It’s all memory now. For Clara. A conjuring of the past. Having said Ella’s name out loud for the first time in fifty years.
The incantation broke through the back pages of Clara’s life and brought her to this time and place: 1955. Wellesley, Massachusetts. It’s where they met. Years ago. In college.
Clara is steeped in anticipation. Perched on the hotel’s Spartan divan gazing out the large window which is a metaphor for the expanse of her life. What she’s gained. And what she lost.
Born and bred a Boston Brahmin, Clara knows about decorum. Patience. Stoicism. Still, her mind is afire with images and tastes and smells and the rhapsody of unbridled affections. The rhapsody she gave into and gave up before it marooned her life.
Sincerely is playing over the hotel’s speakers. The Andrews Sisters, in harmony, evoking the past which has become the present.
For Ella is arriving soon.
But not altogether too late.
“You’re from Boston,” Ella declared when they first met. September. 1905. ‘Heck, Wellesley is almost your backyard.”
“Hardly,” Clara rejoined while unpacking.
“Well, it’s in the same state anyway. Guess where I’m from,” her roommate challenged Clara—putting herself on display.
Clara considered Ella’s dress and demeanor. Both of which she was unfamiliar. “Some place in Ohio.”
“West, Madam! Denver, Colorado. Rocky Mountains. The edge of civilization. I’m nearly a savage.” Ella laughed and swirled around Clara as if to prove her point.
“First time this far east?” Clara asked.
“Does it show?”
“Well, frankly, yes.”
Ella took both of Clara’s hands in her own. “We’re going to have so much fun! Won’t we?” Ella’s eyes blazed with an intensity that turned Clara away. She withdrew her hands.
“Which bed would you like?” Clara asked.
Wellesley College admitted its first students September 1875. The founders, Pauline and Henry Durant, being a step ahead of history, founded the college to prepare women for the coming social reforms—if not inspire them. Thirty years on, the school thrived while suffragettes of ungovernable dispositions strove to remove the chains of their enslavement one link at a time.
Clara enrolled at Wellesley despite her mother’s protests. Despite her blue-blood having predetermined Clara’s fate: American royalty marrying other royalty. Being first of her father’s house, then of her husband’s. Being a pawn in the game men of a certain heritage and considerable monetary worth played while they shaped the nation’s history.
Attending Wellesley was a small revolution for Clara and not meant to mimic the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Politics was a dirty business and should be left to men, Clara agreed. Women have a higher calling. That was surely clear. Still, eighteen-year-old Clara Winterton wasn’t certain that calling meant marriage or children.
During their initial days at Wellesley, Clara’s natural reserve butted up against Ella’s effervescence. Ella experienced life as an adventure. Clara as something to be managed. A clear demarcation marked their shared quarters. One side taut and tidy. The other a shambles of bedclothes and books. One side saying yes to every possibility. The other—I abstain. Yet, their shared existence allowed for a growing cordiality. And more.
“Hurry, or you’ll be late,” Clara admonished Ella who had rushed into their room ten minutes before a mandatory physical education class.
It was three weeks into the first semester and they were already establishing the roles they would play.
Ella shucked her dress and undergarments immodestly. Clara engaged in some other business whenever that happened. They arrived at the class in their matching and loose-fitting costumes out of breath.
Ella excelled in Physical Education. She was strong and agile. Could walk on her hands. She sweated beautifully. Almost wantonly Clara thought.
On that day, the two were paired off to share calisthenics. Stretching. Pushing. Pulling. Creating resistance. Tension. Of all sorts. And who knows what happened? Did Clara give way? Did Ella pull too hard? But there they were. Chest-to-chest. Face-to-face. Ella illuminated and graced with perspiration. Clara deep within Ella’s electric eyes. A flash of recognition. A tick of time as quick and telling as a photograph. And then they parted. Moved on to a different partner.
Clara rationalized it. Compartmentalized the exchange. Decided it was nothing more than the moment itself. And kept the gauze of propriety between them.
Though they could both see through it.
And more and more clearly as their shared experiences wove them inexorably together. As Ella’s impulsivity seduced Clara to engage in unseeming behaviors. Spontaneous tomfoolery unsuitable for a debutante with familial aspirations.
