Little Black Dress

Three days before the big New Year’s Eve party that will usher in 1968, Hal’s mother leads Donna up the stairs of her lavish house. And Donna, though she tries to be nonchalant, can’t help being impressed by everything she sees: the celadon walls, the brightly polished sconces, the oriental runner that’s anchored by long brass rods at the back of every step. She’s been dating Hal, a law student, since the end of October and this is the way she imagined his house would look: elegant and restrained with none of the cheesy knick-knacks that clutter up her parents’ house in Mt. Greenwood. 

At the top of the stairs, Hal’s mother pauses and gestures toward an open doorway. She is as elegant as her house, from her neat hips and dainty profile, to the plume of smoke spiraling from her cigarette. “This is your room,” she says. “I hope you’ll be comfortable.” 

Donna peers into the room, which is beautifully blank, the walls a quiet shade of gray, the canopy bed as high and white as a very tall wedding cake. “Thank you, Mrs. Burwell, it’s lovely.” 

But Hal’s mother is quick to correct her. “No. Call me Phoebe, please,” she says in a tone that’s more neutral than friendly. Then, waving her cigarette in the direction of Donna’s bell-bottomed jeans, she adds, “Oh, and by the way, we dress for dinner.” 

Donna glances down at herself but before she can say anything, Phoebe is on her way downstairs. Stunned, Donna creeps into the bedroom feeling more like a trespasser than a guest. When Hal invited her for the weekend, she’d been nervous about meeting his parents. This was Lake Forest after all, where the per capita income is probably four times what her father brings home as a Chicago cop. But Hal had pooh-poohed her fears. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they’ll like you just as much as I do.” But now, only twenty minutes after arriving, she’s doubtful. 

She finds her suitcase which Hal brought up earlier and starts rummaging through it, pulling out some of the smaller items as she goes: her bras and panties, the Chanel No. 5 that her brother gave her for Christmas, a couple of letters from Phil that she still needs to answer. When she gets to her new dress, though, she pauses. 

Carefully, almost reverently, she lifts it out of the tissue paper and studies it, wondering what Hal will think of it. He told her the party on New Year’s Eve was a big deal and that she should wear something “tasteful but sexy” so that he could show her off.

Donna has no desire to be shown off (blending in is more what she’s after), but Hal is her first real boyfriend so she’d done her best to meet his requirements without going overboard. She started by searching the dress shops close to campus, but anything made of silk was out of her price range and she hated polyester (too stiff and cheap-looking), so she finally opted to make the dress herself. It was a simple pattern: a little slip dress that skimmed the body rather than clinging to it. The only problem had been the spaghetti straps, which made wearing a bra pretty much impossible. But Donna solved that difficulty by deciding to skip one altogether. She wasn’t exactly what you’d call busty, and besides there were plenty of girls who had stopped wearing bras, especially if they were into the hippie look. 

At home, when she’d tried it on, the dress had seemed perfect, but now, hanging it up on one of Phoebe’s padded hangers, she’s not so certain. What she’d had in mind was one of Audrey Hepburn’s little black dresses from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but of course there’s no comparison. Audrey Hepburn’s dresses had been custom-made by Hollywood designers, not run up on a Singer sewing machine in the basement of a Mt. Greenwood bungalow. 

Sighing, Donna returns to her suitcase and digs through it some more, eventually coming up with a dinner-worthy gray skirt (short, but not really a mini), a pair of matching tights and a plain white blouse, which, together, make her look more like a fourteen-year-old Catholic schoolgirl than an eighteen-year-old coed. But maybe that’s good, she thinks, glancing at herself in the mirror. At least no one will be able to accuse her of putting on airs or trying to look seductive. 

She opens the door, ready to run downstairs, then stops, remembering suddenly that she’s a guest in this house. It’s always possible that someone might wander in, and if it were Phoebe, well . . . Quickly Donna shoves her underwear into a drawer, then tucks the letters from Phil underneath. Phil is more of a pen pal than anything else, so his letters aren’t exactly contraband, but all the same she wouldn’t want to have them discovered. They’re just too intense. Even the first one was like that, so compelling and almost pushy that she couldn’t refuse. 

I don’t know if you remember me but I used to hang out with your brother Tom a lot. Part of the reason was because I had a big crush on you. You probably didn’t know that but now that I’m 10,000 miles away in Vietnam I’d like you to. 

