Jane set out for the bus stop every day in the mid-afternoon, the hottest part of the day, carrying a sack lunch and whatever book she was reading. It was a half-hour’s walk, through neatly laid out subdivisions of little square houses like the one she lived in with her family, past the swimming pool in the park full of happy, screaming children, past the public library to which she’d ridden her bike most summer afternoons of her childhood. She longed to walk up the steps, into the cool of the little stone building and lose herself reading in a quiet corner. But she trudged on, tired, bored nearly to tears, the hot concrete burning up through the thin soles of her loafers. The new trees lining the streets gave little shade, and she was sticky with sweat, nauseous from the heat by the time she climbed on the wheezing bus and sat down next to an open window.
She clocked in at her summer job at the bookbindery at three and walked through the factory, past the big machines spitting out pastel maps that would be bound into the atlases she’d spend the next eight hours packing into cardboard boxes. The work was mind-numbingly repetitive, the factory hot, her fellow workers unfriendly. But a year of college had taught her something about irony, and she could appreciate the image of herself, her own world shrunk to this workstation, her shoulders aching from packing an endless supply of atlases, worlds she longed to see.
Just get to August 4th, she told herself again and again. She, Tom, and Bridget planned to meet at Pete’s house in Indianapolis for a long weekend, and she counted the days as she worked, making each atlas she packed count for a day. Then, when she had counted all the days, each atlas packed and sent along the conveyor belt into oblivion became something that pained or annoyed her. The way her father still cut up her meat each night and handed her the plate, as if in his alcoholic haze he had forgotten she and her siblings were not still little children. Her sisters’ bony, sunburned shoulders. Her brother’s cracked, greasy hands.
Sometimes in the early morning hours, everyone asleep around her, she got up, retrieved her locked book satchel from under the bed, then crept through the house and out the kitchen door into the backyard, where she stretched out on an old battered chaise lounge, staring up at the stars. She’d taken Astronomy last semester and could name the constellations, though they were hard to see in the smoggy air. It pleased her, nonetheless. There was so much to know. She felt small beneath the stars, but in a good way. Not small in the way she felt here in this place.
In time, she unlocked the satchel with the key she kept on a chain around her neck. She brought out her little Hallmark calendar and colored in the whole square of the day with a black ballpoint pen, pressing so hard that the paper became crinkly beneath it. She’d count the days again, though she always knew exactly how many there were to August 4, which she had highlighted in bright yellow.
She and Bridget had planned the time with Tom and Pete obsessively—down to what they’d wear, what they’d read, sunbathing, what meals they’d attempt to the cook for them. They’d bought bikinis the week before they left for summer break. Hers still had the tags on it. It was in the satchel, too, along with Tom’s fraternity pin and his letters, and after she’d colored in the square and counted the days, she’d take it out and look at it, imagining herself in a lounge chair by Pete’s pool, tanning in the sun. His parents would be in Europe, so it would just be the four of them. They’d sleep with the boys for the first time, she and Bridget had decided. Who’d know? She’d told her parents she’d been invited to a girlfriend’s house for a dorm floor reunion.
There, under the stars, her body tingled just thinking of Tom, thinking of where and how he’d touched her and the way his warm breath felt against her skin, his lips whispering endearments as they moved from her mouth, to her ear, her neck, her breasts. She touched herself here, there, something she’d never, ever done before. Something she felt strange and guilty about. Yet she could not stop. She’d lie on the chaise lounge, her eyes closed, her face wet with dew, and imagine her hands were Tom’s. Imagine him there, beside her.
She drifted to sleep sometimes, waking surprised and a little embarrassed to find her hands cupping her breasts or between her legs. She wouldn’t move them, though. She’d lie perfectly still, her fingers lightly pinching her nipples or pressing against the warm, wet place between her legs until waves of desire made her body arch up and she shuddered, breathless. It scared her, what she might do to continue to be able to feel this way. She wanted so much. She wanted everything, though she couldn’t have said what “everything” meant.
Finally, there he was. He stood, smoking, on the little slice of sidewalk at the edge of the parking bay, and when the bus pulled in she sat for a long moment, looking at him until he saw her framed by the window and her own true self was shocked back into being with his sudden, dazzling smile. He tossed his cigarette to the pavement, took a step forward. She gathered her things, hurried down the aisle and stepped down into his open arms.
“Jane,” he said, into her hair. Just that.
She said nothing, only burrowed her head into the dent just above his collar bone that she loved, breathed in the scent of him: smoke and soap and English Leather.
