Dateline: January 1952
From the train window I could see the arid reaches of Nevada, yellow gray in the late sunlight, stretching as far as the eye could see to the distant mountains that hung motionless and unreal against the sky. As quiet and gray and barren as my own heart, I thought. As barren as all the years ahead of me—as all the years behind! I straightened my skirt and carefully folded my jacket to lay it on the green plush of the seat next to me. In fifteen minutes we’d be in Steamboat Springs, and Marie and Dan would be waiting at the station to take me out to the ranch. Fifteen minutes and two months, and I would no longer be Mrs. John Bryant. I would be Stella Davids, or Stella Bryant—unattached—free!
Free for what? From what? “John, John!” I whispered, and my heart was sick at the sound of his name. I could close my eyes and still see him, dark hair and dark, puzzled eyes and hurt.
“I’m sorry, Stella, but that’s the way I want it.”
Sorry. As if that could wipe out all the years between. Sorry! Could a marriage end like that?
Could a home end, all the things I had built, the life I had so carefully made—all our neighbors, all our friends? Could all of it be wiped out with one word?
“I didn’t know, John—if I could have only guessed.”
“You couldn’t, Stella,” John said, his voice cutting me like a knife. “You couldn’t guess. You couldn’t see what was happening to me. You couldn’t see that far. As long as you have the house to take care of, as long as you’ve got yourself to fuss over. you’ll never see. I’m not a husband, Stella, I’m just another stick of furniture around the house!”
“I don’t understand, John.” I shook my head. “I’ve tried to be a good wife. If I’ve failed—well, can’t we try again?”
“Not as long as you’re the way you are. I just don’t want to any more. Can’t you see that?”
Could I see it? I hadn’t seen anything for the tears that had blinded my eyes. I hadn’t felt anything because of the pain that had filled my heart. And then, as the weeks went by, only a stunned realization remained.
I had written to Marie out here in Nevada. I had gone to school with her for four years and then hadn’t seen her since my marriage to John. I wrote and asked if I could come and stay with her for the time the divorce would take. John had a good job, but living in Nevada for two months was still way above our means.
Marie answered my letter with the quick, warm sympathy she had always had. I hadn’t allowed myself to really think things out till now. Everything between John and me had been very civilized after that one blow-up. John wanted a divorce—very well, he could have it. I could see now, with some bitterness, that there hadn’t been enough in our life together to make me want to keep him.
The whistle of the train, lonely and desolate, brought me back to reality. I heard the conductor call out, “Steamboat Springs!” and I started gathering together my parcels, the gifts for Dan and Marie and the children, the magazines I had bought for the trip. But then my hands fell idle and I looked out the window with a tired sigh.
After these two months with Marie and Dan I’d be free. But what meaning did my freedom have? I was still young. At thirty-two a woman is young, especially a woman like myself. I had kept my figure during the last ten years, I had taken care of myself.
John couldn’t afford to buy me the clothes I wanted, but that hadn’t stopped me from dressing in the latest fashion, even though I had to make every dress myself. I had neglected nothing. Our home had always been beautiful, the meals I served John had been perfect. I had been a model wife.
How? Why? What had been missing? What had kept John and me strangers for almost ten years of married life? Was it our childlessness? But now I could thank Heaven for that. That was one problem I didn’t have to face, though the very thought of a child was enough to turn me inside out emotionally! With a start I realized that the train had stopped, and I grasped my valise and hurried down the aisle to the door. Outside the station looked lonely and desolate in the late afternoon sunlight. I put my bag down and looked about anxiously as the train pulled out. There was no one here. But I had written Marie. She knew when I was coming, and she hadn’t bothered to meet me!
I felt a rush of fear again. a desolate, lonely fear, and the tears started to my eyes. Alone! This was how it would be from now on. Alone—divorced. I would have to rely on the few friends I had, the few people who felt sorry and stood by me out of pity. The harsh sound of an automobile horn shocked me out of my reverie, and I looked up to see a battered convertible swing into the station.
