INTRODUCTION BY CAROL SKLENICKA
“Return Trips” displays the lush emotions and expert craft that earned Alice Adams her place as one of the twentieth century’s most talented and acclaimed short story writers, though sadly she isn’t as widely known today as some of her contemporaries.
Alice Adams saw alternatives rather than straight paths in life—for her this became a feminist strategy for survival and success. In “Return Trips,” Adams breaks the writing workshop rules about a limited cast of characters and time frame to link disparate episodes in the interior life of a woman like her—but not her. She wrote the story after she’d made a return trip of her own to the town where she grew up during the Great Depression—Chapel Hill, North Carolina—in 1982. By then she was fifty-six. Both her parents were long dead and she hadn’t been back to that town (Hilton in the story) for twenty-four years. To me, as Adams’s biographer, these bare facts might suggest a fiction that’s really a memoir.
But like a mille-feuille pastry, Adams’s story folds over itself again and again. With each layer, she invents and transforms her memory and herself. Emma, the narrator, begins by recalling a miserable (but unforgettable) summer on the coast of Yugoslavia with a lover she wanted to (but didn’t) marry named Paul, who died soon after of a congenital heart condition. Back then, Emma cherished “a magic belief that if we did a normal thing, something other people did all the time, like getting married, Paul’s heart would become normal, too, like other, ordinary hearts.”
A dream Emma had during that summer in Yugoslavia links Paul’s heart pain with memories from Emma’s childhood and her return trip to Hilton. The trip causes her to remember her mother’s “desolate march into middle age,” a glimpse of her father kissing another woman, and her own sexual awakening. Paul, the man she grieves for in the story, was the ideal lover who (she believed) understood her better than her own mother did. Now both are dead. From there, the story swirls into other topics—Emma’s two marriages, her career as a historian and author, her longing to be loved again as Paul loved her so many years ago.
Like many of Alice Adams’s stories, this one explores the motions of a woman’s heart, its delicate flights and its steadfast bravery as she travels through years and across continents.
– Carol Sklenicka
Author of Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer
Love Is a Yellow Hotel in Yugoslavia
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by Alice Adams
Some years ago I spent a hot and mostly miserable summer in an ugly yellow hotel on the steep and thickly wooded, rocky coast of northern Yugoslavia, not far from the island of Rab. I was with a man whom I entirely, wildly loved, and he, Paul, loved me, too, but together we suffered the most excruciating romantic agonies, along with the more ordinary daily discomforts of bad food, an uncomfortable, poorly ventilated room with a hard, unyielding bed, and not enough money to get away. Or enough strength: Paul’s health was bad. Morosely we stared out over the lovely clear, cool blue water, from our pine forest, to enticing islands that were purplish-gray in the distance. Or else I swam and Paul looked out after me.
Paul’s problem was a congenital heart condition, now correctable by surgery, but not so then; he hurt a lot, and the smallest walks could cause pain. Even love, I came to realize, was for Paul a form of torture, although we kept at it—for him suicidally, I guess—during those endless sultry yellow afternoons, on our awful bed, between our harsh, coarse sheets.
I wanted us to marry. I was very young, and very healthy, and my crazy, unreal idea of marriage seemed to include a sort of transfer of strength. I was not quite so silly as to consciously think that marrying me would “cure” Paul, nor did I imagine a lifelong nurse role for myself. It was, rather, a magic belief that if we did a normal thing, something other people did all the time, like getting married, Paul’s heart would become normal, too, like other, ordinary hearts.
Paul believed that he would die young, and, nobly, he felt that our marriage would be unfair to me. He also pointed out that whereas he had enough money from a small inheritance for one person, himself, to live on very sparingly, there was really not enough for two, and I would do well to go back to America and to the years of graduate study to which my professor mother wanted to stake me. At that time, largely because of Paul, who was a poet, I thought of studying literature; instead, after he died I turned to history, contemporary American. By now I have written several books; my particular interest is in the Trotskyite movement: its rich history of lonely, occasionally brilliant, contentious voices, its legacy of schisms—an odd choice, perhaps, but the books have been surprisingly popular. You might say, and I hope Paul would, that I have done very well professionally. In any case you could say that Paul won our argument. That fall I went back to graduate school, at Georgetown, and Paul died young, as he said he would, in a hospital in Trieste.
