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       Tumbleweeds, p.8

           Leila Meacham

  He took another handkerchief from his drawer, not from the box of crisp new linen ones that his aunt had insisted on buying when they went to select his tuxedo—“you simply can’t carry along an everyday handkerchief in the pocket of your tuxedo, Trey, dear”—but from the stack of his old ones. His forehead was damp, an outward manifestation of his nerves. The tension in his gut annoyed him, since his looks told him that not a girl alive would be able to resist him tonight.

  But his looks might have no effect on Cathy. She simply didn’t fall for the things that grabbed other girls. She wasn’t like any other girl he knew, period. Other girls were good-looking. They were funloving and loose with their favors. They bounced and jounced and flirted and flipped their hair and batted their lashes and he smiled back, but none had a lock on his heart like Cathy. The first time he heard the song “My Funny Valentine” sung was by Frank Sinatra crooning forth from one of Aunt Mabel’s old long-playing records. The lyrics had made him think of Cathy. She played in the band, a flute, and wore a uniform a size too big for her small build and a hat that forced her to tilt her head back in order to see under the brim when she marched in the halftime activities. But like everything else she did, she stayed in step and never missed a beat of the maneuvers. She hated that she wasn’t tall and regarded her less-than-medium height as a physical imperfection, but to him, she was just right. She was his funny valentine, and he wouldn’t have wanted her any other way.

  But now he wished he’d tested the waters more for some indication of her willingness to go along with his hopes for tonight. It wasn’t that they didn’t make out, but it was done on a… well, spiritual level—a special plane reserved only for them, and that was very satisfying, too. He’d been content with those times when they studied or watched television or Rufus’s antics together, their thighs touching, his arm around her, now and then kissing but never making it something heavier. There was just nothing like those delicious, goose-bump moments when their eyes caught in a crowd, or in passing she brushed her hand over his shoulder, the back of his neck, straightened his collar, carelessly, like you do something that is yours, and he felt more intimately connected to her—more physically fulfilled—than when he made out with another girl in the backseat of his Mustang.

  There had been something exciting about waiting—like a cake you want to bite into but don’t want to spoil its frosting.

  So he hadn’t pushed it. The time would come, he’d thought. And now it had. He loved her. He loved her until it hurt, and he’d come to a point in their relationship where he needed to express that love and feel hers for him. Wasn’t that the whole point of sex? But if her feeling for him wasn’t the same… The fear that it wasn’t almost nauseated him, but he had to know, and he intended to find out tonight.

  He wiped his forehead and shoved the handkerchief into another pocket. He’d use that one and save the linen one for Cathy if she should need it.

  “Trey Don? Are you ready for your close-up?” his aunt asked, coming into the room. “I’ve got the camera ready.”

  “Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, certain his aunt would miss the irony. He turned from the mirror. “How do I look?”

  “Simply too smashing,” Mabel said. “When did my little nephew grow up to be such a tall, dark, and impossibly handsome man?”

  It wasn’t her fault, but “my little nephew” added further play on his nerves. It should have been “my little son.” Lately, he’d been thinking of his parents a lot, wondering where they were, if he’d ever see them again, if they’d be proud to learn he was among the top “blue-chip” high school quarterbacks in the state and that he had earned almost a four-point grade average. Aunt Mabel was closemouthed on the subject of his parentage, but he figured his father had gotten his mother pregnant out of wedlock and wanted no part of her or her kid. He gathered his mother was the flighty sort who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, so she’d given him as a gift to Aunt Mabel and his uncle, who couldn’t have children. That possibility made Trey feel better than believing his mother hadn’t wanted him.

  He felt guilty mooning for his deadbeat parents when Aunt Mabel had been so good to him. As an orphan, he’d had a better go of it than John, even better than Cathy, though Miss Emma loved her dearly. John’s father—or whatever you wanted to call him—wasn’t worth the cost of an ounce of cat meat as a dad, and Miss Emma struggled financially to provide for Cathy. Aunt Mabel had been left well off by Trey’s uncle, who’d owned a farm equipment business, the reason she could buy Trey a tuxedo while John, who allowed Bert Caldwell to pay only for the essentials, had to rent his suit with money he’d earned as a bag boy at Affiliated Foods over Christmas vacation.