“Jesus, I’ve missed you,” he said.
“Me, too,” she whispered. “I’ve missed me.” And burrowed deeper into him, squeezed her eyes tight to keep back the tears that threatened to come.
“Let’s run away,” he said. “I’ve got Pete’s Corvette. He wouldn’t care; his dad would just buy him another one. Hell, now that Bridget’s here he probably wouldn’t even miss it. I haven’t seen either one of them since we got here this morning. I’ve had to sit out by the pool, nursing my beer, all alone.”
“Poor baby,” Jane said.
He grinned, kissed her, then stepped away and grabbed her hand. “Let’s go,” he said.
“You won’t believe Pete’s place. There’s a built-in beer keg, for Christ’s sake. It’s amazing.”
“Oh!” was all she could say when got there. She felt embarrassed stepping into the foyer with its marble floor, its crystal chandelier. What would Pete think if he could see her parents’ house, the world she’d come from this morning?
She thought of the pile of beautifully ironed clothes her mother had set on her dresser the night before. Jane had meant to iron them herself when she got home from work; she’d told her mother she would iron them. But there they were.
“I didn’t have anything extra to give you for your trip,” she said, when Jane asked why.
Which shouldn’t have made Jane angry, but it did. And, of course, guilty—for countless reasons, not the least of which was that she had lied about where she would be this weekend. She thanked her mother for the ironing, but couldn’t make it sound sincere. She couldn’t make what her mother had done for her, what her mother wanted and needed to do for her touch her. If she did that, how could she continue to allow her whole family to make the sacrifices she knew they were making so that she could have this new life? Sacrifices she knew were way too much to ask.
Don’t spoil this, she said to herself. Don’t think about her, all the ways you’ve hurt her.
How you know you’ll hurt her again and again.
Then Bridget appeared, radiantly disheveled, at the top of the beautiful staircase and hurried down into Jane’s arms. “God, I thought this weekend would never come,” she said. “One more day of teaching swimming lessons and I’d have drowned a six-year-old, just for the pleasure of it. Oh, Jane, I’ve missed you so much. And here we are!” She stepped back, flung her arms out to encompass the house, the pool that Jane could see through the French doors in the next room.
Pete watched, his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, grinning. His sun-streaked hair was mussed, his madras shirt unbuttoned, the shirttails out. He was barefoot. “In case you’re wondering about the digs,” he said to Jane, “it’s all about my mom one-upping my dad, because my stepdad’s so much richer. He’s an asshole. But filthy rich. I mean, hey, isn’t that what really matters?”
“It’s really beautiful,” Jane said.
He shrugged, ambled away from them and drew a beer from the keg in the utility room just off the kitchen.
“He is not okay,” Bridget said later, when the boys were out of earshot. “You know I was worried about him all spring. One more semester of shitty grades and he’s screwed. I told him he should take a class in summer school, something easy to bring up his GPA a little. But you know Pete. He didn’t even get a job. He sleeps half the day, then hangs out with those idiot friends of his from high school. I swear, I hate his parents. I don’t even know them and I hate them. Neither one of them gives a shit about him. Not really. They let him get away with things to hurt and aggravate each other. Then they get mad when he has problems. Like it’s not totally their fault.
They were stretched out on chaise lounges by the pool, wearing their bikinis, just as they’d imagined. “I love him so much,” Bridget said. “I didn’t even realize how much till I was away from him. I didn’t know it would be like this. To be in love, I mean. How much it would hurt. How I’d worry about him. How I’d just want to be with him. We—”
She lowered her voice. “This morning. When Tom went to get you—”
She didn’t finish the sentence, but Jane knew what she meant.
Bridget grinned at her, then whooped, jumped up from her chair and threw herself toward Pete, who was floating on a raft in the deep end of the pool. She was like a child, Jane thought. Sometimes she simply could not contain herself. The two of them like big, beautiful children, wrestling and shouting in the water. Shimmering in the sunlight.
The Lovin’ Spoonful was on the radio, a bee buzzed near the bottle of Coke Bridget had abandoned. Jane watched Tom swim laps in the turquoise water. She liked his steady pace and how, when he reached the end of the pool, he made a deft little flip and powered himself off into the opposite direction. Nothing he ever did made her worry, as Bridget worried about Pete. In all the time they’d been together, they’d had only one real argument—about the demonstration in Dunn Meadow in the spring. It still scared her to think of herself, alone in her dorm room afterwards, certain she’d ruined everything. When the phone rang and she heard Tom’s voice, she had felt much as she did right now, watching him climb out of the pool and come to sit at the foot of her lounge chair.
