Twenty-six years ago, he called from Paris, from a phone booth he’d hot-wired
for long distance at no charge. Last summer, it was an email bearing the
heading, “Out of the Blue.” It had been almost as long as that stolen phone
call since I’d last heard from him.
I never saw him again once he left for Paris. But he did call—twice—until the
French phone company cut him off. And he did write, a letter or two, one
about wanting to make love to me on his windowsill with the amazing rooftop
The email comes to my campus address, the one that anyone even remotely
curious could Google with ease. The tone is friendly, even polite, like that of a
distant friend with whom one has lost touch, not by design but by default. He
offers some details about himself, says he heard from a former teacher of ours
that I am teaching creative writing. He’s married to a kindergarten teacher
(which I knew), has a teenaged daughter (which I didn’t know but am not
surprised to learn), lives in Evanston in an old red brick house with a white
I check out his website. It’s the same face, only without the wild expression of
the one in my high school yearbook, that crazed-looking face that, a few years
later took Indiana reservoir curves at high speeds and dove into its dark
waters during a full moon. It’s a mellower, more peaceful face, the kind of face
that won’t scare off business for his freelance writing work. Age has been kind
to him. I notice, though, that in a separate photo his white dog still mugs a
I’d heard he’d published a novel, though I never saw it on the shelves. But at
the bottom of his email is a website for downloading an e-version of his book.
He’d written in my yearbook the year I graduated and he left for graduate
school, “You’ll probably end up a better writer than I. At least I can say I knew
I am just curious enough to write him back. I respond in kind about the big,
brown-shingled house from 1929 that I share with my poet husband and my
beagle with the soulful eyes.
High school graduation is a month away when I tag along with some of the stage
crew guys to visit him in Lombard, where he lives in his grandfather’s house. He
shows our entourage inside the house, dark and gloomy, solidly wooden in the
Germanic style of my cabinet maker forebears.
“Whipping Post” is blasting on a stereo with seriously large speakers. The stage
crew guys are duly impressed by the sound equipment while I am stirred by Gregg
Allman’s larger-than-life vocals. The guys pass the album cover back and forth,
noting the tribute to the band’s roadies on the album’s flip side. They are like his
roadies, having traveled an hour west just to return sound equipment they had
previously hauled for one of his theater productions.
Walking back down the gravel drive to the car, he and I chit chat about our next
moves as the stage crew guys pile inside an old Falcon. He is going to graduate
school in southern Indiana to study creative writing. The gravel under my feet, the
grape leaves trellised against the wide hips of his grandfather’s house, the
flowering bushes and generous front porch transport me to a familiar place, a deja-
vu that is also prescient of what is to come. I reach out for one of the grape
leaves, twirl its sturdy stem, and risk a small smile back over my shoulder. Maybe
I’ll see you there, I say. Knowing, with that gesture, in that place we’ve both
known before, that we will, of course, meet again, and again, and again. The leaf,
the twirl, the knowing smile. On the way home, one of the stage crew guys sitting
in the back seat kisses me, but I am still twirling that leaf, smiling that smile, as if
I have already lived the life that is yet to come.
I met him in high school, creative writing class. It wasn’t my first class in that
subject, but it was the first one where I could imagine writing as my life’s work.
In that class, we wrote journals. We watched surrealist movies such as Un
Chien andalou, replete with a razor-slashed eyeball and ants like sinister armies
stalking from an open palm. We did writing exercises; we read out loud. He
turned me on to Anais Nin and Henry Miller. He said he taped words that he
liked to his wall, unusual words like fritillary. He was also an actor and director,
in charge of stage crew for school productions but also director of his own
Word had it that he was dating the leading lady in his fall show, a cheerleader
who aspired to be the next Melissa Manchester. “Dating” wasn’t the word for
it, though. Two students was dating. A teacher and a student was something
He read my journals for class and made brief notes in the margins, encouraging
me to keep writing. After he’d read a few weeks’ entries, he asked me to stay
after class one day, then offered to tutor me privately. Together, we would
read Nin and Miller, Durrell, Artaud, and all the other writers mingling in that pre-
Hilter Parisian café scene.
When I stopped by his classroom one afternoon, the cheerleader was there,
and they were laughing, leaning into each other, like they shared some secret.
Later, when he asked me why I had left, I said I felt like I was inside a
boudoir. He laughed, that crazy howl that was his trademark. I always
wondered if that was his real laugh or if he was acting; it seemed too big to be
real. After I turned him down, claiming I was too busy with speech team and
the school newspaper and my AP English class to take the time for tutoring,
and after he tried to persuade me to rethink my priorities, I started to fantasize
about him, about him and the cheerleader, about him and me and an
opportunity that I could not put into words.
