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It took a long time for me to get to sleep that night, after they'd left, and when I did my dreams were troubled. I was trying to follow Carolyn, who walked through a landscape that kept shifting and transforming, as often happens in dreams…and gradually I fell farther and farther behind. I tried to call out, get her attention, but when I did, she looked back with wide, fearful eyes, and began to run. My legs felt like they were mired in molasses, and the obstacles in my path grew ever larger. I made one last great effort to call out, and woke myself with a jolt.

The next few weeks were golden. Gil, Carolyn and I were together as often as we could manage it. During the day, while I was at work, they made some extra cash helping Gil's dad paint their barn, and several evenings each week we gathered to watch old movies on TV or listen to music. Weekends we went to plays at the Burnt Mill Playhouse, went skinny-dipping in Andy's pond (when we knew he and his family wouldn't be around), caught some live folk music at Thirsty Theo's Coffee House, laughed at Gil flustering the waitresses at the local burger place with his confusing orders ("I'll have the eastern half of a western sandwich and a dish of mustachio ice cream, please."), and put on a skit for neighborhood kids based on The Coconuts.

When we were alone, Gil tried to caution me to go slowly. He told me of several college classmates of theirs who she had dated and dumped for no apparent reason, causing one guy to leave school altogether, and another to scream obscenities at her in class. Of course, I didn't want to hear it.

"I guess I'm wasting my words," Gil sighed. "As Stan Laurel would put it, you've got that silly, sloppy look all over your face."

Carolyn and I managed to find some time for ourselves: in my mom's station wagon parked in the driveway, in a darkened living room, and one whole Sunday a picnic I arranged for the two of us near a secluded part of the Delaware River, when Gil had other business. I brought canvas and paints, and Carolyn posed in her sun dress and straw hat, reclining against a willow tree overlooking the water, but try as I might, T couldn't capture what I saw. And while our private moments were exciting, a revelation to me, they always left me unsatisfied, wanting more.

Nor was it all roses. Carolyn soon revealed a sharp temper that could flare up at short notice and leave me in the dust, wondering what had happened. Her moods shifted without warning from laughter to tears. The fact that she hadn't heard from her father made her irritable, and Gil's parents began to wonder out loud just how long she'd be staying.

At work, Lisa and I had passed the boring hours of filing and form-filling with gossip about our friends and our love-lives. Until Carolyn arrived, it had usually been her troubles with Karl, who sometimes treated her meanly. At first she was eager to hear about us, but after a while, she seemed to shy away from the subject of Carolyn. Finally one day, as I told her of our previous evening, she broke in angrily.

"I probably shouldn't do this, but I can't stand hearing how happy you are, knowing what I know!" She paused, reconsidered, then went ahead more gently. "Those days she isn't with you, James, she and Gil have been coming over to our house. She's been dating my brother Adam."

My stomach lurched, and a bottomless pit opened beneath me. "You can't be serious," I said. "Why wouldn't she have told me?"

"She won't let Gil mention a word of it to you," Lisa replied with grim satisfaction. "I heard her tell him when they were leaving the other night and didn't know I was listening. She has some kind of hold on him, something she threatened to tell his parents if he didn't keep quiet."

"Dating Adam. Really dating, or just hanging out with him?"

"Last Saturday when she told you she wasn't feeling well? Karl saw them at the movie theater in Morristown, where he's working this summer. They were in the make-out section, back of the balcony."

My head whirled as everything I thought I knew began to shift, despite the urge I had to deny it. Lisa gave me a hug, and murmured, "Sorry, James," then left me to my thoughts the rest of the day.

I was in a fog that stretched minutes into hours, amy mind racing over what Lisa had told me again and again, wondering what I could say to Carolyn when she called that evening. Through supper Mom kept asking if I was feeling well, and the food tasted like sawdust. I jumped every time the phone rang, and finally able to wait no longer, I called Gil's house and asked for Carolyn.

"What's this I hear about you and Adam?" I asked, trying to keep my voice light, but betrayed by a quaver. There was a moment of silence, then a click as the receiver wend down at the other end. I couldn't believe it. I waited a few minutes, then called again. This time Gil answered.

