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Waiting For a Voice to Come

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Lisa offers to take the train up to Holyoke with Baby. Baby thanks her, and says, "I'm going by Frankie when I get there."

Lisa says, "Frankie," like she's trying it out. After a second she smiles, "That's…that fits."

*

Frankie's roommate, Pamela, is a freshman out of Connecticut. Pamela misses a boyfriend who's at Princeton, plans to major in Biology, and wants to get a Ph.D. so she can teach at a college. She wrinkles her nose and says, "I want to teach real science, you know?"

Science isn't really Frankie's thing, so she shrugs and says, "Sure."

She tries talking about Johnny—he's painting with the union for the moment, but she made him promise to think about ways to expand his options—but Pamela looks confused and asks, "Why doesn't he just go to college?"

Frankie tries her best not to sound condescending when she says, "It's a lot of money."

"Can't his parents help, or something?"

She shouldn't be frustrated, she knows. Maybe she wasn't quite this naïve before the summer, but she also knows she's learned a lot in a short time. She smiles and says, "I'm gonna check out the activities fair, wanna come?"

Pamela decides to stay and unpack instead, and Frankie can't help feeling relieved.

*

The first time she doesn't get a response to one of her letters to Johnny, she thinks maybe he just hasn't gotten her new address yet, or something. He might not write a lot in any of his letters, but he writes them. He lets her know he's okay, that he's missing her, that yes, he's still working on his dancing. Sometimes he tells her a funny story, or something new he's learned.

The point is, he responds to her letters. That is, until he doesn’t.

A second letter goes unanswered, and then a third. But, let's face it, she hadn't gotten Johnny's attention—or kept it—by being meek, so there's no incentive to start acting that way now. Instead, she writes a letter to Penny, asking how the new part-time job in choreography for a regional theater is going, how she's feeling, and what in the world is going on with Johnny.

Penny answers, her writing curved and looping in a way that reminds Frankie of the other woman's dancing. (Johnny's handwriting is rough and oversized, but clearly legible. It reminds Frankie of everything about him except his dancing.) Penny talks about the challenges of choreography, which are different than teaching dance, and the fact that she's started taking a few courses at a vocational school to become a medical assistant.

"Probably seems stupid," she writes, "someone like me helping out a doctor, but the way your dad took care of me, I just…I want to help someone else who can do that for women, for girls, scared and mostly alone."

Frankie doesn't think it's stupid at all. She circles the sentence so she'll remember to respond to it. With regard to Johnny, Frankie can practically hear the sigh underlying Penny's words.

"He's being Johnny. Look, Baby, you're a college woman now. You're going to get a bachelor's, and then maybe something even more, and you're going to make real money and as far as he's concerned, find some other guy who has his bachelor's and also makes real money. He's going to go on painting. Maybe, some day, he'll work in a studio and get paid to teach, but even then, he'll be blue collar. And for people like us, people who are never going to be like you, it's easier, sometimes, just to have the memory. To walk out before you can walk out. Johnny's brave in a lot of ways, but not this one. I don't know that any of us are terribly brave in this way. Maybe you."

Frankie doesn't feel brave. She feels desperate. It's possible the two are the same. They often have been for her.

She knows this, though: she doesn't want the college guys who come to Holyoke on the weekend looking to scope out someone who will give up this silly notion of college and go be their wife. She doesn't want the waiters or paper delivery guys from the town who watch her like she's some type of trophy they just haven't won yet. She doesn't even want the few college boys who come and actually talk politics and policy with the girls, who have big ideas about how to change the world, but still clearly think they're better than those waiters and other town-born guys without the money for college.

She wants Johnny. She wants his anger at the world and the way he allows her to soften that, just a little. She wants his spontaneity, the strength he so carefully sheaths most of the time, the honor he sees as a weakness when she wants to tell him it's his foremost power.

Frankie's learned pretty darn well that she can't always have what she wants. But anyone who thinks she's not going to try her hardest to keep this, including Johnny Damn Castle, can sit down and start right up thinking again.

*

Frankie buys a bus ticket down to Camden and then hitchhikes her way to the address where she's been sending the letters. It's a garden apartment, not fancy, but it seems to be in a decent part of town and it's not falling apart. Similar to Johnny's cabin really, and she likes it without even going inside.

It's the middle of a Friday and nobody answers when she knocks, so she sits on the front stoop and reads Park and Blumer for sociology, wondering why collective action almost always ends poorly. She's highlighting a section when she hears a voice say, "Baby."

She's been Frankie for a few months now, but she was Baby for the better part of eighteen years, and even if that weren't true, she knows she'd answer to whatever name she's called in that voice. She looks up, setting the book aside and smiling a little lopsidedly, and says, "Penny says you're avoiding me, so I thought I'd stop giving you the chance."

He runs a hand over his face. "Jesus, Baby."

She stands up and asks softly, "You not glad to see me?"

He takes the few steps so he's standing in her space and his hands are cupping her chin, the back of her head, his mouth on hers, warm and tasting of black coffee. She lets herself take it in for a bit, fist her hands in his shirt. She's missed this in a way she never knew she could miss anything.

He moves back just enough to touch their foreheads together. "I'm glad to see you."

"You gonna invite me in?"

He laughs, his shoulders lowering just a bit. "Yeah. Yeah. You should come in."

*

She came to talk, she did, but the second they're in his apartment, every second of every minute of every day that they've been apart crashes over her, and she jumps up, wrapping her legs around his waist. He catches her as though he was expecting it, despite his laugh and, "Oh, okay, then."

"Hi Johnny," she says, softly, a whisper against his lips.

"Hey baby," he says, and it's not a nickname, it's a term of endearment.