I know you must be busy now that you’re in college but if you ever get the chance I’d love to hear from you.

When Donna comes down the stairs, she finds Hal at the bottom of them, looking like an H&R Block tax preparer in his white shirt and striped tie. “C’mere,” he says, catching her hand and leading her into a book-lined room off the living room. “I want you to meet Dad.” 

Hal’s father, ensconced in the lap of a massive wing chair, folds up his newspaper and gets to his feet as soon as he sees her. “So this is the young lady,” he says, his smile huge, so huge it must be genuine. Donna, smiling back and offering her hand, is amazed at how much the two men resemble each other. The father—another Harold, it turns out—is thicker and fleshier, but his sagging face is still quite handsome. 

He picks up a cut-glass tumbler holding something amber-colored and rattles the ice cubes. “Hal tells me you’re on scholarship, a full ride,” he says, and Donna nods. It embarrasses her to have people talk about this, as if she’s some sort of charity case, but Hal’s father seems impressed. 

“Hey, pretty and smart both,” he says, lifting his glass to her and glancing briefly at her legs. “You can’t do better than that.”

You know what I love about your letters, Donna? It’s the way they’re so detailed. Like when you wrote and told me all about your lit class and how much you like Emily Dickinson, that was great. Even the ordinary things you do are interesting, like going to the record store and listening to a Laura Nyro album or having burgers at Joe’s Place. Actually I like hearing about everything you do because it helps me to imagine you better. It makes me feel like I’m there with you.

Coming home from a movie the next night, Donna watches as snowflakes spiral into the windshield of Hal’s car. The sight of them, gauzy and buoyant, makes her feel dizzy, even a bit high, though it’s a natural sort of high. 

She starts to sing: “Su-zy, Suzy Snowflake, look at her tumbling down,” then giggles because the song is so silly. 

Hal laughs. He is in a good mood. “What, Garfield Goose?” 

Donna is surprised. “You didn’t actually watch that show, did you?” she asks as he turns into the long lane leading to the Burwells’ garage, actually an old stable that’s been converted. 

“Sure, didn’t everybody?” 

“Not my brother,” says Donna. “He thought it was too stupid for words.” 

“Well, that’s an older brother for you,” Hal says. He pulls into the garage and cuts the engine but makes no move to get out of the car.

“I guess,” she says, “except most of the time he acts more like my father than my brother.” She laughs a little, then adds, “But what can you do, he’s practically a clone of Dad.”

“So he’s a policeman too?” 

“Well, he wants to be. He’s at the Academy.”

“Hmm,” says Hal, twisting a piece of her hair around his finger. “I hope that doesn’t mean he’ll be making you go out with a whole lot of brother officers.” 

“Well, he might,” she says, only half-joking. “He’s sort of like that anyway.” 

Hal seems surprised by this. “You mean he’d tell you who you should date? He’d actually do that?” 

“Well, no, not directly,” says Donna. “But he has a lot of opinions, let’s put it that way.”

Hal considers this. “And what is his opinion of me?” he asks, unwinding the piece of hair he’s been playing with. 

Donna has no idea how to respond to this. She knows that her brother is leery of Hal—he doesn’t like lawyers just on principle and he thinks four years is too big an age gap—but those are external things. They’re not really the things that count.

“Well, you have to understand Tom,” she says finally. “I mean, I love him and everything, but he can be pretty old-fashioned.” 

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning if he had his way, I’d only date guys from the neighborhood. Known quantities, more or less.” 

This is true, it’s how Tom thinks. What he tends to forget, though, is that nobody from the neighborhood was ever that interested in dating her. Yes, she’d had a date for the prom (a cousin of hers who took her just to be nice), and there had been a couple of other boys, too—boys that she’d dated once or twice but were every bit as backward as she was. Her mother always said it was because she was smart, that she should just be patient and wait because once she got to college things would change. But Donna, who’d always been shy, thought she was doomed. So when Hal appeared out of the blue in the periodicals reading room, she was amazed. It didn’t seem possible that someone who wanted to date her would also be someone she wanted to date. 

“But there’s nobody like that now, is there?” asks Hal. 

“Like who?”

“I don’t know. An old boyfriend maybe? Somebody you used to go out with?”

She shakes her head, noticing suddenly how cold her feet are. “No. Nobody like that.” 

