Of Love: A Testimony

By John Cheever

It would be something as casual as the bartender’s greeting, as clear as a legal confession of murder. “I was born in a two-apartment house in Passaic, New Jersey…. In the thirty-second year of my life I met Mr. Osgood. He told me that he had killed a man in Panama with a loaded bottle. On the third of July I went on a picnic with my two children at Jones Beach. I filled an empty ginger ale bottle with sand. On the evening of the Fourth, I remember it was the Fourth because I could hear the fireworks going off in the baseball field, I stood at the door of the living-room and when my husband entered I hit him on the back of the head with the bottle.” It would not be that, but something like that.

It was late spring, and he was employed in an insurance office in Copley Square. He had graduated from college and found the job through the influence of an uncle. He was twenty-two years old. His duties were really nothing more than those of an office boy but he received thirty-five dollars a week and, as he shared his apartment with another man and contributed to the support of no one and saved nothing, his salary kept him well-dressed and allowed him to take out women and drink as much as he wanted. Once or twice a week he dated up a girl from the office named Rosalie and they went around to night clubs and speakeasies and made love in her apartment. He was as good a representative of his class as you could find, born in a staid suburb, educated in mediocre schools, firmly grounded in the cynicism of his class and education. This cynicism, although heightened by college, sprang from a much deeper source. He had seen his parents struggle to work themselves up from oblivion and poverty and had seen the pleasure they took in his graduation from college and, being the object of their pleasure, he knew how unfounded it was. In the history of communities there are few migrations as futile as the suburban pursuit of respectability. Its children are bound to be cynical. In college it was a mark of character like cowardice or valor. His first year in the city encouraged this.

His biography, so far, compared to the lives of the exiled, the persecuted, the poor, the maimed, would lack all violence. Much of the cynicism sprang from a consciousness of his life’s insignificance and lack of precedent. He often felt the necessity of identifying himself with something more than a faded shirt, a peculiar walk, something like Alexander’s Polish accent and stories of famine or the elevator man’s finger chopped off by a machine. Meeting himself in lavatory mirrors he would say, nearly in defense, “We are an army, fourteen, fifteen million, and when we lift our voice . . .” And coming back from Rosalie’s at two or three o’clock the cynicism would falter. He would undress quietly in order not to wake his room-mate and stand by the window, looking down into the backyards and it would seem as though this sense of questioning the darkness had gone by all people and things untouched.

On that winter like most of those since nineteen-twenty, the newspapers brought stories from Europe or the West of cathedrals looted and thrones overturned and rioting in Vienna or Madrid. In the air there was a sense of change. One evening while he was walking from his office to a speakeasy where he planned to meet a friend named Hollis, he bought a paper and glanced at the headlines. It was that hour when the city looks its oldest and above the blackened, crooked roofs, he could see a patch of timbrous light. “Street fighting began at seven-fifteen on the Place de La Concorde.” The headline was as arresting as the opening line of a sonnet. He could see it all clearly then, the trees in the Tuileries, twisted and iron-like against the afterglow, and the firing and the faces lighted by a burning kiosk and a young man like himself standing beside an iron fence. That was the year he had gone walking with Hollis up in Vermont. Hiking up a dirt road they were both startled by the thunder of an automobile crossing a wooden bridge. “That’s funny,” Hollis said, “for a minute I thought it was a fusillade. Something eighteen years old. Christ, how clearly it all came back, the smell and the noise and the feeling and everything.” He knew, in knowing Hollis that this event constituted the largest part of his remembrance. That was the year when they sacked the Spanish churches and broke the face of a madonna who had been ruling for nineteen centuries.

In March the days were lengthening and when he walked from the office to his apartment it was still broad daylight. On one windy afternoon he noticed a friend of his named Sears, standing by the subway entrance, talking to a girl. Sears had been a senior while he was still a freshman and he had only seen him when they drove in Sears’s car over to South Hadley to see the girls at Mt. Holyoke. Sears waved and shouted to him and he crossed the street and met the girl. At first he didn’t get her name. It was Donoghue or Deveraux or something like that. She gave him her hand.

“Yes,” he said, “yes, we were in school together.” She glanced at him for a moment. Her glance was steady and frank. Her manners were as casual and easy as if she had known him all of her life. He noticed her long, game legs when the wind pressed the serge against them. She was unusually pale, her features seemed Slavic and this, and the fact that she had a French magazine under her arm, gave him the impression that she was a foreigner.

