Bearcat

by Lisa Clark

 

Brooklyn, New York 1927

“You want to be a little nawghty, right?” Marilyn said, holding up one of her own dresses in front of her niece. “This’ll do it.”

Helen turned toward the dresser mirror, tilted downward. She bit her lip.

“What’s the matter?” Marilyn asked, Brooklyn buzzing in every word. “Ya look gorgeous.” At twenty-five, she was only six years older than Helen; more like an older sister than an aunt. Helen had thought that leaving rural Ohio to visit her in New York City would be exciting. She hadn’t expected to feel so drab next to Marilyn and wasn’t prepared for a change this dramatic—or revealing.

“But this dress is so short.” Helen’s face contorted as though she were viewing a cow giving birth rather than herself in the latest style. “I’m sure Mom and Dad would never approve.” The state of Ohio wouldn’t, either. There, hemlines higher than seven inches above the floor were illegal.

“No offense, but your folks are appleknockers.” When her niece didn’t respond, Marilyn added in elongated syllables, “You know. Bluenosers. Hicks. Prudes.”

“I guess.”

“Honey, sit down.” While Helen took a padded chair, Marilyn plopped onto the bed. Even there she looked elegant. Her satin bathrobe matched her bedspread, which in turn coordinated with several floral throw rugs. The wallpaper, featuring diamonds made of tiny flowers on a dusty peach background, tied it all together. Sophisticated royal blue linoleum made Helen’s home seem positively dowdy. No; that wasn’t the word. Like a prune pit. That’s the way Aunt Marilyn had described Helen’s overcoat.

“Don’t look so glum, kid,” Marilyn said. “We don’t have to go dancing at all. I was only dolling you up because you said you wanted a little excitement before you marry that farmer fiancé of yours.”

Eugene. Helen twisted her engagement ring around her finger. Inside, her stomach twisted all by itself. What would Eugene think of all this?

“Listen,” Marilyn pulled one knee up onto the bed. The way her robe draped? Her pose? She looked like a movie star. “You can stay home tonight. No problem. I just got to get to a certain juice joint to hear the band play one last time.” Juice joint? Is was like Aunt Marilyn spoke a different language. She leaned forward. “Sorry, honey. That’s the way anybody who’s anybody talks around here. A juice joint is a gin mill, a speakeasy—you know, a club where they sell alcohol.”

With a quick lift of her chin, Helen said, “I know about speakeasies. I’ve read lots of confession magazines.” Finally; something she could talk about without sounding like a dumb Dora. “If you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with imbibing. The law says nothing about the consumption or possession of alcohol. Only making, transporting, and selling it.”

Marilyn stood to remove the clips holding the spit curls framing Helen’s face. “Good for you, kid. Glad someone’s up on the law. You oughtta be a trendsetter and go to law school. You’re brainy enough. Too bad you’re life’ll be over in seven months. Me? I’m not looking for a handcuff.” After meeting Helen’s gaze, she rolled her eyes. “An engagement ring, okay? Geez, you gotta get with it.”

“Eugene’s nice, Aunt Marilyn. He’ll be running his family farm soon.”

Marilyn huffed. “Sure, kid. Anything you say. Only don’t call me ‘aunt’ when we’re out together, all right? I don’t want people thinking I’m some kind of old maid.” She glanced at her watch. “Gosh. Time’s running away. Whether you come or not, I gotta get ready.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t go. I mean, would Eugene approve of this?” No. He wouldn’t.

“Yeah. All right. It’s your decision. I ain’t gonna force you.”

Helen watched as Marilyn transformed herself from everyday typist to femme fatale. With practiced strokes, she brushed on gray eye shadow, which she then highlighted with brown and the smallest smidgen of turquoise to hood false lashes. When she blinked languorously, Helen couldn’t help but giggle.

Next came face powder that concealed under-eye circles. “Even if you have a rotten week,” Marilyn explained, “you gotta hide it if you expect fellas to look at you.”

Marilyn penciled in thin lines above the natural brow before sloping dramatically in a straight line. “Ya gotta make ‘em think you’re hiding some sad secret that’s breaking your heart.”

“What kind of secret?”

