I was writing her a letter when Crosley came to my room. Crosley was a science whiz. He won the science prize every year and spent his summers working as an intern in different laboratories. He was also a fanatical weight lifter. His arms were so knotty he had to hold them out from his sides as he walked, as if he were carrying buckets. Even his features seemed muscular. His face had a permanent flush. Crosley lived down the hall by himself in one of the only singles in the school. He was said to be a thief; that supposedly was the reason he'd ended up without a roommate. I didn't know if it was true and tried to avoid forming an opinion on the matter, but whenever we passed each other I felt embarrassed and looked away.
Crosley leaned in the door and asked me how things were.
I said okay.
He stepped inside and gazed around the room, tilting his head to read my roommate's pennants and the titles of our books. I was uneasy. I said, "So what can I do foryou?" not meaning to sound as cold as I did but not exactly regretting it either.
He caught my tone and smiled. It was the kind of smile you put on when you pass a group of people you suspect are talking about you; his usual expression, in other words.
He said, "You know Garcia, right?"
"Garcia? Sure. I think so."
"You know him," Crosley said. "He runs around with Hidalgo and those guys. He's the tall one."
"Sure," I said. "I know who Garcia is."
"Well, his stepmother's in New York for a fashion show or something, and tonight she's going to drive up and take him out to dinner. She told him to bring along some friends. You want to come?"
"What about Hidalgo and the rest of them?"
"They're at some kind of polo deal in Maryland. Buying horses. Or ponies, I guess it would be."
The notion of someone my age buying ponies to play a game was so unexpected that I couldn't quite take it in. "Jesus," I said.
"How about it?" Crosley said. "You want to come?"
I'd never even spoken to Garcia. He was the nephew of a famous dictator, and all his friends were nephews and cousins of other dictators. They lived as they pleased here. Most of them kept cars a few blocks from the campus, though that was completely against the rules. They were cocky and prankish and charming. They moved everywhere in a body, sunglasses pushed up on their heads and jackets slung over their shoulders, twittering all at once like birds, chinga this and chinga that. The headmaster was completely buffaloed. After Christmas vacation a bunch of them came down with gonorrhea, and all he did was call them in and advise them that they should not be in too great a hurry to lose their innocence. It became a school joke. All you had to do was say "innocence" and everyone would crack up.
"I don't know," I said.
"Come on," Crosley said.
"But I don't even know the guy."
"So what? I don't either."
"Then why did he ask you?"
"I was sitting next to him at lunch."
"Terrific," I said. "That explains you. What about me? How come he asked me?"
"He didn't. He told me to bring someone else."
"What, just anybody? Just whoever happened to present himself to your attention? "
"Sounds great," I said. "Sounds like a recipe for a really memorable evening."
"You got something better to do?" Crosley asked.
"No," I said.
The limousine picked us up under the awning of the headmaster's house. The driver, an old man, got out slowly and then slowly adjusted his cap before opening the door for us. Garcia slid in beside the woman in back. Crosley and I sat across from them on seats that pulled down. I caught her scent immediately. For some years afterward I bought perfume for women, and I was never able to find that one.
Garcia erupted into Spanish as soon as the driver closed the door behind me. He sounded angry, spittingwords at the woman and gesticulating violently. She rocked back a little, then let loose a burst of her own. I stared openly at her. Her skin was very white. She wore a black cape over a black dress cut just low enough to show her pale throat and the bones at the base of her throat. Her mouth was red. There was a spot of rouge high on each cheek, not rubbed in to look like real color but left there carelessly, or carefully, to make you think again how white her skin was. Her teeth were small and sharp looking, and she bared them in concert with certain gestures and inflections. As she talked her pointed little tongue flicked in and out.
She wasn't a lot older than we were.
She said something definitive and cut her hand through the air. Garcia began to answer her but she said "No!" and chopped the air again. Then she turned and smiled at Crosley and me. It was a completely false smile. She said, "Where would you fellows like to eat?" Her voice sounded lower in English, even a little harsh. She called us "fallows."
"Anywhere is fine with me," I said.
