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Reconciliation Between Tradd St. Croix and Will McLean
Reconciliation Between Will and Tradd...
THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION, BASED ON THE CHARACTERS OF WILL MCLEAN AND TRADD ST. CROIX IN PAT CONROY'S MASTERPIECE, THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE
He had moved west within two years of graduating. It was, he had told his father, to start a new business - something of his own; something that he could look upon with pride; something that had not been given to him, but something that he himself had built. Yet he had accepted money from his father, telling himself that it was only a loan and that it would one day be repaid. He soon found that the market was receptive to his product, and some of the finest sipping whiskeys ever distilled, from places as close to home but as far from heart as Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, soon found their place on the shelves of liquor stores up and down the coast. He had made money - more than enough money, and was, by his family's exacting standards, both a success and a disappointment. The disappointment arose from the fact that he had left Charleston; the success was testament to his marketing expertise, albeit expertise on territory unfamiliar to those who knew and loved him. During those first two years, he had thrown himself into research, and had managed to function as a successful entrepreneur in a market that had never tasted single malted bourbon of such quality. Like the money that his family had lavished on him following his graduation from The Institute, profits came easily, and he was soon able to cut a check and send it back to his father, together with a note computing interest, compounded monthly. His father had torn up the check without cashing it, declaring the loan to have been a gift. A row had nearly erupted, threatening to involve the Southern family in a sordid dispute about money, so in the end, in the interests of comity, Tradd had accepted the fact that his father would never accept the money.
The guilt, however, had never left him. During those first two years, it had been bearable, although he had not been able to fall asleep without the memories stealing their way into his heart, which pumped them into the inner recesses of his psyche. He remembered staring at Will through a face full of water drawn from the Ashley River, blinking stupidly as the water ran down his cheeks; Will had thrown the glass full of water into his face, and had revealed his betrayal. He had tried to explain - tried so hard to tell Will what the years of name-calling had done to him; that he was trying to work from within, to change the behavior of The Ten, to ameliorate the cruelty of his nine brothers by leavening it with a touch of mercy. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears. He could not deny the fact that he had been the father of Annie-Kate's dead baby. He could not deny the fact that Will had looked after and loved a woman whom he himself had used (and thereby impregnated) in his efforts to rid himself of the Honey Prince, once and forever (stupidly believing that the name-calling would stop, as though the Corps of Cadets would realize, instinctively, that he had slept with a woman, thereby leaving no doubts as to his sexual orientation). He remembered having been slapped on the back by his nine brothers upon his induction into their ranks - and then he remembered his having been slapped on the back by his roommates, Will included, when he had revealed to them that he was not the virgin that they had thought him to be. The irony of the praise lavished on him by his roommates was not lost on him, and he tried, over and over again, to rationalize what he had done. But he could not forget Dante Pignetti, and the closed-casket funeral during which Dante's body, literally in pieces, had been laid to rest. He had been responsible for that horror on the railway tracks, however indirectly. He had been responsible for driving a friend to walk in front of the train, however indirectly. His conscience would not - could not - offer him the absolution he sought. He had buried himself in the day-to-day affairs of running the liquor business, thereby staving off the accusations that would otherwise seep into his mind.
After about two years had passed, however, he became increasingly aware of a sense of loss and feelings of grief so deep that there were times in the night that he cried out in his sleep, only to awaken to the world that he had created for himself in his efforts to forget; a world that mocked him as he staggered to the bathroom of the up-market Los Angeles hotel from which he frequently conducted business, to throw water onto his face and to clear his head. The Honor Code required that he never utter the name of his dead roommate again - yet he did so, when alone, as though repeated invocations of Dante's name would clear him, through sheer force of repetition, of his own complicity in the trial that had resulted in Dante's suicide on the tracks. Once, back at home in Charleston, when duty required that he return to that city to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, he had woken up in the night after dreaming about Dante's broken body being lifted off the tracks, and about crying out to Will for forgiveness. Tradd soon found himself avoiding Charleston, making excuses whenever possible to remain in Los Angeles. The beautiful family home, south of Broad Street, evoked memories too powerful and too poignant for him to bear, and it was during these times that he would cry out in the night, haunted by one dream in particular; a dream in which it was he who was made to walk out of The Institute between two rows of members of the Corps of Cadets, each of whom turned to face away from him as he approached them.
