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A String of Pearls

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Thursday, April 13th, 1939
7:20 p.m.

Carol hated the newsreels. There was too much unnecessary misery going on in the world. Too much happening in Europe. Too much chatter from the pretentious male announcers with tinny, overly-accented, clipped voices. Between pictures, she much preferred to pull out a book from her bag and read for twenty or thirty minutes, occasionally looking up at the screen to take note of what was happening, always with a pained look of disbelief at the world’s events. Why watch it when one could just read about it in a newspaper in greater detail?

There were never more than four people on the upper level, usually couples all paired off or occasionally a solo moviegoer. No one bothered her on the mezzanine. Especially not a weeknight when all the other diligent young women were busy studying in the library or working on some boring choral arrangement or planning the last social gathering of the year. Carol didn’t have time for that sort of thing. She liked the mezzanine and doing her own thing to escape the boredom and daily pressures. It was practically her own little world up on the balcony. She missed New Jersey, she even missed being at her grandparents’ house in Greenwich. She missed being able to escape to New York to go to the theater or the grand movie palaces whenever she desired. Not having to stick to a particularly rigid schedule, but skipping out on a whim whenever it felt right, or without it counting against her allotted nights away from school.

Even with the noise from the movie screen, it was more peaceful and more relaxing there than in her shared room could be. Her roommate could be, boisterous, so to speak, and Carol found that she preferred her own company a couple nights per week. Sure, she had plenty of friends: friends with shared academic interests from classes, proximity-based friends from the hall, and a handful of old friends from Miss Porter’s. There was always the library, but then everyone went to the library when they were trying to evade a roommate for the evening. At least until ten o’clock curfew.

Cartoons though. Carol would always put down her book for a Disney Technicolor or Looney Tunes animated short whenever they popped onto the screen. The anthropomorphic characters always brought a smile to her face and the music also would give her something to hum along to late into the night when she couldn’t put on the radio or her vic to distract her constantly wandering mind. Whenever the light from the screen changed from black-and-white to color, even if it was just for ten minutes or so, Carol couldn’t look away from the bright colors dancing on the screen.

It certainly wasn’t customary for her to cry either during a cartoon, but she had an inkling when the blue title card for The Ugly Duckling came up that she wouldn’t leave the theater that night as unscathed as she had hoped.

“Does it really have to be that story? Of all the stories they could possibly choose.” Carol sighed, hoping no one around her could hear the disdain in her voice, or her voice at all.

She hated The Ugly Duckling, especially as it brought up memories of her haughty older sister Elaine reading it to her when she was little. One time, when Carol was about five years old, Elaine told her she was actually the ugly duckling of the family with her disheveled hair, constantly scraped knees, and complete lack of decorum. Carol, of course, showed her real decorum when she bit her arm in retaliation and thirteen year old Elaine had to spend the hottest week of the summer wearing long-sleeved dresses until the teeth marks disappeared. No ice cream on Sunday was her punishment; however, it had been well worth it.

Reluctantly, she watched even though she should have just picked up one of her books again and kept on reading. That’s when the watery eyes started; all the vibrant colors on the screen became a messy blur. Then the sniffling began; never-ending sniffles that must have disturbed all the viewers down below.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.”

Carol looked to her right between sobs to see another girl had plopped down in the seat next to her. She gestured toward the screen, pointing at the fluffy white animal. “See? He found his family, and whaddya know, he’s a swan!” she whispered as she leaned over Carol’s shoulder. The girl started to rifle through her jacket pockets, looking for something, holding up a finger to silently say she was just about there with whatever she was getting. She ultimately held out a handkerchief, waiting for Carol to clasp it from her hand, but Carol didn’t move. “It’s clean. I swear.”

Carol softly chuckled as she took it from her. “That’s terribly kind of you.” She dabbed her eyes and wiped her nose, cursing herself for letting a childish cartoon make her so teary in public. “I don’t normally cry during a silly cartoon, but - “

“You don’t have to explain,” she smiled with a dismissive shake of her head. They both finished watching the rest of the cartoon in silence until the next reel started. “And I don’t normally approach a girl I don’t know who’s crying, but given it was a cartoon, I took a leap.”

After clearing her throat, Carol looked over at the girl who was back watching the newsreel. Messy dark brown curls, tucked back behind her ears. And a smile. An endearing smile punctuated by dimples on both cheeks. Like Carol, she seemed taller than most of the girls and her right leg carelessly crossed at the knee with her foot idly tapping back and forth, hitting the brass railing with the toe of her probably well-scuffed saddle shoes.

As the lighting in the theater changed, Carol could see she appeared slightly different from the typical girls in her classes, definitely lacking the trademark string of pearls that everyone seemed to wear with their angora sweaters. Just an ordinary Harris tweed jacket, wool skirt, and cotton button-down shirt, not terribly different from the others. Most curiously though, she also wasn’t wearing stockings, just ordinary socks, which meant she too had skipped dinner in order to go to the pictures.

There was an air about her, Carol couldn’t exactly pinpoint it. How could she? The girl had barely spoken five sentences to her, but it wasn’t about the things she said or the manner in which she said them. It was just a hint of something different about her, that was a given, and Carol found it an impossible challenge to decipher it, as well as avert her eyes.

“I’ve seen you here before,” the girl said with eyes fixed on the movie screen, “up here, in the mezzanine, I mean. With all your books.”

