There was a big picture of Fidel Castro entering Havana on the front page of that morning's Boston Globe.
"Do you think that bastard really made it?" St. Pierre was lighting up another Lucky from the butt he held in his small dark fingers.
"If he did, you can bet your ass we'll hear about it," I said.
"Imagine watching the news," he said. "Suddenly you catch a glimpse of Frank sitting on the tailgate of some truck with a bunch of guerrillas--or driving a Jeep!"
"With that crazy crewcut," Mueller interjected, "and a shit-eating grin on his face."
Mendel was quiet as usual. A black curl bisected his forehead. His sharp blue eyes followed our conversation, darting from one speaker to another.
"Hold on," he broke in. "You guys think it's some kind of movie. If he made it down there, if he actually got through to Castro in the Sierra Maestra, do you think for one minute they'd be silly enough to give him a gun?"
"Frank's a good shot," I said.
"Hunting's not warfare," Mendel replied dismissively. "Besides, with his eyesight he couldn't even pass a draft board physical."
"Fuck the American army!" Mueller shouted. "Pretty soon they'll be going in against Castro."
"I can see it now," St. Pierre said. "The president comes on TV with a stern look on that baby face of his: 'We have to intervene because the Cuban Revolution is threatening our national security--"'
"Security, my ass," said Mueller, doing a bongo roll on the edge of the Formica table top. "It's cutting off the gambling take. Next thing you know they'll be nationalizing the sugar industry."
It was the first day of the new semester. We were sitting in the window of Clayton's Food Shop. Ten o'clock classes had let out and you could see everyone's breath on the cold air. Calls and shouts came to us through the plate glass, partially fogged with moisture. They seemed to echo off the old stone buildings in the gray light. It had snowed again the night before, and now it was hard packed on Maine Street, with drifts still white along the sidewalks.
Only four of us remained from a group of six friends. Frank was gone. And just before Christmas Roonie Reardon, a Korean War vet on the GI bill, had blown a hole the size of a melon in the living room wall of the TD house with his .357 Magnum pistol. For that indulgence, he'd been expelled, leaving St. Pierre, myself, Mendel and Mueller.
We sat around three sides of the table, elbows jammed in among saucers and textbooks. The big bay window in front of the luncheonette jutted out over the sidewalk. From our vantage point you could see the entrance to Fairfield's Book Shop next door to the right of us, and King's Barber Shop and the Parkview Cleaners and Laundromat down the street on the left. Directly across the street was the white facade of the First Parish Church. On the other side of the Bath Road, which was perpendicular to Maine Street, was the entrance to the campus, where the Franklin Robinson Memorial gate hung perpetually open on two granite pillars. A brick walk began there and led to Massachusetts Hall, which housed the administrative offices. Spread out beyond that around the "quad" were the classroom buildings, the chapel, the library, the art museum and the dorms.
"I told my parents I wasn't going to medical school."
St. Pierre lit up another Lucky, jabbing the previous butt out in his cup. The cup and saucer rattled against the table top. His hand shook against the cup as he tried to fit it back into the saucer. That set the cup to rattling again and some more of the gray-colored coffee spilled into the well of the saucer.
"Fuck it," he said, pushing both cup and saucer away. With a crumpled paper napkin he dabbed at the circle of moisture in front of him.
"It was pandemonium. My father cracked the kitchen table with his fist and my little sister went screaming into her room. The message was clear--I'd disappointed them again."
"We had the same argument all over," he continued, leaning his chair back against the window frame. "I told them that I wasn't cut out to be a doctor, that I wanted to go to New York to study acting."
"'But you've just completed three and half years of pre-med,' my father bellowed. 'What do you mean you're not cut out?"'
"'I'm passing by the skin of my teeth,' I said. And when I tried to explain the whole thing had been a lie, that I never really wanted to go to medical school, and that I'd only started applying to please them--to go along with my uncle who was the family success story--it was like adding insult to injury."
"But the worst part of it," he said, and his coal black eyes sought mine--"the worst was my father looking at me with unbelievable contempt. 'Go to New York,' he said, 'you'll end up nothing but a queer."'
