The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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When I graduated from high school, my father got me a job as a hatcheck girl in the town’s only Italian restaurant. I sat on a high stool in a walk-in closet, reading movie magazines in the dim light and making skyscrapers with my tips, the dollar bills the roofs of my coin buildings. On Saturday nights it was very busy and I pretended I was working in the wardrobe department on the set of a Hollywood movie. The fur jackets I kept on my lap felt alive between my thighs and their perfumes made me dizzy. I imagined myself strutting down Main Street, past the town hall and fire station, in a black mink coat and high, high red heels. . . . People magazine would name me “the year’s sexiest woman” and my laugh would be as light as a tinkling bell.
One night, as I was chewing on my pencil eraser and voting for Soap Opera Digest’s favorite TV villain, I was startled by the noise of motorcycles outside the restaurant. I heard bottles breaking and a gun going off and I ran out into the parking lot. In the glare of the patrol car’s flashing lights, a man with bright green marble eyes looked up at me from a stretcher. His thigh touched my wrist as he was lifted into the ambulance.
When I got home my wrist felt so hot I wrapped it in ice. The next day I went to the hospital to find the man with the green eyes. He had a broken jaw. I chattered like a baby sparrow in high-pitched chirps, pulling, pulling at my hair so it covered my right cheek.
When the nurse came in, I jumped off the bed and stood by the window. She opened the blinds and in the sharp daylight, I saw the man stare at my face.
“It’s a birthmark. I was made this way,” I said, and pointed to what looked like a splatter of crushed strawberries on my cheek. I narrowed my eyes at the man. “And my Daddy was in Vietnam and carries a gun. Everybody calls him the Major.”
The first night the man came for dinner, the Major watched me cover my cheek with my hand, blush, and look down at my plate. That was enough for him to speak to his buddy, who owned the only gas station in town, about getting this young man a job and finding him a cheap room to rent. The man fixed the rumbling in the Major’s Cadillac, oiled the automatic windows, and banged out a dent on the side. After a while, he took to driving the Major around town, wearing one of the Major’s old army hats cocked at an angle on his head. Friday nights the man came to dinner and I would bring dessert out to the porch. I would sit with him there, counting fireflies, drinking cups and cups of tea and twirling my hair over my cheek, while the Major told his war stories again and again.
On Valentine’s Day, I bought the man a card with two chimpanzees kissing that said, “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” After I looked up the word superfluous, I sprayed the card with perfume and kissed the envelope with reddened lips. At the gas station, I spoke to him quickly, sucking in air and holding it there, the words coming from a place somewhere behind my knees. I leaned against the pump, hooked my fingers in the waistband of my jeans, and squinted into the peachy light of an early sunset.
That night, I made myself smell expensive and dimmed the lights. I carefully applied the coverup cream made with cartilage and bee pollen that had been advertised on The Dating Game. When the man arrived, with a six-pack of beer and a jumbo bag of popcorn, I didn’t make him wash or take off his shoes. I smelled his slick black hair and thought his face looked all sweet and shiny, like a licked lollipop. I told him his hands were the size of ping-pong paddles.
When it was over, I followed him around the room with my eyes, watching him pace up and down like a jaguar with eyes of liquid jade. I sat on the toilet seat and watched him shower through the translucent door. He looked like a ghost in a cloud of steam. I toweled him dry, working my way up from his ankles. Drops of water fell on my feverish face. He was in a hurry and I helped him dress with trembling hands. I remembered the sound the snap of his underwear made against his dark skin, the curly question marks of hair on his stomach. I clung to him so my heart would not jump out of my chest.
He walked quickly to his motorcycle, tucking in his shirt and swiveling his neck like a pigeon. He pinched a cigarette tightly with his lips.
I hurried behind, barefoot on the pebbles, hopping over the broken bits of beer bottles that blinked like green eyes in the moonlight.
“Whatdya followin’ me for?” He spoke through his teeth and tapped his black boot up and down as he reached for his helmet.
I twirled my hair over my right cheek. I stood on one foot. “So, like then, I’ll see you, huh?”
