Sometimes, when penning chatty love-notes to his girl, he would adopt witty little aliases: Dustin de Wynde, for example, or DeForest Primeval; something sufficiently far-fetched that she would know that it was really him, yet conferring a gratifying degree of obscurity against third-parties. He suspected (for books had made him shrewd) that small towns and big families were rife with bored, pokey people sneakily reading other peoples’ letters and diaries at every opportunity; and that when such people weren’t praying, they were probably prying. Then, when he and she got together (which was at least once a week during term-time), he would often tease her about her apparently numerous ‘boyfriends’. She liked it all well enough, or perhaps really it was more that she liked him well enough not to hold such things against him.
Having a girlfriend in the nearby little town – just a moderate walk or brief run from his prep school – was a very agreeable thing in several ways (bragging-rights being one of them, although, unlike with many of the boys, his girl was entirely real and he bragged of her in a nice way and without resorting to invention or exaggeration – in part because he was nice and so was she, and in part because the other boys could easily enough inspect her for themselves if they wanted to make the effort), although it did tend to distract him from his studies, for he was nothing if not a diligent correspondent – certainly with her – and school was, well, school: that is to say, some subjects he liked, some he really didn’t.
In keeping with his tendency to adopt a precocious attitude of manly sophistication when talking with his classmates or (to a rather lesser extent) with Betty, he liked to remark of school that he could take it or leave it alone; although in reality he of course had no choice whatever in such matters, and he in fact did what was required to be done in order not to flunk out and scandalize everyone.
Meanwhile, he was canny enough not to have mentioned Betty to his parents, or even to have alluded to the existence of a girlfriend at all.
He suspected that they would be disapproving of it in general, and perhaps even more so in the particular case; while his own mind, readily painting pictures and conceiving scenarios, seesawed a little wildly between the relative merits of a sweet and wholesome small-town girl like Betty, versus the wealthier and more sophisticated (at any rate more socially-prestigious) sort of girl that his parents would likely wish for him – or indeed who might figure in an Ernest Hemingway novel or a Noël Coward play, for example.
He was doing less well in school than he should have, for he was a bright boy and a voracious reader (though more grudgingly of textbooks) but also a bit of a dreamer, and easily distracted, not only by the proximity of Betty down in the village but more generally by the lure of his impending future, yet without quite having the discipline or motivation to push himself very much – certainly not in such a way as to make the elegant and sophisticated adulthood that he imagined for himself a sure-fire certainty or even (for as a budding connoisseur of aphorisms, he knew there to be no sure-fire certainties in life other than death and taxes) a very strong likelihood. He wanted to be a writer, but doubted whether this would pass muster anytime soon with his parents, whose own vision of his future involved his becoming a lawyer or, failing that, ‘something on Wall Street’. Of those latter two career prospects, he found only the money aspect appealing, and since he intended to be a very successful writer (like Twain or Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald or Sinclair Lewis) he was not much preoccupied by the idea of money other than as a pleasant assumption unchallenged as yet by the more daunting elements of practical adult reality.
The end of the school year was approaching, and his mother’s most recent letter informed him that the plan was to spend most of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard.
Well, naturally he was curious about that island, in the mildly interested way that one is curious about places one has heard of but never visited. On the other hand, he had never read or even seen mention of any novel or story set there or otherwise involving it, which seemed somehow to diminish that island’s reality, or at least dim its appeal. No doubt it would have its good points, and certainly it would make a change from school, although he was finding now, as he got older, that he felt less and less desire to be so much in the bosom of his family for prolonged periods, and more and more interest instead in spending time with his peers (the more so, of course, if it was not in a classroom, although there was something to be said for the comradeship of the classroom too – or was this just end-of-term sentimentality, he wondered, thinking however that it was not, and in this he was surely not wrong). He kicked himself for not having had the foresight to make some more amusing and liberating arrangement with a school-chum for spending time with him and with that boy’s family – was it invariably true that other peoples’ families were more amusing than one’s own, he wondered, or was this mere supercilious supposition or some misleading trick of short-term social juxtaposition? – and it was too late to do so now.
Also, he was uncertain how, if at all, Betty might be introduced into the picture, or indeed whether at this juncture she even should be; either as a mere passing mention – reducing her to a distant, unnecessitous, undemanding yet flattering and not-insignificant abstraction; a mildly-assertive badge of pride alone – or possibly as an actual participant in their summer. Her family was not wealthy, not prestigious. She was in no position to be gadding about anywhere unless his parents were to foot the bill. Indeed, that same conclusion applied almost equally to him, for he had only quite a modest term-time allowance, was essentially wholly dependent on his parents, and could hardly be traveling independently, let alone be spending the summer at large and at ease amid that glamorous Hemingway and Fitzgerald world of cafés and bars and restaurants that he so longed for.