Marilyn paused with a pot of rouge in her fingers, her lips pursing for a moment before she shrugged in a quick up and down. “You got me there. I guess it don’t really matter as long as you look good.”

Finishing her makeover with red lipstick and then quick pinches to shape the hair framing her face, Marilyn turned to the outfit she had laid out on her bed. “Now comes the fun part.” She rattled on as she donned each item. At the end, she twirled in her gold tissue evening gown, making the purple fringe on three levels of the skirt whirl out at a ninety-degree angle.

Helen slumped. She hadn’t felt frumpish in Ohio, but next to Aunt Marilyn, she felt like a square. While Helen wore bobbed hair, Marilyn sported the shingle cut, trimmed close to the neck in a V shape, like a boy’s. Though Helen had never held a cigarette, Marilyn had a special box for them and an elegant holder. While Helen’s only going-out dress covered her shoulders, Marilyn brazenly bared hers.

The memory of a confessional Helen had read recently popped to mind. A young woman left her husband and young child for life in the city. Her recklessness had led to despair for the entire family. Helen bristled inwardly. Of course the story had ended in misery. All the stories ended that way. Helen supposed they had to; who would buy a magazine that promoted licentiousness?

She was in no danger of becoming like the woman in the story. She’d never leave Eugene to pursue a wanton life of pleasure. The thought of such an unkind and selfish act repulsed her. But wouldn’t it feel lovely for just one night to find out what life might have been like if she’d grown up in New York City?

“Hmm.”

“What’s that, honey?” Marilyn said.

“Oh. Nothing.”

Marilyn returned to gazing in the mirror, fiddling with her beaded headband.

“Um,” Helen said.

Marilyn looked at her through the mirror’s reflection. “Yeah?”

“I’ve thought it over. I want to go with you.”

“Really?” Marilyn turned to face Helen. “Are you positive, honey? The joint I’m heading to might be… Well, it’s something you’re probably not used to.”

“Yes. I’m sure. I might never have a chance like this again.”

“Eh.” Marilyn scrunched her mouth. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d better not. There’ll be jazz and smoking and dancing. And of course drinking. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. Stay home. Tomorrow morning I’ll give you a little report about how it went.”

“No,” Helen said, stubbornness tinging her tone. “I don’t want to sit at home while you have all the fun.”

“Listen to me.” Marilyn’s voice transformed, sounding more like Helen’s mother than her fun-loving aunt. “Where I’m going ain’t no playground. If you want, I’ll help you get dolled up and we’ll strut our stuff along some busy street tomorrow. See how many dandies honk their horns at us. That’ll be safe. Not tonight, okay?”

Helen stood. “No. It’s not okay. You said it’s my decision. I’m nineteen. I’m old enough to go out on the town. Besides, a few minutes ago, you were trying to convince me to go.”

Marilyn’s head drooped to the side like a wilted sunflower. “But I promised your mother I’d take care of you.” The bangles on her wrists tinkled as she planted her knuckles on her hips. “You sure about this? What about Eugene? What’ll he think?”

“He doesn’t even have to know. In fact, I have an idea. I won’t go as boring old Helen Rivers. Instead, I’ll be Fay Bow for the night.”

Marilyn guffawed. “Like a mixture of Fay Wray and Clara Bow?”

“Exactly.” Helen thrust her hips forward and began a small promenade around the room, tripping slightly on a throw rug, then swooping her arm around as though she’d planned the move. “Now,” she said in the affected tone she imagined a sophisticate would use, “please assist me in my transformation while we still have time.”

“You mean we have to get a wiggle on?”

Helen giggled. “Right.”

When Marilyn finished the makeover, Helen posed before the mirror, an empty cigarette holder between her fingers, her hand perched on a jutted hip. She liked the way the silk velvet dress draped lower in the back. Kind of a mini-train. She’d wondered whether the narrow tubes of fabric that made up the shoulder straps were too scandalous. But no; the dress wasn’t risqué at all. She’d seen pictures of other women with bared shoulders. She wasn’t a floozy any more than they were.

Marilyn whistled her drawn-out approval that started out high and descended two octaves lower. “What a bearcat you turned into!”