Abigail had heard the cries one night and had come into Tradd's room. She had taken one look at her son, and had held him in her arms as he had sobbed in shame and pain. No questions were asked. None needed to be asked. Abigail knew her son; she knew how close he and Will had been; she knew about the rumors that had circulated regarding her son's sexual orientation; and despite her own complicity in the ruse to help Annie-Kate by using Will, she understood the pain that was tearing her son to shreds as he sobbed in her arms. She, too, felt guilt; she knew the damage that she herself had inflicted upon Will by deceiving him into loving Annie-Kate, who had been impregnated by her own son in Tradd's desperate attempt to convince himself that he was, indeed, heterosexual. She knew that Tradd would find no comfort in his membership in The Ten. Instead of pride, her son's attitude towards his membership in this group had turned into shame mixed with disgust. He had taken to "forgetting" to wear the ring from time to time, much to the anguish of Commerce (his father), and the periods during which he "forgot" to wear the ring had gotten longer and longer. Commerce, who had burned his journals after learning that they had been read by Will and Mark, was in some ways already a broken man. A crystal lay shattered, a trust betrayed.
Abigail had consulted the family physician. This same physician had spurned Will by refusing to shake his hand when Will drove Annie-Kate to the surgery, thinking that it was Will who had ruined Annie-Kate by robbing her of her virtue in the eyes of a class-oriented society. In truth it was Abigail, more than any other person, who played a role in Annie-Kate's descent into depression by forbidding a marriage between a St. Croix and a Gervais from the wrong side of the tracks. The doctor, renowned for his discretion in the tight-lipped community, had seen Tradd and, ignorant of the psychology that fueled Tradd's depression, prescribed an anti-depressant named Tofranil, in addition to which had also prescribed Valium and an opiate-based painkiller for the headaches from which Tradd suffered with increasing frequency and severity. Tradd was far too sensible to consume the product that his business exported to the west, but had taken to swallowing the Valiums and the painkillers in larger and larger dosages, together with the Tofranil. For a period of several months, these medications had eased his suffering - not by addressing its cause, but by concealing that cause, draping it with a gossamer chemical blanket that had numbed Tradd and made the pain less severe. He had, without question, accepted help in the form of these chemical crutches, and had found temporary refuge from his conscience in the numbing effect induced by this combination of medications.
Once the business turned a generous profit after operating for a mere two years, his life became even emptier. He still loved Will, and he knew, notwithstanding Will's heated denunciations on the last day that he had seen Will, that Will still loved him, but he knew that there was no chance that Will would - or even should - ever forgive him for what he had done. He hid the ring, removing it from his hand permanently, and eventually sent it back to Abigail together with a note asking her to keep it in storage for him. He knew that this was an act of cowardice on his part; that he deserved to be reminded, every day, of what he had done to Will, and what he had done to Dante.
Abigail had wept upon receiving the ring; wept for the torture that she herself had inflicted upon her son by provoking him into sleeping with Annie-Kate, desperate as she was for a sign - any sign - that her son was heterosexual.
About a year after leaving The Institute, Tradd had read about Mark Santoro's death in Vietnam; the column in the obituaries page was published in the local Charleston newspaper, despite the fact that Mark had been a Yankee. Mark had gone on to earn many medals in active service before stepping on a landmine, which had blown his legs off above the waist. The obituary had shocked Tradd, driving home to him the fact that there was nobody left to whom he could ever appeal for mercy and forgiveness other than Will. He was now alone, both literally and morally. He was, at that time, still able to banish the worst of the memories by throwing himself into his new role as a distributor of Southern whiskeys. But as the months passed, this event fed into the waves of guilt that swept over him, causing him to increase the dosage of all three of his medications. Before long, he carried these drugs with him wherever he traveled, and came to rely on them at all times, since they continued to provide temporary respite from the shame that he felt. His dreams became increasingly vivid; dreams in which he was alone in a room with Will, who would not talk to him and who ignored him, as though Will neither saw nor heard him. Then there were those other dreams; dreams that he dared not remember; dreams mixed with distant memories; dreams of mouth finding mouth, of being touched, of loving and being loved in return; dreams in which he and Will were close, but not as friends; these reveries he refused to accept, burying them under a mixture of chemicals before they could break through and demand acknowledgement.