Even a stroll to class could be an adventure. Ella kicking her way through the temporal carpet of brass and gold-hued leaves for the simple joy of it. Scooping up a handful and showering Clara with them. Enticing her to give chase. What else could Clara do, but engage? Her awkwardness giving way to exuberance. And exuberance giving way to breathless unbridled laughter. The laughter, of necessity, falling away like the leaves themselves to comportment and gentility.
Though the leaf caught in her hair gave Clara away.
Or the evening they stole into the kitchen, Clara protesting, but then nearly giddy with the excitement of such illicit behavior. They freed the last bit of rhubarb pie and escaped with their honors intact. Confederates sworn to secrecy—and something else.
Winter came on. The oak and maple trees around Lake Woban framed the grey skies with their skeletal arms. Ella remained irrepressible. And Clara’s flowering affections for Ella remained no cause for alarm.
They were friends, after all. Nearly sisters despite being polar opposites. They teased one another. Ella’s barnyard manners, Clara scoffed. Clara’s straight-backed reserve, Ella mocked. But they never went beyond the conventional. Ella being patient. Clara being so firmly rooted in her family’s legacy. The orderly succession of generation to generation. The way things—ought to be.
“I want you to come with me to our ranch. Outside of Denver.” Ella demanded as they mothered cups of cocoa in the dining hall.
Christmas vacation loomed on their horizon.
"It’s impossible. I couldn’t manage it.”
“Not by mule, dear heart. By train.”
“By train or by boat or any other form of transportation, my parents expect me over the holidays. As do countless other relatives.”
“I have no beaus, Ella. You know this.”
“But you have prospects. Well positioned men cuing up to be the dam’s sire.” Ella said her eyes quick and teasing. “Am I right?”
“Your vulgarity is what I love most about you.”
“Clara’s endless possibilities are what I love most about her.”
The two women weighed the implications of their conversation. The unspoken. Ella stood and came around the table and kissed Clara’s cheek. She smelled of lavender. Clara closed her eyes and breathed Ella in. It’s all she allowed herself.
“At least think about it,” Ella said.
Their eyes fixed on one another and Clara sensed the opportunity lost would haunt her. Somehow. She set her cup on its saucer. “All right,” she told her friend, “buy me a ticket.”
The train ride across America to Denver proved exhausting. The depth and breadth of the country difficult to take in all at once. Her parents’ fierce silence who deigned to let their daughter go, but freighted her with the guilt of her absence dampened Clara’s enthusiasms. Until they arrived at the Sullivan’s ranch. And such a vast expanse of space.
North, south, east, west went on for miles. Clara absorbed it. Felt set free. Emancipated. Nearly.
The large log-hewn house enchanted her. Ella’s parents as elemental and embracing as the sky and earth that surrounded them.
Clara wore trousers for the first time. Rode horses western style. Experienced the natural world in ways not appropriate for a lady of society. The savagery of death by mountain lion. The casual discharge of excrement and mucking out of barns.
Uninhibited displays of bestial sexuality.
She bathed in a tub in the kitchen where a Franklin stove made the room glow with warmth.
And one fine crisp evening steeped in soapy luxury, a knock and Ella stood at the open door.
“Need anything?” she asked.
“Ella, please,” Clara said.
“Is that, Ella please leave or Ella please stay?”
“Are asleep. Long day. A long, good day.”
“Yes,” Clara agreed and meant it.
“I could help. Scrub your back.” Ella stepped into the room.
Clara leaned forward, not as invitation but to further shield her nudity.
Ella, misreading intentions—perhaps—closed the door behind her.
“You shouldn’t bother,” Clara said.
“I’ll be gentle,” Ella reassured her and crossed to the tub. Kneeled there.
“But I’m nearly done.”
“Shhh,” Ella said and took the washcloth from Clara’s hand, soaped it and making small circles washed Clara’s ivory back.
“You’re beautiful. Know that?” Ella murmured. “In all the important ways. And this way too.”
Clara squeezed shut her eyes. Her mind going in one direction. Her body in another. Wanting and consumed by one desire while bound and beholden to circumstances of her being. What was expected. What was tolerable and intolerable. What would negate the script written for her. So many depending upon the arc of her story.
