A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I ’d fallen in with a group of beautiful blondes. I have no clear idea how this happened. Something about a friend of a friend. Something about a party. They’d caught me on a good night, I think, and the impression had never quite worn off. They called me “Lush,” not because I drank but because, in their eyes, I embodied some verdant aspect of hope. This was a terrifically inaccurate notion, but flattering, and certainly worth preserving.
I lived that year, my second at college, in a flurry of winks and kisses, minty breath, the cream of necks and décolletage. We must have gone to classes, though I remember now only the classrooms: yellow, wooden desked, and faintly diseased, suggesting privation, the loss to be swallowed on the path to wisdom. Wisdom was something we desperately wanted, from books and lectures and so forth. It sounded sexy and protective. We had, in other words, an authentic thirst for wisdom, but it had occurred to none of us that the acquisition of wisdom might entail loss.
The real business of those years was experience: dawn confessionals and inside jokes, bouts of incompetent hedonism chased by flamboyant displays of empathy for the have-nots (whoever they were). What were we hoping for? An end to the lacerations of self, I guess. An alleviation of guilt. A single moment of emotional extravagance that would allow us to believe, wholeheartedly, in our youth. Grace.
It really happened only once, on the day we took Ecstasy, which was a new drug then, though old to the therapists. The blondes appeared at my door. “Take this,” Kath said.
“What is it?”
“Take it,” Maddie said. “We already took ours.”
“It’ll make you feel better,” Dana said.
“I’m OK how I am, really,” I said. “I’ve got to finish this paper.”
They were smiling, all three of them in loose dresses, the tops of their breasts purring with sun. The other guys on the hall hung from their doorways, cursing me softly. Then a fourth woman appeared, and the blondes began singing.
“Solange,” they sang. “Solange, Solange.” I wanted to sing it myself: Solange.
Someone said, “This is our friend Lush.”
She was pushed forward, a figure as dark as me and nearly as tall, elegantly slanted, and smiling, but quizzically, as if she had walked into the wrong wedding reception. “Hey,” she said.
I looked at Solange, trying to look away at the same time. I was desperate in that moment not to fall in love with her; with the way she looked, her cheeks and heavy lips, her sloping hips, her feet — my God, her feet! — in sandals whose leather strips circled the stems of her calves. With some awareness of how much I loved her, of how happy I would be to wake up beside her every morning for the rest of my life, both of us naked and smelling of sleep — with all this, I set out not to love her.
“Hey,” I said.
The blondes laughed musically.
I took the pill from Kath’s palm.
The day was aimless beauty, the hill green and moist from the first rains, wisps of cloud above and softball players threading the fields below. In the distance, the library’s ivy rippled like a coat of mail. We lay on the grass, touching at the edges. Just past Kath, I could see Solange’s leg, bent at the knee, traversed by a delicate scar.
“I don’t feel so hot,” I said.
“That’s ‘takeoff,’ ” Maddie said.
Kath reached over and rubbed my belly.
Dana ran her hands through my hair, which curled down my back in those days. Then the three of them smothered me in kisses. This was something they did from time to time. My role was to behave like a knickered lad beset by bosomy aunts. The blondes’ real beaus were older guys who lived off campus and played varsity sports. They enjoyed the blondes’ company at night. During the day, the blondes were mine.
I’d had girlfriends, of course, but always dull girls. On this day, the day we took Ecstasy, I was fresh off a breakup with a girl named Temple: pale, blue-eyed Temple, pretty in a fragile way and scared to death of herself. Our last night together, she had shed her turtleneck and — in an approximation of passion much closer to rage — yanked up her bra, cinching the flesh around her ribs, a wire-rimmed cup cantilevered under her chin like a spittoon. “They’re not very big,” she’d said glumly.
The blondes had squealed when I’d told them this story. “That girl,” Maddie said.
“What were you thinking?” Kath said.
“I thought there might be something there,” I said. Truth was, I was nothing much to look at. My nose was pretty solid, and I had the hair going for me. But my teeth were oversized and, no matter how much I brushed, slightly yellowed. Tiny blackheads pebbled the skin around my nostrils. According to the dermatologist, my pores were too large.
None of this was about to matter, though. The blondes were still kissing me, laying their pretty heads on my chest and chattering. The queasiness faded, and, as when the sun emerges from behind the clouds, everything gathered a bright intensity: the bodies of the women touching mine, the soapy smell of them, the grass beneath me, the library’s red bricks, and the softball players below, running and shouting. Without my quite noticing the change, I no longer felt I had to put one over on anyone to be liked.
