I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I
couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one
of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide,
the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my
Constantin's restaurant smelt of herbs and spices and sour cream. All the time I
had been in New York I had never found such a restaurant. I only found those Heavenly
Hamburger places, where they serve giant hamburgers and soup-of-the-day and four
kinds of fancy cake at a very clean counter facing a long glarey mirror.
To reach this restaurant we had to climb down seven dimly lit steps into a sort of
Travel posters plastered the smoke-dark walls, like so many picture windows
overlooking Swiss lakes and Japanese mountains and African velds, and thick, dusty
bottle-candles, that seemed for centuries to have wept their colored waxes red over blue
over green in a fine, three-dimensional lace, cast a circle of light round each table where
the faces floated, flushed and flamelike themselves.
I don't know what I ate, but I felt immensely better after the first mouthful. It
occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to
earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach.
Constantin kept refilling our glasses with a sweet Greek wine that tasted of pine
bark, and I found myself telling him how I was going to learn German and go to Europe
and be a war correspondent like Maggie Higgins.
I felt so fine by the time we came to the yogurt and strawberry jam that I decided I
would let Constantin seduce me.
Ever since Buddy Willard had told me about that waitress I had been thinking I
ought to go out and sleep with somebody myself. Sleeping with Buddy wouldn't count,
though, because he would still be one person ahead of me, it would have to be with
The only boy I ever actually discussed going to bed with was a bitter, hawk-nosed
Southerner from Yale, who came to college one weekend only to find his date had eloped
with a taxi driver the day before. As the girl had lived in my house and I was the only one
home that particular night, it was my job to cheer him up.
At the local coffee shop, hunched in one of the secretive, high-backed booths with
hundreds of people's names gouged into the wood, we drank cup after cup of black coffee
and talked frankly about sex.
This boy -- his name was Eric -- said he thought it disgusting the way all the girls
at my college stood around on the porches under the lights and in the bushes in plain
view, necking madly before the one o'clock curfew, so everybody passing by could see
them. A million years of evolution, Eric said bitterly, and what are we? Animals.
Then Eric told me how he had slept with his first woman.
He went to a Southern prep school that specialized in building all-round
gentlemen, and by the time you graduated it was an unwritten rule that you had to have
known a woman. Known in the Biblical sense, Eric said.
So one Saturday Eric and a few of his classmates took a bus into the nearest city
and visited a notorious whorehouse. Eric's whore hadn't even taken off her dress. She was
a fat, middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and suspiciously thick lips and rat-colored
skin and she wouldn't turn off the light, so he had had her under a fly-spotted twenty-five-
watt bulb, and it was nothing like it was cracked up to be. It was boring as going to the
I said maybe if you loved a woman it wouldn't seem so boring, but Eric said it
would be spoiled by thinking this woman too was just an animal like the rest, so if he
loved anybody he would never go to bed with her. He'd go to a whore if he had to and
keep the woman he loved free of all that dirty business.
It had crossed my mind at the time that Eric might be a good person to go to bed
with, since he had already done it and, unlike the usual run of boys, didn't seem dirty-
minded or silly when he talked about it. But then Eric wrote me a letter saying he thought
he might really be able to love me, I was so intelligent and cynical and yet had such a
kind face, surprisingly like his older sister's; so I knew it was no use, I was the type he
would never go to bed with, and wrote him I was unfortunately about to marry a
The more I thought about it the better I liked the idea of being seduced by a
simultaneous interpreter in New York City. Constantin seemed mature and considerate in
every way. There were no people I knew he would want to brag to about it, the way
college boys bragged about sleeping with girls in the backs of cars to their roommates or
their friends on the basketball team. And there would be a pleasant irony in sleeping with
a man Mrs. Willard had introduced me to, as if she were, in a roundabout way, to blame
When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some
balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any
circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only
"I am very fond of balalaika music," I said.
Constantin's room had a balcony, and the balcony overlooked the river, and we
could hear the hooing of the tugs down in the darkness. I felt moved and tender and
perfectly certain about what I was going to do.
I knew I might have a baby, but that thought hung far and dim in the distance and
didn't trouble me at all. There was no one hundred per cent sure way not to have a baby,
it said in an article my mother cut out of the Reader's Digest and mailed to me at college.
This article was written by a married woman lawyer with children and called "In Defense
It gave all the reasons a girl shouldn't sleep with anybody but her husband and
then only after they were married.