  Scholarships would be a godsend to all of them, the only way Cathy could go to premed school and John earn a business degree and he get out from under his aunt’s financial generosity. And they would all do it together. They’d get their college diplomas, he and Cathy would marry, he’d shoot for the NFL, and if that didn’t work, he’d fall back on his own business degree, and they’d all live happily ever after.

  But first, there was tonight. “Shoot away, Aunt Mabel,” he said. “This will be one evening I’ll want to remember.”

  “YOU’RE NOT DOUBLE-DATING with John and Bebe?” Emma asked Cathy. “Why not?”

  Behind the towel she’d used to screen her face from the cloud of hair spray Emma was applying to her party do, Cathy said, “I’m assuming because John wants to be alone with Bebe.”

  “Since when?” demanded Emma. “You’ve always double-dated.”

  “Well, I guess since they’ve… become tighter,” Cathy answered. “We’ll see them at the dance and sit with them at breakfast afterwards.”

  “And after that, you’re coming straight home, right?”

  Cathy dropped the towel from her face, and Emma’s breath caught. Her granddaughter was ravishing. She was wearing makeup for the first time, and her mass of luxuriant curls was clipped away from her face by a set of rhinestone barrettes that matched the floor-length gown of blue chiffon they’d selected from Lillie Rubin’s Evening Wear in Amarillo. The barrettes had been the saleswoman’s suggestion and cost the earth, but seeing how perfectly they set off the dress and Cathy’s blond hair, Emma was glad they’d been added to the bill.

  “Of course I’m coming straight home,” Cathy said. “Where else would I go?”

  “You and Trey… you don’t…” Emma gestured helplessly. “Well, you know…”

  “Yes, I believe I do know,” Cathy said with an amused smile, “and no-o-o-o, Grandmother, Trey and I are not doing it. We have a tacit understanding to wait until we’re older and more ready for that sort of thing.”

  More ready? Emma set down the can of hair spray. Trey had been ready for a long time and he’d done something about it, but she was certain it hadn’t been with Cathy. A boy got a look about him when he’d lost his virginity. Emma had raised two sons, so she knew. She was surprised that Cathy hadn’t seen it, but then maybe she had and chose to ignore it. A lot went on in that smart head of hers that Emma wasn’t privy to, but her granddaughter was so focused on getting into medical school—her chemistry teacher already called her Dr. Benson—that she appeared blind to about everything that other girls her age would have spotted in an instant.

  “Sweetheart,” Emma said, clearing her throat, “if you and Trey ever decide you’re… ready, you know what to do, don’t you?”

  “You mean like in preventing myself from getting pregnant?”

  “That’s exactly what I mean.”

  “Sure I do. I’d simply take the pill.”

  “Ah, well now,” Emma said, taken aback, “that’s mature thinking.”

  Cathy smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Grandmother. I’ve known about the birds and bees for a long time.”

  The doorbell rang. “There’s Trey,” she announced, flashing a wide, delighted smile that made her eyes sparkle. “I can’t wait to see him in his tuxedo!”

“I’ll let him in,” Emma said hurriedly. “You take a final twirl before the mirror.”

  Emma opened her front door. Good lord! The boy was enough to make her drop her own knickers, perish the indecency of the thought. Momentarily speechless, she stepped aside to allow Trey to enter her small living room. “Good evening, Trey. You look… nice.”

  Trey grinned. “ ‘Nice’? Is that the best I can muster from you, Miss Emma?”

  “Your head is big enough,” she said, and heard the soft swish of chiffon behind her. She saw Trey’s eyes grow large, his mouth slowly open.

  Heaven help us, Emma thought.

  “Catherine Ann…” Her name foundered in his awe of her. “You’re… you’re so beautiful….”

  “Yes, she is, and she is to be returned that way, if you get my meaning, Trey Don Hall,” Emma articulated crisply.

  “Now, Grandmother…,” Cathy scolded with a laugh, and gave Trey a look of mock suffering.

