GETTING FROM SAN DIEGO TO SAN MARCO STATE Hospital isn’t easy unless you have a car, or a breakdown. That’s what happened to April’s father, and they got him out there in no time at all. The trip took longer for April and her stepmother: they had to catch three different buses, walk up a long road from Pendleton Boulevard to the hospital grounds, and then walk back again when the visit was over. There were plenty of cars on the road, but nobody stopped to offer a lift. April didn’t blame them. They probably figured that she and Claire were patients— “fruitcakes,” her dad called them—out for a stroll. That’s what April would have thought, coming upon the two of them out here, on foot and unaccountable. She would have taken one look and kept going.

Claire was tall and erect. She was wearing her gray business suit and high heels and a wide-brimmed black hat. She carried herself a little stiffly because of the heeis, but kept up a purposeful, dignified pace. “Ship of State"—that was what April’s father called Claire when she felt summoned to a demonstration of steadiness and resolve. April followed along in loose order. She stopped now and then to catch her breath and let some distance open up between herself and Claire, then hurried to close that distance. April was a short, muscular girl with a mannish stride. She was scowling in the hazy August light. Her hands were rough. She had on a sleeveless dress, yellow with black flowers, that she knew to be ugly and wore anyway because it made Claire intensely aware of her.

Cars kept going by, the tires making a wet sound on the hot asphalt. April’s father had sold the Buick for almost nothing a few days before he went into the hospital, and Claire hadn’t even looked at anything else. She was saving her money for a trip to Boston before April’s father came home.

Claire had been quiet through most of the visit, quiet and edgy, and now that it was over she did not try to hide her relief. She wanted to talk. She said that the doctor they’d spoken with reminded her of Walt Darsh, her husband during the last ice age. That was how she located whatever had happened to her in the past—“during the last ice age.” April knew that Claire wanted to be told that she still looked good, and it wouldn’t have been a lie to say so, but April never did.

April had heard about Walt Darsh before, his faithlessness and cruelty. The stories Claire told were interesting, but they left April troubled and quickened, strange to herself. Now Claire was starting again, and April said, “If he was so bad, how come you married him?”

Claire didn’t answer right away. She walked more slowly, and inclined her long neck at a meditative angle. She gave every sign of being occupied with a new and demanding question. After a time she turned her head and looked at April, and then looked away again. “Sex,” she said.

April could see the glitter of windshields in the distance. There was a bench at the bus stop; when they got there, she was going to lie down and close her eyes and pretend to sleep.

“It’s hard to explain,” Claire said, cautiously, as if April had pressed her. “It wasn’t his looks; Darsh isn’t really what you’d call handsome. He has a sly, pointy kind of face . . . like a fox. You know what I mean? It isn’t just the shape, it’s the way he watches you, grinning, like he’s got the goods on you.” Claire stopped in the shade of a tree. She took off her hat, smoothed back her hair, curled some loose strands behind her ears, and then put her hat back on and set it just so across her forehead. She found a Kleenex in her purse and dabbed the corner of one eye where a thin line of mascara had run. Claire had the gift, mysterious to April, of knowing what she looked like even without a mirror. April’s face was always a surprise to her, always somehow different from how she’d imagined it.

“Of course, that can be attractive, too,” Claire said, “being looked at in that way. Most of the time it’s annoying, but not always. With Darsh it was attractive. So I suppose you could say that it was his looks, in the literal sense of ‘looks.’ If you see the distinction.”

April saw the distinction, also Claire’s pleasure in having made it. She was unhappy with this line of talk. But she couldn’t do anything about it, because it was her own fault that Claire believed she was ripe for unrestrained discussion of these matters. Over the past few months Claire had decided that April was sleeping with Stuart, the boy she went out with. This was not the case. Stuart dropped hints now and then, in his polite, witty, hopeless way, but he wasn’t serious and April wasn’t interested. She hadn’t told Claire the truth because in the beginning it had given her satisfaction to be seen as a woman of experience. Claire was a snob about knowing the ways of the world; April wanted to crowd her turf a little. Claire never asked anything anyway, she just assumed, and once the assumption took hold there was no way to straighten things out.

