Now I had graduated on this bright June Saturday in 1959 and few were the obstacles left between me and my getaway train to Miami—obstacles that nevertheless must be cunningly surmounted.
“Emma, you ride in front with Earl,” said Mother, as expected. “I’ll sit in back and reminisce a little more about my time here in Paradise.”
“Oh?” challenged Earl. “What does that make the rest of your life, then, a comedown?”
“The rest of my life is still in progress,” Mother lightly countered, making room for herself among my college leftovers that were going back to the mountains with them. “Ask me again in thirty or forty years.”
We began the winding descent out of Chapel Hill as, seven years earlier, the three of us, with my mother’s new husband at the wheel, had begun another descent into a new life. Only this time, they would be dropping me off within the hour at the Seaboard Station in Raleigh. My journey as part of this family unit would soon be at an end. Happily, my train to Miami left at one fifteen, so a farewell lunch had been out of the question, a circumstance diminishing that much further the chance of a last-minute blowup with Earl.
But still I was on my guard, for already he was making those engorged throat noises that preceded a sermon. I did not dare glance back at Mother for fear of catching her eye. An exchanged look of sympathy or, God forbid, a mutual smirk might still explode everything sky-high, as it had done plenty of times before. My job was to look respectfully attentive without rising to his bait. I folded my hands in my lap and faced front, focusing on the road ahead. Windows on both sides were open to let in the breeze, and the capricious little whomp-whomps of hot air provided a divertimento against Earl’s opening sally and helped me keep my own counsel.
Sacrifices had been made. If I would ever stop to think about other people. Empathy and gratitude not my strong suits. Had never known what it was to apply myself on a daily basis. Hadn’t been required of me. Had been raised to think that the world revolved around me and that I could coast along without making much of an effort. Not completely my fault. Had been indulged too much for my own good by teachers as well as family. But now I was going into the real world where I would have to knuckle under and deliver the goods like everybody else.
“Though why you should choose to go off half-cocked to a place like Miami remains a mystery to your mother and me. Your dean told us the Charlotte Observer wanted you, but he said you’d had your heart set on Miami ever since you went down for that interview at Christmas. I said, well, we were the last to know she went to Miami for Christmas. She told us she was staying in the dorm to catch up on her work. We didn’t learn the truth till February.”
Damn and blast you, I thought. You have a single conversation with my dean, who adores me, and you make me out a liar.
“I didn’t want to say anything to anyone until I knew I had the job,” I cautiously replied.
“I told the dean, she doesn’t even know anybody in Miami—”
I don’t know anybody in Charlotte, either, I refrained from saying.
“She knows Tess,” put in Mother from the backseat. Tess was her old college roommate from Converse. “Tess will be meeting her train tomorrow morning.”
“So why didn’t she stay with Tess at Christmas, when she went down for that interview?” His voice had edged up a decibel.
“Well, I guess she wanted to stay with someone else at Christmas,” Mother neutrally suggested.
Of course I had told them, after the fact, with whom I’d stayed. Or rather I had presented an acceptable configuration of the way in which this family I had worked for last summer had offered me hospitality. Not that any configuration of the Nightingales would ever be acceptable to Earl.
“Well, I guess there’s just no accounting for some people’s taste, but to move down there to be with that tribe . . .” Menacing pause before the refrain: “When her dean said the Charlotte Observer would have taken her.”
The voice rolled on, but so, I congratulated myself, did the car. Every mile we achieved was one mile nearer to my release. We had not veered off the road or had a flat tire and nobody had backhanded me to start a black eye for my first day at work.
Think of it as a scene early in a novel, I told myself: The stepfather picks one last fight with the daughter who has not appreciated him. The mother in the backseat, wedged among her daughter’s boxes, knees tucked under her like a college girl, is forgiving of the wild little breezes that mess up her hairdo because they mute his voice. There will be plenty more of it to listen to on their long drive back to the mountains. Whose novel was this going to be? Not the stepfather’s; the writer might never grow the empathy for that one. Not the mother’s, either, though it catches in the daughter’s throat to see the youthful way the older woman is clasping her knees, wrapped in her own memories of Chapel Hill, when she still expected to get everything she wanted. If it was going to be the daughter’s, there would be some choked-back sobs in the mother’s embrace at the train station, one last stoic offering of the daughter’s mouth for the imposition of the stepfather’s kiss, and then they would be gone on the next page.
