I Can't Breathe
by Ring Lardner
I am staying here at the Inn for two weeks with my Uncle Nat and
Aunt Jule and I think I will keep a kind of diary while I am here to
help pass the time and so I can have a record of things that happen
though goodness knows there isn't likely to anything happen, that is
anything exciting with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule making the plans as they
are both at least 35 years old and maybe older.
Dad and mother are abroad to be gone a month and me coming here is
supposed to be a recompence for them not taking me with them. A fine
recompence to be left with old people that come to a place like this to
rest. Still it would be a heavenly place under different conditions,
for instance if Walter were here, too. It would be heavenly if he were
here, the very thought of it makes my heart stop.
I can't stand it. I won't think about it.
This is our first separation since we have been engaged, nearly 17
days. It will be 17 days tomorrow. And the hotel orchestra at dinner
this evening played that old thing 'Oh, how I miss you tonight' and it
seemed as if they must be playing it for my benefit though of course
the person in that song is talking about how they miss their mother
though of course I miss mother too, but a person gets used to missing
their mother and it isn't like Walter or the person you are engaged to.
But there won't be any more separations much longer, we are going
to be married in December even if mother does laugh when I talk to her
about it because she says I am crazy to even think of getting married
at 18. She got married herself when she was 18, but of course that was
"different," she wasn't crazy like I am, she knew whom she was
marrying. As if Walter were a policeman or a foreigner or something.
And she says she was only engaged once while I have been engaged at
least five times a year since I was 14, of course it really isn't as
bad as that and I have really only been really what I call engaged six
times altogether, but is getting engaged my fault when they keep
insisting and hammering at you and if you didn't say yes they would
never go home.
But it is different with Walter. I honestly believe if he had not
asked me I would have asked him. Of course I wouldn't have, but I would
have died. And this is the first time I have ever been engaged to be
really married. The other times when they talked about when we should
get married I just laughed at them, but I hadn't been engaged to Walter
ten minutes when he brought up the subject of marriage and I didn't
laugh. I wouldn't be engaged to him unless it was to be married. I
couldn't stand it.
Anyway mother may as well get used to the idea because it is "No
Foolin'" this time and we have got our plans all made and I am going to
be married at home and go out to California and Hollywood on our
honeymoon. December, five months away. I can't stand it. I can't wait.
There were a couple of awfully nice looking boys sitting together
alone in the dining-room tonight. One of them wasn't so much, but the
other was cute. And he—
There's the dance orchestra playing 'Always,' what they played at
the Biltmore the day I met Walter. "Not for just an hour, not for just
a day." I can't live. I can't breathe.
This has been a much more exciting day than I expected under the
circumstances. In the first place I got two long night letters, one
from Walter and one from Gordon Flint. I don't see how Walter ever had
the nerve to send his, there was everything in it and it must have been
horribly embarrassing for him while the telegraph operator was reading
it over and counting the words to say nothing of embarrassing the
But the one from Gordon was a kind of a shock. He just got back
from a trip around the world, left last December to go on it and got
back yesterday and called up our house and Helga gave him my address,
and his telegram, well it was nearly as bad as Walter's. The trouble is
that Gordon and I were engaged when he went away, or at least he
thought so and he wrote to me right along all the time he was away and
sent cables and things and for a while I answered his letters, but then
I lost track of his itinery and couldn't write to him any more and when
I got really engaged to Walter I couldn't let Gordon know because I had
no idea where he was besides not wanting to spoil his trip.
And now he still thinks we are engaged and he is going to call me
up tomorrow from Chicago and how in the world can I explain things and
get him to understand because he is really serious and I like him ever
and ever so much and in lots of ways he is nicer than Walter, not
really nicer but better looking and there is no comparison between
their dancing. Walter simply can't learn to dance, that is really
dance. He says it is because he is flat footed, he says that as a joke,
but it is true and I wish to heavens it wasn't.
All forenoon I thought and thought and thought about what to say to
Gordon when he calls up and finally I couldn't stand thinking about it
any more and just made up my mind I wouldn't think about it any more.
But I will tell the truth though it will kill me to hurt him.
I went down to lunch with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and they were
going out to play golf this afternoon and were insisting that I go with
them, but I told them I had a headache and then I had a terrible time
getting them to go without me. I didn't have a headache at all and just
wanted to be alone to think about Walter and besides when you play with
Uncle Nat he is always correcting your stance or your swing or
something and always puts his hands on my arms or shoulders to show me
the right way and I can't stand it to have old men touch me, even if
they are your uncle.