"Sorry, James, she's not speaking to you. She's mad at you."


"I know, I know. You probably don't want to hear this right now, but I did try to warn you what she's like, my friend. I wouldn't expect to hear from her any time soon if I were you."

I mumbled something incoherent and said goodbye.

I didn't sleep at all that night. I lay restless, reviewing the facts again and again, trying to find some hope, but failing. I kicked myself around for being a fool, getting emotionally involved with someone who obviously didn't care for me — all that stuff. But mostly I tried to understand the physical pain I was feeling that went beyond anything I had imagined possible. For the first time I knew despair, and understood how someone might consider taking his own life to make it stop hurting.

By first light, I had begun to put things in perspective, and see how I might get past this. Life would go on, and so would I. It had been a hard lesson, but a valuable one. I went for a long walk in the field with our dog Patches, and came back resolved to remove Carolyn from my heart as best I could.

The summer was running into August. A heat wave settled in, and the heavy, humid air pulled ambition from us for every activity except swimming. Over the next two weeks I tried to make amends with Andy, giving him the satisfaction of seeing I had been hurt worse by Carolyn than he had. We commiserated over the way she had divided our friendships, especially between Andy and Gil, who had known each other the longest, since grade school. I spent time with him and Lisa and Karl at the Country Club, swimming in his pond, or cruising the narrow country roads at night in his Mustang convertible, letting the speed cool our skins as we thrilled to the occasional close brush with collision.

Lisa and I talked, and grew closer in our troubles than we had ever been. I thought about Carolyn a lot, but I told myself I was getting over her, and usually believed it.

Then one night Gil called.

"I'll skip the small pleasantries, James, and speak frankly. I feel terrible about getting you involved in this, and especially about not being completely forthcoming, even though I had reasons. I'll try to make it up to you somehow.

"At any rate, Carolyn has finally heard from her father. He's going to be coming here tomorrow to take her away to his apartment in New York. Seems he's been in Europe, and didn't get her letter until this week. Carolyn asked me to call you and find out if you'd like to see her once more before she goes."

I probed my wounds and thought about this for a minute. I knew I probably shouldn't, but heard myself saying, "Okay."

"Would it be possible for you to bring us over to your house? My parents are driving to the city to see a show, and the house will be lousy with girl-children. Not conducive to talk."

As it happened, I was home alone myself that evening, my own family having driven to my grandmother's house in the Poconos for the weekend, but they had left me the station wagon, so I agreed.

Carolyn had almost nothing to say on the drive back, and would hardly look at me, radiating a chill that made me wonder why she had bothered to come. Gil tried to fill the void with his usual talk of films seen, books read, and funny stories. By the time we got to my house, the tension was palpable. Giving up finally, Gil left us alone in the living room while he went to the kitchen for a snack.

I went and sat next to her on the couch, and after a minute she moved to lean against my shoulder. The familiar scent of her hair brought back all my feelings for her in a dizzying rush.

"I wish I could understand what you want from me," I muttered, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice.

"I don't know, James. I truly don't." She sighed, and finally looked me in the eyes. "I never expected you to care so much. When I saw what was happening, I ran from it. I guess I always do. I can't allow myself to care back."

"You're here, though."

"I know I shouldn't have come. I'll just hurt you more."

I put my arm around her and told her, "I doubt that's possible."

"You say that now," she said, smiling ruefully. We were quiet then for a long time, just holding each other. I knew she'd be going soon, but I felt better.

Gil came back, and we were even able to laugh a bit about what we'd done that summer. We put on the Channel 5 late movie, Mad Wednesday. Harold Lloyd's clever physical comedy and the witty script of Preston Sturges were just the diversion we needed.

Around 1 AM we went out to the car. As I slid into the seat, I could feel it was tipped at an odd angle. Gil got out to look.

"Flat tire, right rear," he announced. We checked under the back compartment for the spare, but there was none. I remembered Mom had had a flat herself that week, and left the tire at the garage. We were struck by the absurdity of the situation and Gil began to laugh full out, which got us all going.

"Gil, stop it," Carolyn pleaded. "This is serious! What are we going to do? I have to be there tomorrow morning to meet my father!"

Continue with Merciless Beauty