May 1948 - San Francisco
The air was clear and bright on the breezy spring day when Peggy Hayden stepped out of a bridal store with a diamond on her finger and a smile on her face. She was feeling particularly put together and delightful, exactly the kind of young lady that people would smile approvingly at when they passed her on the street.
Everything was perfect-- so perfect that she was almost able to stifle the odd feeling of dread, that something had to go wrong, that everything was bound to fall apart somehow. Peggy had been firmly dismissing the feeling as worry over flower arrangements and seating charts, but it kept cropping up inconveniently when she was least prepared to defend herself.
Hat held firmly in place against the wind, she had nearly made it to the trolleybus stop when-
Peg felt a strange sensation somewhere in her ribcage - a sort of floating and squeezing all at once. She wondered absently if her girdle had shrunk in the wash. Ella Bigelow was in Chicago or somewhere across the Atlantic, she couldn’t possibly be in San Francisco… but somehow there she was, pushing her way towards Peg, smiling broadly.
“Peggy! I can’t believe it!”
“Ella, oh my God, what are you doing here?”
“Doing some last-minute shopping for my mother - my parents just moved here from Pittsburgh last month to be closer to David and Margot and the babies. What are you doing here? You look phenomenal!”
“I live here.” Peggy found herself flushing, caught up in Ella’s infectious enthusiasm. “I moved here in ‘44 after…” After you packed up and left for the war with barely a month’s notice. After you threw all our plans away to follow your brother to France to patch up bullet wounds. “...after graduation.” she finished lamely.
Ella’s charming smile dimmed, as though she could hear the words that hadn’t been said. She always could, Peggy reflected ruefully. Trying to bring back the ease of a moment ago, she asked “How long are you in town?”
Ella perked up immediately. “Oh, just until Sunday! I’ve been here since Passover, but my two weeks’ vacation is up, so I’m taking a late flight back to Chicago Sunday night, and then right back to work Monday morning. No rest for the wicked, or for ER nurses.” She laughed a little shakily and stopped to look at Peggy, “Damn, it’s good to see you. Are you busy now? Could I convince you to join me for lunch?”
Peggy felt dizzy and warm, like someone had transported her back to 1940, at Shirley Johnson’s homecoming party, where a drunk co-ed had pushed her towards the tall pretty freshman in the corner and said “Her name is Peggy too!” Someone jostled her as they rushed to catch the trolley - her trolley, she realized. She suddenly felt entirely free as she met Ella’s smile. “I have all the time in the world.” she said, and smiled right back.
Peggy’s stomach hurt from laughing. “I can’t believe you,” she giggled, faintly aware that the tables near them were looking over in bemusement. “If you were going to forge the letter anyway, you should have said he was drafted for the Girls’ League!”
That sent Ella off again, laughing until she was gasping for breath. “Oh, Max would have killed me! Ever since he went to college he’s gotten so proud of being a ‘man’s man,’ with his muscles and girlfriends and friends Mama won’t let in the house.” She sighed a little wistfully. “I can’t believe he’s almost 22. Who allowed these little kids to turn into adults all of a sudden?”
Peg smiled softly. “Bigelow, you big sap, you sound exactly like your mother when we were 21.” Her chest felt light and full all at once, talking like this. She had forgotten how easy it was, to sit and laugh together, to know someone so precisely yet be endlessly surprised by them. It was as if no time had passed and all the ease and humor and joy of their friendship had come back in a rush at the sight of Ella’s smile. But there was a newness too, an awkward shyness that overtook her when Ella fixed her with her most piercing look and said: “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you deflecting about yourself, Hayden. Are you going to tell me about that ring on your hand, or what?”
Peggy grasped for words but couldn’t seem to find the right ones. “Well....” she began slowly, “his name is BJ. He’s finishing up medical school at Stanford.” Thinking about BJ’s big smile and safe, calming presence filled her with a rush of affection and suddenly she could talk again. “I really think you’ll like him. He’s very funny, and you both can charm any room you walk into.”
Ella’s eyes were warm, but when she spoke Peggy thought she heard a strange note of sadness. “He sounds wonderful. I’m so happy for you, Peggy, truly.” The melancholy disappeared as if it had never been there. “Are your parents thrilled? When’s the wedding?”
“In two weeks, the 23rd… BJ’s family is traditional, so we’re having it in church on a Sunday, the whole thing.”
“I wouldn’t know.” said Ella, with the challenging little glint she always got in her eye when someone started acting a bit too much like Christian was the only normal way to be. Peggy was forcibly reminded of the eighteen-year-old who had first swept her up in her orbit.
Ella cursed suddenly, looking at her watch. “ I can’t believe it’s gotten so late, Mama will absolutely kill me if I’m late to help out with my last Shabbos dinner at home.”