*

When they can sit with each other without the overwhelming need to get inside the other's skin, Frankie says, "You stopped writing."

"Got busy." He doesn't look at her when he says it, his voice dropping in pitch and volume.

"You're a terrible liar, Johnny Castle," she says softly, gently.

He huffs at being called out, but doesn't respond. She burrows further into his side. "College is…good, it's fun, learning things that I think are important, having conversations with other people who think they're important. But it's also lonely. Because the other girls, so many of them are like me before I met you. Not bad, not mean, just…sheltered. And I can't go back to being that girl, who never noticed the hypocrisy or even just the difference between how I was treated and how others were. I can't."

He cups the back of her head, rubbing it with his fingers. "They'll grow up. You did."

She sits up a bit so that she's looking at him. "Maybe. Either way, that's not the point. The point is that whatever you think you're giving me by staying away, however you think that's going to help me, it's not. If you had met someone or you just decided it was a heat of the moment thing or for some reason that wasn't stupid and self-sacrificing, you wanted to end things, well. I'd. I'd hate that. But I'd accept it."

He raises an eyebrow at her, and she raises one right back, adding, "I'd let you live your life, make your own decisions, but you don't get to make mine."

"And if I don't want to wait until the day you're going about your Peace Corps business and meet a nice doctor or lawyer or—"

"I've met a nice guy. He paints houses some of the time, so people can take pride in the place where they live, and other times he teaches dance. He's got this way of making people feel incredible in their skin, of showing them what it's like to feel passion, of changing their lives. He changed mine."

"I'm not nice."

She smiles, feeling it crinkle her eyes, and kisses him. "You just keep telling yourself that, tough guy."

*

A few hours later, when they've eaten something and are hanging out at his tiny breakfast table, Johnny asks, "You here for the weekend, or…I mean, you've probably got stuff you need to get back to."

"I'm here for the weekend." She's not particularly proud of it, but she'd stay longer if he asked, or even if she thought it was necessary. She has no intention of setting aside her education for him, but she's more willing to strike a balance than she ever thought she'd be.

He ducks his head and says, "We could go dancing, tomorrow. If that's—"

"Yes," she says. "Absolutely."

He smiles a little, a smirk that's not meant to be mean. "Not much dancing where you are?"

"Nothing good," she says. "Fox trot with guys who aren't sure which is their left foot and which is their right and might know about frame but would prefer to do without it, since it's only getting in the way of what they really want."

"Sexy," Johnny says, drily.

Frankie makes a face. "Anyway. Take me dancing, Johnny."

"Yes, ma'am."

She cocks her head and uses the momentum of the conversation to ask, "Any leads on dance instruction?"

He shrugs. "Nothing great. A few things Penny's picked up on, but one of them's out in Chicago and I told her I didn't think that was a good idea."

The thought of him being somewhere she can't really reach him by car makes her stomach squeeze uncomfortably, but she makes herself say, "If it's a good opportunity—"

Johnny cuts her off. "No. I told her…not that far from you."

Frankie lets that sit between them for less than a second before she kisses him, long and sweet. "Okay. Okay."

He wraps his hands over her shoulders and when she breaks the kiss he says, "It's all right, the others are in Boston and Manhattan. I'm trying to work tryouts so that I don't miss too much work, since if I don't get them, I don't want to screw this up. It's steady."

"Yeah," she says. "There's nothing wrong with steady."

He tilts his head back slightly and laughs in her hair, a warm crest of air. "Says the girl who clearly likes her men anything but."

She knows what he's saying, but, "You're plenty steady. How else would you explain the fact that I never fall when you've got me in the air?"

"Stop playing word games, college girl."

"Make me," she challenges, and laughs from deep in her lungs when he tosses her over his shoulder and begins walking toward the bedroom.

*

The dance hall isn't much, a rented cafeteria of what might be a high school, maybe a junior high. The floors are linoleum rather than wood, and the acoustics aren't fantastic, but the music is, and there's nothing much that matters when she and Johnny are moving together to its beat. He introduces her as Frankie to everyone—and he knows everyone—but he whispers, "Baby," in her ear when he pulls her into closed position.

It's late fall, cold enough outside for wool pea coats and ear muffs, but they dance until both of them are sweating, the heat between them reminiscent of the humidity of the Catskills over the summer, and Frankie can't stop smiling, doesn't even try.

They stay until the last song, going out into the chill air without their coats, steam rising off their skin. Once in the car, Johnny turns the radio on, singing quietly along, the hand that's not on the wheel tucked against the back of her neck.

She says, "Don't try to tell me I don't know what I want, just because what I want is you."

"No accounting for taste," he tells her, but he nods in that way he has when he's listening, really listening.

*

Sunday comes too quickly, sneaking up on Frankie the same way her exams seem to. He makes her breakfast, well, he makes her coffee and pours her up some Corn Flakes, but it perks her up enough for the trip back.

At the bus station, he kisses her against the door of his car like he means it, but he always kisses that way. She still says, "Answer my letters or I swear, Johnny, I'll come back down here over and over until I'm failing because of the time away."

"Yes ma'am," he says, in a tone that is trying for joking and missing by a few crucial notes.

*

Frankie sends out a letter the next day. There's nothing much to tell. Her Spanish class has moved onto verb conjugation, her roommate is having a fight with her boyfriend, the campus leaves are turning and it's gorgeous. She finishes it with, "I want ice cream. I want to share a bowl with you."

He responds with all of one line. "Fall is not ice cream season."

But he responds. She ends her next letter with, "You saying you don't want to share some ice cream with me?"

His next letter is equally brief. "That's not what I am saying. Not what I'm saying at all."