“Stella!” Marie was driving. and there were two children next to her. She braked to a stop, and tumbling out of the car ran toward me, her arms outstretched, her round face glowing with genuine warmth and pleasure.
“Oh, Stella, I’m such an idiot. I tried so hard not to be late, but of all days I had a flat just as I was leaving the house, and thank heavens that Johnson boy was there to help. Let me look at you. Why, Stella, you look wonderful! That dress—”
She paused for breath, and we both stood there smiling, then she shook her head. Stella, it’s really you! I couldn’t believe the letter.”
The horn sounded and she turned to the car. “Now, Amy. stop that!” She took my arm with one hand and the suitcase with the other. “We’ll get you to the ranch right away. You must be dead from that train. Amy! The children wouldn’t let me come alone.”
Dear old Marie. Ten years hadn’t made a dent in her cheeriness or easy, careless chatter. I looked at her sideways as we walked, and I was amazed at her appearance. Life must have been good, for Marie to have let herself go like this. Back at school she had always been round and plump, pretty as a doll, and just this side of stout. Now she had stepped over the line and had kept going. Only her round, pretty face and chattering voice were the same.
I gave the presents to the two grave-eyed, tow-headed children, Amy who was seven and Danny, five, and they tumbled into the back seat in an ecstasy of excitement.
“They get so little that’s new,” Marie explained as we drove over the dusty road. “The ranch is so far out, and even when we get into Reno there’s just barely enough for the things we need.”
She looked at me apologetically, taking in my clothes and luggage in a quick glance. “You look so—so young and fresh, Stella. I could swear it was only yesterday—”
I felt the tears start to my eyes for some inexplicable reason, and I fumbled for a handkerchief. Marie was quiet as she drove and after a while I wiped my eyes and tried to smile. When she spoke her voice was very gentle and soft. “I’m sorry, Stella.”
We were both quiet during the rest of the ride. The sun had dipped down behind the violet mountains to the west by the time we arrived at the ranch. The house was set back behind a long windbreak of eucalyptus trees. It was a small white clapboard house, unpretentious and friendly, with the downstairs windows gleaming yellow in the dark.
The two children scrambled out of the car and went tearing up to their father on the porch. “Daddy! Aunt Stella’s come, and look what she’s brought!”
Dan Wilson came toward me, his hand outstretched, the two children clinging to his legs. “I’m glad you came, Stella.” He held my hand a moment, and I noticed a quick, admiring look in his eyes. “You haven’t changed a bit. Prettier, if anything. Isn’t she, Marie? Good to see you.”
I had met Dan once before at Marie’s wedding, but my remembrance of him was vague. Now I saw his steady black eyes, his short, curling hair and lean. weathered face, and the easy smile that moved from his lips to his eyes—and it was like meeting him again for the first time.
Happiness sat easily on his shoulders. I saw it in the way he kissed Marie, and in the way he played with the children that evening. They sat with us at the dinner table, and afterward Dan shooed them up to bed while I helped Marie with the dishes.
“We’ve always planned to get help,” she sighed, “but first it was one thing. and then another. Sometimes the ranch seems to eat up money!”
“But you like it?” I smiled.
She paused, her hands in the dishwater, her face thoughtful. “Like it? I love it!” She lowered her head. “Life’s been very good to me, Stella. I never believed I could be so happy.”
After the dishes were washed and stacked, she took the towel out of my hands. “Now you’ve done enough. Let the rest drain.”
“But the silverware—really, it’s no trouble.”
“Let’s forget the silverware. It’s more fun just to sit and talk. Come inside and I’ll ask Dan to start a fire. It’s certainly chilly enough for one!”
Inside, Marie looked at Dan in surprise. “A jacket and a fresh shave after supper!”
Dan grinned in embarrassment. “You don’t want Stella to think we’re barbarians.
Marie looked down at her own cotton housedress. “No,” she said slowly, “we don’t.” Then she looked up and laughed. “We’re so alone here that sometimes we forget about the little things.”
