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Promisesby Belva Plain
Synopses & Reviews
"Turn," said Isabella, with pins between her lips.
In the pier glass, looking down, Margaret could watch careful fingers working over a cascade of white silk. Looking up, she saw her own disheveled, curly red head and her shoulders rising in unfamiliar nakedness over an intricately tucked and pleated frill.
Margaret's mother sighed. "I don't know how you do it, Isabella."
"Sewing is recreation for me, Jean. And to make a wedding dress for my own daughter-in-law, whom I knew before she was born--how many people can have a pleasure like that?"
Affection shone from Isabella's eyes. They were opalescent and wide set, like her son's. Like Adam she was erect and dignified. But where she was talkative, he was silent. His intelligent face with its even, symmetrical features was somber, a somber, romantic face. Mysterious. Heroic. Margaret had fallen in love with it when she was fifteen years old.
If Adam ever leaves me, she thought suddenly, I shall die.
He had last telephoned on Monday, just after she had come home for spring break. Before that he had not called since the previous Thursday. But they had always talked to each other every evening after eight. They would talk just under three minutes, yet it seemed, although two states lay between his university and her college, as if he had his arms around her.
When had it begun to change? Or had it really changed? After all, he was on the final stretch of the hard road toward his degree. So perhaps she was only imagining things. A word unspoken, a glance evaded, a telephone call missed--if you were looking for signs, you could find them, couldn't you? You could always force something out of nothing, merely because you were too sensitive. Yes, that was it. She was too sensitive.
And she looked around at the familiar room as if its very familiarity might reassure her. An extraordinary warmth was here. It came from the house itself, this solid Victorian, built by her great-grandfather and meant to last, complete with front porch and wooden gingerbread, on this broad midwestern street. It came from the two women, both plain, kind, and unexceptional, who had known widowhood since the Korean War, had each worked and reared a child alone. It came from the cheerful shrills of children playing in the yard below.
From where she was standing, Margaret could see the group playing some ancient circle-game, with Nina in the center, taking charge. At six she was the neighborhood leader. Such a delightful, demanding person she was, Jean's little orphaned niece!
Adam used to joke: "After we're married, people who don't know us well will think that she's really ours, that we'd had her hidden away."
"Are they all right down there?" Jean asked. "I always worry when she's out of my sight."
"You worry too much, Mom. Nina's going to make her way in the world. With that pert little face and all that energy, she's going to be a charmer and a winner. Anyway, you know very well that when she's in my charge, I keep her safe." And Margaret had to laugh. "I don't let her get away with too much, you can be sure."
"You'll be a fine mother," Isabella said as she got up from her knees.
"'Fine mother'!" Jean laughed. "Oh, yes, of course, but she's got quite a few things to do first. Graduate from college in May, then Adam will graduate, and then the wedding June twentieth--you know, I've forgotten to give the date to the photographer! Good Lord, I'll go phone right now!"
"Wait," said Margaret. "I--we're not exactly sure about the date."
Two startled, high-pitched voices chimed. "What do you mean?"
Struggling out of the confining silk, Margaret felt suddenly exposed and very vulnerable.
"We thought--Adam said--he thought maybe we have too many things all crowded together. All these dates. Maybe he should have a little time to buy stuff for himself--"
Isabella interrupted. "Buy stuff! All he needs to get ready is a new suit. And knowing how little he cares about clothes, I'll have to argue him into buying that."
As thoughts that had been forced down now rose to the surface, all the good warmth ebbed from the room.
"Well, it's not only that. Maybe, when you think about it, maybe he really should have some more time, a couple of weeks to get used to the new job. A little time."
"And you had to wait until April to think about all that?" Jean said, with some exasperation.
The two older women were properly alarmed. Without looking Margaret knew they were questioning, glancing toward each other. How they wanted this marriage! It was safe. Each was to get a dependable in-law. There were no dangerous unknown quantities. She understood.
"Why, he never said anything like that to me!" exclaimed Isabella.
"Well, we weren't sure. It just crossed our minds. Just a thought. Anyway, we'll have to decide this week one way or the other." They were examining her. It felt as though cold air were blowing on her body. She slid into her jeans and buttoned her shirt, saying lightly, hurriedly, "Goodness, it's no problem! There's no big difference between June and July, is there? But we'll let you know. Definitely. This week. Positively."
