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Authors: Alice Adams

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Superior Women

BOOK: Superior Women
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Copyright © 1984 by Alice Adams

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2011. Previously published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 1984.

Vintage Contemporaries is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-307-79828-2

To Robert McNie, with love


All, or almost all, of the events of Megan Greene’s life, its violent dislocations, geographic and otherwise, are set in motion in the instant in which she first sees a young man named George Wharton, an unremarkable person, and later not a crucial figure in her life, but at that moment, to Megan, he is compellingly exotic. This takes place in the Stanford Bookstore, where Megan has a summer job; she lives in Palo Alto. George is tall and lean, with brown hair, sand-pale skin, a bony face, strong prominent jaw. He looks like what he is, a post-prep school boy from New England, but Megan has never seen one before. And his clean white khakis, old blue Oxford-cloth shirt, cord coat, and once-white sneakers, while fairly standard garb for Harvard Square and environs, in California look almost foreign.

Entranced, and aware among other more subtle reactions of a seering lust, Megan believes that she has “fallen in love.” Since this is 1942 and she is sixteen, a not unreasonable interpretation.

Megan understands that he is “Eastern,” this tall young man who has just come in and is standing there in the sunlight, tall and helpless, but she adds, as she is prone to, certain romantic corollaries of her own; she believes that he is rich (he is, very rich, but being a New Englander he would die before admitting to more than the most modest wealth). She furthermore assumes that he is “brilliant,” possibly with literary inclinations, as hers are (she is wrong on both counts there; George is premed, of average intelligence). She imagines him to be endlessly sophisticated, having
been everywhere—an older man, at least five years older than she, of wide experience. All sorts of experience, but especially sexual (wrong again).

Megan herself is medium-tall and plump, heavy-breasted, with shapely legs. Brown hair and dark blue eyes, a pretty, smooth-skinned face, very serious. Her mouth is sweet and eager, her whole expression is eager, needful.

Aside from the obvious hungers that are the lot of every poor but very bright young woman, Megan is also avid for a quality that she has not seen much of and could not name; what she considers Eastern comes close. She covets style, the sophistication which she has instantly imputed to George Wharton, before hearing his voice or knowing his name—the very qualities which she deplores the lack of in her own surroundings, of course: her parents run a store on University Avenue, out near the Bayshore Highway, whose humiliating slogan is
. And they do not do well at it, Florence and Harry, Mom and Pop. (George Wharton will never see them, Megan vows, almost in the first instant of her seeing him.)

He has noticed her too, Megan observes; what she does not know is that his awareness of her (yes, her breasts and legs) increases the strength of his so–New England vowels, the Yankee flatness of his speech, as he comes around the table where she is standing to ask, “Uh, I don’t suppose you have many books on sailing?”

Wordlessly, at first, but smiling, Megan, who knows the stock, is able to point in the right direction before she just gets out, “Over there.”

“Oh, really? Uh, great! Thanks!”

He smiles, and strides over to the shelves she indicated; he turns back to Megan to smile again, holding up a book to indicate that he has found just what he wanted, a book on sailing. Thanks to

With what Megan appreciates as true delicacy, he takes his book to another clerk for the actual purchase, but then, book in hand, he comes back to Megan, and stands looking down at her. He is five or six years older than she is.

“At least I can read about it,” he says, with a twisting, large-toothed grin; he must mean sailing?

“There’s supposed to be good sailing up in the San Francisco Bay,” Megan offers.

They are standing there in the dust-moted bookstore, a table of remaindered books between them, as though for safety. Megan, in her flowered cotton dress that is too tight and cut too low (her mother mentioned both at breakfast, mean skinny blond Florence). And George, in his strict blue-and-white cord coat.

He tells her, “This summer I really don’t have any time. I’m cramming chemistry, for med school, and staying with some ancient cousins. In Atherton.”

Aware of surges of heat throughout her body, Megan nevertheless achieves a pretty smile. She says, “Well—”

Very indifferently he asks her, “You live around here? You’re in school?”

Of course by school he means Stanford, and so, vaguely, not quite lying, Megan says yes. And in that instant she has decided to apply to at least three Eastern schools, for the fall after next, when she will have finished high school. She will begin with Radcliffe—so lives are patterned.

The next day is exceptionally hot. In the tawny hills that surround the Stanford campus the dark green heavy live oaks barely move; along Palm Drive the asphalt is melting. High up in those palm trees the green-gray fronds are hard, dusty, and dry, they rattle in the slightest breeze, like snakes.

Stacking books, in the not-air-conditioned store, Megan dreams of sailing, breeze-driven across a blue Atlantic afternoon—dreams of sailing to an island off the east coast, to a white, white beach; they would leave the boat and lie there, alone on the sand, lie kissing, kissing until moonlight. She with him.