True love and hate are matters of first sight, rousing a strain deeper than memory. And yet they have the character of a memory unexpectedly startled like remembering a friend at the sight of his umbrella or a voyage recalled by the east wind. Meeting an enemy seems more a matter of recognition than discovery and it is the same, only deeper with a lover. Where have I seen you before? he wanted to ask her while he stood there talking with Sears. And yet he knew that he had never seen her before. It was like being thrown back to a forgotten afternoon by the taste of an apple or the odor of woodsmoke.

They talked about classmates and what they were doing. While they talked, the girl, Julia, holding onto Sears’s arm, watched the people pass along the sidewalk or glanced up at the clouds. She was beautiful and the men passing on the street turned to look at her. Sears asked Morgan to come over to Cambridge where he was living. Morgan agreed and they said goodbye. The wind was still blowing, clumsily lifting sheets of newspaper and the clouds overhead were tall and distrait, leaning in the wind to the west. He watched her and Sears go down the street. She held onto his arm and looked up into his face, when she talked with him, and laughed. She wore high-heeled pumps and her walk was light and young. Morgan felt jealous.

It was more than a week later when he drove over to Cambridge to see Sears, who had quarters at the university as a tutor. He had nearly forgotten the incident of the windy afternoon. After they sat talking for a little while, Sears asked him if he wanted to go down to Deveraux’s. “You remember Julia, don’t you?” he shouted from the bedroom. “You know, the girl we met that afternoon on the street.” He came out of the bedroom with his hat on the back of his head. He had a clean spare face and a dark mustache. He was lean and his clothing seemed to hang on his long limbs. Morgan was nearly two inches shorter, stockier, and his features were coarser and less mobile. Sears strode around the room in his coat, looking for his keys. He looked hurried as if he were catching a train or a boat but this was always the impression.

She lived in a small house near the square, surrounded by tenements and in the shadow of the Catholic church. It was her brother’s house, a professor in mathematics, and when she had come on from Baltimore he moved into the quarters at the university that were included in his salary and lent her the house for as long as she planned to stay. It was one of those old, small buildings, classic revival in style that you find in any city, surrounded by tenements, like some residue of the last century. They sat in a small, downstairs living-room with an upright piano against the wall and above the piano a portrait of her. She was wearing a dark green sweater in the picture and looking disinterestedly into her lap. The sweater had a broad neck, showing her prominent shoulder bones. She was wearing the same sweater that evening.

That night they didn’t do anything but sit around and talk. There were some scores on the piano and Morgan wondered if she played. Her hair was fair and lustreless and drawn loosely back from her face. She smoked all of the time. He wondered what her relations with Sears were. She had evidently known him for a long time. “Are you coming down to Topsfield next Sunday?” she asked him when they were leaving and then she turned to Morgan and explained: “Sears and I spend all of our Sundays in the woods around Newburyport, hunting for deer eggs.” She stood in the doorway while they walked down the street. Then Morgan heard her slamming the door.

Part Two

She was born in a large house in Baltimore on a spring morning in nineteen-ten. The date of a person’s birth seems to be increasingly important. Where you previously would have said that he or she was indolent or vivacious or had yellow hair, you give the year that they were made. She was conceived four years before they shot the archduke in Sarajevo and while they were building battlements in the Prussian woods. It seems, for that generation of her class, as if every tradition were broken by the smouldering books, by the murdered millions, by the shattered statuary and the election of fools. They start out on every man’s search for certainty with the fewest guides. The past, for them, has drawn nothing final.

Her father, who had been a professor of economics in an eastern college, threw up his job for a position with a large banking firm. Her mother was a musician, immensely kind but absent-minded. Her stockings were nearly always wrinkled and her clothing gave the impression that it had been bought for a stouter person. When Julia was two years old her father was given a position in the Paris office and the whole family moved to France. They lived there until the declaration of war. For the duration of the war, Julia and her three brothers attended public schools in America and then returned to France after the treaty was signed at Versailles. They remained there for three years and returned to America for good. She went to an eastern college for a couple of years and then left to study music. In the east she met Sears, who was working for a degree at the university. He was kind, derisive, a temperate drunk. They had been lovers for about a year when she broke it off. That was eight months ago.

