I never got over my first lover. He broke my heart.
In second grade at Our Lady of Grace, sister Mary Helene told us the story about the little boy who hit his mother. This boy knew hitting his mother was a sin. He did it anyway. Every day. The mother told him to stop, he never would. One day, the boy suddenly died. He had been dead only a few months when a little hand came poking up out of the grass growing over his grave. The mother didn’t know what to make of this hand, so she consulted her parish priest. When, under his cross-examination, she shamefully disclosed that her little boy had been in the habit of hitting her, the solution became clear. The priest told the mother she had to go to her son’s grave and hit the hand with a stick – a hundred strokes, every day. She had to hit and hit and hit this hand, until she had paid her dead boy back for all the times he’d hit her.
“Think how much trouble this caused the mother!” Sister Mary Helene said. “She had other children to take care of! And housework! Think what a nuisance it was, for her to have to find time in her busy day to take the bus out to the graveyard and hit her dead boy’s hand!”
Busy as she was, the mother dutifully went, and struck the little hand until it finally sank back into the earth – proof that the debt of offense had been paid in full.
This and similar stories warning of life’s punitive side had been banned from the catechism by the time I met Gene Christie ten years later. When I met Gene in 1977, I had long been attending public school, and even at church, hell and even purgatory were seldom mentioned. No longer was I obliged to enter a confessional stall every Friday, and whisper my sins in secret shame. Now all I had to do to obtain instant forgiveness was to chant, “I repent,” in chorus with the rest of the parishioners, and this just once a year on Good Friday. We didn’t even have to name our exact sins.
“God is Love,” we sang each Sunday.
“God is everywhere and in all things,” preached the priest.
“All You Need is Love,” proclaimed hand-made felt banners hung on gaily-painted brick walls.
I fell in love with Gene Christie on first sight, and stole him from my best friend the spring we graduated high school. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t really hers – he was someone she met up with at parties — but Shannon had marked him for the first boy she was going to sleep with. Gene was from our hometown and a sophomore at the state university where Shannon would enroll in the fall, thus their futures seemed sewn up. He had invited her to a party up at his dormitory, and for courage, she brought me.
Soon as we arrived, Gene smiled and kissed Shannon hello, then turned to me.
“I know you,” he said. I had never seen him before in my life. He was so beautiful, I would have remembered.
He described my house, said he had been to one of my sister’s parties, caddied for my father on the town golf course. I thought he must be lying.
“You know me,” he insisted, smiling. He said he had spoken to me at a bar at Christmas. I scanned a jumble of beer-strewn memories: ex-jocks from our high school coming up to us underage girls saying, “Hello gorgeous,” or “Will you marry me?” I still couldn’t place him.
“This is Celeste,” he introduced me to a friend. “She’s from my home town.” I smiled from embarrassment. Gene smiled back. He was the type of boy with the big muscles, alligator shirt, pretty face and soft-spoken manner to make mothers swoon.
Every time he spoke to me, Shannon would try to recapture his attention by saying something like: “We went to the beach before we came up here today,” or, “I have some reefer,” or, “There’s a party at the lake next Friday.”
Gene glanced at her as if she were a traffic sign he had elected to disregard, and turned back to me. He knew everything about me – that I was smart, that I had just won a big prize at school, where I was going to college in the fall, and after Shannon stomped off in a huff, he took me by the wrist, pulled me into a room, closed the door, said, “You’ll like college,” and kissed me for five minutes.
It was the best kiss I ever had. He had the softest touch, and when we finally closed our mouths and pulled away, I saw that he had the softest-looking sort of beauty; it was as if I were viewing him through a mesh, or mist. His deep set eyes were the exact median between green and blue, and they tilted down slightly at the outer corners, so they had a permanently heartrending cast, like the eyes of a child who is smiling, but also on the brink of tears. His hair was tousled, with gold lights at the crests of the curls, his skin smooth and tan, his teeth straight and white, and his wide mouth embarrassing, for it immediately prompted thoughts of more kisses. He had a massive upper body, but was slim through the waist and below; he was just an inch or two taller than me, and looking into his eyes I said, “What about Shannon?”
He smiled and said nothing. The room he had pulled me into was the bathroom, and people were banging on the door. Gene left first, then I flushed the toilet and followed.
Shannon had done something stupid, left me stranded at the party knowing no one but Gene. I darted here and there, sipping watery keg beer from a plastic cup, and he chased me. Upstairs, downstairs, outside the dorm, inside. In time I had to use the bathroom in earnest, and when I emerged he was leaning against the wall opposite, waiting, his head tilted at an obsequious angle, a curling forelock of hair hanging down.
By the time Shannon came back, Gene and I were standing out in the quad in front of the bonfire – they were burning a couch and other wrecked things from the dorm – holding hands, and I was falling in love. Falling in love, like falling in a dream toward a pile of featherbed pillows. From the start it was unreal like that.
When I saw Shannon I disengaged my hand. Gene said he would call me in a few weeks when he was home for the summer.
“You won’t call,” I said.
“I will,” he said. “Come say good-bye to me tomorrow.”
Shannon and I walked off in silence. We had meant to sleep on the living room floor of her brother’s house off campus, but she stayed up all night, drinking and flirting with his friends, while I lay awake on the basement concrete floor, not wishing to squander this magical time in sleep. Even the next morning, neither of us said anything about Gene. If Shannon had confronted me, I would have said, “I didn’t do anything,” but she didn’t. She didn’t say anything at all. We had always been allies, never quarreled, and so had no words to handle the matter. The only rudeness that occurred was when she hogged the last of the orange juice – a highly uncharacteristic act.
As for me, I sensed this breach was inevitable. Shannon and I were on the brink of real life – it was time to turn away from each other, and choose the opposite sex.
Soft spring Saturday morning, warm wind stirring the burnt smell of dead bonfire with the fresh country scents of earth and clover. First it was his head popping out of an upper story window of the dorm. Then he descended, and stood lolling against the red brick wall, dazzling in a faded knit shirt that was a deeper hue of his blue-green eyes.
Shannon told him to call her when he came home for the summer. He said it had been nice to see us. I said nothing. After all had been said, he just stood there smiling his smile, basking in the morning sun, our adoration and our anguish. His rending eyes, wide shoulders, lean faded jeans, tanned feet in moccasins without socks – such sick, sick longing.
“Kiss me good-bye,” he said in his soft voice, looking at Shannon.
Her manner was defiant as she stepped quickly forward, but her face a wreck. Clearly this kiss would be their last.
“Now you, Celeste,” he said. I looked into his eyes, deep-set and somewhat small in his tanned face, but couldn’t read them. As much as I failed to comprehend, I bore faith that he embodied the answer to our turmoil. I hesitated, then stepped up to kiss him lightly on the lips. Throughout he remained leaning against the wall, his hands folded nonchalantly behind him.
