younger sisters, one just married and the other still in high school; that she was considering trying to get a job as a stenographer when she went home; that she had a black cat named Buster, who was currently being looked after by the just-married sister; and, towards the end of a most enjoyable hour lingering over the remains of their dinners, that she thought it might be fun to go to the beach again and watch the sun go down. Where we can be alone, her tone implied.

When they had reached the large flat rocks sufficiently far down the empty beach that it seemed unlikely anyone could possibly see them, Anne made another discovery, which was that Edith had a bottle opener and several bottles of beer in her bag, wrapped up in a sweater to prevent their clinking. Edith popped the top off one and held it out to her. As Anne took it, Edith, rather than withdrawing her fingers, wrapped them around Anne’s for a moment, holding her hand around the bottle, gazing up at her under her eyelashes. Anne felt her face grow warm and dropped her eyes. After a moment Edith took her hand away and opened a beer for herself. The setting sun cast a scarlet glow over her fair hair and the dark water before them.

Their conversation wandered along light and occasionally silly lines, but the unspoken exchange which had begun with the touch of their hands ran a subtle undercurrent beneath it all the while. Anne felt it in Edith’s sidelong glances and the delicate touch of her fingers on Anne’s arm to emphasize a point or a joke, and she returned it in the tilt of her own head or brush of her shoulder against Edith’s. She was so taken up by these parallel lines of communication that she scarcely paid attention to the fact that it was growing dark; she only noticed that the moon was rising when Edith pointed it out. It was a nearly full moon, which was a good thing, because neither of them had a flashlight.

“Let’s walk back to town, but slowly,” Edith proposed, packing up the empty bottles with slightly exaggerated care. She had, Anne realized, downed the contents of three bottles while Anne had only had one, but, though it was clearly having its effect, she was less tipsy than Anne would have been with that much beer inside her. They meandered along the sand together barefoot, close together but not quite touching, Anne’s sandals in her hand, Edith’s stuffed into her bag.

“Say,” said Edith, “I got a question.”

“All right, I guess.”

“Who’s Robert?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Heard you muttering something about a Robert earlier.”

“Oh,” said Anne, mildly self-conscious, “someone I used to know.” After a moment, she added, “An old boy friend.”

“Ah,” said Edith wisely, “you’re one of the ones who go back and forth.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” said Anne. Now that they were actually talking about it out loud, she felt a sense of nervous anticipation, combined with an odd defensiveness, as if Edith were accusing her of something. “I like who I like, that’s all. I liked Robert, for a while, and now…”

“Now,” said Edith, laughing, “you like me. For a while.”

“Oh, who knows anything,” said Anne, irritated.

“Relax, kiddo.” They had stopped walking. Edith spread her arms wide, handbag dangling. “I’m not saying it’s anything wrong, you’re not the only one like you in the world, you know. I was just curious.”

“Oh, well,” said Anne, vaguely mollified. They began moving forward along the still-warm sand again.

“Now me,” Edith continued, “I could never see the point of going with fellows. Not but that some of ‘em can show a girl a good time, but then it gets to the point where they want to neck and it’s all downhill from there. Never could seem to like it.” She bumped her hip against Anne’s and added with a sideways glance, “On the other hand…”

Anne giggled and playfully smacked Edith’s arm. She took her time drawing her hand away.

Edith looked consideringly at Anne for a moment, then put her handbag down on the sand, took Anne by the waist, and kissed her full on the mouth. Anne unhesitatingly put a hand on either side of Edith’s face and kissed back. After a few moments Edith stood back and grinned lopsidedly. “Someone’s been to school,” she said.

“Heh,” said Anne, contemplating the shadow Edith’s hair cast half-way across her face, and the sultry effect it was giving.

Edith shrugged and grinned again. “Well, baby-doll,” she said, sliding an arm around Anne’s waist. “I would love to keep on keepin’ on and see where we end up, but I’m a bit blotto to give you the kind of evening I’d like to, so I propose we call it a night and reconvene in the morning. How’s about?”

Baby-doll, thought Anne. She set her hand over Edith’s on her hip and rubbed it lightly with her thumb. Privately she was disappointed to think of ending the evening so soon, but if Edith didn’t feel up to staying out later she couldn’t really demand it. She had had more to drink than Anne had, after all. “Shall I see you home?” she asked, feeling a nebulous urge to be chivalrous.

Edith cackled. “It’s fine,” she said, disentangling herself from Anne. “I’m staying pretty close to here. You can’t get a decent cup of joe around here for love nor money, but there’s a little tearoom on the corner across from that little stone church that does breakfast pretty well. Let’s meet up there, say ten o’clock, and grab something to go. We can sit on the rocks and have a picnic. Maybe let’s wear our bathing suits under our clothes, we can sunbathe after.”