Helen glanced to the side and lifted her chin, gazing into the air like a movie star spurning a would-be suitor.

With a laugh, Marilyn said, “Yeah, you’re a fiery, hot-blooded baby all right.”

The sultry look flew from Helen’s face, replaced by a toothy grin.

By the time Marilyn latched and locked the door of her apartment, plain Helen Rivers from Ohio had disappeared entirely, replaced by Fay Bow. Her engagement ring remained on the dresser.

Fay carried herself more freely than Helen had ever dared, swinging her hips and allowing her skirt to flutter flirtatiously at the knees, where a glimpse of naked flesh occasionally peeked out.

She liked this emancipation from her normal, restrictive life. Like Aunt Marilyn had said, “Ya can’t do the Black Bottom or the Charleston all trussed up.” Or feel as alive as she did at that moment. Fay was ready to plunge herself completely into the role of a flapper.

Half an hour later, a brawny man admitted them into the club. With red lips puckered, the two passed between tables of laughing people. Ostrich feathers bobbed lazily as the heads beneath them bantered between puffs from long cigarette holders. Smoke rose in gentle swirls as the saxophone and clarinet took turns with raucous jazz melodies. Fay’s eyes widened at the stem glasses and tumblers filled with green, amber, and pink concoctions. She had no idea alcohol could look so tantalizing.

Stepping aside to allow a waiter to pass with a tray of half-filled glasses, Fay rammed into the chair of a woman wearing intense rouge whose drink slopped onto the table then dripped onto her lap.

“Hey! Whattaya think you’re doing? Why don’t you watch where you’re going? Ya know how much I paid to have this rag cleaned?”

Helen reemerged with startling speed, stumbling backwards. The room that, a moment ago, promised sophisticated excitement, now seemed suffocating. Was everyone looking at her? Accusing her? She was suddenly sure that her dress, the long strand of pearls draping to her waist, and her clownish make-up fooled no one. They could all clearly see that she was a bumpkin.

“Listen, she’s sorry lady, okay?” Marilyn said, pulling Fay back to replace Helen. “She’s new here. Give her a break just this once, willya?”

The woman’s eyes flashed beneath severe black lashes, but she turned away. Marilyn, grabbing Fay’s bare arm above the elbow, steered her toward a table where two young men sat.

“These seats taken?” Marilyn asked. “If they’re not, we’d like to rest our dogs.”

“Reserved for you two,” one man answered, his attention now on them instead of the nearby table, where four flappers postured. “Right, Chet?” He nudged the man next to him.

Is this what Aunt Marilyn did, Fay wondered? Approach absolute strangers and ask to sit with them? People didn’t act this way in Ohio. Then she caught herself. Cut it out, she ordered.

She forced a smile.

“Yes. Please sit down.” Chet stood to pull out Fay’s chair. He stood at least two inches taller than Eugene, and Chet’s dark hair, slicked back and shiny with brilliantine, was also thicker than her fiancé’s and his voice a tone or two deeper. In a blue double-breasted suit with pencil stripes, Chet looked classier, too.

Stop comparing him to Eugene.

“Thank you. I’m Fay,” she said, batting her eyes. She’d let Marilyn worry about Will or Bob or whatever the other man’s name was.

As they sat, Marilyn winked at Fay.

Their night had begun.

Until that moment, Fay didn’t realize that a saxophone could send shivers up her arms.

“Glad you sat down with us. Jim and I are only visiting.” Chet had a nice, friendly, lopsided smile that set Fay at ease. “Do you live in New York?”

The clarinetist rose to his feet and fingered out a sultry run, drowning Chet’s next words. Fay scooted her chair closer to him. “It’s hard to hear.”

“Yeah. Give us four Sidecars,” Jim said to a waiter who was balancing a tray above his shoulder.

“I hope that sounds good to everyone,” he said, meeting Fay’s eyes.

“Sounds great.” What’s a Sidecar, she wondered?

“This band is really good,” Chet said, leaning toward her ear. He smelled good. Fresh. Like a field in the spring. Different, better, than Eugene, who often visited her after milking cows. The barn scented his hair.