The main point of the article was that a man's world is different from a woman's
world and a man's emotions are different from a woman's emotions and only marriage
can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly. My
mother said this was something a girl didn't know about till it was too late, so she had to
take the advice of people who were already experts, like a married woman.
This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even
if they weren't pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course
they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as
soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that
with them she would do that with other men and they would end up by making her life
The woman finished her article by saying better be safe than sorry and besides,
there was no sure way of not getting stuck with a baby and then you'd really be in a
Now the one thing this article didn't seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.
It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly
confessed he wasn't pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had? I couldn't
stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have
a double life, one pure and one not.
Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man
who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying
pure myself and marry somebody who wasn't pure either. Then when he started to make
my life miserable I could make his miserable as well.
When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.
Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or
Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw
the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn't, and
this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.
I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the
I thought it would be the way I'd feel if I ever visited Europe. I'd come home, and
if I looked closely into the mirror I'd be able to make out a little white Alp at the back of
my eye. Now I thought that if I looked into the mirror tomorrow I'd see a doll-size
Constantin sitting in my eye and smiling out at me.
Well, for about an hour we lounged on Constantin's balcony in two separate
slingback chairs with the victrola playing and the balalaika records stacked between us. A
faint milky light diffused from the street lights or the half moon or the cars or the stars, I
couldn't tell what, but apart from holding my hand Constantin showed no desire to seduce
I asked if he was engaged or had any special girlfriend, thinking maybe that's
what was the matter, but he said no, he made a point of keeping clear of such
At last I felt a powerful drowsiness drifting through my veins from all the pine-
bark wine I had drunk.
"I think I'll go in and lie down," I said.
I strolled casually into the bedroom and stooped over to nudge off my shoes. The
clean bed bobbed before me like a safe boat. I stretched full length and shut my eyes.
Then I heard Constantin sigh and come in from the balcony. One by one his shoes
clonked on to the floor, and he lay down by my side.
I looked at him secretly from under a fall of hair.
He was lying on his back, his hands under his head, staring at the ceiling. The
starched white sleeves of his shirt, rolled up to the elbows, glimmered eerily in the half
dark and his tan skin seemed almost black. I thought be must be the most beautiful man
I'd ever seen.
I thought if only I had a keen, shapely bone structure to my face or could discuss
politics shrewdly or was a famous writer Constantin might find me interesting enough to
And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into
ordinariness, and if as soon as he came to love me I would find fault after fault, the way I
did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him.
The same thing happened over and over:
I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he
moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn't do at all.
That's one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted
was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and
excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth
of July rocket.
I woke to the sound of rain.
It was pitch dark. After a while I deciphered the faint outlines of an unfamiliar
window. Every so often a beam of light appeared out of thin air, traversed the wall like a
ghostly, exploratory finger, and slid off into nothing again.
Then I heard the sound of somebody breathing.
At first I thought it was only myself, and that I was lying in the dark in my hotel
room after being poisoned. I held my breath, but the breathing kept on.
A green eye glowed on the bed beside me. It was divided into quarters like a
compass. I reached out slowly and dosed my hand on it. I lifted it up. With it came an
arm, heavy as a dead man's, but warm with sleep.
Constantin's watch said three o'clock.
He was lying in his shirt and trousers and stocking feet just as I had left him when
I dropped asleep, and as my eyes grew used to the darkness I made out his pale eyelids
and his straight nose and his tolerant, shapely mouth, but they seemed insubstantial, as if
drawn on fog. For a few minutes I leaned over, studying him. I had never fallen asleep
beside a man before.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and
coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he'd left for work to wash
up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively,
fascinating day he'd expect a big dinner, and I'd spend the evening washing up even more
dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's,
but I knew that's what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what
Buddy Willard's mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university
professor and had been a private school teacher herself.
Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs. Willard braiding a rug out of strips of
wool from Mr. Willard's old suits. She'd spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the
tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs. Willard was
through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it
down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and
indistinguishable from any mat you could buy for under a dollar in the five and ten.
And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man
showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding
service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen
Hadn't my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on
their honeymoon -- my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce -- my
father said to her, "Whew, that's a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves"? -
- and from that day on my mother never had a minute's peace.
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I
had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I
began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like
being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private,
As I stared down at Constantin the way you stare down at a bright, unattainable
pebble at the bottom of a deep well, his eyelids lifted and he looked through me, and his
eyes were full of love. I watched dumbly as a shutter of recognition clicked across the
blur of tenderness and the wide pupils went glossy and depthless as patent leather.
Constantin sat up, yawning. "What time is it?"