I have said that Paul loved me, and so he did, intensely— he loved me more, it has come to seem to me, than anyone since, although I have had my share, I guess. But Paul loved me with a meticulous attention that included every aspect. Not only my person: at that time I was just a skinny tall young girl with heavy dark hair that was fated to early gray, as my mother’s had been. With an old-fashioned name—Emma. Paul loved my hair and my name and whatever I said to him, any odd old memory, or half-formed ambition; he took all my perceptions seriously. He laughed at all my jokes, although his were much funnier. He was even interested in my dreams, which I would sometimes wake and tell him, that summer, in the breathless pre-dawn cool, in the ugly hotel.
And so it is surprising that there was one particular dream that I did not tell him, especially since this dream was so painful and troubling that I remember it still. Much later I even arranged to reenact the dream, an expurgatory ritual of sorts—but that is to get far ahead of my story.
In the dream, then, that I dreamed as I slept with Paul, all those years ago in Yugoslavia, it was very hot, and I was walking down a long, intensely familiar hill, beside a winding white concrete highway. In the valley below was the rambling white house where (long before Yugoslavia) my parents and I had lived for almost five years, in a small Southern town called Hilton. I did not get as far as the house, in the dream; it was so hot, and I was burdened with the most terrific, heavy pain in my chest, a pain that must have come from Paul’s actual pain, as the heat in the dream would have come from the actual heat of that summer.
“Oh, I had such an awful dream!” I cried out to Paul, as I burrowed against his sharp back, his fine damp skin.
“What about?” He kissed my hair.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I was in Hilton. You know, just before my parents’ divorce. Where I had such a good time and my mother hated everything.”
Against my hair he murmured, “Your poor mother.”
“Yes, but she brings it on herself. She’s so difficult. No wonder my father . . . really. And I don’t want to go to graduate school.”
And so I did not tell Paul my dream, in which I had painfully walked that downhill mile toward the scene of our family’s dissolution, and the heady start of my own adolescence. Instead, in a familiar way, Paul and I argued about my future, and as usual I took a few stray shots at my mother.
And Paul died, and I did after all go to graduate school, and then my mother died— quite young, it now seems to me, and long before our war was in any way resolved.
A very wise woman who is considerably older than I am once told me that in her view relationships with people to whom we have been very close can continue to change even after the deaths of those people, and for me I think this has been quite true, with my mother, and in quite another way with Paul.
I am now going back to a very early time, long before my summer with Paul, in Yugoslavia. Before anyone had died. I am going back to Hilton.
When we arrived in Hilton I was eleven, and both my parents were in their early forties, and almost everything that went so darkly and irretrievably wrong among the three of us was implicit in our ages. Nearly adolescent, I was eager for initiation into romantic, sensual mysteries of which I had dim intimations from books. For my mother, the five years from forty-two or forty- three onward were a desolate march into middle age. My father, about ten months younger than my mother—and looking, always, ten years younger—saw his early forties as prime time; he had never felt better in his life. Like me, he found Hilton both romantic and exciting— he had a marvelous time there, as I did, mostly.
My first overtly sensual experience took place one April night on that very stretch of road, the graveled walk up above the highway that wound down to our house, that I dreamed of in Yugoslavia. I must have been twelve, and a boy who was “walking me home” reached for and took and held my hand, and I felt an overwhelming hot excitement. Holding hands.