Isabella, the more easily appeased, hung the wedding dress into a plastic bag. "Okay, as long as you do. It won't take long for me to finish this skirt," she said cheerfully. "I'll have to come back once more to get the hem right, that's all."
As soon as they were alone, Jean asked the expected question. "What is it, Margaret? Is there any trouble?"
"No. What could there be?"
"Because if there is, I can't go off and leave you."
"Because of this little business of changing the date?"
"If that's all it is."
"That's all it is."
A pair of her familiar vertical worry lines appeared between Jean's eyes. "I sometimes think I shouldn't be going, anyway. India. It's crazy."
"Since that's where the consular service is sending Henry, it's where you have to go. What's the fuss?"
"Maybe it's crazy for me to think of marriage anyway, after all this time being a widow."
"All the more reason, Mom."
Jean looked weary. It was as if her years of work in the library had worn her as it wore books, graying the once-bright surface. She had had so little time to love her husband and be loved. Day after day there had been only the routine of work and the care of a child. Sadness and pity touched Margaret. Sometimes it almost seemed to her that their positions were reversed, that Jean was the daughter and she the mother.
"You know, Mom," she said firmly, "Henry's a good man, and you're very lucky. I'm glad for you. Stop thinking about me. I'll be fine. I can manage things."
"Yes, yes, I know you're strong. But I'm leaving you with the responsibility of Nina. Starting a marriage with a six-year-old child to care for simply doesn't seem right."
"It's quite right. I love her, and Adam doesn't mind having her at all."
"Yes, he's a prince, he really is. But you're a princess, Margaret, beautiful and good. Sometimes I think you're too good."
"Spoken like a mother! Now, do you mind? I've still got reading to do and finals coming up around the corner."
The late-afternoon sun was watery, and the old scraggly lilac was still winter bare. In her chair at the window Margaret looked out at the well-known landscape, letting her troubled and restless mind wander.
She thought how amazing it was that she had been born into this house and that now, Mom having given it to her, she might possibly even die here. It would not be in this room, though, but in the large one across the hall, the one with the massive dark bed and the wardrobe that, when she was a child, had seemed to loom above her like some dark giant.
She thought about her early dreams, the allure of medicine, her vision of herself in an operating theater, or maybe on a hospital ship bringing modern miracles to remote places.
"You can be anything you want to be," her advisors told her. "You have an aptitude for many things."
But as she grew older during these last years at college, it became clear that choices would have to be made. Adam was the elder, the one who was now prepared to move from the study hall into the real world. And he had made a truly giant step. A Phi Beta Kappa student in college and now certain to receive his graduate degree with honors, he had already been engaged to work right here in Elmsford at Advanced Data Systems, one of the busiest computer companies in the state. It promised a glowing future. Now, since the state university was more than two hundred miles away, medical school for Margaret became an impossibility.
There could be no question as to this decision--their decision. They were everything to each other. Everything.
A sudden and frantic agitation possessed her, so that she started up, dropping her book to the floor, and, seizing a sweater, ran clattering down the stairs.
In the yard Jean was pushing Nina on the swing. "I thought you had to study," she said, surprised.
"I guess I've finished everything."
Jean smiled. She had a way of making up for her anxieties with a smile.
"I always tell people you will read the phone book if there's nothing else around."
It was true. Her imagination ran and ran everywhere, up mountains, back in time, down dead ends. Just this morning there had been a funny name in the phone book. Socrates O'Brien. Had an O'Brien perhaps been a sailor with the Mediterranean fleet and met a Greek girl to bring back to America? And was this Socrates their son? Or perhaps these O'Briens were classics scholars and all their children had names like Psyche or Cassandra...
The swing creaked, back and forth, up and down. It was hypnotic, the creak repeating itself at the same spot on the return. Hypnotic. Psyche, Cassandra, it creaked.
On the rise the child's legs were tilted higher than her head, and her laughter rang, while on the downswing she squealed in mock terror. Brought from Chicago when Jean's sister died, she had become Jean and Margaret's child, more accurately, Margaret's--a rescued child, innocent product of careless sex and an anonymous father.
Nina, Nina, the ropes creaked.
"What's the matter, Margaret? You're a thousand miles away."
She came to, blinking. "I need some air and exercise. I've been in all day."
