Andrew’s assessment that Thomas was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was, of course, correct. Not only was he reading Tess, he was seeing Tess. She was everywhere, in every woman he encountered. Being half-way through the novel helped, as the details of her story had not completely or fully set in. Nor had Thomas been blindsided by the shell-shocking realities of that second half that might make him not want to see Tess everywhere for fear of losing all hope in humanity, if not his own sanity. He was still caught up on the idyllic and often intoxicating vistas that Hardy painted of the rural lands of his mythical Wessex. Tom’s romantic notions were in full arousal, seeing rural England in any expanse of green, every budding tree, every darting bird, and every young woman that his imagination could transport to Victorian England and fashion into a simple milkmaid. Thomas had never been so captivated by a character, and as a single young man who hoped to meet a woman of flesh and blood and fall in love, he now hoped she would approximate the angelic, elusive, trusting, Tess, who also seemed blessed with sage-like wisdom and a noble nature suitable for a pastor’s wife. No woman could be all these in the intoxicating and combustive mixture that Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield possessed. No creature could persist long in this world in such a state, which is perhaps one of the many points Hardy was so boldly making. And yet there was Tess, so cruelly used and still so divinely shining — at the half-way point of the novel.
Thomas saw her everywhere. She colored every dreamy assessment he made of his own life. Having resettled in the American midlands, Thomas now perceived his own arrival in the pastoral landscapes of the upper Midwest as though he were visitor to Tess’s domain. And every conversation with a girl in his classes, or the girl at the check-out counter, the girl at the bank, etc., all took on Tessian hues, earthy tones of green, blue, tawny and brown. In the early mornings on the way to class, Tess accompanied him, remarking kindly upon the events of the day, putting a kind construct upon the words and actions of others (Luther would have been pleased here). Tess seemed, at every moment, to be the girl he was about to meet, in the same way that the male protagonist, Angel Clare, had arrived providentially as a student farmer at the same dairy where Tess had herself taken refuge from her past. With every turning of the page, Thomas, himself a visiting student, became akin to Angel hoping for Tess’s affections to grow. He hurt with every modest denial she gave and took offense when Angel did not do the things he should have done to gain her trust; again this was a prelude to the novel’s tragic second act. But not having arrived there, Thomas lived in the forever joyful and expectant moment before the crucial moment, before — may we say — the cross.
One Thursday afternoon in early April, Thomas read at The Hatch. Spring weather had arrived suddenly and surprisingly. Rivers of meltwater carried down the streets and into sewers that drank like parched mouths. The changing weather had brought weeks of clouds and windier conditions. Outside the windows, the still bare deciduous trees rhythmically bent and relaxed, bowing back and forth; the evergreens registered the wind as waves of movement through their bushy branches. Inside the restaurant, Thomas turned pages, a season changing there for him as well. The crushing events of Tess’s wedding day played out before his unbelieving eyes. He broke from reading for a few moments, unable to go on. It all registered so deeply, taking him back to a relationship he had a few years back, a disappointment and an ending that he continued to regret, the story of a simple girl that he had met less than a year before going to the States for school. Many times, he had stuffed that memory back down, justifying the events, or blaming them on youthful immaturity and the pressure of somehow hanging on to home. But the story of Tess dragged these images back to his conscious mind, surprising him with details he had forgotten. The worst part had been the fact that, at one point, marriage had been discussed. There had been efforts to secure a way in which the young woman could follow Thomas to Minnesota, even a place to work and stay. Thomas remembered when the place he had found for her to work turned out to be a workhouse for young women with lower mental capacity, and the potential apartment proved to be a in a subsidized building with active elements of crime. The relationship fell apart soon after that. But it was much more unfortunate events that had precipitated the breakup. Thomas, suddenly wary of the commitment he felt himself to be making, began to pry into the girl’s past. He had contacted one of her friends to ask some silly question that got blown out of proportion. Of course, the young woman had been informed by her friend and when she confronted Thomas with his indiscretion, she had also told him she would not be joining him in Minnesota.
For a few moments Thomas relived the aftermath of those events, feeling the despairing features of his own story deeply and personally once again, especially vivid was the day the relationship was severed. He turned his head to the window next to him and watched the heavy clouds moving overhead. Superimposed over the scene outside the window was the faint reflection of the inside of the restaurant, including Thomas’ own face, cast outward into the street. As the light of the afternoon failed, this inner scene would become more and more dominant until it remained the only thing visible. Thomas saw the irony of the inside exposed and projected over the exterior. Hardy’s masterful writing had served just like this, as a pane of glass, doing the same thing in the emotional dimension, surprising him with that inner reflection cast outward. This had been the last romantic relationship Thomas had been in. Since then, he had struggled to see his life move forward in this respect.
“Are you done with that?”