“Bridget picked me up at 5 a.m.,” he said. “She wouldn’t let me drive, because she said
I’d go too slow. I swear to God, she drove ninety the whole way. She’s insane. I kept saying, ‘Bridge, your dad’s a judge in Evansville. It won’t do you a goddamn bit of good if you get a speeding ticket in Terre Haute.’”
Jane raised an eyebrow. “Scary when you’re the voice of reason,”
“No shit.” He grinned. “On the other hand, getting up at 4:30 is a good excuse to take a nap now.”
“Yeah?” She grinned back.
“Yeah. Aren’t you tired, too? That long bus ride?”
“Oh, I am,” she said, catching his outstretched hand, letting him lead her to the guest room where he’d taken her suitcase earlier.
It was pale pink, like the inside of a seashell, with cream-colored wood shutters on the window instead of curtains. The bedspread was pink and cream striped chintz, turned down to reveal pressed sheets and pillowcases.
“I love you, Jane,” Tom said, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her down gently to the bed.
“I love you, too,” she said.
All those stupid junior high movies, parents tongue-tied, mortified in the face of it. The threats, the whispering about how boys wouldn’t respect you if you went too far—or, heaven forbid, all the way. The bad girls who’d done it anyhow and disappeared for a semester, a year maybe, nobody knew exactly where, though there was plenty of talk about them, lots of murmured speculation when they came back, sometimes dull and sad, sometimes wilder, more reckless than they’d been before. Of course, of course, they hadn’t dared tell what it was really like. The way the world disappeared, the way your whole body sang into the void.
“The nuns said it was addictive,” Bridget said, when they came downstairs hours later.
She and Pete were curled up on the sofa in the family room, watching a movie on TV. “My, my. Who’d have thought they were ever right about anything?”
They were, though, Jane thought. They definitely were. All their plans for elaborate meals gave way to carry-out pizza and fried chicken. Their plans to go waterskiing and to the County Fair, the books she and Bridget had brought to read dissolved into late, lazy mornings and long afternoon naps. In the evening, they lounged by the pool, the stereo on loud—the hot, humid air, their own hot, sated bodies, cold beer, the Righteous Brothers and Rolling Stones and Temptations all blurring at the edges.
Only on the last night, did she begin to come out of the trance, tensing in Tom’s arms, chatter in her head filling her with anxiety about going home.
“Thirty-two days,” Tom said, holding her closer. “Come on. It’s not that long.”
But as she boarded the bus late the next afternoon, the feel of him still against her, the scent of him still in her clothes, her hair, it seemed an eternity before she would see him again, and she could not look back, could not bear to see him there, his hand raised, growing smaller and smaller, finally disappearing as the bus pulled into traffic.
She felt weary, like she imagined her mother must feel after hours on her feet at the A&P, knowing there’d be no rest when she got home, just the endless round of household chores, the squabbles and complaints of her children. Guilty, again, for having lied about where she’d be this weekend. But she couldn’t imagine how to begin telling the truth now, or what her mother would say if she knew the person Jane had become since leaving for college. She wouldn’t understand. How could she? Jane really didn’t understand it herself. She could be kinder, though, which would make up a little for lying. She’d paid little attention to her sisters all summer and, with some of the money she’d made working, she’d treat them to the movies, take them shopping for school supplies.
She’d sign up to work extra shifts in the next weeks, which would also help make the time pass more quickly, and when things got tense or she felt lonely or anxious, she’d think about Tom. Right now she’d think about him, she decided, and closed her eyes to avoid talking to the stout, grandmotherly woman knitting beside her, to erase the man chain-smoking a few seats ahead of her and drown out the baby crying a few seats behind. She took deep, even breaths until she could see the room where she and Tom had slept. The beautiful, beautiful room. An extra room in a house she couldn’t have imagined until this weekend. She couldn’t have imagined living like man and wife with someone before this weekend either, but she could imagine it now—and knew she would remember that first waking into bright morning sunlight, Tom’s naked body curved around hers, for the rest of her life.
But for now—her father would meet her at the bus station, just as he met her every night after work. She could manage that. Once home, she’d plead exhaustion and go straight to bed. When she woke in the morning, her mother would have left for work. By the time she got home, Jane would be at the bookbindery. If she played it just right, the rest of her days at home would pass this way—she and her mother never quite connecting.