At that time Morgan owned an old Ford roadster. He parked it in the street in front of his apartment, shifting it on alternate nights to other streets to avoid being tagged. The nickel fixtures were scarred with rust and there was a hole in the top. Four years of exposure had nearly destroyed the finish; the doors wouldn’t shut, but it still went sixty miles an hour and the motor was sound and responsive. One or two nights a week he began to drive over to Cambridge to see her. Sometimes Sears was there and the three of them would sit around drinking beer and playing poker. The nights were still cool and she kept a fire in the Franklin stove at the further end of the room. Sometimes the room was stuffy but that was the way she liked it. She dreaded cold and rigor of any sort and if she felt a draft she would sit at the card table with a coat thrown over her shoulders.

Neither of them knew what it was about during those first nights. Sears was still there and Morgan knew that he was, or had been her lover. But he had an idea that it was over now for Sears took the deprecatory, humble attitude towards her of a supplicant. He talked incessantly, deriding his colleagues, his position, his century. “. . . Daniels gives me a pain. He might have been all right in his old days but now he leans against the blackboard like an umbrella and puts all of his pupils to sleep, honestly.” Julia would remind him that it was his turn to bid and he would callously toss a couple of chips into the center of the table and continue to talk. “And Mifflin is nothing but a horse-trader and Lord was the founder of the Social and Alpine Climbing Club. . . .”

“It’s your bid.”

“And on Tuesday Kittridge pulled down all of the window-shades and stamped on them. What a man.”

“I’ll see you.”

Julia put her cards out on the table. Sears clapped his hand to his forehead.

“Dangerous Deveraux. Christ, what a hand. Honestly you’ve got a gift for poker. Marry me and we’ll play the Mississippi steamboats.”

Julia laughed quietly and almost always showed winnings at the end of the evening. Her fingers were long and squarish and through some glandular trouble that accounted for her pallor, the skin had dried and broken at the joints. Morgan watched them under the lamplight. She deliberated over each move and Sears would tell her to hurry up, hurry up, pulling nervously at his mustache.

At about twelve o’clock Julia would yawn and tell them to go home. When they said goodnight she would stand in the doorway with a coat thrown over her shoulders, watching them until the car had gone down the street. She liked Morgan and she knew it. Hearing the ascendant shifting of the gears was like something occurring within herself.

Morgan drove Sears back to the dormitory where he lived. He slumped in the seat singing quietly to himself, warmed with the beer. Then Morgan raced the car back to the city. This went on for a month.

Through habit those nights became a regular thing. Every Tuesday and Friday he would drive over there and she would be waiting for him. After he had been there for about twenty minutes they would hear a step on the wooden porch and Sears would come in. The weather was turning into spring and sometimes they left the window open, and they could hear the radios from the tenements and the wind breathing in a gaunt sumac that mounted up from the bricks in the courtyard. Morgan was still seeing Rosalie.

Then there was that Friday night when he went over there as usual and found the house dark. He rang the doorbell and no one answered. He rang it again as if someone in the house might be sleeping and he would wake them, or as if she were in an upstairs room where she would not have heard the bell the first time. All this was improbable. It seemed as if everything he had ever known were suddenly, strangely, unexpectedly destroyed. He rang again and began to beat on the door with his fists. He stood there like a fool, looking up at the dark house. He wanted to see her, he did not know that he could want to see her so much. He lit a cigarette and looked into the windows that opened on the porch. Then he knocked on the door again. He got into his car and drove up to Sears’s place but no one answered there either. He drank a cup of coffee at a cafeteria in the square. He went back to the house but it was still dark. He couldn’t go back to his own, dark apartment. He couldn’t think of anyone he wanted to see. He went up to the square again, parked his car and bought a ticket for the movies.

The show was going on when he went in. The theatre smelt of camphor and perfume. After he had been there for about twenty minutes he went out again and drove back to her place. The house was still dark but he noticed that a window was open on the second floor. Had it been open before? Maybe she had come in and gone to bed. He parked the car, rang the bell and knocked on the door again. While he was standing there, facing the dark house, he heard steps on the gravel behind him. He turned around and saw her crossing the walk.

“Julia,” he stammered, “where have you been, I thought that . . .”

“I know,” she said quietly. “I should have told you. But we hadn’t made any date. And yet all of the time I knew that I was breaking one. I had dinner with my brother and some people we used to know.”

