Fiction: “To Earthward”
Photo by Hannah Kessel, 18
Summer of 1959
Lucy had once said that when I met the right guy and fell in love, I wouldn't mind being a girl anymore. I would actually enjoy it. And I would let the boy be the boy, instead of trying to manipulate myself into power, a tendency that seemed rooted in my nature.
I wasn't sure whether or not to believe her. It wasn't exactly that I had never met a boy I could trust; no, it was just that I had never met a boy who I could trust to be in control. I needed power. It was my comfort. It was my shield. It made me seem strong when I was really weak.
I liked boys. Heck, I loved boys. They were pretty to look at and admire. And it was a lot of fun to imagine what life might be like with a particular boy. And it was fun to flirt with boys and oh, was it fun to have boys kiss you. I guess boys were just fun. Anything of a more serious naturewell, taking that route was how you got your heart broken. I said that it was because I was too strong that I didn't want to get too involved with a boy. Really, though, it was because I was too weak to take a risk, fearing pain too much.
I was 19. It was the summer, and I had returned home from school. It had been a rough year up at Radcliffe. I had gotten involved with a Harvard man that spring. I had done nothing but make a fool of myself. I hadn't intended to marry the guy or anything. Heck, I never wanted him as my beau. No, we were fooling around with each other—that's it.
I was an East-Coast Catholic who had gone through private girls' school all my life supplemented by attendance at Mass every Sunday. I'd only ever kissed one boy before Radcliffe and that had been a joke. And I'd only ever had two tastes of alcohol—champagne at my brother's wedding and a couple sips of brandy I had snuck from my father's study. I was a pretty good girl, more innocent and wide-eyed than I realized. Lucy was the same way.
Lucy and I had been best friends since early grade school, and I think because we had so much of each other, we had never had to venture off into the world of others very much. We had other friends, but no one else was Lucy and I guess to her, no one else was me.
She went off to a state school back in New York while I headed up to Radcliffe. We both ran off with wild sets that first year. Her school was co-ed and offered many wonderful temptations.
At Radcliffe, an all-female institution in those days, I was bored by everything. The other girls talked of nothing but marriage and babies. I often wondered why they wasted their time pretending to care about chemistry and art. But then I saw that beacon of hope that shined across the bay—Harvard. They all wanted to marry—and soon—but they needed to find husbands. Radcliffe was their path to Harvard. Radcliffe was my path to Harvard too, but my road wasn't going to end in marriage, but in law school. This debutante world of suitors and, eventually, babies was not foreign to me, yet it was foreign to my nature. It had long ago been agreed upon by my father, my mother, and me that while I must wear silk gloves and curtsy, husbands and homes were not things that I much needed to concern myself with, at least not until after school. I was going to be a lawyer, no question or complaint about that.
But maybe all of this is more that you really need to know. Back to that incident with the Harvard man, or boy. It has always struck me as silly that we call a college student a man when he is nothing more than a boy. Studying calculus and Latin doesn't make a man. Neither does forcing yourself on a girl.
Bored. I think I was just bored. And he was around, and I think he sort of liked me. I never liked him, or, well, I don't think I did. We met at the party following Harvard's spring drama. I was tipsy; he was drunk. Two weeks later, he had me naked, and I would have cried and screamed if I weren't drunk and plain tired. I didn't put up much of a fight. I wanted to; I mean I slapped his face and kept shutting my legs on him, but I didn't give it much effort. My body was limp and dead. My mind was too.
He fell asleep. I snuck out. I never saw him again. Except at night when I was restless and my mind kept turning back. Stuck in that moment. Stuck on his face. Eyes black and burning, mocking me. Mocking my innocence.
I got really sick after that night. Nothing was left of me or in me. I started to fear that there mightn't ever be anything ever again.
My clothes hung on me. My body screamed of exhaustion. I looked more of a little girl than ever, but inside I had lived a thousand years.
Home was good. Lucy was well. She'd had her troubles too, but she was smiling now.
We decided that we were beatniks, Lucy and I, or poor imitations of ones. We wore our tight black slacks and black sweaters and went to a café. It felt good to be back in New York.