Both he and Abigail discovered that his ability to play the piano thrived on his emotions. One Sunday afternoon, during the course of a brief visit to the family home in Charleston, he had stunned Abigail, who had walked into the study to hear some of the most beautiful music that she had ever heard. After Tradd had left the room, Abigail had looked at the music on the music stand and had been shocked to see that it was sketched in pencil, and was an original composition. She had known better than to question her son about the music; she had seen the circles around her son's eyes, and once again, had felt the sharp stab of guilt that she herself had not been able to quell, despite the voices of reason to which she had clung in an effort to maintain her balance on what had become increasingly rocky emotional terrain.
Tradd's business associates noticed that there was no sparkle in his eyes, and that he was almost off-hand in his business demeanor. They attributed this to boredom, thinking that the success of Tradd's business had bored Tradd, and that he simply needed another challenge in order to pick up from where he had left off. None of them were close enough to Tradd to know what had happened over two years ago, and none of them would have cared or even understood had they known. One or two of them had tried to break down the barriers and to befriend Tradd; they had been rewarded with polite evasions; velvet-covered steel bars appeared to stand between them and the possibility of gaining a better knowledge of their quiet, unassuming associate.
So Tradd's life continued on a slow trajectory into deeper and deeper depression. He was a sensitive and gentle man, and with the passage of time, he saw his role in the suicide of Dante and the monstrous betrayal of the trust in which Will had held him for what they were - acts that his conscience could never excuse, regardless of the regret that he felt and the shame that he carried with him throughout every waking moment. He was far too sensible to consider suicide, and so remained locked in a prison of his own creation - the Honey Prince had trapped him, after all. Despite everything he had done to purge himself of that identity, he had lost the fight. He had been found out. He thought that his intellect - his passion for music - his infection with what Will had called the "Beauty Disease" - would block and insulate him from his emotions. But he had, in the end, been found out, and he knew that he was still the Honey Prince. The whispering about him had not ended following his induction into the ranks of The Ten, and that name still circulated from time to time, although nobody had ever addressed him by that name to his face since the night of his induction. But he knew that those words were still spoken behind his back, and he was actually relieved to know that his treachery had not been rewarded.
The lack of sleep and the general malaise under which Tradd labored started to take their toll in his personal appearance. While always neatly groomed and always wearing fine clothing, he became gaunt, and black circles were frequently visible around his eyes. His appetite flagged, and he had to struggle to eat properly. He found it impossible to sleep without taking a large dose of Valium before going to bed, and although he knew full well that this would do nothing to exorcise the memories or to change the content of his dreams, he welcomed the manner in which this drug took the edge off his emotions. Life would have continued like that indefinitely, he believed, had it not been for a variation in his daily routine; a variation that took him into the interior of a small coffee shop half a block away from a public library in a wealthy town somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego.
The library was located a few blocks away from the hotel, and Tradd had gone there one afternoon, about five years after graduating from The Institute, to find out more about double malted whiskeys. While he was justly proud of the single malted whiskeys that his distilleries produced, he knew that single malted whiskeys were too expensive for the average consumer, and although his business was doing well, it would have been foolish to ignore the realities of the market. He found the research materials that he needed, sat down at a desk with a legal pad and a pen, and took copious notes. He left the library after gathering much of the information that he needed, and paused outside, the hot sun beating down on him. Then, for no particular reason, he walked away from his parked Jaguar, research materials in hand, and entered the small coffee shop.
The ubiquitous shape of a pin-ball machine located right next to the front door gave way to a glimpse of the interior, which, despite the shadows, was painted in cheery colors on stucco walls. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the gloom, and he chose a table towards the back of the coffee shop, and sank into a chair, vaguely aware of a pounding that was beginning to assert itself in his temples.
A kindly, matronly woman served him; she noticed the circles under his eyes and tried not to stare. The waitress was older than her years and had seen so many customers come and go, having worked at the coffee shop for more than a decade. Looking at Tradd, she realized that he was certainly a refined gentleman; his mannerisms betrayed a genteel persona, but there was something more; something that she could not quite identify as she stared at the sad features of this unusual customer, with his accent and his polite and gentle demeanor. She stared as Tradd reached into his trouser pocket and gulped down some medication with hot tea, and could not help feeling sorry for this customer, which surprised her. She had seen so many faces over the course of her hard-working lifetime, and had learned not to become too friendly with any of them. Something had died within her upon receiving the letter, delivered by two men in uniform who were unable to look her in the eye, informing her that the remains of her youngest son had been shipped back from Vietnam in a coffin marked "Not for Viewing or Display." The gaunt figure seated at the table in the rear, hunched over a legal pad, reminded her of her own loss, and it was as she pondered this loss and the emotional repercussions stirred up by this gentle customer's appearance that the front door opened, admitting another customer.