I stood alone, squeezing the pebbles hard under my toes, until the only thing I could feel was the warm blood soothing the soles of my feet.
Back in the house, I stared at myself in the mirror with my hand covering my right cheek. I closed my eyes until I could hear the snap of the man’s underwear and the tap of his boot. Then I opened my eyes and cursed my mother, who in her sixth month of pregnancy had looked up at the moon during an eclipse.
Merrick, New York
I sang soprano in a choir during my first two years at college. My second summer we went on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union. I was a lonely person, shy and eager to please. I believed that someday my eyes would meet other eyes and sparks would fly; somehow we’d know there was real substance between us without ever having spoken.
The musical high point of the trip was two performances of Haydn’s “Creation” with the Prague Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland. We rehearsed with the orchestra for a week prior to the performance. From my soprano position on the risers I could look just to the left of the conductor and make eye contact with a dark-haired, pale-faced viola player. I was attracted to his strong features and tormented expression. So when the soprano and viola sections had a few measures of silence, we ended up looking at each other. When the sopranos were singing and the violas silent, I felt certain he was watching me, and I imagined that my voice got more beautiful.
On the afternoon before our last performance we still hadn’t spoken. I went for a walk and ended up at an outdoor cafe. A few minutes later the viola player sat down across from me. My cheeks got hot like I was too close to a fire, and I had the urge to pull away. He seemed nervous, too. Neither of us spoke the other’s language, so the only words we knew in common were snatches of German from the “Creation” text and the names of some of the dishes from the menu. He ordered wine for both of us, which I found reassuring — I wanted him to take charge and take care of me. But even after the wine I felt awkward and disappointed. I had imagined that some sort of magic between us would put me at ease and fill me up, but it didn’t happen.
I didn’t look at him at all during the last performance. I didn’t know how I would be able to make anything more happen between us — which made looking at him too painful.
The orchestra was returning to Czechoslovakia right after the performance. When it was over and I was back in the rehearsal room, he knocked, stuck half his body in the door, and said goodbye.
I never saw the viola player again, but I still have the program with a picture of the orchestra on it in which he appears as a barely recognizable speck.
Inside my wife, our baby is being weaved. A wind weaves it. The baby is eight months old, and won’t face down, as it should. It faces up, then down, then up. The wind rolls it over and over.
My romance began when the midwife put a stethoscope to Violet’s belly, and I heard the small heart. In my heart came a kind of heartburn, but without the pain.
The Uptown No. 6
New York, New York
A blind date. Junior prom. She was seventeen and willow thin. He was a dauntingly mature twenty-four, tall, dark, and very near handsome. Introduced at the dance by her second cousin, they looked at one another and the world tilted on its axis.
“She was the one for me,” he said, fifty-four years later. “I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on her.”
He gave her a single gardenia for a corsage, and they danced. When it was time to go, she scribbled her phone number on a matchbook. He wrote his address on a corner of the dance program. Years later, after their children were half-grown, he revealed to her the yellowing keepsake he’d treasured in his wallet all that time. And she, laughing, revealed that hers had been tucked behind the velvet lining of her jewelry box.
They dated. She finished high school. He worked during the day and went to business school at night. It was 1937, and they were poor. Still, he bought her a fur coat costing a month’s wages. She returned it and squirreled away the money. He bought her a dozen roses. She complained, sweetly, that he was extravagant. Why not something she really liked, she asked, like . . . avocados? Thereafter when he came to call, he brought her a single gardenia and an avocado when they were in season.
They talked of marriage. They couldn’t wait. They plotted an elopement. On an early morning in March, he waited outside her house for her mother to go to work. Instead, it was the bride-to-be herself who came out with tears in her eyes.
“I couldn’t not tell my mother!” she told him. “Come on in and face the music.”
Her mother decided that if there was to be a wedding, they would do it properly, given the limits of one day’s planning and very little means. Aunts and uncles and friends were called and their aid enlisted. Flowers arrived. A minister was engaged. The groom was swept out of the busy household by two uncles who managed to get him drunk and bring him back almost too late. An impromptu smorgasbord was set out. Her best formal dress of pale blue voile was her wedding gown. The lavish and expensive nuptials of their daughters some twenty years later couldn’t hold a pastel taper to their makeshift wedding for excitement and romance.