We relaxed around the fire that evening while Marie and I talked and Dan sat at the desk working over his accounts, with half an ear open to our chatter. It was pleasant and restful, and just what I needed. So were the days that followed, wonderful days of sunlit blue skies, lazy afternoons and cozy nights. I began to see a different happiness from any I had ever known, something that rose above outward show and concentrated on the basic relationships of life.
I remember the day I unpacked my things in the little room Marie had put me in. She held up one of my black linen dresses and shook her head. “It’s exquisite, Stella. It must have cost a fortune.”
“That?” I laughed. “It cost exactly six dollars to make.”
“To make? You made this?” She turned it and inspected the seams. “I can’t believe it!”
I sat down on the bed. “A two-month course at the sewing center back home. I wanted pretty clothes, Marie, and they were out of the question on John’s salary—so—”
She hung up the dress and sighed. “I admire you so, Stella. The way you dress, and the way you’ve kept your looks—look at me. I’m a year younger than you are, and I look like your mother!”
I turned away, biting my lip. “And still you have Dan and the children and all this. And I—”
Instantly she was beside me, her arm around me. “Stella, I am truly sorry. But if you and John—well, maybe this way is best.”
I kept thinking of that in the days that followed. I kept trying to fight the threatening loneliness, the sense of being adrift and without direction or purpose. Looking back on the years John and I had spent together there seemed nothing to hold on to, nothing to remember. How unfair that Marie, who was so careless about herself and her home, should have all this, and that I should be left with nothing. But those were unjust thoughts. I couldn’t grudge Marie her happiness. any more than I could grudge the sun its right to shine. But by contrast with hers, my life seemed suddenly dull and shabby.
Marie was in love with Dan, and I could see why. I couldn’t help comparing Dan with John, though in his lean, dark looks there was nothing of John’s brown hair and blue eyes. And in Dan’s gallantry and thoughtfulness there was nothing of John, either! Marie was lucky, but if I had been in her place I would have watched myself more closely, paid more attention to my appearance, and to my house too. Men noticed little things like that, and Dan was no exception.
“You ought to wear your hair like Stella’s, Marie,” he said one night at the dinner table. “It looks very stylish. cut that short.”
“It’s more than Stella’s hair, Dan,” Marie said ruefully. “I’m fifteen pounds and ten years too late!” She laughed. but there was a touch of uneasiness to her laughter. I could cheerfully have kicked Dan then for hurting her feelings like that. It was just like a man. Dan grew a little red and dropped the subject at once. But for the rest of the evening there was an uncomfortable air in the house.
“Can you ride, Stella?” Dan asked me at breakfast one morning.
“Ride?” I looked bewildered, then nodded. “Why, yes. Marie and I rode a lot back at school.”
“I thought you might like to ride out along the west fences with me today. You’ve been kind of low this past week.”
“Well—” I hesitated.
“Why not?” Marie asked. “It will take you out of yourself. You need some fresh air anyway.”
“Then it’s settled,” Dan said quickly. “I’ll saddle up the piebald mare.”
Marie stood up. “I’ll find you a pair of denims. I have some I grew out of after I had Amy. You can gather in the waist with a belt.”
In a few minutes I found myself following Dan away from the ranch, sitting the piebald mare as if I were balancing a tray of china on my head.
“You sit well,” Dan looked at me critically.
I grimaced. “I’m trying to, but I’ve forgotten how hard a saddle can be.”
We rode west into the foothills, following the line of Dan’s fence. Now and then he would stop and dismount to inspect a stretch of wire, or he would pause, his weather-beaten hat pushed back on his hair, to watch a herd of steers as they grazed along the grassy slopes.
We said very little to each other. Dan seemed completely at ease, and for my part I began to feel a gradual peace and quiet steal into me from the hills around, from the muted shadows and sun-drenched sky. This was a kind of living, a kind of peace I had forgotten.
For the first time in years I was able to forget myself, forget the ill-fitting denims, my wind-blown hair and lack of makeup.
