The preface to a love-hate relationship
|1968 - Redfield, South Dakota
“Who is that with Will?” Esther Ryan breathed as she clutched her best friend, Irene, tightly around the upper arm. Irene Walker turned and gaped at two teen boys strolling toward the concession stand. Dust obscured their vision for a moment as a Plymouth Fury rag top parked next to their Nash Rambler.
“I don’t know, but what a hunk!” Irene blinked.
The teen girls watched the boys get drinks then turn to look at the collection of cars and their occupants waiting for the movie to start. To Esther’s shock the boys started walking toward her car.
“Hi, Esther, Irene, what’s happening?” William Murphy smiled brightly, his hazel eyes never leaving Esther. “This is my friend, Charlie Lawrence. He just moved here from Aberdeen.”
Esther shifted uncomfortably as Will continued staring at her. She looked at Charlie and smiled shyly, feeling her heart stutter in her chest before speeding up alarmingly. His handsome face dimpled with his dashing smile and the blue of his eyes mesmerized her.
“Ladies,” Charlie murmured with a soft, deep voice oozing with charm.
Irene giggled as she shook Charlie’s hand then ducked her blonde head, curtaining her blushing face. Esther pulled the tip of her deep red ponytail as her nerves got the better of her. Between the sudden, strange urge to touch Charlie Lawrence and Will’s never-ending gaze, she felt wobbly and uncertain.
As the silence stretched between them awkwardly, Will finally shifted his gaze and cleared his throat. “Catch ya later, movie’s gonna start soon.”
“Yeah. Later.” Esther muttered.
She and Irene turned their heads in unison, watching the retreating backs of Will and Charlie.
“I'd go with him…” both girls breathed in one voice.
Esther had looked forward to the start of her senior year for as long as she could remember, the allure of leaving South Dakota for adventures anywhere else was overpowering. But with the addition of Charlie Lawrence to town and their class, she was even more excited. As the schoolyear began, the disappointment of having no classes with Irene was overshadowed by having two with Charlie. With Irene occupied with cheerleading and her other extra-curricular commitments, Esther was free to daydream about the handsome boy who gazed at her with heat in his eyes.
By November, Esther was a bundle of nerves and hope. She’d watched Charlie since August and now, with the Sadie Hawkins dance approaching, she was thrilled with the knowledge that he was still unattached. He’d rebuffed several other girls over the few months they’d been in school so it was all she could do to corral enough courage to approach him.
“Hi Charlie,” Esther’s smile was nervous as she approached the taller, dark-haired boy. He closed his locker and smiled back at her, making her heart race.
“It’s Esther, right?” he asked as she let herself fall backward to rest on the locker doors.
“Uh-huh,” she nodded. “I was wondering if you’d like to go to the Sadie Hawkins dance with me.”
“That could be cool.”
Esther felt the air leave her body in a soft whoosh that made her dizzy. His smile mirrored the heat in his eyes as he reached out a hand and brushed her cheek softly before turning and walking away.
“How could you!” Irene’s furious voice broke over Esther in a wave of ice as her friend approached.
“What?” Esther gasped in confusion, her eyes wide as she stared at the angry flush staining Irene’s cheeks and the daggers in her eyes.
“You knew I was going to ask him out!”
“You did! You always were a selfish bitch.”
Esther blinked in horror and shock as Irene flipped her hair haughtily, stalking away with a rigid set to her shoulders. As the shock of Irene’s attack ebbed, tears flooded Esther’s eyes and spilled unchecked down her face.
“Esther? What’s wrong?”
The voice of Will Murphy brought Esther’s attention back to the halls of the nearly empty school as she turned her head to face him.
“Irene just… just…” she gasped, still unable to believe what had just happened.
“Just?” Will frowned.
“She just yelled at me and called me a selfish bitch.”
“What? That doesn’t sound like Irene.”
“But she did.”
“Do you know why?” Will pressed.
“Because I asked Charlie to the dance on Friday and he said yes,” Esther breathed miserably. Will froze, his expression growing stony as he began nodding, to her confusion.
“I see. Well, Irene’ll get over it eventually. I hope you and Charlie have fun.”
Before Esther could respond, Will turned and strode away, his expression stoic. Esther frowned in her deepening confusion, sniffled as she wiped the tears from her face defiantly then left the school to plan her evening with Charlie.
By Friday, Esther had shoved thoughts and hurt feelings about Irene and Will as far from her mind as possible, preferring to dwell on Charlie and the prospect of spending the whole dance with him. She’d carefully chosen a daring – or at least daring for her – pleated mini-skirt and soft, shape-hugging sweater that accentuated her curves, much to her father’s disapproval. But when Charlie had picked her up, charming her parents as quickly as he had her, concerns of her clothing choice had been forgotten.