Peggy’s heart sank. She had forgotten the time, the day, and very nearly the year. She was suddenly acutely aware of the late afternoon sun, the double work shifts all weekend, and her evening call to BJ, patiently enduring a visit to his parents’ home in Palo Alto.
Ella looked as disappointed as Peggy felt. “It’s been really wonderful to see you, Peggy Jane. Are you free any time this weekend? Or,” she brightened suddenly, “are you free tonight? My family won’t mind company on Shabbos, not if it’s you, and you used to keep Shabbos with me, you already know the routine. Unless…” the brightness disappeared as quickly as it came. “You probably already have plans, it is a Friday night...”
“No!” Peg interrupted, surprising herself. “I don’t have plans. I’d love to come.”
“Really.” Peg said, laughing a bit. “What time should I be there?”
“Candle-lighting isn’t until nearly eight tonight… say, seven-thirty? Oh, and let me write down the address, my parents live on Pierce, by Fell, near the park.”
“That sounds perfect.” Peg smiled helplessly, watching Ella scribble an address on a piece of paper and begin gathering her many shopping bags. They were halfway out the door when they realized that they had forgotten to pay the check, and returned it with an extra-large tip to the vaguely irritated waiter, suppressing their laughter once they finally made it out onto the street. Ella paused, looking uncharacteristically nervous.
“I… see you at 7:30?” She looked as though she wanted to say something else. Acting on impulse, Peg stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her, breathing in her familiar scent. Ella hesitated for a brief instant, and then returned the embrace, resting a hand on the back of Peg’s head - tenderly, the way people hold a child, like something very delicate and precious.
“BJ? I’m so sorry, darling, but I just bumped into an old friend from college, and she’s only in town tonight, would you mind terribly if I had to miss our call this evening?” A pause. “Yes, of course I’ll see you on Monday. Well, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, and I miss you, too!” A laugh, then silence. “I will. Give your parents my love.” Another laugh. “You too, I suppose, but only under duress. Sleep well, darling, and have fun this weekend.” A pause. “You know what I mean. I love you too. Bye.”
“Sheila, this is Peggy. I’m so sorry, but something’s come up with BJ’s parents.” A pause. “ Well, you know how they are, and he needs me to come down. I’ll take your shifts all next weekend if you’ll cover me…” A pause. “Thank you so much, Sheila. I won’t forget it. Bye now.”
To give the Bigelow family some credit, they got most of their teasing out before Peggy arrived for dinner. Unfortunately, Ella didn’t much feel like giving them any credit at all.
“So…” Max, still a little miffed about the baseball prank, began the attack. “Peggy… Peggy… why does that name sound so familiar?”
“Maybe because it’s my name?” Ella suggested, hoping to distract from the teasing by starting another round of family debates over her highly controversial school and work nickname. Josh, the traitor who knew all her tricks, headed her off at the pass.
“No, I don’t think that was it. I seem to remember some mention of a girl named Peggy a few years ago, maybe in a letter… I think her hair was red, isn’t that right, Seth?”
Seth looked up from his book, eyes twinkling behind his glasses, and Ella knew the battle was lost. “No, I distinctly remember blonde hair, blue eyes, and something about her being so pretty it was unbearable.”
Ella buried her head in her hands as her brothers cackled madly. “It must be against some law to use my words against me when I didn’t even know I was queer yet.”
“Not Talmudic law!” said Seth cheerfully. “Speaking of which, you know what’s a Mitzvah on Shabbos…?”
“That’s for married couples, you jerk!” said Ella exasperatedly, and Max and Josh doubled over with laughter. “And I’m pretty sure it’s only supposed to apply to straight people, Mr Rabbinical School.”
Seth gave her his most scholarly look. “Oh, but we’re a reform school,” he said innocently, “we’re very open-minded.”
Mrs. Bigelow walked into the kitchen with David, Margot, and the babies, just as Ella threw a challah roll at Seth’s head. Little Anna clapped excitedly and David looked weary. “Would you mind waiting to corrupt your niece until she’s at least using complete sentences?”
Margot laughed at him, kissed Ella on the cheek, and plopped baby Zev down in her lap, where he immediately found her necklace and yanked it.
“Gut shabbos, sweetie. Your mother said your girlfriend from college is coming to dinner? What happened to Abby?”
Josh rolled his eyes. “Abby is unfortunately alive and well in their apartment in Chicago, and very much still around. She just couldn’t be bothered to come meet her girlfriend’s family.”
Ella sighed. After two weeks, Josh’s protective brother routine and open hostility was frankly getting pretty old.
Max snorted. “You all gave me all that sh- grief about Trinity, meanwhile Ella comes back for Passover and brings home a shiksa who can’t cook!”