I finally got rid of them and I was sitting watching the tennis
when that boy that I saw last night, the cute one, came and sat right
next to me and of course I didn't look at him and I was going to smoke
a cigarette and found I had left my lighter upstairs and I started to
get up and go after it when all of a sudden he was offering me his
lighter and I couldn't very well refuse it without being rude. So we
got to talking and he is even cuter than he looks, the most original
and wittiest person I believe I ever met and I haven't laughed so much
in I don't know how long.
For one thing he asked me if I had heard Rockefeller's song and I
said no and he began singing "Oil alone." Then he asked me if I knew
the orange juice song and I told him no again and he said it was
"Orange juice sorry you made me cry." I was in hysterics before we had
been together ten minutes.
His name is Frank Caswell and he has been out of Darthmouth a year
and is 24 years old. That isn't so terribly old, only two years older
than Walter and three years older than Gordon. I hate the name Frank,
but Caswell is all right and he is so cute.
He was out in California last winter and visited Hollywood and met
everybody in the world and it is fascinating to listen to him. He met
Norma Shearer and he said he thought she was the prettiest thing he had
ever seen. What he said was "I did think she was the prettiest girl in
the world, till today." I was going to pretend I didn't get it, but I
finally told him to be sensible or I would never be able to believe
anything he said.
Well, he wanted me to dance with him tonight after dinner and the
next question was how to explain how we had met each other to Uncle Nat
and Aunt Jule. Frank said he would fix that all right and sure enough
he got himself introduced to Uncle Nat when Uncle Nat came in from golf
and after dinner Uncle Nat introduced him to me and Aunt Jule too and
we danced together all evening, that is not Aunt Jule. They went to
bed, thank heavens.
He is a heavenly dancer, as good as Gordon. One dance we were
dancing and for one of the encores the orchestra played 'Just a cottage
small by a waterfall' and I simply couldn't dance to it. I just stopped
still and said "Listen, I can't bear it, I can't breathe" and poor
Frank thought I was sick or something and I had to explain that that
was the tune the orchestra played the night I sat at the next table to
Jack Barrymore at Barney Gallant's.
I made him sit out that encore and wouldn't let him talk till they
got through playing it. Then they played something else and I was all
right again and Frank told me about meeting Jack Barrymore. Imagine
meeting him. I couldn't live.
I promised Aunt Jule I would go to bed at eleven and it is way past
that now, but I am all ready for bed and have just been writing this.
Tomorrow Gordon is going to call up and what will I say to him! I just
won't think about it.
Gordon called up this morning from Chicago and it was wonderful to
hear his voice again though the connection was terrible. He asked me if
I still loved him and I tried to tell him no, but I knew that would
mean an explanation and the connection was so bad that I never could
make him understand so I said yes, but I almost whispered it purposely,
thinking he wouldn't hear me, but he heard me all right and he said
that made everything all right with the world. He said he thought I had
stopped loving him because I had stopped writing.
I wish the connection had been decent and I could have told him how
things were, but now it is terrible because he is planning to get to
New York the day I get there and heaven knows what I will do because
Walter will be there, too. I just won't think about it.
Aunt Jule came in my room just after I was through talking to
Gordon, thank heavens. The room was full of flowers. Walter had sent me
some and so had Frank. I got another long night letter from Walter,
just as silly as the first one. I wish he would say those things in
letters instead of night letters so everybody in the world wouldn't see
them. Aunt Jule wanted me to read it aloud to her. I would have died.
While she was still in the room, Frank called up and asked me to
play golf with him and I said all right and Aunt Jule said she was glad
my headache was gone. She was trying to be funny.
I played golf with Frank this afternoon. He is a beautiful golfer
and it is thrilling to watch him drive, his swing is so much more
graceful than Walter's. I asked him to watch me swing and tell me what
was the matter with me, but he said he couldn't look at anything but my
face and there wasn't anything the matter with that.
He told me the boy who was here with him had been called home and
he was glad of it because I might have liked him, the other boy, better
I told him that couldn't be possible and he asked me if I really
meant that and I said of course, but I smiled when I said it so he
wouldn't take it too seriously.
We danced again tonight and Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule sat with us a
while and danced a couple of dances themselves, but they were really
there to get better acquainted with Frank and see if he was all right
for me to be with. I know they certainly couldn't have enjoyed their
own dancing, no old people really can enjoy it because they can't
really do anything. They were favorably impressed with Frank I think,
at least Aunt Jule didn't say I must be in bed at eleven, but just not
to stay up too late. I guess it is a big surprise to a girl's parents
and aunts and uncles to find out that the boys you go around with are
all right, they always seem to think that if I seem to like somebody
and the person pays a little attention to me, why he must be a convict
or a policeman or a drunkard or something queer.
