Not a member? Sign up now
"She had on a kind of dirty-pink — beige, maybe, I don't know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down," Sammy says of his queen.
"They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders."
Adam tasted each word, his big brown eyes wide with youthful wonder at the female body he was describing. "With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty."
When I wasn't holed up in Adam's room, letting Updike's words feel me up, I was running all over campus — hanging lights, building sets, corralling props and calling in favors, postering and re-postering, making announcements in morning lectures. I put my boyfriend, Mike, to work drawing cartoons on the festival posters and helping me with the program. I worked from eight a.m. to midnight every day, squeezing in lectures and the occasional assigned reading, and collapsed into bed every night, asleep almost before Mike had a chance to ask me how my day had gone.
A few days before opening night, I sat on Mike's bed while he wondered whether I had time for him anymore. I should have been listening — should have been arguing. Instead, the memory of a pair of big brown eyes came to me, and I tuned Mike out for a moment, thinking instead, "If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders..."
He didn't give me an ultimatum — he was just worrying out loud. I doubt it ever crossed his mind that the conversation might end in a break-up. But I hit the eject button anyway. "You're right," I said. "I've been so stressed out, maybe I don't have time right now. Maybe I need a break." I walked out of the house, left him still sitting there wondering how a solid year together had unraveled so suddenly. And I felt relieved. Sammy — or was it Adam? — was my only concern now.
On opening night, Adam hit every note perfectly. The audience could feel the girls in the room; they were hanging on every well-chosen word and longing glance as we swung into the final scene. The two boys watch the girls as they make their way up and down the aisles of the store, until finally Queenie approaches Sammy's cash register and puts down a can of herring snacks. This is the moment.
Adam — or is it Sammy? — says: "Now her hands are empty, not a ring or bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money's coming from." I was leaning out of my seat in the front row by now, mouthing along with Adam up there under the spotlights. Sammy pauses, then gives us Queenie's next move: "Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the centre of her nubbled pink top! I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it having just come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known there were, and..."
Enter the fusty old manager, who interrupts Sammy's moment and tells the girls he expects his customers to be decent in his store.
"This isn't the beach," the manager, Lengel, says, and the girls exit, Queenie leading the way, walking out of Sammy's life with the fantasy intact. Sammy quits then, and walks out of the store too. "Outside," Adam finishes as he stands in the door frame, savoring his subtle moment of triumph, "the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt."
By the time the festival's cast party got rolling after the last show, Updike's spell was already fading. With the spotlights switched off and the perfect words no longer rolling off his tongue, Adam was just Adam again — a guy I'd served drinks to, a guy I'd sat with on a rattling school bus en route to a rugby game. Sammy, like his Queenie, was a fantasy I'd created and affixed to the person in front of me, a person who was, really, almost a stranger. During most of the time I'd spent with him, he'd been playing a role, literally reading my own script back to me. No wonder I couldn't resist.
Late into the night we and the other cast members threw our arms around each other and staggered from room to room, toasting to John Updike, to Sammy and Stokesie, to the girls, to the uptight manager, to each other. The boys brought me a bouquet of makeshift flowers made from twisted newspaper, and we took a group photo. When I went home, I knew it was over.
I was able, over the course of some tearful phone calls and visits, to patch things up with Mike. I blamed it on stress, on a fear of commitment, on stage fright. But I never told him the real reason I had tried to end things between us. I never admitted that I had almost thrown our relationship away for a fictional character, a set of big brown eyes, a seven-minute monologue that I had cut and pasted myself — for what was, in the end, nothing but a damn-near-perfect string of words.
Want to fall for a non-fictional character? Check out Nerve Dating.