The rumors about him and the cheerleader continued into the spring. She
played Lola in the annual musical, “Damn Yankees.” I shared the role of
reporter Gloria Thorpe with another girl until the cheerleader came down with
inflamed vocal chords two weeks before the show, and I was asked to take
over her role. I’d never sung in front of anyone before, and although I had
done bit parts in other shows, I’d never played a lead. She wrote me a
handwritten note, encouraging me to act like a cat onstage, to help me get into
Lola. I hated her for writing me. It was the kind of advice he’d have given, had
I let him. I never answered her. I was furious with him but instead turned my
scorn on her.
He, on the other hand, was all the more attractive for being so outrageously,
intensely, and inappropriately involved with a high school student (if the rumors
were, in fact, correct—I never did ask him). I wanted what she wanted. I
wanted to be noticed, admired, talented, a star. Other girls in school were
rumored to have done the same as her, slept with male teachers for reasons I
was only just beginning to understand.
I never acted again. I never sang again. But I kept writing–in my journal,
stories and poems. I read the writers he wanted me to read, and the writing
of their friends and lovers, reading my way into other worlds more passionate
and stormy than anything I alone had ever imagined.
I haven’t spoken to him in nearly three years when he comes into the small café
where I work as a cook, across town from the university. Only this afternoon I’m
also waiting tables, covering for an absent server. I greet him to take his order.
He’s with a friend. They laugh and joke. I push at the bandanna that holds back
my hair and tug at my cut-off shorts, feeling sweaty and unattractive.
I tell him I thought he’d left town, graduated. He says he’s visiting before he leaves
Even though fall classes have started, the steamy southern Indiana air lulls me
into believing it is still summer, and I have all the time in the world. Three years
collapse into three days. We joke and laugh and say nothing about the years of
silence between us. I bring them German beer in brown bottles and bratwurst I
spear from a pot of boiling beer and wedge into steamed seeded buns. I am a
vegetarian, yet bratwurst envy seizes me as they take huge bites from their
sausages and guzzle beer from the chilled mugs I chiseled from the freezer.
The friend is watchful of me when I return with more beers, and again with the
check. It’s late afternoon, and few people are around except the café owner, who is
preparing to roast a whole pig on the patio, part of a special weekend event that
includes belly dancers and a band. I feel the friend’s eyes staring at me, at my Ball
U t-shirt that I first bought back in high school but still wear when I don’t really
care how I look. Those eyes are dark and wolf-like, and in hindsight, a little scary. I
look past his eyes at the pig on the spit, the owner cursing as he struggles to
mount it on the barbeque rack, readying it for the fire to come.
He asks me to go to a party tonight. I touch the loose tendrils of hair reaching out
from under my red bandanna. I feel the tug of my t-shirt across bare nipples
underneath, the rub of my cut-offs in the crease of my thighs. Those wolf eyes are
devouring me. I turn back to him, whose eyes are light and whose red lips remind
me of a beautiful girl’s.
Can you pick me up? I ask him. The wolf eyes look away, out of shyness, or envy,
or simply lured by some other sight, I can only guess. But after that they stop
watching me and turn to him alone.
The first time we made love, he picked me up and brought me to his apartment
on a side of town I’d not yet been to, too far from my dorm to easily walk. It
was a two-story place, with doors on the outside like a cheap motel. By the
calendar, it was still summer, but I shivered uncontrollably while sitting on his
sofa. I didn’t think of our meeting as a date, as in pizza and a movie, or a party
with friends. We were both new to town, and so still had time to kill. I think he
cooked dinner, but I don’t remember what we ate. I tucked my hands into my
armpits, and my stocking feet between the sofa cushions for warmth. We
smoked a joint, and I shivered even more.
“I’m freezing,” I said, in hopes of drawing him closer. But instead of covering
me with himself like a blanket, he touched me lightly, kissed me delicately,
feeling his way. I buried my hands in his hair, rubbed my feet against his.
Eventually he must have noticed my shaking because he took me by the hand
and to his bed, where a plush satin comforter folded me into its softness, and
finally, I could relax and feel my warmth return.
Later, he asked me gently if this was my first time. “No,” I replied, somewhat
defiantly. I did not want him to think I had been shivering out of fear. The
apartment was dark and cold, and I was sensitive to the lack of heat. I
wanted, needed more. But when it finally arrived, I was too exhausted and
stressed to feel much more than relief that my shivering was over.
The party, as it turns out, is him and his friend, and two six-packs of cheap beer.