But Hal seems unconvinced. “You’re sure?” he asks, and for a single irrational moment she thinks about Phil. But Phil’s different. He’s in Vietnam and a buddy of her brother’s. If she writes to him, it’s only because he’s in danger and she can’t help worrying about him. 

“Did somebody say something? Because if they did—”

“No, of course not. It’s just that . . . well, I wondered, that’s all.” 

Donna is baffled. She can’t imagine why Hal is so suspicious. “I don’t know what you’re worried about,” she says, “but you don’t need to be. Except for you, I’ve never even been in a relationship.”

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, though, she’s sorry. One look at his face is enough to convince her that, however she meant it (as a token of trust?), he’s not taking it that way.

“Really?” he asks. “I’m your first boyfriend? That’s what you’re saying?”

Donna can feel her face heating up. “Well, no, not exactly,” she stammers. “There were a couple of other boys, but they were”—she shrugs her shoulders—“well, it was pretty platonic.” 

“But you’d been kissed before, right?”

She laughs weakly. “Yeah, sure.” 

“And that’s about it?” 

“Yes.” 

For a moment, Hal is quiet. “Well, actually, that explains a lot,” he says, staring at the garden tools hanging on the garage wall in front of them. 

There’s a long silence and eventually Donna, against her better judgment, asks him what he means. 

“It’s just that everything is always so shocking to you,” he says. “French kissing even. I could never figure it out.”

Donna hangs her head as his verdict sinks in. She’s tried to be blasé, willing, whatever she thought would please him, but he’s right, she had been shocked the first time he removed her bra, or put her hand on him when he was hard, or slipped his fingers inside her panties. She likes their secret intimacy and how it draws a tight circle around them, but she never feels wholly herself when it’s happening. Everything is so disorienting then, like trying to learn the rules to a game when you’re playing it for the first time. But of course it’s her fault too. If she were more experienced, more sexually mature—more like other girls!—she’d know what to expect. She wouldn’t have to be so “shocked,” as he put it. 

She lifts her head, risking a quick look at him. “Hal, I’m sorry. Really, I am,” she says, but then her voice breaks and she stops. 

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he says. “You’re not going to cry, are you? Not about something like that?” 

But Donna, hearing the irritation in his voice, hides her face in her hands and cries that much harder. A moment later, though, he relents, reaching out for her and pulling her into his shoulder. 

“You’re crazy, you know that, Donna? I mean, what do you think? That I want a girl who’s been around the block a hundred times?” He kisses the top of her head. “No, of course not. I want someone like you. Someone sweet and unspoiled.” 

For a fleeting moment, Donna wonders if what he actually means is naïve and malleable—a girl he can boss around and mold to his liking—but then he is kissing her, his tongue inside her mouth, and the thought melts away as she surrenders to the soft urgent coaxing of his mouth. 

You want to know the first time I noticed you? Really noticed you? I think I was around 15 so you must have been about 12. It was in the summer, a really hot day. Your grandma was over and she was out in the yard hanging up some clothes. But then for some reason she got scared. I don’t know why. A bumblebee maybe. She was practically hysterical though, running all around with her apron up over her head. Tom and I just stood there. We didn’t know what to do. But you came out of the house with a glass of water and took charge. You got her to calm down, take a sip of the water. Then you sat with her awhile on that old glider of yours. You talked to her so quiet. It was almost like singing. Sort of the way you’d sing to a baby.  

       You were just a skinny little kid then. But I noticed you all right. It’s when I started to think of you as special. And you’re even more special now . . . 

The New Year’s Eve party is hosted by a girl named Heather, who has high sharp cheekbones and a neck so long it seems almost springy, like one of those bobble-headed dolls. “Hey, Hal, look at you,” she gushes as they arrive, then kisses him flat on the lips. She gives Donna a quick peck. “Watch out for this one,” she says, indicating Hal with a quick flutter of bracelets.

Hal sweeps Donna through the house—a house even larger than his—and it’s clear that everyone knows everyone else. They all went to school together. Their parents are friends. They are a tribe, sharing the same rituals, the same language. Donna pastes on a smile and tries to remember the names coming at her. John, an MBA student at the University of Chicago. Sandra, his date, who goes to Wellesley and wears a tight silvery dress that makes her look like a mermaid. Bonnie—or is it Bunny?—a tall, tennis-y girl with a faint mustache and a bored expression. And Scott, a medical student at Rush who actually smiles at her.  