On the bus ride home Shannon slept across the aisle, scowling. Out the tinted windows the sight of cows, silos and green hills was too bittersweet.
One month later I sat on a fold-out chair on our high school’s football field in my graduation gown. Two girls up on the platform sang, “The Circle Game” in shaky sopranos to the strums of their guitars while other girls jumped up from their seats at random intervals, embracing and blubbering as if the end of the world were at hand. The only time I almost cried was when Shannon approached the platform for her diploma – the long blond hair falling in a straight sheet over the gold gown, her wide smile and hurt eyes.
Gene had broadcast it all over town that he was going to call me. After he did, I had to tell someone, some other girlfriend besides Shannon. On hearing the news Elaine began screaming into the phone and came straight over. We had smoked half a joint and run laughing and singing around and around my basement, blasting records on the stereo – Elaine and me and my little brother Fritz, who we were babysitting, and who was only three and therefore always happy to run laughing and screaming about nothing.
Our date was for the Monday night after graduation, and at the Sunday ceremony I was the envy of everyone. For a gift my grandmother had passed on to me a tiny chip of diamond, her engagement ring, which I wore. Afterwards when we were returning our gowns in the cafeteria, someone said, “Gene Christie gave her that ring,” as a joke and Shannon overheard.
“Bullshit,” she said. “Like hell he did.”
Gene had never called Shannon on the phone, driven to her house, met her parents and taken her away. Theirs had been a stray, sometime thing, indulged in drunkenly, at the end of parties behind a tree, a rock, a fence. She would come home with grass stains rubbed into the back of her white painter pants, of which her mother complained.
Gene came to pick me up when it was still light. He rang the bell as other boys had done before him, yet in truth he was the first one I had ever really wanted to go out with, and knew I’d want to see a second time, and forever and ever amen.
I brought him out to the back deck where my family ate in summer. I fetched him the beer my father offered, then sat silently by his side, dutifully waiting for the preliminaries to be over, pondering the unknown. For the next several hours I would have in my custody this much sought-after gem, yet I was unsure as to what to do with him. I stole short looks at his turquoise eyes from time to time, but they returned my gaze, cheerful but opaque.
In his soft and courteous voice, Gene fearlessly plied my father with golf talk, and succeeded in extracting a number of lengthy responses and a lingering smile. My father was gruff with his family, but kind to strangers.
My mother’s manner toward Gene alternated between over-eager and mooning smiles, symptomatic of her worm-like devotion to our Dad. Still her presence was a plus, because she and I were nearly identical. Gene could see for himself that I would still look young and slim, and my hair a waving shade of Chestnut when I was forty-three. Little Fritz peed off the deck, which made everyone laugh, and my younger sister Candida, who was blond and shy and ten, sat smiling, because Gene had smiled specifically at her.
My older sister Marianne, just down from freshman year, was brusque with Gene, though the two had something in common — both planned to be doctors. Marianne spoke knowledgeably and discouragingly to Gene of entrance exams, G.P.A.’s, and the near impossibility of someone from State entering Harvard or Yale Medical School, as he said he hoped to do.
“You won’t stand a chance,” my sister said, her mouth a hard line in her pretty face. “Not a chance of getting into any private medical school, come to that.”
Marianne and I were required to make straight A’s, weigh 125 pounds or less, be popular, and date cool people. I was sadly lagging in this last arena. Gene was the first A-list guy I had ever dated, not being more than a B-plus myself. I had whisked other boys in and out of the house quickly, in some cases instructing them beep in front of the house, deeply insulting at least one. Better that than have them humiliated by too stringent standards.
My father was a carnivorous eater who made an evening ritual of sectioning and ingesting his steak. He had bulky hands for a surgeon, with the first joint of each forefinger held permanently rigid, each having been jammed in machinery during his factory-working youth. Now his attention, along with his thick smashed fingers, was fully engaged in paring his steak. He gave Gene no encouragement, as he gave none to us, as none had been given to him. My father graduated from a good private medical school; but only after attending a small Catholic college on scholarship, only after doing the whole thing on ROTC during the Viet Nam War. I was glad my father said nothing about this because I didn’t want him to give Gene any ideas. I did not want to have to live with him on some God-forsaken army base in the middle of southern nowhere, an experience my mother still recounted with horror.
As if this were his only defense, Gene beamed his smile gently across the table at my sister. But Marianne’s glare was merciless. Then his eyes traveled lightly around the picnic table, coming finally to rest on me.
I blinked at him as if to say, None of this matters, and gazed off through the jungle of trees to the still blue lake beyond. I could smell his cologne and was in a daze.
Marianne continued to eye us both with hostility. She was jealous. She had sitting next to her the boyfriend she had brought down from college, who was big and blond but not nearly as beautiful as Gene. I knew that at college they were living together. They sat on the bench, defensively entwined, Marianne’s hand on Adrian’s big thigh, Adrian’s arm around her waist. Sometimes they sat there and kissed, in front of Gene, in front of everyone. When Adrian kissed her Marianne made a loud smacking noise, Mmmmmmwhah.
In the front seat of Gene’s car I said, “How did you get so muscular?” Gene happily reeled off all of the sports he had played in high school – football, baseball, hockey, wrestling.
“Do you lift weights?” I asked.
“No, I can’t lift weights,” he said gently, as if explaining something sad to a very young child. Mine was a loud rude family, and I had trouble adjusting myself to Gene’s niceties, which I had expected to disappear once we were on our own.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I have this bone disease,” he said. “It screwed up my back.”
“How long have you had it?” I asked, looking skeptically at his broad back in a white sports shirt, now twisting as he turned to reverse the car out of the driveway.
“When I was thirteen,” he said.
“What can they do about it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said cheerfully. “It just gets worse as you get older.”
I didn’t know what to say. Gene was so matter of fact that I wondered if he wasn’t making it up, so I’d feel sorry for him and do whatever he wanted later on.
We drove through town in the evening sun, and he chatted in his soft voice, completely at ease. He told me he had three jobs this summer: landscaping with two friends during the week, pumping gas at nights, and a weekend shift at the factory where his father worked. He told me he was putting himself through school completely on his own. He said there were four in his family and just his father; his mother had died when he was twelve.
“What did she die of?” I asked solemnly.
“Cancer,” he said so lightly I was embarrassed – sorry for him, but also aware that he’d mentioned this to hold over me later on.
A warm breeze blew in through the open window, messing up his hair, which had grown unruly. The wild wheat-colored curls made a pretty contrast with the true lines of his profile.
“I was going to get a haircut today,” he said, smiling because I was staring.
We got carded away from three bars. Gene was already twenty, but I was just seventeen and my only I.D. a temporary license of my sister’s with the old expiration date rubbed out and updated, which didn’t fool anyone.