They have both been getting high, but when they offer me a joint, I shake my
head. I will be the sober one on this wild ride. He steers his Pinto tight around fast
curves hugging the reservoir, serious as a race car driver yet laughing all the way. I
sit in back, minding the beer, gripping the top of the bucket seats for balance while
he and his wolf friend pass the joint back and forth. He starts to drive off a ledge
then stops at the very last minute, laughing, his friend laughing, me unable to
crack even a lame smile. If I bail out now, I’ll be stuck out in the woods, on a road
few drive, with no sense of direction and only Chinese velvet flip flops on my feet to
get me home.
He parks at the edge of another bank high over the water, and they are both
running down, flinging off shirts, pausing at the shore to push down jeans and
shorts, then diving headlong into moonlit water. At first, I am determined to wait
in the car, keep myself apart, but the heat, and the light, and the sound of the
water pull me down the rocks and onto the narrow beach, testing the temperature
of the reservoir with my bare toes.
I know they are watching even though I can’t see them. I can feel their eyes on
my skin, the color of the moon, and just as light. Between their laughter, I feel
them ripple through the dark water as I enter, slowly, carefully, deliberately. I am
apart and distant, yet intimate as moonlight.
Just before his email came, I had been back in southern Indiana for a
university conference. For some reason, I had felt drawn to retrace my
steps around the town, around campus, daydreaming, sweating in the
mid-May heat, letting random memories flow in and out. Despite the
unlikelihood, I searched for familiar names on the mailboxes of a white
four square where I’d lived with a friend my senior year. I cut north
through the student ghettos and around the pampered Victorians with
their gingerbread and high-pitched roofs, following the shade of old
sycamores and poplars. I searched for the Oriental grocery where,
one summer when I was laid off for six weeks, I bought almond
cookies for ten cents apiece to stretch my meager unemployment, but
found no signs of the store. Then I headed uphill towards campus, on
the way sizing up the sports-bar inhabitants of what had once been a
vegetarian restaurant run by a local ashram. The varnished picnic
tables and mirrored Rajasthani embroidery that had decorated the
walls was replaced by big-screen TVs and table tents touting draft
I returned to the dorm where I’d spent my first two years, a huge
limestone building in the shape of an H. Inside and upstairs, WPA-era
murals depicted different decades of student life on the cafeteria
walls. Sturdy, brass-edged tables still filled the huge room. I started
to count the chairs but gave up after a few hundred. The dish room
where I’d worked my first year and the serving line my second year,
my hair held back by old lady-style hairnets, had been replaced by a
food court that looked straight out of a mall. Downstairs, the snack
bar had been upgraded and the small grocery expanded, along with
internet terminals scattered around the lobby. The brass wall of
student mailboxes, however, had not changed. The granite floor,
brass stair rails, and imposing limestone walls transmitted a comforting
sense of permanence, yet at the same time sparked strange fears of
Inside that building that had housed generations of students, my
weightless wandering took on a heaviness and deliberation. What
had started as simple nostalgia and a desire to wander became a
more conscious circumambulation of a place that was sacred for all it
had given. Yet that same place also bound me to old desires that had
disappeared from view but, like the cicadas that trilled without pause
as I continued to walk, were still very much present even after I no
longer listened. I searched for words similarly sacred, similarly
powerful, words of gratitude but also words of release.
As I walked, I breathed in gratitude for all I had experienced. I
breathed out my wish for freedom from desires unmet, from what I’d
lost, from whom I’d known that continued to haunt my present-day
life. I stood in the courtyard outside, where students in cutoffs and
bandanas had once thrown Frisbees and blasted Kansas from dorm
windows, and breathed in my dorm window where I’d perched big
speakers until they had crashed to the floor in the middle of a Steely
Dan song, then breathed out the memory of that sickening thud. I
breathed in the grassy courtyard, now empty but for birds and cicadas,
and breathed out the window of a guy I’d once loved, how I’d watched
for his light to come on and wondered if he had done the same for
I followed a shallow stream that cut through the heart of campus,
paused on the plain wooden bridges, and breathed in the honeysuckle
around the President’s house. I breathed in the tall, modern building
where I’d taken all my writing classes and attended readings, and
breathed out the memory of preachers who’d stood outside each
spring and warned of hellfire soon to come. Back in town, I breathed
in the deliciously bitter espresso of a coffeehouse that was a second
home when I lived down the street, and visited the goldfish that still
lived in the bathtub, then breathed out the red brick apartment of
another guy I thought I could love but never got a chance to. I
breathed in the second floor of a house sheltered by shady poplars
where a friend and former writing teacher had invited a few of her
students over to form a writing group, and breathed out the memory
of her suicide years later in the desert West. Heading back to the
courthouse square to the import shop where I once splurged and
bought a flowered kimono, I breathed in the memory of a pizza joint
with all-you-can-eat spaghetti that had given way to a much more
expensive continental café. I breathed out as I passed the café on the
way to an Afghani restaurant where I was to meet my friend from the
white four square to talk about, among other things, her son who had
signed up for war time Reserves.