"Anywhere," she repeated. She narrowed her big black eyes and pushed her lips together. I could see that my answer had disappointed her. She looked at Crosley.
"There's supposed to be a good French restaurant in Newbury," Crosley said. "Also an Italian place. It depends on what you want."
"No," she said. "It depends on what you want. I am not so hungry."
If Garcia had a preference, he kept it to himself. He sulked in the corner, his round shoulders slumped and his hands between his knees. He seemed to be trying to make a point of some kind.
"There's also a smorgasbord," Crosley said. "If you like smorgasbords."
"Smorgasbord," she said. Obviously the word was new to her. She repeated it to Garcia. He frowned, then answered her in a sullen monotone.
I couldn't believe Crosley had suggested the smorgasbord. It was an egregiously uncouth suggestion. The smorgasbord was where the local fatties went to binge. Football coaches brought whole teams in there to bulk up. The food was good enough, and God knows there was plenty of it, all you could eat, actually, but the atmosphere was brutally matter of fact. The food was good, though. Big platters of shrimp on crushed ice. Barons of beef. Smoked turkey. No end of food, really.
"You-do you like smorgasbords?" she asked Crosley.
"Yes," he said.
"Andyou?" she said to me.
I nodded. Then, not to seem wishy-washy, I said, "You bet."
"Smorgasbord," she said. She laughed and clapped her hands. "Smorgasbord!"
Crosley gave directions to the driver and we drove slowly away from the school. She said something to Garcia. He nodded at both of us and gave our names, then looked away again, out the window, where the snowy fields were turning dark. His face was long, his eyes sorrowful as a hound's. He had barely said a word while we were waiting for the limousine. I didn't know why he was mad at his stepmother, or why he wouldn't talk to us, or why he'd even asked us along, but by now I didn't really care.
She studied us and repeated our names skeptically. "No," she said. She pointed at Crosley and said, "El Blanco." She pointed at me and said, "El Negro." Then she pointed at herself and said, "I am Linda."
"Leen-da," Crosley said. He really overdid it, but she showed her sharp little teeth and said, "Exactamente."
Then she settled back against the seat and pulled her cape close around her shoulders. It soon fell open again. She was restless. She sat forward and leaned back, crossed and recrossed her legs, swung her feet impatiently. She had on black high heels fastened by a thin strap; I could see almost her entire foot. I heard the silky rub of her stockings against each other, and breathed in a fresh breath of her perfume every time she moved. That perfume had a certain effect on me. It didn't reach me as just a smell. It was personal, it seemed to issue from her very privacy. It made the hair bristle on my arms and sent faint chills across my shoulders and the backs of my knees. Every time she moved I felt a little tug and followed her motion with some slight motion of my own.
When we arrived at the smorgasbord-Swenson's, or Hanson's, some such honest Swede of a name-Garcia refused to get out of the limousine. Linda tried to persuade him, but he shrank back into his corner and would not answer or even look at her. She threw up her hands. "Ah!" she said, and turned away. Crosley and I followed her across the parking lot toward the big red barn. Her dress rustled as she walked. Her heels clicked on the cement.
You could say one thing for the smorgasbord; it wasn't pretentious. This was a real barn, not some quaint fantasy of a barn with butter-churn lamps and little brass ornaments nailed to the walls on strips of leather. The kitchen was at one end. The rest of it had been left open and filled with picnic tables. Blazing lightbulbs hung from the rafters. In the middle of the barn stood what my English master would have called "the groaning board"-a great table heaped with every kind of food you could think of, and then some. I'd been there many times and it always gave me a small, pleasant shock to see how much food there was.
Girls wearing dirndls hustled here and there, cleaning up messes, changing tablecloths, bringing fresh platters of food from the kitchen.
We stood blinking in the sudden light, then followed one of the waitresses across the floor. Linda walked slowly, gazing around like a tourist. Several men looked up from their food as she passed. I was right behind her, and I looked back at them forbiddingly so they'd think she was my wife.
We were lucky; we got a table to ourselves. Linda shrugged off her cape, then waved us toward the food. "Go on," she said. She sat down and opened her purse. When I looked back she was lighting a cigarette.