In the parking lot of the third place Gene got resignedly behind the wheel of his car, which he refused to start. Sunset rays streamed in, making his head, with the longish curling hair, appear as a face on a Roman coin.
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to take you home now,” he said.
“No!” I almost shouted, and he laughed and leaned over to kiss me. It was so good we had to kiss two or three more times. Kissing him was the best thing in the world so far.
I bubbled over with compliments: his eyes, his hair, his musk cologne – aftershave – he corrected – his profile.
“You’re more gorgeous than any movie star,” I said.
“That was my line,” he smiled, turning on the engine.
At the fourth place, we got in. They let anyone in because they charged a cover. Too early for the band, we sat nearly alone in the big empty place. He was very gay and laughed a lot – more at his own stories and jokes than at the ones I attempted. He had an abandoned way of throwing his head back and closing his eyes, which in combination with his curling hair and small features made him resemble a little child.
The night went too fast. While I kept asking myself if this could be real, he kept inquiring if I had known this person or that person from his grade at school. Though I didn’t know any of them, he talked away about all of his friends, until it became clear that he must wish to be with any of them rather than me tonight.
He seemed especially fond of a girl called Doris.
“She was voted most talkative my year,” he said. “When you’re with Doris Marini, you don’t have to put on the radio,” he added approvingly.
A hint that I was being too quiet, so I said, “I remember Doris, we were in choir together. The teacher used to call us by each other’s names. People thought we looked alike.”
“You do look alike,” Gene said. “But you’re much cuter.”
Gene never criticized, swore, complained or gossiped. I tried to follow his example, but found myself without much left to say. Life was necessarily reduced to a level of smooth platitudes, such as that the small private school I would attend in the fall was a good one.
“It wasn’t my first choice,” I confided. “I didn’t get into Yale.”
Finally – something we had in common: he had also longed to attend Yale, and had likewise been rejected.
“But it doesn’t really matter where you go to school undergrad,” he said, almost superciliously. “It’s the graduate school that counts.”
He didn’t want to stay long, and paid all the bill when it came.
In the car I was afraid of quiet and kept firing random questions at him. Did he ski? Yes, he did. His uncle had a place in New Hampshire, and we would have to go up there this winter. I murmured that that sounded great. In fact it sounded unbelievable, like a lie.
To fill the silence I continued my barrage of questions.
Where did he want to live when he grew up?
“I wanna live in the country and have a blood hound and five kids,” he said right away.
I laughed uneasily at this reference to so many children, and remained quiet with disappointment as we approached our town. It was barely dark, only ten-thirty, which would be interpreted as failure.
He took a roundabout country road by the reservoir, pulled over to a grassy clearing and shut the engine off. It wasn’t completely silent: some purifying pump connected with the dam made a cooing, jingling noise outside.
“And you thought I wasn’t gonna call,” he said.
I went to him probably too quickly. It’s not much use describing what followed note for note; if you’ve ever been with a person who is physically, chemically perfect for you, you know how it feels. What amazed me about Gene was that his muscles were so hard, so obviously powerful, yet every caress, every movement was perfectly controlled, light and gentle; his mouth was like a feather. All of the things which can deter passion – the slobber, the stubble, the roughness – were absent, everything was in perfect consort to my wishes; all worked toward building desire.
In the half-dark, Gene’s eyes were metallic, and cognizant of his hold over me. Yet he was not the aggressor, or at least, not always. He never touched me anywhere until long after I wanted him to, nor did he iterate threats, say, Do this, or even, Please. And I never said stop. Between kisses he buried his face in my hair saying, “I can make you feel so good,” repeating in a hypnotic whisper that joined forces with the cooing sounds of the water pump outside.
At a quarter to twelve a car went by. I woke out of my trance, pulled away.
He said my name and held me to stillness in his arms. In the moonlight I could see the child-like supplication in his eyes. “It won’t hurt,” he said. I sighed and pulled away again. How stupid did he think I was? Then went back.
“I would marry you,” he said, and with that I returned to my side of the car.
He said he wasn’t mad.
“Hey, lighten up,” is what he said, turning the ignition key. He smiled, unruffled.
We kissed again when he dropped me off. He kept saying, “I don’t want to let you go,” and held me so tight, I had to believe him.
“I’ll call you,” was the last thing he said.
I was so saturated by this experience, I didn’t care that it took a few days. At my summer job in the mall I worked my cash register like a somnambulist, every movement, word and gesture infused with his presence, drifting along in a sensual cloud. When the manager gave us a lecture on security procedures, I pretended to pay attention, but knew that none of it was real. I aided customers, rang up merchandise, gave change, smiled and said thank you. The entire time I was off in a field of tall grass and white wild flowers with Gene.
Gene called me Tuesday of the following week, and mumbled something about seeing me on Friday. I didn’t mention it to anyone, as I sensed his heart had gone out of it.
That Friday he still hadn’t called to confirm. It was raining when I came home from work and no one was home at first, then just my father. What the hell was going on? Where was my mother? Where were my sister and the kids? Didn’t anyone leave a message?
I, too, was scared. In those days, my father had nearly nightly temper tantrums — the rising malpractice insurance bill, the patients who called at all hours, the time Marianne and her boyfriend crashed the car in New York, Fritz’s hair wasn’t washed, Candida had a fever. The copper fruit mold ice tray flying across the room, the drawers ripped off their rollers. Dinner time a shambles of roaring accusations, food refused, and much later, grease splattered the stove in a self-made, self-righteous midnight meal. We all tiptoed around my father’s anger, no one would deliberately provoke him by staying out without calling. Something was gravely wrong.
My father told me to call grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, Marianne’s friends. No one knew a thing. I was in that worst state of doomed optimism, telling myself like some mad deceiving person on a commercial that Gene would at the last minute call, and all that had gone wrong this night would be reversed. Every time the phone rang and it wasn’t Gene or my mother or the police or the hospital I grew more furious. Where was everyone? My father paced the length of the house, still in his clomping leather shoes and self-important jacket. Nearly every time he passed through the kitchen he took a shot off of the Vermouth bottle in the cabinet. When he’d paced to the other end of the house I’d dash in and take a hit off of it, too.
It was cracking thunder now, and I was sure everyone was dead. I envisioned a bleak future alone with my father.
They all walked in the door at ten – my mother, Fritz, Candida, Marianne and her boyfriend Adrian, whom they had on the spur of the moment gone to pick up, three hours away in Pennsylvania. They were happy, rain-soaked, laughing.
My father and I exploded in unison. Their gaiety froze, then faded as they tried to explain. They had had an adventure. They had been caught in the storm on a country road and found the greatest little Italian restaurant, and see? Brought us loads of take out.