"It's tension. I remember how I was before my wedding. Go on, dear, take a walk."
The street was pleasant, the old, well-tended houses far apart. Most people had some fruit trees and an ample vegetable garden out back. Almost everybody had a dog who roamed the neighborhood as if it belonged to him. Margaret and Jean had the vegetable garden, a quite splendid one that they worked themselves, but no dog.
I suppose we'll get one now that Nina's older. It will be good for her, Margaret thought.
Her mind flitted, fighting reality. She walked with her head down and her cold hands in the sweater's pockets.
Past the streets with the small-town, nineteenth-century air she came downhill into the city that Elmsford had become. Here was the main library, Gothic and ivied, where Mom had been head librarian. Here was the high school, where Margaret Keller, freshman, had so miraculously caught the attention of Adam Crane, senior. True, they had been aware of each other's existence long before that, but "being aware" and "catching attention" were very different. And holding their attention until it grew into a wedding dress and a pair of white satin slippers in a box on the top shelf of the closet was different still.
Nostalgia drew her onto the playing field. Here from a small plateau one looked downward toward the river, edged on this side with a clutter of industry, and turbulent from the long spring rains. Across it lay fields of corn and wheat, stretching for a hundred miles or more and sprinkled sparsely with small groves of trees, like islands on the calm sea.
Elmsford was a comfortable place. It was good to have grown up here, and it would be good to rear one's children here. Margaret was not a roamer, but a home person, as was Adam, although his mind roamed far. And she stood now, cold in the rising wind, thinking...
Her high school advisor, Mrs. Hummel, had said last summer, "I hope you aren't rushing into anything, Margaret. You've been preparing for medical school all along, and now you're giving it up! Do you have to?"
"I'll compromise. I can teach biology and chemistry here if they'll have me."
"Is that really a compromise?"
"I think so. I'll be teaching future doctors."
"Well," said Mrs. Hummel. "Well."
No doubt she had thought that because she was Mom's friend, advice from her would be acceptable. But she had been wrong. Margaret's expression had told her so, and she had added quickly, "I only mean--you have so much promise, Margaret. And you really are so young."
Young! She felt old right now, very old. And she longed for Adam with such a yearning, such an ache! If she could only talk to him, not over the telephone, but while she could look into his quiet face! Unlike her he was not given to explosions of emotion, but once he understood her bewilderment, he would reassure her.
Yet he had not reassured her...When, after he had rather vaguely suggested delay, she had asked him whether there was anything that he had not told her, he had merely, with equal vagueness, denied it.
"Nothing except that the exams are tough, and I'm tired out. Anyway, what's a couple of weeks' postponement?"
She had felt an atmosphere, as when the lights go out during a storm and the familiar house, with its corners and closed doors, becomes abruptly dangerous and strange.
Was he tired of her? Could he have found somebody else? It happened. But to them? To Adam and Margaret?
She had to ask him. And she began to walk, almost run, toward home and the telephone. Her heart was sick in her chest, now hammering, now fluttering, as she sped back up the slope. She had to stop for breath, to lean against an old stone wall.
But she knew she could not possibly ask him. She would simply have to wait for whatever might come next. It was a question of pride: a woman did not beg. At least, this woman didn't. No doubt hers was an old-fashioned concept, quite outmoded since men and women were now supposed to be the same. Yet they were not the same. Equal, yes, but not alike.
Now another thought came: He had remembered her birthday last week. He had sent flowers, the Collected Poems of Auden and a box of chocolates. She was always lamenting that she was a "chocoholic," and he was always telling her that with a figure like hers, she could afford to be.
You're looking for trouble, Margaret. You're seeing things that are not there.
Almost at her feet a chipmunk, emerging from hibernation, went racing beside the wall. And watching his erratic, zigzag flight, she wondered about the tiny brain, what its motivation to reverse direction might have been, and what the tiny eye might have noticed that she, standing right there, had not seen.
Zig. Zag. Things seen
About the Author
Belva Plain lives in northern New Jersey. She is the author of the bestselling novels Evergreen, Random Winds, Eden Burning, Crescent City, The Golden Cup, Tapestry, Blessings, Harvest, Treasures, Whispers, Daybreak, The Carousel, Promises, Secrecy, Homecoming, Legacy of Silence, and Fortune's Hand.
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