These days, like most of my friends, I am involved in a marriage, my second, which seems problematical—even more problematical than most of the marriages I see—but then maybe everyone views his or her marriage in this way. Andreas is Greek, by way of Berkeley, to which his parents immigrated in the thirties and opened a student restaurant, becoming successful enough to send their promising son to college there, and later on to medical school. Andreas and I seem to go from friendliness or even love to rage, with a speed that leaves me dizzy, and scared. However, ambivalent as in many ways I am about Andreas, I do very much like— in fact, I love— his hands. They are just plain male hands, rather square in shape, usually callused and very competent. Warm. A doctor, he specializes in kidneys, unromantically enough, but his hands are more like a workman’s, a carpenter’s. And sometimes even now an accidental meeting of our hands can recall me to affection; his hands remind me of love.
I liked Paul’s hands, too, and I remember them still. They were very smooth, and cool.
Back in Hilton, when I was twelve, my mother violently disapproved of my being out at night with boys. Probably sensing just how exciting I found those April nights that smelled of privet and lilacs, and those lean, tall, sweet-talking Southern boys, she wept and raged, despairing and helpless as she recognized the beginning of my life as a sensual woman, coinciding as it probably did with the end of her own.
My feckless father took my side, of course. “Things are different down here, my dear,” he told her. “It’s a scientific fact that girls, uh, mature much earlier in the South. And when in Rome, you know. I see no harm in Emma’s going to a movie with some nice boy, if she promises to be home at a reasonable hour. Ten-thirty?”
“But Emma isn’t Southern. She has got to be home by ten!”
My mother filled me with a searing discomfort, a longing to be away from her. Having no idea how much I pitied her, I believed that I hated her.
My father was not only younger than my mother, he was at least a full inch shorter—a small man, compactly built, and handsome. “Has anyone ever told you that you took like that writer fellow, that Scott Fitzgerald?” asked one of the local Hilton ladies, a small brunette, improbably named Popsie Hooker. “Why no, I don’t believe anyone ever has,” my father lied; he had been told at least a dozen times of that resemblance. “But of course I’m flattered to be compared to such a famous man. Rather a devil, though, I think I’ve heard,” he said, with a wink at Popsie Hooker.
“Popsie Hooker, how remarkably redundant,” hopelessly observed my academic mother, to my bored and restless father. They had chosen Hilton rather desperately, as a probably cheap place to live on my father’s dwindling Midwestern inheritance; he was never exactly cut out for work, and after divorcing my mother he resolved his problems, or some of them, in a succession of marriages to very rich women.
Popsie Hooker, who was later to play a curious, strong role in my life, at that time interested me not at all; if I had a view of her, it was closer to my mother’s than I would have admitted, and for not dissimilar reasons. She was ludicrous, so small and silly, and just a little cheap, with those girlish clothes, all ribbons and bows, and that tinny little laugh. And that accent: Popsie out-Southerned everyone around.
“It’s rather like a speech defect,” my mother observed, before she stopped mentioning Popsie altogether. Aside from her smallness and blue-eyed prettiness, Popsie’s local claim to fame was her lively correspondence with “famous people,” to whom she wrote what were presumably letters of adulation, the puzzle being that these people so often wrote back to her. Popsie was fond of showing off her collection. She had a charming note from Mr. Fitzgerald, and letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, Norma Shearer, Willa Cather, Clare Boothe Luce. No one, least of all my mother, could understand why such people would write to dopey Popsie, nor could I, until many years later, when she began to write to me.
However, I was too busy at that time to pay much attention to my parents or their friends, their many parties at which everyone drank too much; my own burgeoning new life was much more absorbing.
My walks at night with various boys up and down that stretch of highway sometimes came to include a chaste but passionate kiss; this would take place, if at all, on the small secluded dirt road that led down from the highway to our house.
One winter, our fourth year in Hilton, when I was fifteen, in January we had an exceptionally heavy fall of snow, deep and shadowed in the valley where our house was, ladening boughs of pine and fir and entirely covering the privet and quince and boxwood that edged the highway. For several days most of the highway itself lay under snow. Cars labored up and down the hill, singly, at long intervals, wearing unaccustomed chains.