“But you should have called!” I yelled, and ran up to my room. Then started crying.
Gene did not call. Not the next night, or the following week, or the week after that. It took almost to the end of the summer before Shannon and I got back together, and her absence magnified Gene’s loss. In the end, other friends stepped in to explain that my date with Gene had been a failed, solitary thing. Yet of the two of us spurned, she was the luckier. Her hopes had been dashed quickly and brutally. Having been scorned more discreetly, I was left to taunt myself with a grain of hope. We never mentioned him.
I kept having accidents all summer. I cut my foot on a rock in the lake, slapped a band-aid on it and ignored it until the wound had grown green and infected. I had short spasms of uncontrol – swerving off my bicycle, I scraped my knees, and this pain, too, gave me a concrete reason to feel forlorn.
It felt better to eat less and less. This hunger at first distracted me from my longing for Gene, then symbolized it. Through the summer I got browner and thinner, preparing for the unknowable time when I might see him again.
In the evenings after my job I went to the town park to play tennis or swim. The pool’s basin was patterned with rows of tiles – Greek blue, moss green, a blue that was almost white, and a particular smooth faded turquoise, the exact median between green and blue, which was identical to the color of Gene’s eyes. I did thirty laps in the pool each night, with each turn touching one of these perfect tiles as if it were a talisman. Soon there was nothing in the town – not a double yellow line dividing a hot black road, not a gas station or street sign, that didn’t signify him.
The summer drifted away. The dusty dirty July leaves swirling up with every passing car, the silver jet planes piercing the burning glass of sky, every word I uttered, and every thought I dreamed was filled with his presence. I wished I could transport myself to another place, because here, I thought, everyone knew. They could not help but know: every small act, from washing my face in the morning to switching the light off at night – including my work in the mall, washing the cars, weeding the patio and fixing the family dinner salad – was a lie. I told myself I was offering these acts up, but deep down I knew they were all sham and empty of motivation, save the vain effort to masque my blunder. I never forgot, and because of this I rang false to others. I could not blame my family for disliking me that summer. I washed the dishes even when I skipped dinner, took my brother on outings, complimented my older sister though she had vanity enough for the entire town, and spoke cheerfully, if awkwardly, to my father when he came home from the hospital each evening. They all responded to my false good will with irritability and suspicion, and how could I blame them? I didn’t have a boyfriend for the summer.
At the drugstore in the mall I searched the men’s aftershave shelf until I found the musk scent that was Gene’s. I bought a small bottle, not to wear myself, but to open and sniff, and fleetingly summon the swooning sensation of his presence.
I could not put a stopper to what he had inspired. In the hot evenings I would walk alone on the hilly country road by the reservoir, past dark wet woods, till I got to the small clearing of grass where I could hear the cooing, jingling noise of the water pump. I would lie there among the white wild flowers and weeds, brown in my cut-off shorts and peasant blouse, close my eyes against the late sun, and think of him abstractly as all beauty, all sex, trying to fathom some sense of this new phase of life he had seemed to offer, then quickly withdrawn.
When I was growing up, my town had always seemed a constricting, closed-minded thing. But since Gene, it was washed in glory. And now I regretted that golden town that had existed all along, which we’d shared unawares, and this new knowledge brought sadness.
Our town wasn’t large, but I neither saw nor heard anything of him all summer. In time it seemed as if I had merely dreamed him.
The end of August, and life was turning, this home town chapter nearly over. Soon it would be time to go. In the mornings I heard the birds sing again, welcomed the cool evenings of the shortening days, and on my walks noticed the faint ripe smells carried on the wind from farm fields. There were lists to make, things to buy and pack, meeting after meeting with friends – one more day at the beach, one more bike ride, phone call, tennis game, swim.
The evening before I was scheduled to leave for college, I walked the three miles up to the town park. I had vague plans to meet some friends, to watch their tennis game and perhaps take a turn. I had worn my bathing suit under my clothes in case I decided to swim. It was hot, though late. I stood in the shallow end of the pool up to my thighs, and reflected that there had been more to the summer than having Gene, or not having him. There had been money to earn, all the books I’d read, the weekend at Shannon’s family’s place in Vermont – the day we’d climbed a mountain, the day we’d ridden wild horses. There was now, standing here in the pool, savoring the contrast between the still cold water on my legs and the warm sun on my dry back and hair. There was deciding not to go in all the way after all.
I dried off, pulled on my shorts and shirt, and sat on the plateau overlooking the courts. The pop of tennis balls, the screams of children on the playground, the crack of a baseball hitting a bat behind me.
The sound of something shaking the chain-link shell at the bottom of the baseball field. I turned and saw Gene – his pastel eyes in a brown face through the diamond wire. His shirt was off, showing his huge tanned chest, and his trousers were the deep blue green of a landscaper’s uniform.
“Hey, I know you,” he called out softly, with a big smile.
I just stared. He spoke again.
“When you leaving for school?” he asked.
“Tomorrow,” I got out. “Freshman orientation.”
“We don’t have that much time,” he said.
Gene put on a T-shirt and urged me to get up and meet his friends, the other landscapers with whom he had been playing ball. One was called Bruce, the other Rob. Both were good-looking and preppie, slightly effeminate, and slow in their words and movements, as if drugged. Bruce, in aviator sunglasses and ponytail, crouched on the pavement near their truck, smoking a cigarette held between his thumb and forefinger like a joint. The way he scowled up at me made me feel superfluous.
I sat in the front of the truck with Gene while the other two rode in the open back with the mowers and sheers. I could see them through the back window, talking and sharing a real joint, and observed their struggles to keep it lit in the open wind. As he drove and small-talked, Gene kept turning to smile in my face. He made no explanation for our summer apart, and I requested none. We dropped each of his friends off, and I let Gene talk on and on about his jobs and friends. Having dreamed him so intensely all summer, I was oddly unmoved in his presence.
My summer alone had sifted out my problem with him, and this time when we went up to the reservoir I didn’t hesitate. While we were making love and afterwards he was so happy – what did he have to be so happy about? Already I knew I would never be as happy with him as I had been at first. Yet he was so at ease and in his element, my fears disbursed like stardust.
“See? I told you it wouldn’t hurt,” he said afterwards.
I laughed and punched his shoulder, kissed him on the face in the dark and told him he was beautiful, and also that I’d decided his eyes were more blue than green. I kissed the muscle of his upper arm and remarked that even his sweat smelled good. We went swimming in the reservoir and afterwards dried off on the rough blanket we’d been laying on, got dressed and he dropped me off home before eleven.