"You're pretty quiet tonight," Crosley said as we filled our plates. "You pissed off about something?"
"Maybe I'm just quiet, Crosley, you know?"
He speared a slice of meat and said, "When she called you El Negro, that didn't mean she thought you were a Negro. She just said that because your hair is dark. Mine is light, that's how come she called me El Blanco."
"I know that, Crosley. Jesus. You think I couldn't figure that out? Give me some credit, okay?" Then, as we moved around the table, I said, "You speak Spanish?"
"Unpoco. Actually more like unpoquito."
"What's Garcia mad about?"
"Money. Something about money."
"That's all I could get. But it's definitely about money."
I'd meant to start off slow, but by the time I reached the end of the table my plate was full. Potato salad, ham, jumbo shrimp, toast, barbecued beef, eggs Benny. Crosley's was full too. We walked back toward Linda, who was leaning forward on her elbows and looking around the barn. She took a long drag off her cigarette, lifted her chin, and blew a stream of smoke up toward the rafters. I sat across from her. "Scoot down," Crosley said, and bumped in beside me.
She watched us eat for a while.
"So," she said, "El Blanco. Are you from New York?"
Crosley looked up in surprise. "No, ma'am," he said. "I'm from Virginia."
Linda stabbed out her cigarette. Her long fingernails were painted the same deep red as the lipstick smears on her cigarette butt. She said, "I just came from New York and I can tell you that is one crazy place. Just incredible. Listen to this. I am in a taxicab, you know, and we are stopping in this traffic jam for a long time and there is a taxicab next to us with this fellow in it who stares at me. Like this, you know." She made her eyes go round. "Of course I ignore him. So guess what, my door opens and he gets into my cab. 'Excuse me,' he says, 'I want to marry you.' That's nice,' I say. 'Ask my husband.' 'I don't care about your husband,' he says. 'I don't care about my wife either.' Of course I had to laugh. 'Okay,' he says. 'You think that's funny? How about this?' Then he says-" Linda looked sharply at each of us. She sniffed and made a face. "He says things you would never believe. Never. He wants to do this and he wants to do that. Well, I act like I am about to scream. I open my mouth like this. 'Hey,' he says, 'okay, okay. Relax.' Then he gets out and goes back to his taxicab. We are still sitting there for a long time again, and you know what he is doing? He is reading the newspaper. With his hat on. Go ahead, eat," she said to us, and nodded toward the food.
A tall blonde girl was carving fresh slices of roast beef onto a platter. She was hale and bosomy-I could see the laces on her bodice straining. Her cheeks glowed. Her bare arms and shoulders were ruddy with exertion. Crosley raised his eyebrows at me. I raised mine back, though my heart wasn't in it. She was a Viking dream, pure gemtttlichkeit, but I was drunk on Garcia's stepmother and in that condition you don't want a glass of milk; you want more of what's makingyou stumble and fall.
Crosley and I filled our plates again and headed back.
"I'm always hungry," he said.
"I know what you mean," I told him.
Linda smoked another cigarette while we ate. She watched the other tables as if she were at a movie. I tried to eat with a little finesse and so did Crosley, dabbing his lips with a napkin between eveiy bulging mouthful, but some of the people around us had completely slipped their moorings. They ducked their heads low to shovel up their food, and while they chewed it they looked around suspiciously and circled their plates with their forearms. A big family to our left was the worst. There was something competitive and desperate about them; they seemed determined to eat their way into a condition where they would never have to eat again. You'd have thought they were refugees from some great hunger, that outside these walls the land was afflicted with drought and barrenness. I felt a kind of desperation myself, as if I were growing emptier with every bite I took.
There was a din in the air, a steady roar like that of a waterfall.
Linda looked around with a pleased expression. Though she bore no likeness to anyone here, she seemed completely at home. She sent us back for another plate, then dessert and coffee, and while we were finishing up she asked El Blanco if he had a girlfriend.
"No, ma'am," Crosley said. "We broke up," he added, and his red face turned almost purple. It was clear that he was lying.