  “I get it, Miss Emma,” Trey said, his eyes on Cathy. “Trust me, I’ll return her to you more beautiful than ever.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  Are you sure, Catherine Ann? We can wait,” Trey said, his brows drawn in concern and doubt deepening his dark eyes. “Maybe I should have warned you—”

  “I’m glad you didn’t,” she said. Her heartbeat sounded like tennis shoes thumping in the dryer.

  “Would you have… said no?” he asked, the question suspended between hope and despair.

  They stood before the door of the room he had reserved, she within the wide space of his shoulders, her head barely reaching the level of his tuxedo tie. He held the room key in his hand, a passport to a moment in their lives from which she knew there would be no going back to the way they were. She swallowed hard and turned to allay her anxiety by stroking his jaw. “Do you ever give anyone a chance to say no?” she said, smiling softly. “But no, I wouldn’t have said no. I’d have brought some things along, that’s all.”

  He looked distressed. “Oh, I didn’t think of that. I… brought along a new toothbrush and paste.”

  “I’m sure that’s all I’ll need.”

  He had arranged for the room beforehand and had even picked up the key so that she would not have to wait in the car under the harsh lights of the motel entrance for him to collect it from the night clerk. There were flowers on the bedside table and a couple of his aunt’s throw pillows on the bed, the ones Cathy used to support textbooks when she studied at his house or when Trey laid his head in her lap. “Won’t your aunt miss those?” she asked.

  “I’ll think of something to tell her. I thought they’d make you feel… more at home.”

  “That was sweet of you, Trey.”

  “Catherine Ann, I—” He stepped close to her, and she could see the tension in his throat muscles as he tried to form his words.

  “What, Trey?”

  “I love you. I love you with all my heart. I’ve loved you since the first second I laid eyes on you running out of your grandmother’s house to see about your snow queen. I just need to show you how much I do.”

  “Well, then,” she said, slipping her arms up around his neck, “suppose you get started.”

  “I DON’T WANT TO LET you go,” Trey said, taking her face between his hands at Emma’s front door hours later. The passionate intensity of the last hours still showed in the deep flush of his face, the fever in his eyes.

  “I know,” Cathy said softly, “but I have to go in. I’m sure my grandmother is not asleep.”

  “You think she’ll kill me when she sees you? I did promise I’d bring you back more beautiful than before, but I meant—”

  “I know what you meant, and I feel more beautiful than before.”

  “You are, if that’s possible. You’re not sorry?”

  “No, Trey. I’m not sorry.”

  “Will you ever be?”

  “Not ever. Good night, mon amour.”

  She pulled his hands from her face after he kissed her, and they exchanged lingering looks of regret when she stepped inside before he could kiss her again under the porch light for anyone to see who might be up and about at three o’clock in the morning. A small decorative pane was set into the door. After she closed it, he pressed his open hand to the glass and she answered with her own splayed against it. After a while, they broke contact, but Cathy kept the porch light on until she heard his Mustang drive away.

  Rufus had come out to greet her in the living room, wagging his tail, his eyes large and questioning, asking, she was sure, Did it go okay? She laughed quietly and knelt down in a puff of chiffon to hug his neck. “Yes, yes, it went okay,” she said in a whisper bubbling out of her on a tide of happiness. The house was quiet. A light shone in the kitchen, and she went in to find a teapot, cup, saucer, and spoon in the sink, her grandmother’s clear message that she had waited up until she was forced to call it a night. Cathy was glad. Her hairdo was wrecked, her makeup gone. There would be enough to answer to in the morning, but for the rest of the night she wanted to be alone to cherish her memories.

  In her room, she undressed slowly, touching where Trey’s hands had been, feeling him still warm and alive inside her. She’d had a sense that tonight would happen sooner than later, but not after the prom and not in a motel room. That move had come as a complete surprise. Not even when he’d whispered huskily in her ear, “Let’s skip breakfast. I have a place reserved just for us,” did she suspect what he had in mind. Naïvely, she’d thought that in order to be alone with her he’d planned to take her to Denny’s in Delton for pancakes and sausages.

