The view from Caroline's window on Friday afternoon was predictable. Children alternated between lingering and moving fast forward on their way home from school. In a few days school would be over for the summer and the streets would be busy with laughter and children all day long. All of Waterville would seem like a children's festival.
Even the buildings obstructing her view had become transparent for Caroline. She knew what happened behind most walls. Three blocks away from her parents' two story Victorian house, Joel would at this moment be lying under one of his cars in the driveway of his parents' ranch-style house. After all, this was late afternoon, and lying under one of his cars was what Joel did on late afternoons ever since Caroline could remember.
Caroline had been back in Waterville for two years now. Three things had changed. Instead of going to school to learn, she now went there to give music lessons. Instead of having a shelf full of books in her room, she now had four of them filled with reminders of her completed education. Instead of lingering with her girlfriends in the streets in the afternoon, instead of parading past boys fixing bicycles, or motorcycles and cars, she now stood by the window waiting. For evening. For Joel to come and pick her up for their date. For night when she would fall asleep, alone.
She liked being back home. College had been nice. City life had been exciting. But she preferred the peace and shelter of teaching, dating Joel on weekends, going to church with her parents. Some future day she would marry Joel. He had not gone to college, and she knew little to nothing about the cars that were his passion, just as he cared little about the music or literature that were hers. Caroline was not disappointed about not having found a potential husband with what her mother called "prospects." Caroline did not want a complicated future. She would be content with Joel. She would bear his children and afterwards teach music to them rather than to other people's children.
Joel had not spoken to her of marriage yet. In time he would. He was only twenty-eight. He had no interest in any other woman, just as she had no interest in any other man. Neither of them had the least desire to leave Waterville. They were made for one another.
She didn't leave the window until it was time to put on her pink dress, to tease her hair, and to put on lipstick. Then it was time to set the table for her parents' dinner.
It was time for Joel to go inside, to wash his blackened hands, to shower, to put on a clean shirt, and to comb his hair. His mother hovered nearby. Unlike Joel, she was showing signs of impatience with his bachelordom. Once again she mentioned in her furtive manner how lovely it would be when he would finally marry and settle down. To humor her Joel agreed, but laughingly told her there was plenty of time for that.
He knew, as did his mother, that he would marry Caroline. But he felt no sense of urgency. He still enjoyed his liberty. Caroline, too, he reasoned, would gladly wait longer. She was only twenty-three, and though many of her childhood friends were married, some even mothers already, most of them were not exactly exuberant about being tied down so young. He and Caroline would wait for just the right time to begin spending their lives together.
When Joel arrived at her parents' house, Caroline already waited in the door for him. She looked pretty in her pink dress. She got into his car. They smiled at each other.
"Okay with you if we go to Off the Rails?" he asked.
Caroline nodded, still smiling. It made no difference to her where they went, so long as they were together.
She nursed a whiskey sour while Joel downed several beers. They sat at a table apart from the other customers who either sat or stood at the counter, watching the TV screen which was the bar's center of attraction.
Joel felt at ease with Caroline. She was much quieter now than she had been before she left for college. He preferred her quietness. In the past he had been alarmed by hints of wildness. He found them amusing, but in her quietness she was more gracious. Since they had grown up together, there was little they did not know about each other. Small talk was optional and big talk was unnecessary.
"Are you ready for another drink?" Joel stood up to get himself another beer.
"I'm fine with this." Caroline lifted her glass.
It was a few minutes after eight. The Friday night train from Richmond had arrived. A handful of newcomers came into the bar. Hellos broke like waves.
One of the last people to come in was a young man whom nobody seemed to know and everybody was therefore acutely aware of. He looked around with the air of someone who was unfamiliar with his surroundings, curious, but not at all lost. Rather than joining the crowded bar counter, he looked for a table. Rather than picking an empty one, he walked up to the only table that was occupied.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked Caroline.
"No." Caroline, surprised, shrugged her shoulders. Even had she minded, her reply would have been the same. This privately amused her. No one from Waterville would have taken such liberties.