It was the first time we had seen each other in months. I had lost a lot of weight and the pants and sweater clung to a body that didn't know how to fill them. Lucy looked good, though. More importantly, though, she looked happy.
I drank my coffee black. No more genteel sugar and crÃ¨me. I drank it like a man, each gulp burning my throat and stomach, purifying my soul. I stared at her across the table; God, she looked happy.
Andrew Craven had called her. The Andrew Craven. The Andrew Craven who had gone to Iona and graduated valedictorian. Both of us had gone to Ursuline so we had known Iona boys. We had known Andrew Craven's ex-girlfriend, too, though she had gone to New Rochelle High.
Iona boys were golden. Most went onto one of the Ivies or Notre Dame or Fordham. Some went further west, but all went to some prestigious school or another. Even the idiots. Iona was a good school. The best school there was, or so we all believed. Ursuline was supposedly its female equivalent, but nothing between the sexes can be equal. Still, Ursuline was a pretty good school, too.
I had only talked to Andrew Craven once. He was the sort that when you referred to him you had to say his full name; Andrew alone didn't sound right. He was a genuine kid. Nice and sincere. Smart too, though he didn't brag about his grades or anything like that. He had tried to start some sort of band but that had failed. He was talented in a lot of areas though. That's how I had met him. He had volunteered to the play the piano for Ursuline's Christmas chorale concert senior year, and I was a soprano in the choir though I never allowed a sound to flow from my open and very much moving mouth.
Lucy knew him better than I did. They had both worked at the A&P. He was a stock boy and she was a cashier. I'm telling you, Andrew Craven had time for everything.
They didn't talk much at first, and then they talked a lot. Enough for him to call her at the start of the summer after the A&P was in both of their pasts. Andrew Craven was at Columbia and had his own apartment in Harlem. He was living while Lucy and I were still only dreaming of living.
"I don't have a clue, and I mean a single clue, what he could like about me. He goes to Columbia! I just go to Old Westbury and do nothing, absolutely nothing. He's brilliant, really. I'm, well, I'm not. What could Andrew Craven like about me?"
"Why wouldn't he be crazy about you? You're pretty, and fun, and hell, you're the sweetest girl in the world that I know of. And yes, I do realize that my opinion might be biased as I am your best friend, but I truly do believe all those things. How often does he call?"
"Oh, only once. He asked me if I might like to go to lunch with him sometime this week. Oh, maybe he only wants to be friends. We haven't seen each other since the winter. That must be it, isn't it? He just wants to catch up and that sort of thing. Geez, I've been stupid."
"Not at all. It's a date, Lucy. I'm sure of it."
"Ya really think?"
It was a date. And it was followed by another. And another couple after that, too. Soon they were going together. Not exactly going steady, but they were together, at least for the duration of the summer.
I met Andrew Craven. I liked him. I had never thought a poor thought about him prior to our second meeting, but I think I had only liked him as an idea. Now I liked him as a person.
I wasn't too much concerned that Lucy had a guy. I knew that no matter what, I would always be number one in her life. It was never obnoxious when she talked about him, either. I enjoyed hearing her stories about Andrew Craven. I asked after him often.
And I didn't mind that my best friend had a guy while I had no one. I wasn't jealous. I was still sick in some ways, and I didn't have energy to dedicate to jealousy. Besides, I was happy for her.
Boys were something I did not want to think about that summer. Three months without thoughts of kissing and beer sounded delightful. My mind fell asleep, yet it had never been more awake. I read and sunbathed out back. D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce—these were my boys of summer.
"Andrew said he's got a guy for you. He wants to set you two up. He says that you two would be perfect for each other. He's supposedly the male version of you. I told him that you weren't looking for anything, but would you like to meet him? It could be fun, don't you think?"
"I've always wanted to be set up on a blind date. I would love it."
"Okay, good. I know you've sworn off dating and"
I had to laugh. "And that I'm bitter over men?"
"Well, I don't think you're one of those radical women or anythingyet."
I had to laugh again. "Hardly. No, really Lucy, I'd love to meet the guy. See who my perfect match is apparently. Do you know his name?"
