The Wild Dark Flowers
long silence. In it, John wondered for the first time what was in his father’s past. He’d spoken as if he knew the kind of hell that John was living through.
A railroad crash
. Yes, it was exactly like that. All the life had been knocked out of him: he felt thin, transparent.
    “I can’t forget her.”
    “You won’t,” his father replied. “You don’t have to. But you can never go back.” He sighed; his concern for John was obvious. But his voice was firm. “I’m telling you the decent thing here, John,” he said. “Whatever’s gone on over there, you have to put it from your mind. You’re home now. You’ll get over her. You have to look forward. And that’s all that matters.”
    John had never discussed it with his mother. That in itself was unusual, but she had perhaps taken advice from his father and tried to move him on. She arranged several parties that autumn and winter, and invited suitable women. Pretty, available women of good stock, women of his own age and younger. He was as polite to them all as he could be; he dutifully danced with them and he accepted one or two invitations in return. But the moment that he got near a girl, he got a kind of twisted feeling in his chest, a sharp and penetrating ache. He thought that he understood then why people said “a broken heart.” Sometimes the pain was so acute that he thought he must be ill, and he tried to ward off his longing with activity. He went sailing, and he started swimming in the sea in the depths of winter. The cold made him gasp so much that he felt sick, but at least his body was numb.
    But nothing turned the slow music of Octavia down. She was a constant subtle chemical running in his bloodstream. He only confided in one other person all winter—a man he played racquetball with in New York City. This man had gone into his father’s banking business—he had had to shape up and be the pillar of respectability—and he had eyed John sympathetically. “I had a girl in California,” he said. He had sighed and shrugged. “Can’t have those kind,” he had told John. “Got to get a good girl to marry. Think of that. Focus on it. Let the other one fade. And she will.”
    But Octavia would not leave John’s head. In January, he had done as his father suggested and tried to work at the giant department store that had made the family fortune. He had really made an effort, getting up at six and being there even before his father, walking the empty floors, trying to drum up an interest. He had an idea that if he exhausted himself, he would find a cure for Octavia.
    He found that he had quite a talent, but it was not for selling curtaining by the yard, or lace for elaborate trousseaux, or the vast mahogany bedroom sets. He rediscovered what he had always had: the ability to tell charming stories and laugh people out of their indecision. He could smooth ruffled feathers, and the sunny glow he imported as he walked his rounds was a quality that he turned on quite deliberately. He was saying to himself,
See? I can do it. I can be happy. I can get along.
Sometimes he amused himself for whole days at a time with this fantasy, until he would get home and go to his own room and sit at his desk, and find himself pouring words onto a page, addressing them to Octavia, sealing them in an envelope, and sending them to her.
    He dared not plead—that would be as cruel to her as this whole charade was to himself—but he tried to be subtly persuasive. He tried to say appealing things. And in between the words he hoped she could feel him leaping out towards her, wrapping her in his arms. That’s all he wanted to do, in the end. Have her with him, in his bed, in his days. Christ! It was unbearable. It was purgatory. And it went on, and on, and on.
    One evening, his parents held a dinner party. It was late March; there was the scent of spring in the air. There was a cherry tree in the garden, and it was all in bloom. One of the guests, a newspaper editor,

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