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  • Walter Jean, c. 1979
  • Varley O’Connor (bio)

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Portrait of a Boy (painting), Henry Varnum Poor, 1888–1970 / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son). Image number J0075757. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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He was seventeen and I was twenty. At loose ends, I had come to live in his mother’s apartment on Beacon Hill for a time. Dora herself had just moved into the place in June.

I came in August, trailed by my hippie ex-boyfriend and my few possessions: a couple of suitcases, boxes and a mangy palm tree I’d nursed through three Boston winters. Dora’s own plants, succulents, ferns, orchids in colorful pots, crowded the oak floor of the apartment’s spacious front room—such a beautiful room, seeming to float at the top of the city on air, light and civility. I got the ex out of there quick, sending him off with the palm tree, which he promptly unloaded at the corner Dumpster.

Dora was brunching that day with an elegant man from Martinique. I remember his red cashmere sweater, his crisp white shirt against his mahogany skin. They knew each other from Paris. I was charmed when he buttered [End Page 141] his slice of baguette and Dora remarked that, really, bread only existed as a conveyance to get butter to mouths.

Dora had lived and acted in Paris for twenty years, and that was where Walter Jean had been born. There had been a divorce, and Walter Jean, Dora informed me, would arrive in early September. I was to stay until I found a new place. She sympathized with breakups, though the circumstances of hers didn’t bear any resemblance to mine, I assumed. Later, after what happened to her son, I wondered how bad hers might have been.

I’d tromp up the narrow carpeted stairs from the hot street to that cool aerie and nearly swoon with relief. If Dora wasn’t there, I would feast on the room’s peace and glitter, stepping carefully around the plants, pausing at the sheltering windows, hands grazing her solid, waxed antique furniture. Sometimes I’d weep out of envy. I had ruined my life. I would never recover. Even in twenty-five years, I declared to myself, when I was Dora’s age, I wouldn’t be anything like her. Any picture I managed to summon up of my future self was grim.

Dora, by contrast, was all hope and excitement. There I was in my youth, hiding out in my dark room off the long hallway drowning my sorrows in Scotch and fat Russian novels. She shopped, decorated, sang to herself and entertained friends. She prepared for Walter Jean’s arrival.

When he finally appeared, he wasn’t what I expected. He was goofy-looking, with his springy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. I had studied him in the silver-framed photograph before we met. Goofy as he looked, in the picture he was glamorized by the stylishness of the shot, one that might have been commissioned by Vogue, of gorgeous Dora, her long brown hair loose and adrift on a breeze, her head inclined toward a laughing boy, glazed by a patina of privilege.

In the flesh he was extremely thin, big-boned and big-headed, or he looked big-headed because of his hair. He was certainly broad in the face. But I amended my earlier impression of him as goofy to handsome almost immediately.

Here he is! Dora trilled to my entrance that Saturday afternoon he appeared. Forgive us, she added, the poor kid’s been here for twenty minutes, and I’ve got him trying on the new suit. Ah, the suit. He had donned the green corduroy jacket and slacks she had agonized over. He stood in the sun, his arms raised, the tips of his pale fingers peeking from corduroy hoods, patiently allowing his mother to pin up the too-long [End Page 142] sleeves. Perfect, she concluded, moving back to observe the effect of her child in the suit, as the near...


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