But when the bus arrived at the station, her father wasn’t there. Could he have forgotten the time? Or worse, stopped by the Red Star for just one drink…and then another? There were vagrants and low-life types hanging around outside the station, so she sat down on a bench near the ticket counter. She waited five minutes, ten, and was just about to dig in her purse for a dime to call home when she saw him hurrying toward her.
She stood, but sat down again when she saw his face.
“Honey, something’s happened. Bobby—” He sat down abruptly beside her. “He’s in the hospital, Jane. An accident. It happened Saturday night. Late. The girl with him—
“She was thrown out of the car. She died, Janey. Bobby was in pretty bad shape for a while there. We weren’t sure—
“He’s okay. He’ll pull through. Honey, we tried to get in touch with you—”
The way he looked at her, the sad question in his eyes, made Jane go liquid with dread.
“Janey, the number you gave us.”
“What?” Jane asked, though of course she knew.
“You weren’t there.”
“I—” she began.
But her father stood and said, “It doesn’t matter. Not now. I told your mother I’d bring
you to the hospital. She won’t leave. And I knew you’d want to see Bobby as soon as you got
She didn’t, really. She wanted to get back on the bus and go—anywhere. To Tom. But when her father picked up her suitcase, she stood and followed him to the car. She sat huddled in the front seat of the car, her teeth pressed together to keep from chattering. It wasn’t cold. The air coming in through the open windows was close and warm.
“Eighty degrees,” the radio deejay said. “Midnight.”
Jane knew it was irrational, but it seemed to her a measure of her disconnection from her family, a kind of punishment, that she hadn’t somehow known that something terrible had happened and would have to live forever with the knowledge that, all the while her brother lay near death and her parents were frantic with worry, she had been floating in the pool with Tom in the moonlight, their beer cans in the neat little pockets of the rubber rafts they kept close together by holding hands. But there was nothing she could do about it now, just go where her father was determined to take her and try as best she could to make up for it.
The hospital was shockingly bright inside, the corridors endless and gleaming. Jane walked behind her father, glancing now and then toward the sounds of suffering, the occasional lit room where nurses hovered. The smell. It was like that awful green soap the school nurse used to clean scraped knees and elbows, and brought with it that panicky feeling she’d felt when she was a child, hurt, already feeling the sting she knew would come. The tears she would not be able to keep back. Baby. She hated crying. Hated the way it made her feel.
“Here.” Her father stopped so suddenly at one of the rooms along the hall that Jane had to take a step backward to enter. The first bed in the room was empty, a yellow curtain drawn across the room dividing it from the second bed where Bobby lay, swathed in bandages from head to foot.
He was asleep, Jane saw with relief.
Her mother was not. She sat straight up in the plastic hospital chair that she’d pulled next to Bobby’s bed. One hand was on his, holding it. The other she held out to Jane, who had no choice but to take it, thinking that her mother was asking for some comfort. She was shocked off-balance by the force of her mother’s grip, shocked to find herself bent over, face-to-face with her.
“Mom,” she began, “I—”
“Don’t tell me another lie, Jane,” her mother said, gripping even harder. “You weren’t where you said you’d be. Nobody at the number you gave me had ever even heard of you. I was frantic. My God, we thought Bobby was going to die.”
She let Jane’s hand fall, put her own two hands to her eyes and bent over, sobbing.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” Jane said. “I am. It wasn’t like I was doing anything terrible. Honest. I wasn’t.”
“I don’t care what you were doing,” her mother said. “I don’t even want to know what you were doing or who you were doing it with. Not anymore. I don’t want to know anything you don’t want to tell me.”
“Don’t say another word to me,” her mother said. “I mean it. Not one word. Not tonight.”
Jane stood, staring at her. It was the last thing she had expected her mother to say.
Mrs. Barth turned to fuss over Bobby, smoothing his tangled hair, tucking the blanket up under his chin. “It’s so cold in here,” she said to nobody.
“Hon,” Mr. Barth said. “Come home. You’re not really supposed to be in here now. None of us are. The nurse said Jane could see him, then—”
“I’ll just stay in the waiting room,” she said. “What if he wakes up, afraid? You take Jane home. I know she must be tired.”
Back the car, he sat a long moment, before putting the key in the ignition. “She nearly lost your brother,” he said, his voice tentative and small. “When we couldn’t find you, she thought she’d lost you, too. She was scared to death you wouldn’t be there when I went to meet the bus tonight. She feels you’re lost to us, Janey. Since you went away.”