The brim of Claire’s hat waved up and down. She seemed to be having an idea she agreed with. “Looks are part of it,” she said, “definitely part of it. But not the whole story. It never is with sex, is it? Just one thing. Like technique.” Claire turned and started down the road again, head still pensively bent. April could feel a lecture coming. Claire taught sociology at the same junior college where April’s father used to teach history, and like him, she was quick to mount the podium.

“People write about technique,” she said, “as if it’s the whole ball game, which is a complete joke. You know who’s really getting off on technique? Book publishers, that’s who. Because they can turn it into a commodity. They can merchandise it as know-how, like traveling in Mexico or building a redwood deck. The only problem is, it doesn’t work. You know why? It turns sex into a literary experience.”

April laughed.

“I’m serious,” Claire said. “You can tell right away that it’s coming out of some book. You start seeing yourself in one of those little squiggly drawings, with your zones all marked out and some earnest little cartoon man working his way through them, being really considerate.”

Claire stopped again and gazed out over the fields that lined the road, one hand resting in a friendly way on top of a fence post. Back in the old days, according to April’s father, the fruitcakes used to raise things in these fields. Now the fields were overgrown with scrub pine and tall yellow grass. Insects shrilled loudly. April felt a strong hidden rhythm in the sound.

“That’s another reason those books are worthless,” Claire said. “They’re all about sharing, being tender, anticipating your partner’s needs, et cetera, et cetera. It’s like Sunday school in bed. I’m not kidding, April, that’s what it’s all about, all this technique stuff. It’s Victorian. It’s trying to put clothes on monkeys. You know what I mean?”

“I guess,”April said. Her voice came out dry, almost a croak.

“We’re talking about a very basic transaction,” Claire said. “A lot more basic than lending money to a friend. Think about it. Lending is a highly evolved activity. Other species don’t do it, only us. Just look at all the things that go into lending money. Trust. Generosity. Imagining yourself in the other person’s place. It’s incredibly advanced, incredibly civilized. I’m all for it. My point is, sex comes from another place. Sex isn’t civilized. It isn’t about giving. It’s about taking.”

A pickup truck went past. April looked after it and then back at Claire, who was still staring out over the field. April saw the line of her profile in the shadow of the hat, saw how dry and cool her skin was, saw the composure of her smile. April saw these things and felt her own sticky, worried, incomplete condition. “We ought to get going,” she said.

“To tell the truth,” Claire said, “that was one of the things that attracted me to Darsh. He was a taker. Totally selfish, totally out to please himself. That gave him a certain heat. A certain power. The libbers would kill me for saying this, but it’s true. Did I ever tell you about our honeymoon?”

“No.”April made her voice flat and grudging, though she was curious.

“Or the maid thing? Did I ever tell you about Darsh’s maid thing?”

“No,” April said again. “What about the honeymoon?”

Claire said, “That’s a long story. I’ll tell you about the maid thing.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” April said.

Claire went on smiling to herself. “Back when Darsh was a kid, his mother took him on a trip to Europe. The grand tour. He was thirteen, fourteen at the time—that age. By the time they got to Amsterdam, he was sick of museums, he never wanted to see another painting in his life. That’s the trouble with pushing culture at children—they end up hating it. It’s better to let them come to it on their own, don’t you think?”

April shrugged.

“Take Jane Austen, for example. They were throwing Jane Austen at me when I was in the eighth grade. Prideand Prejudice. Of course I absolutely loathed it, because I couldn’t see what was really going on, all the sexual energy behind the manners. I hadn’t lived. You have to have some life under your belt before you can make any sense of a book like that.

“Anyway, when they got to Amsterdam, Darsh dug in his heels. He wouldn’t budge. He stayed in the hotel room all day, reading mysteries and ordering stuff from room service, while his mother went out and looked at paintings. One afternoon a maid came up to the room to polish the chandelier. She had a stepladder, and from where Darsh was sitting, he couldn’t help seeing up her dress. All the way up, okay? And she knew it. He knew she knew, because after a while he didn’t even try to hide it, he just stared. She didn’t say a word. Not one. She took her sweet time up there, polishing every pendant, cool as a cucumber. Darsh said it went on for a couple of hours, which probably means an hour, which is a pretty long time, if you think about it.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing. Nothing happened. That’s the whole point, April. If something had happened, it would have broken the spell. It would have let all that incredible energy out. But it stayed locked in. It’s always there, boiling away at this insane fourteen-vear-old level, just waiting to explode. It’s one of Darsh’s real hot spots. He bought me the whole outfit; in fact, he probably still has it—you know, frilly white blouse, black skirt, black nylons with all the little snaps.”