Hal guides her around the dining room table, loading up her plate with delicacies: thick glossy shrimp with their little pink fans, rosy slices of roast beef, stuffed mushrooms smelling of garlic, chocolate truffles in silvery paper.

Halfway around, though, he stops in front of a tray of cucumber slices decorated with cream cheese and bits of pimento. “Here, open up,” he says, thrusting a slice into her mouth. And suddenly, out of nowhere, she wonders if Phil ever has a chance to take communion, if there’s a priest with them out there in the jungle, just in case.

It’s sort of funny the way you get used to things over here. Waking up in a hole for instance. After awhile it seems normal. You even get used to the leeches. They can attach in some pretty private places (if you know what I mean). We tuck our pants into our boots and cinch up our belts as tight as we can but in the morning there they are, black slimy things about 2 in. long. You can yank them off but they’ve got some sort of spit that thins the blood so you’ll bleed for a long time if you do. Lt. Graham showed us how the Vietnamese do it. You take some salt and put it in a piece of cloth and then wet the cloth and apply it. After awhile the leech just falls off. But it can take a long time. I’m generally not that patient. You wake up and you just want those mother-suckers (joke!) off you.

A couple of hours later, Donna finds herself drifting back into the dining room where Hal and his buddies are huddled around the bar. So far he’s danced with her only twice, and she can’t help wondering why he even bothered to bring her. 

She is standing there, staring bleakly at the table with its tall candles and tasteful arrangement of greens, when Sandra, the girl in the mermaid dress, glides up beside her. She is tall, much taller than Donna, and wears carmine-colored lipstick that makes her look like a movie star. She picks up one of the chubby stuffed mushrooms and slips it into her mouth. 

“By the way, I love your dress,” she tells Donna. “It reminds me of Holly Golightly. You know, that movie with Audrey Hepburn. 

Donna, buoyed by her comment, is happy to return the compliment. “I love yours, too. It’s really gorgeous, the way it sparkles.”

Sandra glances down at herself, as if knowing how fantastic her dress is, then launches into the story of its purchase. What happened was, she’d been shopping for Christmas presents, looking for a scarf for her mother, or maybe a blouse, when she saw this dress, which just happened to be in her size, and so . . . 

Donna nods, trying to look interested when, out of the corner of her eye, she notices that Hal has disappeared. Where? she wonders, feeling vaguely uneasy.

“And what about yours?” Sandra says finally, having come to the end of her story.

“Mine?” 

Sandra nods in the direction of Donna’s dress. “Yeah, where did you find a dress like that? I’d love to know.”

Donna stands there blankly, not wanting to say that she made it herself. 

“It’s not a secret, is it?” asks Sandra. “Some little shop on Oak Street you don’t want me to know about?”

Donna shakes her head, ready to say that the dress came from Field’s—she knows they sell nice things there—when Sandra’s date swoops down on her. “Hey, enough feeding your face,” he says. “We need to dance.”

Sandra, laughing as she’s led away, gives Donna a small wave. “I’ll make you tell me later,” she says, disappearing into the next room.

I think I’ve been telling you too much about what it’s like to be over here. Like what happened to McNally when he stepped on that mine, I never should’ve told you about that. You didn’t need to know the details. But something happens when I write to you. I start out answering your questions and it’s like I can’t stop. I don’t even know what I’m going to say until I’ve written it down. Writing to you is my therapy, I guess, a way of putting things in perspective. Without you, I don’t think I’d know how I felt about anything. That’s how essential you are to me.

“You look lonely,” says a voice beside Donna, who jumps, nearly overturning her plate of Swedish meatballs. But then she sees it’s the med student—what was his name, Scott?—and relaxes, remembering his smile from the introductions.

He hands her a glass of champagne and asks what she thinks of the party. “On a scale of one to ten, what would you give it?” 

“Right now, right this minute?” she asks and he nods. “Oh, I don’t know, a six or a seven maybe.”

“Really?” 

“Okay, a four or a five.”

He grins. “How about a two-and-a-half? That’s what I’d give it.” She looks at him in surprise and he explains. “Heather’s been having these New Year’s Eve parties since, I don’t know, the Middle Ages at least, and nothing ever changes. Some of the girls even wear the same dresses. Like that girl over there, the one by the piano who’s wearing a dress that looks like it’s made out of gum wrappers.”