“Have a great, great time at school,” he said, keeping me there at the top of the driveway in his truck for at least five or ten minutes. “I love you,” he said. “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”
For several days after this I felt as if I were engulfed in a swarm of benevolent bees. Looking about at the neat lawns, white-trimmed brick buildings and steeples of my college, it all seemed unreal, a vacuum place I’d been sent by mistake. My mother, who had driven me up, my baby brother and younger sister who had come along for the ride – seemed like vague shapes, like the ghosts of the Indians native to my home town, whose presence I sometimes sensed sitting alone down by the lake at dusk.
After they left I crept about the sterile dead campus unmoved, as if I were watching a play I’d seen before. Through a haze I regarded the marble archways and concentric paths streaming with rugby-shirted youths, and felt as if at any moment I would wake up in a world where I would always be with Gene.
Love did not interfere with my success at college; on the contrary, it enhanced it. After three or four days, this cloud of sensuality lifted, like a balloon or sun in the air, but Gene remained safely in my orbit, a guiding force, distant enough to allow my full participation in the new life around me. For him I endeavored to make each day perfect, from my sleek hair, to my minutely organized room, to the excellence of effort I put into my studies, even to the generosity I tried to show my new friends; all was for him.
The fear and loneliness that plagued other freshman never touched me. Other girls gorged themselves for comfort; I lived on love. Love gave me confidence and great strength, and this reassured others. I sat on committees, wrote editorials, sang in recitals, and on Saturday, pushed ghetto children from the city on swings. I attended rollicking frat parties, was asked to and attended sedate semi-formals; I swam and jumped rope, painted and sketched. I had three best friends and circles of acquaintances, like ripples in a pool; I wrote dozens of letters to friends at their colleges. Never to Gene, though, and never about Gene. That would break the spell.
Yes, there were moments late at night those first few weeks afterwards, thoughts of accidents and eternal damnation. I would lie on my bunk at midnight with garish red patterns swirling under clenched eyelids. Yet my visions of hell had by now grown vague, were no more than these whirling patterns of red, and before long this dark vision would be replaced by light: a pale altar, a white runner strewn with yellow rose petals. I dreamed the rose petals, saw them at such close range I could feel their velveteen softness where they lay, so faintly yellow against the white linen runner, such as lines a church aisle for a wedding.
I saw him home at Thanksgiving of course, but only out at a bar, only in a group. He came up to me and said, “Hello gorgeous,” kissed me, sat down on a turned around chair and asked me about school for five minutes. Then went back to throwing chairs and food around with his friends. Shannon rolled her eyes and told me she had run into him at parties up at State. “You should see him,” she said. “He’s a total slut, fucking all the freshman girls.” Not her, though, she was quick to assure.
I didn’t react. There was nothing to say. He couldn’t be with every girl as he had been with me. It was impossible. And how was she to know the extent of his entanglements? Someone with so fine a profile couldn’t be so debauched.
I, too, had dated other people at college. Sometimes I told them I was attached at home. Sometimes I passed myself off as just another jittery virgin. I went from boy to boy. Some of them kissed me with obvious inexperience, their lips furiously sealed. Some were rubber-mouthed, leaving wide tracts of wetness across my face like a snail. Others were rough, and when they touched any part of my body, kneaded it like some inanimate, despised dough.
Following these disgusting interludes, I would return to my dorm room and open my small bottle of musk, inhaling deeply to banish the incursions.
Over Christmas break my grandmother died. At her funeral I knelt in church and prayed, not for her soul, which had gone straight to heaven, but for Gene and me. We had been born in a jaded age. How could I expect him to want to marry me in a world of free love, where no one was a virgin anymore?
Sometimes I thought wicked things, such as that he would fall ill. He would recognize me there at his bedside, see my reigning goodness as some beckoning light. Perhaps even a situation would arise where he’d need my father’s surgical skills. But it was useless praying for impossible things; Gene never called.
Yet he proved benevolent. Before I went back to school for the spring term, I saw him out at the bar again. We were each with groups of friends, and at the end of the night he abandoned his and offered me a ride home. Initially I affected a certain detachment, but broke down when he kissed me goodnight. Before I left him he looked at me from his rending eyes and said, “Keep in touch.”
Soon after I went up to his college to visit Shannon and some other girls from my hometown. I didn’t expect to see Gene, would never have sought him out in his wild men’s lair.
“He’s an animal,” people said.
He came looking for me. Came strolling up the hill to Shannon’s dorm, strolling up and down the halls until he found us. He took off his giant down coat and took his place with the rest of us, seated on the floor. He was so soft-spoken and polite, it was hard to ascribe the terrible things people said to the person sitting next to me, with the cowlick and innocent eyes.
I left with him. He was a resident advisor and so had his own room and private bath. Everything was beautifully clean and neat. No Farrah poster on the wall, no Playboy magazines in the bathroom. At first I just sat at the desk while he sat cross-legged on the bed. The conversation refused to turn personal. An hour went by, my face a big question mark he ignored.
No harm done, I thought. Perhaps seeing him normally like this will put him in perspective. I got up to use the bathroom before leaving, and when I emerged he arose from the bed, stood in front of me and smiled. Soon as I felt the hard muscles through the soft flannel of his shirt, his kiss, which obliterated all the false kisses that had come between us, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Why walk away from the best thing in the world?
But in the morning I was disquieted, buttoning up my blouse and combing my hair in the mirror. He crept up and put his arms around me from behind, but our images clashed – my dark stricken eyes and thick unruly hair; his eyes that shone like lightning and his shirt that was white as snow.
He took me by the wrists and pulled me around so we were face to face. “Don’t cry,” he said. “I love you.”
Out in the hallway, big-eyed freshman boys greeted Gene. “This is Celeste, she’s from my hometown,” he said to each, as if I were his chosen one. From their faces it was clear he was their idol.
He clung to me at the outer doorway, his arms so tight around me that I felt a strange shudder deep down, as affecting as any he’d given me the night before.
“Come by any time,” he said after he let me go. “I’ll always be here.”
I went back for more, again and again. In the mornings he hugged me close.
“I’ll miss you,” he said. “I love you.”
He always said what I meant but couldn’t say.
A consortium of girls decided I should forget him. “He’s dangerous,” they said, these dorm friends of Shannon who had all loved and lost him.
When I went home for the summer, I began running. I flew up and down the green hills, beheld the town, felt my own person again. I warded off my father’s temper tantrums with minimum wage jobs and benign rituals of housework and self-grooming – the grocery list, the weeding, the nail kit, the tan, the blow-dryer.
One night I drove along a familiar, winding road on an insignificant errand, for which I’d spent half an hour French-braiding my hair and ironing a lavender blouse. I was slowing to a stop sign when I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. In the driver’s seat a middle-aged man, head bent far over the wheel, white collar and cuffs a triangular constellation in the dusk. He wasn’t my father, but he was. I had thought I was happy, but the sight of his man, someone else’s suffering father, blew my cover. We were all just on the brink, every one of us.