When, as a last-minute taunt, Earl, in the act of setting down my suitcases inside my roomette, asked if I thought I had “money to burn” for this exclusive little compartment with its own washroom and pull-down bed, I suppressed the perfect comeback that it was indeed a “burnt offering” of my graduation monies to thank the gods for my escape from him. At long last I had learned that it was never too late for a black eye when saying goodbye to certain people.
Alone in my luxury cubicle, I relaxed for the first time in months, allowing the train’s diesel engine to take over the job of getting me to my destination. Woods pinked with afternoon June light alternated with tobacco fields and tin-roofed drying barns. As we shot through a dreary little hamlet, a character offered herself for my perusal: a girl born and raised in this flyblown place who had dreams of going somewhere and one day wakes up on her deathbed, a forgotten old maid who has never left town, and hears this very train hurtle by. She feels the diesel cry in the marrow of her bones and in her last conscious moment believes she is aboard. She savors all the sweetness of having gotten out, and she expires with a rapturous smile on her face for no one to see but the undertaker.
Could such a woman still exist in the late nineteen-fifties, even in rural North Carolina? Why not? Maybe I would write this existential pastorale with its O. Henry–ish ending in the evenings when I got home from my newspaper job. It was the sort of thing that might get me published in a literary quarterly, especially one of the Southern ones, which abounded in stories about trains passing and nothing much ever happening at home. My plan was to become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then, in the evening and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side, if I could manage both.
I began to lower myself into the environs of the old maid’s unlived life until I started feeling queasy. Despite my desperate desire to be published, I knew this was a warning signal to get out of there. Letting yourself be trapped in the wrong story was another way of succumbing to usurpation. Goodbye, old girl, someone else will have to tell your boring tale.
I took first call for the dining car and sat down to a spotless white tablecloth and a red rosebud in a silver vase. Perfect icons for my new beginning. Like an antidote to my ditched character back in the roomette, a smart, suntanned woman in an Army officer’s uniform slowly materialized through the haze of my nearsightedness. Her gaze lit on me, she murmured something to the waiter, and the next thing I knew she was asking if she might join me.
“Please do.” I heard myself switching into my well-brought-up mode, even though I had been counting on dining alone and savoring my getaway some more.
Her brass name tag read “Major E. J. Marjac.” She introduced herself as Erna Marjac. When I said “Emma Gant,” she remarked on the similarity of our first names, which would have annoyed me had she not had such a warm smile (and beautiful teeth in the bargain) and had she not looked so straightforwardly charmed by the prospect of having dinner with me. By the time she had ordered from the menu, without the usual female shilly-shallying, I knew I envied her self-command and I resolved to use this opportunity to further my development.
She asked where I was headed, and I said I was going to Miami to be a reporter on the Miami Star.
“Really? You seem so young. I thought you were a student.”
“I was until noon today. I just graduated from the university at Chapel Hill.”
She laughed, exposing the beautiful teeth again. “You aren’t wasting any time, are you? We ought to celebrate. May I treat you to some wine, Emma?”
“Thank you, that would be nice.”
Major Marjac signaled the waiter. “What would you like?”
“Oh, whatever you’re ordering will be fine.” Having grown up in beer-and-bourbon land, I hadn’t a clue.
“Well, since we’re both having red meat, a half bottle of this Côte du Rhône will go down well. If we’d chosen the chicken, I would have suggested the Blue Nun.”
My first lesson in wines.
She told me she’d just completed a very successful recruiting tour and was heading for some R & R with a friend in Pensacola before reporting back to duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
“What do you do on a recruiting tour?”
“I show a film about the opportunities the Army offers to women today and then I have interviews the rest of the day. I’m very good at assessing character and signing up the best ones, but this time I broke my own record. Thirty-seven young women from fifteen states will be reporting for duty at Fort McClellan by the end of the month.”
I might have been number thirty-eight, I thought, had I not had my hiring letter from the managing editor of the Miami Star tucked in my purse. But then, of course, I wouldn’t have been on this train.
