Yesterday’s Muse

Yesterday’s Muse

The blurb under Jan Anderson’s photo in the Springville High School yearbook said she was on the debate team, sang in the girls’ chorus, and won a prize for writing an essay in French, but the main thing Will Harper remembered about her was her breasts.

He had been in love with her all through senior year and planned his life around opportunities to see her. English class was the best forty minutes of the school day because he could get a seat that allowed him to look out the window and stare at her at the same time. Whenever she stood up to answer a question, the smooth curve of those breasts would be silhouetted magnificently against the sky.

If she bent her head to write, her fair hair drifted across her chest, prompting Will to compose a sonnet titled “To Be a Hair on Your Head.” He worked hard on getting the meter right and sent it to her, signed, “With love and admiration for a great inspiration, Will Shakespeare.”

He hoped it might lead to something, but it didn’t. In fact, he heard from Judy Millar that the poem had made Jan so furious she ripped it up. This was an outcome Will had never envisioned.

He only saw her once after they graduated–at the lake. She was building a sandcastle with her younger brothers and did not appear to see him. Will had lain rigid on his towel, too embarrassed to move. He alternated between fantasies about further declaring his love and a deep wish to believe that she didn’t know he was the author of the poem. When she and her brothers had packed up and left, Will squatted in the sand by their castle. He put his hand on its round gritty surface and knew he was a failure.

Since then, he had preserved Jan’s beautiful breasts in a category of superlatives, like the worst hurricane he’d ever been through, the most expensive restaurant he’d ever eaten in, and the highest fever he’d ever had. He’d accepted Linda Castro’s invitation to a twentieth high school reunion party only in hopes of seeing Jan again.

Despite planning his arrival for fifteen minutes after the invitation time, Will was dismayed to discover that he was the first to show up at the Castros’ impeccable suburban home.

“Will,” said Linda, giving him a kiss with the proprietary air of a hostess, “I’m so glad you could come. This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on you since you moved back home.”

Home was not how he had thought of Springville for many years, and he didn’t like the sound of it, but he only said, “I’m still getting settled.” This was one of the lines he’d rehearsed to describe his life. Linda’s smile in reply made it clear that the details of his divorce had preceded him.

She took him out to the bar by the pool and fixed them both drinks. Scotch for him; Diet Coke with a splash of rum for her. Square tables covered with red-and-white checked cloths, and long tables decorated with red cloths and white flowers were set up around the pool. At the far end of the patio, a space was left open for dancing. Bunches of red and white balloons, already sinking from the heat, bobbed in the early evening breeze.

“The school colors,” Linda pointed out, and Will nodded, sipping his drink. School spirit had never been his strong point, but he was impressed by the whole scene.

“This is a beautiful place,” he said, looking from the long low brick house surrounded by shrubs to the manicured ripples of turquoise water.

“Thanks,” said Linda. “You know, Leo’s company built this whole development, so we’ve been here forever. At least that’s what it seems like.” She raised her glass to his, and they clinked them together awkwardly.

“Everything looks great,” Will said. “It’s really good to see you. You look great,” he added.

Linda touched her perfectly layered and streaked hair self-consciously, then said:

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I forgot to put on the music! After all the time Leo and I spent on it!” and disappeared into the house.

By the time she came back out, carrying potato chips and dip, Danny Hallowell and his ex-wife Judy Millar had arrived, along with a few others. To the clarion call of Whitney Houston’s “I Believe in You and Me,” the faces of Will’s classmates appeared out of memory, and he poured himself a second Scotch.

There had been less than a hundred students in his high school class. Some of them, like Danny and Judy, were kids he’d gone to school with right from kindergarten. Others, like Linda, had come later–in third or fourth grade. It surprised Will to realize that he still thought of Linda as a newcomer, even though she had stayed in Springville, and he had left for years, then come back.

Jan Anderson had been a newcomer, and that had added to her appeal. She arrived at the end of high school, when the class had already explored every combination of boy and girl. Quite a few established couples experienced tremors over Jan with her long blonde hair, strange accent, and large breasts. Rumors flew that she was from England or Denmark. In fact, she had moved to Springville from Connecticut.