From the moment they’d arrived at the dance, Irene’s fury had seared Esther from across the crowded room. Will, on the other hand, was conspicuously absent as she and Charlie joined his cousin, Jacob, and his date. Dancing with Charlie made ignoring Irene easy as they laughed and talked through the evening. But the slow dances quickly became Esther’s favorite. The scent of Charlie wrapped around her as his arms held her close, his warmth and charm mesmerizing her.
“Go steady with me,” Charlie whispered in Esther’s ear as they danced to a slow song amid the rest of the Sadie Hawkins crowd as the end of the dance neared. She looked up into his handsome face with its strong chin, hint of dimples, dashing smile, and confident hazel eyes, nodding slowly. His smile grew and she felt him give her waist a gentle squeeze. With a soft sigh, Esther dropped her cheek to his chest and savored the melody of his heartbeat as she ignored the heated glare from Irene across the gym.
The sun was warm against her legs, keeping the cool spring breeze from making it uncomfortable to sit under the oak tree that dominated the front yard of the Walker home. Birds chirped noisily and flew to and from the tree in their busy spring nesting as unbothered by the occasional car passing by as Irene was as she read. It was the first truly fine day of spring, as well as the only day she didn’t have other after school commitments, and she simply hadn’t been able to ignore the siren’s call.
“Why don’t you like me, Irene?” a deep, masculine voice asked, bringing Irene’s attention away from the book she was reading. Charlie Lawrence was striding toward her, his hands deep in his jeans pockets. She blinked up into the brightness surrounding him as he came to a stop next to her.
“What makes you think I don’t like you?” she asked as he sat on her blanket, easing the strain on her eyes even as his silhouette remained etched in her vision every time she blinked.
“You glare at me every time I see you.”
“I’m not glaring at you, I just have a hang up with your girl.”
“I thought you two were best friends.”
“We were until she trashed me.”
“Yeah, it’s a long, boring story. I’m sure you don’t want to hear it.” Irene smirked.
“Maybe one day,” he grinned then reached out to caress a strand of blonde hair blowing across her face and tucking it behind her ear.
“Maybe. Why aren’t you with her?”
“She’s doing something with her mother. And I’m here with you.”
“I’m glad you are, but aren’t you worried she’ll find out you are?”
Irene frowned in confusion but wasn’t sure she wanted to know why he was sitting on her blanket unconcerned about his girlfriend finding out. They sat for a long moment, the silence between them expanding uncomfortably. She wanted him to touch her again, or kiss her, or… make her every dream come true by telling her he’d dumped Esther and wanted her instead.
“Well, I’ll catch you later.” Charlie grunted then got up and left Irene staring wistfully at his back as the same old disappointment flared in her heart.
She turned at the sound of her name, her eyes scanning the hall for whoever had called out amidst the ebb and flow of students leaving classes and heading to lunch. Frowning, wondering who was pulling a fast one, Irene turned back to her locker where she exchanged her books and grabbed her lunch. Closing the locker door, she jumped in surprise when Charlie smirked at her. Somehow, in the handful of days since he’d sat under her tree, her wish that he’d dump Esther had grown.
“You didn’t wave to me when I called,” Charlie teased.
“I didn’t know it was you,” Irene grumbled.
“You still don’t like me.”
“I like you fine. Where’s Esther?”
“Mmmm,” Irene replied, her disdain thinly veiled by the noncommittal hum.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Sure I do. I just don’t believe she’s sick.”
“I think she must be because her mother said her voice was the barest of whispers.”
“That must be a pleasant improvement.”
“Let’s go to lunch, I’m starving.”
“But…?” Irene couldn’t contain her confusion.
“You don’t want to sit with me?”
“Isn’t here and I don’t want to eat alone.”
Irene walked with Charlie into the lunchroom and they chose a table away from his usual crowd of friends, including Will Murphy who was watching them with a scowl on his face. She smiled as Charlie held her chair for her then sat next to her.
“From now on, Esther isn’t allowed to be talked about,” Charlie demanded. Irene nodded and smiled, relief that she could have time with Charlie without the dark cloud of Esther hanging over them overwhelming her.
After lunch, Charlie walked with Irene to her next class, giving her one last dimpled smile before leaving to go his own class. To her surprise, he showed up at her locker after school, offering to walk her home. Over the next two weeks, every free moment Irene had was spent with Charlie. He never touched her, was attentive, and they never spoke of Esther. With each day, Irene’s dream grew stronger even as she dreaded the day when Esther returned to school and resumed her domination of Charlie’s time.