Tradd was browsing through his notes as the pulsing headache asserted itself, intensifying in his temples and moving towards the back of his eyes. A familiar wave of panic hit him, forcing him to delve into his pocket, from which he extracted a combination of Valium and a painkiller, both of which he washed down with hot tea. The panic attacks were becoming increasingly frequent, particularly when he found himself on unfamiliar territory or when his daily routine was interrupted by strange events, strange faces, or departures from those places that he associated with safety and comfort. With a flush of embarrassment, he noticed that his actions had been observed by the waitress, who was looking at him with a peculiar mixture of sadness, pity, and what appeared to be recognition. He stared away, embarrassed, looking down at his notes, and then up again as the door opened, admitting another customer.
He glanced at the familiar frame that passed over the threshold and into the dark recess next to the pin-ball machine, and was, for a moment, stupefied and unable to place either the figure or its significance. The figure that had entered belonged to the same person who had forced his way into Tradd's dreams, and who had haunted his waking life, driving him deeper and deeper into the recesses of that life, making it increasingly difficult for him to talk to strangers or to leave his hotel room, his distilleries, his Jaguar, or the family home in Charleston. The figure paused, eyes adjusting to the gloom, and then those eyes stared straight into Tradd's, impassively, as the instant of mutual disbelief stretched into its third second. In that brief period of time, the legal pad hit the floor with a flat, empty sound, noticed only by the waitress.
Disbelief yielded to a flood of emotions and a roaring sound in his ears as Tradd found himself staring into the hard, accusing eyes of Will McLean. Tradd was up and moving, backwards, stumbling over a crack between two floor tiles, jerkily turning, nearly losing his balance, clumsily recovering, stumbling towards the door of the men's room, the handle of which was attached to a shiny steel plate. He was aware, at the periphery of his vision, of the waitress, confused and concerned as she approached him, and he heard the trail end of a question ending in the words "...all right, love?" As he grabbed the handle and pushed his way into the room, he caught sight of a grotesque reflection of his face in the steel plate, and saw, with the beginnings of detachment, that tears were streaming down that face. The door opened, and Tradd lurched into the confines of the small room, shutting the door, slamming the flimsy lock into place. The last traces of disbelief left him, and Tradd felt the blood drain from his face as the roaring sound in his ears intensified. He sagged against the washbasin, staring into his own reflection, as he became aware of the last words that he remembered Will uttering, as Abigail had pleaded with Will to understand, and those words circulated around and around in his consciousness as he stared into the mirror at the bloodless, raccoon-faced image that stared back at him: "I wouldn't let him unzip my fly. I wouldn't let him unzip my fly. I wouldn't let him unzip my fly. I wouldn't let him unzip my fly..." Then he was down, kneeling on the floor, aware, from a distance, of the terrible sound of a man sobbing, the sobbing rising in pitch to an agonized wail, then, some time later, he realized that he was exhaling in terrible gasps as his emotions bled out onto the floor of the small room, leaving him drained, exhausted, and unable to move for what seemed to be a very long time.
He realized that he had to get up; from a distance, he could hear the sound of the waitress pounding frantically on the door as she shouted something about getting a doctor. He climbed up from the floor and opened the cold water faucet, pushing his face under the stream of water as he reached with a groping hand for the paper towel receptacle. He grabbed a fistful of paper and dried his face; aware that he was still crying, he shoved the rough paper into his closed eyes, paused, and opened the door. He was aware of two conflicting desires - a terrible hope that Will would no longer be present on the one hand, and a terrible hope that Will would still be waiting for him on the other. The word "unzip" clanged in his head like a giant bell, as he shot the bolt open and slid past the waitress, who was staring at him with concern and distress in her eyes. His second wish was realized; sitting in the seat directly opposite from where he had been sitting was Will McLean.