“Maxwell…” said his mother in a warning tone, but Ella forced down the adolescent urge to scream that her little brother could unerringly provoke in her, and summoned her patented Older Sister Voice.
“Maxwell Bigelow, if you call my very nice, engaged, friend a shiksa to her face, joke about her cooking, or imply to her in any way that i'm ‘bringing her home’ with me, I will personally ensure that you will never get another date until you’re fifty.” She gave him her best terrifying smile for emphasis and he blanched satisfyingly.
“And as for the rest of you,” she said, turning on her family, whose expressions ranged from amused (her mother) to slightly apprehensive (Seth), “I want you on your best behavior. Peggy is one of my dearest friends from college, she’s going to be married next week, and as far as she knows, Abby is just my friend and roommate. Besides which, she’s a very nice person and I want her to feel comfortable here. Understood?”
There was a vague sound of agreement from everyone except Josh, who muttered, “I wish Abby was just your roommate,” and ducked preemptively just as the doorbell rang. The doorbell set the dog barking, which made Zev cry, which made Ella’s father wander absentmindedly in from setting the table, bumping into his wife in the hall as she rushed to open the door… and into the chaotic swell of household noise - poised, put-together, and looking slightly nervous - stepped Peggy Hayden.
It really was unfair how beautiful Peggy was. No matter how much her brothers teased her for her teenage silliness, Ella stood by her words: Peg was so pretty it was a little unbearable. She glowed in the dim light of the living room as she chatted softly with Seth and Margot, Anna dozing on her lap. The evening had mostly gone smoothly, besides a few jabs about Abby, a momentary panic over Max’s and Josh’s plane tickets, and an unfortunate revival of the Nickname Fight (“I just don’t see why you need two names, personally.” “Mama, some people want to change their names.” “But she likes the name Ella! Why on earth would you want people at work to call you Peggy? Not that there’s anything wrong with the name, Peggy dear”), and over the course of the evening, Peg had lost her slight stiffness, and won over the entire Bigelow family. She looked like she belonged here, and Ellla felt a momentary pang of want , seeing the way her reserve had blossomed into the familiar humor, joy, and competence that was Peggy in her element. She felt the warmth of her mother beside her, as Mrs. Bigelow slipped an arm around her waist.
“And funny and sharp as a tack, with a spine of steel.”
“I can see why you like her.”
Her mother sighed and gave her waist a comforting little squeeze. “We’ll keep an eye out for her,” was all she said.
Ella squeezed back gratefully, and didn’t say a word.
“Well, this is me.”
The walk had gone by too fast, no matter how much Peg had tried to drag her feet, and she lingered at her front door, reluctant to say goodbye to the warmth of Ella’s presence.
“Oh! Well, thank you for coming to dinner.”
“Thank you for having me, and for walking me home. And… please thank your family for me, again.”
Ella laughed. “I will, but they won’t accept any thanks! You’ll be fending off invitations from the Bigelow family left and right from now on. They all love you.”
Peggy blushed for the thousandth time that night. It felt ridiculous to be so pleased that this warm, friendly family liked her when they were clearly predisposed to like everyone, but Ella’s words lit a bright little fire in her chest. It was all at once incredibly important that Ella knew how much this evening had meant, and Peggy tried to find the words, but what came out instead was: “Can I see you tomorrow?”
Ella looked surprised, but the words kept tumbling eagerly out of Peggy. It was as though now that they had started they had become one of the rock slides that were forever sending the highway crashing into the sea along the California coastline.
“I don’t have any work this weekend and BJ’s at his parents’ so you’d be doing me a favor really, and I can pack us a picnic lunch if you like? I can’t promise much but I can give you the insider's tour of the city, or maybe take you to the ocean….”
The flow of words trickled to a stop and Peggy stood there helplessly for a moment, unable to explain, even to herself, why this was so vitally important. Ella’s warm smile, the one that beamed out of her eyes and made you feel like the center of the whole world, was back.
“I’d love to. Truly Peg, I can’t think of anything I’d like more. Should we meet here? What time?”
Peggy’s breath left her in a rush. “Is nine-o’clock too early? I’m used to café hours.”
“Nine o’clock is perfect.”
There was another one of those new shy pauses. Peggy hoped fervently and irrationally that Ella would hug her again. A strange little expression flitted across Ella’s face, so quickly that Peg almost thought she imagined it, and then she was smiling.
“Well. Goodnight.” She was already turning to begin her trek back up the hill. Peggy stood a moment in front of her door, breathing in the fog that had blown in over the bay and watching Ella’s back grow smaller and smaller as she walked away.
“Goodnight,” she murmured, and went inside.
“Where next, my expert tour guide?”
They both blinked in the bright light of midday - the fog was burning off and the sun was startling after the darkness inside the aquarium.
