There are certain songs that begin with a distinct clarity in my brain and then taper off to nothingness or, worse, discordant thumps of something that has lost all coherence.
It’s like that with memories.
When I found out I had been admitted to the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, I threw a dinner party. I always gave dinner parties. Not keg parties or tea parties or Friday-night-and-I-don’t-care parties. Just solid dinner parties with food I remembered from Sunday dinners at home. A friend of a friend came dressed as Lady Liberty. He had a colander on his head and was swirled in sheets. I don’t remember it being a masquerade party. He just decided to do it. We were terrifically jolly. My life, I felt, was heading for a golden zone.
McCoy Hall must have been an old rooming house. Its apartments were one-room affairs, with a sofa that pulled out to become a bed. The closet was bigger than the living space. My apartment had two consecutive doors: an inner solid one and a louvered one where a screen door might be if it were the entry to a home. The only other place I’d ever been that had louvered doors like that was an old hotel in Nags Head. Neither place had air conditioning, so I guess this was some kind of low-tech answer to keeping the rooms livable in Baltimore’s unflinchingly sultry summers.
It was late in the day of moving in. I was very nervous about the whole process of being in an unfamiliar place at the time of day when certainty fades effortlessly into seems-to-bes and maybes. I heard voices across the hall. Peeking out from the louvered door, I saw a shadowy figure that filled the entire door frame of the apartment across from mine. A policeman stood in front of the figure, talking earnestly. Suddenly, someone turned on a light somewhere. The figure had a face. A set of garishly black stitches flowed across his lower lip.
The first thing I did after unpacking was order a phone. It was yellow. The second thing I did was decide I didn’t belong at Hopkins, so I went backpacking.
Perhaps it was Saturday. The only thing I remember is that it was three weeks later. The figure was at my door. Did I know my brother had been to visit me?
Oh, really? When?
About two weeks ago. Maybe three.
I thought he said his name was Alan.
Yes, my brother had been up for a visit, on one of his cross-country hitchhiking epics. Alan (was that his name?) had answered the hall phone and let him in. Since I wasn’t there, Alan (again, a mushy feeling that that wasn’t quite right) had let him spend the night on his floor. Displayed his cockroach collection. Shared a TV dinner.
He must have some way of cooking — maybe even storing fresh food. I had an electric Dutch oven and a can opener.
And he (when asked, after a suitable interval had passed) had a refrigerator … and a freezer … with ice. Every night after that, I borrowed some for my Cokes. I had lived without ice for too long.
I don’t remember when he started visiting every night at 11 for a daily soliloquy. He talked incessantly, even when my eyelids would droop. It never mattered if I said one word. His drone became my lullaby. His name wasn’t Alan after all. It was Andy. He had worked in a factory hauling bags of asphalt from freight cars with a bunch of people, some of whom didn’t speak English. I imagined him reading Rimbaud on breaks while the others gave each other hotfeet.
I tried to think of some way to find out how old he was without asking outright. I had my suspicions. Most people came to graduate school straight out of college. I had sat out, teaching middle school for three years. Being older than what I thought the average person in school was — or should be — gave me the creeps. I was already dealing with poseurs of the highest order. Being older than them just made me another shade of different.
I don’t know how I finally figured it out. As it turns out, he was younger than me by two years. But it didn’t seem to matter to him, so it began not to matter to me.
Oh, and the stitches? He had run into the back of a car stopped at a light. He had been trying to find the JFX. The car was a total loss. Who knew they called it 83?
Our first date thing was a trip to the zoo. It was a date only by nominal standards of the time. The zoo was free. It was in the middle of the day. There was no wayward kiss at the end.
By then, it was well into fall, but not the nice kind of fall that makes you feel happy to be breathing. It was the skunky kind of fall, when days are uniformly dank and progressively darker. The monkeys were mating furiously. How could he not notice?
We saw French movies where nothing ever happened.
He demurred when I asked him to read my poetry. I thought it was because he thought it was too much tripe. This took me up sharp. People loved my poetry. I was the poetry queen in high school and college. I was in the Poetry Camp at Hopkins. Some guy I met while teaching even wanted to weave the words of my work into his songs. They were so beautiful, he had said.
Thanksgiving approached. I don’t remember being particularly happy about it, but it was a break. On Tuesday (maybe Wednesday?) Andy knocked on the door. It was just after lunch. He said something and then gently placed his hands on each of my shoulders and kissed me solemnly. Good bye. Take care.
I closed the louvered door. “Wow.” I said it without thinking. I hoped he hadn’t heard. I still had a four o’clock class to wait for.
(He had heard …)
There was a rush toward Christmas. We went to the stadium to buy a Christmas tree from the eye bank. The Lions Club Eye Bank trucked in solid trees every year to Memorial Stadium and sold them for five dollars. Or something nominal like that. Plus you could give them your old eyeglasses. An incongruous pile of them shouldered the cash register. It looked as if the management was asking you to surrender your sense of sight when picking out a tree.
Our choice was huge, but it still fit in my Beetle. But there was no room for Andy. He met me at the hardware store where we bought lights. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone test them out before buying them. Then he walked home to the dorm where we put up the tree. When I opened the bed, the boughs touched my arms. The woman next door, a science major (biology? physics? neuroscience?) from Japan was entranced with it. She tracked the needles in the hall that led up to my door and asked to see it.
We went Christmas shopping downtown. Outside Lexington Market, a vendor was roasting horseradish. Andy bought his brother a belt. At Abe Sherman’s bookstore, he picked up a book on making paper airplanes for Chuck. Chuck? Oh, just a friend from an undergrad experience in Tours. I didn’t buy anything. My clogs (Swedish and unforgiving) hurt. We had walked all the way downtown from Homewood. I insisted we take a bus back. We finally caught one about two stops from our destination.
Exams were over. His were onerous; mine, nonexistent. I suggested an indoor picnic at the end of it all. There was no way he could possibly do that. Exams took too much out of him.
I took him to the train station. Christmas was close. I parked and walked him into the building, said goodbye, and turned away. I never looked back. I could feel him watching me.
We had plans for the break. He was to go to Montreal to practice French. I was to take a long-term sub job in Portsmouth, VA, to get money.
Instead, we both canceled our plans and hurried back to Baltimore, to the rest of the story.
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