China Boat

Chapter 22

Friday, April 23rd, 1937
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

Dear Jack:

Well, old man. Seven days out from Honolulu, now (plus, a day lost crossing the International Date Line); and eight more days to Shanghai. I still deeply wish you were here; I still can't help feeling, I'm sailing in the wrong direction. Or not in the direction I'd like.

Although, I may have found a different way to fight the feeling. We have an elderly couple on board; the Kimbals, from New Mexico. He walks with difficulty, and wears a gigantic, ten-gallon Stetson hat; she is very nice, and they have been married for more than forty years. I've enclosed a photo I took of them.

And, they are sailing around the world! They have turned over management of their timber business to their sons, and are going on the trip of a lifetime. They are taking the President Hoover as far as Shanghai; then, another Dollar Line ship, a week later, to Hong Kong … and eventually, they'll work their way around, on different boats, to India, then through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, and then the Atlantic to Portugal, and France, and The Netherlands, and England — 

And in the end, they wind up docking in New York. "If I make it," Mr. Kimbal says; but he says it with a laugh, in spite of his condition. He is living and enjoying each day, without fear or worry. I wish I could be more like him; and I wish you could meet him.

I also deeply wish, that by sailing West, I myself could be looking forward to docking in New York.

Think about it, Jack. I'd be in easy walking distance of our place, Father's and mine, on Park Avenue. I could spend the night there, and take the train to school the next day … 

It was an absurd fantasy.

But it was a fantasy I could feel. I'd landed in New York once, myself; and I'd gone down to see off my grandparents, or greet their arrival, several times. I knew the piers; I knew the sights, the smells, the confusion, and the clutter of porters and luggage, the taxi-lines waiting outside … 

I could call it all up. I could almost taste it.


And in the fantasy, Jack would be there, dockside, as the ship came in. As he would be in real life, come hell, Heads of School, or high water — if only I were arriving in New York … 

Instead of Shanghai, China.

I found myself blinking, repeatedly; and I looked out of the forward Library windows, into the darkness, for a few moments.

Anyway, old man.

The Kimbals are very much fun, to talk to. And, I couldn't help but wish — that perhaps you and I could take a similar trip, around the world, someday? Maybe we could promise it to each other — ? (We could fly, part-way! I wouldn't mind!)

In that moment, it was something I deeply, deeply wanted; so much, that it almost hurt.

I made myself hurry on.

And so, now for the earth-shattering, shipboard news.

Which is, that my arms have finally stopped itching. And, I seem to have recovered from my cholera shot. I swear, I don't remember feeling that horrible, the first time around, when I was seven. But I suppose we got different shots, this time, since we're going to Asia.

Father and I had left New York on such short notice, that we hadn't had time to get the necessary inoculations. But any liner will carry a doctor, and the necessary vaccines. Still, I'd been laid up a day, recovering from one of them.

I've never been a great fan of shots.

Father, for his part, is well; he is, at long last, completely over the last remnants of his cold. And, wonder of wonders, I managed not to catch it, myself. How, I don't know. I can hardly claim clean living, can I — ?

My friend and young shipmate Tom, is also in good health. You remember, I've mentioned him before? Well, here's a photo of him … 

I stopped writing, for a moment.

Jack was right; we do live in a kind of fishbowl, at school; and I'd have to choose my words carefully, assuming all along that they'd be read by others. Perhaps even Coe … 

I put down my pen, and picked up Tom's photo; it made me smile.

It was a decent photo, the best of the set I'd shot, that day. Tom was standing, bareheaded, his back to the Promenade Deck railing; his face side-lit, by the morning sun … 

He looked — apprehensive.

I smiled at it again, a little; in sympathy.

He'd known exactly who the photograph was for. He'd known that Jack had asked for it; I'd shown him Jack's wonderful wire. I suppose it made sense, that he'd look — 

Apprehensive, I decided, again. That was the right word for it. Or, maybe, 'Unsure'. Or, 'a little scared'.

But, it was a good photo. I'd managed to capture his expressive brown eyes, which seemed so large, in his boy's face; and, the slender grace, of his frame … I'd had some extra prints made, for my own wallet, and for safekeeping.

I put down the photo, picked up my pen, and began choosing words carefully, again.

He has become a good friend, indeed; and more than ever, I have been feeling like an older brother, to him. And for his part, I think he has become really very fond of me … 

Jack could read that coded message, easily enough.

But for all of that, just between you and me — 

(and perhaps, a dozen or so of our classmates — )

 — I am a little worried about him.