“I’m not lost to you,” Jane said.
But she was. All she wanted was to get through the next weeks until she could go back to school, which to them might as well have been a different planet.
When her mother finally agreed to come home a few days later, Jane was glad to feel she was invisible to her. Mrs. Barth was consumed with worry over Bobby’s recovery, fearful about what would happen to him when he was well enough to face the consequences of his acts. He’d been drinking when the accident occurred; it was considerably after the midnight curfew; and he’d been driving a car that he claimed he’d borrowed with the owner’s permission, but the owner said he was lying. At the very least, he’d have to pay for the car, which had been totaled. At worst, he could be sent to reform school. And the girl. Mrs. Barth grieved so for the sorrow Bobby had brought to her family that the doctor had prescribed tranquilizers to help her sleep.
In the next weeks, Jane worked overtime whenever could, grateful for the exhaustion that made it easy to sleep away any time she had at home and excused her from any more than occasional hospital visits. She did not know what to say to her brother. They’d never been close. When Jane was honest with herself, she knew that it was her fault. That it was because she had always resented him. Bobby had been a bright, funny little boy, easy and endearing. Jane, difficult, intense. Why wouldn’t her mother love him better? She understood that. But she could not forgive him for it, nor could she help the mean pleasure she had sometimes felt as he grew into an increasingly troubled teenager, constantly testing the boundaries of their mother’s love.
Bobby lived under the hood of his junk car, his fingernails filthy, his clothes smelling of oil. He cut classes, hung out with his greaser friends. He talked like a greaser, defiantly using poor grammar even though Jane knew he was perfectly capable of speaking correctly. He was smart, probably smarter than she was if the truth were told. Even teachers said he was smart and were charmed by him, at the same time he drove them crazy with his wise cracks and pranks. But he hated school, hated anyone telling him what to do. His single ambition was to get out, get a job and save up enough money to buy a G.T.O.
It would have been easier if it had been this same Bobby she felt obligated to visit now, she thought. Easier, knowing he’d go back to his cars and loser friends and willful self-destruction as soon as he got well enough to get out of the hospital. But the accident had scared him into a kind of submission she’d never seen in him before. He’d let them cut his hair and he looked as clean-cut as a track star. He was polite to the nurses, wore the old-man pajamas their mother bought him without complaint.
It killed Jane the way his face lit up with shy pleasure when she appeared in his doorway, the way he offered up ideas and thoughts about his future, so obviously hoping for her approval. She could hardly bear to see the clutter of recruitment brochures on his bedside table, visible evidence of how narrow the options for his future had turned out to be. He’d enlist in the service as soon as he’d recovered fully and turned eighteen; this was the deal the prosecutor had offered.
“I’ve pretty much decided on the Marines,” he told her the day before she left to go back to school. He handed her a brochure that showed a young man in dress blues, gold buttons gleaming. “I figure, go with the best. Do something right for once, huh?”
She took it, remembering the former Marine who’d spoken in Dunn Meadow last spring—the empty sleeve of the uniform shirt he wore over his jeans folded and pinned neatly over the stump of his right arm. “Look at what we’re doing in Vietnam,” he’d said, the speaker crackling around the words. “I’m not saying don’t go. All I’m saying is, look first—then decide.”
But what choice did Bobby have?
“Absolutely! The Marines,” Jane said.
It was the one thing she could do: wish him well. She was sorry he’d been hurt. Sorry, too, for the hurt she’d caused her mother—which she would have made right if she could, if it wouldn’t have required stepping backwards into the self she had been before she learned what it felt like to be happy.
Barbara Shoup is the author seven novels, including Night Watch, Wish You Were Here, Stranded in Harmony, Faithful Women, Vermeer’s Daughter, Everything You Want, and An American Tune, and the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process and Story Matters. Her short fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous small magazines, as well as in The Writer and The New York Times Travel Section. Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer’s Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She is the recipient of numerous grants from the Indiana Arts Council, two creative renewal grants from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the 2006 PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, and the 2012 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Author Award. She was the writer-in-residence at Broad Ripple High School Center for the Humanities and the Performing arts for twenty years. Currently, she is the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center, an associate faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, and an associate editor with OV Books.
Adapted from An American Tune: A Novel by Barbara Shoup. Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Shoup. With the permission of the publisher, Indiana University Press.