"Michael Hutchison. He went to Iona with Andrew."
"What Ivy is he at now?"
"He's not at an Ivy."
"Notre Dame boy then? A good Catholic? Gosh, does he play football?"
Lucy shook her head. "No. I mean he might be a good Catholic boy. I don't know about that. But, Rachel, he doesn't go to college."
"An Iona boy who doesn't go to college! He must be the first. What is he doing instead? Working in daddy's office? Traveling Europe?"
"He's, uhh, he works on a ranch."
This seemed to be too much. "You sure he's from New Rochelle?"
"Yes, he went to Iona. According to Andrew he should have been valedictorian but he never did his work. He had a full-ride to Princeton, but he turned it down. Went out West to be a cowboy instead or something. It didn't make sense to me, either; don't worry. You'll just have to ask him to explain it all to you when you meet him. It'll give you something to talk about. But, Rachel, if you don't want to"
I stopped her quick. "No, I'll meet the cowboy. He might be the first interesting boy I've ever met."
We went on a double date and got ice cream. Lucy and I dressed like proper girls instead of in our beatnik fashions of the summer. I wore a new cotton skirt that hit just an inch and a half below my knee and was of a blue and white plaid. My waist had grown a little over the summer, but it was still pretty small and cinched with a black belt. I didn't look beautiful; I never could look that, but I thought I looked rather nice.
Meeting him. A shaking of hands, an exchange of glances. An evaluation of one another's appearance—quickly, very quickly. Can't look at one another too long. Tear eyes away, force eyes to ground. Damn, look back up.
"Michael, where do you live?"
"Do you like it there?"
"Yeah, I like it there pretty well. No complaints"
I paused. What should I say next? Must I drive this entire conversation, this entire supposed date?
Andrew spoke next, and an artificial intimacy of friends began, but a separation remained apparent between the girls and boys particularly between Michael and me. I talked to Lucy. Lucy talked to me. Andrew attempted to open conversation to all, and Michael made an occasional comment with a hint of a story that came to a dead end.
"What do you think?" asked Lucy as soon as we were alone by the drinking fountain.
"He talks like he has marbles in his mouth. Well, that's when he talks."
She nodded and then shrugged. "He's shy, I think. Well, it's not like you have to marry the boy. But you two do look nice together."
I glanced back to the table, hoping he wouldn't notice. He was sitting there, calmly and looking as though he weren't quite there. It was as though his body was sitting in that booth, eating his sundae, but his mind.who knew to what world it had traveled. I recognized the look for it was one I often wore.
His dreamy green eyes glazed over, and a hint of a smile tugged on his lips. His mouth naturally curved more to the right. Suddenly, I felt an impulse to kiss that mouth and run my fingers through that near black hair, but one shade darker than my own. Lucy was right. We would look nice together.
"I like him. I think I'd like him more if he would talk, but I think he's nice." I couldn't say much more. I didn't know much more. Not yet.
I returned to the booth; returned to my place next to him.
"Andrew, have you ever read Paradise Lost?"
It was a strange question, and perhaps it was strange that I was addressing it to Lucy's boy rather than my own date, but I couldn't quite allow myself to fix my attention on Michael. But it was Michael who answered.
"You think the devil's the hero, don't you?"
Eyes which had been staring straight at Andrew and Lucy transferred to Michael. And after that instant, they never left his face again.
I stopped myself quickly from blurting out, "How did you know?"
His eyes were on me. He focused on me, patiently attending my reply. We argued it for a few minutes, each exchange of thought sparking a new one, thoughts that I had never had before, but which seemed natural to my very being and mind. Yet, it become apparent, perhaps not then but later, as I recalled the moment, that we weren't really talking about God and Satan and Milton. No—we were talking about ourselves. And for once, for once, someone understood. Understood the words I spoke before they left my mouth; and, at times, understood my thoughts before they had fully been conceived.
It was then that I let myself fall. It was then that I trusted. And perhaps that's what it feels like to fall in love. To one moment be your own person, searching and wondering. Secure in yourself, yet waiting. Waiting for God knows what or who. Then suddenly, you're not waiting anymore. The answer is provided to a question you didn't even know you had asked. How peculiar it seems; yet, it seeps into your being before you can quite detect how peculiar it is.