Summer was a season of hostile men. Prodded by my family I took phone calls, dressed up, went out on the town with some Tom, Jerry or Elvis. I drank cocktails, pushed food around on a plate, listen to stories about the Firestone factory, the Milford Police force, or Ohio Wesleyan University. I tried to laugh and be a good sport, but it didn’t fool me, and it didn’t fool them. At the end of the night I still felt nothing and they wound up mad.
It was far more solacing to be alone; after dusk I rode my bike through suburban streets, the golden lights of each house reminding me of the life Gene and I would never share.
Sometimes I brought my small brother over to Elaine’s, where he played with her ancient outgrown toys and we chatted with her mother. Elaine’s Mom was from Brooklyn, World War II generation. According to her, we had blown it. “In the old days you would go out with this one one night and his best friend the next,” she said. “No one slept with anyone so no one got jealous. People don’t know how to date anymore,” she complained, taking a conciliatory drag on her cigarette. What she meant was, Elaine didn’t date, only went out in a pack of girls, returning home at two, three, four a.m., dropped off by a different car driven by a different boy every night. “You are two lovely girls,” Elaine’s mother declared in her cracked voice. “These boys should be cherishing you.”
When I stayed in I couldn’t sleep. The clock struck two and three and four. I thought that if I could only locate the ghost of my love, I could disperse it. I thought it might be in the garage, so cool and masculine with its saws, tools and electric door. I stole down the two sets of carpeted stairs and stepped swiftly through the dark basement. I inhaled the smell of cedar walls; the criss-crossed skis on the walls, the mounted five-pound bass reminding me of simple pleasures. At the same time I glided through the dark, I was engulfed in a hazy dream tableau with Gene. I stood with him in a field of heather, in the mid-day sun as I had so rarely seen him. I was reaching up to touch his hair. But when I opened the garage door it was not Gene’s ghost, but my father, seated on the edge of a wrecked sailboat, staring into oblivion. His eyes turned towards me for a few seconds, but saw nothing.
I woke up in bed and opened my eyes to the light. Closed them. Dreamed of my father, not white-haired and tense with fury, but young and leonine, lounging with his feet up, on the couch in the family room as it was long ago. We were all gathered around him with our hands clasped, anxious, solicitous. There were no words in the dream, only feelings of frustration and dismay as my father opened his mouth and roared.
Marianne turned away in disgust first, and then my mother with the baby on her hip, then Candida at her side, and finally there was only me, alarmed and immobile. My father got up and began pacing the room to better demonstrate the point of his tirade. What a shame, I thought, as I admired the grace of his pacing and the wave in his hair, the fit of his jeans. And suddenly I realized that the lion had turned into a lamb, and Gene came to stop in front of me, his thick arms crossed, his brow calm, laughing. “You see?” he said. “I told you it wouldn’t hurt.”
Once that summer we saw each other at a party. Gene pretended not to see me, and I pretended not to care.
In a way I didn’t. I had been sinking more and more into daytime reveries in which we lived side by side. In some of these visions, we lounged in his uncle’s New Hampshire ski lodge. I pictured the sunshine through a vast window, the light wood and cathedral ceiling, the white clothes I wore, sitting on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees, the brand of beer Gene drank. But I couldn’t hear the words. In other dreams we would merely be sitting across from each other in a college library.
Sometimes in the August dusk, I reached up to the kitchen shelf and stole some Percodan. On my bed, I closed my eyes and floated near the ceiling, lolling in memory. I was sinking, I didn’t know how to get out, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
That fall at school I searched for his essence in other boys – the one with the short nose and curling hair, another with the stocky build, a third with the deep set eyes. I searched endlessly, hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, but my quest yielded nothing.
I ate an apple for breakfast, carrot sticks for lunch, a bowl of spinach for dinner. The fasting had a calming effect – on Gene, on everything – similar to the floating tranquility I’d achieved when I’d stolen the Percodans the summer before. My reactions slowed, I wore a beatific expression, I could focus on my work and was removed from involvement with people. I became a child again, to all outward appearances stripped of sex and its accompanying menace.
I stood in the blue living room. On the stereo, Frank Sinatra sang of his search for love around the world, long after hope was gone. Outside, silvery winter tree tops stirred noiselessly in the wind, the sky crystal blue. Inside also were trees, but they were walking around. I looked up into the milky eyes of one such tree. Words came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t hear them.
It was the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I barely registered it. My great-uncle stared down at me in mild amazement. I had become fantastic-looking, ethereal. I looked up into his eyes and thought, Surely there must be some way, as the song said, to maintain hope when all was gone. In some other world, I was certain, I was with Gene, and loved by him, just as certainly as I’d been denied him in this one.
Two weeks later I was in his bedroom. I just drove down in my car and knocked on his door. Now it was three or four a.m. He had just come back from Florida, and my fingers moving across his tanned skin were waxy and translucent.
He lay gloriously alive in the half-dark. He was so thriving with muscle and desire, it was clear that he had stolen the flesh, sapped the life and energy that were rightly mine. I got up and went in the bathroom. I opened the medicine cabinet: Jovan Musk For Men, prescription cold medicine – For cough, congestion and post-nasal drip – and two or three more sinister-looking medicine bottles which did not reveal their purposes. He had just come back from spring break. Doubtless he had picked up the clap in Ft. Lauderdale. That’s what boys did when they went away; that’s why they went. I would have to get myself checked out now.
Also in the cabinet – two combs, aspirin, a shaver, shaving cream, and an open package of razors.
I looked at the blue veins in my thin white wrist, contemplated the soft swelling in Gene’s throat. I had been standing there for some time with the package of razors in my hand when the door pushed open and Gene’s wide shoulders and tousled head filled the door frame.
“C’mere,” he said, and I put the razors down on the edge of the sink and went to him.
“I love you,” he said, just as he had said it on our first date. And this was enough, finally, to harden my heart a little. Like when he called me darling, or said he’d been waiting for me. Afterwards, when I went to use the bathroom again, the razor blades were gone.
When he kissed me good-bye next morning, I wandered away without saying a proper good-bye. Realizing this halfway up the hill, I turned around. He was still standing in the doorway. We both waved.
Two weekends later I went up to Shannon’s family’s house in Vermont. We drank all the way up and then went out to a bar. Lacking food, I became violently ill and spent the entire weekend on the couch.