Those nights of snow were marvelous: so cold, the black sky broken with stars as white as snow. My friends and I went sledding; that winter I was strongly taken with a dark boy who looked rather like Paul, now that I try to see him: a thin, bony face, a certain Paul-like intensity. On a dare we sledded down the highway, so perilously exciting! We lay on the sled, I stretched along his back.
We went hurtling down past the back road to my house, past everything. At last on a level area we stopped; on either side of us fields of white seemed to billow and spread off into the shadows, in the cold. Standing there we kissed— and then we began the long slow ascent of the highway, toward my house. He was pulling the sled, and we stopped several times to kiss, to press our upright bodies warmly together.
As we neared and then reached the back road to my house, we saw a car stopped, its headlights on. Guiltily we dropped hands. Dazzled by the light, only as we were almost upon it could I recognize our family car, the only wood-paneled Chrysler in town. In it was my father, kissing someone; their bodies were blotted into one silhouette.
If he saw and recognized us, there was no sign. He could easily not have seen us, or, knowing my father, who was nothing if not observant, I would guess it’s more likely he did see us but pretended to himself that he did not, as he pretended not to see that my mother was miserably unhappy, and that I was growing up given to emotional extremes, and to loneliness.
“Stricken” probably comes closest to how I felt: burning rage, a painful, seething shame—emotions that I took to be hatred. “I hate him” is what I thought. Oblivious of the tall boy at my side, I began to walk as fast as I could, clumping heavily through the snow; at the door of my house I muttered what must have been a puzzlingly abrupt good night. Without kissing.
By the time we left Hilton, the summer that I was sixteen, my parents were entirely fed up with Hilton, and with each other. My father thought he could get a job in the Pentagon, in Washington— he knew someone there; and my mother had decided on New York, on graduate school at Columbia; I would go to Barnard.
I was less upset about my parents’ separation than I was about leaving Hilton, which was by now to me a magic, enchanted place. In the spring and summer just preceding our departure there were amazing white bursts of dogwood, incredible wisteria and roses.
I wept for my friends, whom I would always love and miss, I thought.
I hated New York. The city seemed violent and confusing, ugly and dirty, loud. Voices in the streets or on subways and buses grated against my ears; everyone spoke so stridently, so harshly. Until I met Paul I was lonely and miserable, and frightened.
I would not have told him of my unease right away, even though Paul and I began as friends. But he must have sensed some rural longings just beneath my New York veneer. He would have; almost from the start Paul felt whatever I felt—he came to inhabit my skin.
In any case, our friendship and then our love affair had a series of outdoor settings. Paul, melancholy and romantic, and even then not well, especially liked the sea, and he liked to look out to islands—which led us, eventually, to Yugoslavia, our desolate summer there.
Not having had an actual lover before, only boys who kissed me, who did not talk much, I was unprepared for the richness of love with Paul—or, rather, I assumed that that was how love was between true intimates. Paul’s sensuality was acutely sensitive, and intense; with him I felt both beautiful and loved—indescribably so. You could say that Paul spoiled me for other men, and in a way that is true—he did. But on the other hand Paul knew that he was dying, gradually, and that knowledge must have made him profligate with love. We talked and talked, we read poetry; Paul read Wallace Stevens and Eliot aloud to me, and his own poems, which I thought remarkable. We made jokes, we laughed, we made love. Since Hilton was only twelve hours from New York by train, and we both liked travel, and trains, in a way it is odd that Paul and I did not go down to Hilton. I know he would have said yes had I suggested a trip. His curiosity about me was infinite; he would have wanted to see a place that I cared so much about. I suppose we would have stayed at the inn, as I was to do later on, when finally I did go back to Hilton. We could have taken a taxi out to what had been my house.
However, for whatever reasons, Paul and I did not go to Hilton. We went to upstate New York and to Connecticut, and out to Long Island.
And, eventually, to Yugoslavia.
Our unhappiness there in the ugly yellow hotel on the beautiful rockbound coast was due not only to Paul’s declining health and my unreal but urgent wish to marry. Other problems lay in the sad old truth, well known to most adults but not at that time to us, that conducting a love affair while living apart is quite unlike taking up residence together, even for a summer. In domestic ways we were both quite impossible then—and of course Paul did not get time to change.