A week later, he called. The phone rang, and I was the only one at home. I picked it up, not expecting much. It was a voice smooth and filled with marbles. Slow and deliberate, tender and nonchalant.
"I'm well. I just got back from seeing Pillow TalkYes, I liked it a lotNo, I haven't seen Suddenly, Last SummerYes, I love Elizabeth TaylorOh, it's based on a Tennessee Williams play? I loved Streetcar Named Desireoh, you have to go? Well, it's been nice talking tooh, Sunday? Yes, I would love to get coffee. Meet you there? Yes, that would be perfect. Goodbye, Michael."
I blushed. Inwardly, I screamed. I ran around the house, up and down the stairs, hitting a crescendo when I collapsed upon my bed and sighed, giddy. I was thankful no one else was home.
Nails were painted. Another new skirt was situated around my waist. My pretty new sandals wrapped around my feet, swollen from the heat.
My parents didn't know. I was going out with Lucy for the night. Lies, but no guilt.
I walked into the coffee shop; he was there, sitting, patiently waitingfor me. He was getting up now, his arms were around me. Gosh, it was a forward move. Coffee was ordered and drunk, small talk exchanged. People passed on the street; studying them through the window, we tried to imagine the stories of their lives. But I didn't want any of their lives; any of their stories. I was content with my own.
We went for a walk in the park, the sun had set but it was still gloriously bright. The moon was rising, and the blues of the sky were at last beginning to dominate against the soft pinks and yellows.
He lit two cigarettes, and taught me how to smoke. It burned, and I tried not to cry.
"I'll finish it for you."
Books. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac. Listening to him speak was like listening to echoes of my own thoughts. No, he thought Ayn Rand was too neurotic in her politics to be a great writer. No, I hadn't read Steinbeck. Oh, you are Holden Caulfield!
It was a dream. The moon, the pond, the bench. Things like this only happened to Grace Kelly and Natalie Wood. Not to me. Not to the little, dreamy-eyed girl who fancied herself a writer. Romance was dead; god, it had probably never existed. It was all a hopeless dream to imagine. Yet, here it was, right next to me. Smoking a cigarette and acting the part of James Dean.
My dream was interrupted by another, more exquisite than its predecessor. He was leaning in. His lips were on mine. My eyes were wide-open. Oh, god, what was I supposed to do with my hands? Was he reallythen the thoughts died. My eyes closed. I surrendered. Never was there a happier defeat, a more blissful conquest. A butterfly kissed my lips or so it felt. Soft, gentle beauty expressed.
He held my hand as we walked on. The kisses continued. The beauty both of us felt, shared. A dream, but oh god, it was reality.
His eyes smiled, smiled because of me.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Can it all be real?"
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm trying to not have thoughts."
He pulled me closer. It felt as though our bodies could not be closer, more enveloped, yet, closer they became, melding together into one. He was kissing me again, and I was falling.
Nothing was right. Nothing was good. I loved nothing.
I saw him again the next Sunday. I saw him shirtless, and he undid my bra. Our bodies intertwined as we lay by the bank of the river, shaded by a wood of trees. I felt pushed into the earth, my body one with the dirt. Oh, he shouldn't kiss me thereI should protest. A good girl would protest. But, god, I didn't want to. God, could he please kiss me there forever?
The river moved on, not caring at all. Who were we but two more sets of eyes watching it pass on its thousand year quest? Yet, what did we care for the river? It rumbled onward, steady, constant, the antithesis of us. Passionate, groping, feeling things we were too young to feel and too old to call foolish. Everything. We needed to feel everything. It was all passing, fleeing too quickly. Next week I would be back at Radcliffe and then he was going back west. Back west to his horse. Away from me. Away from civilization. Away to a greater world where the day did not end until you wanted it to.
I kissed his scars. A fight with a Mexican. A shotgun with too strong of a kickback. He smiled. Yet, he had no thoughts. He felt too deeply. Thoughts were too shallow, too elusive. Only passion was real.