To Will, she was as exotic as the foreign students who were occasionally deposited in town for the year. With them he always felt at a loss, as if his own knowledge of English vanished in their presence, and he was reduced to simple remarks such as: “How do you like it here?” and smiling a lot. Jan at least spoke the language, if he’d ever had the nerve to say anything to her, but he didn’t. He only looked and dreamed until just being in the same room with her set his whole system jangling.

Jan left Springville after high school, but Linda confirmed what he’d heard the week before from Danny. “I’m sure you remember Jan Anderson,” Linda said to him with a coy expression. “Did you know she’s moved back too? On her own.”

“Yes,” said Will, who felt his face redden, but before he could think of anything more to say, Linda asked him to help cook hamburgers with the same dark-eyed look she had used to get him to help her with her English papers. He was surprised to find himself resenting her exactly the same way he had then too. And no better at handling it.

When he pictured himself at this party, he had not imagined standing behind the grill in an apron, but as Will watched the other guests struggle to make conversation, he decided it wasn’t a bad place to be.

Danny was wearing a new pink shirt, still creased from the package, jeans, and his Mets cap. His hair was wet, slicked back, as though he’d come directly from the gym.

“Hey, Will,” he said and held out his empty plate. “Give me those two big ones.” Will scraped up the patties from the grill and slipped them into rolls. “How’re you doing?”

“Fine, great. Nice shirt,” said Will. Ever since Will moved back four months ago, he and Danny had been playing poker on Thursday nights. Last week they’d joked about who they’d finally get laid by at this party.

“I see you made it to first base with Linda,” Danny said now, pointing his hamburger at Will’s apron. His eyes were already a little glassy, and he smelled like cologne and beer. “Did you get rid of the kids?”

“Beth switched weekends with me,” Will said. Danny nodded, his mouth full of hamburger.

“Good old Judy called at the last minute and wanted a ride.”

“And, of course, you said yes,” said Will, handing Danny his glass. “Get me another Scotch, will you?”

Danny was always complaining about how dependent Judy was on him, but three years had passed since their divorce, and he had never dated anyone else. He gave Will plenty of reasons. His job took him out of town. He had to spend time with his son. Women were too old, and girls were too young. Usually Will listened without commenting. He had his own saw–about Beth leaving him for another man and taking the kids to Albany. He’d ended up back here because it was less than an hour away, and he couldn’t think where else to go.

“Don’t let those burgers burn, Will Harper,” said Linda, bumping him flirtatiously with her ample hip as she went by carrying a bowl of potato salad. Will watched her set the bowl down amongst the casseroles, the platters of cold cuts, and salads. When she bent over, her rear end looked like a pumpkin that had stayed too long on the vine.

Danny’s list of girls he’d like to get laid by was a lot longer than Will’s. Neither of them had thought of Linda, which made Will feel guilty, as if he were eating her hamburgers under false pretenses.

When he wasn’t occupied with cooking and serving, Will searched the growing crowd to see if Jan Anderson would actually appear. More than anything else about the party, this compulsion reminded him of high school.

Despite his vigilance, he missed her arrival, only realizing she was there when he caught sight of her on the far side of the pool, talking with a bald Steve Berticelli and his wife. At least he thought it must be her. He squinted at her through the smoke from the grill and tried to pinpoint what made her look so different from the way he remembered her. She still had natural blonde hair that hung over her shoulders, bright against the short black dress she wore. And she didn’t look significantly older. Just, well, flatter than he remembered. That was the only word for it.

Will studied her from every angle as she moved around the pool, chatting with Leo, who had grown fat and officious, then making John Turner laugh at something she said. It was ridiculous, but Will felt jealous and put off. He remembered Jan as shy like he was–always slightly apart from the crowd–yet she appeared to be having a wonderful time, and he was not.

He began to think his first impulse–to throw Linda’s invitation into the trash–had been the right one. He was hardly in the mood to display himself to his old high school friends, but he was also lonely. He needed to do something other than prep for his summer teaching job, grade papers, play poker, and wander up and down the mall buying presents for Ricky and Jane.