What would be irretrievably broken.
Ella moved to Clara’s lower back.
Clara took in a breath of air. A small gasp. Bitter tears burned her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said—nearly a whisper.
“It’s all right, Clara. I don’t want anything you can’t give me.”
On the return train to Wellesley from Denver, Ella allowed Clara her space. Much was unsaid. Neither had the vocabulary to express the seemingly inexpressible. Back in their room, Clara understood proximity demanded at least civility. Besides, what had actually happened to put them at odds? Nothing, she affirmed. Gradually, they regained their footing.
“Clara, you’re going to the lecture this afternoon?” Ella asked a week later. “On William Blake.”
“Yes, of course. Why?”
“You’ve heard some of the faculty and other students are refusing to attend. Something about his ambiguity. What do you suppose that means?”
Clara set aside the Emerson she had been reading. “I suppose it’s a polite way of saying they don’t agree with who he is or what he’s written. His art.”
“Or both,” Clara agreed. “Blake is--challenging.”
“A free thinker.”
“Everything has its cost, Ella. Especially freedom.”
“But it must be worth—whatever to speak your mind. Be who you are meant to be.”
“You are such a revolutionary.”
“And you, Clara Winterton, have the potential to revolutionize society.”
“As I’ve said. Wellesley is merely the beginning,” Ella grasped Clara’s hand. Clara let it nestle there. “After this, everything is an option for you.”
“Absolutely. Any further course of study. Any career. Any sort of life.”
“I appreciate your belief in me. In society.”
“Sorry. I only want what’s best for you.”
“I appreciate that as well.”
“Good,” Ella returned steering away from another possible breach. Bridging the gap between them, she spoke coyly. “Cause that will--cost you.”
“Really?” Clara said meeting Ella halfway. “Can I afford it?”
They exchanged shy smiles.
“Save me a seat. At the lecture. We can share notes afterward.”
“Share? I believe the word you’re looking for is borrow.”
In this way their relationship righted itself and they were chums again though Clara had trouble concentrating on the Punic Wars and the complexities of Latin mirrored the complexities of her emotions. For, no matter their pretense, Ella’s visceral being, another sort of foreign language, couldn’t be ignored. It required no deciphering and Clara struggled against its persistent intoxications.
The thought of holding Ella in her arms both compelled and repelled Clara. Repelled not because it was indecorous, but because she, herself, would become repellant. Out. Caste.
But some things are certain. The bitter and the sweet.
March the campus grounds were mud and slush. Winter giving way reluctantly. Spring beckoning.
Ella and Clara strolled down to the lake--arm-in-arm. Happy to be out. Everything was possible on a day such as that. Lake Woban serene and cobalt blue. The magpies enterprising.
At the slight dip to the shoreline, Clara’s feet gave way in the slick clay. Ella attempted to keep her upright, but she, too, lost her footing and the women tumbled to the ground. Rolled and sprawled there—Ella atop of Clara—the both of them covered in muck and leaves—laughing.
And then drifting to silence.
And then the quiet profound convergence.
At long last.
The inevitable kiss.
Soft as dawn. A rising to the light. This sweet immersion in a new day. A new season.
And again. Prolonged and tender. For there was no hurry. They were already there.
And later, in their room. The undressing. The unveiling. Ella’s body lean and muscular as rope. Clara stepping free of her undergarments all alabaster and fully realized.
They recognized each other. Knew where the secrets languished. The joy waited.
Their hands ran like rivers over their bodies. Their mouths ravenous for the tastes of one another. They laid across Clara’s bed. Ecstasy rolled over them in waves. Sweeping them out to a transcendent sea. It was ardor and something more. The sacrament of being.
And it was spring. And life came out of hibernation. The trees came into bud. And leafed. Bees to the flowers. Students to their larks and frivolities.
And Ella and Clara, having been liberated, spent long languid afternoons entwined. It was difficult to let go of their own arousal. And, then, the only thing Clara could do.
May. Near end of term. Decisions had to be made.
“Colorado is beautiful in the summer,” Ella said while braiding Clara’s umber and russet hair.
“I have commitments, Ella. We discussed this.”
“Cancel the trip abroad.”
“I’m escorting my mother. Everything arranged previous to you.”