The problem, I think, is his upbringing. I have met his family, and they are wonderful people; they are very loving, and far from strict. They let him tour Honolulu for a few hours, alone with only Yours Truly as company, after all.

But they are also very devout. And so, Tom is too, of course. And the tension between what (he perhaps thinks) his faith demands of him, and his own humanity, has left him — torn. In some ways, I think he feels like the Sinner In The Hand Of An Angry God, suspended just above the Fire.

I've been trying to help him, with his feelings of unwarranted guilt; in my own way, I've been a one-man Enlightenment, Jack, you would laugh at it, if you could witness it. The Age of Reason! The glories of Classical Greece, and of Rome!

I think I'm getting through to him; to some extent, anyway. He listens; and I think he's accepting his own humanity, maybe a little more, each day. But it is a process; I can still see the struggle within, and I'm only one voice, against everything he's always known, after all.

All the more do I wish you were here, old man. You've always been the better of us, when it comes to providing reassurance. I admit, I'm good at quotes, and historical cases; but you've always been best, at providing moral clarity, and direct comfort, to those who need it. We are a team; and I miss my team-mate.

Another pause, to blink some more; and to look at my words.

They were perhaps a little much; some of our classmates had been recipients of our home-grown therapy. Our reassurances, that homosexuality — or even the odd homosexual impulse — is perfectly ordinary, and not primary evidence of hopeless mental illness … 

But then, those classmates would be the last ones to raise an alarm, if they were to read the letter.

I shrugged; and decided to leave it all, for now. I really did want Jack to know about Tom; even if he was too far away to help. I truly wished he were here … 

For more reasons than one.

I wrote on.

Well, old man. There is in fact one more piece of shipboard news, which I haven't yet mentioned; and I think I am about to make you … intensely jealous — ? Deeply envious — ? Perhaps not; I don't think you have it in you; and in any case, you could not possibly wish yourself here, more than I. But; still.

It appears we have a well-known fellow-passenger, of whom we've just now learned:

Miss Deirdre Lloyd.

Yes, that Deirdre Lloyd; the one who co-starred with Avery Wynne in 'Flying Clippers' — for some reason, I suspect that's the movie of hers, that you remember the best? But, the star of many, many other movies, as well … 

'Flying Clippers' had been a movie about the famous Pan American Airways flying boats — the same as I'd photographed, in San Francisco Bay — and Jack and I had seen it six times, last summer.

Well, we hadn't watched it for the sake of Miss Lloyd's performance, to be honest; although she had been very convincing as a stowaway on the ship piloted by the dashing Avery Wynne … no. We'd watched it for the flying sequences.

These were universally spectacular; at least, when they were outside scenes, of the great airplanes taking off, or roaring overhead, or splash-landing down, in clouds of spray — 

The inside-the-cockpit scenes, with Mister Wynne struggling at the controls of his ship, through rough weather and dwindling fuel — these had been less impressive. To Jack, anyway; he'd laughed at them.

"You don't gain altitude by hauling back on the wheel! You'd just go up a little ways, then stall. You have to increase power, instead; and change the propeller pitch. And you'd certainly change the fuel mixture, and you might need to open the cowl flaps, a little … "

He had devoured every second, of every flying-sequence, exterior and interior.

And Miss Lloyd had been in many of them. She had, in the movie, helped Mister Wynne wrestle their ship through their epic storm: and she had also, according to studio publicity, taken the controls of a real, actual Clipper, while flying to Manila, and done a creditable job of flying it, for a whole hour.

Oh. She'd played several love scenes with Avery Wynne, too. She'd kissed him, quite passionately.

I wondered what that was like.

And, brace yourself, old man. Not only is she a fellow-passenger; but, I have actually dined with her. I have actually spoken with her! Well, a whole five words or so, at least … 

I should set the scene, for you.

Father and I — and my young shipmate Tom, and his father — were seated at the Purser's table, at dinner last night; wondering where the Purser was.

Well. We'd just given our orders to the stewards, when he appeared on the Grand Staircase, with Miss Lloyd on his arm. (Actually, Miss Lloyd's assistant — a Miss Newhouse — was on his other arm.)

He seemed very pleased with himself. I think he'd decided to keep her presence secret, as a surprise. He has a sense of humor.

I have to say — she knows how to make an entrance.

They descended the Grand Staircase quite slowly; she held on to the Purser's arm with both hands; and there was something — rather sensual — with the way she moved. Not in a crass way, you must understand; she actually moved quite elegantly, as she did as Mary, Queen of Scots, in her movie of the same name — and you remember when we saw that together too, I'm sure!