"The name is Alexander Rice." The young man pulled out a chair and sat down.
"I'm Caroline Gordon," she replied, omitting any mention of being pleased.
It surprised him that she didn't react to his name. Of course his parents were still relatively new in town, or more precisely three miles out of town, his father having retired and moved to the country only recently. Though it did seem surprising that newcomers of his parents' status would not make an impression simply by moving into the vicinity.
"I'm Dr. Rice's son," he said, prepared to go on to explain more.
"I gathered that," Caroline said. The look of amusement was still on her face.
Joel returned, beer in hand and a frown on his face, which the young man tried to dispel by rising again and offering his hand.
"Alexander Rice," he introduced himself again.
Joel resumed his place at the table, ignored the offered hand, and answered with the economy of a nod. Caroline was too wise to giggle, but something in her face had become alive. Joel was aware of it. Alexander was aware of it.
"What a punk," Joel commented in the car half an hour later on the way to take Caroline home at an unusually early hour, which she did not question or protest.
"He's just a kid," she said. Then, however, she had to turn her head to the window to hide her grin as she thought back to the scene from which Joel was now rescuing her. Alexander Rice had desperately tried to make conversation, and Joel Warner had just as desperately, if not more so, tried not to let him do so.
When Joel stopped the car in front of her parents' house and she turned to him and he failed to kiss her good night as usual, Caroline became aware of the full extent of his displeasure. His misplaced ill humor irritated her.
On the following evening, Saturday, his ill will appeared to be gone. Neither of them mentioned the night before. This night, at the much more conventional hour of 1:00 a.m., Caroline did receive her customary parting kiss.
In the weeks to come, Waterville in general, and Caroline in particular, saw much of Alexander Rice. Once a day at least, Alexander ran into Caroline somewhere, a shop, the post office, the grocery store. After two weeks Caroline gathered that she could hardly credit their frequent encounters to pure chance. One day, therefore, as he held the door of the grocery store for her to step out, she challenged him.
"I get the feeling you are following me," she said, rather than remarking about the ever-changing aspects of the patient weather once again.
Alexander replied with a bow. "That's because your eyes are the only things alive in this god-forsaken town."
Caroline laughed out loud. But she was annoyed. This was the statement of someone wanting to create an anecdote.
"Sir," she said, bowing likewise. "I'm flattered of course. But personally I don't find this town dead in the least. And now that you've made your appreciation known, I would like you to know that I am not willing to play the role of the older woman with living eyes in a young boy's summer vacation."
It was Alexander's turn to laugh out loud. "You are hardly as ancient as you would seem to suggest," he replied. "But I will strictly honor your feelings. Nevertheless, could we have lunch or dinner together some day?" Alexander has changed his tone of voice from one of wit and flattery to one of sincerity. "I'd very much like to get to know you better."
"There isn't much to know," Caroline said. "You know my name. I'm twenty-three years old. During the school year I teach music at the local high school. Now you know me."
"Yes, yes." Alexander was pleased to have gotten her to talk. "But what I would really like to know is what your favorite color is, for example, what flowers you like, what kind of music you teach, and so on."
"Well, my favorite color is blue," Caroline started off. "My favorite . . ."
"Please let's meet to talk sometime," Alexander interrupted, looking at her with intense eyes. "How about tomorrow night?"
"No," Caroline said. "My fiancé is taking me out tomorrow night."
"Then how about tomorrow for lunch?"
"Oh, all right," Caroline said to her own surprise. She was annoyed and was not sure why. This boy's arrogance? His self-confidence? His masked impertinence of asking her out for a night on which, as he must be aware, she was in the habit of going out with Joel? Even her own fudging of facts and calling Joel her fiancé had not made an impression on Alexander.
Caroline could not get Alexander out of her mind for the rest of the day. Partly she was irritated. Partly she was intrigued. Certainly he was arrogant and too insolent for his tender age. Certainly he had beautiful eyes. Certainly he had a pleasant way of talking.
