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The Aviator's Wife(9)
Melanie Benjamin

Or an aviator.

I felt a rush of excitement pummel me, punching my heart into high gear, buckling my knees. But I wouldn’t allow myself to open it.

When I was a little girl, I had pleased my father most by being the child who could make a lollipop last the longest, who never asked for an advance on her allowance. “Anne’s the disciplined one,” he always bragged to his friends. It was the only characteristic I had of note. And like any person with only one talent, I cherished and guarded it. I no longer knew what it was to sneak a cookie before dinner, or buy a new frock just because.

I placed the envelope on the bed, then began my nightly ritual of slipping out of my dress, my step-ins, unsnapping my garters, rolling my stockings down, unbinding my chest, folding my lingerie and placing it all in a little silk bag hanging from the doorknob. I chose, after a long moment of grave contemplation, a long-sleeved pink lisle nightgown from a cupboard, where all my clothes, miraculously brushed and pressed by one of those fourteen servants, were now hanging. Sitting down at my dressing table, I unpinned my long brown hair and brushed it one hundred times, the brush occasionally getting caught in my wiry tangles, tugging my scalp until my eyes watered. And even though, all this time, I could see the white envelope waiting on the bright red coverlet of my bed, like an unopened Christmas present, I still took the time to smooth some Ponds Night Cream carefully on my forehead and cheeks, with a few extra pats for my throat.

Only then did I go to bed; pulling the coverlet up over my knees, I finally reached for the envelope. My hands were shaking, but in a delicious way; for once in my life, I wasn’t afraid of what I might find waiting for me. Never before had I opened an envelope without being sure it contained some dire piece of news.

Miss Morrow

,

I looked for you, but was told you had left the reception early. I cannot say that I blame you. I don’t enjoy such gatherings myself although, naturally, I much appreciate your father’s hospitality on my behalf

.

After our brief conversation on the sofa, I could not help but think that despite your silence concerning the matter, you did want to be taken up in my airplane, after all. I believe I understand your hesitation. I would not have liked to have taken my first airplane ride surrounded by newspaper reporters and photographers, either. Hence my proposal

.

If you would like to fly with me, meet me in the kitchen at four-fifteen a.m. We can go up and be back here before breakfast is served, and no one will ever be the wiser

.

I do, however, acknowledge the possibility that I have misinterpreted your intentions. I will not be offended if you do not choose to meet me

.

Sincerely,

Charles Augustus Lindbergh

By the time I finished reading, my hands were no longer shaking, although my rib cage was—for I was laughing. Silently, prayerfully—but I was laughing, nonetheless. If you would like to fly with me… oh, miraculous words! Intended for me and me alone!

Colonel Lindbergh had looked for me—and, finding me, had understood me. He had known everything that I was thinking but could not express with all those people listening—that even as I longed to experience flying as he had described it, just beneath my longing was the fear that somehow I would fail this test, this test of gravity and expectations. And if I did fail—if I embarrassed myself by crying or being sick or chickening out at the last moment—I did not want it reported on the front pages of every newspaper in the land!

Elisabeth was cut out for that kind of publicity. She would not fail, for she had never failed at anything in her life. Yet I suspected that my desire to fly was more sincere than hers. Despite her obvious interest in Colonel Lindbergh, I was certain she had asked to be taken up primarily because it was expected of her.

There was a certain safety in being the plain one, I realized, not for the first time. Dwight was the heir apparent, expected to graduate Amherst magna cum laude simply because Daddy had done so on scholarship. Elisabeth was expected to be dazzling and beautiful and marry brilliantly. Con was too young yet, and too spoiled, anyway; she was the pet of the family, loved and unquestioned.

I was expected to be—what? No one had ever articulated it to me; I knew only that I wasn’t to disappoint or disgrace my family, but beyond that, no one seemed to care.

Or—did someone care?

No, of course not; with a stern little shake of my head, I reminded myself that in real life, heroes were not interested in girls like me. It was simple politeness that compelled the colonel to ask; after all, I was the daughter of his host.

Still, he had asked, and that was enough to make me grin stupidly at my own reflection in the mirror opposite the bed for a long moment, before suddenly becoming aware of the lateness of the hour. Slipping the note—his note—inside my pillowcase, I wound my alarm clock tightly, setting it for four a.m. My stomach was so full of butterflies and other insects with busy, brushing wings—entirely appropriate under the circumstances, I couldn’t help but think!—that I could hardly fall asleep. And when at last I did, I know I slept lightly.

As if I remembered, even in my slumber, that I had a dream beneath my pillow that I did not wish to crush.

CHAPTER 2

THE NEXT MORNING, I was almost late. Not because I overslept—I was awake a good half hour before the alarm went off—but because, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t decide what to wear.

Normally I didn’t fuss with all that. I had an ample, if somewhat boring, wardrobe that I purchased in New York with my mother every season, mainly from Lord & Taylor. Day dresses, skirts, sweaters, tea gowns, one or two modest evening gowns, tennis dresses, golf skirts.

But not a single flying garment among them! Sorting through the clothes I had brought with me, I could not decide what would be appropriate to wear while soaring through the sky. I had seen photographs of a few aviatrixes, but they all had been dressed in clothing similar to what Colonel Lindbergh usually wore: jodhpur-like pants, snug jackets, helmets with goggles, scarves.

My only pair of jodhpurs was back at school; there were no stables at the embassy, so I hadn’t thought to bring them. I had brought my golf clothes, however, and finally I decided on them: sweater and pleated skirt, flat rubber-soled shoes, knee socks. I braided my hair and pinned it up, and at the last minute, grabbed the wool coat I had worn on the train. I then ran, on tiptoe, down the private stairs I had discovered the night before. After going the wrong way down a hall, I turned around and found myself in the large kitchen, empty at this hour with all the white enamel cookware scrubbed and gleaming, waiting to be called into service. There wasn’t a single sign of the party from the night before; no unwashed trays or even a stray lipstick-stained glass.

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