Maddie turned her face to mine and stroked my shoulder. “You’re beautiful,” I said. “I guess you know that. But I don’t want our friendship to obscure that, you know? That appreciation. The way you move, you know? That grace you have, the way you scissor along. Your ‘carriage,’ I guess they call it.”
Kath said, “He’s right. The way you move — God, how delicious. Your ass does this thing.”
“A little hop-skip.”
“That’s it. A hop-skip.”
“When you wear that one skirt.”
“The purple one.”
“Like a shelf,” I said. “Like you could set something on it.”
“It makes me want to take a bite of your ass,” Kath said.
“Turn over, Mad. Come on, let’s see that thing.”
Maddie giggled and flopped, and Kath squirmed down her body and cupped a cheek in one hand, and I cupped the other, and we took the flesh into our mouths and pretended to bite her tush while Maddie, far away up her spine, shrieked happily.
Kath glanced at me, across Maddie’s splendid cleft. “You’re there, aren’t you, Lush?” Her face flashed under her bangs. She looked like Claudette Colbert, impish and knowing.
“I guess. Yeah.”
She kissed my forehead. Her lips smelled of grass. “Lush has arrived,” she called out, and, from somewhere closer than I expected, Dana laughed. Then there was another laugh, a contralto, and Solange pushed her head around my shoulder until we were cheek to cheek, her smoothness making me wish I had shaved, though also making me feel rough-hewn and slightly dangerous.
“So this is the famous Lush,” she said. Her voice was lower than you’d expect, full of husky mischief. She turned to me, and her lips hung there an inch from mine, plump and arrowed. She had chocolate on her breath.
It would be impossible — and sad, finally — to revive the entirety of that afternoon. We sat around the way people on Ecstasy do, in a kind of tantric spell, melting onto our tongues squares of Lindt chocolate, gulping ice water from a pitcher and talking about the experience of the chocolate and the water, scratching backs and massaging shoulders and praising each other ardently, without hesitation or guilt, a satisfaction of the harrowing needs toward which our bodies lunged.
And Solange. Solange. I lingered over the word, let the syllables hum in my chest. She looked like her name: French and elegant, a long nose, snaggled teeth, green eyes flecked with hazel. And when she spoke, one sensed the sweet insecurity caused by her teeth, which made her smile feel like something bestowed. She had a passion for silent films and for what she called the “rescuing tone” of Chopin. Her father had died when she was six, and her mother, though kind, had clearly been overmatched by the duties of love. Everything Solange said sounded a little lonely, a little hopeful.
All afternoon, the blondes had been calling out to passing friends for refills of water, vamping like Blanche DuBois and Mae West. But now the afternoon was dimming, the light penumbral, and everyone was gone to dinner.
“I’ll get some water from Clark,” I said.
“Me, too,” Solange said.
Those words actually came from her mouth; they were not something I imagined, though they had the ring of fantasy, as did the vision of her falling down the hill toward me, a young woman torn from the pages of Victor Hugo, hair carried up by the breeze, her brown neck tilted, her hips wrapped in a red skirt. And her hand reaching for mine, shyly but without hesitation.
Clark dorm was an old brick monstrosity where the frosh were packed onto damp hallways. We wandered in through the basement, where the laundry machines were, and dropped onto a sofa. Light poured through the window in front of us, turning everything golden; the shadows danced in sinuous rows, like Bedouins. We gasped, in unison, at the dusk.
“This is my favorite time of day,” Solange said. “The time for remembering, you know?”
“A nostalgic light,” I said.
“That’s right. But not in the Hollywood sense, all that manipulating the past for sentimental effect. More like remembering things as they were, another time.”
“What do you remember?” I asked.
We were sitting side by side, our legs laced, the ticklish flesh of our feet brushing down below. I breathed in the smell of pink detergent. The dryers softly droned. I watched Solange in profile, the way the tip of her nose dipped when she spoke:
“Westport, I guess. This lake we used to go to with my dad. Being a little kid running around naked. Making a fire on the beach, roasting hot dogs on sticks, curling up in my dad’s lap. He wore one of those Greek fisherman’s hats — you know the kind, with the cord across the front? And I used to sneak into his study and sniff the lining, just to smell him.” She giggled. “Does that sound weird?”
She frowned, as if I might be giving her too much credit. “My mom says I made the whole thing up about the lake. ‘There’s no lake in Westport,’ she says. She says my father hated the beach: all that sand and salt. She says I must be thinking about going to the Long Island Sound with my stepdad.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter.” Her voice was drowsy. I had the feeling she was going to lower her head onto my shoulder; the wish that she would. “It’s not the thing that matters, right? It’s the memory. Like what they say about dreams: it’s not what happened; it’s how you feel about it, what it means to you. My mom gets mad when I bring it up. Probably that’s why I bring it up.”