When Caroline and Alexander met for lunch on the following day, they found they had much to talk about. What surprised Caroline most of all was that she herself had much to talk about. Alexander was full of the kinds of serious topics that interested a college kid, topics that interested no one else in Waterville, topics that had in fact not even interested her for the last two years. Caroline found that she was not as rusty in these matters as she had expected. It was, if nothing else, refreshing to talk for a change about humanity, literature, society, or God, rather than talking about children, homes, who was sick, or who had just bought a new car.
Caroline was uncomfortable when Alexander ran into Joel and herself that night. He did not join them. He merely nodded a greeting from a respectful distance. To Caroline this felt like gentle mockery of her own habitual silence when she was with Joel. Joel remarked that, thank God, that punk didn't try to talk to them again that night, and he confided to Caroline his heart-felt sympathies for the two men at the bar whom that young Rice had honored with his company. Caroline made no reply and felt guilty about not defending Alexander.
School being over for the year, both Caroline and Alexander had their days free. Soon they met more than occasionally. Alexander was aware of the effect he had on Caroline. He felt he was awakening her from the slumber of small town complacency. She became defensive about the way her life was unfolding. Alexander felt that this was a very good thing. By the time he got around to asking her what she seriously planned to do with the rest of her life, she was diffident.
"I'll get married, I suppose," she said.
"Yes, to Joel. Probably."
"The two of you obviously have an agreement."
"No, of course not," Caroline said. "There's plenty of time for that."
After this revelation, which came as a surprise to Alexander, he found fit to criticize Joel occasionally, subtly at first, later more directly. Alexander felt perfectly virtuous about doing this, since his insinuations that Joel was not really worthy of Caroline were in no way part of a design to steal the lady for himself. On the contrary, he felt they were a noble and disinterested tribute to Caroline's qualities of intelligence and sensibility, which, in his opinion, were highly superior to those of Joel and would therefore be sadly wasted on the latter.
Caroline eventually put a stop of Alexander's campaign to devalue Joel by making it clear to him that he was in no way called upon to voice his opinions concerning Joel in her company, and that she would happily waive her claims to all future compliments from him if they were at the expense of Joel. Alexander apologized and reassured Caroline that he had merely been speaking out of a feeling that a younger brother might have for his older sister. It seemed to Caroline that he was speaking more in the manner of an older brother than a younger one, but she accepted his apology. Alexander was impressed by Caroline's spirited defense of Joel, and it was probably the one single moment in their casual friendship when Alexander admired Caroline the most.
"Would you defend me like that in front of Joel?" he asked.
"There would never be need of that." Caroline icily lied away the two occasions when Joel had deigned to take notice of Alexander under the category of "punk."
Alexander had no romantic interest in Caroline, but he very much had a romantic interest in the idea of a woman who would stand by her man no matter what. It filled with him longing. He admiringly squeezed Caroline's hand and asked her to grant him a single kiss, promising on his honor that the bold request would never be repeated.
Caroline, deep down, did not find his request as silly as she made it appear to be. In fact, she was somewhat disappointed when Alexander kept his promise on all their subsequent encounters. She would have liked to have kissed Alexander again, but she was not accustomed to offer what was not asked of her, much less to ask for what was not offered.
If there were people in Waterville who noticed how often Alexander and Caroline could be seen together, always intent on most absorbing conversations, they did not feel called upon to bring the matter to Joel's attention. Seeing Joel and Caroline together on their usual Friday and Saturday night dates reassured her silent observers that Joel was probably aware of the situation, as well as perfectly content with it. Others, who did not feel such reassurance, thought it was probably better for all parties if Joel remained unaware. Caroline and Alexander happened to avoid being together in any places or at any times when Joel was at all likely to be there as well.
