A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 13

The world crushes its heroes if they remain onstage too long. Witness John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, twenty-two years after the New York City ticker-tape parade broadcast live on TV to a delirious nation, finishing a distant third in the New Hampshire presidential primary with less than twelve percent of the vote. The dashing young president who had championed Glenn as a symbol and steppingstone to his promise of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s suffered a different fate. Jeremy Sprauling thought he remembered Glenn’s flight and parade, but he truly remembered the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was his earliest memory of a world event, of something important that happened outside the horizon of his immediate family. He was six years old.

Too young to understand the Sixties counterculture, and with no older siblings to bring home strange music and drugs and ideas about politics and sex and traditional values, Jeremy marked the unfolding of the decade through milestones in space. He followed the space walks and maneuvers of the Gemini program; the first time he encountered the word “rendezvous” was when two of the spacecraft docked nose-to-nose in Earth orbit. The deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chafee in a fire on the Apollo launch pad hit him harder than the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Christmas of 1968 he remembered not for the family’s second holiday season in Maine, but for the first trip by human beings around the far side of the moon. The following summer, he watched the lunar landing in East Blue Hill with his sisters and parents and grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles and cousins. They woke Joanie and Pilar at midnight when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and onto the screen. It was the first time his grandparents had allowed a television into their summer retreat.

He followed the unmanned missions, too, including the Mariners, which took the first close looks at Mars. Through the small reflector telescope that his father bought from Edmunds Scientific Company in New Jersey, he observed the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and peered two million years into the past at the Andromeda Galaxy. He memorized all the factual information available about the planets: their diameters, periods of rotation, axial tilt, number of known moons. He learned the constellations and the mythology behind them. He learned that the mighty hunter Orion had been felled by the bite of a scorpion, and that the gods had placed hunter and assassin on opposite sides of the sky, and he verified through his own observations that Orion and Scorpius were never in the sky at the same time. He found Neptune in the telescope after writing a letter to the Fels Planetarium to confirm where the planet, invisible to the naked eye, would be.

In a prep school astronomy class he first heard about the concept of a “grand tour” of the outer planets, and plans for the Voyager missions. Two advance scouts, Pioneers 10 and 11, launched in March 1972 and April 1973, had already been flung past Jupiter and Saturn. Jeremy was fascinated by the concept. In the late 1970s the outer planets lined up in such a way that it was possible to plot a curved trajectory using the gravity of each planet to speed the small spacecraft toward the next. Such an alignment, his teacher said, happened only once every 175 years. Voyager gained speed with each planetary flyby, cutting the travel time to Neptune to just 12 years.

Despite his growing interest in recreational drugs, Jeremy plunged into his math classes. He struggled with trigonometry but loved calculus, and he saw how beautifully it all applied to the motions of the planets and stars. His grades weren’t fabulous, but he did so well on the advanced placement math test that he was accepted to Cornell on early admission.

If academics had been his only concern, if St. Paul’s had been a year-round military academy instead of an Episcopal prep school with a liberal bent and a traditional calendar, or perhaps if his father had lived and sent him to Europe for the summer or set up an internship for him somewhere, perhaps his affair with Bonnie would never have happened, and his life would have turned out differently. But who is really in control of his destiny? All he knew was that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and that she seemed to like him as much as he liked her.

They had met the summer before his junior, or fifth form, year at St. Paul’s. Over Jeremy’s howls of protest, Annabelle had decided to sell the doctor’s old sailboat. “You’re not using it,” she had pointed out, “and you’re not around to do the upkeep and maintenance. I can’t afford to keep paying the boatyard bills on a boat that just sits there.” Jeremy had convinced her to have the boat put into the water one last time, to showcase it to potential buyers.

The boatyard had a new owner, a local guy who had graduated from Maine Maritime Academy, spent a few years in the Merchant Marine, and come home in his thirties to run his own business, bringing with him a pretty, young, dark-haired blue-eyed wife of Irish descent from Tacoma, Washington. They were looking for boats to sell, and Annabelle had one.

Though Bonnie had grown up around boats, she had never sailed, and her husband was more interested in the maintenance and repair side of the business. Bonnie ran the sales part of the operation – a natural fit, given her beauty and outgoing personality. “She could sell ice cubes to Eskimos,” her older husband said affectionately. He didn’t care that Jeremy took her out sailing on the doctor’s old boat and taught her the basics. It would help with sales if she knew something about the boats she was selling, and he saw no threat from a kid still in high school. Annabelle encouraged the friendship, too, figuring – disastrously wrongly, as it turned out – that Jeremy’s involvement with the boat would keep him out of trouble during his months at home.