I put my hand on the nape of her neck, and my fingers made circles on her skin, which was dusted with salt. She hummed a pleased hum and let her head droop, hair falling across her shoulders. Outside, the copper sun was dipping behind the hill. I could smell both of us, ripe from our day in the heat.
“What was I saying?” she asked.
“About your mom.”
“She’s just so controlled. So brisk. I love her. I do. She doesn’t make it easy, is all.”
“Maybe she’s scared.”
I can hear myself speaking back then, and I know how I sounded: like some charm-school sensitivo who can’t wait to get his hands on the goods. But that’s not what it was. The drug had simply wiped away the inhibitions, the fears that normally curb our tremendous natural affections. We were just who we were: two young people yearning after possibility.
“You still miss your dad?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Solange said. “My memory misses him, if that makes any sense. I can’t remember him, really. It’s more these snapshots: Him in a suit in the morning, all shaved and handsome. Or me in his lap at the lake. I’m sure I loved him. But it’s kind of sketchy, honestly. My older sister remembers him better, and I’m never sure how much I’m picking up from her. . . . That feels good.”
I could feel the cords of her neck under my fingers. The room was darkening, the laundry smell rippling against our own sweet reek. Her right leg rested atop my left, her skirt rolled up and her kneecaps shining like plums. She’d taken on the aspect of a Goya, slightly elongated and backlit.
She tapped my thigh. “You OK?”
“Your leg’s not asleep?”
I shook my head. No, nothing asleep.
She lifted her head and looked at me. My hand fell down her back, landing on the swell of her bottom. We leaned forward, and our chests pressed against each other, just our chests — her breasts, my boyish muscles, each of us licking our lips, looking at the other, the miracle of mouths and eyes.
“What about your family?” Her voice was hoarse. “They’re in California, right?”
“Maybe we can kiss,” I said.
“We can kiss,” she said, and laughed. “Tell me about them.”
“They’re good people. Dad’s a lawyer. Mom teaches special ed. My older sister is in divinity school. She’s an expert on Saint Thomas Aquinas. Good people. Good suburban people.”
“You don’t miss them?”
“Not really,” I said. “A little, I guess. We’re not the closest family. Everybody kind of does their own thing.”
“What’s that mean?” Solange leaned back, out of the sun, and I missed her breath.
I thought for a minute. “Like, I can remember sleeping over at this friend’s house, the first time I’d really slept over. I must have been eight or nine. My parents were at some conference that weekend. And all I kept thinking was how much I missed being at my house, with my family, you know? I had this mental picture of all of us sitting in the living room, real cozy, reading or playing a game, whatever. But the crazy thing was, we never did that kind of thing. The whole parlor scene. My folks were tired all the time. My sister was always off with her friends. It was just some idea I had of the way things could have been.”
“That’s sort of sad,” Solange said.
And it was. It was. But I couldn’t feel it just then, with her next to me, her electricity. “Not once you’re used to it,” I said. “That’s just how some families are. They feel a lot, but they don’t say much. You can’t force things. Maybe I just needed too much.”
She frowned again. “How could you have needed too much? You were a little kid.”
“I just mean that sometimes I can come on a little too strong.”
Solange lifted her leg off my thigh and swung herself around. For a second, I thought she was going to get up, that I’d upset her somehow. Then she brought her hand to my cheek and moved her face in front of mine. I leaned forward too quickly, and we bumped foreheads, a dull little pop that made us both giggle.
She ran her fingers through her bangs and took a deep breath. “OK,” she said. “We need to relax a little bit.”
She laughed softly and patted her lap. “Put your head here. We can talk some more.”
I lay down, my head cradled beneath her belly. I could feel the swell of her mons pubis against my cheek, and I caught a musky smell: amaretto, her body lotion, her body.
She told me she wanted to raise her kids in the country, that her dream house was all mapped out: a renovated old barn with exposed beams and a mud room and a potbellied stove and the master bedroom in the grain loft.
“And a pond out back for swimming,” I said.
“Sure. A swimming hole.”
“A couple of dogs from the pound.”
“An herb garden.”
We agreed on everything, even the small hardships of the place: snowdrifts and muddy roads. I wanted this woman so fiercely that I could feel the blood drum in my ears, which I know sounds absurd, given that I’d met her only a few hours earlier, and we were both under the influence of this drug. But my longing was not just for her; it was for the story she told and my place in that story. Solange was not a simple woman. She was deep and troubled, and she needed me. And I needed her. That was my idea of love: two people who fix one another. It hadn’t occurred to me then — this would take some years — that the best we can hope for in love is the graceful management of one another’s disappointments.
