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Authors: March Hastings

Three Women (10 page)

BOOK: Three Women
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When she awoke, the room had darkened with the overtones of night. She yawned and sought Byrne's cheek with her lips. Byrne held the girl's head against her shoulder. She herself lay with her eyes closed and Paula did not want to break this lingering peace. If only they could stay thus forever.

"It's getting late," Byrne said, stretching into a more comfortable position. There wasn't much room on the couch but their passion had made it adequate.

"Is it?" Paula said, not caring. She stroked the line of Byrne's ribs with the tip of a forefinger.

"Perhaps you'd better go."

"Do you want me to?"

Byrne shook her head, an easy grin lifting the curve of her lips.

"Then I won't," Paula said and nuzzled her face deeper into the fine of Byrne's throat. The delicious sweetness of Byrne's skin mingled with the dampness of sleep.

"Yes, you will," Byrne insisted. Her words were breathed against Paula's forehead. "But you’ll come back tomorrow."

"…and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..."

Paula echoed.

"As long as it lasts."

Confidently Paula shifted herself and sat up. Tomorrow would be always.

She dressed, already feeling the loneliness of parting. "It will be hard to sleep by myself," she said. "I’ll never be able to again."

"Perhaps sometime you can stay."

All the way home, Paula dreamed of spending a night with Byrne beside her. She dreaded the empty bed. Night seemed friendless, something to come between herself and love.

Slowly, she climbed the flights of the dingy house. This place where she had lived most of her life had become a thing unreal, a stage set on which she would have to act until tomorrow.

She turned the doorknob but it did not yield. She pushed but the door remained closed. An unaccustomed silence hung behind it. She paused and listened. No voices, no sound of movement could she hear. Quickly, Paula found her key and let herself in.

"Ma?" she called. "Mike?"

No one. The emptiness threatened her. She went from room to room uneasily. All was empty.

She sat down in her coat and tried to collect her thoughts. Tensely she went to the phone and dialed the hospital.

When she had hung up, she wiped the sweat from her palms and raced out again to join her family. In the hospital, the noise of her shoes along the white corridor resounded loudly in her ears. Nurses passing by hardly noticed her. When she joined the huddled group, she couldn't speak to them.

Ma glanced at her but didn't nod hello. The cold set of her features brought sharp angles to her nose and cheekbones. The usually black shining hair was dull and slightly mussed. Mike sat bent over, staring down at the smooth floor between his knees, his hands clasped tightly together. Paula felt as if she had been away from them for fifty years.

Only Phil recognized her presence, and she looked at him, pleading for some news. He led her a little way down the hall and leaned her against the wall.

"I'm afraid this is it," he whispered. His dark eyes spoke more than the words. They were bright with compassion and sorrow. Paula suddenly realized that Phil felt this as strongly as she should have been feeling it.

"Is he..." She could not finish the sentence.

"No. But if he gets through the night, it’ll be some kind of miracle." He watched her, Paula knew, wishing that she would in some way lean against him for strength. And she wanted to give herself up to him. She wanted to let him support the heaviness of guilt dragging at her shoulders, aching in all her limbs. But she was not Phil's, could not seek him for comfort. She turned away and joined Mike's vigil on the bench.

The surgical odor crept into all her clothes. Though the place was warm, she did not think of taking off her coat. How long could they sit, waiting like slaves for the white-robed king to come out from behind those doors and tell them that it was all over? She wondered if her father were aware. Did he lie in some white steel bed feeling the slow ebb and loss of life, never to return? Sometimes people went on like this for days. Would the end come for him mercifully soon?

Oh, Byrne, Byrne! Don’t waste the precious moments on a past that can never be repaired. Live with me now, while we can still feel it.

Mike stirred and Paula looked at his face. The rims of his eyes were red and swollen. He must be thinking of all his small, selfish acts, cursing himself with regret. She wanted to tell him there was no point in doing that. You have to look forward, always. But the words sounded corny, even in her thoughts. She sighed, yearning to join her mother.