“You mean Sandra?” says Donna, and he nods.

“Every year, the same dress—“ 

“But she told me she bought it this Christmas.” 

“I swear,” he says, holding up his palm like a Boy Scout. “Every year, the same tinfoil dress.”

Donna senses then that he’s joking and laughs, realizing that for the first time tonight she is actually having fun. He finishes the rest of his drink and gives her a lingering look. 

“Hey, dance with me, will you?” he asks. When she hesitates, he adds, “Hal won’t mind, will he?”

She looks up at him and laughs. “I don’t even know where he is,” she says and follows him onto the parquet floor.

By now I’ve told everybody in the squad about you. Maybe even the whole platoon. I’ve sort of lost track. And they all say the same thing, that I’m incredibly lucky to have a girl who’s so pretty and sweet and also faithful. A lot of guys out here have gotten Dear John letters. And not just the single guys either. Some of the married ones too. You feel real bad for them. A guy who gets that kind of letter loses it. Can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, forgets to look where he’s walking. 

When they get back from the party, Hal makes a fire in the den, and Donna, feeling drowsy and contented—a little tipsy actually—watches as the flames take root, pretending to herself that this is her house, her fireplace, her beautiful sofa. She even kicks off her shoes and tucks her feet underneath her. It’s a defiant act, something that would pain Phoebe if she were here. She’s not, though, because she and Hal’s father are at a party of their own. 

Hal sits down beside her with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a pair of wine glasses in the other. “I was watching you at the party,” he says. “It looked like you and Scott were having a good time.” 

“Yeah, I guess,” she says, having heard the accusation in his voice. He starts to pour her some wine, but she shakes her head. “No, none for me.” 

But Hal pours her some anyway. “I guess the two of you had a lot to say to each other.” 

“No, not really. Just party talk, that’s all.”

Hal downs his glass and pours another. “You were dancing with him, too.” 

She shrugs, wondering how much he’s had to drink. “There’s no law against that, is there?” 

“You even had your hand on his neck. I saw you.”

Donna stares at him, incredulous. “Well, what do you expect, Hal? If you’d hung around instead of going off wherever it was that you went, I wouldn’t have been dancing with Scott. I probably wouldn’t even have talked to him.” 

Donna, who’s surprised by this outburst, can see that Hal is too. For several long moments, he scrutinizes her, his face so close to hers that she actually feels the heat of his anger. She braces herself for something sarcastic or cutting, but then, unexpectedly, he relaxes. “You’re right, I’m overreacting,” he says. “Scott’s harmless.”

Donna doesn’t answer but manages a smile. She doesn’t want to fight. Not on New Year’s Eve. Not in his beautiful house.  

He puts an arm around her and pulls her toward him. Grateful, she nestles into the well of his shoulder and closes her eyes. He smells good: a mixture of alcohol and English Leather cologne, along with something fainter that must be the smell of sweat. She lifts her head, offering him her mouth and he starts to kiss her, small darting kisses that tingle like snowflakes. 

But then she pulls away: “Wait, Hal, when are your parents coming home?” 

“Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s New Year’s Eve. They won’t be home for another hour or two. It gives us plenty of time.”

Suddenly she feels weightless. “What do you mean, plenty of time?” 

He lifts the curtain of her hair and kisses the rim of her ear. “I mean, here we are on New Year’s Eve, just the two of us, and upstairs there’s a very nice guest room, the one you’re staying in actually.” He pauses for a moment, his tongue in the hollow of her ear, then adds: “So why don’t you just go up there and wait for your guest.” 

“No,” she says as a cold sick dread spreads through her. “No, it’s too big a step. I couldn’t—” 

“Sure, you can,” he says, taking one of her hands. “Just say yes, and the rest will be easy.”

She stares at her hand, mute and white, like a little mouse trapped inside his, and shudders. So this is where her neediness has led her. She had thought that he wanted to show her off to his friends. To have his parents meet her. To spend uninterrupted time with her. But now she wonders: was it only a strategy, a way of arriving at this moment?

“I know it’s your first time,” he says, his tone so earnest it sounds like something from a movie. “But I won’t hurt you, I promise. I’ll go in slow. You’ll like it.”

“No,” she says, yanking her hand away. “I can’t. It’s too much.”

Beside her, Hal’s anger cracks open. “So what are you doing? Saving it for that guy in Nam?” 