St. Pierre dropped his cigarette into the last of the cold coffee. He pushed the cup and saucer even farther away from him.
"That's what happens," Mueller said, smoothing his goatee down under his chin. "You try to come clean with them and it blows up in your face. Just don't tell your family anything. Do what Frank did."
St. Pierre shook his head.
"It doesn't work. They start reminding you who's paying the bills."
"So what?" Mueller said. "Don't you remember the letter I got from my father when he tried to convince me to shave? He threatened to stop my allowance if I didn't get rid of the beard. I said, 'Great, I'll drop out and hitchhike to San Francisco. See what the neighbors think of that.' The next thing you know my mother's on the phone begging me to stay in school."
"I hate that kind of blackmail," I said.
"Yeah, but whose parents live without duplicity?" Mendel said.
"I can't take it anymore," St. Pierre yelled. "I can't be the way they want me to be!"
"You were gung-ho about applying to med school," Mendel insisted. "Don't deny it."
"It's meaningless to me now. All I want to do is act. I think I've discovered my true vocation."
While they talked, I drifted away. Frank was on my mind. The photograph in the Globe had brought back the poignancy of our midnight talks that past fall, Frank's nonstop theorizing about existential action. I wondered if he'd actually made it into Cuba. He hadn't said anything about writing to us. I didn't expect he'd be able to get a letter out of a country engaged in civil war, even if he wanted to communicate. But the fall seemed years behind me. With the snow on the ground and my last semester ahead of me, it felt like another time.
Now I was haunted by endings. Returning to Brunswick the previous night on the train out of Boston, I experienced a new pressure. As I sat over a beer in the stifling clubcar, platforms of deserted railroad stations stacked with wet newspapers flying past me in the newly fallen snow, I imagined myself away from it all and wanting it back before I'd even lost it. I felt the loss even more acutely as I trudged through the snow from the station up to my cold room.
"Where will I go?" I asked myself in the purple dark of the mercury vapor lamps. "Who will I be?"
I knew the answer to the first question; I suspected that the answer to the second depended upon what happened to me at my next destination.
"Come by tonight and listen to some Bartok." Mendel leaned over the table as he pulled his sweater back on. "I've found the most extraordinary recordings of the first four quartets!"
Mueller bummed a Lucky off St. Pierre and slipped out. I lingered, sensing that Henri wanted to talk some more.
"Your folks will get over it," I said.
"Jason, it was hell. Only you could know that. My father will probably never speak to me again. All he's talked about for four years at the fire station is me going to medical school like my uncle did, a poor French Canadian boy making good. Now I've dashed his dreams. How can he tell those guys his son wants to be an actor in New York City?"
"Listen, if we've learned anything at all from Frank it's that we're free to choose, condemned to, even."
St. Pierre only shook his head.
"They probably won't come to see me graduate."
"They'll be here," I said. "Wait and see."
St. Pierre grabbed my sleeve as I got up to leave.
"Tell me the truth, Jason. Do you think I'm effeminate?"
"Don't be silly!"
"No, really, tell me because something happened to me just before we left for Christmas break. It was right after we did Streetcar and I was walking back to the house one Sunday morning with the Times under my arm. As I passed Winthrop Hall someone yelled, 'Faggot!' out the window. I knew it was intended for me because the campus was deserted. I stood there and I shouted back, 'Show your face, you fucking asshole!' But no one did, and I felt like an idiot standing there all by myself."
"Henri, forget about it. You and I are misfits."
"But I played football! What more do they want?"
"Abject conformity," I said.
"It's driving me crazy, Jason. I don't know if I can hang on until June."
"Six months, a year from now, this will all seem like a bad dream. You'll be in New York, I'll be in Europe."
I wanted to put my arm around St. Pierre as we both gathered up our books. I felt an enormous kinship with him, a closeness born of nearly four years of friendship. Instead, we walked back to the campus in uneasy silence, the snow lying all around us in frozen drifts.