About the Author

M. J. Cates

Books by this Author
Into That Fire
Excerpt

 
Does something always have to die in order for something else to be born? To Imogen, the idea seemed melodramatic. She con­sidered herself a practical girl—woman—not the bluestocking, not the suffragette, not the pamphleteer her fellow medical students made her out to be. She just wanted to do some good, be some use in the world, and didn’t see this ambition as unsuitable. Yet she knew that others—her father, Quentin—found it unusual because their reac­tions made it plain.

The church clock bonged the quarter hour. Only fifteen minutes before she was due to meet Quentin on the front steps of Rush College. She had been listening to the clock for hours, her German text open on the desk before her. She hadn’t learned a single verb all morning. Consciousness of having soon to commit an unkindness had rendered her skull impenetrable.

She got up and checked herself in the mirror and started to fuss with her hair, then stopped. What was the point of trying to look pretty? Surely when you’re about to tell someone that you don’t love him it was best to be as ugly as possible.

Four hats sat on top of her rickety armoire. She took down the cream-coloured Java with the blue silk stripe. Quentin’s favourite, true, but also her own, so why shouldn’t she wear it? It was anticipat­ing the summer a little, but the alternatives were all too formal.

Outside, the sun was bright, casting crisp shadows. She watched her own ripple ahead of her on the grass as she took a shortcut through a schoolyard, hat just so. Could you acquire a Bachelor of Science degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and qualify for your MD in the top three of your class, and still care about hats? Apparently you could.

Her mood darkened as she got closer to Rush. In a few minutes she would have to tell Quentin that whatever it was they had shared could not continue, that it was over. Skinny, gawky Quentin with his bony hands and his pretty girl’s mouth had been her ally, her refuge, in this strange adventure she had set for herself. She had never expected to make such a friend. She had come almost to believe that all men hated her.

The way the other students looked at her when she answered a question! Folding their arms and rolling their eyes or staring at the floor. How smug they were on those rare occasions when she got it wrong. Sometimes she bit her tongue, repressing the urge to answer, only to hate herself later for cowardice. The sexual insults—she had been completely unprepared for those. Anatomy class in particular. “How does this gentleman’s penis compare to all the others you’ve seen, Miss Lang?”

She had not known, until then, that it was possible to blush all the way from sternum to occiput. Skin scorched, right across the shoulders, and rivulets of sweat travelling to unheard-of destinations beneath her smock and heavy clothes. It was not so much the sexual content of the remark that upset her, but the depth of hostility it revealed.
Another young woman might have run home to cry on her father’s shoulder. Her own father, Josiah Lang—one of Chicago’s top attor­neys, a progressive, a friend of Clarence Darrow’s no less—could have shut her classmates up with a single riposte. There had been a time when she would have run to him, when she valued his affection and good opinion above all others. What a joke that had turned out to be.
She had sought out the other four women in the class, thinking that together they might lighten each other’s burdens. But two had dropped out in the first couple of months, and the other two were so competi­tive they would not so much as speak to her. They seemed to hate her even more than the men did.
 
And then there was Quentin.

Even if she had come to Rush in search of a man, which she most emphatically had not, the quality of her male classmates would have rapidly put her off her quest. Louts. Imogen had always imagined phy­sicians to be a valiant example of the human male, rational and scien­tific, eager to be of service, even chivalrous. From what Avalon did such paragons arise? Certainly not from the Rush College class of 1916.

Except for Quentin. Quentin stood a good five inches taller than Imogen, who at five foot nine and a half was taller than most women. She loved the Euclidian angularity of him, the way he bent his neck forward to engage with his shorter colleagues, the loose-limbed way he would unfurl a long arm to point something out—a hawk riding a thermal over Lake Michigan, the sunlight blazing in the library windows. He had a disarming way of folding himself into or over a chair; he was incapable of sitting up straight anywhere except the dinner table, where he looked positively architectural. Everywhere else he slouched, he draped, he accordioned himself into, around, or over whatever support was available.

His physical being was a lovely contrast to his rationality. Professor Coughlin had posed him a question in cellular biology class once, something about mitosis, and Quentin had stood there mute, head bent, arms folded, still as a lamppost. Coughlin was sadistic enough to let dullards hang for ages before he would bail them out by posing the question to someone else. On this occasion he emitted an exasperated sputter. “Come, come, Mr. Goodchild, it’s not a difficult question.”

“It is for me, sir, because I’m thoughtful.”

Everyone had laughed, including Imogen, because it was clear that Quentin’s cranium was indeed humming all the time. And he did manage to retrieve the right answer before the laughter had quite faded from the hall.
Sometimes when they went for walks, around the campus or far­ther afield, he would be silent so long that Imogen would begin to get annoyed. “If you don’t want to be here,” she would begin.
 