A familiar voice called him back to the place in which he sat. Thomas looked up and saw that it was the quadrad’s regular server, Terri. Her shift must have just started that would carry into the evening hours.
Thomas blinked, bringing his focus back to the present. Terri was smiling at him, shyly picking her fingernails with her pen. “Are you done with that?” she repeated, cocking her head to one side.
“Um, yes, sorry. I’ll take a Diet Coke, though, with a little lime, if that is okay?”
“Sure,” she smirked. “So where are the guys? It’s not Monday, you know.”
“I came by myself to read. I just needed a different place to be,” he said, not wanting to reveal too much, not sure at all how much Terri would appreciate.
“It’s quieter when it’s just you,” Terri observed as she went to fulfill his order.
Thomas was disarmed by her observation, the nature of it, delivered in a way that did not make it a criticism. Was it a compliment, a fact that she enjoyed about him? Was she inviting him to somehow do or say more? He watched her walk away, appreciating for the first time the bounce in her curly bobbed hair that just touched the nape of her neck. It reminded him of an Irish step-dancer he had seen perform one summer back home. There was a softness, even a familiarity to the way she expressed herself, a vulnerability that Thomas had never appreciated before. Her eyes were inviting, warm, expressive, communicating an intelligence that was not academic, and, yet, not at all beneath that. He realized he was assuming Terri did not go beyond high school. Maybe he was wrong? Her dignity betrayed something more than just the average “college-was-not-in-the-cards” storyline.
He kept watching as she went to behind the counter and filled a cup with ice and then poured the soda, placing two limes on top with her elegant fingers. She seemed aware of his gaze but did not acknowledge it. When she turned around, she immediately met his eyes with no alarm.
She returned with his drink, cocking her head again, her lips parted slightly. “Will that be all, Tom?”
“For now, I guess.” He smiled shyly.
She turned to leave, but then abruptly spun on her heels. “I was meaning to ask you, one of you at least… Do you all go to that school up the hill? The one where people study theology?”
“We do. You can call me Thomas.”
“I meant no offense.”
“No, it’s the opposite for me. It’s what I prefer people who know me to call me.”
“But I don’t really know you,” she said.
“I’ve known you for at least six months right, every Monday night?” Thomas suddenly felt on the defensive, but strangely again, not attacked.
“You don’t know me,” she said. “Not really. Anyhow, about the school, my father went there, so did my great uncle.”
Thomas sat back. His mind spun to take in this sudden revelation. “Your dad? Really? When?”
“Oh, back in the sixties, I think.”
“He’s a pastor?”
Terri did not answer this, but said instead, “I always thought it was kinda funny I ended up working so close to the school.”
Thomas looked stunned as the information Terri was sharing with him settled in.
“You don’t believe me,” she remarked.
“You’ve never said anything about it before.”
“I was waiting for the right time.”
Thomas was suddenly seeing Terri in a totally different light. All this time he had seen her just as a waitress, either his own age or maybe a bit older. Terry, a pastor’s daughter? What if he had met her in a classroom up the hill rather than at The Hatch? Not that working at a bar somehow categorized her as worthy of less consideration — but this cast Terri in a new light. Terri, who had served them all beer, Terri who had listened to bits and pieces, tail-ends of the conversations of second-year seminarians, had never ventured to comment on more than just the special of the week? How many times had she held back from revealing this secret, or commenting intelligently on some finer point of their spiritual discussions? And, and this was the most important question: Was it because finally it was just him at the table?
Thomas’ words stumbled out: “Wow, I mean, that’s amazing. Not amazing, I guess, but you know, you get inside a certain bubble and you just don’t realize… I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“Oh, I know exactly what you’re saying,” she said, smiling carefully.
Thomas felt suddenly self-conscious, as he now realized that for months Terri had this keen insight into his life and the lives of his friends. What had she perceived of him through this hidden lens? What stupid things had they talked about while blowing off steam, assuming that those listening would not understand or catch hidden meanings and nuances? All this time he had been unknowing under the microscope of Terri’s personal insight into all that he was training to be. Had she been unfair in hiding this from all of them?
But then, looking up, he saw those eyes again. Soft and open. Trusting, even. Thomas wanted to investigate them as long as he could, to look the reverse way through the lens, to see himself through Terri’s eyes.
“I have so many questions,” Thomas said, again tongue-tied. “Do you want to sit down? Can I ask you—”
“No,” she said quickly, smiling even bigger. “I’ve got to keep busy, and…. you’ve got reading to do,” she chuckled. “I’ll bring you your bill, sir.”
Sir? Thomas was transfixed as she walked away. When she brought the bill, she was suddenly all “business” again. As he signed the credit card slip, Thomas worked up the nerve to write his phone number below. Terri never returned to the table. He left that night to walk home alone, feeling like the man in the parable who had found a hidden treasure in a field.