The day of the party he had spent the morning cleaning his apartment. He told himself that it was just time, but as he changed the sheets and checked to make sure the milk wasn’t sour, he knew he was imagining how the place would look through someone else’s eyes.

Danny claimed Linda was ripe for an affair, but Will didn’t want to get involved with anyone who was married. That would be just passing along the disease. As he straightened the photographs of the kids and arranged the books on the coffee table so his volume of poetry was just slightly visible, he rehearsed phrases he might say to a visitor. A woman, who, if he were honest, looked remarkably like Jan Anderson.

“I don’t plan to be here long. I needed to find a place quickly,” would explain the small, cheaply furnished apartment. “Would you like some coffee? Yeah, those are my kids. They moved with their mother to Albany, so I moved here. Beth. You wouldn’t know her. We met in college. Our divorce will be final next month.” He practiced the words “our divorce will be final next month” over and over, as if by doing so he could wear out the shame and hurt in his voice.

Once he’d done the best he could with the apartment, he’d taken a long walk on the canal towpath, showered, and then stood around in his shorts drinking a Coke because it was still too soon to get dressed. He had already pressed a pair of khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt. As he put them on, he found himself wondering with more anxiety than he’d felt since he was seventeen what he really looked like.

Before he left, he took out his yearbook. The stiff slick pages crackled as he turned them. The faces had a kind of blank optimistic cheerfulness. The irregularities that made them interesting had been edited out. He paused for a long time over Jan Anderson’s picture, but he almost passed over his own photo without recognizing himself. His round bland face gave no hint of who he was or what his life would be like. The yearbook editor had wanted to describe him as “our class poet,” but Will had refused.

Judy Millar asked for her hamburger very rare. Will had to put a fresh one on the grill for her.

“Isn’t this fun?” she asked. Her face was flushed and sweaty from dancing. She was wearing a skimpy dress that showed off her lean, tanned body. “I forgot how great those old songs are. Why don’t you get rid of that apron and come dance with me?”

“I’m cooking your hamburger,” said Will, carefully turning the patty.

“Afterward, then. You can’t spend the whole party cooking. I’m going to tell Linda to find someone else. It’s not fair. I want to get drunk with you and hear about your whole life.”

“You already know the story of my whole life.”

“Not the good parts. You know how Danny is. He’s too modest to discuss those things with a woman.” Her eyes flashed up and down Will’s body.

Will handed her the hamburger. He had never really liked Judy. Once when she was drunk she told him that the reason she left Danny was she couldn’t live the rest of her life only getting laid when the Mets won the World Series. Will had been very embarrassed.

“Enjoy your dinner,” was all he said. Judy looked cross, but a minute later, she was serving up macaroni salad to Sam Shane.

Danny was leaning on the bar telling a story to Berticelli and Turner. He had his Mets cap on backwards now, and he was about to catch a fly ball. Berticelli’s wife was staring at Turner. Probably she had just realized that she’d seen him doing the weather report on television.

Will kept watching for Jan and trying to think what he would say if she came to his grill for a hamburger. It amazed him that he could talk nonstop for an hour in the classroom and easily make his students laugh, while here all he could think to say was, “Hi, how long have you been back in town?” Of course, the fact was he couldn’t very well ask Jan what he really wanted to know.

The sun went down and twinkling white lights came on in the trees and shrubs.

“Time’s up, Will!” announced Linda, with Danny in tow. Her hair had sagged like the balloons, and her jacket and sandals were gone. “Danny will take over now.”

Danny looked a little pale and blurry. “This’ll be a good spot for me. Just bring me a chair, Linda.”

“Why don’t you drink a Coke?” suggested Will.

“I will in a minute,” said Danny, sinking into a canvas chair. His shoes were gone too.

“Would you like to dance, Will?” asked Linda.

He looked at her and remembered her in the third grade. She’d had chubby knees, long thick curls, and a high-pitched squeal. Now the flesh of her back sagged over the top of her halter.
He said yes, slipped off the apron he’d been wearing, and tossed it to Danny. He was a little unsteady on his feet himself.