A week after Esther returned to school, Irene was sick to death of hearing about Esther’s unplanned tonsillectomy and recovery in Sioux Falls. She scowled into her locker as she exchanged her books and collected her lunch – she missed sitting with Charlie and talking to him about anything that occurred to them. Closing her locker, Irene braced herself to go into the lunchroom and face the crowd that would inevitably be around Esther and Charlie.
A small squeak of surprise escaped Irene as a door on her right opened suddenly, an arm reaching out and pulling her into the dark room. Just as she was about to scream and start throwing her fists, Charlie turned the light on, showing her that they were in a janitor’s cupboard.
“Why are we hiding in here?” Irene asked as she trembled from the adrenaline pulsing through her.
“Because I don’t want people to see.”
“I dig you, Irene. I want to be with you. But I haven’t found a good way to break things off with Esther without having a bad scene, especially since she just now came back from being sick.”
Charlie bent his head and kissed her, his tongue slipping between her lips before he lifted his head a fraction to look into her eyes, breathing ‘for real’ as he grinned.
“Oh,” Irene gasped.
Charlie caught her hand and they sat on the floor. He opened his lunch and even though she was sitting on the cold linoleum, Irene opened hers and began eating her lunch while they shared conspiratorial smiles. At the sound of bell signaling the end of lunch, Charlie helped Irene from the floor. Pressing her against the door, he kissed her again, sending her heart spinning into a wild beat. Then, he smiled coyly, brushed her cheek softly and left the room.
Leaving the school, Charlie closed Esther’s door then walked around and got into his Buick. They waved to people they knew as he passed on their way to her house. As he always did, Charlie walked her to her front door and waited for her to go in, waving to her mother as the door opened. With Esther safely home, his mind shifted to his current obsession, Irene. Stealing moments with her during lunch time and whenever he could sneak over to her house under the cover of darkness was driving him mad. Charlie wanted nothing more than to spend all of his time with Irene, but he still cared for Esther and didn’t want to hurt her. He hated hurting people’s feelings and Esther was still recovering from being sick.
Shaking his head in frustration, he parked in front of his house and walked up the drive to the gate. Collecting the mail as he stepped onto the porch, he opened the back screen door, a cloud of smoke from his mother’s Pall Mall’s gagging him. Charlie’s heart paused in his chest as he saw the envelope with an official seal in the corner that was addressed to him. He read “Greeting, You are hereby ordered for induction…” and felt his heart clench. He’d rejected many offers of a military career since he’d taken his ASVAB test but this offer he couldn’t ignore.
“What’s that?” Charlie’s mother asked, looking up from her Harlequin novel through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“I just got drafted,” he muttered dispiritedly. His mother snatched the paper from his hands and burst into tears. Rolling his eyes, he turned to the refrigerator and yanked the door open. Charlie pulled a bottle of Pepsi from the shelf, slammed the door shut, then reached to the bottle opener screwed to the cabinet and popped the top from the bottle.
“Crying won’t change it,” he snapped after draining half the bottle.
“You could get a deferment.”
“But you’re my only son.”
“And yet I’m not really your son.”
“How do you…?”
“How do I know?” Charlie sneered as his mother nodded tearfully. “I found the papers from the hospital. You shouldn’t keep that sort of thing in your wallet next to your cash.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that we raised you as our son.”
“No. And I’m grateful you did. I’m not sure I’d be a good candidate for being raised in an orphanage. But now I have to accept that my future is not in my hands anymore.”
She nodded, lit another cigarette, scrubbed her eyes of tears then returned to her book. Charlie finished his drink, tossed the bottle, and left the kitchen.
Plopping down on his bed, he glared up at the ceiling. Now he had less than two months before graduation and being hauled off to boot camp. Less than two months to find a way out of his relationship with Esther. Less than two months to spend with Irene.
“Are you okay?” Esther asked as she looked across the car at Charlie. He’d been moodier than usual since he’d picked her up. Over the past month and a half he’d become increasingly sullen and seemed to be brooding over something. She wanted tonight to be special, they were going to be graduating in less than twenty-four hours and she didn’t want to waste their last night in high school trying to find the charming boy she’d known before she’d gotten sick. Esther sighed, dispirited by his brooding silence and wondered if they were going to do anything fun at this point. To Esther’s surprise, Charlie pulled the Buick to a stop in the deepest shadows of the school building and turned it off. In the dim light cast by the lamp near the school door, he turned to look at her.
“I am. I just…” He started, his voice drifting away into the shadows.