She angled her body toward Chet. “I know. It’s one of Au— Marilyn’s favorites.” Which she supposed was true.

Fay tried to catch Chet’s words while the music infused the room and its occupants with scandal. At the next table, one woman splayed her legs, baring her thigh high enough to reveal a red garter. Her companion ogled then pulled her toward him, chair and all. Another woman, who appeared no older than Fay, leaned her naked shoulder into a willing man, shrugged, and tilted her head backwards. Slowly. He obliged her with kisses on the shoulder, neck, and finally on her lips. Fay’s pupils widened.  People in rural Ohio did not behave that way. Especially not Eugene.

Then there was Chet himself. Fay had heard the term “smoldering eyes” before, but didn’t think she’d ever met someone with them. Men with smoldering eyes probably didn’t spend their days in barns, tending to animals. Chet’s eyes, though, deep-set under heavy brows, definitely qualified. His longish lashes might almost have made her envious if they hadn’t added an extra, mysterious layer of shadow to his golden topaz eyes, rimmed black around almost luminescent irises. As he fixed his eyes on her, he squinted the smallest bit and his lips wore a whisper of a smile, as though being with her intrigued him.

Eugene never looked at her that way.

When the waiter plunked down their drinks, Jim hoisted his glass. “To a delightful night, where strangers become very good friends.”

Fay raised her glass with the rest of them before touching it to her lips. Her eyes brightened. The chilled glass was rimmed with sugar. Tasting the tiniest amount, she recognized lemon and orange peel and almost laughed. This is what the—what was Marilyn’s name for prudes? Oh—the Mrs. Grundys were so upset about? She sipped several times before noticing that Chet was watching her. She smiled, setting the drink down.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said close to her ear before turning toward the stage, where the pianist was cracking a joke, something about gin being “still-born” that Fay didn’t quite get. Nor did she understand why a devil who’d lost his tail would go to a gin shop, where they retailed spirits; the rest of the crowd found the jest hilarious.

While Chet’s attention was on the band, Fay licked the remaining sugar from the rim and emptied her glass.

Chet caught her eye and they exchanged smiles when the pianist began a titillating rhythm that swung from high to low, soon joined by the drummer, who used some sort of wire sweep to create slinky slides. Something else she’d never seen in Ohio.

“Another round of drinks,” Jim called out to a nearby waiter. “Make it Barbary Coasts this time.”

Barbary Coasts? Didn’t that have something to do with pirates? Who named these drinks?

“Care to dance?” Before she could answer, Chet was on his feet, holding out a hand toward her.

You’re engaged, she told herself.

No, she countered, I’m Fay Bow, who is single. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with dancing.

When she stood, lightheadedness wrapped her briefly in fog. Odd. She shook her head and then, feeling as though she were watching herself in a dream, followed Chet.

A crowded dance floor forced Fay to squish in close to Chet. Fay took his proffered while he slipped the other onto her waist. With so many strangers hemming them in, she had to scoot in even closer. The spicy, warm fragrance of his aftershave made her wish she didn’t have to exhale. Chet was handsome and polite and, well, lots of things. All good. Best of all, he felt safe.

Soon the crowd was bouncing to the music, dancing their favorite steps in place. By the end of the song, Fay and Chet were laughing. He grabbed her hand to lead her back to the table, where their drinks, luscious-looking creamy concoctions, waited.

“Yum!” Fay said after a sip, instantly slapping her hand over her mouth.

“Good, ain’t it, honey?” Marilyn said with a lift of her brow.

No. Not good. Delicious. Fay let the smooth, thick liquid linger on her tongue. Why, she wondered, was the country so determined to ban liquor? Abolitionists obviously hadn’t tried either a Barbary Coast or… Or whatever that fruity first drink was.

A singer joined the band to belt out “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The music, the people, the sounds of clicking glasses and giggling girls, the scrumptious drinks, the remembered feel of her hand in Chet’s and his at her waist, his smell and steamy eyes made Fay wish she could wrap all of this up in a package that she could take home and open whenever she felt blue. 

