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Fever Started Long Ago

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1926

When Abby was eight years old, she learned that people always fall in love with what they can’t have. Or what they can’t be, though Abby never wanted to be Carol. Abby’s mother was the one who would have liked that.

“Oh Abigail,” she sighed, her perfume and cigarette smoke wafting over the tangle-haired, scrape-kneed child she turned this way and that in front of the full-length mirror in the master bedroom. “I wish you would put in a bit of effort. Little Carol is two years younger than you, and she makes at least six times the effort.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Abby replied. “Carol doesn’t make an effort at all. She just comes as she is.”

That earned Abby a smack for talking back, but she didn’t care. She didn’t blame Carol either. She couldn’t wait till Carol’s parents visited again. Once everyone had a drink – their first of the afternoon – and was seated around the room overlooking the back lawn, which Abby’s mother insisted on calling the salon, Abby’s mother or Carol’s mother would say: “Why don’t you two go out into the garden and get a bit of air? Let us grownups talk.”

The first time Carol’s parents came over, Carol kept bursting into tears because she missed Washington, her mother told Abby’s mother in a tone which should have signaled apology but sounded to Abby more like her own mother’s tone right before she smacked Abby for some transgression.

Abby took Carol to see her mother’s flowerbeds and plucked handfuls of carnations to plait Carol a flower crown. Carol stopped crying when Abby perched the disintegrating crown on her blond head, looking first astonished, then pleased. She flung her plump arms around Abby, which made Abby feel warm all over, like someone had turned the sun up. She hugged Carol back and kissed her cheek. Carol laughed.

“It tickles,” she squealed, tugging on Abby’s dark, tangled hair. “You’re silly.”

After Carol and her parents left, Abby’s mother made her father give Abby half a dozen blows with his belt for ripping up the flower garden. Abby screwed her eyes shut and bit her lip so as not to cry and thought about Carol hugging her. If she succeeded in convincing her father to buy her a pony for her next birthday, she would let Carol ride it whenever she wanted, even if it meant Carol got to ride it more than Abby did. Abby would make an effort to be the best little girl for her mother, if only her mother would tell her father to buy the pony, which would make Carol happy.

 

1932

Dear Carol…

Abby sighed, crumpled up the sheet, and began again:

Dearest Carol, I hope this letter finds you well. My mother mentioned running into you and your mother at R. H. Macy’s last week. I was so happy to hear her mention you. It made me remember what larks we had last summer at the lake…

Abby put down her pen and took a deep-enough breath that her sigh came out sounding like a horse’s neigh, which had been her intent. Only a dramatic sigh would suffice to convey her annoyance. She sounded like a pen pal, someone desperate for Carol to remember them and Carol might not. (She must remember Abby, mustn’t she?)

Abby started to crumple the second attempt at writing to Carol. She wanted to pour a letter out of her chest, wanted it to come leaping out of her throat and her eyes and land in Carol’s soft hands like a flower or a bird, not some mangled thing which started out too affectionate and then turned abruptly formal and stilted. She knew what she wanted to write to Carol, but she knew she would never succeed in conveying it, not in words.

She considered the half-crumpled letter, experienced the fierce desire to tear it into bits for good measure. It was not enough, it was nowhere near what Abby wanted Carol to read, but it would have to do.

Abby was fourteen and the only girl at her school to develop nearly no curves during the summer. She was also the only girl in her class with no interest in idling away the time near a soda fountain with the boys from Parker Prep.

She smoothed out the thick sheet of paper, then she lifted the letter – poor, stillborn thing that it was – and pressed her dry lips to it. That did not feel right, so Abby let her lips part and touched the paper with the tip of her tongue. That made the paper slightly damp and soft, made Abby’s mouth taste like cotton.

Abby blew on the soft spot to dry it, lest her nib went clean through it, then she concentrated on getting at least some words down, even if they were the wrong words, which they could not fail to be.