Linda blushed and turned toward the patio, where the dancers bobbed and twisted. In high school, she had spent two years passing Will notes in class and turning up next to his locker when it was time to go home. He finally asked her to go to the movies–a double date with Danny and Judy. Linda had been so nervous that they all had a miserable time, and he never asked her out again. He guessed she was cured of him, because a few months later she met Leo at an away basketball game and, as soon as she graduated, she married him.

Will had gone away to college and married a girl nobody knew. Beth. Now that was over, and Will was back here, dancing with Linda under the twinkling lights. The air was fragrant with chlorine and pine.

The only way Will had ever been able to not feel self-conscious jigging around to music was if he shut himself off in his own world. Got lost. He liked being lost in a crowd of people, feeling their heat and movement all around him. Beth once said to him: “You live your life like your head is the earth and the rest of us are some kind of Milky Way floating around you.”

Maybe she was right. He knew he hadn’t been a perfect husband, but he had loved her, and she wasn’t perfect either. Perfection, he thought, was not the point. Commitment was the point. Til death do us part. He had really believed that. Unfortunately.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Jan dancing with John Turner. Each time he twirled her under his arm, her blonde hair arced away from her body. The silhouette created by the black dress was nothing like the one etched in his memory.

“Still got the hots for Jan, Will?” said Judy, baring her even capped teeth. She was dancing with her arms wrapped possessively around Sam Shane.

“I’ll tell you the secret,” she said, leaning toward Will. “She had them bobbed. It’s like having a nose job, you know? You get rid of what makes you crazy. And it works!” she added, looking from Will to Sam. “You guys should see your faces!” She laughed then, an ugly sound, and squeezed Will’s arm.

“You’re drunk,” he said, pushing her hand away sharply, but what he was really trying to push away was a fresh and unwelcome memory. Danny in the schoolyard calling: “Jan! Ja-un! Please tell us, Jan! How big are they?” He held his hands out in front of his chest and wriggled his hips, as his voice bounced off the high school building. The boys lounging on the grass laughed. Even the girls, with books clutched to hide their own breasts, giggled, and all of them–Will included–had pretended not to notice the stricken look on Jan’s face.

Even after that, it had never occurred to him that the last thing Jan might have wanted was for her body to be in anyone’s category of superlatives. That she might have wished to be noticed for some other reason, such as her ability to write in French. He had always believed she ripped up his poem because it was a bad poem or because she didn’t like him, not because it offended her, and she despised him for not realizing it wasn’t a compliment. Suddenly he could hear Beth’s voice in his head saying, “You are so fucking clueless! How could you not know that?” It was the one part of her that would never leave him. Usually he told himself that her criticisms were unjust; that she had come to see him only through the distorting mirror of her dissatisfaction–not as he really was. But, in this case, he had to admit he had been clueless.

Love had made him blind. Was that what the expression meant?

Maybe or maybe not. But still. What Judy said shocked him as if a knife had carved away part of his own body.

He had stopped dancing, and Linda stood awkwardly waiting for him to begin moving again. The music changed to Madonna’s “You Must Love Me”–the very song he used to sing to Jan, aching with desire as he watched his performance in the bathroom mirror.

Unable to think what else to do, he offered his arms to Linda, who stepped forward gratefully. As they rocked together to music that still seemed appropriately heartrending, he leaned into the soft warmth of her ample body. Sleeping with her would be comforting, he thought. Like climbing into a big feather bed.

But what Danny said couldn’t be true, could it? That Linda had planned this reunion because she was looking to have an affair? It was hard to imagine her sneaking around on the wealthy, powerful Leo. Risking this nice set up. Her family. Of course, he had never imagined Beth would be unfaithful either, and he’d certainly been wrong about that.

He wondered what Jan Anderson’s story was and why was she back in Springville as Linda so pointedly told him “on her own”? He and Linda were still turning in lazy circles, when, all of a sudden, over her shoulder and Turner’s, he was face-to-face with Jan. He smiled automatically, hoping he could convey his lifelong devotion then faltered as he saw from the expression in her eyes that she remembered him. Not in the way he’d dreamed it or written about it but in the way it had been for her.