It therefore came as a total surprise to Joel when, having caught a cold, and having decided to take off early from work at the filling station a few miles south of Waterville, he drove on his way home past Alexander and Caroline, who were at that moment peacefully walking down the road, each carrying an ice-cream cone. Joel was so surprised, in fact, that the picture of the two young people walking there, licking their ice-cream, took a moment to register. Once it had registered, Joel made a sharp U-turn and stopped his car dangerously close to the two pedestrians. Caroline felt obliged to put a protective hand on Alexander's arm.
"What are you doing here?" Joel asked.
"We were just going for a walk," Caroline answered, intuitively using the past tense and blushing to her own annoyance. Alexander in the meantime tried to grin as amiably as possible and said nothing.
"So I see," Joel said. "Get in the car, Caroline. I'll give you a ride home."
"That's all right." Caroline thought she had recovered her composure. "I'd rather continue walking. It's such a lovely day."
"Get in the car," Joel repeated this time with menace in his voice.
This proved to be too much for Alexander's sense of decency.
"She said she would rather walk," he said as provocatively as he could under the circumstances, these circumstances being that Caroline was already in the car, looking at Alexander with pleading eyes that signified to, for mercy's sake, not say anything further. Whether Alexander was inclined to obey that plea or not, the car disappeared in the distance before he had had a chance to make up his mind. He was left to stare after it.
Joel asked no further questions of Caroline. He did, however, mention to some of his friends that he had seen her with Alexander. He learned that this was not a unique occurrence. He was angry.
First Joel went through feelings of self-pity at having been deceived. Once he was done with that part of this anger, he came to the conclusion that he could not really blame Caroline. He simultaneously came to the conclusion that the twinges of jealousy he had felt at seeing her walk down the road with another man had really nothing to do with Caroline. They had to do instead with the kind of person he had thought her to be, and which she had, in his opinion, proven not to be.
Joel discussed his disappointment with no one, least of all with Caroline. He did not choose to pick her up that Friday and Saturday night, though he made a point of driving past her parents' house, assuming, correctly, that she would stand at the window to watch the spectacle of his car driving by.
Caroline had dressed nervously for a possible but entirely unlikely evening out. After Joel passed the house, she quickly retired to her room so as to avoid questions and concerned looks from her parents. This happened on both nights, except that on Saturday night, at around nine o'clock, she was summoned from her room.
"There's a young man wanting to speak to you," her mother called.
Against her better knowledge, Caroline hoped that it was Joel. It turned out to be Alexander who proceeded to ask her whether she would care to join him for a drink somewhere in town. Caroline hedged. Caroline's mother eagerly pointed out that young people should be out enjoying themselves. Caroline decided that it would be easier for the time being to go with Alexander than to let herself be cross-examined at home.
"Caroline, I'm sorry if I've caused trouble between you and Joel," Alexander said as they were leaving the house and getting into his father's ostentatious car. "I saw him at the Off the Rails last night without you, and then again tonight, and it makes me angry. He's obviously trying to punish you. Did the two of you have a fight about that walk we took, or what?"
"Not at all," Caroline said. "In fact, I haven't heard from him since the day he met us on the road. And that day we didn't talk at all, except I think I thanked him for the ride home."
Alexander was indignant. "Listen, Caroline," he said, "you'll see him tonight then. We'll go there together, and we'll show him that you're not dependent on his favors, or on his whims, or on his feelings, for going out on a Saturday night."
Alexander sounded very convinced that this was the best thing to do. Caroline was less convinced about the wisdom of the plan, but she had spent more than two days now failing to think of a better one, and she was relieved that someone at least did have a plan.
They went into the bar together. Joel was, as Alexander had suspected, still there. A wave of silence swept through the bar when the two young people came in. Alexander seemed to be in control of the situation and ordered drinks for Caroline and for himself. He then proceeded to make her talk as much as possible and to make her laugh now and again. It seemed to be necessary to see to it that Caroline got a little tipsy for that purpose, but Alexander managed that, too.
Once tipsy, Caroline gave herself over to the lead Alexander provided. It amused her to think that this was almost like a dance. She smiled at Alexander, trusting his self-confidence, his easy manners. He seemed much older than twenty. At least to Caroline. At least at the moment.
