by ANN LEIGHTON
HOTEL bedrooms, she thought, looking about her with a sudden fondness for remembered formulae, are the lowest common denominators of vast and complicated experiences. Like waiting rooms in hospitals and station platforms, they reduce the cosmos to the size and feel of an orange.
“See,” they say, “this has happened before. This goes on all the time. You think the world is tipping, exploding, folding, or flowering into light? But it is all reducible to the ordinary and normal — by this dreary carpet and that tattered notice.” Even an unintelligible smudge left by another is a hand on the shoulder, the universal hand that catches one in emergencies of joy or fear or sorrow. “This way,” it says. “There are millions like you.”
She looked at the room and loved it for its hotel compromise between the reassuringly homelike and something vaguely royal. In what better place could she wait for his return? In a setting to fit the event she would be dissolved, consumed, swept from the mountaintop. In this elaborately unreal room she could maintain herself secure, even rest from expectation by carefully idle thinking, and store reserves against the quickly coming future.
Painted flowers, gilded leaves, triple mirrors, and overstuffed carpet, she thought, preserve me. Keep me from thinking and feeling too hard before it is time.
She looked out of the window. Raining. He would be looking at it too, she thought, with a stab of warning against daring to believe him near enough to see the same rain. But she saw him looking out of a porthole, the only face on a great gray liner in a gray sea. The only one. She laughed. He would be having so much to do, getting his stuff together, whatever a soldier leaving a crowded ship has to do, that he might be too busy to think or feel or to notice the rain. While here she sat and waited, only sat and waited, where she had told them to tell him he would find her. As remote and secret as that, even now. Like waiting for the Day of Judgment when one truly believes. Dressed for the Day of Judgment, too, she thought, looking at her new clothes.
Would they please him — or had he been away so long that everything would look queer? He remembered cloche hats from the last war. Now they were wearing cloche hats again, perhaps because soldiers like to come home to women in cloche hats. Cloche hats forever then, she thought, unless we are wise enough to change this timing of two wars a generation.
Clothes. Think hard about clothes and stop trembling.
In Napoleon’s time women affected pregnancy in their dress. As a national, a race reassurance? And what do we now affect? Eternal childhood. Littlegirl skirts and hats, even babies’ bonnets. And mothers dressing like their children, all out of the same piece of gingham. Thinking like them, too, perhaps. A refusal of responsibility, a reluctance to accept maturity?
Strange not to dare to say, “Your husband is coming home after years of war,” and feel it. There would be nothing left by the time he came. Strange to be too cautious or too worn from the years of waiting to dare to accept the full charge of anticipation, to have to await the fact, thinking carefully away from it.
There will be lots of other women feeling this, too. They will save themselves for the event in different ways but they will all be the same underneath, trying to preserve the most they have and are, without really knowing what will happen after. For having one’s husband come home after years — yes, years — of war is a strange thing to have happen, even if it is to happen to so many. It is a thing women will recognize in each other forever after, something that sets them apart from those who have not known. No other arrivals and departures can ever seem much to women who have sent and received their men in war.
Emotions are so foolishly photographic, she thought. The blinding flash of feeling that imprints forever on the mind the most unrelated objects — like the way a river bends, or a ditch beside a country road, or these silly hotel curtains. . . . Some people like to thumb through their pictures, repeating forever the sinkings and exaltations of adolescence as an emotional goal. Better to come upon remembered emotions haphazard, and be aghast at the clarity of the recollection. For old emotional tags arrive often enough, perverse and fresh, to plague one in the midst of real emotional stress, without encouraging their repetition and dimming the outlines. That is why, perhaps, one achieves more, emotionally, by being faithful to one love, keeping the image sharp and clear.
Better not think about love, she thought. Like thinking about battles before going into battle. Better, they say, think of other things.
This is like having a baby. There is the same waiting for a definable but unimaginable end and one fills one’s mind with such unworthy things, like how the cook will manage, and the women who will be glad to hear there is an extra man for a few weeks. Poor women who entertain on others’ pregnancies. Like those who stay young without youth. Attention keeps you young, they say, and smile understandingly. But young for what and young for whom? One’s wits were what one needed most as one grew older. One’s wits and an appetite for all yet untried things.
Like a resumed marriage.
No telephone yet. No footstep. It has not happened yet. Life is still unsolved and unresolved. She was still one of those women who wait to live. There was even still the old fear that she might not get him back after all. She had ridden with one foot on each of those galloping horses for so long. And she was still so confident, so terribly confident, that all would go well between them. Years of war, she thought, cannot spoil a good marriage. Though who can tell? They would both be older — older than just the years would make them, and each would be different. Of course. Things can never be the same again. Of course not. Perhaps only the weak or lazy or frightened would have it so.
Books and articles on the returned soldier make him into a creature to be wheedled back into the same person he was before he went off into the maelstrom. And if there is some part of him missing, ignore it, they say. Affect not to notice, being kind. No one seems to think the legless men may be more than their old selves. “Perhaps,” writes a psychiatrist, advising war wives to humor their returning husbands just at first, “gambling may be his method of finding his way back.”
His way back. Maybe the returning soldier will not want to find his way back. Maybe he will want to take his wife and find a new way of living. Maybe the whole American idea of living will change — to an insistence on time to think and learn beyond the acquirement of symbolic possessions, the two-car garage under the sun porch, household conveniences, and a wife’s trappings and trinkets.
Or will women push their men back into this? A lot of our men have seen the world for what it is and have captured a freedom of decision they may never have had before. Who shall persuade them now to repeat the old pattern if they can see a better way to spin lives which have become so especially important from having been so nearly lost? We may even have a new national pride in government service, greatest of all the professions.
The way back, she thought. And who is to remember how it was after all these years? Like last night when she could not remember which side of the bed she slept on when she was married. He likes me on his left, she had remembered, superimposing their bed at home upon the hotel bed. But perhaps he would have forgotten, too. Sleeping on ships and in planes and under mosquito nets and in hammocks and upon the ground, how is a man to remember that at home he sleeps on the right? And how remember oneself, even at home, during those years spent trying not to remember too much? One moves about in the bed for the children, taking them in now on this side, now on that, for fun or comfort. One reads oneself to sleep, using both pillows, lies diagonally across the bed, grows into a woman alone at night, independent, fearless, shadowless.
At first the children, running in in the morning, are shocked. “You are on Daddy’s side! Don’t!” It frightens them to see his place infringed upon, even by their mother, even at the breakfast table. But gradually she comes to be the present backbone, the only arbiter. She sleeps alone and as and when she can. She has the armchair, the driver’s seat, the tax forms. How can she remember that she sleeps on the left and sits beside the head of the table at breakfast? She asks herself and knows, but it is no longer habit.
And the children. Will he be disappointed none is there to meet him? Is it selfish to want to have this alone with him? Does he belong that way to her still? And what will they think of each other? They remember him, of course — she has taken pains they should — but how? Larger and more heroic, or not so big and beautiful? Or do both parents seem nondescript and middle-aged, they who have considered themselves so centrally vital?
The telephone. This is the decisive act, picking up the receiver.
Not he. Not yet. There is fog, someone says, in the harbor. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Time then, again. Time to go out and walk around instead of waiting in a hotel room. But she did not dare. The way she felt then she would be run over in no time. One of those ironic stories on the front page of the second section. War wife run over by bus while awaiting soldier husband’s return. Soldier husband comments — what would he comment? It would be one of those jokes one is always wishing to tell the dead.
Better to wait, with the carpet, the mirrors, and the curtains. Better to wait, looking out of the window at the rain, the same weather for them both for the first time in years.
Fog in the harbor, but the arrival is secure.