y tiff with Pussy Galore and Mrs. Conte came not long after Samantha’s tomboy reassurances had seemed to defang the advance of female trouble. Now it was back, and it very suddenly took on a painful personal dimension.
Every day after school I made my way to my father’s office building, located only a few blocks away from the school building. He worked as a consultant producing handbooks on the political situations in a number of nations that might be of strategic interest to the American government, amid its communist-blocking crusade. The Vietnam War was growing in size and import daily, and it was becoming clear Washington would have to learn lessons about smaller states it had never before considered, so-called free states that might soon find themselves in harm’s way. My father worked on studying the entrails of Indonesia and what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) so Washington bureaucrats might have some idea what made these nations tick. His work was prized.
I was merely his dutiful son, a thin cog, who parked himself in the offices of the switchboard operator while waiting for my father’s end-of-day foghorn to sound.
It was an indolent bit of waiting around that I’d try to spice up by reading line scores of baseball games or probing deeper into my latest obsession, the Titanic disaster — an interest perhaps prompted by what Telefonica had shown me in Spain.
But this changed over months as I befriended the switchboard operator Marcia, a strawberry blonde in her early twenties, whose amazingly deft hand plugged incoming calls to their proper extensions without tangling the dozens of dangling cable threats. This kind of switchboard work was a staple of that era and no office could function without at least one such person. Direct lines were not yet commonplace.
Marcia had a radiant face and a lithe body and a lovely smile, at times directed at me, which made me blush. “Aw,” she’d say, “what are you reading?” And I’d tell her. Over time this banter deepened, particularly as calls ebbed in the late afternoon. She’d ask me about school and if I liked movies and what I did with my father on weekends, since by then all knew my mother had left.
From this came a certain intimacy that soon developed into a small crush. Marcia asked so many questions about me and told me I was a handsome boy for my age, nearly fourteen, and soon I’d have girls desiring my attention. Again, I blushed, but Sam’s tomboy approach had given me new strength and vigor and I was determined to talk to girls as if they belonged to my species, if not my tribe. I was now allowed to like them, and I grew to like Marcia a lot.
I asked her if she had a boyfriend and she rolled her eyes and told me the story of her awkward first kiss in the back of a Buick that blew a tire the instant the bold boy began kissing her. “Just my luck,” she laughed, and I did also, though I wanted very much to be that boy.
As winter turned to spring it became clear this would be my father’s final year. The firm had a strict retirement age policy, and though my father was eventually allowed to extend by a year, the end loomed near.
Also, he had become sick, an early cancer, but he spoke little of it to me, insisting on the English stiff upper lip approach I would later copy and make my own in times of crisis.
But Marcia also knew and was worried. At times she even cried. “Will the two of you be all right, I mean, all alone?”
I assured her we would be, but tucked into that assurance was the belief I would one day ask her to stop what she was doing and propose to her. I didn’t know if kisses necessarily came before proposals but I didn’t much care for rules. Nor did I choose to pay much attention to my age and hers. I was smitten. I wanted her around, I wanted to have milkshakes with her while talking about movies.
All this, of course, played out in my as-yet-unformed adult brain.
But then, suddenly, all went up in smoke.
On a June day just before my birthday and before my father was scheduled to take a short vacation, she suddenly stopped all she was doing and looked at me with graceful eyes.
I expected the time had come. This would be the moment in which the girl said she had feelings for the boy she could simply no longer ignore. And in a way, she did.
“I have to tell you something,” she said, summoning the courage. She then did something astonishing, closing the door to the switchboard room. I prepared for bliss and how I’d respond. I wondered how, at thirteen, I could handle the responsibilities of wedlock and if special people existed to measure fingers so you could then purchase the right ring — though with fifty-three dollars in my savings account I didn’t foresee diamonds. Then again, I could double my work as a paperboy and perhaps work my way up to a precious stone of switchboard wife import.
The door clicked closed and at first she was silent. Then came the tears, not a few but a lot. I didn’t have a clue what to do.
“Christopher, I’m sure you know this by now, but I’m in love with your father.”
The statement was so unreal and at the same time crushing that I was unable to listen to the volley of remarks that followed, which had something to do with his sad solitude, and whether I thought he would even consider her, and how she might approach him since she knew we were close. “Tell me what to do, because he’ll be gone soon, and I know he doesn’t know but I don’t want to lose him.”
I said nothing.
She said, “I’m so sorry to burden you with this but I didn’t know who to tell.”
I saw kisses and paper route diamonds vanish, as well as an imagined honeymoon on Venus, since the Moon landing was imminent.
I thought hard about Sam and wondered how she’d handle this, whether she’d shrug and walk away or offer consolation.
The moment ended abruptly when the door opened. It was my father. He did not even look at Marcia. “Let’s go home,” he said, and we did.
I said not a word to my father and did not sleep for two nights. I took my bike on long jaunts down steep hills, hoping to crash it but my skill and fear over-rode my heartbreak.
I hardly said a word to my father over dinners and of course did not return to his office. We began our vacation, and there I walked to the ends of boardwalks and contemplated the misery of being alive at age thirteen, and how I wished I’d never heard Boris Winkle speak the word tit.
One day, swimming in the sea with my father, I noticed that despite his illness he was upbeat, hopeful, eager to help me with my Titanic obsession. He wanted to travel with me. He seemed to be slowly recovering from my mother’s departure.
Stiff upper lip, I said, and I copied his spirit. When we got back to the city, at the end of the first school day, I went back to the office prepared to meet Marcia face-to-face. I would tell her I really had no advice to offer. She should tell my father, who after my mother’s vanishing act had rid his life of women, but what he might want to say about being with a woman again, I did not know. This, I would add, was simply not my field of expertise.
But when I got there, another woman was in Marcia’s place. Maybe she was sick, or also on holiday, but no. The new woman said she’d handed in her resignation several days before, while we were away, and the office had no forwarding information.
My eyes teared. Later, my father said, “Strange she’d leave that way. She’s been in the job for two years. Nice girl. Too bad. Looks like the time is coming for all of us to leave.”
What was, was no more, and such things happened, I told myself, then returning to my Titanic reading in the presence of Florence, the new woman. I tried hard to wait for my father but could not. I told her to tell him I’d decided to walk home.
And I did, unable to get flat tires and first kisses out of my mind for the rest of the day, which would then turn into the rest of my life. A very, very tiny bullet, tinier even than the eye could see, but the hole was evident. In the final years of my father’s life, and his days were numbered, I never told. I kept the Marcia hurt for me, and for as long as my eyes functioned well enough to drive, whenever I had a flat tire I dreamed of Marcia watching me change it.