“Honestly, it was hell. I thought something might have happened to you or that you might have left town.”

She took his arm and they walked toward the house. Neither of them said anything. He stood there while she fitted the key into the lock and kicked the door open. In the dark hallway she drew off her hat and he began to kiss her before she had a chance to switch on the light. They stood here until they nearly fell over. Then she led him into the room on the left where there was a couch. Later they went up to her bedroom on the second floor. He had never been in it before. Later that night they lay in bed, propped up on their elbows, smoking.

“Hello, stranger.”


“Where do you hail from?”

“Baltimore, Maryland.”

“What’s it like?”

“Oh, it’s all right. A lot of trolley cars.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“I was thinking about a funny dream I had,” she said sleepily. “I dreamt that we were sailing up the St. Lawrence in a boat and that the mattresses were stuffed with tissue paper.”

In the morning they got out of bed and watched the gray light fill the sky. He stood there without any clothes on. She had thrown a flannel bathrobe over her shoulders and was holding a cigarette between her dry, sore fingers. Gray clouds were stirring in the west above the university buildings. The streets were deserted. They heard a milk cart rattling and the spirited trot of the horse and the clink of the bottles as it swayed at a curve.

When Sears found out about it he stopped his regular visits to the house. Although she had broken it off with him nearly a year ago he felt that his loss was recent and that Morgan was to blame. He had been hunting for something that would define his situation and now that another man had taken a woman who was once his, he saw himself clearly as deceived. He began to drink. On the last night that he was at Julia’s playing poker he drank up all the beer and went out to the corner to get more. He talked on and on and they thought he would never go. When he did finally leave, Morgan stood in the hallway watching him stumble down the walk.

Part Three

It was something that had been built up night after night, some inexplicable architecture. During those first weeks it was a complete absorption; some enchantment of the flesh that made their days as unreal as something remembered from sleep. When the days grew longer they went for rides around the country in his car and stopped off at Revere Beach and went roller-skating. At two or three o’clock in the morning they would eat sandwiches, sitting on the edge of the bed, laughing and crying. Sometimes they dressed and went up to a cafeteria in the square. The counterman grew to know them and told them about his wife and children. The bell in the Catholic church told all the hours and they would lie in bed, counting the notes. It went on like this.

He was crazy about her. He used to call her up from the office once or twice a day until the boss spoke to him about it. Then he called her up from the booth in the lobby. The girl who sold cigarettes kidded him. He wasn’t much use around the office. One rainy afternoon in May he stood on the corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets, talking for half an hour about Franklin stoves because she had a Franklin stove in her living-room. The rain, the harbor cries, the sound of traffic made him think of her.

She was devoted but she was still indolent, slumped in the wicker chair, wearing the green sweater. They quarreled a couple of times and once she threw a saucer at him and it broke on the pantry floor. They made up all their quarrels at night. He wanted to get married and she wanted to wait. When they drove through the country he would stop at every deserted house and look through the dirty, broken windows. “Want to live here?” he asked her. “Want to live here?”

In September the city was hot and she decided to spend the rest of the summer and fall with a widowed friend of hers named Amy Henderson, who had a farm on the Merrimac. One Saturday afternoon, after work, he went over to her place. She put her valises in the rumble-seat and they locked up the house. Driving out of the city the five o’clock traffic was heavy and there was a steady line of cars along the turnpike. She sat beside him with one hand on his knee. “. . . it’s only thirty miles out,” she said, “and I’ll see as much of you as before. If you don’t mind the drive you can spend all your week-ends out here. Amy has plenty of room.” On either side of them were the hills of Boxford and Topsfield, growing blue in the dusk and standing sharp against the afterglow. In the west a few clouds were drawn against the light like streaks of lead pencils. They saw some farmer leading his cattle up a dirt road that branched off the turnpike.

The arrangement of her remaining in the country and he in the city did not work out as well as they had planned. It was only an hour’s drive in heavy traffic and less than that in the early morning when he usually drove in. But there was no telephone at the farm and he could not call her up as he usually did during the day. And then when he went down one weekend he found Sears there. He was sitting in a chair, his long legs crossed, telling a story of how he had gone swimming in trunks at Cohasset and had been arrested for indecency. “Listen, Julia,” Morgan said when he got her out of the house, “what’s he doing here? I don’t understand.”