To contrive to introduce the actual Betty into their summer plans had its evident appeal, and might well rescue some portion of the summer from the dullness and mild embarrassment of being incessantly under his parents’ wing and at their beck and call, but on the other hand it was not without its evident risks.
The mere fact of his not having mentioned her before would likely attract a degree of parental (or at least maternal) ire, and certainly a barrage of unwelcome questions; would make him seem to have been evasive and unforthcoming and perhaps even (here and there) untruthful in his letters home. His parents would probably (and rightly) perceive her, even in the abstract, as a distraction from his schoolwork; quite possibly as a gold-digger; as a possible threat, in various ways, to their only son’s bright future. And were they to meet her, play hosts to her, would they (he wondered) like her, approve of her, recognize her warmth and her goodness and her other charms? Or would they find faults, draw snobbish conclusions, even imperiously intervene?
Disloyally to Betty, he now also wondered whether she might crimp his style: for who could say what manner of girls (or agreeable fellows his own age, for that matter) he might otherwise come into contact with during the summer, whom the presence of Betty might ward off or otherwise frustrate? In a little over a year’s time it would be off to college for him. Looking to the longer term, was she really the girl for an ambitious young author and would-be worldly bon vivant? Bearing in mind that he envisioned himself living an elegant and perhaps unconventional future life in places like Manhattan and London, France and Italy, was Betty really the one for such a person and for such places?
Was he, he now wondered, becoming a cad – a complete heel – or was he just becoming an adult? Suddenly he was uncomfortably conscious of the world closing around him, requiring difficult decisions of him and generally involving him in awkward and unwelcome situations that lay just ahead, even as its horizons, widening grandly open in the middle distance, beckoned so enticingly. It occurred to him that in the future he might well remember this moment as a significant landmark or milestone. And indeed he has since come to do so: not, unfortunately, in the way that he had anticipated – a poignant little sad-sweet coming-of-age retrospective from the comfortable vantage-point of aspirations fulfilled – but rather as a crossroads warning-sign not fully heeded, followed by an accident with repercussions racking a life that seems, at worst, a betrayal of himself and of his potential; at best a rather tedious, unsatisfactory accommodation with unyielding reality.
Does he love Betty, his wife now of several years? It seems to him that he does – at least in so far as his prematurely-circumscribed experience of life and of the fairer sex allows him to judge such matters (for his youthful marriage, practically of the shotgun variety, has meant that he has really known no others than she). They have a young daughter; they have a pleasant little home; yet it is by no means the life that he wanted for himself, and apart from Betty (perhaps not even her) he has pleased no-one. Does he blame Betty for this? Perhaps in some degree he does, though the fault was more with him than with her, and he also knows full well that she has upheld her end of things with wifely competence and warm affection. It would be more accurate to say that he resents her and, more specifically, what she has meant for his life; for although he feels quite considerable affection for her, and also for their child, yet he has trouble fully believing it – any of it – to be real, so greatly has it differed from his youthful hopes.
His job on Wall Street is not a very interesting one; certainly it barely interests him. It is, he supposes, an easy-enough way to pay the mortgage and the bills and set a little bit of money aside each month for their future.
He knows that he should be grateful for this, and for the fact that strings were resolutely pulled to secure the job for him. But it isn’t like being a writer, and it’s nothing at all like being an elegant and independent man of the world. It lacks excitement; it lacks glamour; and no-one outside the family circle is interested in him. His importance is as a breadwinner, not as any kind of personage. Were he to die tomorrow, no-one outside the family circle would care. Between the actual job and the commuting there and back that the life entails, it is a tiresome routine that occupies his time and kills his spirit, leaving him little freedom or energy to pursue his literary calling. He tries, now and then, to write (he is toying with a novel, or perhaps more accurately it is toying with him), but it feels an empty exercise and he an impostor, pretending a worldly sophistication that (other than from books) he largely lacks, having gone from school directly to Wall Street, foregoing college and all the good things that college had promised, and certainly having had no opportunity even to visit Europe let alone reside there as part of a smart set. Anyway, there is a war in Europe now. Deep down he wishes that the United States would join the conflict and send him there as a soldier with all speed, for without some such dramatic outlet for his restless spirit can he face more of his life as it is, a life still young, surely still full of possibilities, yet trapped by responsibilities and in the trappings of respectable middle-class middle-age?
Getting Betty pregnant that fateful summer is something that he regrets very much, though he loyally denies this when asked; just as he does his best to steer conversations clear of any reflections upon what happened, or what might have been; just as he almost manages to sound convincing when he says, philosophically, that dreams are dreams and life is life, and that one can’t always have what one wanted when one was young, and various other wise and stoical things of that kind that nonetheless fill him with gloom and with an almost-intolerable frustration that it should be so, and at why he is the prisoner of his own life, and how he longs, increasingly, for some kind of release from it.