“Sorry. I was just imagining the future when this is just a memory. Us walking down Harrison Street on a sunny day in 1916—how can that ever not be real? Not be present?”

“It’ll be gone by tomorrow. Sooner, even.”

“But this heat on my skin, those twin curls on your neck—they’re just like parentheses—it’s all so vivid, so real. How can it not be forever?”

Because nothing is forever, Imogen wanted to say but found herself silenced by his noticing her curls. In moments of absolute honesty, she could admit that she enjoyed the way he responded to her—the way he might tremble a little when helping her with a coat, a scarf, or even a book. Or when they sat side by side, how he would tilt a little away from her to avoid the most innocent touch.

Once, when they had both pointed to a page at the same time, their bare hands had collided and he’d reacted as if she were a red-hot poker, his cheeks turning scarlet. She was aware of possessing such power over him, and she did not like the part of herself that was gratified. All men were idiots when it came to lust, so she tried not to attribute any deeper meaning to Quentin’s reactions. He was a man; she was a woman who was not ugly if not beautiful—of course he was attracted.

But Quentin was a wonderful person, someone she would want to know always. So why did she not react that way to him? She did not pine for him when they were apart, did not daydream about him, never wrote out his name just to see it in front of her. In short, she was not in love.

“I wish you were my brother,” she had blurted out one hot after­noon when they had known each other for about a year. By then Quentin had dropped out of medical school to study at the University of Chicago. He had set his heart on a literary career, thus enraging his doctor father—an experience with which Imogen could sympathize.

They were in Lincoln Park, sharing a bench by the fountain, and a monarch butterfly had landed on Imogen’s sleeve, brilliant wings opening and closing as it caught its breath after its long journey from Mexico or wherever. Imogen raised her arm so that the sunlight lit up the Tiffany wings.

“Hinge,” Quentin said, and opened and closed his bony hand, four fingers in unison against his thumb. “Hinge,” he repeated. “Excellent word.” He turned on the bench and interposed a crooked forefinger between their two faces, curling it closed and open as if scratching the ear of an invisible cat. “Hinge,” he said in a deeper voice, as if Imogen had just arrived from a foreign land and needed a lesson in English vocabulary.

Something about the way he said it—gravely, but with a touch of self-parody—threw her into a fit of giggles.

And Quentin became relentless. “Hinge,” he said again, solemn as a judge. He got up and stood in front of her, held his arms out and crooked the elbows, first one then the other, a living marionette dis­covering his invisible strings. “Hinge.”

“Stop,” Imogen cried, laughing harder.

He lifted his knee, foot dangling and swinging, a pendulum of flesh and bone. “Hinge.”

“No, really. I can’t breathe,” Imogen managed. “You’ll kill me.”

“All right. Sorry.”

He plopped himself down beside her again, and folded his hands in his lap and looked out across the pond. The butterfly was gone. Imogen extricated a handkerchief from her bag and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

When they had started walking back toward campus she touched Quentin’s arm—she had never touched him before—and said, “I wish you were my brother.”

“Oh,” Quentin said. “Oh, I—well. Um, why?”

“Because you make me laugh. Because I love your company. And obviously because I have no brothers.”

“But you don’t have a husband, either.”

Imogen stopped and looked down at her feet, at the grass, at a half-acorn with the twin grooves of a squirrel’s teethmarks on it.

Quentin realized what he had said. “I’m sorry. It was just an observa­tion. But why a brother? Why not some other male figure, I don’t know, a piano instructor, or a priest or something? I didn’t mean, you know . . .”

“No, of course not.”

“I just meant—”

“No, why would you?”

“May we walk on? We’re meeting Jack at three-fifteen.”

Quentin veered away from the subject of husbands and on to John Dryden, how one could admire the poet’s precision, his perception, his brilliance with verse, but he would never in his life want to write like Dryden, and he wasn’t just talking about style. This was all so much persiflage to draw her attention away from what he had said. It was unlike Quentin to do this, and so all the more proof that he had blurted out his true feelings.

Imogen had never, not once, thought of Quentin as a possible husband; she didn’t think of any man as a possible husband. But as they continued their walk toward the fine art museum it dawned on her that he was confusing friendship with courtship. That saddened her. To some degree it even annoyed her. He shouldn’t raise the issue of marriage when they were obviously just colleagues. He had dam­aged this thing that was bringing her such joy, more joy than she had realized until that moment—right there, right then in Lincoln Park—when she faced its loss. In her eyes, marriage had no claim to supe­riority over friendship. Marriages were commonplace, even good marriages, not that Imogen had ever witnessed such a union. Fine friendships were rare—although Quentin certainly seemed to enjoy such a bond with Jack Wisdom, who waved to them from the museum steps as they approached.

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