“What?” 

“It’s that guy, isn’t it? Phil or whatever his name is, the one you write to all the time.”

Donna freezes. Everything around her stops. The fire stops crackling. The clock stops ticking. Even her breathing is suppressed. “How do you know about him?” she asks. 

Hal snorts. “C’mon, you leave his letters all over.” 

Donna is shocked. He has been in her room, he has looked through her things? “Who is he anyway?” asks Hal. “Some dip-shit kid you went to high school with or what?”

“Well, sort of,” she says in a kind of daze. “Mostly, though, he’s a friend of Tom’s.” 

Hal laughs scornfully. “Somebody from the neighborhood.” 

Donna stares at the fire, pretending she hasn’t heard him.  

“So what happened? Did he get drafted?” 

“No, he enlisted.”

“Enlisted? You’re kidding? Who the hell enlists these days?”

Donna starts to tell him about Phil’s father, how he fought his way across France in the last war, but Hal interrupts her. 

“What do you think this is, Donna—a war against Hitler? We’re not saving the world from Communism or anything else, we’re napalming a little country the size of Indiana right out of existence.”

She glares at him, outraged that he’s appropriating the liberal argument and using it against Phil as if he were the one who’d started this war. “Well, maybe you’re right, Hal. Maybe we shouldn’t be there. But I do know one thing: if it weren’t for Phil and a lot of other guys like him, you’d be the one out there sleeping in holes and hobbling around on rotten feet. You’d be the one waking up in the morning covered with leeches. You’d be—”

“So he’s a hero, is that it?”

Donna says nothing. A hero? She’s not even sure what that is.

“Okay, Donna, if that’s the way you feel,” he says, throwing her a tight, narrow look. “But when he’s touching you, think about the villages he’s burned and the babies he’s killed. Because no matter what you think, he’s no different, he’s not special. The dirt from this war is all over him.”

Donna stares back at him, her fury contracting to a hard sharp point. “You think you know everything, don’t you?” she says, so enraged she starts drumming on his chest with her fists. “I hate that about you. I hate it, hate it, hate it.” He laughs—it’s a game to him—and catches her by the wrists, squeezing them hard. Then, all of a sudden, his mouth is on hers and he’s pushing her backwards onto the couch. Gripping her shoulders, he kisses her neck and the tops of her breasts, his mouth voracious and big. 

“Hal, don’t,” she pleads as he tugs on her dress. But it’s too late. The strap gives way and his tongue starts flickering over her nipple as if she had planned to bare her breast at that exact moment. She turns her face to the back of the sofa, feeling numb, almost as if she’d slipped outside herself and were watching from a distance. This isn’t happening. It can’t be. 

But then she feels his hands under her skirt. “Hal, no, what are you doing?” she cries, but she knows what he is doing: he is pulling down her pantyhose. She tries to twist away, but he has her pinned down. 

“Hey, relax, will you,” he says, grunting as he struggles with the pantyhose. His voice is light, teasing almost, but his breathing is heavy, like an animal’s. 

She tries to sit up, to back herself into the corner, but it only gives him more leverage. One or two quick pulls and her pantyhose are gone, he’s tossed them onto the floor. 

She thrashes against him, but he manages to wedge his hand between her clenched thighs. 

“No, get off me,” she screams as panic seizes her and she starts to sob. 

Then, without warning, light floods the room. It is Hal’s father, he’s switched on the overhead. “Well, well,” he says, surveying them with bleary eyes, “this is a pretty little scene.”

Hal leaps off Donna and she sits up, hastily clutching the top of her dress.

Mr. Burwell looks at them for another moment or two, then says: “Tell me, son, is there such a shortage of bedrooms in this house that you can’t find one in which to maul your little houseguest?”

“Dad. We were just talking.”

“I guess that’s why her tit was hanging out of her dress,” he says, loosening his tie and looking unsteadily in Donna’s direction. “Quite a pretty little tit, I might add.”

“Dad, for God’s sake,” she hears Hal saying, but she is gone, out of the room, running up the stairs, not looking back, not listening.

You are such a sweet girl, Donna, that I find myself caring more and more about you all the time. I am trying my hardest not to fall in love with you because I know you said we should wait. But I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out. It’s just there inside me, like a little seed, but I won’t let it grow unless you say it’s okay.