“He made you wear that? And stand on things?”

April saw Claire freeze at her words, as if she had said something hurtful and low. Claire straightened up and slowly started walking again. April hung back, and then followed a few steps behind until Claire waited for her to catch up. After a time Claire said. “No, dear. He didn’t make me do anything. It’s exciting when somebody wants something that much, it turns you to butter. You should have seen the way he looked at me. Pure hunger, like he wanted to eat me alive. But innocent, too.

“Maybe it sounds cheap, but I liked it. It’s hard to describe.”

Claire was quiet then, and so was April. She did not feel any need for description. She thought she could imagine the look Darsh had given Claire—in fact, she could see it perfectly, though no one had ever looked at her that way. Definitely not Stuart. He never would, either; he was too respectful and refined. She felt safe with him. Safe and sleepy. Nobody like Stuart would ever make her careless and willing, as Darsh did through the stories Claire told about him, even the worst stories. It seemed to April that she already knew Darsh. and that he knew her—as if he had sensed her at the margin of the stories, and was conscious of her interest. She understood that she would be at risk if she ever met anyone like him, as one day she knew she must.

They were almost at the road. April stopped and looked back, but the hospital buildings were out of sight now, behind the brow of the hill. She turned and walked on. She had one more of these trips to make, one more Sunday. The weekend after that her father would come home. He had the doctors eating out of his hand with that amused, I-don’t-know-what-came-over-me act. It worked because he believed it himself. He’d been theatrically calm all through their visit. I le sat by the window in an easy chair, feet propped up on an ottoman, a newspaper across his lap. He was wearing slippers and a cardigan sweater. All he needed was a pipe. He seemed fine, the very picture of health, but that was all it was: a picture. At home he never read the paper. He didn’t sit down much either. The last time April had seen him, six days earlier, he had been under restraint in their landlord’s apartment, where he had gone to complain about the shower. He’d been kicking and yelling. His glasses were hanging from one ear. He was shouting at her to call the police, and one of the policemen holding him down was laughing helplessly.

He hadn’t crashed yet. He was still flying. April had seen it in his eyes behind the lithium or whatever they were giving him, and she was sure that Claire had seen it too. Claire didn’t say anything, but April had been through this with Ellen, her first stepmother, and she’d developed an instinct. She was afraid that Claire had had enough, that she wasn’t going to come back from Boston, or that if she did come back, it wouldn’t be to live with them. Not that Claire was planning any of this. It wouldn’t happen that way, it would just happen. April didn’t want it to, especially not now. She needed another year. Not even a year—ten months, until she finished school and got into college somewhere. If she could cross that line, she was sure she could handle whatever came after.

She didn’t want Claire to go. Claire had her ways, but she had been good to April, especially in the beginning, when April was always finding fault with her. Claire had put up with it. She’d been patient, and let April come to her in her own time. April used to lean against her when they were sitting on the couch, and Claire would give and press back at the same time. They could sit for hours like that, reading. Claire thought about things. She had talked to April, honestly but with a certain decorum. Now the decorum was gone. Ever since she got the idea that April had lost her virginity, Claire had withdrawn the protections of ceremony and tact, as she would soon withdraw the protection of her own self.

There was no way to change things back. And even if there were, even if by saving “I’m a virgin” she could turn Claire into some kind of perfect mother, April wouldn’t do it. It would sound ridiculous, untrue. And it wasn’t true, except as a fact about her body. But April did not see virginity as residing in the body. To her it was a quality of the spirit, and something you could surrender only in the spirit. She had done this; she didn’t know exactly when or how, but she knew that she had done this and she did not regret it. She did not want to be a virgin and she would not pretend to be one, not for anything. When she thought of a virgin, she saw someone half naked, with dumb trusting eyes and flowers woven into her hair, a clearing in the jungle, and in the clearing an altar.