“Another round,” Jim called out to the passing waiter a few songs later. After the drinks arrived, Fay sucked down a large gulp of yet another sweet concoction. The hazy, disembodied feeling that settled on her fit the persona she wanted to portray perfectly. She felt relaxed, free to be herself. Each sip made Chet more wonderful. How was it possible that such an urbane man, a student of Veterinary Science at Cornell, would be interested in her, a simple country girl?

Chet was talking about the Coney Island amusement park. Fay lifted her hand to her ear and he slid his chair so that it touched hers. When the singer took the stage again for a heart-wrenching rendition of “The Man I Love,” Chet’s fingers lightly stroked the back of Fay’s hand as it sat on her lap.

She wondered what it would be like to be in love with a man like this. Her insides ached thinking about it. Not in a bad way, but delectably.

How would it feel to nestle into his neck?

Chet lifted his hand to signal to the waiter, busy several tables away. While his attention was elsewhere, Fay slid her dress up a fraction. Would he even notice?

Turning to her again, his gaze dropped briefly to her hem. He noticed.

When his hand grazed her arm on the way to her neck, Fay felt a surge. Her breathing grew heavier as Chet caressed her neck with his fingertips before leaning toward her and touching her cheek with a light kiss that lit up her body and brain. At the same time, prickles of warning crawled up Fay’s arms.

She forced a smile and lifted an empty glass to her lips.

“We’ll have another round,” Chet said when the waiter arrived, his tray loaded with a large collection of empty glasses.

“Make it Gin and Sin this time,” Marilyn called out, laughing.

“Another dance?” Chet asked.

Fay was glad for slow music this time so she could lean into Chet. With her head resting on his shoulder and his hand low on her back, she felt woozy and tired and comfortable and happy. When the music stopped, Chet lifted her chin and brushed her lips lightly with his. The look in his eyes afterwards was intoxicating.

As they returned to the table, Fay ran her tongue over first her upper then her lower lip, recalling the kiss.

The cool mixture of gin, citrus juices, and grenadine in the new drink relaxed her further. She was enjoying playing the part of Fay, the bearcat. When she glanced at Chet, the intensity of his gaze made her gasp.

Chet played with the fringe of hair at the nape of her neck before letting his fingers slip onto her naked shoulder.

Fay was having trouble thinking straight.

She blinked back a wave of tiredness. If she could just close her eyes for a moment. Chet smiled and, with an arm around her shoulder, pulled her in snugly. She leaned into him and laid down her head, cozying into the soft hollow between his shoulder and chest. Her face warmed at her own boldness.    

When the piano player ignited the air with a sizzling chord progression, Fay wriggled up straight and, as nonchalantly as she could manage, set her hand on Chet’s thigh. Her heart raced. He covered her hand with his and pulled her toward him for a long kiss, sucking her lower lip. This man was making her forget her fiancé entirely.

“Four rounds of drinks is enough for me,” Marilyn announced loudly. Fay pulled back from Chet to look at her aunt. “Any more and I’ll be splifficated. We oughta get outta this joint and head over to my place where it’s quiet.”

“Whatever you say,” Chet’s friend answered, grabbing Marilyn’s hand.

Chet and Fay followed.

As they stepped out into the cool air, the world around Fay rolled like a wheat field in the wind. She leaned heavily onto Chet, depending on him to keep her from falling. He led her with an arm around her waist.

Being Fay was wonderful.

*  *  *

Sunlight slashed through the thin gap between Marilyn’s heavy curtains, jerking Helen awake. Beside her on the sofa lay a naked man. He was definitely not Eugene. This she knew by his face, not his body, for she had never seen Eugene in the altogether.

She bolted off the sofa, stumbling and slipping on an area rug and landing on her rump. The commotion woke the man, who was lying on his back. Helen grabbed something white that was draped over the arm of the couch, limp, like the body of a headless duck.

The man shifted her way, looked at her, looked at himself, then sprang up, snatching the closest loose bit of fabric nearby.

A breath later, the two stood face to face, she covered with his shirt, he with her dress.

Now she recognized him. He was the man from the speakeasy the night before. The one who looked so dreamy and sophisticated. He looked neither at the moment.

