The day after Jack arrives in California to spend the summer with his father and Geoffrey, his father takes off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend and leaves Jack the keys to rented Pontiac. For two weeks, Jack drives along the beach aimlessly, eats nothing but TV dinners, and goes to movies with an acquaintance of his father’s. One morning, his father’s friend makes a pass at him, and when Jack tells his father, Mr. Wolff tells Jack that there is a gun in one of the closets. He instructs Jack to “shoot the bastard” if he attempts to contact Jack again. That night, the man comes back to the apartment and leans against the front door and sobs while Jack cowers on the other side of the door, silently hugging the rifle.
For much of the book, the young Jack has assumed that in escaping Dwight he will finally be free. Here, though, Jack learns that abuse can take many shapes and forms. His whole life will be the journey of defending himself from those who seek to use or manipulate him. This realization is a lot for him to handle, and he cowers in fear as he considers all of the hardships that still lie ahead.
Jack’s father comes back, and then Geoffrey arrives. After picking Geoffrey up from the bus, he drops the boys at the apartment and goes to the grocery store—he never comes back. Hours later, his girlfriend calls the apartment to tell the boys that their father has “gone crazy” and is in police custody. Mr. Wolff is then committed to a sanitarium, and the boys visit him each Sunday to play games and listen to the stories of the women he’s dallying with there. Seeing “which way the wind [is] blowing,” Rosemary decides not to join the boys in La Jolla.
The escapist fantasy that Jack, Geoffrey, their father—and to some degree, Rosemary—all engaged in when they pictured a family vacation in La Jolla falls apart in this passage as Mr. Wolff suffers a breakdown.
That fall, Jack goes off to school, and Rosemary follows him East, taking a job in Washington, D.C. Over the Christmas holidays, while Jack is visiting, Dwight follows her there, and tries to strangle her in the lobby of her apartment building, but she fights back and escapes. When she stumbles upstairs and tells Jack what has happened, he runs downstairs and tears off down the street, trying to catch Dwight, but he cannot. By the time he gets back home, Dwight has been arrested. Jack watches Dwight as he’s carried away in a police cruiser. It’s the last time he will ever see the man.
Again, Jack is forced to realize that just escaping Dwight’s house—and even fleeing to the other coast—was not enough. Just as Roy tracked Rosemary to Utah, Dwight tracks her now back East to D.C. Both men longed to control and possess Rosemary at any cost, livid at the idea that she could live—and even thrive—without them.
Jack does not do well at Hill—he knows “nothing.” He meets a kindly teacher who agrees to tutor him, but most of his instructors are disappointed in him. He barely manages to stay afloat and continues getting in trouble. Though he desperately wants to stay, he wears on the school’s patience, and in his final year he is asked to leave. A few weeks later, his best friend at Hill is also expelled, and the two of them run wild for a time before Jack decides to join the army. He feels this is where he has been headed all along, and begins praying for a war.
It turns out that all of Mr. Howard’s warnings were right—prep school is not for everybody, and Jack sadly goes on to find that it is not for him, despite all of his fantasies about what boarding school life would be like. Faced with no other options, Jack joins the army and begins praying for a war—not realizing that Vietnam, and all of its horrors, are just on the horizon.
The older Tobias reflects on how when he was young, he believed “that [his] dreams [were] rights.” That “assurance burns very bright at certain moments;” Jack recalls one such moment as the afternoon he spent with Chuck in Seattle. The two boys had overcome a lot of difficulty recently and were poised on the edge of relief and freedom. Everything about their lives felt full of possibility, and all they had to do was “pick and choose.” As the boys made their way back to Seattle, they sang hymns loudly out the open windows, drinking from a bottle of liquor in between songs. Their voices were strong, and as they sang “for all [they] were worth,” they felt they had been “saved.”
By flashing back to an afternoon in his youth filled with the assurance that all of his dreams would soon come true, Tobias Wolff the writer engages in his own kind of escapism, years out from the escapist fantasies of his youth. The reality of his failure at Hill and the traumas of Vietnam are too much to face—so he retreats into the past, into fantasy, and lingers on a moment in which anything seemed possible and the worst was over at last.