“But things have changed, haven’t they?”
“Have they, Ella? Have they? I don’t see it.”
“All right, then.” Ella swung Clara around to face her. “We can be part of what will change. Part of what Anthony and now Catt and all those other ladies are organizing for. It will benefit women like us as well.”
“Women like us? You mean lovers?”
Clara framed Ella’s head in her hands. “Even if they win the right to vote, it won’t ratify this.”
She kissed Ella.
“This is good,” Ella said.
“Suffrage. What a perfect sounding word for what we would be facing.”
“But apart from everything else. It’d either be a secret kept or a lie told. Is that anyway to live?”
“There is another choice!”
“An impossible choice, Ella! An impossible choice.” Clara caressed the contours of Ella’s face. It was a gesture fraught with affection and imbued with regret.
A silence crept into the room. It spoke with its own voice. Clara turned away.
“You’re not coming back,” Ella said quiet as a prayer. “Are you? To Wellesley. To me.”
“I don’t know, darling. I don’t,” Clara said her voice guttural and impassioned. She looked at Ella through her mirror. It was the look of love, but it wasn’t enough.
Ella stayed away when Clara left for Boston, and found a note on her desk when she returned to their shared room. It was unsigned.
“Dearest, there are four entries in my thesaurus for the word love. No surprise. Well over one hundred synonyms. I love you in all those ways and more. Even a hankering. I will ache for you every day we’re apart. Every day. Every night. Believe that. Believe me. Good-bye.”
And it was good-bye. Clara unable or unwilling to summon the courage to bring to public scrutiny their hearts’ desires. The forbidden. Incapable of bearing the cost of being unfettered. Bearing the price they would have to pay for freedom of expression. And it broke them in two. But never wholly apart.
Ella graduated from Wellesley three years later and through dogged persistence earned her Doctoral degree in psychology. She immersed herself in the world of academia. Wrote papers on subordinating truth which later became known as cognitive dissonance.
Ella dedicated her first book to ‘A dear friend who inspired the line of inquiry’.
Clara never read it. She didn’t have to. She lived it.
Clara married Benjamin Bradford in August of 1906. Her gown a triumph of silk and lace—rivaling even the President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt’s, who married in February.
The ceremony was a satisfactory affair. Comforting. Life unspooling as it should. Expectations met.
The years accumulated. Two world wars fought. The Nineteenth Amendment ratified. A great depression surmounted. Through it all, Clara flourished. Children were bred and born and fully fledged. She managed her life and her charities with aplomb. Gave as much and more as she took. A pillar of the community folks said not knowing how close Clara had come to being a pillar of salt.
But she never looked back—until Ella’s phone call last week—after all those years gone—expressing her condolences. Belatedly. For Clara’s husband had died five months ago. Too many cigarettes and not enough exercise, and a stroke caught him astride a recent acquisition. Business, apparently, had been booming.
“I’ll be in New York for a seminar,” Ella had said. “Perhaps we could meet.”
Clara hesitated. The space between them dissipating in the hesitation. Uniting the past with the present. Reuniting her with the future.
“Yes,” she said at last—coming full circle.
Fifty years after their first meeting, in a discreet hotel lobby, Clara sits poised in her burgundy Errol Flynn hat and light-opera dress. Her cashmere coat with mink fur on the collar just off her shoulders.
A torrent of emotions threatens to overwhelm her. Words and images, smells and touches resonate in Clara’s mind, but she keeps them at bay. Bears them like she’s borne her life. Resolutely.
None of her four children know where Clara is. All adults on their own now. A doctor. A lawyer. Of course. A political scientist teaching at Humboldt State University. Seemingly as far away as possible. The youngest, by ten years, a pianist wanting to emulate Elvis Presley or Little Richard—she can’t remember which.
She remembers only the day Ella swept into her life. And the day she abandoned her for Boston.
A. Long. Time. Ago.
Some things are regrettable by commission. Some by omission. Clara understands this better than most.
Night envelopes the hotel. Sincerely plays over the speakers hidden in the ceiling. The Andrew’s Sisters in perfect harmony. Number one on the Billboard’s Top Ten.
Clara maintains her composure.
Ella’s arriving soon.
But not altogether too late.