"Three," I said in a flat voice. "I better go home. I have to be at work first thing in
"I'll drive you."
As we sat back to back on our separate sides of the bed fumbling with our shoes
in the horrid cheerful white light of the bed lamp, I sensed Constantin turn round. "Is
your hair always like that?"
He didn't answer but reached over and put his hand at the root of my hair and ran
his fingers out slowly to the tip ends like a comb. A little electric shock flared through me
and I sat quite still. Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody comb my hair. It
made me go all sleepy and peaceful.
"Ah, I know what it is," Constantin said. "You've just washed it."
And he bent to lace up his tennis shoes.
An hour later I lay in my hotel bed, listening to the rain. It didn't even sound like
rain, it sounded like a tap running. The ache in the middle of my left shin bone came to
life, and I abandoned any hope of sleep before seven, when my radio-alarm clock would
rouse me with its hearty renderings of Sousa.
Every time it rained the old leg-break seemed to remember itself, and what it
remembered was a dull hurt.
Then I thought, "Buddy Willard made me break that leg."
Then I thought, "No, I broke it myself. I broke it on purpose to pay myself back
for being such a heel."
drove me up to the Adirondacks.
It was the day after Christmas and a gray sky bellied over us, fat with snow. I felt
overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if
whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents
and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols and the piano promised
never came to pass.
At Christmas I almost wished I was a Catholic.
First Mr. Willard drove and then I drove. I don't know what we talked about, but
as the countryside, already deep under old falls of snow, turned us a bleaker shoulder, and
as the fir trees crowded down from the gray hills to the road edge, so darkly green they
looked black, I grew gloomier and gloomier.
I was tempted to tell Mr. Willard to go ahead alone, I would hitchhike home.
But one glance at Mr. Willard's face -- the silver hair in its boyish crewcut, the
clear blue eyes, the pink cheeks, all frosted like a sweet wedding cake with the innocent,
trusting expression -- and I knew I couldn't do it. I'd have to see the visit through to the
At midday the grayness paled a bit, and we parked in an icy turnoff and shared
out the tunafish sandwiches and the oatmeal cookies and the apples and the thermos of
black coffee Mrs. Willard had packed for our lunch.
Mr. Willard eyed me kindly. Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last
crumbs from his lap. I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was
very shy, and I'd heard him dear his throat in that same way before giving an important
"Nelly and I have always wanted a daughter."
For one crazy minute I thought, Mr. Willard was going to announce that Mrs.
Willard was pregnant and expecting a baby girl. Then he said, "But I don't see how any
daughter could be nicer than you."
Mr. Willard must have thought I was crying because I was so glad he wanted to
be a father to me. "There, there," he patted my shoulder and cleared his throat once or
twice. "I think we understand each other."
Then he opened the car door on his side and strolled round to my side, his breath
shaping tortuous smoke signals in the gray air. I moved over to the seat he had left and he
started the car and we drove on.
I'm not sure what I expected of Buddy's sanatorium.
I think I expected a kind of wooden chalet perched up on top of a small mountain,
with rosy-cheeked young men and women, all very attractive but with hectic glittering
eyes, lying covered with thick blankets on outdoor balconies.
"TB is like living with a bomb in your lung," Buddy had written to me at college.
"You just lie around very quietly hoping it won't go off."
I found it hard to imagine Buddy lying quietly. His whole philosophy of life was
to be up and doing every second. Even when we went to the beach in the summer he
never lay down to drowse in the sun the way I did. He ran back and forth or played ball
or did a little series of rapid pushups to use the time.
Mr. Willard and I waited in the reception room for the end of the afternoon rest
The color scheme of the whole sanatorium seemed to be based on liver. Dark,
glowering woodwork, burnt-brown leather chairs, walls that might once have been white
but had succumbed under a spreading malady of mold or damp. A mottled brown
linoleum sealed off the floor.
On a low coffee table, with circular and semicircular stains bitten into the dark
veneer, lay a few wilted numbers of Time and Life. I flipped to the middle of the nearest
magazine. The face of Eisenhower beamed up at me, bald and blank as the face of a fetus
in a bottle.
After a while I became aware of a sly, leaking noise. For a minute I thought the
walls had begun to discharge the moisture that must saturate them, but then I saw the
noise came from a small fountain in one corner of the room.
The fountain spurted a few inches into the air from a rough length of pipe, threw
up its hands, collapsed and drowned its ragged dribble in a stone basin of yellowing
water. The basin was paved with the white hexagonal tiles one finds in public lavatories.
