Susan Furber’s debut novel The Essence of an Hour begins in 1941, “the last summer of American innocence”, when eighteen-year-old Lillie Carrigan is desperate to love and be loved, to lose her virginity, to experience her life’s great, epic romance. A decade later, searching for patterns and meaning in the events of that year, and anxious to understand the person she has become, Lillie reflects on the darkness of her tarnished youth and confesses her sins.
Read on to discover the first chapter of this honest, moving novel, “reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar” (Christine Dwyer Hickey), “told with a voice that sparks like the click of a cigarette lighter” (Anna Monardo). For more information, and links to buy a copy, see here.
I took out a cigarette and lit it. The knack of breathing in while clicking the spark wheel was not a natural one for me, and my thumb grew sore from failed attempts. At last I managed.
It started to rain, but I didn’t care. My makeup had worn off back in the coat closet and my hair looked a wreck. And anyway, it didn’t matter because the evening was over. At least for me.
The party had been a failure. There was no way of salvaging it, no bright side to look on. All I could do was reconcile myself to it and smoke my cigarette. Tomorrow I’d wake and think I was happy and alive, but the headache would creep in and remind me. That’s how it always starts, though I didn’t know that then. I was new to drinking.
My first college party, and the Yale Club at that too. Not some sordid dormitory boozer like Ellen bragged about going to on the weekends up in Albany, trying to drag me along. That was for getting tight and going off with some boy. This required an evening gown.
I’d bought a new dress, had it tailored until it fit like a glove and gave off the illusion I might have a bustline of sorts, but I had a nervous stomach for a week, as I do, and lost five pounds just like that. It hung a little in the shoulders, gaping under the arms, but I didn’t mind. I loved it too much. Champagne pink and a faux diamond-encrusted collar. I slipped into it every night before I went to sleep along with my first real pair of high heels. Dads probably thought I was up there saying my prayers. If I was praying for anything it was that the divine will of the Lord be done, that I grow breasts in a fortnight, and for Mark Hamilton to kiss me. But the Lord can only do so much; we’re not in the age of miracles. Besides, I was taught He helps those most who help themselves, so I stuffed a few tissues in before leaving for the evening.
I’d been kissed before — I wasn’t a complete virgin — but I was waiting to be kissed well enough for it to be worth remembering. I mean, I’d think about what dress was in the laundry so I couldn’t wear it tomorrow or something really mundane like that, while some boy was making at a pretty sad excuse for kissing. I knew that couldn’t be all there was to it. People were crazy about sex stuff. It started wars and caused suicides and practically every joke an adult told was some sort of double entendre not so coyly referencing it, so I figured once I met the right guy, I’d be crazy about it too and stop thinking about dirty clothes and the washing basket. Or maybe I was dysfunctional or undersexed or suffering from some sort of textbook psychosis. I’d heard Freud was out before I had a chance to read him, and behaviorism or something like that was the rage. Not that it mattered much. Dads was not one to pay for psychotherapy.
So, I went on keeping those thoughts to myself and waiting to pick up crumbs of conversation. Mark Hamilton promised me I’d meet a whole bunch of people who’d read Freud and Jung at the party, but of course I didn’t talk to anybody but Tom Westerby. And he wasn’t interested in anything other than his pecker.
I’d taken the train by myself to New York and kept the money Dads gave me for the porters. He hadn’t mentioned how much to tip, and I was too shy to guess. Besides, Aunt Jo and Uncle Bill picked me up from the station and took me for lunch at the Plaza, so I didn’t need to pay a penny.
Aunt Claire bought me a traveling suit for the occasion from Myers in Albany. Not the sort of thing a schoolgirl would wear, but a real grown-up woman — I was Anna Karenina on the platform, waiting to meet Vronsky in Moscow. Aunt Jo said it was a coming-out party of sorts, my debut if you will, like my mother had before the war, and like many of the girls I’d later meet at Vassar had still. Prized cupcakes to be sold off to the highest bidder and fast.
Four hours I’d spent getting ready for this. After lunch, it was straight back to Aunt Jo’s and Uncle Bill’s on Sixty-fourth and Park to bathe and primp. And for what? Frizzy hair, smeared lipstick, and an odd feeling of oozing blood in my panties. And it wasn’t close to being that time of the month.
Mark Hamilton was a dud. That’s all there was to it. You go ahead and think you’re falling in love with a nice boy, the sort of boy Dads might approve of, which at eighteen really is a rarity, and that’s the very boy who abandons you five minutes into a party, leaving you an open playing field for any stranger who wants to step up to bat. Excuse my poor baseball metaphors; I’ve never understood the sport. But what I did understand was feeling a pathetic hag; deserted, alone, and with only a drink to keep my hand occupied, making it look like my date was in the john and he’d be back any minute.