The old woman was turned with her back halfway to Paula. Her shoulders slumped beneath the worn material of her coat. Ma hadn't lived either. The priceless years had slipped by her in drudgery. What happiness had she known, raising two ungrateful brats who would only leave her in the end?

I'm going to live, Paula thought with sudden intensity. I won't sit here and flay myself with remorse. If I don't make my own happiness, no one will do it for me.

She looked at Phil who stood alone against the wall. If she had married him, there would be kids just like herself and Mike. The rat race of growing up, giving birth, dying. Life could give so much more than this. She wished she could tell Phil. But he, too, was part of the rat race. She felt sorry for him.

Mike's head lifted as a door opened. The doctor came out, his forehead wrinkled into what was supposed to pass for sympathy. How many times a day did he see death? Telling the family was just one more part of his daily routine. Paula stood up. He smiled, patted her shoulder and steered her over to Ma.

"You might as well go home and get some rest" he said. His tone surprised Paula. It was full of sincere regret. "He went easily in his sleep, Mrs. Temple. At least we can be thankful for that."

Ma looked at him mutely. Tears welled and ran swiftly in two single streams down her cheeks. Her face didn't rumple up. She just looked quietly and the tears were all that moved.

Paula fell to her knees and put her face in her mother's lap. She encircled the plump waist with both arms. But her mother's hands did not move to touch her. They remained grimly and unbendingly at either side of her body.

When Paula realized this, she moved away to let Mike take her place. She stood off to one side and watched Mike bravely put an arm around Ma's shoulder. He would take her home, Paula knew. Mike had suddenly become big enough, and responsible. She let Phil walk with her to the elevator, glad that he had taught Mike something of maturity.

They stepped out of the building whipped by the fierce wind from the East River. She let it fly at her coat, slapping the hem open against her leg. Nothing could reach through the numbness surrounding her. A huge gap had come into the world.

Phil didn't try to make conversation. He simply walked beside her, leaving her to the agony of her own thoughts. She wondered bitterly why he hadn't stayed behind to walk with her mother.

When they reached the avenue, he said, "Come on, I’ll get you some coffee." He did not try to make her ashamed. Simple friendliness and a desire to keep her company at this time motivated him.

She let him take her into a small restaurant. He found them a table in a corner and held the chair out while she sat down.

He ordered black coffee for them both and two pieces of pastry.

"Mike's a good kid," he said, just to be talking. He sensed the need of words now to tie her down to reality. "Temperamental like you, sort of, but a good kid."

She felt herself floating away, like a kite suddenly cut loose. Staring at Phil across the table, his dark cheeks suffused with color from the night cold, she remembered that this was Manhattan, First Avenue, and the days would go on for her despite everything.

She said, "Yes, Mike's fine. He can take care of Ma, now."

"And do a good job, too."

I'm not needed, she thought. And not wanted. "He starts at the store same day I do. And he’ll be earning enough to fill in for—"

"Pa," Paula finished.

She looked at the crisp pastry with white triangles of cheese showing at each end.

"Go on, try a piece," Phil urged, not picking up his own.

She lifted half but it tasted like nothing. Like cotton in her mouth. She put it down again and played with the handle of the coffee cup. Someone dropped a coin into-the juke box and some rock and roll blared.

Phil motioned to the counterman to turn the volume down.

The music settled into subdued chords.

"Maybe I don't owe you anything," Paula said. Her lips moved mechanically as though something had wound her up. "But I want you to know how much I appreciate that you still treat me like a human being."

"Don't let them get you down."

"I don't mean the family. I mean... between us." She had to go on. Something impelled her with its own energy. "Maybe you think I hate you for what happened. I don't. Something just changed inside me that I have no control over. Believe me, if I could love any man, it would be you."

"Then there isn't somebody else?" His eyes took on a gleam that she had not seen there since that first day with Byrne.

"Well, there isn't another man," she said.

He put this cup down and leaned across toward her. "But all these times you've been going out? It wasn't some other guy?"

"No," she said dully.

"I’ll be damned," he said softly.

The splattering of a fresh hamburger newly placed on the grill filled the air with an odor of grease.