Major Marjac’s character-assessing gaze gave me a stamp of approval. “You’re fortunate, Emma, you started ahead of the game. But for many young women, we offer the only hope of independence.”
Over wine and dinner she told me stuff about code breaking and weaponry, and about the physical ordeals the new recruits would undergo: gas chambers and such. I strained hard to retain everything in case I decided at some future point to write a story about a girl in her last year of high school, desperate to escape her circumstances: she passes this window with a sign, army recruiting women today, and inside is handsome Major Marjac with her welcoming smile.
When we said goodbye—she would be getting off at Jacksonville before dawn—the Major gave me her card.
“Slip this into your wallet, Emma. If things don’t meet your expectations at the Star, drop me a line. With your college degree you could go straight into officers’ training.”
I asked the porter to make up my roomette for sleeping and was in bed before dark, swaying with the train’s motion, mellow from Major Marjac’s Côte du Rhône. When I was in my pajamas, I raised the shade again so I could get the maximum benefit from the experience, lying straight as a mummy in my little coffin-bed of rebirth, hurtling through one town after another where people steeped like old tea bags in their humdrum lives, speeding farther away by the minute from Earl-dom and all the other bottlenecks I had narrowly squeezed through.
It both gratified and goaded me that I had come across to an observant recruiter as one of those sleek, fortunate ones who “started ahead of the game.” Wasn’t that the image that I had cultivated? Yet, when so much lay hidden, I got no credit for my struggle, did I? When Major Marjac had proudly confided, “Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way,” I couldn’t help inventorying my own arsenal to date, the weapons best suited to my personality under duress: guile, subter-fuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their own purposes again.
“Usurp” had become my adversarial verb of choice ever since I had seized upon it from a History of Tudor England course to trounce my archenemy, the dean of women, in my Daily Tar Heel column. (“With her latest Victorian edict, Dean Carmody has, quite simply, usurped the rights of every Carolina coed.”) After that column, perfect strangers would call out familiarly as I crossed the campus: “Hey, Emma! Any-body been usurping you lately?” I delighted in the powers of the Fourth Estate. My twice-weekly column, “Carolina Carousel,” carried a mug shot of me with flying hair, cagey side glance, and my best don’t-mess-with-me smirk.
And the more I meditated on it, the more the “usurp” word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces. My soon-to-be twenty-two years on this earth had been an obstacle course mined with potential or actual usurpers.
Since day one, it seemed, I had been confronted by them in one form or another. After my alcoholic father crashed his car fatally into a tree on the day of my birth, Mother’s Alabama cousin, a childless woman married to a rich man, tried to annex me. The offer included my widowed mother, but my grandmother Loney was not part of the package—the cousin thought Loney was “too undemonstrative”—and so Mother had to decline.
Next came a string of suitors who were willing to take on a little girl to get the attractive, sexy mother, but not willing to take on the grandmother, so once again I was spared. Next came World War II, four years during which my mother’s job as a reporter on the Mountain City Citizen sufficiently engaged her libido. She covered the Veterans Hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers straight from the battlefront, interviewed visiting celebrities, reviewed books, and even contributed the occasional seasonal poem. But then the war ended and the men came home and wanted their jobs back and three of them wanted my mother. She chose the one my grandmother and I liked least, an oversensitive bully who brought to the match his overflowing trousseau of sermons and insecurities. After great storms of tears and reproaches between the women, my grandmother was left behind in our old apartment and I found myself part of a new family in a worse apartment on the other side of town, with new rules to follow and new things to worry about.
Earl immediately began his campaign to remove me from my “snobbish” grandmother’s influence altogether. It took three years for him to get us out of Mountain City, but at last he succeeded, which meant plucking me out of my beloved St. Clothilde’s, to which I had won a full high school scholarship the year before. Thus at the end of ninth grade, when I was going on fifteen, we packed up and drove out of our mountains, to begin our strange migrant years of “transferring” up and down the East Coast, gradually adding more human beings to our family mix, while Earl discovered, or his bosses discovered for him, that he was temperamentally unsuited to a career in chain store management. In those gypsy years of Earl’s and Mother’s, I felt like someone kidnapped from my rightful environment and tethered to a caravan of someone else’s descent.