“Don’t worry about him, darling. He doesn’t mean anything. He’s a friend of Amy’s and I can’t ask him to leave. And there’s no reason why he should leave. I don’t worry about him. You won’t worry, will you?”

“No, I won’t worry if you say it’s all right.”

As if nothing had gone between them the three sat at a card table that evening playing poker. Sears drank more than anyone else and still talked incessantly. His face seemed thinner and paler, his manners were more nervous. When he spoke he gesticulated with his hands and worked his eyebrows. He had a growing habit of stammering. Morgan noticed with resentment that he watched Julia too humbly, but he had no fear, knowing the certainty of his own position.

September ran into October and the ivy and the swamp-maples turned color. While driving along the turnpike one evening Morgan noticed that the roadside stands were selling cider.

About two miles from the farm there was a hill called Break Hill. It rose steeply from the edge of the town to a height that overlooked all of western Massachuetts. To the north you could see the marshes of Essex and the pale, wavy line of the beach at Plum Island. To the east the view stretched over the hilly country to New Hampshire where a range of blue mountains edged the horizon. At one time the hill had been settled. All the trees were felled and there was nothing but scrub brush and an occasional elm. One Sunday afternoon in October Morgan and Julia started out for the hill. It was a little while after tea and the cold was setting in. It had rained on the previous night and the undulations in the road were filled with water and dead leaves.

“It’s funny about this season,” she said. She walked close to him, holding his arm. “This more than any other, all the smells, the colors, even this feeling of the cold setting in reminds me of other places and times. I can remember the cowbells in the mountain and the rattle of the trolley cars in Zürich. It was just about this time that we used to come home from school.”

The road took them through the village and they stopped off in the post office to buy cigarettes. The post office was warm and the stale air smelled of drygoods. Four men were sitting on a bench in the back of the store talking about the world series.

The path up the hill was steep and crooked and he went ahead, holding her hand. By the time they reached the top the sun had gone down, leaving a sallow light in the west, and the night was coming in quickly and it was going to be cold. When he had finished making love to her they sat quietly together. They were both smoking. She was sitting on a rock and he sat at her feet.

“Hello, Joe,” she said.

“Hello,” he turned and looked up at her. “What are you looking so worried about?”

“Nothing, I guess. I don’t know.” She slid down off the rock and lay in the grass beside him. “I’ve got something to tell you. Something serious.”

“All right. Go ahead.”

“I don’t know. And now that I’ve gone this far I don’t seem to be able to say anything.”

He groaned and rolled over. “You always do that,” he said. “You always have something serious to say and then you can’t say it. Women.”

“No, but it is serious, Joe, it is.”

“All right. What is it?”

“Well you’re not going to go away soon, are you? I mean you’re not going to change your job and go to another city or anything.”

“Of course not.” He paused. “Was that it?” he asked. “Was that the serious thing?”

“That was part of it. But I am serious, Joe, honestly. Ever since Sears has been down here I’ve been afraid, for some reason, that you were going away. And if you did I couldn’t stand it, honestly I couldn’t. I don’t know why I should keep thinking about it. The day before yesterday Amy got a telegram and when I saw the boy coming up the drive I thought it was from you, telling me that you were going away. All the time. Sometimes it seems as if I’d gone too far; then I get frightened. But you won’t go away, will you? Not for a long time.”

“Of course not, darling. Why? Why did you ask me that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t tell you why. I don’t even know myself.”

Part Four

It was growing dark. The last light hung like an echo beyond the mountains. She stood up and dusted the grass off her lap. She said something about their getting back to the house in time for supper. They started down the steep path and walked arm in arm through the village. When they rounded the bend in the drive that showed them Amy’s farm she felt as if she had been in great danger and that the lighted windows meant safety. She walked faster and he noticed her anxiety to get back to the house. “Cold, darling?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, drawing closer to him, “yes, I’m frozen.” She looked forward to the odor of the fire and the welcome voices in the kitchen.

That was a Sunday night. After supper he drove back to the city. He came down again on Wednesday but he didn’t remain. That night Sears was drunk. On Saturday night he drove down again. It was unusually cold for so early in the fall, and his hands were stiff when he finally turned up the drive. He kissed Julia and talked with her about the past week while he stood by the fire, chaffing his hands. She made him a drink and seemed unusually kind and solicitous.