They went into Seattle for a weekend honeymoon.
And they lived happily ever after. Except that three kids and real life kept interfering. When she died before him, he couldn’t believe it. They’d made it to their golden anniversary, a milestone that kept her holding on toward the end.
Now he sits in his recliner telling me, his middle child, the story again, and looks at a picture of her at sixteen.
“She had the skinniest ankles,” he says with a sigh. “I used to tease her about them.” Then he adds, “It goes so fast. It’s like I just met her. It goes so fast.”
In 1964 I drove a new Cadillac to Mexico. I thought I could sell the car and live there long enough to change my life. I was twenty-six. In Guadalajara I parked the car on a side street in the middle of the city. Two young women were walking toward me. I fell in love with the one in the red dress even before she spoke. They stopped to look at the car. I got out and greeted them and offered to drive them wherever they were going. They were going to their father’s hacienda in the Sierra Madre above the village of Ahuitla. We just made it when the car ran out of gas. I was a grateful guest of the hacienda until gas could be brought by mule.
I was in love with the daughter, but the hacienda and her father, an Old World gentleman with the finest manners, also enchanted me. Everything I admired, he said was mine. So I told him I admired his daughter. In the most polite way he told me I was no longer welcome. That night she and I took two horses down the mountain to the village, woke the old priest, and for a certain sum of money we were married. A year later we returned. Her father was happy to see us but the car was still without gas!
Please excuse my English. My husband of many years writes to you of our romance. I too would like to write of this. My sister and I are walking to the bus in Guadalajara. We go to Ahuitla and then to the hacienda of my papa. Standing in the street, we see this fine new car. Never before have we seen one like this. We stop to admire. Out of the car steps this young man. He says, “Buenos días,” when anyone can look at the sun in the sky and see it is buenas tardes. My sister is so bold she speaks to him. He speaks our language, but not so well. He says he will drive us where we want to go. My sister speaks to me very fast so he cannot understand. What fun it would be to arrive in Ahuitla in this fine blue Cadillac. All the caballeros would open their eyes, no? I say there is no harm; we are two, he is only one. So we go. It takes many hours to go a few kilometers, the road is so bad. But Eduardo, the young man, is happy to do this for us. Finally we arrive. The car has no more gas. Eduardo says, “Where is the gas station?” We say, “There isn’t one,” but gracias a Dios we are at the hacienda. Out comes my father. If you know my father, you know he is very polite. He invites Eduardo in. What else can he do? Papa says we will send for the gas. So for a few days Eduardo stays. He talks a lot to my papa. We walk in the mountains. My sister of course is with us. But she is very kind and lets us talk together many times. He says he loves me. But what can I do? It is not for me to say what happens in my life.
Then he makes the mistake. My father is so polite, and Eduardo does not understand so well. “This is a beautiful hacienda,” says Eduardo. “It is yours,” says Papa. “The horse is so fine,” says Eduardo. “He is yours,” says my father. This is a courtesy, you understand. Then Eduardo says, “Your daughter is so beautiful. I love her, I want to marry her.” “The next bus to Guadalajara stops by Ahuitla in the morning,” says my papa. “Maybe you should see some of the fine things in that beautiful city.”
Eduardo comes to me and tells me Papa wants him to go sightseeing. “Estúpido,” I say, “now we must part. Papa wishes you to leave and not come back.”
“Not without you,” Eduardo tells me. You know from Eduardo’s story that we take the two horses to the church and wake up the old priest. Eduardo gives him many pesos to marry us. Many. We have to stay away from the hacienda until I am pregnant. Then we go back and fill my papa’s heart with such joy. Of course, my papa has put no gas in the blue Cadillac. Paco, my sixteen-year-old brother, would surely have killed himself in it.
In the wartime 1940s, many of my college friends were romanced, whirled away, and wed with astonishing speed to boys in uniform. I was a sensible, studious type. I stayed virginally true to my air force sweetheart till his death over Italy. Some years later I married, had children, and pursued my teaching profession.