In my last year at St. Clothilde’s, when our ninth grade had been immersed in David Copperfield, Sister Elise, a svelte, scholarly young nun recently transferred from Boston, read us a letter the adult Dickens had written to a friend, describing his terrible experience of being sent to work in a blacking factory at age twelve. It was for less than a year, while his family was bankrupt and living in debtors’ prison, but, Sister Elise informed us in her Back Bay accent, it left a scar (“skaah”) on Dickens forever, even after he had become rich and world famous and was surrounded by an adoring family of his own. No words could express, Dickens had written to his friend, the secret agony of his young soul as he sank into this low life, pasting labels onto blacking bottles for six shillings a month in a rat-infested warehouse with urchin boys who mockingly called him “the little gentleman.” Snatched from his studies with an Oxford tutor, obliged to pawn all his books (The Arabian Nights, his favorite eighteenth-century novels), the young Dickens felt his early hopes of growing up to be a distinguished and learned person crushed in his breast. All that he had learned and thought and delighted in was passing away from him day by day. His whole nature, he wrote to the friend who, Sister Elise told us, was to become his first biographer, had been so pene- trated with grief and humiliation that even now he often forgot in his dreams that he had escaped it all and was famous, caressed, and happy.
Now I, too, knew that constant sinking feeling of losing ground. Each day seemed to put more distance between me and where I thought I should be by this time, had Earl not entered our lives. Had I stayed on at smart, rigorous St. Clothilde’s, I would be polishing my already sterling record to a high sheen and—as many of my classmates would go on to do—would graduate with a nice bouquet of scholarship offers from top colleges, including Sister Elise’s own Radcliffe. Whereas, tethered to Earl’s itinerant career, I had to start all over again each year in a new high school (once I did two schools in a single year), make my qualities known as quickly as possible, and pray I could claw my way into a college, any college, somehow. Very early on in our life together, Earl had announced that even if he could afford to send me, which he certainly couldn’t, he wouldn’t, because his own parents, who could have afforded it, hadn’t offered to send him.
His backhandings and beatings and sneaky nocturnal raids on my person accrued with my advancing teens. Like the slave owners in the not-so-distant past, he unctuously assumed it was his right to do as he pleased with the flesh under his care. No season went by without a bruise on my face for “answering back.” I grew accustomed to awakening in the dark to find him kneeling beside my bed, engaged in one of his proprietary gropes beneath my nightgown. If I cried out, he would shush me sanctimoniously. Did I want to wake the baby, the babies? I’d been moaning in my sleep again, he said, and he’d only come to check.
During my last year of high school I wrote a masterful begging letter to Mother’s rich cousin in Alabama, the one who had wanted to annex me and Mother, and she agreed to pay for one semester at a time at a junior college for girls in Raleigh. If I kept up my grades, there would be another semester, “but after two years, darling, you’re on your own.” The implication being that two years would give any diligent girl time to either win a scholarship to the state university or find a husband to support her. Already at seventeen the rich cousin had snared her future millionaire, as she had more than once pointed out.
I had no difficulty making the grades at the junior college and winning a scholarship to the journalism school at Chapel Hill, but that still left the summers to get through. I had to make money to cover expenses, and the job had to be somewhere that provided room and board so I could avoid Earl’s nightly prowls. The first summer, I lifeguarded at a girls’ camp; the second, I waited tables at a plush resort in Blowing Rock. The final summer, between my junior and senior years, I waited tables at the Nightingale Inn, a Jewish family hotel thirty miles from Mountain City. By this time, Earl and Mother were back in Mountain City, Earl having gone into the construction business with his father. And since their little house was now burgeoning with offspring, I was allowed to sleep unmolested across town beside Loney, the “snobbish” grandmother, in her lavender-scented four-poster bed when I “came home” to visit my family during college breaks.
And that, Major Marjac, is the behind-the-scenes résumé of the young woman you met on the train who “started ahead of the game.”
