THE WIND IS GUSTING OVER 30 MPH now at 7,000 feet in Taos County. Barely budding branches whip and sway in the cold, dry air. Forty-four years ago on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it was warm enough for sandals and the lilacs bloomed. The past is so close I can smell it. I’d give an arm or leg to have her back again the way it was when we were young, the time my life began.
I’d met her, all right, but I didn’t know her name and wasn’t curious. Not yet. There was too much going on.
For a time I chased a college senior. There was something to it. She was loose, enthusiastic, and we did it everywhere, in her preacher father’s house in Baltimore, the dorm, and on the beach. But of course I smothered her. After that I dallied with a hard-edged soul from out of town whose main attraction was her fear. When I figured out her boyfriend was in jail, I ran like thunder. There were others, naturally. I thought I had to prove myself, made a twisted mess of most encounters, missed a couple might-have-beens. Not really, though, considering. More like learning to swim.
Around this time my Aunt Elsie, wife to Uncle Bob, had me over for lunch one day and asked how I was doing. Going hungry, to tell the truth, but that’s not what I said.
In the kitchen, open windows, smell of boxwoods, Bob and Elsie’s house as it had ever been. Mockingbirds and bumblebees outside. A screen door softly slammed next door.
I mentioned writing songs. She must have sensed a lack in me, an opportunity, and wondered if I knew the college teacher who used to play the organ at her church. Well no, not exactly. (Was this the one who woke me up at work? I wasn’t sure.)
“I think you’d like her. She’s with the Music Department. Used to be married, not seeing anyone now, I don’t think. Maybe you could take a course.”
That got my attention. I’d been trying to transcribe the melody of my latest dirge, thinking that was how you copyrighted something, sent sheet music and a check across the Bay to Washington. Validate myself and be a man. Buy food.
A few days later I was in her office. She was sitting at a tiny desk, hard at work on grading papers. I stood beside her, talking, and don’t recall she looked at me at all. Oh sure. She was wearing shorts and sandals, some kind of a top, with a scarf pulled tight across her head like she was incognito. I told her I’d had piano lessons as a boy, but had forgotten how to write the notes. She said that she was teaching Music Theory 101 right now. The only way for me to jump in late would be to “audit,” unofficially of course, and that was fine with her, if I was interested.
Bang, bang, bang. Do tell.
This was in no way a physical seduction, not to me, at least. That wasn’t what I felt. (But-but…) We were both a dozen years older than her oldest students, she looked like she was hiding out (she was), yet here was someone at my level sticking out her neck to help me. Finally, I was curious. There were rumbles in the void. I said I’d be there in the morning, thanked her, rushed over to the bookstore, bought a pad of music paper and some pencils, and hurried home to pull out clean clothes and psych myself for class the next day. It had been a while, you know.
I’d long since moved out from Granny’s house into a small apartment behind a real estate office across from the A&P just off downtown, relevant in so many ways. The college, my apartment, her apartment, the local bar, the grocery store, the park, the river, the Workbench, P.O., courthouse, everything, were all in easy walking distance. You couldn’t invent a better stage for playing out your destiny. A couple minutes in any direction put you in the country. Rolling fields and forest, sandy beaches on the Chester. It was just ridiculously fine. The lilacs, too, remember. Springtime.
The next 10 days were something of a blur. I had to be on best behavior, mustn’t scare the children, make a stir. I sat up close the way I always did, paid close attention, hung out after class to chat a bit. There was someone else, a junior or a senior maybe, sitting in as well. He seemed to know all the music theory anyone would want, asking questions like a show-off, lingered after class a few times, too. I’d wander off, leave them alone. None of my damn business, was it? But I felt a little competition.
The thing about her in the classroom was her toes. She’d do a lot of talking sitting on her desk, legs dangling, holding her back straight with arms extended at her sides, hands flat against the desktop. Her legs swung back and forth a little bit, as legs will do, but her toes would flex and wriggle in her sandals and I couldn’t keep my eyes away. How could anyone not notice, I remember wondering, then told myself the rest were students, waiting for the bell. I didn’t care about the other fellow any more. There were looks from her I liked, I was older, and I muscled in more easily to ask a question, comment on the weather, anything. All of that was natural. I also took the learning seriously, did the homework, passed the tests (I did quite well), and was genuinely grateful. She was good. When she played piano for us as a demonstration, her fingers breezed across the keys in purest pleasure. That was her, but something else was going on, and then I asked her out. She drove.