After supper they sat in the living-room talking with Amy and her daughter and a couple of other guests. Sears had gone on to New York. Morgan wanted to see Julia alone and he sat quietly by the fire trying to invent some excuse to get her out. He noticed, out of the windows, the moon rising through a bank of cloud, drawn across the sky like the smoke left by some express. “Want to drive down to Plum Island,” he asked her, “and see if there’s any surf?” “Sure,” she said. They excused themselves and she got her shabby tweed coat from the closet in the hall and they went out into the cool, October night.

She was singing to herself while they drove down the road. At the shore he parked the car in a sand plot and they walked through the dunes onto the beach. There was no surf. Shallow waves were running rapidly forward. She took his arm and they started up the shingle. Her heels sank in the wet sand. Behind them the moon was rising in clouds. The clouds were hued like the brown and violet of a bruise.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” she said, “it’s going to be hard as hell, but I want to tell it to you. Sears asked me to sleep with him this afternoon before he went to New York. I slept with him last night. And the night before that and Monday and Sunday after you had left. I don’t know what made me do it. But I had to do it. It’s nothing serious, nothing like we had. That’s why I did it. Maybe I’m promiscuous. I don’t know. But I was afraid. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?” she cried.

It took him, as if she were shouting from a distance, quite a while to understand the meaning of her words.
“I did it because I was afraid,” she said. “It seemed as if we had too much, too much. I didn’t take him as a lover. It’s hard to explain. I wish I could say it clearly. One night last week, maybe you remember the night, it seemed like too much. Can’t you hear me? Can’t you hear me, Joe?”

He did not hear anything she was saying. He tried to stammer out a reply. In the moonlight she saw his features twist and saw him begin to cry. “Oh God,” she said, “let’s get out of this, let’s go back to the farm.”

She turned and he followed her. Neither of them spoke until they got back to the car. He turned the key in the lock and she pulled the robe down and put it over her knees. “Hell, darling,” he blurted, “I don’t see why, I, I, I . . .” he stammered, “I can’t understand.”

She was fishing in her pocket-book for a package of cigarettes. She didn’t answer him. He backed the car out of the sandy area and raced it down the narrow road. She was afraid he would wreck the car, deliberately ram it into a tree or go careening and bumping across a ploughed field. The farms that they passed were dark. Low in the west, peculiar to October, she thought, was a long streak of light.

Without slowing down he drove up the rutted drive. When they went in everyone had gone to the movies in the village and the house was empty. While he put the car up in the barn she stood before the fire, chaffing her dry, cold hands. If he would only understand, she thought, if he would only understand that in love we are as helpless as men faced with death. When he came in he threw himself heavily onto the sofa and she heard the crackle of cellophane as he drew a package of cigarettes out of his pocket. She struck a match and lit his cigarette for him. “If I only had some idea,” he said, “of the way you felt. If I only had some idea. But it’s hard, as if I should go whoring, I mean . . .”

“Don’t say that,” she said quickly, quietly. “There’s no sense of sitting up all night saying things like that.” He looked up to where she was standing, speaking so rationally. He saw her long limbs in the serge frock and the hollows at her shoulders and the thin, pale features and that fair hair. He noticed in hate every detail of her dress and figure, noticed her in the same way he would with gratitude or desire.

“Goodnight,” she said, “I think I’ll go up.” He heard her heels mount the staircase as if she were walking on his hands and face. He sat there for about an hour, looking at old magazines and newspapers. If he could only give it some meaning or if it would only seem conclusive. He dreaded going back to the empty room. He knocked all the magazines off the table and began to thump his knees and stood up, opening his mouth as if he were going to yell with physical pain.

Part Five

He didn’t turn into a drunkard. He went back to the city and looked and acted pretty much as he used to. Tradition led him to expect that encounters like those would each come to a final end like a step climbed or a text memorized. As we grow older we read an end into each situation and out of these we build our values and form our expectations. The older we grow the more we know until at maturity we are far, far from fear. It was in October when it broke up. That winter his uncle died, the firm he worked for cut its staff, and he lost his job. He went to a bigger city and got a place in an advertising agency. He began to write copy. He showed great promise. He went around with a woman he had met at a party and he planned to get married as soon as his salary was large enough. You could have found him on his twenty-fourth birthday at a party in an apartment on West Eleventh Street, one of those remodeled brownstones with a plush staircarpet and a clock that sings like a cricket.