 

1935

Abby’s mother took her out of school so the two of them could escape to Europe after the divorce, running from the shame and the attention, though Mrs. Gerhard (as she still called herself and as Abby had taught herself to call her mother in her head) obviously relished both. On the ship sailing east, Mrs. Gerhard’s cheeks were always flushed, even when she wasn’t drinking.

Abby loved Europe, and she loathed having to be there with her mother. In Paris she met a girl called Juliet, the daughter of an American diplomat and a French mother, who taught Abby the phrase joie de vivre. Juliet said Abby possessed it in spades. She and Abby snuck cigarettes and cognac (another wonderful word when pronounced the French way), while Abby’s mother danced with endless men at embassy parties, playing the gay divorcee who did not secretly hope her ex-husband would cable and ask her to come back, all expenses paid, all her European debts settled with a flourish of his gold-tipped pen.

“Let’s run away,” Juliet exclaimed one night in the embassy garden. They were hidden deep enough among the ornamental shrubbery that the sounds from the party reached them, but the light spilling through the tall windows did not.

Abby took another swig of champagne from the purloined bottle before passing it back to Juliet. “Where to?”

“Rome! Florence! You’d love Italy, Abby. It’s beautiful, and Italian men are so dashing, especially the ones in uniform.”

Abby made a face, certain Juliet would not see it in the dark. Juliet struck her as too young for her seventeen years sometimes, but she did not want to displease Juliet by appearing to disagree with her.

“I don’t much care for uniforms, especially black ones,” Abby said loftily. The champagne emboldened her tongue. “Especially the ones on men.”

They giggled then, girls together. Juliet blew down the neck of the champagne bottle, making the glass boom. She looked up at Abby while her mouth lingered over the lip of the bottle.

“I bet you’d look good in a black uniform,” Juliet whispered into the bottle. The moon came out from behind clouds, making Juliet’s eyes sparkle and the garden dance. “You’re so tall, the black britches and jacket would make you look even taller.”

Abby smiled. She rather liked the idea, though she would have preferred a black smoking jacket and tailored trousers. Perhaps she might persuade Mrs. Gerhard to give her the money for a tailor if she lied she wanted to get an evening gown made to size…

Juliet sat down next to Abby, her leg and shoulder touching Abby’s, and put her arm around Abby. The champagne bottle was in her other hand.

“I’d call myself Giulietta, and you could call yourself…” She couldn’t get the word out for laughing so hard.

Abby was laughing too. “What? What would I be called?”

Juliet laid her head on Abby’s shoulder, her breath warm and sweet with champagne on Abby’s neck. Juliet’s breath reminded Abby unpleasantly of how her mother smelled when she was drinking and looking Abby over, searching for things to pick at.

Abby banished the thought. This was a magical moment, she would not allow her mother to spoil it.

“Rodrigo,” Juliet managed to say at last. “Or Armando. I think your name should begin with an A because you’re called Abby.”

Abby turned slightly in her seat, so she was facing Juliet. Juliet’s face was half in shadow, half in moonlight.

“I’ll be called Armando,” Abby said. “But you won’t be Giulietta.”

Juliet smiled, her eyes closed, like a cat feeling pleased with itself. Her arm was still draped over Abby’s shoulders. Abby took the bottle away from her and finished the last three mouthfuls of champagne.

“No? Not Giulietta?” Juliet pouted. “What will I be called, then?”

“Carol,” Abby breathed and kissed her.

 

1940

Abby would not have bothered with the Richardsons’ party, except her cousin Milly had mentioned that Mr. and Mrs. Aird would be there. Milly knew this because her fiancé worked with Mr. Aird.

Abby was in her last year at Hunter and had no fiancé to justify having spent four whole years in college, even if it was a women-mostly institution. She would have shunned a New Year’s party for family and married couples like the plague, until Milly mentioned that Carol would be there, as though it were perfectly normal, when Abby hadn’t seen Carol since shortly after her return from Europe, just before the war there broke out.

Carol looked nothing like what Abby had imagined – she never could have imagined anyone, not even Carol, would grow up to be so beautiful.