They didn’t fuck that first summer, though they went out on numerous evening sails after the yard closed for the day, sometimes not coming in until the first stars appeared. Jeremy was inexperienced with girls, and she was a married woman. At St. Paul’s, which had gone co-ed only two years before Jeremy’s arrival, boys outnumbered girls by better than three to one, and prospects for a short, socially awkward kid from Maine were few. But Bonnie was different. His East Coast family pedigree and prep school status impressed her. She liked that he knew the stars and could point out the constellations to her on the evenings that they came in late. One evening in August she rolled a joint and walked with him down to the dock, where they smoked and lay on their backs and gazed up at the night sky, and she reached out to touch his hand and said that they’d found a buyer for the boat. Somehow he wasn’t heartbroken.

By the time he went back to school, he had a job lined up at the boatyard for the following spring and a promise from the owner’s young wife that she would write to him. Her letters were rambling, written on pale blue paper in purple ink using all lower-case letters, and smelled of patchouli. She told him what it was like to take LSD and about seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in Seattle a year before his death. He wrote to her about his studies and the Pioneer spacecraft and a visit to the school by a young astronomer named Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell and exuded an enthusiasm for the exploration of space that surpassed his own. They pledged to see each other when he was home during the holidays.

But it was not until 1974 became 1975 that they finally got together, on the third day of the New Year when Annabelle went back to work and his sisters went back to school. Bonnie arrived at the house on South Street, dressed in a short denim skirt and black tights. Jeremy built a fire in the big living room fireplace and shared some pot he’d brought back from school. Snow covered the ground outside. Bonnie’s husband had gone down to Portland to look at a boat and would not be back until late afternoon. Everett was at the home of one of his mother’s friends who also had a three-year-old; Joanie and Pilar would be home on the bus at three, and Gretchen and Madison would likely hang out with their friends and get rides home just before dinner. They had the whole huge house to themselves.

At first they sat crossed-legged next to each other on the old rug that had been brought from Pennsylvania, staring into the flames and talking, passing the joint that Jeremy had rolled with the last of his stash and saved for her since the day after Christmas. Her straight dark hair was cut without bangs, long around the sides of her eyes and loose around her thin shoulders. Her teeth dazzled in their imperfection, crowding her small mouth; when she smiled (and she smiled at him a lot) it seemed impossible that there could be only thirty-two of them. She had a hint of dark fuzz on her upper lip. He was nervous, but tried to be cool. She asked him if he had a girlfriend at school; he said no, there were many more boys than girls. He hung out mostly with his male friends, he told her, and spent most of his time on classes and mandatory sports and the astronomy club and Saturday night walks out to Freaky Fields and the woods surrounding the school to smoke pot around illegal fires in cut-off metal drums. At some point she placed a hand on his knee and looked deeply into his eyes, and said, “I really like you.”

A moment later, her head was in his lap, and he was awkwardly stroking her hair. She moved so that her body curled around his legs; he felt her warmth, and his hand dropped to her hip. She gently grabbed it and placed it on her inner thigh. Her other hand reached for the back of his neck and pulled his head down toward her, and she met his lips with hers.

Jeremy had made out with a couple of girls at eighth-grade dances, but no one had ever kissed him like this. Her mouth was warm and sweet and pliant; she tasted of fruit and honey. She drew him down on the rug beside her and moved her body against his. They kissed some more; he gazed into her eyes, amazed that this was happening. She guided his hand to her breast. He pulled it away and she placed it back again.

She traced a finger along the side of his face. “Jeremy,” she said softly, “When was the last time you had sex?”

He tried not to show her how nervous he was. “I… haven’t,” he managed to choke out. He had fantasized about some of the girls at school, but he had no idea how to get close to them, let alone how to induce them to touch him like she was touching him now.

“Do you want to?” Her fingers were at the buttons of his shirt. “It’ll be good, I promise.”

“Oh, yes,” he breathed. “But… but…”

“But what?” she said, running her tongue slowly along his upper lip, then underneath it and across his teeth. He felt himself responding, returning the kiss, his heart pounding.

“But you’re married,” he said.

She had his shirt fully unbuttoned, and ran a finger from the base of his neck to his belly button, sending an electrical surge through his whole body. “Don’t you feel it?” she whispered.

He looked into her blue eyes, nodded, and whispered back, “Yes.”

“Then don’t deny your feelings,” she said. “I’ve wanted you since the first day I saw you.” Her fingers were at the top of his pants, unbuttoning them, easing down the zipper, one hand slipping inside to touch him. He got erections often, sometimes at inconvenient times and places (his friends at school joked about “the third-period hard-on”), but now he was flaccid in his nervousness. He was so nervous his whole body trembled, despite the heat from the fire.