A buzzer sounded. Doors opened and shut in the distance. Then Buddy came in.
Buddy hugged his father, and promptly, with a dreadful brightness, came over to
me and held out his hand. I shook it. It felt moist and fat.
Mr. Willard and I sat together on a leather couch. Buddy perched opposite us on
the edge of a slippery armchair. He kept smiling, as if the corners of his mouth were
strung up on invisible wire.
The last thing I expected was for Buddy to be fat. All the time I thought of him at
the sanatorium I saw shadows carving themselves under his cheekbones and his eyes
burning out of almost fleshless sockets.
But everything concave about Buddy had suddenly turned convex. A pot belly
swelled under the tight white nylon shirt and his cheeks were round and ruddy as
marzipan fruit. Even his laugh sounded plump.
Buddy's eyes met mine. "It's the eating," he said. "They stuff us day after day and
then just make us lie around. But I'm allowed out on walk hours now, so don't worry, I'll
thin down in a couple of weeks." He jumped up, smiling like a glad host. "Would you
like to see my room?"
I followed Buddy, and Mr. Willard followed me, through a pair of swinging doors
set with panes of frosted glass down a dim, liver-colored corridor smelling of floor wax
and Lysol and another vaguer odor, like bruised gardenias.
Buddy threw open a brown door, and we filed into the narrow room.
A lumpy bed, shrouded by a thin white spread, pencil-striped with blue, took up
most of the space. Next to it stood a bed table with a pitcher and a water glass and the
silver twig of a thermometer poking up from a jar of pink disinfectant. A second table,
covered with books and papers and off-kilter clay pots -- baked and painted, but not
glazed -- squeezed itself between the bed foot and the closet door.
"Well," Mr. Willard breathed, "it looks comfortable enough."
"What are these?" I picked up a clay ashtray in the shape of a lilypad, with the
veinings carefully drawn in yellow on a murky green ground. Buddy didn't smoke.
"That's an ashtray," Buddy said. "It's for you."
I put the tray down. "I don't smoke."
"I know," Buddy said. "I thought you might like it, though."
"Well," Mr. Willard rubbed one papery lip against another. "I guess I'll be getting
on. I guess I'll be leaving you two young people. . ."
"Fine, Dad. You be getting on."
I was surprised. I had thought Mr. Willard was going to stay the night before
driving me back the next day. "Shall I come too?"
"No, no." Mr. Willard peeled a few bills from his wallet and handed them to
Buddy. "See that Esther gets a comfortable seat on the train. She'll stay a day or so,
maybe." Buddy escorted his father to the door.
I felt Mr. Willard had deserted me. I thought he must have planned it all along,
but Buddy said no, his father simply couldn't stand the sight of sickness and especially
his own son's sickness, because he thought all sickness was sickness of the will. Mr.
Willard had never been sick a day in his life.
I sat down on Buddy's bed. There simply wasn't anywhere else to sit.
Buddy rummaged among his papers in a businesslike way. Then he handed me a
thin, gray magazine. "Turn to page eleven."
The magazine was printed somewhere in Maine and full of stenciled poems and
descriptive paragraphs separated from each other by asterisks. On page eleven I found a
poem titled "Florida Dawn." I skipped down through image after image about
watermelon lights and turtle-green palms and shells fluted like bits of Greek architecture.
"Not bad." I thought it was dreadful.
"Who wrote it?" Buddy asked with an odd, pigeony smile.
My eye dropped to the name on the lower right-hand corner of the page. B. S.
"I don't know." Then I said, "Of course I know, Buddy. You wrote it."
Buddy edged over to me.
I edged back. I have very little knowledge about TB, but it seemed to me an
extremely sinister disease, the way it went on so invisibly. I thought Buddy might well be
sitting in his own little murderous aura of TB germs.
"Don't worry," Buddy kughed. "I'm not positive."
"You can't catch anything."
Buddy stopped for a breath, the way you do in the middle of climbing something
"I want to ask you a question." He had a disquieting new habit of boring into my
eyes with his look as if actually bent on piercing my head, the better to analyze what went
on inside it.
"I'd thought of asking it by letter."
I had a fleeting vision of a pale blue envelope with a Yale crest on the back flap.
"But then I decided it would be better if I waited until you came up, so I could ask
you in person." He paused. "Well, don't you want to know what it is?"
"What?" I said in a small, unpromising voice.
Buddy sat down beside me. He put his arm around my waist and brushed the hair
from my ear. I didn't move. Then I heard him whisper, "How would you like to be Mrs.