As I stepped down onto the platform of the Miami depot, there was Tess, who had been my mother’s college roommate at Converse until Tess dropped out her freshman year to go home to Florida and become Miss Miami Beach. The last time I had seen Tess was when I was seven and she came to stay with us in Mountain City to recuperate from ruining her life. I was surprised to see she was the same platinum-blond goddess I remembered. In a recent letter to Mother she had announced that her looks were completely gone and she was saving for a face-lift. But why was she wearing her white uniform and stockings and nurse’s shoes on Sunday? She gathered me to her bosom like her own lost child and lavished effusions against my cheek in a whispery little-girl voice totally incongruous with her adult beauty.
“Emma, sweet, you’re here at last! Even prettier than the picture your mother sent, which she didn’t need to. I would have recognized you anywhere. Your ‘Emma-ness’ is exactly the same.”
Though Tess tended to flatter everybody, her remark gave me a jolt of elation. I made up my mind to adopt this concept of “Emma-ness” as a talisman against those loss-of-self times that flattened me. She still wore Joy, the perfume her husband had chosen for her. What did she have to do without in order to buy it for herself now?
We tussled over who would carry the heaviest of my suitcases. She prevailed, and dragged her way fetchingly ahead of me to a baby blue Cadillac DeVille. She had not lost her slim, curvaceous figure, my mother would be glad to hear. Or would she?
“You have to be wary of this humidity, Emma, until your blood has a chance to thin. Also, we’ve been having this spate of damp weather, which doesn’t help, either.” Tess was puffing by the time she allowed me to help her heft the big suitcase into a carpeted trunk that could have held three more sets of luggage. “This is Hector’s new car. He insisted I take it to meet you.”
“How generous of him.” On leaving the train, I hadn’t noticed the humidity, but as soon as Tess drew my attention to it I could feel it sapping my energy.
After ruining her life, Tess had gone to vocational college and was now nurse-assistant to Dr. Hector Rodriguez, a dental surgeon in Coral Gables.
“Oh, Hector is the most generous man in the world. His patients call him Doctor Magnánimo. He’s always giving things away and he’ll see you on the weekend if you’re in pain, which is why I have to head back to the office after we get you settled at your hotel. He’s starting a root canal this afternoon for a man who’s in agony.”
“Doctor Magnánimo,” I echoed, trying to copy the sexy way she lightly tongued the back of her front teeth for the first n.
“See, Emma, you sound like a natural already! So many of their words are the same as ours, only with this little extra flourish on the end. You’ll pick up Spanish in no time in Miami.” (Tess pronounced it “My-AM-uh.”) “There are lots of Cubans and more coming over all the time, professional, well-bred people like Hector and his wife, Asunción, although they left a while ago to get away from Batista. The ones arriving now are coming because Fidel has let them down. But you know all about that, you’re going to be a reporter on the Star.”
“As soon as they wrote to say I had the job, I subscribed to the paper. I’ve been reading it cover to cover since February, everything from Castro’s land grabs to the big Miami society weddings.”
Damn, blast, shit, hell, Emma. Why didn’t you stop at Castro? But Tess neither flinched nor looked sad, as though she didn’t recall herself being the star of one of those big society weddings. Her perfect Grecian profile went right on smiling as she steered serenely down a wide avenue, the skirt of her crisp uniform tugged up to reveal her shapely white-stockinged thighs.
“Hector said you must be just phenomenally smart, to land a job like this right out of college. Everybody wants to be a reporter for the Star. I said yes, you were, just like your mamma. I can’t wait for you to meet Hector. And Asunción, too, of course.”
“Well, I don’t know about phenomenally,” I said. The way she had dutifully tacked on Asunción made me ponder whether Doctor Magnánimo might be more to her than just a generous boss.
But mostly I was occupied with keeping myself intact in this new environment. My guerrilla antennae were on full alert, sensing new threats and opportunities pulsing at me as we skimmed along streets lined with palm trees and sea grapes and modest pastel bungalows with those slatted glass windows that keep the heat and rain out. In this tropical city I would have to wear lighter clothes; more of my body would be on display for new critics as well as new potential gropers. There would be levels of sophistication to tap into without revealing my ignorance, levels far more demanding than Major Marjac asking me about wine. There would be new brands of wickedness undreamed of by someone arriving overnight from a sheltered Southern university existence. And usurpers a million times subtler and smoother than Earl.
