This is the next installment of Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape With Figures. I know this one is longer than normal, but it’s my favorite excerpt from the book. It’s poignant and funny and sweet and sad and glorious, all at once. Enjoy:
At the Prescotts’ cocktail party yesterday their young daughter Tina helped serve the hors d’oeuvres. She is about twelve or thirteen, childhood virtually outgrown but with traces of ‘little-girl-ness’ still lingering in the budding figure and the small, rather triangular face with its slightly tiptilted blue eyes.
I was talking with a good-looking young college student I’d just met, when she approached us. Approached him, I should say, because it was clear that she had no interest in me beyond politely offering me a canape. They obviously knew each other. He greeted her as if he were truly glad to see her, without any adult-to-child condescension; he told her he liked the way she was wearing her hair, and when she moved off toward the next knot of guests he called after her, ‘Don’t disappear till we get a chance to talk, Tina.’
She turned back toward him with a shy smile that seemed to hint at a secret between them, and lifted those kitten-blue eyes to his face for just a second. The expression in them was kittenlike, too – both guileless and sensuous.
The twinkle in the young man’s eyes as he faced me again showed that he had known all along what I had just discovered in the fleeting glance Tina had given him: that she was naively and passionately in love with him. I had seen and felt it with a little shock of recognition; it had reopened a chapter of my own life, long closed and almost forgotten. The sudden uprush of recollections was so vivid that it seemed to me that I could read Tina’s future for the next few months or years on the basis of them. I knew all the exaltation and sweet suffering, the hours of revery and yearning that lay in store for her, and the inbreak of reality that would eventually and inevitably wake her from the lovely and disquieting dream. I knew the confusion that would follow, the groping and growing before she reached some equipoise between the forces tugging at her from different sides. I knew because I, too, had fallen passionately in love with an ‘older man,’ i.e., a young man in his mid-twenties, when I was about Tina’s age. I would happily have died for him – provided, of course, that he was on hand to witness my sacrifice and hold me in his arms as I drew my last quivering breath.
It’s no doubt a common pattern for adolescent girls. Calf love, puppy love, a crush, we call it from a vantage of adulthood and smile indulgently. How can we so easily forget our first ‘serious’ love with all its heights and depths of feeling? Of course we don’t really. We just let it sink out of sight until something like that glance of Tina’s I intercepted pulls it unexpectedly up to the surface again.
There was that summer in my own life when I fell in love with Gavin McCaig. Until then I had never wanted to grown up. I remember wishing on my ninth birthday when I blew out the candles that I could stay that age forever. It seemed to me I had learned a great deal since my eighth birthday and so I was glad to be nine. Beyond that, however, I saw no need to grow; at nine I knew enough. Not in the sense of bookish knowledge, but in the wisdom that comes simply from having lived. Or, to express what I felt a little more accurately perhaps, it was as if I had not been fully awake at eight years old but at nine I was. Then when I reached ten, it seemed to me I had not been fully awake at nine, but now at ten I certainly was, and I wanted to stop right there.
I hated the idea of being an adult because I felt, without being able to put it into words clearly, that grown-ups had to carry heavy responsibilities which literally weighted them down like a physical burden. They could no longer run, skip, play hopscotch, jump rope or even lie down on a grassy bank and roll to the bottom. In addition, they were constrained by all manner of senseless rules and customs. They had to keep their hands and faces clean and their clothes neat all the time. They couldn’t walk along the street singing or eating a peanut butter sandwich. They couldn’t go up to someone on the beach they’d never met and say, ‘What’s your name?’ They had to wait to be introduced and then they had to make polite conversation instead of asking things they really wanted to know such as: ‘How’d you get that little scar over your eyebrow?’ or ‘Have you ever seen kittens being born?’ or ‘What would you do if you woke up and found a burglar in your room?’
