Margaret would one day wonder if the day she met William Hill had been the defining moment in her life when the bowling ball of her possibilities had veered into the gutter. But what would take her a lifetime to understand was the role she played in letting it happen.
The two of them had met at the local racetrack where she and her best friend Linda were working, in hopes of saving a little money their last summer before college. William was arguing with his brother over the absurd amount he had just witnessed him gamble, when he accidentally spilled his 7 Up on Margaret when she passed in front of him while selling hotdogs in the bleachers. Margaret had stayed cool, laughed it off, and found his awkward apologizing endearing. William responded by being mostly speechless, having never seen as beautiful a hair color as Margaret’s auburn mane.
Linda was quick to spot Fred, as most women did, and soon came over to see what all the commotion was about. Fred explained how he was helping William with his move to Saratoga Springs, and before their boss reprimanded them for lingering for too long, Linda had already volunteered she and Margaret give them a walking tour of William’s new hometown.
Fred had no interest in the sample he got of Linda’s abrasive personality and there was nothing in her bland features, slouching shoulders or mousy brown hair that made up for the unpleasantness he felt being around her. The morning they were to meet, Fred had already left, and William announced it would be just him. Margaret found Linda rude for backing out of her offer at the last minute, and though it was not her own initiative, she decided to show up without her, at the appointed time.
There was something courageous, yet obedient, which Margaret admired right away in William, and she surprised herself enjoying spending time with him. He was tall, blond and lanky, not the type she would have imagined herself falling for, but his eyes were clever, and he had a childlike quality while still being mature. He had gone after the life he wanted, one very different from the rest of his family’s. It was Roger, he had explained, a family friend, who had gotten him his job in Saratoga Springs. It was not long before they spent more and more time together, making Linda feel like the third wheel, a position she started resenting, for until now, she had never had to share Margaret with anyone.
The girls were both recluses before meeting each other in high school. Margaret was an introvert who spent all her time buried in her books while Linda was annoying to most people she met, and friendships had never come easy to her. Linda was the first-person Margaret met who she found at least as interesting as her books. Though they both came from the same small town, a city inviting as little introspection as it did possibility, Linda questioned everything, which contrasted with everyone else Margaret knew, who blindly accepted their options as being those defined by the people who’d gone before them. Margaret enjoyed how Linda made her world seem bigger and made her think of things she would not have stopped to think of otherwise. It was certainly more interesting to hang out with Linda than it was spending time with her neighbors, the Brentwood girls, who bored Margaret with their narrow interests for discussing other people’s business.
It was Linda who had challenged Margaret to become a nurse, instead of settling for a job right out of high school. But the first semester was fast approaching, and Margaret suddenly regretted not having given it more thought. The idea of drawing blood and being around sickness all day was keeping her up at night. It was three weeks to school starting, and she was seriously considering dropping out of the program.
Margaret was at the Golden Spoon diner with William when she noticed Irene Jensen taking orders in her faded brown uniform. She knew Irene Jensen had once been known for her good looks way back when she started waitressing at the Golden Spoon. She had seen the frames in the entrance that suggested a different Irene, not the one Margaret now watched pouring coffee refills, looking bitter and disillusioned. She figured Irene had once too many fallen for the promises made by truckers and salesmen stopping for a meal and a sleepover on their way to New York, and it dawned on her that if she dropped out of nursing school, she might end up just like her.
“Are you ok?” William asked, noticing Margaret was even less talkative than she normally was.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking around, uncertain whether she had the courage to say what she was thinking out loud. William’s gaze looked safe enough for her to continue. “I’m not sure about going to college this fall. I mean, I’m having second thoughts about it.”
“You don’t want to go to college?” he asked, nervously rolling up the sides of his paper placemat.
“No, I want to, but I don’t know. I don’t want to become a nurse is what I’m saying.”
“What else would you do then? What would you study?” he asked, leaning away from the table to make place for the delivery of their milkshakes.
There was nothing else in her narrow options Margaret could see herself taking. “I have no clue,” she said. “How did you know you wanted to become an accountant?”
William thought about it for a while. He had never really discussed intangibles before. “I guess—there’s this man that came to the farm,” he ventured, fiddling with his straw, “maybe twice a year, and Dad would just wait for him to tell us whether we’d made or lost any money. It fascinated me that my dad needed someone else to tell him if what he did was working. Everyone around me couldn’t wait to drive a tractor—all I wanted, was to understand the magic this man operated with his big calculator, that made him know, without even lifting a shovel or moving a bale of hay, whether we’d made any money.” He paused for a satisfying gulp of his milkshake, his glance skimming Margaret’s over the top of the whipped cream. “Plus,” he added, stopping for air while looking down at himself, “I’m not really built for manual labor.”
They both laughed a little.