At noon we stopped in a little valley, and under a clump of mottled cottonwood trees we ate the food Marie had packed, and drank a thermos of hot coffee.
“You ought to stay out here for a while, Stella,” Dan said suddenly.
“Stay out here? But I am,” I answered in surprise.
“No, I mean a long time. A year or so. You belong country like this. Today, seeing you ride the mare, watching you now—I think it’s a long time since you’ve been so happy.”
I shook my head, my throat too full to speak, and Dan went on. “You should have happiness, Stella. A woman as beautiful as you deserves happiness.”
I stood up abruptly. “Please, Dan—I—” Then the tears came, tearing at my heart. He let me cry, putting his arm around me, patting my head gently. I felt more comfort than I had felt before.
Toward dusk we headed back, riding quietly out of the hills and down toward the flickering lights of the little ranch-house.
I reined in my horse a short distance from the house, and I turned to Dan. “I want to thank you for today—for understanding.”
He smiled, his face barely visible in the blue evening haze. “I should thank you, Stella. It’s rare enough that I have company on these trips. Marie is so busy with the house.”
There was a hint of wistfulness in his voice, and I made a mental note to speak to Marie about it. Dan needed company on these long inspection trips, and Marie should ride again—it would be good for her figure too!
But somehow I couldn’t find the words to tell her. There was no mention made of my tears and I was glad of that. Dan had understood my loneliness and unhappiness, and I felt a strong attachment to him for that. I needed his praise of my riding and his sympathy and understanding. I needed the knowledge that he had enjoyed the day as much as I had, but I couldn’t explain that to Marie, nor did I try.
It’s difficult to understand, but lost and lonely as I was I grasped at any straw to bolster my failing confidence. I had made out so miserably in my own marriage that now I needed some reassurance in myself, and Dan seemed to offer that. He sensed the loneliness that tormented me, the fear that with the loss of John my whole life would become meaningless, and he spent as much time with me as he could. We rode out again after that day, and he showed me how he had planted trees, eucalyptus saplings in long rows to act as wind-breaks.
“Someday,” he said, “they’ll be great giants of trees, and all this land will be sheltered. I’ll lead water down from the mountains back there and irrigate it. It could be a real garden.”
“They’re so slim and delicate now, the trees,” I said. “They’re like a row of young girls holding hands.”
Dan smiled at my words. “Now, I’d never have thought that. Marie said they were all ugly and gawky, and she can’t wait for them to fill out.”
I laughed. “It’s how you look at things.”
Dan walked beside me. “You’ve got a special way with things, Stella. That denim jacket you’re wearing. It looks like it was just made for you.”
I felt my cheeks redden at the unexpected compliment. For no reason, my heart began to beat more quickly. Dan could say such sweet things so easily and sincerely. And it wasn’t alone an admiration of my clothes and looks, it was a respect for myself as a woman.
I remember one night when we had taken a walk together down to the corrals. Marie had stayed behind with a slight headache, and Dan and I lingered in the silvery moonlight, reluctant to go back.
“I can’t understand your husband,” he said slowly. “Maybe I’ve got no call to interfere—tell me if that’s so.”
“You say what you want to, Dan.” I leaned on the fence watching the little rocky creek that flowed by the buildings.
“Do you love him, Stella?”
“I don’t know,” I said softly. “Up until I came here I thought I did. It seemed to tear my heart each time I remember his voice. But now—” I turned to look at him, his eyes dark, his close-cut black hair silvered by the moon. “You and Marie have been so good to me. It’s taken the edge away from my heartache!”
“I’m glad,” he said quietly, and for a long moment we stood there staring at each other. Then I shivered and the spell between us was broken.
“You’re cold,” he said in quick concern. “Take my jacket.”
I protested, but he slipped it over my shoulders. I felt his hand touch my arm and there was an electric shock in the contact.
Back at the house I took his jacket off when I was alone in my room. I held it in my hands, the warmth of his body still in it. For a moment, standing there like that, the jacket in my hands, a wave of faintness came over me.