Then she remembered Marilyn’s last words before taking the other man—who was it? Bob? Jake? Jim?—into her bedroom. “We’ll be cuddling in the other room. You two just make yourselves comfy. See you in the morning.”

Next, other more intimate images flashed into her mind.

What had she done?

All of those puritanical, stodgy-looking women who waved signs demanding abstinence filled her brain, wagging their fingers in her face. They—not her flapper aunt, not the lewd and licentious patrons of the speakeasy—were right in their assessments. Alcohol was dangerous.

How could Helen have been drawn into such debauchery?

The five feet between her and the man—Chet, was it?—wasn’t nearly enough. She raced to the bathroom. Before she clicked the lock, Helen began to weep. She had saved herself for marriage. For Eugene, her fiancé.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, legs spread wide, Helen scrubbed away the sticky pink evidence of her deed until finally crumbling inside of the tub.

How could that man out there have taken advantage of her this way?

Miserably, she shuffled to the mirror. The mascara and eye shadow she had thought so fetching last evening smeared her cheeks in shameful shades of black, brown, gray, and turquoise. A false eyelash still held onto one corner of her eye like a spring that was bent and yanked out of shape.

She scoured her face clean with a washcloth, all the while thinking that no amount of soap could recover the innocence she’d possessed less than a day earlier.

Then she sat on the closed toilet seat, doubled over, and wept. What was she going to do? She couldn’t tell Eugene. She just couldn’t.

“Hey Hel… um, Fay.” Helen startled when Marilyn’s called through the door. “The rest of us would like to get in there, too, so get a wiggle on, would ya?”

When she emerged from the bathroom with one towel wrapped around her waist and another to cover her chest, she felt like a cartoon man she’d seen at the movies once who was stuffed into little boy clothes; flesh that should have been covered was bared for everyone to gawk at. Head down, Helen rushed to Marilyn’s bedroom

“Helen,” Marilyn said, cracking the door of the bedroom a little later, “are you okay?”

“Okay?” she snapped. “No. I’m not okay, Aunt Marilyn.” Every syllable was an accusation.

“Geez, I’m sorry to hear that. The fellas are ready to leave. You should come say good-bye.”

Helen followed her aunt, not knowing why. She had nothing to say to the man who’d stolen her chastity.

“I’ll be heading back to school on Monday, Fay, but we could still write,” Chet said. “Here. I jotted my home and school addresses down for you. If you give me your address and telephone number, I’ll get in touch with you.”

Under the name “Fay Bow,” Helen invented an address and phone number, feeling sneaky and vindictive and guilty and awful as she wrote.

She hadn’t been a bearcat last night. She’d been a fool. When Chet leaned in to kiss her good-bye, she pulled back as though he were about to bite her. She could see confusion in his eyes, but she didn’t care. 

By the time Marilyn closed the door, anger had risen in Helen like water in the Great Mississippi Flood earlier that year, which had flooded some areas with thirty feet of water. Whatever wasn’t washed away was destroyed. Just like Helen.

“How could you do that to me, Aunt Marilyn?” she spat out.

Marilyn pulled her head back. “Do what, honey?”

“Do what? Are you joking? You took me to that… that den of iniquity. You filled me with alcohol. And then you let that man…” She knuckled away tears.

“Den of iniquity? Where do you learn this stuff? Listen, sit down and tell me what’s bugging you.” Marilyn plopped onto the sofa directly beside the blood stain on the center cushion of the floral damask.

Helen folded herself onto the matching armchair opposite, still wiping tears from her face. “You shouldn’t have taken me there. You shouldn’t have dressed me up like some lady of the night or slopped your make-up on me. You shouldn’t have asked those men if we could sit with them—”

“Wait. Whattaya talking about? You’re the one who asked me to doll ya up, to take ya out. And you sure seemed to be enjoying your time with Chet. What’d you two do last night after we left?” She guffawed.

“Stop it, Aunt Marilyn.  It’s not funny. I only acted that way because of all those drinks. You’re the one who ordered that—what did you call it?—Gin and Sin. So tell me. Was it your plan all along to get me so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing?”