Alexander enjoyed her smile. He wondered whether Caroline really loved Joel, and if so, how such a thing was possible. Now that he was over the original pangs of guilt, he enjoyed the situation immensely. It pleased him that he was capable of making Caroline have a good time.
At least I made sure she didn't have to sit at home tonight, he congratulated himself on his commendable behavior. They walked back the few blocks between the bar and her home, Caroline insisting on a breath of air to clear her alcohol-challenged head. When Alexander returned alone to pick up his father's car, which was parked in front of the bar, Joel was waiting for him outside.
"Leave my woman alone," Joel said.
"I don't consider a single woman who is sitting at home on a Saturday night when she would rather be out and about anybody else's property," Alexander replied.
From that night on, Alexander and Joel were intimately linked in a bond of antagonism. From this antagonism Caroline had the benefit of receiving various collections of pretty flowers. For all practical purposes, Alexander might have left the flowers at the filling station where Joel worked and where Alexander therefore faithfully stopped to have his tank filled up with gas before each flower delivery, with the flowers always left out in plain view on the front seat of the car.
According to Joel, Alexander was destined to have a car accident in the very near future. But Alexander was no fool. He was much too knowledgeable about cars for anything that Joel could do to his car in broad daylight at the filling station to be effective before Alexander himself had a chance to correct the problem, smiling with self-approval at out-guessing Joel again and again.
Caroline had receded far into the background of either man's mind. Joel was publicly and single-mindedly contemptuous of Alexander. Alexander, who seemed better able to afford it, had come to feel a strange sort of respect for Joel whom he, however, did not cease to torment in whatever way he could. Caroline spent the remainder of the summer quietly, seeing nothing at all of Joel, and surprisingly little of Alexander. But of course she always had her flowers.
Toward the end of summer, Alexander got a rumor into circulation that he planned to spend a particular Sunday exploring the hills west of Waterville by himself. He also made it known that he would take his father's rifle along. Under the guise of asking advice about an area with which he professed to be unfamiliar, Alexander, who had actually spent a great deal of his time in these hills already, left behind him rather precise information as to where he would be wandering about that Sunday.
Alexander's expectations were not disappointed. Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still totally dark, he had taken cover on the side of the road that led to the hills. It was dawn when Joel drove by. Alexander allowed about half an hour to pass, then he drove up to the foot of the hills, left his car, and started walking along a dirt road that led into the hills and became narrower and narrower until it was not much more than a foot path. Joel's car was nowhere in sight.
Alexander was not afraid. But when he slung his father rifle over his shoulder, he shuddered. For an odd moment he wondered if he was not being too reckless for his own good. That moment passed.
Walking up the first few steps on the narrow path, surrounded by the weird semi-silence of only a few birds twittering their morning communications and the sun's light breaking through the spaces between trees, he suddenly felt as though everything around him were brighter than ever before. A mouse running across the path caught his attention. A butterfly dancing up before him gave him a start. The hilly ground, the trees, the shrubs, the moss, all seemed to him more beautiful than ever before. There were sounds of branches crackling that made him look back. He had to concentrate in order to keep feeling brave. He walked along the path for about an hour. Somewhere behind him he knew Joel was stalking through the same woods. Alexander suddenly wished he were all alone inside this magical wildness of the hills, but he knew it was not so.
Finally Alexander left the path. He doubled back three hundred yards to the right of the path. His heart beat wildly. More than once he felt as though eyes were staring into his back. He frequently turned around. He told himself that he had expected to be high-strung. Once, face to face, he stood staring at a fox who stared back. Alexander felt a need to whistle but thought it wiser to refrain. He figured that he had missed Joel who must have passed him by now. Alexander was tempted to return to the car, which could not be too far away. It seemed as though he had been hiking in the woods for hours. He checked his wristwatch. It was only a few minutes after seven o'clock. He took the rifle from his shoulder and carried it in his hand. Then he started back into the hills.