  It had all been as natural as a bee finding its rose. There had been nothing self-conscious or awkward about undressing in front of each other. It was as if they’d been hanging up their clothes together all their lives. Their eyes had never left each other’s until every piece of clothing was removed, and then he had drawn her to the bed, his eyes devouring her, but in the most reverent and caring way. “Catherine Ann…,” he murmured, over and over like a prayer as he held and caressed her, and his body had felt so right, so perfect, next to hers that she’d hardly noticed the prick of pain in the moment the ocean had surged to the shore and sand and sea became one. It had been so wonderful that afterwards she’d been astonished—horrified—to feel wetness on her cheek and had turned in his arms to see tears on his face. “Trey!” she’d exclaimed, her heart seizing. “What’s the matter?”

  “Nothing,” he said, clutching her fiercely to him. “Nothing is the matter. It’s just that I… don’t feel like an orphan anymore.”

  EMMA HEARD CATHY COME IN and tiptoe down the hall to her room, Rufus following behind, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor, making stealth impossible. Emma had been awake all night, the blinds of a window open to allow her to see the stars. A night sky of stars was comforting, for some reason. She had a habit of looking at them when she was troubled as she was now. Maybe sad better described her feelings. It had happened. She was sure of it. Her granddaughter had been deflowered. A grandmother sensed these things. Cathy and Trey had not gone to the breakfast hosted by the Kiwanis Club after the prom. One of the sponsors had called, concerned when the belle and beau of the ball had not shown up. If what Emma feared had happened, Monday morning, first thing, she’d make an appointment with Dr. Thomas for Catherine Ann to get a prescription for birth control pills.

  MABEL CHECKED HER ALARM CLOCK. Three fifteen in the morning. Trey was home. Her bedroom was next to the garage, and she’d heard him drive in. She felt depressed. Often when he was gone from the house, she checked his room for contraband—things like drugs, girly magazines, alcohol, lurid diaries—all for the responsible purpose of knowing what was going on in her nephew’s life. She’d found the box of condoms long ago, tucked into a desk drawer, and drawn a sigh of relief. Trey had refused her pleas to go back for the tests Dr. Thomas had recommended, and Mabel had never felt her lack of influence over her nephew more. “When I’m ready,” he told her, but at least he was takin
g precautions against a favorable prognosis. From time to time, the number of condoms had decreased, but never when he had a date with Cathy. Tonight there were several missing.

  She hoped Trey had been gentle with Cathy and that he would continue to love her as he always had, but her nephew was of such a mercurial nature. However, Cathy had a hold on him that no other girl was likely ever to have. Cathy was one of a kind, the kind he required to make him whole.

  JOHN LET HIMSELF INTO HIS HOUSE, struck by the smell of greasy cooking that always greeted him when his father was home. He had left the light burning under the stove hood for him, and it shone on the pan of bacon fat and splatters remaining from his supper. John looked at the stove top, the sink of dirty dishes, the grimy dish towel hanging from the oven door, his father’s holey socks and scuffed boots under the table where he’d removed and left them, and felt the sickness spread through him that he’d fought all night. He pulled at his tie and passed through the kitchen without stopping for a drink of water to ease his dry throat. In his bedroom he lay down fully clothed, linked his hands behind his head, and stared at the ceiling.

  In the morning he was going to mass, he decided. It had been a while since he’d attended. When his mother had been alive, he’d never skipped a Sunday going with her to St. Matthew’s, but now he went only when he missed her and needed the peace it gave him. Tomorrow he would go to seek another kind of peace.

  Chapter Fifteen

  Spring gave way to summer. In former years during the three-month break from school, Cathy and Trey and John took advantage of every opportunity to be together in the sun. Slathered in suntan oil, they “laid out” in Mabel’s lush backyard with a swimming pool, hiked and picnicked in Palo Duro Canyon, plied the waters of Lake Meridian in Trey’s prized sailboat, and rented horses to explore the attractions of Caprock Canyons State Park. Trey’s and John’s skin would turn the color of chestnuts, Cathy’s the deep tone of unrefined honey. The boys’ dark hair lightened a shade, and Cathy’s took on the hue of her favorite palomino’s mane.

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