The floors were polished and red, white and blue lights hung from everywhere for the annual spring weekend dance at Harvard. Black and white dinner jackets mingled with all manner of gowns as the famous Lester Lanin society band, recruited many years in advance, set up to play the evening away with pop tunes of the day and Broadway numbers I had never heard.
Jamie was anxious to show Carrie a good time. He had brought her a beautiful orchid wrist corsage which his mother had sent, a newly developed orchid recently named and bred by a member of her highly specialized orchid society. Carrie was thrilled, especially because it blended so well with the green silk she had spent so long designing and perfecting.
As for me, Max had also brought me an orchid as well from the local florist. I had never had an orchid before so I felt quite grand as he pinned the corsage to the light blue taffeta Carrie had tamed to fit my modest but rather athletic frame. I had added a pair of rhinestone earrings and a matching clip to my hair that Carrie had lent me in a bid to blend in to the sophistication I saw all around me.
The Harvard seal was represented everywhere, on a crimson banner hung on a wall behind the tuxedoed band members, and on the small round tables set off to the side covered with the most pristine and carefully pressed white linen I had ever seen.
Radcliffe dates outnumbered the out-of-towners and all were dressed in the latest and most costly fashions. But, to me, Carrie outshone them all.
“Would you like to dance, Annie May?”
“Of course,” I said, mentally hoping Miss Lewis’ admonitions and Max’s skill would keep me upright on the floor which now looked like the face of Mama’s prized bureau silver looking glass.
To my surprise, Max whirled me around the dance floor with perfect ease, his hand hard-pressed against my back to keep me steady, even dipping in the final phase of the tune without a mishap.
To my relief, he suggested we sit the next one out. “You dance beautifully, Annie May. You have such a good sense of rhythm.”
I was proud as a peacock but I made sure not to show it. No boy had ever praised me except in arm wrestling and horse roping. “Would you like something to drink?”
“A soda would be fine,” I answered weakly.
“Great. We have a fine brand of soda water highly prized by the bartenders who think of themselves as mixologists. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
While Max was gone, I used the time to survey the crowd. Diamonds were the norm as accessories for the beautiful ball gowns and cultured pearls that looked like they had been in the family for generations. Would Carrie be happy in a crowd like this?
I looked at Carrie dancing away the evening with Jamie and decided to dismiss my thoughts for the moment.
Max returned with a plate of fruit, a stemmed crystal with soda water half-poured, and a glass of scotch he deemed the best on the planet. “The bartender, who is a fraternity brother of a friend of mine, had the best fruit brought in from the kitchen to add to your soda water. I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty.”
Max was a strange bird alright, asking my permission to treat me like I was European royalty. I added a beautifully cut lemon, a strawberry, and a wedge of lime. The flavor was divine and I decided to savor the moment.
“Annie May, would you like to take a walk around the grounds? I can show you the place that is my most favorite when I want to get away from it all.”
“I’d be glad to Max. I think a walk in the fresh spring air would be just the thing to revive me.”
The Yard was literally deserted as we strolled its grassy grounds save for some lights burning in corners of the almost empty buildings. Max walked slowly, the scent of spring air all about us, the gardens lit by tiny little lights that gave them an eerie glow, and the sky above us dark and still, a new moon in the midst of crowds of stars.
As we neared a very small path, now lit only by moonlight, Max took a sharp right, motioning me to follow. We walked through bowers and bowers of trees until we came to a small clearing. “This is where I spend most of my time when I don’t have my nose glued to a book in the dorms or in the library.”
I surveyed the clearing. Grass a little less manicured than the rest of the campus, gardens sporting the blooms of spring, a bulb garden with the vibrant hues of carefully chosen tulips, the golden yellow of daffodils, and grape hyacinths lining its borders. And, all surrounded by stately oaks, maples, hickories, and elms. A flowering mountain ash stood in the corner and an ancient weeping willow hugged the far end.
Max beckoned me toward a wrought iron bench set in the middle of the clearing. The small plate fastened so securely to the back announced the donors as the class of 1918. Max motioned me to sit.
We sat, both of us in wordless wonder contemplating the stars. Max broke the silence. “I have found peace here, Annie May. In this little spot. More than I have ever known.”
“It is beautiful,” I said.
“I am an only child of parents who have succeeded in what they set out to do but had very little time for me. It’s not that they meant to neglect me, it’s just that they were very driven.
“I was shifted from one relative to another while they made a name in Europe or elsewhere. I was raised by nannies and sent to boarding school at an early age.
“My classmates made fun of me because I had bad skin, had a stutter, and was very shy. My skin cleared thanks to a caring doctor and my stutter disappeared after a lot of hard work on my own, working in secret with exercises I found in books. But, the memory of the taunts stayed with me.
“I came to Harvard because my father was a Harvard grad and my mother a Radcliffe alum.”
“Do you like it here?”
“I like it as well as any other place. But, I feel lost. I didn’t rush a fraternity because I thought I wouldn’t get in. And, the independents seem to keep to themselves.”
“Maybe they’re just scared like you are. Maybe if you made the first move they’d join you in some cause or study group.”
“I never thought of it like that. I just keep thinking they’re sneering at me underneath like the boys in boarding school.”
“Jamie seems to think a lot of you.”
“Jamie is different, Annie May. He’s friendly and outgoing. He’s good through and through. We hit it off from the start.”
Max looked at his watch and rose. “I guess I’ve bored you long enough. We should get back to the dance before they think we’ve left for good.”
“I haven’t been bored, Max. You’re an interesting person. I know you’re going to go somewhere someday.”
“Thanks for the faith. Most girls are turned off by serious talk.”
Our walk back to the dance was filled with detours. Max was anxious to show me every building he had frequented since he’d been at Harvard. He was especially fond of the government building. And, history seemed to fascinate him.
“I was thinking of a double major in history and government. But, my family for generations have been business moguls. And, I don’t think I have the personality or stamina for politics.”
“I think you can be whatever you want. Back home we set the bar pretty high. I have beaten boys at horseshoes who have been champions and outrun a number of them.”
“Well, I’ll keep it in mind. But, I don’t want to disappoint my family.”
When we arrived back at the dance the crowd had thinned out and the band was getting ready for their final number. Carrie and Jamie were still dancing even though the music had stopped.
Max led me to the dance floor. “Let’s take one last spin,” he said, as he whirled me around in a perfect fox trot to the strains of “Good Night Ladies.”
We walked back to Eliot, the balm of the spring air gently wafting about us, Jamie with his arm securely around Carrie. The new moon, so visible in the clear sky, signaled to me a beginning. Perhaps I had gotten into Syracuse.
As we entered the Eliot dorm room I kicked off my shoes. The residents of the room were mysterious only by their absence. Their presence was everywhere.
I carefully moved several bottles of expensive perfume to lay my small belongings on the carefully appointed cherry dresser, cherubs carved into its two upper drawers and a cherry-framed mirror set atop it. I said a hasty goodnight to Carrie.
As I turned down the bedspread and opened the shades to see the stars, the weariness of the day settled in. I decided to count rest stops instead of sheep and map out the journey back home. I knew it would be a difficult goodbye for Carrie.