Without another word, Esther found herself pinned to the seat of the Buick, Charlie’s lips on hers. Thrilled that he was finally doing more than just touching her cheek, she plowed her hands into his hair and kissed him back. She clutched at him as his mouth roamed down her neck. Time became unimportant and the world beyond Charlie disappeared. Esther never hesitated even slightly as his mouth and hands mutely requested more and more of her. It wasn’t until a brief yet sharp pain stole her breath that she realized that they’d gone farther than she intended.
“Charlie!” she exclaimed but found her words cut off and her mind addled when his lips found hers again.
Esther’s cheeks burned as he finally shifted away from her, the sound of his zipper loud in the deep silence of the car. She straightened her dress as two fat tears slid down her cheeks unchecked. Charlie didn’t say anything as he started the car and left the school.
Discomfort filled the car as Charlie parked at the Drive-in fifteen minutes later. She didn’t know what to say about what had happened, didn’t know how to react, didn’t know what to think. He pulled her close as the movie began but never lowered the rag top. Esther looked up at him and he smiled at her, his mood seemingly improved and his temper back to his normal charming self.
Halfway through the movie, Charlie’s hands began roaming again and Esther looked at him in confusion. Grinning cheekily, he bent and began kissing her. For the second time that evening, she found herself pressed into the seat of the car. Without the pain of losing her innocence, Esther let her mind drift and simply enjoyed that Charlie was hers in every way.
Long after Charlie had dropped her off at home and she’d cleaned herself up, Esther stared up at her ceiling, a smile of contentedness lighting her features. Tomorrow she’d be graduating from school. At the end of the summer, she’d be starting school to become a teacher. But tonight, Charlie had made her a true woman.
“Hey, Esther, we need to talk,” Charlie’s voice brought her head around and broadened her smile further. He held out his hand and she took it happily as she handed her cap and gown to her mother.
Charlie didn’t say anything as he led her around to the far side of the building where no one could overhear them. Esther frowned as he shuffled his feet nervously.
“I want to break things off with you,” he finally blurted.
“What?” she gasped, blindsided and confused.
“I’m breaking things off.”
“But why? I thought… last night…?”
“It’s just time. Anyway, I prefer blondes.”
Esther gaped at him, shocked at the words he’d just spoken so nonchalantly. He didn’t speak again or attempt to touch her but walked away without a backward glance. She stared at his back, her heart beating a vicious taunt in her chest as it rose and fell rapidly in her vain attempt to catch her breath.
“I got a draft notice,” Charlie announced abruptly as he held Irene in the front seat of the Buick. They were parked at the Drive-in, celebrating their graduation from hours earlier on their first date. Irene looked up, tears flooding her eyes.
“Oh no,” she breathed in horror. “When do you have to go?”
“Not until after the fourth of July. I’m sorry I didn’t get together with you sooner. Now we don’t have any time.” He admitted and she heard the sincerity in his voice deep in her heart.
“But we have until the fourth, right?”
“Yeah. But you could have been my girl earlier…”
Irene leaned up and cut his words off with a kiss. “I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
“If you marry me, then you can be with me as soon as I get back, wherever that’ll be.” Charlie proposed. Irene sat back and looked at him with a frown.
“But you just broke up with Esther. Don’t you think it’s too soon?” She countered.
“I know I want to be with you the rest of my life. I’ve known for a while but I didn’t know how to end things with her.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. More sure than I’ve ever been about anything.”
Irene thought for a moment then threw herself into his arms. “Then yes, I’ll marry you.”
“Before I leave?”
“Let’s do it on the fourth of July then we can have fireworks and the whole nine yards.”
“I love it!”
Irene couldn’t tame the brilliant smile that had become fixed on her face. Her cheeks were flush with pleasure knowing she’d soon be Charlie’s wife. Esther may have dated him first but she’d get to have him forever. Snuggling into his side, Irene snaked her arm around his waist as she rest her head on his chest.
Esther rinsed her mouth out for the third time that morning, wishing she’d stop throwing up. Every day for the last week she’d spent the morning throwing up. Smells were horrible. Food was horrible. Life was horrible. The only thing that made her life bearable was spending time with Will – he’d made the last month easier and made her feel like hope could still exist in her life.
He’d found her the day of graduation moments after Charlie had walked away. She’d still been in shock, unable to breathe or think until he’d taken her hand to get her attention. When Esther had looked up at Will, she’d fallen apart completely. Tears had fallen, soaking into Will’s suit lapel as he’d held her, comforting her without saying a word and amazingly never judging her.