Frank had some more songs for me tonight. He asked me if I knew the
asthma song and I said I didn't and he said "Oh, you must know that. It
goes, "Yes, sir, asthma baby." Then he told me about the underwear
song, "I underwear my baby is tonight." He keeps you in hysterics and
yet he has his serious side, in fact he was awfully serious when he
said good night to me and his eyes simply shown. I wish Walter were
more like him, but I mustn't think about that.
I simply can't live and I know I'll never sleep tonight. I am in a
terrible predicament or rather I won't know whether I really am or not
till tomorrow and that is what makes it so terrible. After we had
danced two or three dances, Frank asked me to go for a ride with him
and we went for a ride in his car and he had had some cocktails and
during the ride he had some drinks out of a flask and finally he told
me he loved me and I said not to be silly, but he said he was perfectly
serious and he certainly acted that way. He asked me if I loved anybody
else and I said yes and he asked if I didn't love him more than anybody
else and I said yes, but only because I thought he had probably had too
much to drink and wouldn't remember it anyway and the best thing to do
was humor him under the circumstances.
Then all of a sudden he asked me when I could marry him and I said
just as a joke, that I couldn't possibly marry him before December. He
said that was a long time to wait, but I was certainly worth waiting
for and he said a lot of other things and maybe I humored him a little
too much, but that is just the trouble, I don't know.
I was absolutely sure he was tight and would forget the whole
thing, but that was early in the evening, and when we said good night
he was a whole lot more sober than he had been and now I am not sure
how it stands. If he doesn't remember anything about it, of course I am
all right. But if he does remember and if he took me seriously, I will
simply have to tell him about Walter and maybe about Gordon, too. And
it isn't going to be easy. The suspense is what is maddening and I know
I'll never live through this night.
I can't stand it, I can't breathe, life is impossible. Frank
remembered everything about last night and firmly believes we are
engaged and going to be married in December. His people live in New
York and he says he is going back when I do and have them meet me.
Of course it can't go on and tomorrow I will tell him about Walter
or Gordon or both of them. I know it is going to hurt him terribly,
perhaps spoil his life and I would give anything in the world not to
have had it happen. I hate so to hurt him because he is so nice besides
being so cute and attractive. He sent me the loveliest flowers this
morning and called up at ten and wanted to know how soon he could see
me and I hope the girl wasn't listening in because the things he said
were, well, like Walter's night letters.
And that is another terrible thing, today I didn't get a night
letter from Walter, but there was a regular letter instead and I
carried it around in my purse all this afternoon and evening and never
remembered to read it till ten minutes ago when I came up in the room.
Walter is worried because I have only sent him two telegrams and
written him one letter since I have been here, he would be a lot more
worried if he knew what has happened now, though of course it can't
make any difference because he is the one I am really engaged to be
married to and the one I told mother I was going to marry in December
and I wouldn't dare tell her it was somebody else.
I met Frank for lunch and we went for a ride this afternoon and he
was so much in love and so lovely to me that I simply did not have the
heart to tell him the truth, I am surely going to tell him tomorrow and
telling him today would have just meant one more day of unhappiness for
both of us.
He said his people had plenty of money and his father had offered
to take him into partnership and he might accept, but he thinks his
true vocation is journalism with a view to eventually writing novels
and if I was willing to undergo a few hardships just at first we would
probably both be happier later on if he was doing something he really
liked. I didn't know what to say, but finally I said I wanted him to
suit himself and money wasn't everything.
He asked me where I would like to go on my honeymoon and I suppose
I ought to have told him my honeymoon was all planned, that I was going
to California, with Walter, but all I said was that I had always wanted
to go to California and he was enthusiastic and said that is where we
would surely go and he would take me to Hollywood and introduce me to
all those wonderful people he met there last winter. It nearly takes my
breath away to think of it, going there with someone who really knows
people and has the entree.
We danced again tonight, just two or three dances, and then went
out and sat in the tennis-court, but I came upstairs early because Aunt
Jule had acted kind of funny at dinner. And I wanted to be alone, too,
and think, but the more I think the worse it gets.
Sometimes I wish I were dead, maybe that is the only solution and
it would be best for everyone concerned. I will die if things keep on
the way they have been. But of course tomorrow it will be all over,
with Frank I mean, for I must tell him the truth no matter how much it
hurts us both. Though I don't care how much it hurts me. The thought of
hurting him is what is driving me mad. I can't bear it.
I have skipped a day. I was busy every minute of yesterday and so
exhausted when I came upstairs that I was tempted to fall into bed with
all my clothes on. First Gordon called me up from Chicago to remind me
that he would be in New York the day I got there and that when he comes
he wants me all to himself all the time and we can make plans for our
wedding. The connection was bad again and I just couldn't explain to
him about Walter.