She was wearing a white pullover top with a cord at the neck; his hands encircled her breasts as she kissed him hard, one hand still in his pants. He felt sweat beading on his forehead. She filled his hands; he could tell through the soft material that she wasn’t wearing a bra. A thumb found the bullet of her nipple, and she sighed into his open mouth.

He was still only half-hard. She moved her hand slowly up and down. “Try to relax,” she said, stroking his hair with her other hand. He was anything but relaxed. What if he couldn’t please her in the way she wanted? Would she reject him, drive away, end the friendship they had developed that he had come to cherish? Would she think he was queer? He knew he wasn’t, but he knew of boys at school who aroused such suspicion, and understood it was a thing to be avoided at all costs. He did want her, oh yes he did, but his penis was paralyzed with fear.

“Would it be better if we went upstairs?” she said. “Up to your bedroom?”

“Okay,” he said.

She sat up, smoothed down the front of her blouse over her breasts, and held out her hands to him. “Come on.”

They had been in his bedroom before, once, last summer, when she had driven him home after sailing and his mother had suggested that he give her a tour of the house. They had sat on the bed and talked, and she had touched his hand and he had felt a surge of something run all the way up his arms and into the pleasure center of his brain. Perhaps whatever was between them had already started then, and he had been too naïve and too shy to act upon it.

Aside from the master bedroom that had been his parents’ and where Annabelle now slept alone, he had the best room in the house. It faced the street and looked out over the bay, and an oval window that framed the headlights of cars passing by at night. He was a little embarrassed that he hadn’t cleaned it up. The bed was unmade and clothes littered the floor. The top of his desk and bureau bore the scattered detritus of his life: books and papers and coins and bus tickets and little rocks and shells he’d picked up on the shore last summer. She didn’t seem to notice any of it. In one fluid motion, she pulled off her top and tossed it on his bed, revealing a pair of breasts that took his breath away. The tights came next, followed by the skirt, leaving only a pair of light blue, barely-there panties. She peeled these off and dropped them on the floor, and stood gloriously naked before him.

He fumbled his way out of his own clothes, and they fell onto the bed together, kissing and exploring each other’s skin with their hands. She guided one of his hands between her legs and he felt the wetness there. But he still wasn’t hard. He didn’t know what to do – he certainly wasn’t going to stroke himself in front of her, and he had no experience to tell him that nature would take care of itself if he stopped thinking about his dick and enjoyed the sensation of her body against his. For there was no denying it was a beautiful body, as sexy as those he’d seen in his father’s old issues of Playboy and the magazines passed around in the dorm at school. So what was wrong with him? The harder he tried, the more stubbornly soft his manhood remained.

And then she was pushing him down on the bed, and turning around, and, oh God, what was she doing? Was she going to take him in her mouth? He felt the brush of her breath, and then the tip of her tongue on the underside, and then the warmth as she engulfed him. She swung a leg over his head and lowered herself to his face. He had never seen or smelled a woman’s sex up close; what was he supposed to do now? He kissed gently around the folds of her slit, uncertain of what she would like or wanted him to do, terrified of doing something wrong.

But her tongue was doing wonderful things to him, and finally he began to feel the sensations in the space behind his scrotum that often stirred him in the mornings when he first woke up, and sometimes in the middle of the day or night. Bonnie moved her mouth up and down on him and he began to swell in response. He kissed the soft skin on the inside of her thighs. She raised herself off of him and turned around, knelt with one leg on either side of his hips, and reached between them and aimed him where she wanted him to go. He arched upward, wanting it, wanting her, but suddenly he was soft again.

It was like the air going out of a balloon. He sank into the mattress, wanting to cry, to pound his fists against the sheets in frustration. He looked at the clock on his bedside table and saw that it was already quarter past two. Joanie and Pilar would be home in less than an hour.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered miserably.

She sat up and took his face in both hands. “Jeremy, it’s okay,” she said. She kissed him on the mouth. “We’ll have many other chances. It’s always awkward the first time.”

“But I want to make love to you.”

“We are making love,” she said. “You don’t need to be inside me to make love to me. It isn’t all or nothing.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed, reached for the flimsy blue panties.

“But I don’t know why I didn’t… you know…”

“Get an erection?”

“Yeah. I get ’em all the time. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

She ran a hand along his chin and lifted his face to look into his eyes. “It’s all right,” she said. “It doesn’t happen automatically. There’s nothing wrong with you. I think you’re beautiful, and sweet, and sexy. Get used to that idea, and we’ll try again the next time we see each other.”