I could not cook, and our arrangement with the hotel included the use of a communal kitchen, an allotted space in the refrigerator and time at the stove; my cooking was supposed to save us money, which my burned disasters failed to do. Neither could I sew or iron. I even somehow failed at washing socks. None of this bothered Paul at all; his expectations of me did not run along such lines, but mine, which must have been plucked from the general culture rather than from my own freethinking mother, were strong, and tormenting.
Paul had terrible troubles with the car, a Peugeot that we had picked up in Paris, on our way, and that had functioned perfectly well all across the Italian Alps, until we got to Trieste, where it began to make inexplicable noises, and sometimes not to start. Paul was utterly incapable of dealing with these crises; he would shout and rant, even clutch melodramatically at his thin black hair. I dimly sensed that he was reacting to the car’s infirmities instead of to his own, which of course I did not say; but I also felt that men were supposed to deal with cars, an insupportable view, I knew even then, and derived from my father, who possessed remarkable mechanical skills.
We were there in Yugoslavia for almost three months in all, from June to September. It was probably in August, near the end of our stay, that I had my dream of going back to Hilton, and walking down the highway to our house—in the heat, with the pain in my heart that must have been Paul’s pain. The dream that I did not tell Paul.
And in the fall I went back to America, to Washington, D.C., to study at Georgetown.
And Paul moved up to Trieste, where shortly after Christmas he went into a hospital and died.
Sheer disbelief was my strongest reaction to the news of Paul’s death, which came in the form of a garbled cablegram. I could not believe that such an acute and lively intelligence could simply be snuffed out. In a conventional way I wept and mourned his loss: I played music that he had liked—the Hummel trumpet concerto, of which he was especially fond—and I reread “Sunday Morning” and “Four Quartets.” But at the same time I never believed that he was entirely gone (I still do not).
Two years after Paul’s death, most unexpectedly my mother died, in a senseless automobile accident; she was driving to see friends in Connecticut and swerved on a wet highway to avoid an oncoming truck. I was more horrified, more devastated, really, than I could have believed possible. I went to an analyst. “I haven’t even written her for a month!” I cried out, during one dark fifty-minute hour. “How many letters does it take to keep a mother alive?” was the gentle and at least mildly helpful answer. Still, I wrestled with my guilt and with the sheer irresolution of our connection for many, many years.
In my late twenties I married one of my former professors: Lewis—a large, blond, emphatically healthy, outgoing man, as much unlike Paul as anyone I could have found; this occurred to me at the time as an ironic twist that only Paul himself could have appreciated. We lived in New York, where we both now taught. To sum up very complicated events in a short and simple way: my work prospered, while my marriage did not—and I present these as simultaneous conditions, not causally linked. A happier first marriage could have made for even better work on my part, I sometimes think.
During those years, I thought of my mother with increasing sympathy. This is another simplification, but that is what it came to. She did her best under very difficult, sometimes painful circumstances is one way of putting it.
And I thought of Paul. It was his good-friend aspect that I most missed, I found, in the loneliness of my marriage. I felt, too, always, the most vast regret for what seemed the waste of a life.
And Hilton was very much in my mind.
Sometimes I tried to imagine what my life would have been like if I had never left: I could have studied at the university there, and married one of those lean and sexy sweet-talking boys. And often that seemed a preferable way to have taken.
I divorced Lewis, and I had various “relationships.” I wrote and published articles, several books— and I began getting letters from Popsie Hooker. Long, quite enthralling letters. They were often about her childhood, which had been spent on a farm in Illinois— southern Illinois, to be sure, but, still, I thought how my mother would have laughed to hear that Popsie, the near- professional Southerner, was really from Illinois. Popsie wrote to me often, and I answered, being compulsive in that way, and also because I so much enjoyed hearing from her.