THEY’D MISSED THEIR BUS. BECAUSE IT WAS Sunday, they had a long wait until the next one. Claire settled on the bench and started reading a book. April had forgotten hers. She sat with Claire for a while and then got up and paced the street when Claire’s serenity became intolerable. She walked with her arms crossed and her head bent forward, frowning, scuffing her shoes. Cars rushed past, each in its ow n blare of music, a big sailboat on a trailer, a long slow convoy of military trucks, soldiers swaying in back. The air was blue with exhaust. April, passing a tire store, looked at the window and saw herself. She squared her shoulders and dropped her arms to her sides, and kept them there by an effort of will as she walked farther Lip the boulevard to where a line of plastic pennants fluttered over a car lot. A man in a creamy suit was standing in the showroom window, watching the traffic. He had high cheekbones, black hair combed straight back from his forehead, a big clean blade of a nose. He looked like a gambler, or maybe a hit man. April knew that he was aware of her. but he never bothered to look in her direction. She wandered among the cars, all Toyotas, and then went back to the bus stop and slumped down on the bench.

“I’m bored,” she said.

Claire didn’t answer.

“Aren’t you bored?”

“Not especially,”Claire said. “The bus should be here pretty soon.”

“Sure, in about two weeks.” April stuck her legs out and knocked the sides of her shoes together. “Let’s take a walk,” she said.

“I’m all walked out. But you go ahead. Just don’t get too far away.”

“Not alone, Claire, I didn’t mean alone. Come on, this is boring.” April hated the sound of her voice, and she could see that Claire didn’t like it either. Claire closed her book. She sat without moving and then said, coldly, “I guess I don’t have any choice.”

April rocked to her feet. She moved a little way tip the sidewalk and waited as Claire put the book in her purse, stood, ran her hands down the front of her skirt, and came slowly toward her.

“We’ll just stretch our legs,” April said. She kept chattering until they reached the car lot, where she left the sidewalk and began circling a red Celica convertible.

“I thought you wanted to walk,” Claire said.

“Right, just a minute,” April said. Then the side door of the showroom swung open and the man in the suit came out. At first he seemed not to know they were there. He knelt beside a station wagon and wrote something down on a clipboard. He got up and peered at the sticker on the windshield and wrote something else down. Only then did he take any notice of them. He looked their way, and after he’d had a good long look, he told them to let him know if they needed anything. His voice had a studied, almost insolent lack of concern.

“We’re just waiting for a bus,” Claire said.

“How does this car stack up against the RX-7?” April asked.

“You surely jest.” He made his way toward them through the cars. “I could sell against Mazda any day of the week. If I were selling.”

April said, “You’re not a salesman?”

He stopped in front of the Celica. “We don’t have salesmen here. We just collect money and try to keep the crowds friendly.”

Claire laughed. She said, “April.”

“That’s a year old,” he said. '‘Got it in this morning on a repossession. It’ll be gone this time tomorrow. Look at the odometer, sweet pea. What does the odometer say?”

April opened the door and leaned inside. “Four thousand,”she said. She sat in the driver’s seat and worked the gearshift.

“Exactly, hour K. Still on its first tank of gas.”

“Little old lady owned it, right?” Claire said.

He looked at her for a time before answering. “Little old Marine. Got shipped out and didn’t keep up his payments. I’ll get the keys.”

“We’re just—”

“I know, you’re waiting for a bus. So kill some time.”

April got out of the car but left the door open. “Claire, you have to try this seat,” she said.

“We should go,” Claire said.

“Claire, you just have to. Come on,” April said. “Come on, Claire.”

The man walked over to the open door and held out his hand. “Madame,” he said. Claire stood her ground, “Claire, get in,” April said. She had never spoken to her in this way, and did not know what Claire would do.

Claire walked up to the car. “We really should go,” she said. She sat sideways on the seat and swung her legs inside, all in one motion. She nodded at the man and he closed the door. “Yes,” he said, “just as I thought.” He walked to the front of the car. “Exactly as I thought. The designer was a close friend of yours. This car was obviously built with you in mind.”

“You look great,” April said. It was true, and she could see that Claire was in possession of that truth. The knowledge was in the set of her mouth, the way her hands came to rest on the wheel.

“There’s something missing,”the man said. He studied her. “Sunglasses,” he said. “A beautiful woman in a convertible has to be wearing sunglasses.”

“Put on your sunglasses,” April said. □