At around eleven o'clock, he saw a human shape leaning against a tree, motionless, a rifle in hand, a few yards to the side of the path. It was Joel. Alexander began to sweat. He lowered himself to the ground quickly. Then it occurred to him that he could hardly get closer to Joel that way without making considerable noise. After about five minutes during which Joel did not move at all, Alexander stood up again. Slowly he moved closer to Joel. Suddenly he raised his rifle. His hands were steady. He aimed at Joel and stood holding his aim for a few moments. Then he was satisfied. He figured that Joel would continue waiting for him in that spot. Without taking his eyes off Joel, Alexander slowly stepped back. He had outwitted Joel. He was satisfied that he could have taken a shot at Joel, had he wanted to. Once he felt that he was out of hearing distance of Joel, he began to walk fast in the direction of his parked car.
Joel, much like Alexander, almost seemed to forget his reasons for prowling in the hills that day at times. He had to keep reminding himself that he was there to scare that arrogant punk. He wanted to scare him badly. He also knew that he would not have the least compunction about firing a shot. A scraped shoulder or thigh could easily be explained as an accident. Though almost everyone in Waterville would be capable of privately putting two and two together, publicly Joel would be above any kind of reproach.
Joel was not stupid. He knew his hills and his woods. He was proud of his own sense of mastery. When Alexander stood behind him, Joel was aware of it. He could trust his senses. It was not that he actually heard Alexander. Joel respected that unexpected skill on the part of Alexander. Instead, what had really alerted him to Alexander's presence had been the absence of sounds rather than their presence, the absence of bird calls, of small animals rustling in the underbrush. Alexander's presence behind him did not make Joel nervous. He was sure that Alexander simply would not have the nerve to shoot at him. Joel therefore could afford to stand still as target.
When Alexander turned to walk back the way he had come, Joel followed. He was amused that Alexander, after only a few hundred yards, abandoned all caution. Now Alexander walked quickly, making lots of noise in the process. After a short distance he went back to the path. Joel knew he had his quarry now. He simply had to pass Alexander unnoticed, and to wait for him at some bend in the trail a little farther downhill. Joel allowed himself a good lead and hid in a cluster of bushes within touching distance of the path. He waited patiently. He did not simply want to hurt Alexander. He wanted to give Alexander a scare that the boy would remember for the rest of his life. He wanted to see Alexander's face staring into the rifle aimed at him. He wanted most of all to hear a desperate "no" out of that arrogant boy's mouth.
Joel heard Alexander's approach well before he could see him. When Alexander was within a few steps of Joel, Joel shook the bushes that hid him to make them rustle around the mouth of the rifle. Alexander gave them a glance, but just that. He did not even look closely enough to see the rifle aimed at him. He simply walked past, unperturbed.
Joel was fascinated with Alexander's naiveté bordering on innocence. He was so much taken by surprise at Alexander's lack of reaction that he simply could not fire his rifle. He started following Alexander again. After a while Alexander began to whistle a tune. Joel thought of firing at least an aimless shot to cause a scare for Alexander. But then he shook his head and smiled a strange smile that surprised him. He shouldered his rifle again.
He followed Alexander all the way to the car. He watched Alexander drive away. Like Alexander a while back, Joel now too felt a peculiar sense of satisfaction.
When Alexander suddenly decided to leave Waterville a full three weeks before his term at school was due to start again, his parents were not surprised. The small town must indeed be dull for their twenty-year-old son. It was only right that he should be impatient to return to the city. Other than by his parents, Alexander was not missed in Waterville.
Not so with Joel. When he left Waterville in early September, all of Waterville was shocked. Joel had been something of a permanent fixture in town. In his quiet and undemonstrative ways he had seemed perfectly content there.
The fact that Joel left by himself caused another round of surprise. His recent coldness toward Caroline had of course been noticed, as had been its cause. Still, his leaving seemed drastic. Soon wagers were made as to how quickly Joel would return, or whether he would return at all. Eventually a new filling station mechanic was found. Joel was gradually forgotten, as were the wagers about his return.