The top of the house was rented; we stayed in the windowless basement. With the lights off it was pitch dark in the day, with only the rumble and hiss of the wood stove. Alone in the house I had a vision. Two green mountains, larger than any I’d ever seen. Behind and between the mountains a sun tried to break through. I knew these two mountains were my two grandparents in their next-world incarnation, and that the sun rising behind them was God. I could see the sun getting stronger, rising behind the mountains, and knew that when it emerged fully I would be dead. So as not to see the sun I struggled to consciousness, and when I did it was like bursting from underwater after being held down. I was breathing heavily and my heart was pounding very slowly and painfully and laboriously. All around me was black, but the wood stove roared and knew I was alive. My heart, my chest and my left arm hurt all day, but the next morning the pain was gone.
I began eating. I didn’t date, and the following summer worked three jobs so I only had one night off once every two weeks. Once, towards the end of summer, someone’s older sister looked into my eyes and said his name and a tremor ran through me. In the fall I was going to France. That would blow him away forever.
I didn’t see him for nearly two years when he showed up at a party of Elaine’s. She hadn’t invited him, and he came alone.
By then I had been through two real love affairs, in which I had shared a life beyond the mere physical – days out, long conversations, ice cream cones, meals cooked and eaten together, beach days – was claimed, even heralded in public. My liaison with Gene prepared me well for these lovers; I never again made the mistake of being in awe. And at the end of each affair, we had looked each other in the eye and said, fini. Afterwards when I wept, I knew the reason for my tears. Whenever I spoke of my former relations with Gene to new friends, it was in terms of something sick and thwarted, to be put behind and forgotten.
He greeted me as one would a long lost loved one, smiling tenderly and incessantly. I smoked cigarettes and blew the smoke askance and made flippant remarks. In layered hair and eyeliner, I was dozens of pounds heavier than when I’d seen him last. He, in turn, had lost his glow. His face no longer angelic, but growing heavy along with his body, so that his deep set eyes appeared small like an elephant’s. What could you expect? He was almost twenty-four.
Our conversation was as usual less than brilliant – my year away, my holiday job, his faltering career. He smilingly told me he had done poorly on the med-school entrance exams again. Tant pis, I said, Bad luck.
His disarrayed life was more analogous to mine than I revealed; my control had shattered. I had got over the notion that I ought to look up to anyone, had lost all guiding stars, and was finally the centerpiece of my own life, superseding my father, Marianne, Gene, everyone. The world was built up and destroyed each day, and I was no longer exemplary at anything.
He was the last to leave, and lingered in the kitchen with Elaine and me. He kept thanking my friend, and to me he sent twinkling smiles and feigned longing looks. When he finally left he kissed us both good-night. I rolled my eyes. Elaine’s mother emerged from the shadows, dressed in a housecoat and clutching her cigarette and highball glass.
“Who was that?” she asked skeptically.
“No one,” Elaine said, for the day when we had run laughing and screaming around the basement on his account was indeed long past. “Just someone we used to know.”
That same holiday I ran into his best friend out at a bar and slept with him. The only one from my home town I ever did that with. When Steve brought Gene’s name up I just looked at him as if I had never known the man.
I graduated college and went to New York; Gene gave up on medical school and went to California with friends from his grade from our hometown. I heard he worked in pharmaceutical sales. People were still always telling me what he was up to, without my ever asking.
When I was twenty-five and he was twenty-eight, he had a health crisis. He moved home, was confined to bed, had an operation. Elaine, now married to someone from his year, told me how she and her husband visited him. They had brought him supper – pizza. And he had been so, so grateful.
I imagined how flattered he would be if one of his old acolytes came to pay homage at such a time. I envisioned his self-satisfaction at seeing her standing in the doorway, in bobbed hair, gold sweater and black jeans — only natural that every girl he’d ever fucked would come running to his side, unable to conceal the love that never really died. Gene, you’re so beautiful, Gene, you’re so nice to me, Gene, you make me feel so good.
Do you know what I did when Gene was sick? Nothing. I could easily have gone to see him. I was home a lot that spring, because my father had finally left my mother, left us to our peace after his long reign of terror, and our home was breaking up. The house on the lake, with its back deck, jungly foliage, cedar wood basement and plaid carpet, was going up for sale. I was not sorry to see it go. It was built on rotten foundations. I delved in the rubble to see if there was anything worth salvaging, didn’t find much. I had made New York my own, proudly lived in a decrepit flat in a dangerous neighborhood. Plus I was in love again, entrenched in my own domestic bliss.
So I never called Gene, never visited. I didn’t even send him a get well card. Why should I have? He had never written to me, never called. That would show him. Whenever Elaine brought his name up, as if to elicit the response, “Tell him I said hello,” or “Send him my best,” or “Tell him I hope he gets better soon,” I nodded and said nothing, as if he were someone I’d only ever heard of, but never met. Elaine’s face conveyed shock at my indifference. She had grown sentimental since her mother died.
Seeing him two years later in the flesh staggered me. My domestic bliss proved fleeting, and I was loveless, homeless, and although not jobless, impoverished, and felt as untethered and bobbing as the boat we both rode.
We were on a river cruise party near our hometown. I knew Gene might be there, but was shocked to see him. He was up to his usual antics, pressing his nose into the pregnant stomach of a friend, popping up, looking me in the face, saying, “I know you!” and whirling away.
He was tanned and looked as if he’d never been sick a day in his life. But his eyes were changed; the once soft skin in which they were embedded had become hardened and terrible. At thirty, debauchery had finally begun to transfigure him.
Nearly everyone there was married or pregnant. Gene was engaged. That was the big news. Congratulations, I heard people say. How are you feeling? Great! Great!
I didn’t recognize his fiancée. She was taller than him, possibly older, dark and flashy, not pretty. This surprised me more than anything, for I had always thought that the one he would choose over me would be golden and rarified.
Doris Marini, the girl from Gene’s grade who had looked like me so long ago, was among this crowd. I overheard her congratulating the fiancée on her upcoming marriage. “Good luck,” she said with mysterious sympathy.
The fiancée dragged on a cigarette, a distorting action which accentuated her crow’s feet. “Thanks,” she said wearily, as if comprehending a rough road ahead. Gene was now stationed in the center of the deck, enjoying a shower of beer. He threw his head back, he laughed, he wiped the beer away like tears.
I could see in a flash that Gene’s fiancée was already adept at handling childish, difficult men. In her working life she would be a nurse or executive secretary, perhaps a junior high school teacher. In marriage she would be a deeply practical wife who would cook for him, iron his shirts, scold him when he drank too much and otherwise treat him like a baby. Just as it was clear to me now that he’d never had a chance in hell of becoming an M.D., so it stood out that a replacement for the mother he’d lost at twelve was all he’d ever wanted.
Throughout the party Gene embraced people – both men and women – encircling them from behind and telling them how much he loved them. Once he looked up at me from the lower deck. I quickly looked away.
I had brought a new friend to this party, a relative stranger, someone who knew nothing.
“That one,” my new friend said, singling him out. “There’s something wrong with him. He’s all over everyone.”