The light had nearly fallen away. I began playing with her knees, testing her reflexes with the side of my hand. She kicked her foot out. The pitcher tumbled.
“The water,” Solange said. “Fuck.”
“Shit,” I said. “That’s right.”
Up we leapt, taking the stairs two at a time, holding hands, like characters in a bad musical. “We’ll have to fill it up in the bathroom,” I said.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ve got to pee anyway.”
We dropped each other’s hands, and she took a step toward the door.
“Maybe we could kiss goodbye,” I said.
We collapsed against one another and kissed deeply, our mouths open. I ran my tongue along the silk of her gums. Her neck was warm and salty. A clamoring group of frosh appeared at the end of the hall, back from dinner. “OK,” Solange said. “You’ll be here when I come out, right?” And I watched her face as she said this: the soft apprehension in her eyes, the slight protrusion of her mouth, the question that hung there between us. I was ready to wait ten years, twenty.
“Right here,” I said. “This spot.”
We were worried that the blondes might have gone to eat. But they were right where we’d left them, gorgeous and leering in the cool dusk. Someone had brought them a blanket, and someone else a bowl of fruit.
“Where have you two been?” Maddie said.
“Sightseeing?” Kath said.
Dana tossed me a pear.
Dining-hall smells hovered overhead: calico skillet, roast chicken, mashed potatoes with brown gravy.
I looked at the pear. “Aren’t you guys cold?”
“We’ve been planning dinner,” Kath said. “Cheeseburgers and Greek salad from the Hungry Pirate. You’ll love this place, Sol.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“What’s the matter?” Maddie said.
She was talking to Solange, who looked suddenly stricken. “My bus,” she said.
“What do you mean, your bus?” Kath said.
“Shit,” Maddie said.
“You’re not serious?” I said.
Then Kath and Maddie climbed to their feet and tackled her. They had it down to an art. Solange tumbled, her skirt rising so that I saw the shiny swell of the backs of her thighs and a flash of purple underwear. She squealed and kicked her brown legs as if she were juggling a beach ball with her feet. The blondes forced her down and cawed like pirates: “Aye, matey! We’ll have none of that rot! Yer staying put, where ye belong!” That sort of thing.
The sky was turning dark, and a breeze came up. It suddenly felt like autumn again. But the drug made sorrow difficult and beside the point, and Solange herself seemed more heartbroken than any of us. “I know, it sucks,” she kept saying. “Shit, shit, shit.”
And even when Kath muttered something about letting “Andy stew in his own juices” — even when a certain part of me grasped that Solange was returning not just to somewhere, but to someone — even then, the drug kept me from envy and woe. Because the important thing was to make the most of this chance, to acquit myself well, to authenticate what we’d shared and trust her to return, eventually, to those feelings.
We walked her to the bus station, through the blue gloom of a New England October evening edging into night, all of us arm in arm and oblivious to downtown’s tinseled menace. There was no intense departure scene, no anguished violin notes or faces pressed against glass. Solange and I hugged, and then she disappeared onto her bus, and the blondes and I shambled back to campus to eat dinner and let our high taper off.
I woke the next morning fuzzy-headed, vitally bled, and certain that my vertebrae were grinding against one another. The blondes and I met for brunch, hoping to revisit the previous day’s spirit, but our talk was hollow, forced. The blondes were still young and beautiful and gay. They sang out phrases like “Somebody’s got a crush” and “Solange plus Lush,” but I felt sullen. They were trying to buoy my spirits, I suppose, or expressing the hope of matchmakers — offering her in place of themselves. I never figured it out. I knew only enough to recognize that I was a kept man, and this knowledge was all it took to break the easy rhythm of our days and set me adrift.
I suppose it might make sense at this point in my life — with a wife and a son and long afternoons of contentment drawn around me — to disavow my passion for Solange. Or, at the very least, to relinquish her memory. But you don’t relinquish anything when you’ve fallen in love, no matter how briefly. The heart writes in indelible ink.
And no matter how long you live and whom you love next, you are also there, all those years ago, with your head in her lap, your cheeks pressed against her thighs, her eyes and your eyes, and the future hung like a pear between you. And sometimes the memory is so beautiful you lose an entire life all over again; and even when you return to the present — to your place by the window, your wife warming soup in the kitchen, your son calling to you from outside — even then, it’s so beautiful you can’t tell the difference.