I had an engagement with Frank for lunch and just as we were going
in another long distance call came, from Walter this time. He wanted to
know why I haven't written more letters and sent him more telegrams and
asked me if I still loved him and of course I told him yes because I
really do. Then he asked if I had met any men here and I told him I had
met one, a friend of Uncle Nat's. After all it was Uncle Nat who
introduced me to Frank. He reminded me that he would be in New York on
the 25th which is the day I expect to get home, and said he would have
theater tickets for that night and we would go somewhere afterwards and
dance. Frank insisted on knowing who had kept me talking so long and I
told him it was a boy I had known a long while, a very dear friend of
mine and a friend of my family's. Frank was jealous and kept asking
questions till I thought I would go mad. He was so serious and kind of
cross and gruff that I gave up the plan of telling him the truth till
some time when he is in better spirits.
I played golf with Frank in the afternoon and we took a ride last
night and I wanted to get in early because I had promised both Walter
and Gordon that I would write them long letters, but Frank wouldn't
bring me back to the Inn till I had named a definite date in December.
I finally told him the 10th and he said all right if I was sure that
wasn't a Sunday. I said I wouid have to look it up, but as a matter of
fact I know the 10th falls on a Friday because the date Walter and I
have agreed on for our wedding is Saturday the 11th.
Today has just been the same thing over again, two more night
letters, a long distance call from Chicago, golf and a ride with Frank,
and the room full of flowers. But tomorrow I am going to tell Frank and
I am going to write Gordon a long letter and tell him, too, because
this simply can't go on any longer. I can't breathe. I can't live.
I wrote to Gordon yesterday, but I didn't say anything about Walter
because I don't think it is a thing a person ought to do by letter. I
can tell him when he gets to New York and then I will be sure that he
doesn't take it too hard and I can promise him that I will be friends
with him always and make him promise not to do anything silly, while if
I told it to him in a letter there is no telling what he would do,
there all alone.
And I haven't told Frank because he hasn't been feeling well, he is
terribly sunburned and it hurts him terribly so he can hardly play golf
or dance, and I want him to be feeling his best when I do tell him, but
whether he is all right or not I simply must tell him tomorrow because
he is actually planning to leave here on the same train with us
Saturday night and I can't let him do that.
Life is so hopeless and it could be so wonderful. For instance how
heavenly it would be if I could marry Frank first and stay married to
him five years and he would be the one who would take me to Hollywood
and maybe we could go on parties with Norman Kerry and Jack Barrymore
and Buster Collier and Marion Davies and Lois Moran.
And at the end of five years Frank could go into journalism and
write novels and I would only be 23 and I could marry Gordon and he
would be ready for another trip around the world and he could show me
things better than someone who had never seen them before.
Gordon and I would separate at the end of five years and I would be
28 and I know of lots of women that never even got married the first
time till they were 28 though I don't suppose that was their fault, but
I would marry Walter then, for after all he is the one I really love
and want to spend most of my life with and I wouldn't care whether he
could dance or not when I was that old. Before long we would be as old
as Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and I certainly wouldn't want to dance at
their age when all you can do is just hobble around the floor. But
Walter is so wonderful as a companion and we would enjoy the same
things and be pals and maybe we would begin to have children.
But that is all impossible though it wouldn't be if older people
just had sense and would look at things the right way.
It is only half past ten, the earliest I have gone to bed in weeks,
but I am worn out and Frank went to bed early so he could put cold
cream on his sunburn.
Listen, diary, the orchestra is playing 'Limehouse Blues.' The
first tune I danced to with Merle Oliver, two years ago. I can't stand
it. And how funny that they should play that old tune tonight of all
nights, when I have been thinking of Merle off and on all day, and I
hadn't thought of him before in weeks and weeks. I wonder where he is,
I wonder if it is just an accident or if it means I am going to see him
again. I simply mustn't think about it or I'll die.
I knew it wasn't an accident. I knew it must mean something, and it
Merle is coming here today, here to this Inn, and just to see me.
And there can only be one reason. And only one answer. I knew that when
I heard his voice calling from Boston. How could I ever had thought I
loved anyone else? How could he ever have thought I meant it when I
told him I was engaged to George Morse?
A whole year and he still cares and I still care. That shows we
were always intended for each other and for no one else. I won't make
him wait till December. I doubt if we even wait till dad and mother get
home. And as for a honeymoon I will go with him to Long Beach or the
Bronx Zoo, wherever he wants to take me.
After all this is the best way out of it, the only way. I won't
have to say anything to Frank, he will guess when he sees me with
Merle. And when I get home Sunday and Walter and Gordon call me up, I
will invite them both to dinner and Merle can tell them himself, with
two of them there it will only hurt each one half as much as if they
The train is due at 2:40, almost three hours from now. I can't
wait. And what if it should be late? I can't stand it.