I had an awful impulse to laugh.
I thought how that question would have bowled me over at any time in my five-
or six-year period of adoring Buddy Willard from a distance.
Buddy saw me hesitate.
"Oh, I'm in no shape now, I know," he said quickly. "I'm still on P.A.S. and I may
yet lose a rib or two, but I'll be back at med school by next fall. A year from this spring at
the latest. . ."
"I think I should tell you something, Buddy."
"I know," Buddy said stiffly. "You've met someone."
"No, it's not that."
"What is it, then?"
"I'm never going to get married."
"You're crazy." Buddy brightened. "You'll change your mind."
"No. My mind's made up."
But Buddy just went on looking cheerful.
"Remember," I said, "that time you hitchhiked back to college with me after Skit
"Remember how you asked me where would I like to live best, the country or the
"And you said. . ."
"And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?"
"And you," I continued with sudden force, "laughed and said I had the perfect
setup of a true neurotic and that that question came from some questionnaire you'd had in
psychology class that week?"
Buddy's smile dimmed.
"Well, you were right. I am neurotic. I could never settle down in either the
country or the city."
"You could live between them," Buddy suggested helpfully. "Then you could go
to the city sometimes and to the country sometimes."
"Well, what's so neurotic about that?"
Buddy didn't answer.
"Well?" I rapped out, thinking, You can't coddle these sick people, it's the worst
thing for them, it'll spoil them to bits.
"Nothing," Buddy said in a pale, still voice.
"Neurotic, ha!" I let out a scornful laugh. "If neurotic is wanting two mutually
exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and
forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days."
Buddy put his hand on mine.
"Let me fly with you."
I stood at the top of the ski slope on Mount Pisgah, looking down. I had no
business to be up there. I had never skied before in my life. Still, I thought I would enjoy
the view while I had the chance.
At my left, the rope tow deposited skier after skier on the snowy summit which,
packed by much crossing and recrossing and slightly melted in the noon sun, had
hardened to the consistency and polish of glass. The cold air punished my lungs and
sinuses to a visionary clearness.
On every side of me the red and blue and white jacketed skiers tore away down
the blinding slope like fugitive bits of an American flag. From the foot of the ski run, the
imitation log cabin lodge piped its popular songs into the overhang of silence.
Gazing down on the Jungfrau
From our chalet for two. . .
The lilt and boom threaded by me like an invisible rivulet in a desert of snow.
One careless, superb gesture, and I would be hurled into motion down the slope toward
the small khaki spot in the sidelines, among the spectators, which was Buddy Willard.
All morning Buddy had been teaching me how to ski.
First, Buddy borrowed skis and ski poles from a friend of his in the village, and
ski boots from a doctor's wife whose feet were only one size larger than my own, and a
red ski jacket from a student nurse. His persistence in the face of mulishness was
Then I remembered that at medical school Buddy had won a prize for persuading
the most relatives of dead people to have their dead ones cut up whether they needed it or
not, in the interests of science. I forget what the prize was, but I could just see Buddy in
his white coat with his stethoscope sticking out of a side pocket like part of his anatomy,
smiling and bowing and talking those numb, dumb relatives into signing the postmortem
Next, Buddy borrowed a car from his own doctor, who'd had TB himself and was
very understanding, and we drove off as the buzzer for walk hour rasped along the
sunless sanatorium corridors.
Buddy had never skied before either, but he said that the elementary principles
were quite simple, and as he'd often watched the ski instructors and their pupils he could
teach me all I'd need to know.
For the first half hour I obediently herringboned up a small slope, pushed off with
my poles and coasted straight down. Buddy seemed pleased with my progress.
"That's fine, Esther," he observed, as I negotiated my slope for the twentieth time.
"Now let's try you on the rope tow."
I stopped in my tracks, flushed and panting.
"But Buddy, I don't know how to zigzag yet. All those people coming down from
the top know how to zigzag."
"Oh, you need only go halfway. Then you won't gain very much momentum."
And Buddy accompanied me to the rope tow and showed me how to let the rope
run through my hands, and then told me to close my fingers round it and go up.
It never occurred to me to say no.
I wrapped my fingers around the rough, bruising snake of a rope that slithered
through them, and went up.
But the rope dragged me, wobbling and balancing, so rapidly I couldn't hope to
dissociate myself from it halfway. There was a skier in front of me and a skier behind me,
and I'd have been knocked over and stuck full of skis and poles the minute I let go, and I
didn't want to make trouble, so I hung quietly on.
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