Some of her letters were very funny, as when she wrote about the new “rest home” in Hilton, in which certain former enemies were housed in adjacent rooms: “Mary Lou and Henrietta haven’t spoken for years and years, and there they are. Going over there to visit is like reading a novel, a real long one,” Popsie wrote, and she added, “They couldn’t get me into one of those places if they carried me there on a stretcher.” I gathered that Popsie was fairly rich; several husbands had come and gone, all leaving her well endowed.
We wrote back and forth, Popsie and I, she writing more often than I did, often telling me how much my letters meant to her. Her letters meant a great deal to me, too. I was especially moved when she talked about the seasons down there in Hilton—the weather and what was in bloom; I could remember all of it, so vividly. And I was grateful that she never mentioned my parents, and her own somewhat ambiguous connection with them.
During some of those years, I began an affair with Andreas, the doctor whom I eventually married: a turbulent, difficult, and sometimes rewarding marriage. Andreas is an exceptionally skilled doctor; he is also arrogant, quick-tempered, and inconsiderate, especially of other people’s time—like all doctors, I have sometimes thought. Our conflicts often have to do with schedules: his conference in Boston versus mine in Chicago; his need for a vacation in February versus mine for time to finish a book, just then. And more ordinary arguments: my dislike of being kept waiting, his wish that I do more cooking. Sometimes even now his hot, heavy body next to mine in bed seems alien, unknown, and I wonder what he is doing there, really. At other times, as I have said, I am deeply stirred by an accidental touching of our hands.
At some of our worst moments I think of leaving Andreas; this would be after an especially ugly quarrel, probably fueled by too much wine, or simply after several weeks of non-communication.
In one such fantasy I do go back to Hilton, and I take up the rest of my life there as a single woman. I no longer teach, I only do research in the library, which is excellent. And I write more books. I imagine that I see a lot of Popsie Hooker; I might even become the sort of “good daughter” to her that I was so far from being to my own mother. And sometimes in this fantasy I buy the house that we used to live in, the rambling house down the highway, in the valley. I have imagined it as neglected, needing paint, new gutters, perhaps even falling apart, everything around it overgrown and gone to seed.
Last June, when I had agreed to give a series of lectures at Georgetown, Andreas and I made reservations in a small hotel where we had stayed before, not far from the university. We both like Washington; we looked forward to revisiting favorite galleries and restaurants. It was one of the many times when we needed a vacation together, and so, as I might have known would happen, this became impossible: two sick patients got sicker, and although I argued, citing the brilliance and the exceptional competence of his partners (an argument that did not go over very well), Andreas said no, he had to stay in New York, with the kidneys of Mrs. Howell and old Mr. Rosenthal.
I went to Georgetown and to our hotel alone. I called several times, and Andreas and I “made up” what had been a too familiar argument.
In Georgetown, the second day, as I walked alone past those elegantly maintained houses, as I glanced into seductively cloistered, luxuriantly ferned and flowered gardens, some stray scent of privet or a glimpse of a yellow rosebush in full bloom—something reminded me strongly, compellingly of Hilton, and I thought, Well, why not? I could take the train and just stay for a couple of days. That much more time away from Andreas might be to the good, just now. I could stay at the Hilton Inn. I could visit Popsie. I could walk down the highway to our house.
And that is what I did, in more or less that order, except that I saved the visit to Popsie for the last, which turned out to be just as well. But right away I stopped at a travel agency on Wisconsin Avenue, and I bought a ticket to Raleigh, treating myself to a roomette for the five-hour trip; I felt that both ceremony and privacy were required.
I had thought that on the train I would be struck by the deep familiarity of the landscape; at last, that particular soil, that special growth. But actually it was novelty that held me to my window: the wide flat brown shining rivers that we crossed, with their tacky little marinas, small boats, small boys on the banks. Flooded swamps, overgrown with kudzu vines and honeysuckle. I had the curious illusion that one sometimes gets on trains, of traversing an exotic, hitherto untraveled land. I felt myself to be an explorer.
That night I had an unmemorable dinner alone at the inn— which, having been redone, was all unfamiliar to me. I went to bed early, slept well.