I was confident (and only fleetingly sorry) that the whirlwind of mad, irrational passion had passed me by.
But no. In the sixth decade of my life, the storm struck — and consumed common sense with a speed that would have horrified a twenty-year-old me.
A heartbreaking divorce had left me alone at the age of fifty-five. Children grown and gone, I lived by myself for ten years. Several of those years were spent fighting depression and learning to accept stern realities I had thought applied only to others: the fact that everything — everything — changes; that nothing lasts forever (not even a long and affectionate marriage); that I alone must accept responsibility for surviving change; that the assignment of blame is irrelevant; that grief is a teacher.
I learned to maintain a home and manage money without male assistance. Along the way, I discovered the joy of exploring new avenues of work and creativity.
When friends would ask if I didn’t long to fall in love “just once more in this life,” I’d respond, “About as much as I yearn to receive a letter bomb in the mail.”
The point is, I had it made. I lived alone and loved it.
Then he came along: a good-looking man close to my own age, divorced, alone and needy. He came to my door representing senior-citizens’ rights, soliciting signatures for a petition. I was distracted, busy with a writing project, but sympathetic to his cause. I said, “Come in.”
We talked a while. It soon became obvious that he had decided it would not be our last encounter.
Privacy was precious to me; the determined advances of this stranger served to make me suspicious and distant. I turned down his dinner invitation with a vague, “Not tonight . . . call me sometime; we’ll see.”
He was having none of that. “Why the hell not tonight?” he asked with a genial audacity. The look on my face must have caused him to lighten his tone. “Hey, I never make a pass until the third date, so don’t worry — you’ll be safe.”
“I rarely go out,” I said. Then, “I really don’t date anymore.” I was scuttling away like a crab escaping sideways.
But I couldn’t deny a stir of attraction. What nonsense was this, anyway? My life had no room for a man.
But to dinner we went. I soon found we had little in common except a love of the sound of our own voices. He was quick, very bright, and bristling with opinions that were diametrically opposed to mine. Neither of us was shy about stating them with uncompromising candor. We fenced amiably, but my reservations about him multiplied with every word. What was I doing having dinner with this impossible man — this aging, sexist jock?
He loved to dance, he said, and dancing we went. (Dancing! How many eons had it been?) I spent the next two hours irritated with myself for enjoying the feel of his confident arm around my suddenly twenty-year-old body. Later, if he hadn’t walked past me through the door, I’d have never invited him in for coffee.
I told him I was “too old” for dating, dancing, dinners out — all that routine. “Oh really?” he grinned. “I tried being old a couple of years ago. Hated it. Never again.”
I ended up making passionate love with this stranger two weeks later. I remember his first serious proposition (on our third date, as promised). “Absolutely not,” I gasped, already a bit frazzled by the winds of change. “You are talking to the wrong woman.”
“When, then?” he asked, calm as a census-taker.
“It would have to be overwhelming,” I stuttered. “I’d have to be totally overwhelmed by anyone I . . . See here, don’t even think about it!”
Hours later (at two, four, and six a.m.), he phoned to assure me that he, for one, was “overwhelmed.” “Go back to sleep,” I moaned. But I couldn’t deny it: this white-haired pursuer was getting to me.
There’s not much more to tell.
He is seventy now, and I will be soon. We’ve been together three years. Every day of my life I fight his encroachment on my tidy house, my time, my spinsterish habits. I wonder if my family and friends, who see it as “companionship in old age,” have any idea how much passion and fire is involved. If circumstance parts us, I don’t know if I could ever love solitude as much as before. Don’t think I don’t long for it — often and often! Don’t think we haven’t “broken up” — like teenagers — and come back together a dozen times.
I insist that he keep his home. When he’s in mine, I don’t get as much writing done as I used to. But when I banish him and sit alone in guilty solitude, I can’t write at all.
So here he is, ensconced in my life, not anything so quotidian as a husband, too unlike me to be a soul mate, too irrepressible and determined and funny and supportive and indispensable to be written off.
I think I love him; isn’t that the limit? He simply swept me off my feet. If I weren’t sixty-damn-nine years old, I’d giggle.