"You. How about you?"
"Ha!" she said. "El Negro is the one! So. What's her name?"
"Jaaane," Linda drawled. "Okay, let's hear about Jaaane."
"Jane," I said again.
I told her everything. I told her how my girlfriend and I had met and what she looked like and what our plans were-eveiything. I told her more than everything, because I gave certain coy though definite suggestions about the extremes to which our passion had already driven us. I meant to impress her with my potency, to enflame her, to wipe that smile off her face, but the more I told her the more wolfishly she smiled and the more her eyes laughed at me.
"Laughing eyes"-now there's a cliche my English master would've eaten me alive for. "How exactly did these eyes laugh?" he would have asked, looking up from my paper while my classmates snorted around me. "Did they titter, or did they merely chortle? Did they give a great guffaw? Did they, perhaps, scream with laughter?"
I am here to tell you that eyes can scream with laughter. Linda's did. As I played Big Hombre for her I could see exactly how complete my failure was. I could hear her saying, Okay, El Negro, go on, talk about your little gorlfren, but we know what you want, don't we? You want to suck on my tongue and slobber on my titties and bury your face in me. That's what you want.
Crosley interrupted me. "Ma'am . . ." he said, and nodded toward the door. Garcia was leaning there with his arms crossed and an expression of fury on his face. When she looked at him he turned and walked out the door.
Her eyes went flat. She sat there for a moment. She began to take a cigarette from her case, then put it back and stood up. "We go," she said.
Garcia was waiting in the car, rigid and silent. He said nothing on the drive back. Linda swung her foot and stared out the window at the passing houses and bright, moonlit fields. Just before we reached the school Garcia leaned forward and began speaking to her in a low voice. She listened impassively and didn't answer. He was still talking when the limousine stopped in front of the headmaster's house. The driver opened the door. Garcia fixed his eyes on her. Still impassive, she took her pocketbook out of her purse. She opened it and looked inside. She meditated over the contents, then withdrew a bill and offered it to Garcia. It was a hundred-dollar bill. "Boolshit!" he said, and sat back. With no change of expression she turned and held the bill out to me. I didn't know what else to do but take it. She got another one from her pocketbook and presented it to Crosley, who hesitated even less than I had. Then she gave us the same false smile she'd greeted us with and said, "Good night, it was a pleasure to meet you. Good night, good night," she said to Garcia.
The three of us got out of the limousine. I went a few steps, then slowed down and turned to look back.
"Keep walking!" Crosley hissed.
Garcia yelled something in Spanish as the driver closed the door. I faced around again and walked with Crosley across the quad. As we approached our dorm he quickened his pace. "I don't believe it," he whispered. "A hundred bucks." When we were inside he stopped and shouted, "A hundred bucks! A hundred dollars!"
"Pipe down," someone called.
"All right, all right. Fuck you!" he added.
We went up the stairs to our floor, laughing and banging into each other. "Doyou believe it?" he said.
I shook my head. We were standing outside my door.
"No, really now, listen." He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. He said, "Do you fucking believe it?"
I told him I didn't.
"Well, neither do 1.1 don't fucking believe it."
There didn't seem to be much to say after that. I could have invited Crosley in, but to tell the truth I still thought of him as a thief. We laughed a few more times and said good night.
My room was cold. I took the bill out of my pocket and looked at it. It was new and stiff, the kind of bill you associate with kidnappings. The picture of Franklin was surprisingly lifelike. I looked at it for a while. A hundred dollars was a lot of money then. I'd never had a hundred dollars before, not in one chunk like this. To be on the safe side I taped it to a page in Profiles in Courage-, so I wouldn't forget where it was.
I had trouble getting to sleep. The food I'd eaten sat like a stone in me, and I was miserable about the things I'd said. I understood that I had been a liar and a fool. I kept shifting under the covers, then sat up and turned on my reading lamp. I picked up the new picture my girlfriend had sent me, and closed my eyes, and when I had some peace of mind I renewed my promises to her.