Now, however, Esther was sure he’d hate her. A suspicion had begun to grow in her mind, nagging at her, tormenting her every moment of the day. Stories of her mother and grandmother knowing exactly when they’d gotten pregnant based on the speed and violence of the onset of morning sickness echoed hauntingly in her mind. And now, with Irene and Charlie getting married in two days, Esther was beside herself. She looked at herself in the mirror, pale and miserable, her eyes searching for another less nightmarish answer. Her stomach lurched and she dropped to the toilet once more.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Will asked Esther tentatively as they walked slowly along the street. Esther could hear the church bells peeling a block over and knew they were tolling for the newlywed couple, Charlie and Irene. The whole town had become aware that he’d been drafted and that the wedding was rushed so that they would be officially married before he left for boot camp, but it didn’t make Esther feel any better. She knew now why he’d been so brooding and withdrawn and why he’d been so abrupt in his leaving her for Irene but the misery of knowing he’d never cared the way she had was just as sharp.
“I am. Just… Will, if I tell you something, do you promise not to hate me?” Esther answered then asked on a whim. Will stopped and looked at her curiously as she came to a halt as well, shuffling her hands nervously.
“Sure, I mean, I’ll try anyway.”
Esther felt tremors start in her heart as fear of his reaction overwhelmed her then slowly rippled out over her body. “I think I’m pregnant.”
Her words were nothing more than a whisper but given Will’s snarl of anger, she knew he’d heard her.
“Charlie?” he growled and tears filled her eyes as she nodded.
“That bastard. Did he know?” Will asked sharply and as the tears fell, Esther shook her head.
“So he just used you for sex then left?” Will continued. And as the realization that she had been used rather than loved sank into Esther’s heart, crushing it further as her tears fell harder. “I’ll kill him.”
“Please don’t. I don’t want you to be angry. Please don’t hate me.”
“I don’t hate you… I hate him. You deserve only the best and he used you despicably. I’m going, right now, to give him a piece of my mind… maybe even my fist.”
With that, Will turned and stalked up the street to the corner where he headed for the church and the reception they both knew would be happening. Esther caught up with him, her tears now fearful.
“Please don’t. I don’t want you to get in trouble.” She pleaded, bringing Will up short.
“I won’t be, but he certainly will be.”
“I haven’t said anything to anyone but you… he doesn’t know.”
“He should know. Let’s go tell him.”
Feeling off-balance and more than a little afraid of the fierce look on Will’s face, Esther let herself be pulled toward the church. When they rounded the corner and she saw Irene’s happy face and Charlie looking at Irene the way he’d looked at her the night he’d taken her innocence, a burning anger sparked in Esther. She stopped letting Will pull her and matched his stride.
“What are you two doing here?” Charlie asked as he pulled Irene into his side.
“You bas…” Will started only to be cut off by Esther’s hand on his chest.
“Just giving you one small wedding gift,” she spoke softly in a voice that carried nonetheless.
“What would that be?” Irene asked waspishly.
“You remember that night before graduation, Charlie? The night we went all the way… twice… in the front seat of your car?” Esther provoked in the same carrying tone and, to her satisfaction, she saw Irene stiffen and glare at Charlie before returning her glare to Esther. “I’m pregnant, Charlie.”
She watched as Charlie’s face drained of color while Irene’s reddened volatilely. Irene took a step toward Esther but Will moved to stand between the newlyweds and Esther. Irene’s eyes narrowed then, unable to take her fury out on her former best friend, she turned and slapped Charlie across the face, leaving a vivid red mark on his cheek.
Will marched Esther away from the now arguing couple and clasped his hand with Esther’s. He didn’t say a word until they were back on her parent’s front porch, sitting on the swing. Esther couldn’t find the words to express the turmoil in her mind. The knowledge that Charlie couldn’t refute her claim as he’d be leaving South Dakota within days and Irene’s perfect wedding night was now ruined created a conflict she couldn’t reconcile. That Will had been quick to defend her only exacerbated the chaos.
“Esther, now I need to tell you something and I don’t want you to hate me,” Will finally said. She turned on the bench of the swing and looked into his warm eyes.
“Anything, Will. I’ll try my best.”
“I love you. I’ve loved you for ages.”
Esther blinked in surprise, these words were the last she’d ever expected to hear, especially after admitting to being pregnant with another man’s baby.
“Marry me. We’ll make sure the baby is loved and never has to worry about being illegitimate.” Will continued and Esther looked down at her hands trying to understand what was happening. A warmth she didn’t understand washed over her gently and her heart beat in a happy staccato, the sensation deep in her soul that marrying Will was the right thing.
“Sure, Will, I’ll marry you,” Esther murmured. She gasped when Will engulfed her in an exuberant bear hug and kissed her deeply.