“Well,” Peggy smiled, “I thought we could go get some sushi.”
Ella thought about all the aquarium fish to whom she had just pledged eternal and undying friendship, and felt a little uneasy. “What about the picnic?”
“Oh, how could I forget? And I packed such a good lunch too! I have tuna salad sandwiches, and some crackers and cheese and anchovies… I even picked up some gefilte fish for us!”
“Peg, you know I hate gefilte fish…” Ella trailed off, seeing the telltale twinkle in Peggy’s eye. “You’re pulling my leg.”
Peggy burst out laughing.
“I can’t believe what a sucker you’ve become! Don’t you have anyone in Chicago to tease you properly?”
“No, they’re all in California.” Ella shook her head ruefully. “All right, you got me, now what are we actually doing?”
“Well the picnic part was true,” said Peggy with a grin. “I think you'll like this. A little piece of home.”
Mystified, Ella followed her down a path, and then a quiet street bordered by lawns. Peggy turned and led Ella through a tunnel, and suddenly… “Oh,” Ella gasped involuntarily. The glass building in front of them gleamed in the pale sunlight like a fairytale castle, bordered by green lawns and beds of bright flowers. Ella turned to Peggy in wonder.”How did you know?”
Peggy looked pleased. “You always said that the Botanical Garden was your favorite place in Pittsburgh. Now that you don’t have a reason to visit home, I thought I could bring a little home to you.”
Ella’s chest ached with affection and gratitude, and she smiled at Peggy, uncharacteristically speechless. “Thank you,” she managed, “I love it.”
Together they found a sheltered spot, sunny but safe from the wind, and spread the blanket out amongst the grass and daisies. Traipsing all over San Francisco’s hills was hungry work, and Ella dug into the picnic basket with anticipation, and then burst out laughing. Inside was what seemed to be the entire contents of Peggy’s icebox: two bananas, several hard-boiled eggs, some crackers, an entire block of cheese, two lumpy-looking peanut-butter sandwiches, and to top it all off, a large jar of dill pickles.
Peggy looked at her innocently. “What?” she asked as Ella shook her head ruefully, still laughing.
“I should have known better than to agree to any picnic you packed! Peggy Hayden, you’re a culinary menace to society.”
Peggy grinned unrepentantly. “I promised you a picnic, not a good one.” she said, and crunched on a pickle.
Baker Beach was beautiful at every time of day, but evenings were Peggy’s favorite. It had been this precise time of day, and very nearly this precise time of year, when she had first stumbled on the sheltered little cove, in the midst of a lonesome walk through the Presidio her first month in San Francisco. Whenever she came here she was reminded of that feeling - of walking down the steep path to the beach and seeing the Golden Gate bridge on one side, the rows of white houses on the other, and in front of her the Pacific Ocean, stretching out forever, uninterrupted except for the dark smudge of the Farallon Islands that could only be seen on the clearest days. Yes , she had thought that evening, feeling the setting sun on her face. Yes, I could make a home here . Something in her had settled, had curled up like a cat and nestled into San Francisco’s rocky coastline, and known that she had found her place. Peggy was herself here, even on days when she didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t have to be the sweet, accommodating Little Peggy Hayden of Quapaw, or the perfect, put-together Peggy Hayden of Chicago. She could just be Peg.
“Tell me what you see?”
Peggy looked up from her reverie to see Ella watching her with a strange, intent look on her face. It was the look she wore in art museums, or when following a new recipe. A trying-to-understand look. Peggy laughed, a little self-consciously.
“Why do you want to hear what I see? You’re the one with all the good stories.”
“I don’t want a story , I want to know what you see when you sit here and look at the ocean. Just the truth.”
The truth? As though it were that simple. In that moment Ella might as well have asked her to lasso the moon. But anything less than the truth wouldn’t do this place justice.
“I see… waves. I love the way the sunlight shines on them on this kind of day. Sunny days are special. Sometimes… see? When the wave turns over and for a moment you see the underside. It’s so dark and the light catches it for that split second. And…. I love those little birds, do you see them? Plovers. Their tiny little bodies against the big waves. I like to sit here and watch them when the tide is going out. And the sun sets while the fog is coming in and it makes everything so warm and gold like it is now, I suppose that’s what I see.”
She stopped abruptly, feeling chilled. Ella was watching the waves, looking distant and strangely tender. She reached out and squeezed Peggy’s hand. “I see it now,” she said. “Thank you.”
Peggy leaned her head on her shoulder tentatively and clasped Ella’s hand back. Together they watched the sun light the water gold, and the brave little plovers run back and forth, digging their long beaks into the sand. They never faltered, and never got caught, always waiting until the perfect moment to run back to the safety of shore, away from the waves that would sweep them out to sea.