The Wahlers in Wainscott
Elizabeth was adopted. Her older brother, Frederick, was too. Since I was nine, I figured their parents were as well. The Wahlers were loving and, what seemed at the time, ridiculously old. They were probably forty. Mr. Wahlers wore a gray suit and hat. Mrs. Wahlers’ yellow hair was always rolled up perfectly around two invisible curlers just above her shoulders. If a wizard had zapped my dollhouse family to life, it would’ve been these people.
I did not feel this way about my own family. I fantasized about running away on a weekly basis. A polite child, I’d check in first with my father. “Think I’ll leave on Tuesday. First thing. If that’s okay?” “Just let me know,” my father would say. He ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes, Tony the Tiger stretched across the cereal box, every morning at 8. He never looked up from his paper.
One day my little suitcase was packed for me. My father took me to a street corner where a small van arrived. Maybe it was Lexington Avenue or just some quiet side street.
“The Hampton Jitney,” my father said. It was 1974. He put a ten dollar bill in my hand for the driver, and I was hoisted into the van. There was one other passenger. My father firmly established that I got car sick, very sick, and had been unfortunately well-fortified with a weighty bowl of oatmeal. The single seat in front was all mine. The other passenger took the last row three seats back. I was headed to Wainscott. The Wahlers had invited me. It was Fall.
The drive was long, and the van creaked and bounced. Some of the vinyl seat gave way to yellow stuffing. With the window down the wind webbed my hair over my face and beat my eyes to a squint. The avenues and high rises ahead melted into the cement. Trees and small houses took their place along the roads. Then farmland, fields of pumpkins, apple trees, vineyards, who knows. I didn’t get sick. I wanted the Wahlers to keep me.
At nine you don’t care about street names, addresses, who is who. Probably Mr. Wahlers was not wearing a suit, and Mrs. Wahlers had on something other than the fitted elephant dress she often wore to pick up Elizabeth from school. But this is how I believe they stood at the side of that quiet road when the jitney pulled in that afternoon. Elizabeth and I had the same wide striped shirt meant for boys. We had rallied together to get one after seeing some boy in a detergent commercial. Maybe called Bold? A happy kid, a brave one, one who had fun and adventures came in from playing covered in dirt and blood. His mother got the shirt clean. That was living. We put on our matching shirts.
There were other people in the house. Someone had brought a box of chocolates. Milk chocolate cherries that burst when you bit into them. They were left uncovered by the front door on a high wooden side table with long, splitting seams. Every time we ran out the door, we grabbed a few and packed them into our cheeks. Elizabeth’s brother had a friend visiting too. Charles was taller with hair like a happy spaniel. We would show the boys how fast we were. We rubbed dirt into our shirts and on our faces. Suddenly they were chasing us. Maybe the fields of high grass were up to our shoulders. In my mind they were well above us. We had to push them away. Dry golden blades with feathery tops stuck in our hair. The boys were closing in. Elizabeth was fast. A few wild shrieks and she was gone. I was a skinny girl, long legs, long hair and I was running through the speckled iris of fields and sky. The house was gone. Other houses appeared. Charles panted hard as he caught up.
I didn’t think about boys then. I was sent to an all girls school to work hard, become a lady. I had a blue uniform for winter and a lighter, checked one for spring. I told people I would never marry. Then, from no where, Charles’ hands were wrapped around my hips. He had sprung from behind. One charged leap. His head rammed into my back, and I too was off my feet. We were together, horizontal for one long, long minute flying through a field in Wainscott. Charles’ clammy boy fingers, nails packed with dirt, held tight to the loops of my corduroy waist band. We were together. Higher than the yellow fields, the shingled roofs, the one heavy cloud in its perfect blue bowl, the undone essay due on Monday, the forgotten beaded purse on the jitney floor. A charge that started in my stomach with roller coaster horror ignited something unknown into terrifying ecstasy. We hit the ground almost soundlessly. Then there we were. The chase was over. Now what? Neither of us knew. Charles’ heart beat into my back. Was I supposed to be mad? Push him off ? His face peered over into mine. Chocolate cherry breath. “You okay?” He no longer looked like that spaniel in the last bit of sun. Maybe I would marry some day. I didn’t want to end up like the gym teacher.
Dinner that night was at a long farmhouse table. I was seated to Mr. Wahlers’ right. He took my hand and I took Charles’ as he said a short prayer before we ate. He was thankful for…Was it a smirk from Charles or a kick under the table from Elizabeth? I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop. Mr Wahlers squeezed harder. Closed my hand more fully into his. But it was hopeless. Tears ran down my face. I was laughing. I was crying. I didn’t want to let go. Then everyone was laughing at what, no one knew, but finally Mr. Wahlers prayed aloud that I would be able to stop so we could eat. When I opened my eyes he said, did anyone notice? My eyes, they were shaped just like almonds. Heat rushed to my face.
Elizabeth and I shared a room off the kitchen with a secret staircase as we called it. The servants’ quarters. We had plans to sneak out during the night and explore as tough girls would do. Instead we shone our flashlights on the ceiling and played light tag. We whispered until Mrs. Wahlers knocked lightly on the door and said, “Girls, goodnight.” Tomorrow we would look for Indian heads or maybe walk to the water. We’d hide from the boys and build a house out of driftwood. We’d get our striped shirts extra dirty. I had fallen asleep.
“We don’t like boys, right?” Elizabeth said. She shone the flashlight straight into my eyes. Hers squinted back in defiance and panicked anger. Maybe just a little sadness. She was sitting straight up.
But there was a whole family behind those walls. Even asleep somewhere down the hallway, Mr. Wahlers in bed in his grey suit and hat, Mrs. Wahlers right beside him in the elephant dress and pumps. The heavy covers pulled just under their necks. No, every knot in each beam, every splinter in the wood said, This you will never lose. “Especially Charles and Frederick. Revolting.”
“Revolting ,”I said. “And we will definitely never marry them.”