“Oh Abby, hello!” Carol’s gray eyes twinkled with pleasure, her hair soft and lustrous as silk, her lipstick red on the rim of her punch cup. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

Abby let Carol hug her. Her nostrils filled with the scents of Carol’s perfume and face powder and blusher, no hint of the skin underneath. Abby felt like she’d suddenly been struck down with polio, like she couldn’t lift her arms to hug Carol back or make her mouth move to produce intelligible sounds. She was certain she was flushed much warmer than the roaring fireplace and the press of people in the Richardsons’ house warranted.

“Carol. Oh Carol.”

“Nothing to say for yourself?” Carol asked. “You haven’t written to me in forever and a day. And now here you stand. All tongue-tied.”

“No. I…”

Carol laughed, lifted her hand lightly, and brushed Abby’s cheek with her forefinger. Out of the corner of her eye, even as her skin experienced the fleeting earthquake of Carol touching her, Abby caught the glint of the crystal chandelier on Carol’s gold wedding ring.

“You’re all flushed,” Carol murmured, her tone no longer teasing even though her eyes were full of mischief. She raised her voice: “Harge? Abby needs a drink.”

She glanced behind her, her brow furrowed. “Oh never mind, he’s somewhere talking shop, no doubt. I’ll fetch you something refreshing.”

She left before Abby could muster the wherewithal to respond. Carol’s punch cup remained on the edge of a sideboard. Abby felt like she was shoplifting as she picked it up.

Abby pressed her lips to the red imprint of Carol’s lipstick and inhaled deeply the scent of cloves and alcohol in the cup. Her tongue flicked over the rim of the cup, tasting. She didn’t tilt the cup, lest the punch got in her mouth and spoiled it.

Abby wondered if it would be too late, after she left the party, to take a train into the city. She would get off the subway, not the customary one, but two or even three stops before the one closest to The Black Cat. Walking in the cold air would help clear her head and drain her cheeks of their persistent blush, then she could go into the smoky interior and sit and drink with a woman, if she met someone she liked, or just sit and drink, surrounded by other women.

She could not go home and be alone in her half of her father’s house. Not after she’d found Carol again, Carol brought to her like a windfall in a fairytale, a gift of the wise kings: frankincense and myrrh.

Without raising her eyes, Abby spotted Carol, a willowy form in green silk, weaving back toward her through the crowd, a punch cup in her hand. Abby lowered the stolen cup from her mouth and wrapped her hands around it, holding it close to her chest.

“Here,” Carol proffered the fresh cup. “Is that mine?”

“I was keeping it warm for you,” Abby said, making no move to surrender Carol’s cup.

Carol shook her head and laughed. “You nitwit!”

She held out the cup she’d brought and raised her empty hand, expectant, so Abby had no choice but to consent to a swap.

Carol found them a lantern seat, magically empty of occupants, by a window overlooking the snowy back garden. They sat very close in the narrow seat, while Carol talked of nothing in particular, her wedding, Harge, her family, Abby’s family.

“I hope we won’t lose touch again.” Carol was looking at Abby warmly. “I should hate that. Don’t go back to Europe and then drop off the face of the earth.”

“I won’t,” Abby said. “I promise.”

 

1950

“Hello,” Abby called out as the bell above the door rang out. “Sorry I’m late, the car wouldn’t start this morning. The radio said it got down into the low teens overnight. You’d think we’re in North Dakota!”

Carol appeared from the back room, a rag and a bottle of furniture polish in her hands. She wore the mohair sweater Abby loved, the one that hugged Carol close and set off her hair beautifully, and a tweed skirt. Abby’s eyes flickered down, and her heart accelerated: Carol’s legs were bare. She wore no stockings, on a freezing morning in February.

Abby looked up and caught Carol smiling at her.

“Hello,” Abby said again as she stripped off her gloves and left them on the counter by the cash register. She unbuttoned her coat as she approached Carol. “You look very warm this morning.”

“Do I? You look frozen stiff.”

