College frightened me until it didn't, until I understood exactly what was at stake and that I had been gifted any number of possibilities from which I might choose the arc of my life, a banquet replete with choices, all of them delicious, all of them ready for sampling.
Other possibilities presented themselves, as well, there for the taking. Like Paul, I seemed to possess an innate ability to suss out who might be and who might not be. The signs were there, in the way one spoke, in the way one carried oneself, in a shared glance. I knew that I could have this; although I was not - would not ever be - as attractive as my brother, I was not unhandsome. Men looked.
In all of that, though, there was still the need to be careful. Things were changing - the Stonewall riots had not gone unnoticed - but only very slowly, and Chicago, big as it was, was still not New York, still cleaved to Midwestern sensibilities and mores. I looked and guys looked back, but that was all I did.
And then there was Ellen.
She showed up one day in an honors English class we shared, a small group of us - eleven or twelve - thinking that we were special, somehow, elite, a notch or two above our more plebeian and pedestrian brethren duking it out in freshman English. We, who had spent our high school years reading, reading, reading had now been shown the other side of that unspent coin: a nearly one-on-one relationship with our professor, the way that we imagined education must have been like many thousands of years ago, in Greece or Rome. Heady stuff.
Ellen was an elegant rose among gaudy poppies, her blonde hair cut short into a pixie style in contrast to the tousled and teased and sprayed-into-immobility styles of her compatriots, her eyes brilliant sapphire jewels set into a peaches-and-cream complexion, a sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, the only cosmetics she needed. It nagged me for the longest time, trying to think of who she looked like, until - much later in our relationship - I pegged it: she looked like Paul, of all people, something that troubled me until I made it not trouble me. I had a type, I understood, tall, slender blondes, regardless of which bits were attached to it.
I made myself interested in her bits, in her womanhood, in the things that made her different from me, from other men.
Slowly, we became a thing.
I know I'll never get you into a Jesuit school, my father had said to me one day, the day he had brought home the application to WashU. But this is a good place to end up.
I had spurned him on that, but - like him, a professor of English at Saint Louis University - I, too, drifted into academia, specifically into history, and knew that that would be my calling. Not the most rewarding of careers - not, at least, from an economic standpoint - but I could see myself making a home at some university, if not this one, could see myself teaching, writing, reading, settling into a life of shaded arcades, of poring through dusty volumes from bygone eras, of erudition and education.
In that, my father and I found a way towards rapprochement. I want to think that he was happy over my choice of careers, that I had not gone into, say, law or accounting or management; I wanted to think that he was glad that I had decided on a life of the mind.
One day, in the summer after my sophomore year, my mother looked at me over the breakfast table, her brow furrowed.
"Could I ask you something, Tim? It's … personal."
I looked up from the newspaper. "Of course."
"Do you … well, do you have someone, Tim? Up there?"
"I do," I replied.
"Oh! Well, that's good. We'd … well, is … she … nice?"
"She is," I replied … and watched a certain strange kind of relief wash over my mother's face. She had been what my mother had been hoping to hear, and she was what I had said to her, and not some vague kind of equivocation.
"We'd like to meet her."
"Well, that's going to be … difficult. She lives in California. Los Angeles, specifically." A place I could only imagine; it had sounded as exotic to me as if she had said she was from Bali or Kathmandu.
I had not exactly kept Ellen a secret from my parents, but I had not exactly bruited it about, either. She was something of my own, I think; we corresponded exclusively through letters: long, introspective ones, hers in an elegant, flowing, somehow feminine script, mine in a crabbed, back-slanting and tortured, nearly-illegible scrawl.
"If you came up to Chicago for a long weekend during school, you could meet her," I suggested.
"I - oh. Well, I'd have to ask your father …" Wondering, of course, if we were modern enough to share a place (we did not, although we had discussed it), wondering if Ellen were someone with whom I could share a life.
"I think you'd like her." On impulse, I went upstairs, came back down with my wallet, fumbled out a picture of her, handed it to my mother. It was a photograph of the two of us, taken in Chicago, in Grant Park, in front of the fountain, with the lake stretching behind it into infinity. Or at least as far as Michigan.
My mother studied the photograph. If she saw the resemblance between Ellen and Paul - did she even remember him? - she said nothing. She handed the photograph back to me, smiled.
"She's pretty, Tim. I'm glad."
There had been no news from Tom; he existed, for us, in a kind of Schrödinger unknowability. We were afraid to open the box to verify his existence; did other families experience this same kind of thing, this same limbo? What buoyed us was our understanding of Tom's innate ability to endure, to come out on top. He was, if nothing else, a fighter.
My father, I knew, had made discreet inquiries to the military, had been told only the bare minimum: Tom had made it through training and had indeed been shipped overseas a few months after that. From them, we received a photograph, proof that he had, at least, delivered on the promise of joining the Army. Grim and unsmiling, Tom stared back at us from the flat surface of the image, in uniform, his face shaven clean, the stubble of his shorn scalp peeking out under the brim of the cap. My mother had the photograph framed, placed it on the mantle with other bits of Tom's history, a kind of iconostasis, shrine to a grief waiting to be endured.
I wondered about the rest of it, the thing that had driven him into the military, trying to outrun something that dogged his every step. I was not fool enough to think that others like him had not found their way into the same place, was not fool enough to think that they could not find each other. I could only hope that, at the end of this, when he came home to us, that he could manage to find his own happiness.
I returned to college to start my junior year; things, by then, had become more real, both in my schooling and in my relationship with Ellen. Even by then, I understood that I would be continuing my education beyond four years, would apply to graduate school and the rest of it. Where that might be, I had no idea; I hoped it would be here, but it could be anywhere that would take me, and there was something to the idea of continuing my education at another university.
My life here in Chicago seemed more real to me than my life in St. Louis. St. Louis was tangible and very concrete; Chicago, in contrast, was a kind of dream life, contained within the utopia of campus … and yet, I knew that that was where I belonged, would do whatever it took to hold on to that life. There was only one real question I could not yet answer.
Would Ellen go with me?
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead