I never got over my first lover. He broke my heart.
In second grade at Our Lady of Grace, sister Mary Helene told us a 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, but he never would. One day, the boy suddenly died. The boy 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, so she went to her parish priest. When, after some questioning, the mother shamefully disclosed to the priest that her little boy had been in the habit of hitting her, the solution became clear. The priest told the mother that 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 had hit her.
“Think how much trouble this caused the mother!” Sister Mary Helene said. “She had other children to take care of! And her housework to do! Think what a nuisance it was, for her to have to find time in her busy day to go to the grave 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. But as events would unfold, their essential truth would become clear.
When I met Gene in 1977, I had long been attending the public schools, 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 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. It was only be a matter of time before I was sucked into this vortex .
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 yet – 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 was headed in the fall, thus their futures seemed sewn up. He had invited her to a party up at his dormitory, and for courage, she had brought me. It was a mistake. 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 the year before, and had 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 hometown 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 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 was smooth and tan, his teeth were white, and his wide mouth was 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 exited.
Shannon had done something stupid, left me stranded at the party knowing no one but Gene. I would dart here and there, sipping watery keg beer from a plastic cup, and he would follow. Upstairs, downstairs, outside the dorm, inside. In time I did have 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. 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, with a 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 building’s 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 was a wreck. Clearly this kiss was meant to 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 was sitting 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 got up from their seats, 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 had come straight over. We had smoked half a joint and had 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 hin out to the back deck where my family was eating dinner. 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. A stranger.
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 father. Still her presence was a plus, because she and I were nearly identical. Gene could see for himself that I would still be pretty and slim, and my hair a waving shade o f 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.
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.”
We had to make straight A’s, weigh 125 pounds or less, be popular, date cool people. I was lacking in this last arena. Gene was the first A-list guy I had dated, not being more than a B- list girl myself, socially, in contrast to my stellar grades. So 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 had 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 before the Veit Nam War. I was glad my father said nothing because I didn’t want Gene to have to join the army, nor have to live with him on some God-forsaken army base in the middle of southern nowhere, an experience my mother often 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, finally coming to rest on me.
I blinked at him as if to say, None of this matters, then gazed off through the jungle of trees to the still blue lake beyond. I could smell Gene’s 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 Paul’s big thigh, Paul’s arm around her waist. Sometimes they sat there and kissed, in front of Gene, in front of everyone. When Paul 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 away from the adults.
“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 at him.
We got carded away from three bars. Gene was already twenty, but I was just seventeen and my only I.D. was 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 were streaming 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 – there could be nothing to fear in what would follow.
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 said, smiling as he turned 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. It was rough going. Oh, 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 in high 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 was going to attend in the fall was a good one.
“It wasn’t my first choice, though,” 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 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 in the 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, one after another.
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 nearly total 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 and said, “Wait.”
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? But I 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 was smiling and unruffled.
We kissed again when he dropped me off. He kept saying, “I don’t want to let you go,” and held me so tightly that I believed 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 cloud of sensuality. 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 because I could tell 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 no one was home at first, then it was 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 splattering on the stove in a self-made, self-righteous meal at ten p.m. We all tiptoed around my father’s anger, no one would deliberately provoke him by staying out without calling. There must be something gravely wrong.
My father told me to call grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, Marianne’s friends. No one knew where they were. 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 was pacing 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 Paul, 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 had to step in and explain to her 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 – serving 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 came to symbolize it. Through the summer I got browner and thinner, preparing for the unknowable time when I would 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 nig ht – 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 deficiency. 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 place. But since meeting Gene it had all become washed in glory. And now it became clear that a golden town had existed all along, one we had shared without knowing each other, and this 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, there had been all the books I’d read, there had been 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 warmth of the sun on my dry back and hair. There was being able to decide 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 replied. “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-looking, 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 that he held between his thumb and forefinger as if it were 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 into 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, that my unease 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 lying 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 fraternity parties, was asked to and duly attended sedate semi-formals; I swam and jumped rope, painted and sketched. I had three best friends and circle after circle of acquaintances, like ripples in a pool; I wrote dozens of letters to hometown friends at their colleges. Never to Gene, though, and never about Gene. That would have broken the spell.
Yes, there were fears, 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 whorling patterns of red, and before long this dark vision would be replaced by one full of light: a pale altar, 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 a 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 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’s. 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 could not feign coldness 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’d 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 a 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 was a big question mark, which 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 front of the mirror. He crept up and put his arms around me from behind. Our reflected /images clashed; my thick dark hair and stricken eyes extravagant against his fair muted half-tones. He had showered, and his eyes shone like lightning; his shirt 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.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked encouragingly into my eyes.
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. No one laughed.
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.”
Christina Gombar won the Geraldine Griffin Moore prize for fiction at City College in New York. Christine’s work has appeared in numerous consumer and literary journals, including Global City Review and The London Review of Books. She is the author of Great Women Writers, 1900-1950 and was a fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts in nonfiction. Her Wall Street veteran’s memoir of 9/11 has been internationally anthologized