“Sounds swell,” said Anne. “We can pretend to be sirens or something, on the rocks. Sailors’ll go crazy for us but they’ll just have to keep their distance.”

Edith cackled again. “I like the way you think,” she said. “See you tomorrow, then.” Anne kissed her a second time. “Tomorrow,” she said, and watched Edith walk away up the beach in the moonlight for a long moment before turning her own steps in the direction of her boardinghouse.

iii

The day was overcast, so they did not sunbathe after picnicking on the rocks, but betook themselves to the small brick building marked CINEMA instead, where they bought caramels to share, sat through a double feature, and came out in the mid-afternoon, arguing about the quality of the second film, to find it raining quite steadily. Edith’s hotel was closer, so it was there they ran, splashing through the puddles which had formed in low places.

Anne hadn’t given much thought to how Edith might keep her room, but, looking around, she felt that she would have expected more overt signs of femininity given Edith’s bold, rather flashy womanliness. Instead, the room was almost masculine in its efficiency and plainness; of course, it was a hotel room, but there were no fripperies visible, no hairpins or pretty bottles lying around, and what was visible was organized with military neatness. WAC training in action, she supposed, wondering what Edith would think if she saw the clothing-draped, book-scattered disorder that rooms Anne stayed in tended to feature.

“D’you want to borrow some clothes and let yours drip dry in the bathroom?” said Edith, unbuttoning her own wet blouse with brisk precision. Anne’s eyes followed her fingers automatically. She blinked and forced her line of vision upwards. “All right,” she said, “thanks.”

They hung their outer clothing on the drying rack which stood next to the tub. Anne stood by, trying not to stare too hard, while Edith pulled a couple of sundresses out of the bureau for them. There was only one chair in the room. Edith waved Anne to it and perched on the edge of her bed at first, then moved back to sit fully on the bed leaning against the headboard, ankles crossed, hands laced behind her head.

“So you’re going to be a teacher, huh?” she said. “You like kids then?”

“They’re all right,” Anne said. “People get all kinds of ideas about them being all angels or all little devils but they’re just people really. Small people without a lot of knowledge or experience. You can’t make blanket assumptions about them just because they’re kids. You have to take them as individuals to really deal with them.”

“Ain’t that the way with everyone, though,” Edith said thoughtfully. She gazed past Anne’s head out the window for a moment. “Ain’t that just the way.”

“And you, you want to be a stenographer,” said Anne.

“Yeah,” said Edith. “A courtroom one for preference. Always thought it must be fascinating to get to sit there and watch all the cases come through. But you don’t have to worry about getting someone’s life screwed up if you don’t do a good enough job. Just sit there and copy down everything the lawyers and everyone say. Like getting a newspaper story ahead of time.”

“I guess that’s true,” said Anne, who had never considered this before but, now she thought about it, saw the potential fascination. “All the drama of the human race parading in front of you.”

“That’s a good line,” said Edith. She grinned. “Save it for when you write your novel.”

“Who says I’m writing a novel?”

“Oh, everyone wants to write a novel these days. Maybe I’ll even write one some time.”

“In shorthand.”

“Ha,” said Edith, amused. “A novel only stenographers can read.”

“A secret novel. All about the court cases you’ve seen.”

“Very secret.”

A rumble of thunder made them both glance at the window. Anne got up and peered out of it. The rain was still coming down, harder than it had been earlier. The sky was darker as well, though it wasn’t nearly evening yet. It had grown darker in the room as well, Anne realized. It had been gradual, so that she had not noticed before; there was still enough light to see each other clearly. She turned back around to see Edith regarding her with half-closed eyes.

“You look cute in that dress,” Edith said matter-of-factly.

“Thanks.” Anne chuckled a little, feeling a sort of anticipatory edginess.

“You’d be even cuter out of it.”

Anne sucked in a breath and kicked her feet a little. The corners of her mouth insisted on turning up. “Well,” she said. Then she reached over and drew the curtain. Edith flashed her a grin.

“Come on, baby-doll,” she said, crawling to the edge of the bed and holding out her hand. “You might be going to be a teacher, but I bet there’s still things you’d like to learn.”

It turned out there were.

“Is this what they teach you in the WAC?” Anne half gasped, head tipped back, straining, clinging.

“Darlin’,” Edith murmured against her throat, “they taught us a lot of things.”

iv

“It’s not illegal, you know, what we’re doing, not here,” said Edith. They were lying undressed in Anne’s bed on a sunny Saturday morning. The matching blue glass bead bracelets they had bought at a cheap jewelry stand the day before lay on the nightstand, lay as close to each other as their owners did. “Not for us. For men it is. Old Queen Victoria couldn’t countenance the idea of ladies behaving thusly and so she didn’t bother to put anything on the books about it.”

Anne rolled over onto her stomach and trailed her arm off the side of the bed. “Is it illegal at home?” she said, not looking at Edith.