I also had plenty of time to consider why I loved Mark Hamilton, but I couldn’t come up with much of an answer. It was very likely owed to the mole situated under his left eye, which crinkled into the fold of the skin when he smiled. Jesus, I know, but I’ve loved worse men for far more asinine reasons than that since. Or perhaps it was due to the time we spent together on the debate team those two years at St. Anne’s and St. Luke’s before he left me for Yale. And by time spent together I mean him saying things to me like, ‘You really are living proof that women’s minds are illogical.’ God, it was terrible, but he said it with that mole winking, and I thought it was a joke. Standing next to the punch bowl alone, I began to think it might not have been.
When Mark wrote to me in February, inviting me to this literary society night at the Yale Club in the city, I thought hell, he’s starting to make advances towards me. And that’s when Aunt Claire and I went out and bought the dress and the heels and the traveling suit, and she lent me the valise she used when she and Uncle Rory had gone to Europe back in ’34, the year before his illness started.
I never considered the boy might only be being friendly or kind-hearted, a gesture made to an old school friend and childhood companion. Hell, he’d probably have invited Constance Mitchell who sang in the choir with her stumpy excuse for legs and close-knit eyebrows just the same. But this didn’t occur to me when he asked; I didn’t think of it until I was sitting in the rain, cursing my fingers for not getting the knack of flicking a lighter.
I was eighteen years old and wearing a pretty new dress and my first real pair of high heels. I was tipsy, and I wanted to have fun. I wanted to be noticed and complimented and petted. I wanted to laugh and be gay. I wanted to dance and flirt. I wanted to enjoy being an eighteen-year-old girl wearing a pretty new dress and her first real pair of high heels. I certainly did not want to waste my time and efforts making myself up only to stand next to some bar, afraid that some slob might spill his drink on my dress.
Though really, what had been the point in any of it? Mark was practically a saint and no amount of faux cleavage could entice him out of his celibacy. The whole affair had been a farce from the start. He’d promised me a party when I saw him at Midnight Mass over Christmas, talking up the superiority of minds at Yale and how I’d get a kick out of meeting some of the guys. Well, maybe I would have if he bothered to introduce me to any instead of ditching me like a bad outfit you wear to get out of the house while your parents are watching, shedding it as soon as possible for the real set of clothes underneath.
I mean I did take comfort in observing that he wasn’t speaking to any other girl. It wasn’t like he preferred some Joan Crawford type to me or anything as cliché as that. I don’t think he liked girls or something, our minds not being logical enough for his notice.
Anyway, there I was by myself, too shy to bombard Mark’s conversation and, as I hate other members of my own sex, I couldn’t exactly go up to the group of co-eds timidly gathered on the fringes of the dance floor, turning their heeled ankles in circles as a sign of impatience. Three more hours of this. Standing, waiting, drinking what I could only assume was gin, getting fairly tight and wondering when the spread might be served. After weeks of eating very little, I was starving.
‘My, my, where’s your date, pretty lady? We can’t be having girls like you as wallflowers, can we? We’re gentlemen here.’ That’s exactly what he said to me, straight out of some Western or sleazy paperback novel, the kind with red covers and yellow lettering and blazoned with breasts and steely-eyed men. Certainly not the stuff of great poetry, but I fell for it.
Because I thought he was beautiful for talking to me. And he looked rather suave standing there, his jacket gone and his tie undone. He was tall, what some might have called gangly — but beggars can’t be choosers — with black hair, thick, and very long eyebrows, and deep-set brown eyes. Tom Westerby, that was his name. Tom Westerby.
He led me to the dance floor. I don’t remember if I said anything before that or not. I was swept up in his lean arms, the chiffon of my dress pressed to my skin by the palm of his hand. I felt his sweat through the thin material, but wasn’t this supposed to be the very essence of romance? So, I went on trying to imagine it that way.
We chatted about something or other because that’s one of my big faults. I can never shut up, especially when I’m nervous. You can tell when I’m scared by the things that come out of my mouth. My green eyes go wide and my lips fold into one another, and I’m off. And I’ll talk about anything. Literature mostly, but sometimes politics too which is really bad because I’ve never been that knowledgeable, only opinionated. And I’ll wake in the morning with a head pounding at the regret of things said.
He was leading me away from the dance floor, and I didn’t feel alarmed. He was confident, and I was confident too, or at least I thought I ought to be, so I pretended on. Well, that and I was tight. My heel nearly snapped, and I swayed in his arms. I gave him a dreamy look, or what I could manage of one anyway, a sort of drunk, dewy-eyed heroine. I’m sure it was repulsive, but he didn’t care.
He kissed me hard against the mouth, and his tongue slipped in and it was very, very wet. It must’ve been drenched in alcohol. It tasted of sugar and tobacco and a hint of sick, sweaty somehow, but I kissed back. We ended up in a coat closet of sorts, but hell if I know or care for that matter. His hand slipped up past my garters and into my panties, and he started to put a finger into, well, the part that distinguishes me as female. And all that while his other hand was smothering one of my breasts. I couldn’t even imagine I liked it.