There was one great disadvantage to being a child and that, of course, was having to obey and conform to the irksome dictates of parents. Meals had to be eaten at the same time every day even if you weren’t hungry or wanted to go on readying a book. You had to go to bed at the same time every night even though you weren’t sleepy. The only advantage I could see to growing up was that I would be free of all these parental restrictions. Yet I was afraid that as a grown-up I, too, might get caught in a routine similar to theirs, hemmed in on all sides by responsibilities and the established way of doing things. It was preferable to hang on to childhood as long as possible.
I was still trying to hang on, although knowing I was waging a losing battle, when Gavin McCaig began to play a part in my life, or in my imagination at least. Then suddenly I couldn’t wait to grow up. Instead of looking upon my developing figure with dismay, I wondered impatiently how long it would take before adults would accept me as a grown-up woman.
Gavin bore little resemblance to his mother, of whom I was so fond, either mentally or temperamentally. He was a squarish, solid-looking young man – the epitome of masculine strength it seemed to me – whose principal interests were sports and jazz. He was ‘taking the summer off,’ ‘deciding what he wanted to do.’ He may have been something of a ne’er-do-well but he had more than his share of what would be called ‘charisma’ today.
He was a friend of my parents, like his mother, but the difference in our ages seemed to me no barrier to romance. He was the first man who ever stood up when I entered the room, and when he shook hands it was with a firm handclasp, a warm smile and a direct look which I chose to interpret as having special significance for me. When he dropped in on my parents I was certain he had really come to see me. I imagined he was secretly in love with me but could not speak of it because I was admittedly young for marriage and one did have to observe the conventions. I was sure, however, that he was just biding his time and I fabricated endless daydreams of the momentous day or night when he would declare himself.
He certainly must have known I was in love with him. I conveyed it to him quite intentionally by meaningful glances, by letting my hand linger in his when we shook hands (which I saw to it we did not only on every occasion of our meeting but of our parting as well), by ‘accidental’ brushing of my shoulder against his arm. Be it forever to his credit that he never betrayed his amusement to me or as far as I know to anyone else.
I continued to go on bird walks with his mother. Being friends with her gave me a good excuse to drop in a the McCaig house on the pretext of having come to see her. Sometimes I was lucky and found Gavin there but the house was too full of people for us every to be alone. I assumed this disappointed him as much as it did me.
One evening toward the end of summer my parents went to see friends next door. I was up in my room ostensibly reading but actually scrutinizing my face in the mirror in the hope of finding I looked older than I had at the beginning of the summer. On my bureau was a vase of snapdragons from Mrs. McCaig’s garden, which she had given me, and the faint breeze coming in the open windows would waft up the scent of them in little tufts. It is a fragrance that will forever associated in my mind with Mrs. McCaig, but more with her son Gavin (because I pretended that he had given them to me) and the bliss of my newfound love – and with a certain sadness, too, because before that evening was over I was to take my first tentative step out of the wold of childhood and would never be able to enter it wholeheartedly again.
I had never gone to the McCaig’s house in the evening. It suddenly occurred to me I could slip over there and back before my parents got home. It was already dark but still early. I could pretend I had come to borrow a bird book from Mrs. McCaig. As I approached the house I could hear someone – and I knew it w as Gavin – pounding out ‘Limehouse Blues’ on the old upright piano. Laughter and singing and chatter floated out on the soft air. Gavin hardly paused between pieces. Jazz has three predominant moods: sensual, melancholy and exuberant. Though I could not have named them then, I was tossed from one to another as I stood listening under the willow tree for several minutes before I could muster up my courage to enter the house.
When I finally did go in and stand just inside the door tentatively, Gavin looked up with his cordial smile, his eyes squinting from the smoke floating up from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and waved me a welcome. All Mrs. McCaig’s children radiated hospitality, even to a child, and someone indicated a chair and invited me to sit down. I did, shyly, half hiding in the shadows.