“The better to thrill you with, my dear,” Abby said as she leaned in for a kiss.

Their lips brushed, the softest touch. Abby felt rather than heard Carol’s gasp. Before she could move closer, Carol leaned back. She did not move her feet to get away from Abby, only her head went back a little, just out of easy reach.

“Someone will see,” Carol whispered, as though they weren’t alone in their store, with its large, uncurtained window full of end tables and spindly chairs.

Abby lifted her hands, cupped them over her mouth, and blew on them loudly, several times, while holding Carol’s gaze. Carol’s cheeks turned pale pink. She still held the furniture polish and the rag, but she did not attempt to move away again, when Abby lowered her hands and closed the distance between them.

“You mean that someone might see you neglected to put on stockings this morning?” Abby whispered in Carol’s ear.

Her hand trailed down the length of Carol’s skirt, under the stiff, tweed hem, and up, raising the skirt like a theater curtain. Carol’s thigh was warm under the skirt, under Abby’s hand. The outside of her thigh was dusted with hairs like spun gold, Abby knew without needing to look, but the inside of Carol’s thigh was smooth as cream.

Carol put the furniture polish down on the counter with a jerky motion, nearly missing the counter’s edge. She dropped the rag on the floor, but she had yet to touch Abby.

“Come on,” Carol said, her voice soft and brooking no argument, her eyes darting briefly past Abby, to the street outside the store.

“Playing with fire,” she murmured as she tugged on Abby’s coat sleeve, Abby’s hand still caressing the skin under her skirt.

Abby laughed as Carol preceded her into the back room. Her stomach was a fire pit of anticipation, and her heart soared.

 

1951

Carol reached across the table and touched the back of Abby’s hand with just the tips of her fingers.

“Abby,” she said, soft but not pleading. Never that. “Don’t be sad. I should hate for you to feel sad, or hurt.”

“I’m not. I don’t,” Abby said and withdrew her hand.

She opened her purse and fished out her wallet, a purpose for needing both her hands. She pulled out a bill to pay for their lunch, brushing off Carol’s attempt to pay half, then made herself look up and into Carol’s eyes.

“I’m not hurt, really,” Abby said. “I knew as soon as you introduced us how it would be. You lost Rindy, so you took in Therese.”

Carol withdrew her hand, hiding it from Abby’s sight, under the table. Abby felt the sharp urge to reach out and touch Carol, as though a chasm might yawn open between them at any moment, splitting the table in two. She ignored that urge, let it hurt her, sharp as a punch to the gut.

“You say I haven’t hurt you, but I don’t think that’s true,” Carol murmured. She always could withdraw behind walls of ice like that, Abby had seen it happen, after Harge, after Therese. In-between Therese, rather.

Abby had never faced that icy citadel herself.

“I hope…” Abby took a deep breath and made an effort. “I hope you will be happy, Carol. Or at least happier. You deserve it.”

Carol’s expression did not thaw at once, not for several long seconds. Abby supposed she deserved the punishment.

“Well.” Abby stood briskly before Carol could speak, snapping her purse shut, then came around the table to bend and kiss Carol on the cheek, as close to Carol’s red lips as she dared in public. “Goodbye! And good luck.”

Carol looked startled. “Goodbye and good luck? But I’ll see you on Saturday! We’re going to look for a new sideboard for your aunt’s dining room.”

Abby nodded. “Yes, yes, of course we are. Aunt Mildred and her sideboard specifications. We might find the lost treasure of the Mayas more easily. Or was it the Aztecs?”

Carol laughed so hard, a tear slipped out of the corner of her eye. Some of the other restaurant patrons looked over, but Carol did not seem to notice.

“You nitwit,” she said to Abby, shaking her head.

Yes, I am, Abby thought as she smiled and waited for Carol to gather her things, so they could walk out together. She would see Carol again, she would see Carol again and again and again, and this was goodbye nonetheless. Abby had known, since she was eight years old, that Carol would never be hers. Now she could finally begin to learn to accept it.