“When will that be?”

“Do you want to take a drive tomorrow? Maybe down to Deer Isle? I could say it’s boatyard business.”

“Okay,” he managed to croak.

The next day she picked him up, and they drove across the suspension cable bridge that sometimes swayed precipitously in storms, down to the old quarrying town of Stonington, on the south end of the island, where she went to the boatyard and picked up two gallons of bottom paint in a color she said her husband didn’t have – an errand that could have waited until spring, but gave her an excuse to spend several hours away. They found a deserted road that led down to a beach fronted by several unoccupied summer houses, and there she laid the two front seats of her Saab all the way back, and this time Jeremy was able to pleasure her twice in the space of little more than an hour. The fogged windows of the car sealed them in their own private world, and their desire drove away the cold. “We have years of wonderful fucking to look forward to,” she promised him, and he believed her.

He asked her about birth control, and she replied that she wasn’t ovulating and that he should trust her. She was already on her second marriage at twenty-four. The first had ended when she had found her much older husband in bed with a man. He had married her to look legitimate in his community, where he was a high school science teacher. Sexually dissatisfied, she had entered into a series of affairs until meeting Randall Perkins and escaping to the coast of Maine, which looked like as good a place as any to make a new start. But he was older, too, and Jeremy, so she told him, was the first person she had met who appealed to both her attraction for science geeks and her sex drive. “You know, a man peaks sexually at seventeen,” she told him, “but for a woman it’s mid-twenties to early thirties, so we’re gonna make each other very, very happy.”

He went back to school a week later, after several more secret trysts. Her letters became steamier and sometimes included dried flower petals and promises of things to come the next summer when he would be home and working at the boatyard, right under her husband’s nose. One weekend in February she told Randall that she was going to a sales conference in Boston and came to see him at school instead. He snuck her in through the window late Friday night. She stayed with him through Monday, her car parked blatantly beside the faculty vehicles outside the dorm, having sex with him in his room and using the bathroom while he stood sentry. They took long walks around the school grounds, and he introduced her proudly. He hadn’t had a girlfriend in the three years he’d been there, and his peers were surprised and impressed. Jeremy was amazed that he didn’t get called into the rector’s office and threatened with expulsion.

When he went home for his two-week spring vacation they managed to get together almost every day. One time Randall took an overnight trip to a boat show and they made it in her bed, but more often than not they took her car somewhere and found a beach or a field or an old dirt road. He took walks by himself when they were apart, and thought of her. If Annabelle noticed a change in his behavior, she didn’t say anything.

He went back to New Hampshire for the last two months of the school year, and there were more letters and more visits, including a weekend trip to Hampden Beach, where she rented a hotel room and they called room service and balled three times a day and went skinny-dipping after midnight and were caught by a security guard who let them off with a warning after catching them in flagrante delicto. He was having the time of his life and didn’t ever want it to end.

For the first five months of their affair he had been mostly separated from his family by distance, and he hadn’t had to deal with Bonnie’s husband at all. But he’d been promised a summer job at the boatyard, where he would cross paths with Randall every day. Though his immediate supervisor would be the shop foreman and not the owner, he knew enough to know that that tapping the owner’s wife was a dangerous thing to do. Did he think they would get caught? Did a part of him relish the prospect, and wish that their love could be out in the open? Was he hurt that Bonnie still slept with her husband, and shared her body with another man? The answer to all three questions had to be yes.

As he rode the bus up the Maine coast after the last day of school, with his duffel bag in the seat beside him, his trunk in the storage compartment below, he suddenly thought about his father. He wondered whether he had been in a bus or in his mother’s car at the moment of his father’s death. It didn’t matter. By the time they got to the hospital he was gone. Jeremy had arrived too late to say goodbye.

Two weeks after that bus ride everything had gone to hell. He’d been fired and chased out of town. After a summer on the run with Bonnie, he had boarded another bus and gone back to his senior year at boarding school. She promised to write and visit. Instead, she disappeared.

Jeremy threw himself into his studies to distract himself from his heartbreak. He graduated from St. Paul’s without further incident. After that, he took a job on the paint crew at Cornell and was allowed to live in the dorm all summer before his freshman year. It seemed like a good deal. He was sick of Maine, and he felt like Maine was sick of him.

He dated some at Cornell, but nothing lasted long. He devoted most of his spare time to beer and softball. He did well in his science and math classes, but he half-assed English, history and psychology. Jeremy was a lazy writer, and an even lazier reader if the subject didn’t interest him. He graduated in four years with an undistinguished B average, and wondered what to do next.

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