“Personally, I always preferred smart guys over strong ones,” Margaret surprised herself saying out loud.
William played with the corners of his placemat again, his cheeks turning red.
“You don’t have to study anything else.”
“If you don’t want to become a nurse, you don’t have to study something else.”
Margaret giggled nervously. “Right, but I mean, I’d like to study literature, but that won’t lead me anywhere, I don’t want to waste my parent’s money, you know.”
“Yeah, that might not be the wisest thing,” he said, confirming her own parents’ opinion. “But don’t you want a family?”
“Of course, I do!” Margaret answered, uncertain why he implied having a family and going to school had to be mutually exclusive.
“So, do I!” he said, “I can’t wait to have my own kids.”
Irene came over with the check and assigned it to William. He pulled out his money clip and paid the bill.
“You lovebirds have yourselves a great day now,” Irene said, after satisfyingly estimating the generous tip William left.
Margaret blushed, enjoying her new identity as someone in a relationship. Without alluding to her barely touched milkshake, William asked Margaret if she was ready to go.
After holding the door open for her on their way out, William took her hand in his. When they got to the car, he looked down at his feet, endearing Margaret with his awkwardness before leaning in and kissing her.
William did not wait for long to ask Margaret to marry him. He had come into a small inheritance after his dad had died and had already spotted a beautiful house he could afford and that he saw them both moving into.
It helped that Margaret’s parents liked him too.
“There just aren’t many guys as good as William out there,” her mother told her one evening. “You’re lucky he’s smitten by you.”
Margaret figured cooking a few meals and washing a few clothes was a good deal for having days all to herself to do nothing but read. She was not sure she wanted kids yet, but William did, and there was something reassuring about him being so decisive. He had already done great things with his own life, and she felt some excitement thinking she would soon be under the same spell.
“I need posters for my room,” Linda said on an afternoon the girls had gone shopping. “What would make me look cool? Led Zeppelin?” she asked, lifting the posters set against cardboards one by one.
Margaret knew Linda would not differentiate a Led Zeppelin track from a Neil Diamond one if she heard them.
“Mmm. What about Abba? You love Abba! They must have a poster here somewhere,” Margaret said, looking around the store.
Linda raised a blowup of a Queen album. “Margie, c’mon, I don’t listen to Abba anymore… Queen–what do you think?”
“Yeah… they’re cool,” Margaret answered, sticking both her hands in the back pockets of her bell-bottom jeans. “Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”
Linda dropped the poster; it made a loud thud. She kept searching.
“What’s up, Margie?”
“Well, I’m thinking—I’m going to drop out of college.”
“What are you talking about?” Linda asked, still going through the posters one by one, not paying much attention to what Margaret was saying.
Margaret put her hand over Linda’s, stopping her from lifting any more posters.
“Linda, this is serious. I’m sorry, I’m dropping out.”
Linda raised her head. “What are you talking about?”
“College. I’m dropping out.”
Linda’s eyes met Margaret’s. “Wait what? Are you serious? You can’t do this to me, Margaret! We’re in this together!”
“You don’t know how sorry I am,” Margaret pleaded, “but I mean you were going whether or not I went. I mean, it’s still your plan and all, it just isn’t for me.”
Linda shook her head. “Margie, seriously, what else are you going to do with your life?”
Margaret looked down.
“You’re still going to college though, right? Just not nursing?”
“I don’t think so, Linda. I’m thinking of settling down.”
Linda laughed condescendingly. “With William Hill? The man you just met. The man you just recently kissed. You’ll settle for him? M. Goody two shoes?”
“He’s a good man, Linda, don’t mock him.”
“He is such a good man—makes him boring. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that your independence should be worth something to you. It’s the seventies, Margie! You don’t need to follow in your mom’s footsteps. Don’t you want to earn your own money?”
Everyone was now looking in their direction, trying to follow what their altercation was about. Linda seemed to enjoy the attention as much as she enjoyed Margaret’s cringe reaction to it.
“That’s easy for you to say!” Margaret replied defensively. “You love the idea of working in a hospital all day! I don’t!”
“And becoming a housewife is your only alternative?”
“It’s not a fallback plan, Linda, it's something I want.”
Linda gave Margaret a look of contempt. “I no longer recognize you, Margaret Wilcox!”
“Traitor,” Linda muttered under her breath as she stormed out of the store.
Margaret ran after her. “Linda, wait! Common, really?”
“You’ve changed, Margaret. Ever since that William Hill came into your life, you’ve changed.”
“I have not! Linda, that’s not fair!”
“I don’t think we have anything in common anymore. Maybe we should just move on. No need to stay in each other’s lives.”
“Linda, you can’t be serious?”
“We’re done, Margaret,” she said, before abandoning her friend at the mall.
The massive domino effect she would later trigger in Margaret’s life could have been avoided, had Linda upheld her decision.