“I think you’re going to like your hotel,” Tess was saying. “It has a pool and it’s only a few blocks from Miami Avenue. You’ll be able to walk to work in your heels. We were able to get you the special monthly rate because the manager, Alex de Costa, is Hector’s patient. Alex was being groomed to take over his grandfather’s hotel in Havana, but when things got shaky down there, the grandfather had the foresight to sell out in time and buy the Julia Tuttle here. It was a little run-down, but he’s reno-vated it in the European style. Hector says it’s exactly like a good family hotel in Madrid or Barcelona now.”
“Should I know who Julia Tuttle is?”
“The Mother of Miami? You certainly should! She made Henry Flag-ler bring the railroad here from Jacksonville. When everything north of Miami froze, she sent him a box with an orange blossom from her tree, and that convinced him. Your hotel stands on the land where her old home was. Granny sewed for Julia and her daughter, you know. Mother remembers Granny altering a whole bunch of Julia’s gowns for Miss Fannie right after Julia dropped dead. Poor Julia, she was only forty-eight. I’ll be, well, close to that next year, but don’t you dare tell a soul. Granny always said Julia worked too hard on her dream and it killed her. Miami was just a swamp full of Seminoles and alligators before Julia came down here on a barge after her husband’s death, with all her furniture and silver from Ohio. She had this dream of creating a beautiful subtropical resort, and she made it happen, though she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it nowadays.”
Tess didn’t resent other people’s accomplishments or good fortune, even with her own life so compromised. I was sure that in her place I would have become bitter or crazy. Here she was working on Sunday in a white uniform for a Cuban dentist when she had once traveled by private yacht. She had not seen her high-school-age son since he was fifteen months old. The first thing I planned to do when I got to the Star was to look up Tess in the newspaper’s morgue. Not even Mother knew the whole story, and I had promised I would find out what I could.
My first impression of the Julia Tuttle was a letdown, followed by a distinct relief that I could just be myself here. Based on my furtive Christmas stay at the Kenilworth over on the Beach, paid for by someone else, I had expected more glitter and swank in a Miami hotel, even the kind I could afford. Tess was the only platinum blonde in sight, and there was none of that high-gloss decor or those snooty personnel strutting around to make you feel unstylish. A black man in a striped bib apron whom Tess addressed as Clarence loaded my suitcases onto a trolley. The only other visible staff member was a morose-looking desk clerk in a pleated shirt worn outside the pants and a few strips of hair plastered over his bald pate. His countenance brightened when Tess introduced us, and the next thing I knew he was handing me three letters, including one from Mother and one from Loney.
When I saw the creamy unstamped third envelope with its elegant red logo in the upper left corner, my heart sustained an electric surge, even though I would have been furious had that exact envelope not been waiting for me. I slipped it quickly beneath the others as Tess was conversing with the desk clerk in her sensual, tongue-tripping Spanish, which made her seem like a different version of herself. She switched back into En-glish while discussing my arrangements.
“Is Alex here, Luís? I’d like him to meet Emma.” To me she said, “That’s the manager I was telling you about.”
“No, señora, is his bridge game Sunday afternoon.”
“Oh, of course, it’s Sunday, isn’t it? I’m confused because we’re working today, Doctor Hector is starting a root canal for a patient in pain.”
As we crossed the Mediterranean-tiled lobby where Clarence waited with my bags by the elevator, an arresting family tableau caught my eye. A pretty woman wearing a pillbox hat with veil and a stylish traveling suit was reading aloud to a little girl who sat beside her on a love seat flanked by potted palms and surrounded by a stockade of matching suitcases. The girl supported two solemn-faced porcelain dolls on her lap in the laissez-faire way a loving mother might balance two well-behaved offspring who could be depended on to stay put. The aloof faces of all three seemed to be equally riveted on the woman’s sprightly reading—“a la tarde . . . los niños saltaban . . . Platero . . . giraba sobre sus patas”—and I was elated that merely in passing I could understand enough phrases (“in the afternoon . . . the children were jumping . . . Platero . . . spun on his hooves”) to recognize Juan Ramón Jiménez’s tale of his pet donkey, Platero and I, which we’d studied in first semester of college Spanish. Close by them stood a strikingly handsome man in wilted white linen, frowning and looking slightly beside himself as he ticked off items on a list with a silver pencil. Meanwhile, a chauffeur carried in more luggage to add to the pile already surrounding them.