Marilyn’s eyes narrowed. “Now just a minute. I didn’t do nothing.” Now she sounded nothing like Helen’s mother. “That was all you, little missy. I saw you on the dance floor with Chet, the way you were encouraging him to touch and kiss you. Don’t you dare lay the blame on me.”

Helen dropped her feet to the floor heavily and leaned forward, her tears replaced with outrage. “You should have known what would happen. You knew about Eugene. Why didn’t you say something—do something?”

“Hey, I asked you if you were sure about going out with me. I even asked you to think about Eugene.” Helen had always thought of her aunt as pretty. At that moment, without her make-up and in the morning light shining in the window, she looked pale and ugly. No wonder she was unmarried. “You’re the one,” Marilyn continued, “who wanted to become Fay Bow. Or don’t you remember that little speech you gave about being nineteen and ‘old enough to go out on the town’?”

“But you saw what was happening at the club.” Helen’s throat was thick, her voice deep and severe. “And when we got back home, you left me. Alone in the room with that man. All night long.” She dropped her face into her hands and her voice broke as she wept. “I was saving myself for Eugene, for our wedding night. Not for some stranger who I’ll never see again.”

Marilyn was at her side, sitting on the upholstered arm of the chair, rubbing Helen’s back. “You mean you never…?”

She glared at Marilyn. “Of course not.” She looked over at the bloodied center cushion of the couch. “I’m not some quiff. Like you.”

Marilyn gasped.

“What’s wrong? Didn’t I get the right word? I mean slut. Whore.”

More than anything else, Helen was shocked when Marilyn slapped her cheek.

Standing, Marilyn said, “I think you better get out of here, Helen. Take your valise and puritanical views back to Ohio where they belong. You’re obviously not ready for the big city.”

*  *  *

What am I going to say to Eugene?, Helen wondered as the train clicked and clacked its way to Ohio.

At one-thirty, she decided to say nothing to him. Why did he have to know, anyway? She’d figure out some way to hide the truth from him on their wedding night.

At one-forty-five, when she thought of Chet, she wanted to scream. This was his fault. What he did was wrong. She wanted to go back to the night before and tell him to go away, leave her alone, keep his closeness and hands and lips away from her. Then her body remembered how he’d made her feel. Staring out the window at the passing fields, her vision turned to him kissing and touching her. Her breath hitched as she remembered how wonderful his fingers felt on her bare skin.

The next moment her eyes teared at the wrongness of it. Stop it. Don’t even think about Chet. Not now. Now ever. Remember: you’re engaged. To a wonderful man.

She leaned back against the headrest, tired. Why couldn’t Eugene be a little more like Chet?

At two o’clock, Helen realized that it was she who’d brought all of this on herself. She was the one who had convinced Marilyn to take her to the club, despite her aunt’s protestations. She was the one who’d guzzled down not one, but four drinks. And enjoyed them. No one had forced her to drink. She’d been the one who teased and coaxed Chet to do things to her that she would never have asked Eugene to do, at least not yet. She was responsible for it all. She should have listened to those wise women who rallied against alcohol. Nothing, nothing, good came from imbibing. She’d been a flirtatious, foolhardy trollop and now she had to pay for it.

By two-thirty, Helen’s tears had dried. What if she did tell Eugene? No. He’d be so hurt. Instead, she’d be a loving and faithful wife the rest of her life to make up for what she’d done. He would never, ever, know.

At two-forty-five, she thought, what if I’m pregnant? She and Eugene’s wedding was planned for seven months from now. She squirmed. There would be no way to hide a seven-month pregnancy. Eugene—everyone—would know what she’d done. And she’d be discarded by him, her family, and society, forced to live the rest of her life in regret.

No. No! She wouldn’t think about that.

She picked up a newspaper someone had left on a nearby seat and read about plans for a new monument. Built into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, it would feature the faces of four presidents. How interesting, she thought for half a second.

Her hands fell onto her lap and she leaned her head onto the window.

At three o’clock, she slept.

 

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One Response to “Bearcat”

  1. Defenestrationism.net » Blog Archive » Announcing the 2017 !Short Story Contest! Finalists Says:

    […] –“Bearcat”, Lisa Clark […]

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