Deftly John turned her, and she rested her cheek against his shoulder, closing her eyes. Obviously, she was not aware that Turner had been the one who nicknamed all the girls after fruit and called her “Watermelons.” As they moved away to the other end of the patio and disappeared into the crowd of dancers, Will was struck by the uselessness of his emotions.
But he pulled himself back to the present when he realized that Linda was gazing at him with an all-too-familiar longing. In the past this had always annoyed him, but tonight he felt grateful to be wanted by anyone, and he hitched up his hands to hold her a little more firmly.

“Do you remember that date we went on?” he asked.

She nodded, and he saw a flash of fear in her eyes at what he might be about to say.

“I was such a jerk then. I didn’t know how to talk to you at all.”

“Me either,” said Linda, smiling with relief. “I was in awe of you.”

Will brightened. “You were?”

“Sure. You were so much more intellectual than the other boys. I thought you were really suave. Sensitive.”

“You did?” Will laughed and once he started he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop. Linda’s face showed that she didn’t think she’d made a joke, and Will checked himself at last. “I’m sorry. But I wasn’t suave then or sensitive. I was just another jerk. I’m better now.”

The music ended. “Too late,” she said, with a wry smile and gave him a hug. “Thanks for the dances though. I’ve got to go see about the cake.”

Before leaving him, she stepped back with an appraising look, and said: “Don’t be a stranger, Will. I think you’d like Leo. And bring your kids over for a swim sometime. The pool is always here.”

“Sure. I will,” he said, though he was sure he wouldn’t.

Left alone, he scanned the crowd without seeing anyone he wanted to talk to. Jan Anderson and John Turner had disappeared. Perhaps they were already hurrying off to Turner’s freshly made bed. The thought depressed him so much he decided to leave. If timing in life was everything, it was a miracle that he was still alive.

He was working his way out of the crowd, when Linda and Judy came down the stairs from the deck carrying a huge red-and-white cake with the number twenty standing up in the middle. The cake was bordered with sparklers that fizzed and showered their hands with red and silver sparks.

Someone whistled and others clapped. Then someone else began singing “Happy Reunion to us” and a reluctant chorus built to a reasonably enthusiastic off-key ending. Champagne corks popped.

Will heard Danny shout, “Let’s toast the good old days!” followed by a shriek and a loud splash. He glanced back toward the pool and saw Judy in the water in her instantly transparent underwear. Danny leapt in after her, fully clothed. Watching them, Will thought maybe Judy was in luck. Class reunions came around much more regularly than winning seasons for the Mets.

From the front yard, he could still hear the shrieks and splashes, and he was glad he’d left the party. He walked up the street toward his car past rows of smug well-lit houses. Before Leo came along and mapped out curling roads and one-acre plots, this neighborhood had been a pasture where cows grazed. Underneath its civilized surface, he could still recognize the shape of the hills he had wandered as a boy with his dog, dreaming of a girl he would never speak to.

He had reached his car when he saw movement further down the street. Blonde hair caught the light from a street lamp as a woman got into her car. He watched as she made a U-turn, drove past as if he weren’t there, and was gone.

His first thought was that he was glad that at least she wasn’t going home with Turner, and his second, that her disappearing taillights were the saddest thing he’d ever seen. A new superlative to add to his life list, he thought with disgust. Perhaps he would write a poem about it. “What I have learned about love.” It would be very short.

“Let me get this straight,” he imagined Beth saying. “Instead of getting laid, you went home from the party to write a poem. That is so you, Will.”

But that is what he did.


About the Author

Alice K. Boatwright is the author of award-winning mysteries and literary fiction. Her stories have previously appeared in Calyx, Mississippi Review, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. In his review of COLLATERAL DAMAGE for BULL Men's Fiction, Curtis Dawkins wrote: “The writing is masterful–so clear and bright and quiet...In short, it’s brilliant…an amazing product of that unfortunate waste [Vietnam], on par with, yet completely different from, that Vietnam War masterpiece, The Things They Carried.” Learn more at

Photo, "Beach at Claytor Lake State Park," by Virginia State Parks on Flickr. No changes made to photo.