It still seems slightly unreal, that I've actually eaten at the same table with Miss Deirdre Lloyd … along with eight other people, of course.

I so wish you could have seen the looks on the faces of our table-mates, of our fellow-passengers, as she came down the staircase, and came up to our table.

Especially the looks on the faces of the men.

Oh, yes; very much, the expressions on the faces of the men.

Mister Bennett, the Purser, had brought Miss Lloyd and her assistant to our table; and we, the males at the table, had all stood, of course, as manners dictate.

But, it was the way most of us had stood … as in, Shooting Out Of Our Chairs. Bolting Upright, as Mister Bennett made the preliminary introductions. And the wide-eyed expressions on most of the male faces, the awkward and sometimes-stammering greetings, that were offered … 

It was hilarious.

"Please, sit down," Miss Lloyd had said; as a steward whisked a napkin into her lap — 

I suspected her gown had been made for her in Paris; it was very close-fitting, but also elegant.

"I do apologize for hiding in my cabin, these last few days; I wasn't completely well … "

Expressions of alarm, from several directions at once; ocean travel will do that, there was a bug going around in Honolulu, one hoped she was feeling better, now — ?

Miss Lloyd is well-known, for her physical appeal. It was fascinating, witnessing the phenomenon in person, at close range.

Even Father was not entirely unaffected. He kept his eyes focused on Miss Lloyd; and he used the wrong fork with his salad.

"May I have a roll, please — ? Oh; thank you, very much," as a plate was offered to her, with remarkable speed and enthusiasm … 

I could swear I felt eyes, looking at me; I glanced to the table next to ours. Mister Grey's expression was subtly, drolly comic — 

I looked down. But I could not completely hide the involuntary, answering smile, that came to me. Nor could I hide from myself, that it was nice, having someone else who saw the comedy, and the irony, in the situation … 

Damn it. Again.

I believe the word is 'allure' … and believe me, J., she possesses it, in person.

Actually — it was quite odd, in several ways, seeing her in person.

First, I suppose, there's the matter of color; I had never seen a color photograph of her, before. Her hair is, in reality, a dark brown — (although I expect that can change, from film to film). Her eyes are gray, I suppose; I had always thought they were a light blue, like yours … 

I love the color of Jack's eyes; as I have told him, often enough. I thought Miss Lloyd's eyes a bit of a disappointment, actually.

She is also, in person, rather slight. She is shorter than I would have expected; and rather fine of build, (something the two of us can appreciate!) Still; remembering her in 'Flying Clippers', made me wonder how tall Avery Wynne is, in real life … Which is silly, I suppose. It's Hollywood; they can make people appear larger, or smaller, or any way they want, I'm sure.

And that included Mister Wynne. I'd resolved to ask her about him, in the unlikely event that I ever had the chance.

Just on principle. I'm not really attracted to him; in spite of what Jack says … It's his skill at fencing, at swordplay, and his swashbuckling performances, that I admire.

But, old man, what's truly odd about meeting Miss Lloyd in person — is harder to describe. I guess, you could say, it's the difference between the Silver Screen, and reality.

Somehow, when looking at her — the mind wants to see her in black-and-white, rather than color; it's actually a little uncanny. And more than that, even — the mind wants to put her into frames; a look here, with the staircase in a soft-focused background … the way she looks to one side and smiles, with the light hitting her face in just a particular way, and she holds that pose, for just a fraction of a second … 


Actually, come to think of it — I believe it gets back to that word; allure.


You've seen her in pictures, old man; you've seen the way she moves, a little languorously: and the way she speaks, in that low voice of hers — 

Well. The fact is — that is how she carries herself, in real life. It is as though she is starring in the running movie of her own life, and she knows it … 

I paused a moment, and re-read my words; and I couldn't help wincing at them, slightly — and then, I was shaking my head, laughing at myself, a little.

I know. Pretentious nonsense! Psycho-analysis, from a person who despises the tenets of psycho-analysis. Still; the description fits, and I wouldn't know how else to put it. Except, perhaps, as Being Professional — ? Or, Being 'On' — ? Which might sound a little less dire, anyway.

But. One did see that alluring mask slip, just slightly, a few times during the dinner, old man.

Your correspondent was responsible for the best of the occasions.

You'll appreciate it. I managed to tell Miss Lloyd that we — 'my friend Jack and I' — yes, she's heard your name! — had very much enjoyed 'Flying Clippers'; and I very tentatively asked, why she wasn't flying to Hong Kong? (Oh; I should have said. She is making an epic film in the Far East: Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rangoon … the island of Kauai was standing in for a jungle in Burma, but the rest is to be shot on location.)