Donna sits on her suitcase at the end of the Burwells’ long lane, waiting for Tom to come get her. Huddled against the cold, too exhausted even to cry, she feels flattened, ashamed, worthless. She thought she could visit Hal in his world and fit in, but that was a joke. She was a joke: too trusting, too stupid, too out of her league to have any inkling of what could happen. And then, when it did, she wasn’t ready. She was helpless. The depth of her inadequacy fills her with a shame so pervasive and heavy it feels like paralysis. She tries to think ahead to tomorrow when she’ll wake up in her own bed, but comforting as that thought is, she knows it won’t change anything: she’ll still be the girl whose tit was hanging out of her dress. 

It has started to snow, big idle flakes that fall as gently as feathers. Watching their leisurely descent, she thinks about Phil who keeps telling her how much he misses the snow now that he has to live in a hot steamy jungle. He is such a sweet guy, writing her two or three letters a week and always saying the nicest things them. So nice in fact that they almost make up for the times in her life when she was ignored or passed over or not seen at all. It’s hard to fathom, but she could probably tell him anything and he’d be interested. 

With Hal it was different. All he ever did was find fault. She was boring at parties and her clothes weren’t right and she wasn’t sexy enough and so on and so forth. But she never contradicted him because she thought he knew things that she didn’t. And she let him boss her around even when it came to little things, like her dress. He’d told her it should be “tasteful but sexy”—two things that are basically opposites—and like a fool she’d tried hard to give him what he wanted. But it doesn’t matter anymore, because even if she could repair the strap, she’d never want to wear— But here she stops, wondering if she even packed her dress. She tries to remember, but she was in such a hurry, throwing things into her bag one after the other, that she has no idea. But it’s not like it matters.

The snowfall is still very light, but a snowplow clanks by nevertheless, its orange light rotating as it momentarily fills the air with commotion. But then it moves on, leaving the street even quieter than it was before. Donna has never felt more alone. The houses, massive and a little sinister, are so dark they could be abandoned. It’s almost as if a silent army has swept through the neighborhood, extinguishing everyone but herself.

Donna stamps her feet just to make a little noise, then hears a car in the distance. She peers down the street, hoping for Tom’s VW Beetle but realizing, as soon as she sees the car’s shape, that it’s a Pontiac Firebird. Donna is generally not that good with makes or models, but she knows a Firebird when she sees one because it’s the car Phil has his heart set on. He’s saving up now so he can buy one as soon as Uncle Sam cuts him loose. He says it will be a reward for all those months he’s spent “humping the boonies.” 

And is she also a reward? The question, darting into her head out of nowhere, cuts through her like an electrical charge. It’s as if something she’d understood only vaguely has suddenly taken on a solid shape. Because isn’t that what he’s been trying to tell her? Doesn’t he manage to work it into every letter he sends her? She feels a little guilty (shouldn’t she be pleased, or at least flattered?) but it’s not that simple, because even though Phil is nicer than Hal—a thousand times nicer—in one way he’s not that much different. If Hal wanted to change her, then Phil is counting on her to stay the same. And it’s too late for that. In his mind, she’s still Tom’s shy little sister, a girl who might be able to keep him alive if she just loves him enough. And, who knows, maybe she will fall in love with him, maybe it will be for keeps. But she’s different now. Not the timid little creature Hal always accused her of being, and certainly not the fantasy girl Phil thinks about just before falling asleep. But someone else, someone who’s still emerging. She doesn’t know who that will be, but for now she’s content to wait and see. 

A light comes on in the Burwells’ house, and for a moment Donna panics, afraid that someone might see her. But then the light goes out. Just someone getting up to go to the bathroom, she thinks— And then it comes to her, where her dress is. It’s in the guest bathroom, hanging by its one remaining strap from a hook on the door. Fleetingly, she thinks about Phoebe and wonders how she’ll react when she finds it. It’s sure to be an ordeal for her, like opening up a drawer and finding the molted skin of a snake in with her undies. 

Donna smiles at the thought—no, she doesn’t just smile, she decides to laugh. She looks around at the snow that’s still coming down. Layer by layer, it’s coating everything in its way—rooftops, tree limbs, even the tiniest of twigs—and transforming them into something soft and radiantly white. Donna doesn’t know how much longer she’ll have to sit here and wait, but she’s comfortable floating in this blank world where she’s at the center of something new and fresh and promising.

– The End –