But was that right? Was I meant like it? Were girls supposed to turn to mush at this and be in love? It wasn’t as if I were such an innocent as not to know about these sorts of things. Madeline Evans whispered about this stuff during lunch every day, and she hadn’t been so much as kissed — she thought she was a sex expert because she read about it in her filthy women’s magazines. Maybe I knew less than her in theory, but I certainly had more experience.
I pushed him away, but he pulled me in closer, his tongue delving further. It felt like he was performing surgery to remove my tonsils the way that tongue kept probing. And that horrible finger. I was to later learn from Teddy it hurt because the guy hadn’t waited until I was ready. Everything I was to learn about sex I learned from Teddy. Though that in itself was limited.
‘Please,’ I whimpered.
‘You want more, baby. How about me? Dontcha think I’d like some too?’
I could see his hand reaching to undo the fly of his trousers. Dear God, not tonight — I was not about to see my first one of those.
I took my fist, the one that wasn’t pinned back against the wall, and punched him neat in the gut. Praise the Lord, Teddy had taught me to fight. It came in handy to know stuff like that.
His face flew up, and his hands instinctively grabbed at his stomach. I hoped it made him go soft too, though I didn’t know too much about that at the time.
‘Hey, where do you get off? Bitch.’
‘I don’t like that, and I don’t like you,’ I said with narrowed eyes and a mean mouth. ‘Get off of me!’
I thought he might hit me back, but he didn’t.
‘You cut my lip, you bitch.’ I hadn’t punched him there, so I didn’t know what he was on about. I was not a particularly ferocious kisser.
I wasn’t frightened, or I don’t think I was. He was a drunken fool, and I had the right of way, or so it seemed. If I could only manage to get past him and out of the closet, I’d be all right. I felt sore, you know, down there, but that was nothing that couldn’t be forgotten with time.
‘Get out of my way.’
He pushed me back against the wall, holding at my arms.
‘You think you can cut my lip and leave?’ He studied my face. He knew. ‘You’re a virgin, aren’t you?’
‘I … yes.’ I admitted to it. What could he do? He wouldn’t. Surely boys didn’t really do such things. This was the territory of bad novels and nuns’ warnings. But I was getting a terrible suspicion some boys did. And that it wasn’t so clear cut as it was in novels. That it left you feeling not quite certain of what had happened, if you’d wanted it. And if you had, where did that leave you when you didn’t want it anymore?
‘If you don’t stop squirming…’ His breath was on my neck. He stank of cheap beer mixed with vodka and Coca-Cola.
‘Please,’ I whispered. ‘Please let me go.’
He slid his hand, his fingers smelling of me, to my throat.
‘You’re not worth it.’
The fingers loosened from my neck, and I felt the weight of his body suddenly slump against me, as though he had passed out. I felt something wet at my shoulder and realized he was a goner, his penis still pressed hard against my thigh.
I waited. His swollen face was inches from my own. So close we were to one another. He wouldn’t remember, and yet … I had seen those eyes for what? An hour at most, but I knew them. They’ve stayed with me. I’ve not forgotten. They were almost pretty when they were shut, framed with long eyelashes.
I ducked my head beneath his arm, picked up the hem of my dress, and left. It was not the time for trembling.
He hadn’t done it. There was that. For whatever else he’d done, he hadn’t done that.
I tiptoed my way through the revelers. I couldn’t meet their eyes. They would know. They mightn’t care, but they would know. Something to be made light of perhaps, or scarcely observed. An inevitable casualty when hosting a party. That was me.
I should have gone to find Mark, I knew that. But I could not endure his hollow face and his certain lecture. He didn’t approve of drinking, at least not in excess. And if he knew … God. It was easy for him to sit locked away, debating the problem of good and evil with his fellow eunuchs. He didn’t have to recognize the world as it was; he wasn’t a girl.
But I didn’t hate Mark, and I didn’t pity him. I couldn’t even pity myself. I wanted to go home, that was all. I’d think about the state of my dress and my underwear later. That could be seen to in the taxi.
What I needed was air.
I fumbled for a cigarette and a lighter left on a side table, fishing one loose from a packet half soaked through with spilt punch. I was going to smoke my cigarette and sober up and wait for Mark to go home.
I sat outside, my back against the clubhouse, my dress on the pavement. I wasn’t scared. I was too tired for that. The night air was thick and painted on my skin. The humidity had turned to rain. I didn’t care. I smoked my cigarette. When I finished it, I wished I’d grabbed two. It gave me something to do while I waited for Mark to come searching for me. In the end, the doorman asked what the matter was and found my date for me. ‘That’s why girls shouldn’t be allowed,’ he mumbled or something like it, ‘they get too tight and stumble off on their own.’ Mark slipped him a dollar and took me home.
That’s when it started to fall apart, I think, on that warm night of early spring 1941. It was only March and already it felt as though it were seventy degrees. That’s unusual up in New York, you have to understand. I mean some years it’s still snowing. But in that year and on that night, I remember it being insufferably hot. Our memory often lies to us, but, then again, our memory is the only form of truth we can and always will trust.
I was drunk and tired, and damn, I wanted another cigarette. That part is clear to me even if the rest isn’t.