Following the boat ride a group of us single people went to a bar nearby. I found myself drawn to Doris. Though Gene had once described her as talking like a radio, hers was now a placid, consoling presence, a welcome relief from the aggressive frenzy of the married people with their bragging talk of condo developments and children’s names. Like me Doris was still single and lived in New York, in fact, the same part of Manhattan. With her simple straight hair and clean, lineless skin, she appeared hardly changed from when we’d sung together in the high school choir. Her pale face had spread and calmed, no doubt under the influence of her less talkative, more serene adult persona.
We didn’t look at all alike anymore. My face had thinned and my features sharpened with my recent trouble. I sought to hide these effects with a voluminously waving hairstyle, sun tanned skin and orange lip gloss.
Our random chat quickly revealed that Doris had been among those who’d shared a house in San Francisco with Gene. “We used to have barbecues almost every night,” she said, all wistful regret. “We had a great, great time.”
Suddenly she turned on me. “You and Gene,” she said, “you knew him once.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, sidestepping the question with a laugh which was partially in deference to my new friend at my side.
But for a moment I saw Gene, as in a sunset glow, against a backdrop of gold-drenched houses, terraced hills, and the diamond lights of the Pacific, though I had never seen the place.
My new friend became my lover. In time we married and moved to within four or five blocks of where Doris lived. When I was 30 and Gene was 33, I saw him in Manhattan. It was a warm spring night and I was trudging up the hill to the Y when I met his familiar rending eyes. The man sitting at the café was Gene, heavier set, his bulky neck and shoulders constrained by jacket and tie. I was late for my exercise class and hurried on.
Next week on the same night on the same route I saw him again. This time he was with a woman who from the side looked like Doris. He blinked at me from his hardening eyes, as if making a stab at his former innocent expression. I thought I heard him say, “Hey I know you,” in his soft voice as I passed.
I stared down at him like a stranger, kept walking up the hill.
I saw Gene at the café, drinking every Thursday night, for months. Had he moved to New York? Did he do business here? Was he having an affair with Doris? Once I saw him there with his wife, she in large gold earrings and smoking. Since I hadn’t acknowledged him the first few times, he didn’t call out to me again. But every week I would look for him, and if he saw me he would try to catch my gaze. I could only ever meet it for a second.
Sometimes I saw him eating with Doris, his head bent close to hers over the table as they spoke. Sometimes he sat drinking alone. It always jarred me to see him, but I didn’t change my route to the club. Through the summer, I grew used to finding him there every Thursday. He was there when I trudged up the hill; he was there when I cascaded down. He threw his head back, he laughed, his hair was still thick and brown and tousled.
One Thursday in August I left the Y very late and he wasn’t there. I looked around the corner, at all the tables. No Gene. Then, almost home, I recognized him from behind, a short, wide-bodied man, jacket flapping open, making unsteady progress, alone. He used a metal cane splayed at its base into four, small, rubber-tipped legs, the kind only very old people use.
I slowed down, stopped. In that world where I’d always lived with Gene, I’m sure I overtook him and greeted him joyously. But in this one, I hovered in the shelter of some scaffolding until he reached the end of the block, turned the corner, and limped out of sight.
What was going on? There was no one to tell me. I had no base in my hometown anymore. My family had sheared utterly and moved swiftly apart in the stream of events. My father, rehabbed and retired, had moved south, was no longer the despot, but debilitated and unrecognizable from the one who had once made us quake. My mother had begun to work, and had followed a job north – my brother Fritz would graduate high school in a different state, my sisters flung far as well.
I had grown distant from my childhood friends. A few years before, Shannon picked Bruce, the ponytailed landscaper who had once worked with Gene, for her second husband. Afterwards her dealings with me sharply cooled, as if she had been abruptly reminded how I had wronged her so many years before. I shied away from questioning Elaine, due to my shameful conduct regarding Gene’s illness years before.
Then I went to San Francisco on business for two weeks. I missed my husband, though not desperately, not forlornly. When I had chosen to marry, I’d been careful to eschew the golden suburban windows, anything ringing of my elusive, childhood dreams. But in the orange sunset evenings, when I had time to walk in Golden Gate Park and feed the ducks, I would remember that Gene had lived here once and been happy.
One day I wandered into a store, and stood sniffing different varieties of musk, trying to summon the day when we had got carded away from three bars, and had laughed and kissed in the front seat of his car as the sunset rays streamed in.
By now I understood everything – that underneath his surface patter he was a deeply inarticulate man. That my obsession for him was based on an illusion of my own making. That it was better to have had my heart broken quickly at nineteen, than slowly tortured in a corrosive marriage, only to snap at fifty, like my mother’s, when it was too late to ever heal.
I speculated that if I had shown one tenth of the brashness with Gene that I had shown in other aspects of my life, if I had not loved him so steadfastly and unswervingly, if I had not loved him in the way the nuns had told us to love God, but that in reality only a child can love a retreating and indifferent parent, we might have stood a chance.
I decided that the next time I saw Gene at the café, I would find the courage to go up to him, say, “I know you,” and kiss him on the cheek. I would sit down, look at snapshots of his children and smile.
When I got back to New York, he was gone. Two Thursdays, three, I passed the café and no Gene. One Saturday afternoon I spotted Doris on the street. When I said his name, her face, which had been as wide and smooth and bland as an egg, simply broke.
Hadn’t I heard? Gene was dead. On the operating table.
“Just like that.”
When I used to see him at the café, she explained, it was because he was getting treatments at a hospital here in the city, right in our neighborhood. Every Friday for months. He used to get plastered the night before, because the treatments were almost worse than the disease.
I saw him sitting at the café, throwing his head back, laughing.
“I’m so sorry,” I said finally. “You were a good friend of his, weren’t you?”
Doris hid her tears behind her hand. With a sickening and pointless shame, I realized that for all the years I’d wasted on Gene Christie and everything I squandered, I never knew him at all.
I walked down the hill in the sunshine, past tenements, street vendors, double-parked cars. I was haunted by an apparition – his gem-like, blue-green eyes in an angelic young face, the faded shirt that was a deeper hue of those eyes on that bittersweet spring day when he had made Shannon and me kiss him, one after the other, as he leaned against the brick wall of his dorm.
At home I took out my old journals from those years: “I must forget myself, and just love and love and give and give, and never ask why.” I had tried to love his way, but could not.
Why was that his way? Why did he do it? Because he knew he was going to be ill, and had to get in all his loving when he was young? Or maybe in becoming ill, he had merely been paying a penance for his sins, as I had done all those years ago, when I’d starved myself nearly to death and broke my heart.
I thought of the story the nuns told me, of the little boy who’d sinned against his mother. What, after all, had we both been doing when our eyes met each week outside the café, if not striking the little hand poking out of the