He taught me things I'd only ever read of in the romance novels I hid beneath the covers at night. I wanted him to have all of me. Shyness, modestywhat were they?
"Have youhave youbefore?" I stumbled over the words.
"Yes," he breathed, at last, mumbled beneath kisses at my neck.
He didn't ask me. The answer was apparent. I was a virgin.
"Are you going?"
"No, I won't. I wouldn't do that to you. Not here. Not here. Not yet."
Relief, I should have felt relief. Why then did I feel disappointment?
One more time. We only saw each other one more time after that night. It was another double date. Back to the way it had started. Yet, the innocence of ice cream was gone. Lucy and I had lied to our parents. We weren't sleeping over at Jenny's house. No, we were driving into the city, headed towards Harlem. Headed towards Andrew's apartment.
Lucy had been there before; I had not. They were waiting for us when we got there. It was hard to talk to Michael. Shyness crept back.
We took a walk. He smoked a cigarette. Our hands drifted together. He kissed me, sighing afterwards. Harlem wasn't so scary, not with Michael. There was a beauty in that shattered window. Beauty surrounded us because we had created it.
We kissed all night. We were both next to naked when Andrew walked out of his bedroom, Michael and I on the couch. He and Lucy were doing much the same thing in his room. My best friend and I, together. Shedding our innocence together. Should I be sad that innocence was being lost or should I rejoice in the hell of a time I was having losing it?
Andrew went back to his bedroom, Lucy waiting. They didn't go all the way that night. Neither did Michael and I. There was beauty in kissing that transcended sex.
He fell asleep, and I kissed him everywhere I could find. I kissed each of his fingers, blessing them. Thinking of the honest work they had seen and the honest work they had yet to do. Of the words he would write, the genius that would flow from them. They were mine; for this moment they were mine. Across his chest, I traced the words to my favorite poem. He was everything, there was nothing. Nothing to be afraid of any longer. No thoughts, no words. Just being.
In the last few hours before the dawn, we left. Lucy and I said our good-byes to our boys. Our boys.
A kiss farewell. It wasn't good enough. The impression was not cut deep enough. Another, deeper, plunging. Oh, god this netherworld of feelingwhy must I leave it? Why must we part?
"See ya around?" Said with a purposeful nonchalance negating its nonchalance.
I nodded. Words no longer existed.
"Good luck at Radcliffe."
Superficial. Where had the beauty gone? Why could he find words when I could not?
And then it was over. Everything was over. I couldn't cry. I didn't want to cry. I just sighed. Sighed like how Michael had sighed after every one of our kisses. How many times had he kissed me? I couldn't recall.
I loved him then. In the temporary sense of the word. It was stronger than infatuation. It wasn't merely lust. No, it was love. Love of the moment, but it was enough. For the moment it was enough. And for a moment, time ceased to exist.
Radcliffe was dreary. I hated everything and everyone. I hated this world. The west beckoned me; the east called. Paris, France or Paris, Texasit didn't matter. Anywhere. I would have gone anywhere.
I think Lucy felt much the same way after the summer. She went back to Long Island and Andrew stayed in Harlem. They were only a couple train rides from one another, but life gets crowded in a way it never is during the summer. Even if they had stayed together, it would not have been their summer selves. It would have been two different people together, however slight the differences.
Michael and I wrote to one another. There was a promise of something more. But only a promise, a thin dream to which I clung. Christmas would come. He would leave the west and I would forget about debutante balls and law school, if only for a few weeks, and would be one againa nothingness that eclipsed everything.
Law school, how silly that all seemed now. A former girl had sought refuge, had sought strength, or rather a veil to hide her weakness, in schoolin dreams of law school. Had I ever wanted to go to law school or had it only seemed a cheery alternative to being a child bride?
There were other places to run; other worlds where I might find happiness. A happiness that was not judged by grades and success. A world where I could run, but where I would not need to. And whether Michael waited for me in that worldthat didn't matter. He had given me that world. He had guided me to its existenceI could now enter alone, if I wanted. He had given me strength because I had, finally, allowed myself to be weak.
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