Tradd stood at the exit of the small room, staring at Will, who stared back at him, evenly, not moving, not blinking, not betraying a hint of emotion. Tradd was struck, distantly, by the extent to which Will had changed over the course of the five year interval that had elapsed since he had last seen him. The boyish contours of Will's face had lost some of their hardness, and his eyes, although cold and accusing, seemed to mask other feelings. Tradd could not be sure if this perception was merely the product of his wishful imagination, or whether Will was trying to hide something other than cold detachment. He had no choice but to move forward, however; he was aware that the waitress was still staring at him nervously, unsure of what to do. He glided forwards, staring into the hard eyes of the man he had betrayed almost five years ago. He realized that he was crying again, but, oddly, he felt no emotions, and wondered, briefly, whether this was due to the fact that he had taken Valium only ten minutes earlier; then he realized that ten minutes would not have given the drug enough time to work its temporary magic. He moved forward and sat down, treading on the legal pad as he pushed his chair back, and, still staring into Will's eyes, took his seat. Will did not blink; did not utter so much as a grunt as Tradd sat down.
Tradd heard himself utter the name of his dead roommate, even as he struggled to find something - anything - to say, that made sense. Then he was knocked sideways in his seat, nearly falling to the floor, as the flat of Will's hand hit him hard across the face. No pain. No pain. His mind was working, understanding what was happening, but there was a bizarre disconnection between his observations and his feelings, as though the connection between his heart and his ability to think had been severed.
"Dante Pignetti," he said, again, thickly, waiting for another blow from Will, who was staring at him with eyes that bored into his own, searching for something. He did not know whether he was imagining it, but Will's gaze did not appear to be quite as hard and as impassive as it had been merely seconds earlier.
The second blow did not come in the form of a slap across the face, however. Instead, Will uttered a name, as though matching Tradd, syllable for syllable.
Tradd felt a rush of shame as he remembered how he had used Annie-Kate, almost forcing himself on her in his fumbling and clumsy efforts to prove to himself something that could not, in the end, be proven. He looked down at his hands, which, he noticed for the first time, were spread, palms upright, on the table top before him. The roaring sound started up in his ears again, as he raised his hands to cover his eyes, which were, once again, brimming over with tears of affliction. He was too exhausted, physically, to sob; the tears simply flowed, seeping between his fingers. He started to rise, turning in the direction of the bathroom from which he had emerged less than a minute ago; but before he was able to do so, he felt the insistent pressure of two hands pushing down on his shoulders, pinning him down. The pressure was insistent, but not brutal; he sat down again, as the same insistent, but curiously gentle, hands grabbed him by the forearms, pulling his hands away from his eyes. He resisted, briefly, with the last of his will, but then the remains of his defenses fell away, mimicking his hands, as they dropped to the table before him. He stared at the wet palms, oblivious of his surroundings, unable to look up into those accusing eyes. The same hands found their way to his jaw, gently pulling his face up until his eyes locked onto those of the man he had betrayed five years ago. He was too tired to cringe, but not too tired to recognize that the deep, insistent probing of those eyes had lost its edge; the steel had been replaced with something else, which he could not name.
"You don't want to be forgiven, do you?"
That utterance hit hard, finding its mark, intentionally or otherwise. Tradd was too tired even to nod; the roaring sound had gone from his ears, and he felt a curious sense of something shifting deep within his psyche as he stared into the eyes of the man he had loved for nine years. He realized, then, the hopelessness of his position, as well as the hope that it offered him. He realized that the forgiveness he had dreamed of could be given, but would not free him from his prison. He realized that the prison was within him, not without, and that any forgiveness offered by Will would only drive him deeper into despair unless he learned, somehow, some day, to forgive himself.
He started crying again, soundlessly, the tears streaming down his face uncontrollably, endlessly. Will paused for almost a minute, then moved around the table to sit next to Tradd, cradling Tradd and crying too; crying for his friend, crying for the loss of innocence, crying for Tradd's pain, crying for Annie-Kate, crying for Dante Pignetti, crying for Mark Santoro, crying, for the first time in years, for himself. Tradd pulled a note from his wallet and dropped it onto the table, glancing over at the waitress, who stood, mute, observing everything but saying nothing. Without speaking, the two young men rose from their seats and left the coffee shop; they walked to Tradd's Jaguar, and sat together in the front seat, saying nothing to each other.
The kind, tired waitress observed them as they left the coffee shop, and, for reasons she could not understand, tasted the salt of tears as they streamed down her cheeks.