When I came home, and saw his email, Out of the Blue, I realized
immediately that his apartment was, inexplicably, the one place I had
neither breathed in nor breathed out and the one I most needed to let
go of for good.
The last time we make love, it is hot, height-of-summer hot. But the
reservoir has bathed and rocked us, and the breeze from the Pinto’s open
windows has ruffled us dry. Inside, I feel cool and clean as a hit man.
The awkwardness and expectations, the hope and the helplessness of
nearly three years ago have given way to a more calculated set of desires.
He will say he’ll write, and I’ll pretend to want him to. I will send him off
to Paris, and out of my life, proving to myself that I, too, can act as well as
he, and enjoy playing the part.
He emails that he is starting a theater troupe that will perform plays as
living rituals. In leaving him out of my own ritual, I realize I’ve left
something undone. Somewhere in the dreams that housed our desires,
we still meet, we still act as if there is no end.
Breathing in, I say silently, release me from those dreams. I breathe out
the ruins of my desire.
I have dreamed this house before, the kind my grandfather grew up in on
the south side of Chicago, solid, gloomy, and full of dark-stained wood. I’
ve never lived in such a house, but I still know it as a familiar place: safe,
substantial, meant to last. The house I was raised in was new, bright,
and modern. I long for the mystery of my grandfather’s house. It’s that
house and its surrounding property I fall in love with before I ever fall in
love with him: the big trees, the vines on the walls, their roots large and
deep. I have been here in my dreams and beyond. I want to fall asleep
on its wide porch in a warm breeze scented by snowball and lilac bushes,
bridal veil and honeysuckle, trumpet vines and roses. Sleep and sleep,
and never wake again.
We email a few times more. I don’t say much about his new theater; I
expect he is working up to ask for a donation. Instead I ask about a
mutual friend and my former writing teacher, the graduate student
who had started a writing group with her students and who, a few
years later, had killed herself in the desert West. Did he know what
had happened? I’d tried to find out and gave up, but never stopped
hurting for the loss of her. He emailed me the novel he wrote about
her, which included excerpts from her journals that he had taken after
she’d died. I read the whole thing in two days, stayed up through a
fierce storm until four a.m. just to finish, stunned to find out she may
have been sexually abused as a child. Only in the novel, the abuse
occurs in a “past life.” When I ask him why he did not make the abuse
real, he writes back that he didn’t want to make her a victim. Of
course, this doesn’t stop her character from killing herself.
I decide not to offer comments on the novel. He has just revised the
manuscript and may have a publisher, so I tell myself there is no
point. I thank him for showing me the manuscript and the insight it
gave me into her.
But then he asks what I think. So I decide to tell him the truth, that
his use of my friend’s journals to tell her story is more about him and
his own need for redemption than about any redemption of her. He
doesn’t respond for two months, when another email arrives, this time
very brief, asking for my snail mail address. No comments about my
comments on his novel.
Just as I expect, a brochure arrives, asking me for support for his new
theater. It amazes me that he would ask, yet it doesn’t surprise me,
either. I have always supported his shows, played parts that were
written long before I was born. I have lived his dreams as if they
were mine. Why would he think anything has changed?
At the bottom of the brochure is a brief note, thanking me for my
comments on his novel. I continue my ritual, breathing out as I throw
away his brochures when they arrive in the mail and delete his emails
of solicitation without reading them. I don’t have to; I know his lines
well. I breathe in, still twirling that leaf, smiling that smile. I breathe
out the red-lipped girl who wanted so much to be noticed, admired,
talented, a star. Breathing in, I am grateful for having survived.
Mary Ann Cain has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne for her fiction, as well as residency fellowships at Hill House Writers’ retreat and the Mary Hambidge Center for the Arts. She received Special Merit for Abiko Quarterly’s International Fiction award (Japan), was nominated for General Electric’s Award for Younger Writers, and was a finalist for the Schweitzer Fellowship (under the direction of Toni Morrison) at SUNY Albany, where she earned a Doctor of Arts in English in 1990. Her outside interests include West African drumming, movement, meditation, cooking, and hiking. She lives with her husband, poet George Kalamaras, and their beagle, Barney, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.