I envied and almost hated Marie in that moment, and I longed for the strong comfort of Dan’s arms, with a longing that was almost more than I could bear! Then I pushed it aside and threw the jacket on my bed. What was wrong with me? Dear Lord, what was wrong? But even then I didn’t realize how, step by step, I had begun to tread a dangerous and terrible path.
There were other rides with Dan out along the fences where the silent mountains and the warm, liquid sunshine tied a tenuous bond between us. There were afternoons when we drove into Steamboat Springs for the mail, days when we left Marie at home with her work and took the children to visit thehot springs, or to seeLake Tahoeand drive through the Sierra Nevadas, wonderful days filled with fun and excitement. Then there was the day Dan took me into Rena to file the final papers for my divorce. We had lunch afterward on the top floor of a lavish hotel whose windows overlooked the whole city. Dan insisted on ordering a bottle of wine, and we toasted my freedom, and then Dan’s ranch, and after that one silly thing after another.
I was wearing my black linen dress, and my light brown hair, streaked blonde by the Nevadasun, was cut short and close, almost like a boy’s. I felt at ease and comfortable in spite of the wealthy, well-dressed women around us. Dan approved of the way I looked. I could see it in his smile and sense it in the way he held my arm, and his approval lifted me up and made me feel ridiculously happy.
After lunch we started back toward Steamboat Springs, and then a little way out ofReno, Dan suddenly cut off on a side road to the right.
“Where are you going?” I asked in surprise.
“Wait and see.” He smiled. “Today is a great day for you, and I want you to see the most beautiful sight in Nevada.”
A great day, I thought, with a sudden rush of bitterness—a day of freedom. Freedom to do what? But I pushed the grim question out of my mind, and I leaned back in the car and closed my eyes to the soft wind. The road climbed up into the Sierra Nevadas and then looped down to swing around beautiful Lake Tahoe. Dan parked in the shade of two gaudy Totem poles and a painted lodge, and pointed across the road. “That’s it. I wanted you to see the lake from this spot.”
I stepped out of the car and crossing the road I looked down at the beautiful jade green waters of the lake, bordered with pines and little inlets and white sand beaches. As I looked I could feel the tears come to my eyes, and I turned to Dan.
He smiled at me, and then suddenly the smile faded and his dark eyes narrowed. “As lovely as you are, Stella.”
I whispered, “No. Dan!” But the words were lost in my throat, and a power too great to resist moved me to him, across the few feet that separated us. His arms reached out to steady me, and for a moment he held me like that, his fingers bruising my skin. Then with a sob I was in his arms, and his lips were against mine, hard and demanding and compelling!
“Oh, Dan, Dan!” I whispered, and I reached up to touch his dark, curling hair, his bronzed skin.
“Stella!” His voice was harsh and it woke me to a sudden terrifying reality.
I pulled away and stared at him. “Dan—No!”
He shook his head as if awakening from sleep. “Forgive me, Stella. I must have been crazy. Let’s forget it and get back to the ranch.”
Neither of us spoke on the ride back. Dan pushed the accelerator of the little convertible down to the floor, and we rushed along as if the very wind were behind us. Somehow the speed lessened the tension that held us both, and back at the ranch Dan caught my arm before we went inside.
“I’m sorry, Stella.” But there was a question in his eyes even as he said it. With a shock I realized that Dan had wanted this to happen. As much, I thought in awakening horror, as I had enjoyed letting it happen! I pulled my arm loose without answering and ran into the house. Marie was feeding the children and she looked up with a smile that changed to a surprised expression as she saw my face and Dan’s behind me.
“Nothing, Marie. I—I have a terrible headache. Will you excuse me?” I hurried out of the room and up to my bedroom, and there I threw myself on the bed with a choked sob.
Marie had asked, “What’s wrong?” Her round, sweet face innocently surprised. Marie! My friend who had trusted me and taken me into her house when I was in trouble. She hadn’t hesitated, nor had she questioned me. And this was how I repaid her!