Carol immediately stopped staring once she started speaking. “Here I was thinking almost always had the whole space to myself.” She reached down to grab the candy bar on top of her book then sat up straight in her seat. “Not that I mind, of course,” she was sure to quickly add before opening the candy bar wrapper and breaking off a piece to offer her.

“Thanks. I skipped out on dinner.” The girl studied Carol as she bit into the chocolate and sweetly smiled at her. “I’m Harriet.”

Carol took a bite of chocolate and hastily chewed, placing her hand in front of her mouth just before she swallowed. “Carol.”

“Carol, hmm?” she inquisitively mused. “Everyone calls me Harrie though. My family’s always called me Harrie.”

“Everyone’s always called me Carol.”

“Well, Carol, I only brought the one handkerchief, so I hope Love Affair isn’t too much of a tearjerker.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Carol glanced back towards her bag, wondering if she perhaps had one stashed into a corner that she wouldn’t easily see in the now dark cinema.

“Don’t worry about it.” Harrie leaned back into her seat, crossing her arms over her stomach as the movie began and her attention shifted to the flickering images.

“Well?” Harrie open-endedly stated and looked to her left. Carol was finishing her second round of crying for the night. If Harrie hadn’t shown up with a handkerchief, Carol would have easily been crying into the sleeves of her sweater. “Aww, shucks. Just… let it all out.” She blew her nose a final time and sniffled, not moving from her seat as she collected herself.

Harrie patiently watched as Carol stopped crying, then raised her arm to look at her watch. “Say, it’s just after nine-thirty. We gotta be heading back.” Carol had lost track of the time and checked the space around her seat to make sure nothing was left behind. Harrie waited, hands shoved in her jacket pockets, knocking the heel of her shoe against the side of the staircase. “So, you like going to the pictures?” Harrie asked as soon as they began making their way toward the staircase to the lobby.

Carol shrugged. “I like to go once or twice a week. You?”

“Same,” Harrie nodded, “but you know, exams coming up and all. Ugh, I really don’t want to study.”

“What are you studying?”

“I’m majoring in Chemistry. I’m a Junior.”

In the eight months since she started college, she hadn’t met many others studying science. Maybe she should just get out a whole lot more. Most of the others in her circle were studying literature, art, languages, or history. Either way, Carol found it most impressive. “Chemistry?”

“Yup.” Harrie chirped as she opened the door for Carol.

“I’m not too good with anything science related. Or math, I should add.” she admitted, thinking about the oversized bag she was carrying with nothing but La Chanson de Roland and an art history text that had no business being so incredibly heavy. There was also the Algebra book in there from earlier in the morning that didn’t enthuse her in the slightest, but that was a different matter altogether.

“Say no more, let me guess!” Harrie enthusiastically declared as she squinted her eyes, thinking. “Okay, if I’m right, you treat me to a movie and popcorn next week.”

Before they crossed the street, Carol joked, “And if you’re wrong?”

“I won’t be wrong.” Harrie confidently grinned.

Carol smiled back and tightened her hands around the bag she carried. Harrie looked her up and down again, glanced at the sag and weight of the bag flung over her shoulder that Carol struggled to keep in line. “Okay, okay, I think - no - but there’s - “ Harrie couldn’t finish a full sentence to save her life as her mind tried to unravel Carol based on her looks and how she carried herself with that heavy bag over her shoulder. “ - hang on a moment, I think I got it. French.”

Carol lamented with a shake of the head. “No, sorry.” Guess that means no movie with her next week, she thought to herself.

Harrie looked back at Carol’s bag with an amused scowl. “I was pretty certain, darn it.”

“I do study French though,” Carol admitted to try and ease Harrie’s partially wounded ego, “but it’s actually History of Art.” It was pretty close though when she took a moment to think about it.

“So I’m partially correct!” Harrie cheerfully exclaimed with a gesture of her hands raised in the air. Carol tugged again at the bag hanging from her shoulder, trying to get a better grip on it as she tried to keep up with Harrie’s long strides. “So I bet you could translate for me all those pleasantries Michel was telling his grandmother in that scene on Madeira.”

“I suppose I could. However, I could not tell you and have that be the consequence of guessing my major incorrectly. If you recall, you didn’t tell me what would happen if you guessed wrongly.”

“I didn’t.” Harrie stopped at a corner and put her hands back into the jacket pockets to ward off the chill. “I’m headed this way. You going over there then?”

Carol gestured to the street at her left. “I am.”

“It was nice meeting you, Carol.” The shoulder bag slipped again and Carol struggled for a moment as she extended her hand. “I’ll see you around here some other time, I suppose. Or campus. Logically.” They shook and immediately took one step back from each other, standing in place, neither one moving an inch.

“Definitely, or… “ Carol scrunched up her face as she trailed off without anything more to add; sadly the reality of it was she just didn’t know what to say to Harrie. “... wh- what about Thursday next week? Six o’clock? It’ll be Wuthering Heights.”

Harrie took a deep breath, repeatedly nodding before speaking. “Alright.”

“I’ll see you then.” Carol began walking away, then looked back over her shoulder and stopped. “Good night, Harriet.”

Harrie paused and smiled, finally able to see Carol properly, illuminated by the soft glow of the street lamps as she headed back to her room.