Caroline began teaching music again in September. She was more popular than ever with her students. The seasons took their course. Waterville prepared for winter. Nothing out of the ordinary promised to happen.
In late November, a young man established himself in Waterville. Everyone wondered about him. His name was Paul Lorell. He was a painter and had come to Waterville for the solitude and the scenery of a small town winter. This information was furnished by the young man himself and it left everyone in Waterville who took the time to think about it skeptical. Solitude and scenery were to be had in the summer much more profitably to a painter than in the winter. And what was so special about Waterville? Nevertheless, he was there, and everybody had to agree that he was a nice sort of fellow.
Paul kept the real and ridiculous reason for his arrival to himself. He had been tired of city life and its social amenities, which he privately categorized as social encumbrances, that he had been waiting for some excuse, any excuse, to leave the city. At one of the parties he was obliged to attend, he had half-heartedly listened to some tall yarn told by a college kid, Alexander Rice, with whom he was only loosely acquainted. An amusing story.
By the time Alexander Rice said boastfully, "I was within thirty or forty yards of him. I could have killed him. He never even knew I was there," Paul had already determined that he would go and look at the woman that was involved in the story. Of course he was drunk when he decided that. When he was sober again, though, he convinced himself that he was so fed up with city life for the time being that something as harebrained as this could still serve as valid excuse to leave. It was not difficult to find out where this young Rice's parents lived. Paul found someone to sublet his studio apartment and arrived in Waterville.
One day, not too long after his much speculated-on arrival, Paul paced back and forth near the entrance of the small school building in Waterville. He nervously waited for a woman he had never yet talked to and who had nevertheless already started orchestrating his life. She came out of the door and passed him with a friendly stranger's smile. He let her pass. Then he called her back. "Excuse me..."
"I don't know how to say this. I'm a painter, and I'm looking for a model for a particular painting I have in mind. Would you consider modeling for me? I hope you don't think me impertinent for asking."
"Modeling?" An insecure smile moved Caroline's lips.
"I wouldn't ask this so stupidly and rudely, but you seem perfect for what I have in mind," he said.
"I wouldn't even know how to do it," Caroline replied, glad to have a way of saying no without unpleasantness.
"That doesn't matter. You could try. It isn't difficult."
Caroline didn't know what to say. Touched by his obvious discomfort, she made an appointment with him so as to find out what this strange proposal was all about. They went for a long walk together the following Saturday. She showed him some of her favorite spots in Waterville. He told her very little about his painting project, but raved instead about the beauty of the snow and the dusk. Afterwards they met for other walks, in the evenings, on weekends.
One early evening they went to warm up from the frosty outside in the otherwise still empty Off the Rails. Paul was a little tipsy from the heat his first whiskey shot into his veins and confided to Caroline what he had as yet told nobody else: that he had come to Waterville specifically to get to know her, and to paint her, of course, if she met his expectations at all. And she was meeting them. By God, she was meeting them.
He confessed that she had become an obsession for him. Enthusiastically he told her that he would like to marry her. Caroline was dumb-founded. She could not grasp anything he was saying, although she understood the words. His talk of marriage floored her. The banality of it upset her.
"Why on earth did you say that?" she asked.
Paul was touched by the confusion in her face. He told her the story he had heard. He was surprised she did not know anything about it. At first she did not even seem to believe it.
From then on Caroline saw Paul every day. He talked to her about marriage every day. She still could not understand why.
Once he offered to take her to the hills where Joel and Alexander had had their encounter. She accepted Paul's offer. They pretended stalking each other. They played like children. Paul pretended having caught her unawares. Caroline pretended being scared. He kissed her. Snow blew around them. She was puzzled by everything. On the way home he walked with his arm around her. There was tenderness between them. That was what puzzled Caroline most of all. She had not known male tenderness before.
