In Binghamton, March 1966
Not long after I’d watched Joyce’s pale ass disappear into the bathroom darkness, led by Bruce, I circled back to Ginny. Out walking in the after midnight isolation of the city, unmoored, I thought my way through the confusion that had blown up around me.
Ice crystals drifted like sparking dust passed the streetlights. The weightless accumulation swirling away from every footstep would be banished with dawn. I sat on a stool in the Queen Elizabeth Diner, sipping coffee from a badly stained cup with all the losers and rejects and wondering if this was it, not even sure I’d ever go back to the apartment where I was a spare part and my best buddy and alienated girlfriend slept in the bathtub. My buffer against calamity was as thin as sheet ice.
Gradually, a brightening sky spilled pale light down the streets, casting the morning shadows again, even as the cold deepened. I got dressed and went to work wide awake and crazy from exhaustion and managed to fake my way through the day. Before it all disintegrated into sleep again, I brought pen and paper to the kitchen table where Joyce and I cooked spaghetti 24 hours before, and I wrote Ginny a letter that, more or less, posed us as You and Me Against the World–an appeal I hoped she’d accept as a call to arms, a return to rebel love. Her answer came back fast, so fast she must’ve written it before my letter cooled on the bed in front of her. Her letter, like mine, had been written on three-ring notebook paper, the grid of lines keeping the declarations straight and apparently organized.
“I Love You, too!!!” she’d added in big, scrawly letters below where she’d already signed off, as if her message craved needed reenforcing.
“Love isn’t a big enough word,” I’d told her, months before, in the first rush of excitement between us.
“No, it’s not,” she’d agreed.
“There should be something else.”
Ginny waited for my invention.
“Like, like…” I stammered, clowning, “like I’ll think of something!”
What we all then called love stood out in a crowd. That mix of desire, special intimacy and gratification went unchallenged in any milieu of which I was aware. It was a blessing, a gift that happened, a thing intangible and special, like God. Later, as with other religious doctrines, it would be diluted in secularism and logic, but for now, it kept an immunity of magic. Not her parents, not my asinine family, not distance or time could stop us if we stuck with each other. Love pierced walls.
That was my position, and I held it tenaciously. I believed in love, as most of the popular songs proclaimed, in a field of ideals that still included the ineffable.
On the next Saturday night, with spring edging up the hillsides, I hiked that familiar four miles along the curve of interweaving valleys to her house. For me, everything else had changed. No longer a malcontent stuck in the routine of school and family home, I’d rushed from work to the apartment I shared with Bruce and Don, took a hot bath and dressed in fresh clothes, a young man sprucing up for his date.
“Where’re you going, playboy?” Bruce asked me as I hurried to get out the door.
“Back to Ginny,” I declared.
“Too bad,” Bruce shrugged. “Dan and me are going out hunting for pussy. There might be a little something out there waiting for you.”
Bruce and his flashy buddy, Dan, went on pussy hunts as often as they could, including some weeknights. Occasionally, they’d engage me in debates.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ve got everything I want.”
“Still got the love bug, huh? You’ll get over it,” Bruce assured me with the casual cynicism he’d picked up from Dan, although it had less of an edge when it was just the two of us. “See you later. Good luck out in the wilderness!”
Bruce and I were in different places regarding girls. His interests were more general; mine specific, serial. Both of us argued that the other was making a mistake and, consequently, missing out. Still grounded in an age of conformity, it never seemed to occur to either of us that, maybe, we were just different.
“We’re too young to get married,” he reminded me on a regular basis. “Plenty of time to be chained up later on.”
“Love isn’t something you decide about,” I came back. “It happens. I’m just trying to keep it. I sure as shit don’t feel chained.”
That wasn’t exactly true, but I meant to buzz off the harsh edges of it.
The hours daylight owned had expanded; winter had been pushed back. Dusk lingered in thick, intermingled shadows. The rolling woods blended into a bluish pool, their borders with the fields blurring.
Walking along the hilly road, I noticed buildings and features that had not shown themselves in the deep dark of late autumn and early winter. Snow no longer froze into rugged borders along driveways, pushed back by hand shovels, yielding muddy, soft shoulders. Creeks gurgled under bridges, their fluid, private rhythms no longer encased under ice. The last half-mile flattened out past a couple of farms, sagging strings of barbed wire in front of trampled down pasture paralleling the road. A tower searchlight from the county airport on the next hill swept overhead.
“I’m back,” I announced out loud to the fields and farms.
In the humid air, my voice had no carry. My declaration dissolved into infinity.
“That’s as alone as you can get, talking into the wind,” I added, a note to myself.
As I came up close to Ginny’s, I was reminiscing about how I’d learned to occupy myself with my own internal radio station during the hikes I’d made out here and how, alone in the dark, suspended between my life and Ginny, Nowhere Man had kept coming up like a theme. I knew lots of songs end to end, but Paul McCartney’s music always seemed to catch the tone of the night. I even tried to invoke it again, but it wasn’t in me in the same way anymore.
I paused at a safe distance from the house, willing to stand still in this moment, partly to assure myself that Ginny’s parents were definitely away, but also to get oriented, to settle back in a little.
I was feeling around for my old groove.
This shabby, two-story shingle house, so small for the eight people who occupied it, looked much worse than it had in the dead of winter when it stood out as a harbor of warmth. The weather-beaten garage up close to the road seemed ready to collapse if an elf leaned on it. Whatever paint might once have protected it was gone. Holes had been blown and eroded out of weak spots in the wood, enough so that children could peak through in a game of Hide and Seek. The foot traffic bared strip across the front lawn, over which everyone trooped for school buses or cars, leading from the concrete slab porch to the road, looked like a representative image out of an Appalachian photo essay in Life.
…from The Garden of What Was and Was Not
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