Now, my vision unclouded by the lonely, lost feeling I had known, I could see what was happening. Frightened and insecure I had grasped at Dan as a source of admiration and approval. I had needed that much, and in Dan, so unlike John, I had found a warmth and comfort that was out of all proportion to reality. But what about Marie? Thank God I had seen it now! Thank God that that crazy moment above the lake hadn’t turned a brief flirtation into something real and deadly! How close we had been in that moment!
But how could I ever face Dan again, or Marie, for that matter?
A knock on the door roused me, and I sat up, wiping my eyes, dismayed at the streaked tears on my cheeks. “Who’s there?”
“It’s Marie. May I come in?” She was inside before I could protest, and for a long moment we stared at each other while all my soul was bared in my eyes.
Then I whispered, “Marie, forgive me—I didn’t understand—I wouldn’t—”
“Hush!” she came toward me quickly and sat beside me on the bed, taking my hand in hers. “Not a word. Dan and I just had a talk. I think I know how you feel.”
She smiled softly, almost wistfully. “I should have known it would happen from
the moment you stepped into the house. Stella, you’re everything I ever wanted to be. You’ve got all the youth and beauty and clothes—”
“Marie! What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Dan couldn’t help being attracted to you, and you—well, you’re lonely and upset and only human. There! It’s out in the open, and I know nothing more has ever been between you.”
“Believe me, Marie. Nothing!”
She kept smiling and she nodded. “I know. It’s not your fault, nor is it Dan’s. It’s mine. I’ve—I’ve let myself go.” Her eyes clouded. “I’ve taken Dan and my marriage for granted. I’ve never troubled to stay young, to join in his work and fun.”
But you’re not wrong, Marie.” I said, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I’ve held on to all those little things, clothes and looks—and now what have I got? You have Dan and the children and all your happiness.”
Talking to Marie, I could understand for the first time what that happiness really meant. I began to see what Marie’s life was based on. To her, housework was not important, and children, well, you love them and let them grow up. As for herself, she had become too secure in her happiness, her marriage and her children, to worry about appearance. Never a good idea. Where I had watched each pound, each wrinkle in my face—where I had fussed over every dress I wore, Marie had relaxed and given way to a natural love for life and living. There was an ease and comfort in her every action, in the way she ran the house and treated the children and Dan. That was the basis of the happiness she had thought so secure till I had come.
We were both silent for a long time, then I said quietly. “I’ll leave tonight, Marie. I’ll find a room in Reno—”
She pressed my arm and stood up. “Nonsense. If you insist on going you can wait till tomorrow—even though I think it’s silly. But for tonight, you’ll stay here.”
She looked down at me and again the gentle smile came to her lips. “I guess we’ve both learned a lesson. I’ll thank you forever, Stella, for opening my eyes. If it hadn’t been you, Dan might have found someone else who—” Her voice choked and she bit her lip and turned suddenly.
I said good night softly as she left the room, and then I took my valise out and started to pack. If Marie had learned something about herself, then surely I had learned even more. Now I could understand John and the miserable failure of our marriage. In Marie’s life I saw all I had ever yearned for and wanted. I saw how little the outward things mattered, and how much a marriage was based on warmth and love and understanding.
These weeks hadn’t been wasted. I had eased my heartache, but more than that, I had learned a truly important lesson. I had learned to play fair. I could never find happiness with someone else’s husband, in what someone else had built and worked for —no, my happiness lay in myself, and now I knew that someday I would find that happiness. I thought of John then, and I smiled.
Perhaps with John again—or there might be someone else. Suddenly, standing there, I knew a strange peace and contentment. What had happened had opened Marie’s eyes, but it had also opened mine. I was a better and richer person for it. Now I would leave the ranch, and after that—after that — knew that my future would bring me a happiness as great as Marie’s, for I had learned, through her, the key to happiness!
Copyright © 1952, 2012 by BroadLit