The music went on. Gavin played by ear and ‘could play anything.’ My feet began to tap on the floor; he cause my eye with an understanding look that urged me on, and suddenly I flung off my self-consciousness and was out in the middle of the room, dancing with wholehearted abandon, imitating dances I’d sen in the movies and throwing in a few innovations of my own. For perhaps a minute and a half I was the center of all eyes. It was a taste of glory I had never before experienced. I heard one of Gavin’s brothers say, ‘The kid can really dance!’ and my idol nodded in agreement. My cup was too full to contain. I turned and darted out the door with the applause still sounding in my ears. My heart was pounding not with exertion but with excitement. I was elated, distracted, miserable altogether and I could not have said whether what I felt was closer to anguish or joy.
Weaving a little dizzily I wandered around to the other side of the house. Here the sound of the music and voices was muted, and the night filled with the sound of crickets and katydids. Instead of the smell of cigarette smoke and whisky, the soft scents of the garden hung on the air, and overhead millions of stars floated in a dark bowl. Mrs. McCaig was sitting on a stone bench in the garden. She did not speak but I knew she had seen me and was silently inviting me to join her. I sat down beside her and for just a moment she laid her hand upon mine in what I took to be a gesture of greeting but which I suspect ow was a gesture of farewell because she sensed I was no longer the same child who had tagged along on her nature walks.
We sat in silence for awhile, and the night and her quiet presence began to calm me down, to fill me with a sadness and a longing which I could not then have explained. After awhile she began pointing out various constellations to me: Cassiopeia, Cygnus, the Pleiades. Paradoxically, while she usually had a somewhat detached, impersonal attitude toward people and things close at hand, she had a familiar attitude toward the distant. It was as if she could hold out her hand and say, ‘Come,’ and a star would drop into it and nestle there.
I felt as if I were being torn apart. I wanted on the one hand to linger as long as possible in the realm of the simple, sensuous delight in nature, of freedom from adult responsibility, in the domain which Mrs. McCaig shared with me; on the other, to step forward into a new world of parties and romantic excitement, of music and dancing, of moonlight sails with my true love, or driving around in a convertible with my hair blowing in the wind – Gavin’s world. I could not bear to give up the one I’d explored with Mrs. McCaig; neither could I bear to let go the one I’d just briefly set foot in.
Perhaps we really never make decisions. They are made for us – by events, by time, by obscure motives and processes within ourselves. Summer came to an end and we went our separate ways, back to the cities where we lived in the winter. As the weeks passed, it was not the nature walks with Mrs. McCaig which I missed. It was Gavin I longed for. Once he called my parents long-distance. They were out and I enjoyed the bliss of having him all to myself on the telephone. Small wonder I imagined that I was the one he really wanted to talk with, because with his usual kindness, and no doubt secret amusement, he let me keep him on the phone for almost ten minutes.
I could not sleep all night for joy. I went over every word of our conversation, injecting cryptic meanings into the most obvious remarks. I was more certain then ever that my love was reciprocated and that he was just biding his time until I was old enough so that my parents would accept the situation. So strongly did his image possess my mind that one winter evening when a car drew up in our driveway and a man got out and Mother wondered who it could be, I, looking out the window and nearly suffocating with rapture said, trying to sound casual, ‘Why, it looks like Gavin McCaig.’
But it wasn’t. Suddenly I was frightened. If my mind could play such tricks on my that I could mistake a man who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the one I loved…I sensed danger. I felt a need to right myself, to shake myself out of the dream world which had become so real to me. And with that effort there came with devastating clarity the realization of the truth: I was still a little girl in Gavin’s eyes, he was not in love with me and never had been, and I was a victim of my own deluded wishes.
When we came back to Stoneleigh the following summer, the McCaigs had not arrived. I found myself suddenly caught up in the social activities of my contemporaries. I sailed; I went to the well-chaperoned Yacth Club dances; I had hot, hushed conversations about boys with my girlfriends.
The days passed and the McCaigs did not return. I was secretly relieved and at the same time inexplicably a little sad when I heard their house was up for sale. I never saw any of them again.”