“Ah, God, here come some more,” Tess murmured angrily as we passed. “If Fidel doesn’t stop breaking his promises, he’s going to wake up one morning and find all the good people gone.”
My room was on the fifth floor of the twelve-story Julia Tuttle, and Tess, having sent Clarence away with a folded bill before I could get my purse unzipped, proceeded to check out my closet, drawers, and bathroom. I went first thing to the window above the air conditioner to see what I would be looking out on for the next few months. It wasn’t the ocean view, which the front rooms had, but the vista was agreeable and in its way less lonely. The Miami River, with its drawbridge and boat traffic, was to my left, the hotel’s Olympic-size pool, surrounded by blue-and-white-striped cabanas, gleamed invitingly below, and to the right was a portion of Miami skyline, including, Tess proudly pointed out, as though she had put it there herself, the top of the Star building, where I would start work tomorrow.
Tess explained that patients sometimes had adverse reactions, and she had to remain at the office until they felt well enough to travel, so she couldn’t be with me my first evening. She named the eating places in walking distance, a White Castle and a Howard Johnson’s, and we made plans to have dinner the next evening.
“And tomorrow night, we’ll really celebrate,” she promised as she headed gaily off to the root canal.
I had concealed my relief, satisfying her that I welcomed an early night in order to be fresh for the job tomorrow. As soon as I had assured myself of that third letter in the packet Lu’s handed over, I had begun worrying what lie to tell Tess, who had no idea I knew a soul but her in Miami.
As soon as I was alone, I threw myself on the bed and opened the creamy unstamped envelope with its Bal Harbour address. Will call for you at your hotel at 7 p.m
Then I ﬂew into action, unpacking my bags and lining the drawers and shelves with the sheets of lavender-scented paper supplied by my grandmother. Loney had sent them, along with six pairs of stockings and a new Vanity Fair slip, for my graduation, from which “her heart”had kept her home. Which was true in the equivocal sense that she stayed behind with her mild angina to take care of my three little half siblings so Mother and Earl would be free to enjoy the trip alone.
After arranging my things in their Loneyed nests, I plugged up the tub, ran it half full of hot water, hung tomorrow’s work outﬁt and tonight’s dress on the shower-curtain rod, and shut them up in the bathroom to steam out the wrinkles. I then ﬂopped back down on the bed to read my other letters.
Loney, who did not think of herself as a writer, had come through with her usual page-and-a-half nosegay of faith, hope, and unconditional love, with one of her observant sprigs of advice thrown in, like a ﬂorist’s free fern. . . . If you’ll just remember, Emma, that you can’t be everybody at once, you’ll do fine.
My mother, whose thwarted desire was to have her writing talents recognized by the world, had gone all out with a four-page single-spaced masterpiece typed on Corrasable Bond, written and mailed the Monday before my graduation so it would be sure to be here to greet me. It was both an idyllic recounting of our best times together, mostly from the pre-Earl period, and her triumphal prophecy of my eventual success in garnering the laurels that had eluded her. She did not relay any news or anecdotes about my little half siblings. This was strictly a mother-daughter valedictory. Just skimming it elicited tears; it had probably, I thought, made the writer weep while typing it. To confront it sentence by sentence, which I postponed doing, would bring guilt and sorrow. She was the wounded comrade I had to leave behind in the cross ﬁre of her conﬂicted destiny.
I returned to the note that had been hand-delivered to the Julia Tuttle, rereading and savoring it. I allowed myself to be the person who had pulled out a fresh sheet of club stationery from his desk drawer over in Bal Harbour and scrawled this ultrarestrained welcome. I imagined the images going through his head as he anticipated our reunion tonight, until the power of my own imagination brought on a little shudder of rapture. Whereupon I returned the note to its envelope and tucked it midway into the new “Go, Tar Heels!” spiral-bound notebook, which was to be the ﬁrst of my Miami journals. I still had the rest of the afternoon to get through. Perhaps I would sample the pool.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.