She confessed to Paul that, even without knowing anything about Alexander's and Joel's adventure, she had had an inexplicable feeling of having disappeared, of having been obliterated in the acclaimed interest of the two men who in reality had no interest in anything but their own virility. Paul nodded. Suddenly Caroline smiled. She said that she had not really disappeared after all, or, if so, then only to be preserved for the strange kind of friendship that existed between her and Paul.
Paul insisted that it was love. At least on his part. Caroline insisted that this still did not mean that he had to marry her. Not because of love. Love seemed such a trivial thing in comparison with something as overwhelming as marriage. Paul did not respond to this. He was filled with desire for her. He told her so.
"Then it is true," she said. "I really haven't disappeared."
Once Paul took her to see his small rented house which was really no more than an overvalued shed, cheap to rent, but also cold and clammy. It was late in the afternoon. It was dark.
"How can you paint here?" she asked. "There's hardly any light."
He said he managed. He also said that he would like her to be there all the time, so that he could study her in every light of day or night. He called her Helen of Waterville. She laughed to keep herself from wincing.
"Now at least I know what you really want," she teased him uneasily. "You want to paint Helen of Waterville, not marry me."
She did not cherish the concept Helen of Waterville. But she did like Paul. She liked him better than she had ever liked anyone else before. She thought about herself and the risks she would take by giving in to her desire to please Paul. She thought mostly about Paul, and what all this would mean for him.
One week she told her delighted parents that she would go on a weekend trip with Paul. She packed a bag on Friday after school, then went for a long walk, waiting for night, hiding. Paul was surprised when she came to his house late in the night.
She told him how the two of them were officially out of town so that he could begin to paint her. She stayed and slept in his bed. He slept on the rug. He made many sketches of her on Saturday. That night again he slept on the rug. But he woke up in the night and went to her in the darkness. He caressed her body until she woke up. She asked him to make love to her. He said he was doing so already. She laughed and cried in his arms.
Lying cuddled to his skin afterwards, she felt that she could never disappear again. She felt his sweat on her own skin.
Paul was disturbed about the fact that she had been a virgin. "I've never before made love to a virgin," he said with embarrassment. "Somehow I didn't expect you to be a virgin."
There it was again. Helen of Waterville. Young artist's sophisticated fantasy woman.
"It won't happen again," she said lightly.
He laughed and fell asleep.
When he woke up he started to tell her that she had to understand that his comments on her virginity were not a criticism or disappointment, but words spoken out of true surprise instead. A few moments into his soliloquy he noticed that Caroline was gone.
After some time he went to her parents' house. She was not there. Her parents were unfriendly, upset, inclined to blame him for something, but not yet sure for what.
It took Paul two months to complete the painting he began the day after Caroline had left. He promised himself to go and look for her when the painting was done. He meant to keep the promise, but no one seemed to have any clue as to where she might have gone. Her parents were unhappy for a long time.
Paul called his painting "The Disappearance of C." It depicted the vague shape of a woman encircled by trees. In the branches there were pieces of paper with musical notes. There were also tools in the trees, and small household gadgets. Only the woman's face was distinct. She was looking at a wooden door that seemed to have fallen across a tree stump. The woman's eyes were vacant.
The painting won Paul a handsome prize at a competition. At first he was reluctant to sell it, but later on that came to pass too. He had to live, after all, and he could always make new paintings of Caroline, as in time he did.
Life in Waterville went on as before. The town could not afford to miss Caroline. It could only afford to forget her, as it had a while before forgotten Joel. Waterville had its new inhabitant, after all, the artist who in time reached a comfortable fame and brought a hint of glamour back with him to Waterville where he took up permanent residence, where he thought he was waiting for Caroline to come back to him, and where he fantasized about painting his best things after they would be together again.
But she did not come back and he did not know where to find her. He didn't even know where to begin looking. In time he could have asked her parents of course. But he was shy of them. Or perhaps he simply couldn't risk asking where there was a possibility of getting a satisfactory reply.