The idea and the reason for going on is that it remained unanswered. He never met or was to meet anything that was similar to it. The only finality came when it was nearly forgotten. If anyone should ask him, it would be as inconclusive as the testimony of murder. “I met Julia Deveraux on a windy afternoon on Boylston Street. I fell in love with her. On a lot of nights, coming out of her house in May and June I felt like an anarchist, a criminal, an emperor. Now about the ending,” he would say uncertainly, glancing down at his shoes. “Now about the ending. I am not so sure. There was one night, it was hell. . . .” He didn’t know where she was, whether she had married Sears, had children.

Take her case for instance. That night, the first night, she could not sleep. She took a dose of veronal that made her late for breakfast. In the morning she wired Sears to come down from New York at once. Until he arrived she felt as if she were walking in space. When he arrived she told him that she wanted to get married. A month later they were married by a justice of the peace in Topsfield and they took a house in Cambridge where he still held a job as a teacher. They were very happy together and at the end of their first year they had a child. Sears still drank and talked incessantly and he was growing thinner. She looked about the same, also a little thinner, the same pallor, the same lustreless blonde hair drawn away from her face. She still smoked incessantly. On the Christmas holidays of the second year of their marriage they decided to go up to Quebec with a couple of other people and spend a week skiing. She and Sears took a day train and arrived in Quebec late that evening. They met their friends at the rooming-house and that night they went out to a restaurant for dinner. They were both tired and they had a couple of stiff drinks to brace them up. She felt as if she were still riding in that train, up through Maine and the hilly country that comes after the border. The sound of French voices, the cold air, roused something in her that she was too tired to recognize.

She kept on drinking and taking turns dancing first with Sears and then with the other man. At twelve o’clock she turned to Sears and said: “I’ve got to go to bed, I’m too damned tired.” “All right,” he said, “sure, all right.” They got their clothes from the coat room and went out onto the cool street. It was a spacious night, filled with blue stars. She snapped her cigarette into the gutter and inhaled deeply. Under a street lamp a man was standing. The light fell directly onto his head and the shadow of his hat brim darkened his features. His build was stocky with an impression of youth and obstinacy.

To come to a foreign city, Sears was thinking, is somehow like coming back to our first nights. None know us here. The snow squeaked under his shoes. He drew her closer to him.

Her mind was too tired to offer any resistance. She was hardly conscious of the fact that Sears, the father of her child, her lover and husband, was beside her. Dominating her mind was a desire for that man under the street lamp. She did desire him. If she had been alone she would have tried to pick him up like any slut. She tightened her grip on Sears’s arm and began to whistle softly under her breath. Is there no certainty, she thought, no bond of habit that our desires can’t break? Oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

They turned down the Grande Allee to the street where their rooming-house was. Sears unlocked the door and she went up the stairs beside him. While he washed she sat on the windowsill of the dark room, smoking, looking down into the backyards. She desired that man, she knew, because he resembled Morgan. Something about the shoulders, an impression of youth and obstinacy. And she had come this far to find this.

Or take his case, for instance. Make him employed or unemployed, put him in a strange city without money or on board a train leaving the city for some place like Niantic or South Norwalk for a week-end. He is older. His face is lined. His topcoat is shabby. He stands on the platform smoking a cigarette. He has taken the wrong train and there is no one there to meet him. He goes into the depot and calls up the people, telling them that he’s going to walk out to the house. Coming from the telephone booth into the waiting-room he smells the wood burning in the iron stove. It has seemed like catching a pale, familiar face in a passing crowd. He goes out of the depot into the cool, October evening. He walks up the road toward the farm, out beyond the last gas station, and as if it were something that were being said now, he remembers her voice in the cold air and the things she said about the month of October and about how it brings back other places and other times so clearly, the cowbells and the trolley cars in Zürich, and that it seems as if you were walking up all the streets of your childhood. He smells the smoke from some burning leaves. The smoke is sour, like the smell of sweat. His confidence falters. He is not walking up this street, he is standing in that breach of pain that the thousand, intervening days have done nothing to bridge, he is standing in the hellish night of that year and she is standing beside him on the beach saying: “. . . and the night before that and Monday and Sunday after you had left.”

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Originally published by Story magazine, December 1935. Copyright 1935 by John Cheever. To be published by Library of America in “John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings,” March 5. 2009.