The train, when she finally got on it, smelled like bleach and excitement. The Havana Special, which ran all the way from New York to Miami, would be the first overnight journey she had ever taken alone. She kept pressing her nose to the inside of her wrist, inhaling her lily-of-the-valley perfume like a smelling salt. In the dizziness of it all, she almost forgot to tip the porter.
Inside her roomette, Nick set her leather case on the rack and clicked it open, checking the contents again to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. One nightgown for the train (white), and one for Hughes (green, with matching dressing gown). Two ivory silk slips, three matching pairs of ivory silk underpants and brassieres (she could wash them every other day until the rest of her things arrived in St. Augustine), her ditty kit (travel vial of perfume; one lipstick, red; the precious Floris hand cream Hughes had brought her from London; one toothbrush and paste; one washcloth; and one cake of Ivory soap), two cotton dresses, two cotton blouses, one pair of gabardine trousers (her Katharine Hepburn trousers), two cotton skirts, and one good summer-weight wool suit (cream). She also counted out three pairs of cotton gloves (two white, one cream), and her mother’s pink-and-green silk scarf.
Her mother had loved that scarf; she always wore it when she was traveling to Europe. Now it belonged to Nick. And although she wasn’t going as far as Paris just yet, going to meet Hughes after so long seemed more like going to China.
“Beyond here be dragons,” she said to the suitcase.
Nick heard the whistle blow and quickly snapped the lid shut and sat down. Now that the war was over, the scene outside the window, women waving handkerchiefs and red-eyed children, was less affecting. No one was going off to die, they were just going to an old aunt’s house, or some boring work appointment. For her, though, it felt exciting; the world was new. She was going to see Hughes. Hughes. She whispered his name like a talisman. Now that she was only a day away from him, she thought she might go crazy with the waiting. Funny, how that was. Six months, but the last few hours were unbearable.
The last time they had seen each other was spring, when his escort ship had docked in New York for repairs and he had gotten liberty. They had stayed on board the U.S.S. Jacob Jones, in one of the rooms for married officers. There were fleas, and just when Hughes had his hand down her skirt, her ankles began to burn. She had tried to concentrate on the tip of his fingers searching her out. His lips on the pulse in her neck. But couldn’t help crying out.
“Hughes, there’s something in the bed.”
“I know, Jesus.”
They had both rushed to the shower to find their legs covered in red bites and the water in the drain a pool of pepper. Hughes cursed the ship, cursed the war. Nick wondered if he’d notice her naked body. Instead, he turned his back and began soaping himself.
But he had taken her to the 21 Club. And it had been one of those moments when it seemed that the whole world was conspiring for their happiness. Hughes, who would never take money from his parents and wouldn’t let Nick spend her own, didn’t earn enough on his lieutenant junior’s salary for a meal there. But he knew how much she loved the stories of the sharkskin-suited gangsters and their glamorous molls who had kicked up their heels there during Prohibition.
“We can only have two martinis and a bowl of olives and celery,” he said.
“We don’t have to go there at all, if we can’t afford it,” Nick said, looking at her husband’s face. It was sad; sad and something else she couldn’t put her finger on.
“No,” he said. “We can afford just this. But then we have to leave.”
They arrived in the dark-paneled Bar Room, with its crush of toys and sporting artefacts hanging from the ceiling, and Nick instantly felt the impact of her own youth and beauty. She could feel the eyes of the men and women at small tables pass over her red shantung dress and glance off her short, thick black hair. One of the things she loved about Hughes was that he had never wanted her to resemble the celluloid blonds tacked up in every boy’s room across the country. And she didn’t. She was a little too severe-looking, her lines a little too crisp, to be considered pretty. Sometimes it felt like a never-ending battle to prove to the world that, in her difference, she was special, discrete. But there, at the urbane 21 Club, she felt her own rightness. It was a place full of streamlined women, with intelligent eyes, like bullet trains. And there was Hughes, so honey blond, with his elegant hands and long legs and Service Dress Blues.
The waiter seated them at table 29. There was a couple to their right. The woman was smoking and pointing out lines from a slender book.
“In that line, I really see the whole film,” the woman said.
“Yes,” the man said, with just a touch of uncertainty.
“And in some ways, it is so Bogart.”
“It does seem like he could have been the only logical choice.”
Nick looked at Hughes. She wanted to communicate to him how much she loved him for taking her here, for spending too much money just to have a cocktail, for letting her be herself. She tried to radiate all these things in her smile. She didn’t want to talk just yet.
“Do you know what?” the woman said, her pitch rising suddenly. “We’re at their table. Do you realize we’re at their table and we’re talking about them?”
“Are we really?” The man took another sip from his Scotch.
“Oh, that is so 21,” the woman said, laughing.
Nick leaned in. “Whose table, do you think?” she whispered to Hughes behind her gloved hand.
“I’m sorry?” Hughes said distractedly. “They said they’re at someone’s table. Whose table?”
Nick realized that the woman was now eyeing them. She had heard her, seen her try to hide her curiosity behind her hand. Nick flushed and looked down at the red-and-white checked tablecloth.
“Why, it’s Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s table, dear,” the woman said. She said it kindly. “They went on their first date at this table. It’s one of the things they brag about here.”
“Oh, really?” Nick tried to hit a note somewhere between polite and nonchalant. She smoothed her styled hair with her palms, feeling the softness of the suede loosening the hairspray.
“Oh, Dick, let’s give them the table.” The woman was laughing again. “Are you two lovers?”
“Yes,” said Nick, feeling bold, sophisticated. “But we’re also married.”
“That’s a rarity,” the man chuckled.
“Yes, indeed, it is,” the woman said. “And that deserves Bogart and Bacall’s table.”
“Oh, please don’t let us disturb you,” Nick said.
“Nonsense,” the man said, picking up his Scotch and the woman’s champagne cocktail.
“Oh, really, you’ve been bedeviled by my wife,” Hughes said. “Nick . . .”
“Oh, we’d love it,” the woman said. “And she is especially bedeviling.”
Nick looked at Hughes, who smiled at her.
“Yes, she is,” he said. “Come on then, darling. We’re all on the move for you.”
The martini that arrived reminded Nick of the sea and their house on the island: clean, briny and utterly familiar.
“Hughes. This may be the best supper I’ve ever had.From now on, I only want martinis, olives, and celery.”
Hughes put his hand to her face. “I’m sorry about all of this.”
“How can you say that? Look where we are.”