"Don't question me," she continued. "Just know that I wasn't stolen out from under your nose by some flashy attraction." Hurriedly she searched through her purse for cigarettes, not wanting to hear his words of gratefulness.

She made him take her home and did not let him pursue the subject. Her duty to Phil was done.

Ma and Mike were already home by the time Phil brought her upstairs. They wandered about the place, not talking. Paula hoped that the doctor had given Ma some pills to put her to sleep, but she didn't ask. There was little Paula could do but get undressed and go to bed.

She slept fitfully, waking every so often without remembering what it was that caused the burden in her heart. She had to struggle to recall that Pa was gone.

She lay awake, listening for sounds. Hearing none, she knew that her mother sat in the bedroom thinking nothing, feeling nothing.

When the light of morning fingered into her room she got dressed and put up a pot of water for tea. Tea would be better than coffee if her mother wanted anything. She didn't know what arrangements one made for funerals. The idea of relatives and flowers made her ill. There was no possible excuse to go to Byrne this evening. She could not in clear conscience leave her family now. At ten o'clock she phoned Byrne but there was no answer.

She remembered to call the office and tell them, plugging her ears against the conventional sympathy. She could easily take off a few days and not have to worry about the pay check.

Though nobody spoke to her, she made meals and pulled the house together. The job of sorting her father's clothes to be given away Ma would have to do. Paula hoped it could be finished with soon.

In the afternoon, she phoned Byrne again. The voice of her beloved gave her reason to go on with this hopeless round of family and activity. She told Byrne very simply what had happened, so that she would not expect Paula to get away that night. But she would phone Byrne every day and come as quickly as she could.

Uninvited, Phil came up later that day and took over the making of arrangements. Without protest Paula let him, glad to be rid of this duty. She did not believe in the fuss and bother that was given to a person after he was dead instead of while he was alive. Thank heaven, Pa had enough insurance to cover the costs and take care of Ma well enough, with Mike's salary added now.

Phil wrote out the lists of things that had to be done and Ma and Mike helped him. Every now and then he would glance around for Paula, just to let her know she wasn't invisible. Silently, Paula thanked him for it.

* * *

Mercifully, one day it was all over, and Paula knew she could resume her own life. The apartment was rearranged and looked less cluttered. So Paula got dressed and went to work, the way you finally have to do when everything is settled.

At lunchtime she phoned Byrne eagerly to tell her she would be over that evening. It had been only a week, but the yearning in Paula's heart swelled in gigantic need.

She rushed over directly from work, hardly able to stand still until Byrne answered the doorbell.

She swept into Byrne's embrace, eyes closed, lips tingling in a hunger for her kisses. Paula felt Byrne's response, the deep breathing movement of her chest the pressing of her thighs against her own.

"God, but I missed you," Byrne said, as Paula ran her fingers through her hair.

Paula opened the first button of Byrne's shirt and pressed her face into the space there. The warm flesh swelled on either side of Paula's cheeks and she sighed with desire and happiness.

Byrne kicked the door closed and they settled snugly together on a chair, too intent with each other to require all the space of the couch.

"My darling," Paula murmured. And there were no other words she needed beyond these. She kissed the light spray of freckles across Byrne's nose. Kissed the rounded eyelids, feeling the brush of the lashes. Kissed the eyebrows, the forehead, the burnished silken hair. They grinned at each other, hands clasped tightly, legs intertwined.

"All I kept thinking," Byrne said, "was that I'd have you soon. One more day and I'd have you. Baby... baby... how can I need you so much." She held Paula's face and inspected it. "Poor darling. You look dragged out. I hope it hasn't been too rough for you."

Engulfed by Byrne's presence, Paula could remember nothing. "I'm fine," she said. "We're together and I'm fine."

“If you're ready for it," Byrne said, "I have a little surprise for you." She emptied Paula from her lap and, taking her hand, led her into the bedroom.

Paula stared. "Darling, how wonderful!" she exclaimed. She looked at the low modern bed cleanly covered with a nubby violet spread. The room had a special, gentle brightness that filtered in between the bamboo shades. Only the cigarette case remained to speak of Greta.

BOOK: Three Women
6.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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