It is quite possible, though, that he will never come into the bookstore again, that she will never even find out his name. However, that afternoon, as she looks up from those dreams Megan
sees him enter the store, a little stoop-shouldered, since he is so tall, too tall for that room. Her heart lurches as he smiles and comes up to her, saying, “Well, no one told me it got this hot in California. This feels like Boston.”

“Usually it doesn’t, this is unusual—” It is hard for her to talk.

Not quite looking at her he says, “What I really need is a beer. But I guess I’ll have to wait. Worse luck. I’ve got a lab, right this minute.”

Megan smiles, barely breathing. She understands that he wants to ask her out for a beer, but she does not know why it is so hard for him to ask. He is not quite used to girls? Maybe he did not go to a public high school, where everyone did that every day. She asks him, “Have you been out to Rossi’s? That’s a beer place around here.”

He takes this up eagerly, words hurrying out. “No, actually I’ve hardly been anywhere, between chem labs and my relatives in Atherton. The summer plan is that I have to have dinner with them every night. They’re quite venerable, and I’m afraid my family has ‘expectations.’ ” His mouth twists sideways. “But maybe after dinner, could you get out? I could pick you up at your dorm? I do have a car, in fact I drove out here in it.” He grins, more breathless even than she is.

“Well, why don’t we just meet here?” Megan suggests, on an instant’s inspiration; the women’s dorms are not far away, and if he thinks she lives in one, well, why not? She can take the same bus that she always takes to work, and when he takes her home—another plausible story comes to her instant rescue: she will say that she is spending the night with a girl friend who lives (unaccountable! so odd!) out near the Bayshore.

Thus from its earliest beginnings there is an illicit element in their relationship, to which Megan is instantly acquiescent, in which she, like so many women, functions with instinctive, adaptive skill.

He tells her his name, George Wharton, and she says hers, and then he says, in that voice, “Well, great, then. I’ll see you out front here about nine, okay?”

“Oh, sure.

•     •     •

A Model A is not what Megan would have expected, not yet knowing anything about reverse snobbery, or prideful New England thrift, but that is what George leads Megan to, his car, which is parked in an alley near the bookstore. Not touching her, he opens the door for her, and Megan climbs awkwardly up into the seat.

They start off, and George begins to talk about his car. “It’s a great old machine,” he says. “Really the greatest. Made it over the Rockies without a complaint. I hope I’ll be in as good shape, at that age.”

He laughs, as Megan does too. She has no idea, really, what he has been talking about, but she has begun to realize that he is not used to being with girls, not at all.

It is understood that they are heading for Rossi’s, and at the edge of the campus he asks Megan where to go. She tells him: right, then left, then straight along a narrow white dirt road, between sweeping shadowed hills, dim black shapes of trees, under a huge black diamond-starred sky.

Discouragingly, the parking lot at Rossi’s is very crowded, the Packards and Buicks and Ford convertibles of Stanford fraternity boys; some of them even belong to high school kids, but are borrowed from parents—the Buicks, probably. Megan is thinking that she would just as soon not see anyone she knows, especially not some friend from high school, who might speak to her, say something to do with school, which is Palo Alto High.

George too looks a little daunted by that crowd; Megan sees that he would much rather not spend any time there. She tells him, “They have beer to take out, if you want. It does look crowded.”

“Oh great, terrific. I’ll just go in and get it.” He has opened the door on his side. Stepping down, and out, he then turns back to her. “You won’t mind waiting?”

“Oh no, that’d be swell.”

Hearing her own voice, which has hitherto sounded neutral to her ears, possibly slightly Midwestern, since both Florence and Harry come from Iowa, Megan now keenly feels the difference
between her voice and his, hers and George’s; it is almost as though she were hearing another language.

In five minutes, which have seemed very long to Megan, George is back with two large foaming paper cups. “We can always come back for more,” he tells her. His narrow mouth smiles—not his eyes, which are regarding her curiously, intensely. He asks, “Do we drink them here?”

“We could, if you want to. Or we could drive somewhere.” Megan has said this as softly as she can, as though to conceal both her accent, so suddenly disliked, and her certain knowledge of their true direction. They will go, she knows, to a certain cleared space, high up and very private, in those surrounding hills. And she knows what they will be doing, in ten or so minutes from now. Their not touching, so far, has acquired a sort of violence; they are like dogs on leashes, she suddenly, crazily thinks, and she smiles to herself, in the dark.

She directs him up Page Mill Road, jolting over gravel. He is driving very fast, so that they both spill a little beer, as they sip, or try to.

At last Megan says
and George stops the car. Clutch, brakes—very noisy.

They are in a fragrant, rustling eucalyptus grove, near a heavy thick clump of pines. Far below them, through the trees, a vast valley of lights is just visible. Above them an airplane lumbers through the hot dark sky, flashing landing lights—they are near the airport.

Megan has put her cup down on the floorboards.

BOOK: Superior Women
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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