Sometime in the night, though, I did wake up with the strange and slightly scary thought that in a few years I would be as old as my mother was when she died, and I wondered what, if anything, that fact had to do with my coming back to Hilton, after all these years.
The next morning’s early air was light and delicate. Dew still shone on the heavy, dark-green shrubbery around the inn, on silver cobwebs, as I set out for my walk—at last! The sky was soft and pale, an eggshell blue. Walking along the still graveled sidewalk, beside the tarred road that led from the inn out to the highway, I recognized houses; I knew who used to live in almost all of them, and I said those names to myself as I walked along: Hudson, Phipps, Zimmerman, Rogerson, Pittman. I noticed that the old Pittman place was now a fraternity house, with an added sun porch and bright new paint, bright gold Greek letters over the door. In fact, the look of all those houses was one of improvement, upgrading, with their trim lawns, abundant boxwood, their lavish flower beds.
I reached the highway, still on the graveled walk, and I began the long descent toward my house. The air was still light, and barely warm, although the day to come would be hot. I thought of my dream in Yugoslavia, of this walk, and I smiled, inexplicably happy at just that moment—with no heat, no pain in my heart.
I recognized more houses, and said more names, and I observed that these houses, too, were in splendid shape, all bright and visibly cared for. There was much more green growth than I remembered, the trees were immense, and I thought, Well, of course; they’ve had time to grow.
No one seeing me as I walked there could know or guess that that was where I used to live, I thought. They would see— a tall thin woman, graying, in early middle age, in a striped gray cotton skirt, gray shirt. A woman looking intently at everything, and smiling to herself.
And then, there before me was our house. But not our house. It, too, had been repainted—all smartened up with bright white paint and long black louvred shutters, now closed against the coming heat and light. Four recent- model sports cars, all imported, were parked in the driveway, giving the place a recreational, non- familiar air. A group of students, I thought; perhaps some club? The surrounding trees were huge; what had been a small and murmurous pine grove at one side of the house now towered over it, thickly green and rustling slightly in a just-arisen morning breeze. No one came out while I stood there, for not very long, but I was sure that there was not a family inside but some cluster of transients—young people, probably, who liked each other and liked the house, but without any deep or permanent attachment.
I continued on my walk, a circle of back roads on which I was pleased to find that I still knew my way, which led at last back to the highway, and up the hill, to the inn.
I had called Popsie Hooker from Washington, and again from the inn, when I got there. She arose from her nap about four in the afternoon, she said, and if I could come out to her house along about then she would be thrilled, just simply thrilled.
By midafternoon it was too hot for another walk, and so I took a taxi out to Popsie’s house, in the direction opposite to mine. I arrived about four- thirty, which I assumed to be along about four in Southernese.
Popsie’s house, the fruit of one of her later marriages, was by far the most splendid I had yet seen in town: a Georgian house, of ancient soft red brick smartly trimmed in black, with frequent accents of highly polished brass. Magnificent lawns, magnolias, rhododendrons. By the time I got to the door I half expected to be greeted by an array of uniformed retainers—all black, of course.
But it was Popsie herself who opened the door to me—a Popsie barely recognizable, so shrunken and wizened had she become: a small woman withered down to dwarf size, in a black silk dress with grosgrain at her throat, a cameo brooch. She smelled violently of gardenia perfume and of something else that at first I could not place.
“Emma! Emma!” she breathed up into my face, the old blue eyes filming over, and she caught at both my arms and held them in her weak tight grasp. I recognized the second scent, which was sherry.
“You’re late,” she next accused me. “Here I’ve been expecting you this whole long afternoon.
I murmured apologies, and together we proceeded down the hallway and into a small parlor, Popsie still clutching my arm, her small fierce weight almost tugging me over sideways.
We sat down. The surfaces in that room were all so cluttered with silver and ivory pieces, inlay, old glass, that it could have been an antique shop, or the parlor of a medium. I told Popsie how happy I was to be there, how wonderful Hilton looked.