Many Midwestern party-goers prefer the Indianapolis 500 time trials to the race itself. My friend Mary Louise spoke of little else in the weeks preceeding the event in 1977. She’d told me many times about her past adventures; they involved carryings-on that weren’t part of my lifestyle, yet secretly excited me. “Why not go with me this year?” Mary Louise said. “See for yourself.”
“The devil’s track,” my mom called the Speedway. “You won’t find Christ in that place.” But I was twenty-three and looking for something else. I told Mary Louise I’d go.
We sat high up in the bleachers at the third turn where a group of rednecks from Ohio were drinking cheap wine and rooting for their favorite drivers. The excitement was contagious, and I’d never tasted such wine. When things slowed down on the track, one of the fans would moon the stands. I was swaying as I searched for the restrooms beneath the grandstand.
This guy suddenly appeared in front of me, handsome, tan, smiling. We stared at each other; he had hazel eyes that looked straight into my soul. Without a word he ushered me inside the women’s restroom. It was noisy, hot, and sticky. Women milled about, taking no notice. He hustled me into one of the stalls which had just been vacated.
He smelled of beer but had a real earthy scent also. He was kind, touching me gently. He took off my blouse and bra, then knelt before me and pulled down my jeans. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, even when a woman at the door threatened to “come in to do my business.” I faced the stall wall, gripped the top for support, and bent over for him. I thought of how it would be to tell Mary Louise. She’d never believe this. I reached back and held his hips against me, to prove to myself that I wasn’t dreaming.
When he finished, he kissed me on the lips. I loved that salty taste. He pulled on his pants and walked out before I could ask his name or even say goodbye. We never spoke. There was a smattering of applause as he left. Then the woman barged in and plopped on the toilet. “Jesus,” she said, over and over. “Jesus Lord.”
I’ve been happily married for eleven years now, with two lovely kids and a life in California. As far as I know, Mary Louise still lives in Indiana; we lost contact long ago. That was the only time I went to the trials, but I frequently think back to that day and wonder if that man remembers too.
My date and I had an argument, so I uninvited him to my sister’s Halloween house party. As a result, I planned to be a busy single, picking up and washing up after my sister’s friends, a notably untidy bunch. When Chuck, whom I hardly knew, drove up and said he’d been sent by his fraternity brother to be my weekend date, I was surprised and not exactly pleased. But I didn’t see much of him for a while. I was busy turning a sundry supply of groceries into dinner for twelve as helpful companions disappeared by twos along the hillside trails.
The cottage was without electricity and hot water. The dark came early, and with it a late-October chill. Dinner was lit by jack-o’-lanterns and firelight. The beverage of choice was apple cider, laced with gin. When more gin was needed, Chuck drove me back along the beach road to my parents’ big ranch house. Chuck talked to my parents while I went upstairs to get the bottle hidden in my closet.
“Such a handsome and well-spoken lad,” said my mother.
Back at the cottage, the guests, now fortified, decided to go swimming. Chuck and I, not enchanted by the cider-and-gin mixture, chose not to dive into the cold North Pacific. We stayed on the beach and built a huge bonfire out of driftwood, around which the dripping house party gratefully gathered.
When they trooped back to the cottage, Chuck and I stayed by the glowing coals. We talked. The fire died down and we built it up again. We talked some more. The coals lost their heat.
“Time to go in, I think,” I said.
“You know,” said Chuck, “I always thought it would take longer to find you. I would like to marry you.”
“Fine idea,” I said, and laughed.
Back at Stanford I thought a lot about that magical weekend, but didn’t see Chuck again until a couple of weeks later, when we met around the rally bonfire before the Big Game.
“Hey,” said Chuck, “when are you going to marry me?”
“Next Friday?” I suggested.
“Sorry, I already have a date.”
After that we spent a lot of time together. The joke (he said it never had been a joke) about marriage became a semi-joke, and then an idea, and then a plan.
Early in December we drove to Reno and were married by a kindly minister. His wife served us sherry and Christmas fruitcake.
Chuck died shortly after we celebrated our fifty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1981.
Hulda Hoover McLean
Santa Cruz, California