“Oh, well,” said Edith, behind her. “They don’t like it.”

“No,” said Anne slowly. “No, I imagine they don’t like it here either.”

“Don’t see why it should matter if they like it or not,” said Edith. “Don’t see how it’s any of their business. Long as we keep out of the public eye. Don’t see why anyone needs to come nosing in.” She sounded sharper than Anne was used to hearing her speak. Anne sat up and turned towards her, observing with some surprise a more serious expression on her face than she had seen before. She looked almost angry, quite unlike her usual cheerfully easy self.

“Edith,” Anne said.

“It’s only to do with you and me,” Edith said. “It’s no one else’s business what we get up to.”

“Edith.”

Edith rubbed her forehead. “It’s just the way of the world, that’s all,” she said. “Can’t leave people alone for a minute. You always gotta be on the jump, thinking about who might be watching and what they might be thinking. It’s tiring, that’s all.” She tipped her head back and took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, face tilted up to the ceiling, eyes shut. Watching her, Anne felt as if she had without warning crossed over into unknown territory. This did not fit easily into her understanding of Edith’s self to date; but something inside her said, this is real. Handle with care.

A stab of sudden tenderness passed through Anne. She wriggled closer to Edith and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“’Sall right,” she said. “I get it.” She thought of Millie from tenth grade English class, and Millie’s big dark eyes that shone so softly, and the way she, Anne, had painfully made sure to be so very careful, every time they had reason to speak together, not to allow a speck of her feelings to show, and the near-terror afterwards, every time, that she might not have succeeded as well in that as she hoped. “I know. You’re right. I know how it is.”

“Damn straight,” Edith said. Suddenly she flipped over and pressed Anne into the bed, kissing her hard. “We just got to be careful, is all I’m saying,” she said, running her hand down Anne’s side in a highly suggestive manner.

“I’ll show you careful.

“Hey! No tickling…ooh. Oh.

v

“So,” said Edith.

“So,” Anne echoed. They stood on the deck of the ship which was to take her back to America. In another few minutes Edith would have to disembark; this was not her ship; she was not leaving for another three days. Anne’s luggage was already stowed in her cabin, but the two of them had come back up on deck to snatch a few final moments together in the open air. They had said their real goodbyes already; Edith had stayed the previous night, “to help with the packing,” she had said, though the packing had taken relatively little time. After it was finished they had fallen into each other’s arms, made love, slept a few hours, woken to make love again. They had not spoken of the impending separation, but the near-desperate passion with which they had held onto each other had been a farewell without words.

“So,” Edith said again. She glanced down, half-smiled briefly, looked back up. They were both wearing light summer suits; Edith was managing somehow to both look properly ladylike and exude what Anne felt was, under the circumstances, a really unfair amount of sex appeal.

“You’ve got my address,” Anne said.

“And you’ve got mine.”

“I might get a place of my own,” Anne said cautiously. “After I start my job next month.”

“Oh yeah?” Edith tilted her head.

“Yeah.” Anne swallowed. “If you ever come to Michigan.”

“If you ever come to Cali-forn-eye-ay,” Edith said. “Show you the big old redwoods. Show you Death Valley. If you twist my arm I might take you sightseeing in Hollywood. Never been but there’s a first time for everything, so they say.”

“I’ll show you Mackinac Island,” said Anne. “And anything else you like.”

“Yeah,” said Edith. “Next summer, maybe. We can hash it out who has to travel. Flip a coin over the phone maybe.”

“Yeah.”

“Write me.”

“Write me.

They embraced, and if it was a little tighter than the embraces of the others saying goodbye around them no one noticed.

“Baby-doll,” Edith whispered into Anne’s ear, “I’ll be thinking about you all day and night till I hear from you again.”

“Me too,” Anne whispered back. Neither of them had said it before, but she added, almost inaudibly, “Love you.”

“Love you.” Edith squeezed her fiercely, then drew back, settling her small square hat more firmly on her head.

“All ashore that’s going ashore!” bellowed someone above them. Edith smiled at Anne, a little shakily. “See you around, kiddo,” she said.

“See you,” answered Anne, and she watched Edith walk down the gangplank and turn around to wave to her, watched her until the ship was far enough from shore that she could no longer see her.

She went down to her cabin and opened her traveling trunk, retrieving her address book from among her clothing and other personal effects. She sat on the floor and opened it to the page on which Edith had written her name and address.

I’ll write to her as soon as I get back, Anne thought, tracing Edith’s flamboyant, loopy handwriting with a finger. I’ll spray a little perfume on the letter. I’ll send her my photograph and ask her for one too. I’ll keep it secret and safe, for my eyes only. I’ll wear that bracelet as often as I can without it being remarked on, and I’ll have to watch how I talk about her to other people, she’s right, we have to be careful. Edith is worth it though. My girl friend, Edith.

The ship steamed onwards, carrying her home.