We broke up a month after I got home. Her parents were away one night, and we seized the opportunity to make love in their canopied bed. This was the fifth time we'd made love. She got up immediately afterward and started putting her clothes on. When I asked her what the problem was, she wouldn't answer me. I thought, Oh, Christ, what now. "Come on," I said. "What's wrong?"
She was tying her shoes. She looked up and said, "You don't love me."
It surprised me to hear this, not so much that she said it but because it was true. Before this moment I hadn't known it was true, but it was-I didn't love her.
We're supposed to smile at the passions of the young, and at what we recall of our own passions, as if they were no more than a series of sweet frauds we'd fooled ourselves with and then wised up to. Not only the passion of boys and girls for each other but the others too-passion for justice, for doing right, for turning the world around. All these come in their time under our wintry smiles. Yet there was nothing foolish about what we felt. Nothing merely young. I just wasn't up to it. I let the light go out.
Sometime later I heard a soft knock at my door. I was still wide awake. "Yeah," I said.
Crosley stepped inside. He was wearing a blue dressing gown of some silky material that shimmered in the dim light of the hallway. He said, "Have you got any Turns or anything?"
"No. I wish I did."
"You too, huh?" He closed the door and sat on my roommates bunk. "Do you feel as bad as I do?"
"How bad do you feel?"
"Like I'm dying. I think there was something wrong with the shrimp."
"Come on, Crosley. You ate everything but the barn."
"So did you."
"That's right. That's why I'm not complaining."
He moaned and rocked back and forth on the bed. I could hear real pain in his voice. I sat up. "You okay, Crosley?"
"I guess," he said.
"You want me to call the nurse?"
"God," he said. "No, that's all right." He kept rocking. Then, in a carefully offhand way, he said, "Look, is it okay if I just stay here for a while?"
I almost said no, then caught myself. "Sure," I told him. "Make yourself at home."
He must have heard my hesitation. "Forget it," he said. "Sorry I asked." But he made no move to go.
I felt confused, tender toward Crosley because he was in pain, repelled because of what I'd heard about him. Still, maybe what I'd heard about him wasn't true. I wanted to be fair, so I said, "Hey Crosley, do you mind if I ask you a question? "
"That depends." He was watching me, his arms crossed over his stomach. In the moonlight his dressing gown was iridescent as oil.
"Is it true that you got caught stealing?"
"You prick," he said. He looked down at the floor.
"You want to hear about it," he said, "just ask someone. Everybody knows all about it, right?"
"That's right, you don't. You don't know shit about it and neither does anyone else." He raised his head. "The really hilarious part is, I didn't actually get caught stealing it, I got caught putting it back. Not to make excuses. I stole it all right."
"The coat," he said. "Robinson's overcoat. Don't tell me you didn't know that."
"Well, I didn't."
"Then you must've been living in a cave or something. You know Robinson, right? Robinson was my roommate. He had this camel's hair overcoat, this really beautiful overcoat. I kind of got obsessed with it. I thought about it all the time. Whenever he went somewhere without it, I'd put it on and stand in front of the mirror. Then one day I just took the fucker. I stuck it in my locker over at the gym. Robinson was really upset. He'd go to his closet ten, twenty times a day, like he thought the coat had just gone for a walk or something. So anyway, I brought it back. Robinson came into the room right when I was hanging it up." Crosley bent forward suddenly, then leaned back.
"You're lucky they didn't kick you out."
"I wish they had," he said. "The dean wanted to play Jesus. He got all choked up over the fact that I'd brought it back." Crosley rubbed his arms. "Man, did I want that coat. It was ridiculous how much I wanted it. You know?" He looked right at me. "Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Good." Crosley lay back against the pillow, then lifted his feet onto the bed. "Say," he said, "I think I figured out how come Garcia invited me."
"He was mad at his stepmother, right? He wanted to punish her."
"So I'm the punishment. He probably heard I was the biggest douchebag in school, and figured whoever came with me would have to be a douchebag too. That's my theory, anyway."
I started laughing. It killed my stomach but I couldn't stop. Crosley said, "Come on, man, don't make me laugh," and he started too, laughing and moaning at the same time.