She almost, but didn't quite, snort; and I swear, for a moment, she looked — disgusted.

"My studio contract," she'd said, "won't allow long over-ocean flights."

Except, I assume, when the co-operation of an airline is needed, to make a film about flying Clippers.

I smiled down at the page for a moment, at the memory. She really had seemed put-out.

For his part, Mister Bennett, the Purser, had seemed distinctly pleased.

I'm sure you share her feelings, J. And if she wasn't before, I'm certain she is your favorite actress, now!

I'll keep you informed of any more doings with Miss Lloyd — although I'm not at all sure we'll see any more of her, on this trip … 

It was a gentle prevarication. I was determined to see her at least once more, before we reached Shanghai; even if it meant knocking on her cabin door. In spite of everything, in spite of my innate shyness, I was set on getting her autograph … and it would be inscribed to Jack. I was set on it.

And with that little bit of gossip, I should close this out for the evening, old man. More on this (interminable) voyage, tomorrow; as always.

I still wish there was a quicker way of getting this to you, than mailing it from Shanghai. But on the Purser's advice, I'm sending you only postcards from Yokohama and Kobe; he does not trust airmail connections from Japan, and so of course I do not, either.

I'll be wiring you before then, in any case. Thank God for that suggestion of yours.

My best to all of our friends; and to Charles, of course. I think of him daily; I hope he is taking good care of you!

And, take care of yourself, Jack. I am so looking forward to the day when we can be together again, and I can tell you all this and so much more, in person … 




P.S. — Thank you for the New Yorker cartoons! I love them.

P.P.S. — I'm sending along a little doodle of my own; a pathetic attempt at art. I hope you look charitably, on it — ?

P.P.P.S — M.O.C. Always.

I picked up the artwork, the enclosure; which I'd already prepared.

Actually, I picked up two sheets; my artwork, and what had inspired it.

What had inspired it … was a simple drawing, in pencil, on good-quality drawing paper. It was the outline of a hand.

Jack's hand; of course.

I smoothed it out, on the writing desk, in front of me; and I laid my own hand over it, finger to finger, thumb to thumb … and I shivered; and then, I shivered, again. My feelings washed over me.

It was an elegant, eloquent thing to send me. I have … a Thing, about Jack's hands; he has beautiful hands, and they have given me very much pleasure, very great pleasure, these last two years. They have roamed over every inch of my body, from head to toe … they have brought me to climax, time after time … 

Just looking at his hands, in class, can sometimes cause me to become embarrassingly erect; and he knows it.

But it is far more, than just a physical Thing, to me. It is a thing of the soul. Jack's hands, are the way his soul reaches out to touch mine … 

As my hands are, to reach his.

He'd sent me the outline, in his next-to-last letter to Hawaii; and now I set it down, and picked up my reply.

I'd taken a sheet of tracing paper — fine onion-skin paper, that I'd brought with me, as part of my school supplies — and I'd carefully traced the outline of his hand; as accurately as I could — 

And then, I'd turned the page over. And I'd positioned my right hand over the tracing, crossways, so it was palm-to-palm, but not finger-to-finger, with the tracing, on the other side … and I'd carefully, laboriously, traced out the outline of my own hand, using a pencil in my left hand — 

It had taken four sheets, four tries, and a great deal of time, before I had one that suited.

I held that sheet up, now. The light of the wall-sconce shone through the translucent paper; both tracings showed. The effect was as though the hands were together, as if the hands were holding one another. It was why I'd needed to trace my right hand, using my left. When Jack and I do hold hands — which happens only very rarely — it is always my right hand, to his left … 

I had to blink; and to go on blinking, rapidly.

I really did miss him; so much.

It probably was not a completely wise thing, to send. If anyone had seen him make the original hand-tracing — 

Still. I couldn't help myself. It was something I had to do.

In our letters and cables so far, it was Jack who had been the daring one, the risk-taking one … And, it struck me; maybe he was right.

Maybe, if we screwed ourselves down so tight, so securely, that our letters were completely free of risk — maybe, then, we weren't really communicating, after all.

The hand-tracing would go to him, in the first batch of letters I air-mailed, from Shanghai.

And maybe, I decided, it was time to be a little more direct, still.

Jack had my Hawaii letters by now — just barely, I thought — including the one in which I explained the Vigenère cypher. Maybe it was time to use that cypher, for some truly private communications — 

Besides. I had a specific question to ask him; a specific favor, to ask of him. And I very much wanted an answer. Sooner, rather than later.

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