“Well, you know, it’s become a very fancy place to live. Very expensive. Lots of Yankees retiring down here, and fixing up the old houses.”
“Uh, where do the poor people live?”
She laughed, a tiny rasp. “Oh, there you go, talking liberal, and you just got here. Well, the poor folks, what’s left of them, have moved out to Robertsville.”
Robertsville was the adjacent town, once predominantly black, and so I next asked, “What about the Negroes?”
“Well, I guess they’ve just sort of drifted back into the countryside, where they came from. But did you notice all the fancy new stores on Main Street? All the restaurants, and the clothes?”
We talked for a while about the new splendors of Hilton, and the rudeness of the new Yankees, who did not even go to church— as I thought, This could not be the woman who has been writing to me. Although of course she was— the same Popsie, half tipsy in the afternoon; she probably spent her sober mornings writing letters. This woman was more like the Popsie of my early years in Hilton, that silly little person, my mother’s natural enemy.
Possibly to recall the Popsie of the wonderful letters, I asked about the local rest home. How were things out there?
“Well, I have to tell you. What gripes me the most about that place is that they don’t pay any taxes” was Popsie’s quick, unhelpful response. “Tax-free, and you would not believe the taxes I have to pay on this old place.”
“But this place is so beautiful.” I did not add, And you have so much money.
“Well, it is right pretty,” she acknowledged, dipping her head. “But why must I go on and on paying for it? It’s not fair.”
Our small chairs were close together in that crowded, stuffy room, so that when Popsie leaned closer yet to me, her bleary eyes peering up into mine, the sherry fumes that came my way were very strong indeed. And Popsie said, “You know, I’ve always thought you were so beautiful, even if no one else ever thought you were.” She peered again. “Where did you get that beauty, do you think? Your mother never was even one bit pretty.”
More stiffly than I had meant to, I spoke the truth. “Actually I look quite a lot like my mother,” I told her. And I am not beautiful.
Catching a little of my anger, which probably pleased her, Popsie raised her chin. “Well, one thing certain, you surely don’t favor your daddy.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t favor him at all.” My father had recently moved to La Jolla, California, with another heiress, this one younger than I am, which would have seemed cruel news to give to Popsie.
After a pause, during which I suppose we both could have been said to be marshaling our forces, Popsie and I continued our conversation, very politely, until I felt that I could decently leave.
I told her how much I liked her letters, and she said how she liked mine, and we both promised to write again, very soon— and I wondered if we would.
On the plane to New York, a smooth, clear, easy flight, I was aware of an unusual sense of well-being, which out of habit I questioned. I noted the sort of satisfaction that I might have been expected to feel on finishing a book, except that at the end of books I usually feel drained, exhausted. But now I simply felt well, at peace, and ready for whatever should come next.
Then Paul returned from nowhere to my mind, more strongly than for some time. In an affectionate way I remembered how impossible he was, in terms of daily life, and how much I had loved him—and how he had loved me.
Actually he and Andreas were even more unlike than he and Lewis were, I next thought, and a little wearily I noted my own tendency to extremes, and contrasts. Andreas likes to fix and mend things, including kidneys, of course. He is good with cars. “I come from strong Greek peasant stock” is a thing that he likes to say, and it is true; clearly he does, with his powerful black hair, his arrogant nose. His good strong heart.
We were planning a trip to Greece the following fall. Andreas had gone back as a boy to visit relatives, and later with both his first and second wives. And he and I had meant to go, and now we would.
We planned to fly to Rome, maybe spend a few days there; we both like Rome. But now another route suggested itself: we could fly to Vienna, where we have never been, and then take the train to Trieste, where we could pick up a car and drive down to Greece by way of Yugoslavia. We would drive past the ferry to the island of Rab, and past the road that led to our yellow hotel. I did not imagine driving down to see it; Andreas would be in a hurry, and my past does not interest him much. He would see no need to stop on such an errand.
Nor do I. And besides, that particular ugly, poorly built structure has probably been torn down. Still, I very much like the idea of just being in its vicinity.