I knew someone who rented a huge old farm house on a bluff that overlooked the Sassafras River, where you could climb down to the water. “River” in this context means a wide slow moving finger of the Chesapeake Bay. (There’s fresh water in there somewhere, but the current changes direction with the tides.) The Sassafras has tall crumbling bluffs with trees. Along the water’s edge are long thin sandy beaches hidden from the world unless you go by in a boat.
Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony explored the river in 1608, under orders from the Virginia Company to look for gold and silver and the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific, of all things. What he found were Tockwogh Indians.
We were in her ‘64 VW (of course). She parked along a grassy slope down from the house, so we wouldn’t bother anyone, and we made our way into the woods. Great tall deciduous trees, oaks, maples, beeches. Dogwoods, poison ivy, and mossy rocks. The path down to the sand was steep but manageable. Almost immediately, the words poured out, ka-boom. We talked and talked as we were stepping over branches, walking past the wet spots, looking up and down the river. Each in turn, we shared our histories, ideas of our separate futures, spoke about the things we liked and didn’t. What did I just say? My God! Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It was goddamn thrilling, frankly. She wore khaki shorts, a white blouse, and a hat (no scarf), and turned around to smile so much she almost fell. Her legs were smooth and tan. That didn’t help. The gates were open. I was gone.
Back at the car, I opened the passenger side door and plopped down in a daze. Instead of going to the driver’s side, she came around and sat right in my lap, bare thighs against bare thighs, pushed her hat back from her face, put her arms around my neck, and kissed me. More than once. Slowly, softly, just a little tongue, and then she pulled away and smiled that incandescent way she had. The whole thing was astonishing. We could have done it then and there, but didn’t. We didn’t… Do you understand? Does anyone?
The next few weeks were utterly insane. Raging, gloriously mad. No one said the word, but it was there. I still showed up for class and watched her toes. She ditched the scarf. Though they obviously had a history, the other joker didn’t stand a chance. (That has to be one of the greatest things a man can feel.) I don’t remember all the things we did—no, not that still, I swear—but it was obvious. I’d meet her at the bar and buy her a glass of wine. Just a walk across the park, remember. One time she hugged me tight in front of everyone and whispered in my ear, “If you want to be with Kathy Mills, you have to stay real close…” After I walked her home and said good night, I’d break off a sprig of lilac and stick it underneath a wiper blade on her VW, so she’d see it in the morning when she drove to class. I put the fucking lilacs on her car! Come on.
Over time, I learned a lot. She’d been through a rough divorce and had to give up everything. Her ex-husband was one of her two colleagues in the music department. Between the hints and what I’d heard, I gathered she’d had a revenge fling with a music major—you know who—on a cross-country road trip they took together the summer before we met, while I was with a student, too. If so, she ended that when classes started, but they were friends, in unavoidable close contact every day until he graduated, which would be, oh, very soon. Next month. Whatever.
“Did you tell him about us?” I’d ask, politely.
“No, not yet…”
I didn’t push. Best wait until commencement. The thing was, he was clingy. I’d see him in the hall outside her office, nod, and keep on walking. She had to call the shots on this. No glory without gumption. Patience rules.
Finally it came about that she invited me to dinner. I don’t know why it took so long, probably the academic calendar. She always had so much work to do and never faltered. Her apartment was the first floor of a fine brick house four blocks away and yet I’d never been there. Now I understood. There was lots of room, but she had nothing, really, except her grand piano. The rooms were clean but mostly bare. The only furniture in her big kitchen was a rocking chair and a folding L.L.Bean camp table. I sat there while she cooked and never felt so happy. The only thing I wanted was to be with her. I don’t know how to put it any other way. My course was set.
The next day we ended up at her place in the afternoon. It was probably a month since we’d walked along the Sassafras and everything exploded. We made love on her bed. A breeze blew through the open windows. It was hot and humid, and the curtains winked. A little awkward, I thought, but we managed, and before I had a chance to disappoint myself, she said, “Let’s have a bath, okay?”
Naked down the hallway to the bathroom. An absolutely giant clawfoot tub. She ran a little water, climbed in first, and pulled me down. We did it twice more with her hair wet from the water, laughing. She was wild like something from the jungle.
I spent the night at her place. The head of her bed was by the window. In the early morning light, I heard a whisper from outside.
“Kathy? Hey, Kathy???”
It was loser boy.
She threw back the curtain, and there we were.
Next week, she moved in.