Home > The Aviator's Wife(5)

The Aviator's Wife(5)
Melanie Benjamin

“Something glamorous,” she said, with such assurance that I had to laugh, even as I envied her as well. Why couldn’t confidence be bottled, like perfume? I’d sneak into my sisters’ rooms at night and steal a few spritzes, just as I sometimes stole their clothes.

“Well, you’d better help me find something,” I told Con, moving toward my trunk.

“Something to catch an aviator’s eye?” she retorted wickedly.

I shrugged. But I didn’t contradict her.

THE NEXT EVENING, I hesitated outside the entrance to the formal reception room, calming my breath. For the first time since arriving, I noticed that the embassy wasn’t really as glamorous as it initially seemed. It was like a grand dame’s moth-eaten dress desperately covered in jewelry and gay scarves; the shining chandeliers and elaborate velvet portieres did not quite disguise the worn upholstery, the faint, spidery cracks in the ceiling. It was clean—I was sure Mother had something to do with that!—but shabby. I wondered how Mother liked her new home, or even if she did. She’d been planning a grand new house in Englewood when Daddy got his appointment; they were still going ahead with the building of it, but it would be years, now, before they could live in her dream home. Typically, she never allowed herself to voice a moment’s remorse about it.

As I held my breath, I could hear her fluty laugh, Daddy’s excited voice, Dwight’s hoarse chuckle, Elisabeth’s throaty murmur, and Con’s bubbly giggles. Also, a strange new instrument: a high-pitched yet masculine voice, offering only monosyllabic answers. Colonel Lindbergh. I felt my face flush, the bodice of my evening frock strain tightly against my breasts, flattened down as much as possible by a very hot, very uncomfortable rubber brassiere that Elizabeth Bacon, my roommate at Smith, had convinced me to buy.

“Wherever can Anne be?” Mother asked, and I imagined her looking at her watch, her mouth a thin line of impatience. So I took a deep breath—but not too deep in that cursed brassiere—and cleared my throat before entering the room.

“Here I am, Mother. I’m sorry—I’m afraid I got lost.”

The room was brilliant—so many chandeliers and candles—that at first I had to blink, adjusting my vision. Then I saw the forms of my family huddled around an enormous grand piano at the far end of the room. I had to cross that room somehow, and I blushed to think that they would all be staring at me. Oh, why hadn’t I arrived earlier? I could have slipped in unnoticed, not causing such a fuss—I felt the heat of their collective gaze upon my cheeks as I hurried toward them, my eyes staring only at my brocade evening shoes, the heels sinking into the plush carpeting. At last I reached them—I felt my father grasp my hand—but when I looked up, I saw that no one was watching me. And then I almost giggled at the absurdity of my vanity. I had made no grand entrance, after all. How could I, when he was in the room?

For every member of my family was turned toward Charles Lindbergh, and so I could easily slip behind my father, taking my usual place at the edge of the crowd. As I did so, Mother murmured, “Then leave a little earlier next time, dear.”

“Yes, sorry, Mother.” I peeked over Daddy’s shoulder; Colonel Lindbergh was standing on the other side of the piano, next to Elisabeth. While Daddy was all pink and round in his evening clothes, and my brother, Dwight, a solid brick, the colonel was tall and slim as a knife. He looked uncomfortable in black tails with white waistcoat; he stood stiffly, his elbows askew, his shoulders pinched. In almost all the newsreels and photographs I’d seen, he’d been in his flying clothes. An entire nation had memorized his worn jacket, jodhpurs, helmet with the goggles tucked under his arm, the scarf around his throat. It was jarring to see him out of this costume, away from his airplane.

But the face was the same—the heroic brow, stern chin, high cheekbones. His eyes were so blue as to be startling; I decided I’d never seen blue eyes before, until that moment. They were the color of morning, the color of the ocean; the color of the sky.

He caught me looking at him, then he looked away and began to tap his fingers nervously on top of the piano, as if playing a tune only he could hear. That was when I noticed his hands, his fingers long and tapered. I imagined them gripping the control stick of his plane, steering it across that endless ocean; I thought them more than capable of the task.

“Aren’t you, Anne?”

Someone had asked me a question and I had no idea what it was, or who had asked it. So I nodded like an idiot and said, “Yes,” and was amazed at the sound of my own voice. It sounded normal, while inside, my heart was still beating so wildly I felt my entire body throb with each pulse.

“That’s nice,” the colonel said after a very small, very brisk nod, affirming the answer to the unheard question. Again, he could barely meet my gaze. His fingers began to tap even faster.

At that, my heart began to slow down. Was it true? Was the heroic Colonel Lindbergh as nervous around girls as Mother and Con said?

Apparently, he was. For as we milled about, sipping lemonade and nibbling at sandwiches brought in by an army of butlers, conversation progressed in a series of starts and stops; hesitation followed by sudden, unexpected bursts of chatter that were over before they’d had a chance fully to take off. Only once—when Daddy asked the colonel about the difference between a monoplane and a biplane—did our guest relax. With grace and confidence, he explained the differences in a long monologue that left no room for interruption; his somewhat reedy voice smoothed into a rhythm not unlike, I imagined, the purr of an airplane engine. He leaned forward, his blue eyes glistening, his fingers finally at rest, as he expounded on the differences and advantages of one set of wings (the monoplane) versus two (the biplane).

As none of us, naturally, could contribute anything to this subject, small talk resumed—tossed out easily by Elisabeth and my mother, while Daddy beamed and Dwight devoured enormous quantities of sandwiches. Con even dared to tease the colonel now and then, and he didn’t seem to mind. Meanwhile, I studied my surroundings, achingly homesick for Englewood. Nothing in this cavernous hall was familiar to me, save for the tattered American flag draped over the gilt fireplace mantel: the flag my grandfather had carried, as a drummer boy, in the Civil War. There weren’t even any framed family photographs, like there were on every surface back home. Yet I was curious about the embassy, in the way that one is curious about a museum; I promised myself I’d go exploring later, after everyone else was in bed.

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