On nights when I’m free, we hang out at Hungry Charlie’s, on an alley behind Marshall St. and watch him play pool. His real name is John, but regulars call him Wild Eyes. Probably because of his huge hazel eyes and the way he prowls the table until he sinks every ball. How many times have I seen him chalk his stick, and smash the cue ball into the neatly racked triangle? Balls explode in every direction. Thunk, thunk, thunk. They punch pockets around the table and roll to the bottom. Then it’s a bank shot off the cushion, another zig zag, and another until the green felt is empty.
Sometimes we play teams. He stands over me whispering secret geometry and where to put the English on the cue ball, so I can make shots I barely know I’m aiming for.
Lots of nights John sleeps on our couch. The Saturday before mid-terms he gets up early and hurries back to his dorm to retrieve his Chemistry text for a class he’s barely attended. He studies all day laying on our living room floor while I lounge on the couch, trying to make sense of the magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The following Friday he finds out he passed the exam and hurries to our apartment after class. Our glee turns silly when Gretchen suggests we dress him up as a girl. He sits on a chair like patient Nana, the St. Bernard in Peter Pan. I brush his shaggy hair into two stubby pigtails. Gretchen applies eye shadow and lipstick. We force one of her peasant blouses over his head, but the gathered muslin won’t go over his shoulders. We leave the shirt draped around his neck and stand back.
Gretchen guffaws. “Man, you make an ugly chic.”
Not long after that, we walk home after a night at The Orange, just John and I. I collapse on the couch, and he lies down next to me. Gretchen’s door is closed. The kitchen light throws a warm glow into the dark living room. We adjust the tie-dyed pillows until both of us are comfy, resting on our elbows facing each other.
At first it’s just a smile on his lips. “I really, really like you.” Then a soft kiss. His eyes ask if that’s okay.
I can’t make my face lie.
His long left arm wraps around my back and pulls me closer. I breath in the autumn chill still clinging to his red flannel shirt. There are no words. More kisses. Tenderness. Longing.
Then he opens his eyes. “I have a girlfriend I’m probably gonna marry in a year or so.”
I pull away. My body rigid. “Then what is this?”
His eyes drop. “I don’t know. I really, really like you.”
I sit up. A ball of pain rushes up my throat. I’m glad it’s too dim for him to see my eyes glisten. “Okay.” I stand up. “I’m going to bed.”
I lie under heavy blankets, staring at the ceiling. Another girlfriend. I’m not enough. Again.
I hear his feet pad down the long hall. I cover my head.
Without a word he slides under the sheets. I let him. I don’t know why. Because physical proof of his affection will uproot the doubt he’s just planted?
In the morning we stroll through Oakwood cemetery. Amber leaves rattle on limbs high above. At the far end of the cemetery, far from another soul, we lie down among the graves. Sharp sunlight slices through the crisscross of branches, throwing thin shadows over our entwined forms. What’s between us feels so alive, so true, and so I trust my emotions because nothing else is clear.
By gray November John is no longer on the couch. He enters the kitchen in his boxer shorts. I’m sitting at the white table, both hands surrounding a hot cup of tea, thinking what a hunk he is, how much my heart has fallen for this splendid man.
Then he leans on the counter. “I’ve been thinking.”
I take a slurp.
“I’m gonna quit school and go home.”
I set the almost full cup on the table.
“This place isn’t for me.”
I can’t look at him. My eyes fall on the sink full of chocolatey pots, bowls, spatulas, wooden spoons, and an empty pan. Last night Gretchen and her boyfriend must have gotten high and made brownies. And as usual, there is no water to do the dishes. We never have water for dishes or even a bath if the grad students downstairs or the family on the first floor are using it. How often have I walked to the girl’s dorm down the street to sneak a shower? Our old pipes can’t supply enough water for everybody at the same time.
I focus on the mess because I’m afraid to hear what else is on his mind. Going home. Because of the girlfriend?
He sits kitty corner from me in a rickety chair much too small for him. “Liberal Arts isn’t me. I’ve got to do something else.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. This doesn’t sound like a break up. But I’ve been fooled before.
“What else do you want to do?” I lift my cup.
He shifts in the uncomfortable seat. “Maybe art school. Not sure.”
“That sounds cool.” I’ve seen some of his paintings. But he’s still going away – from me. How does that decode?
“I want to withdraw before the end of the semester, so it’s an incomplete not a failure on my transcript.”
Incomplete not a failure, the words rattle around in my head. Is that true for our relationship as well?
Within the week he’s gone.
Within another the phone rings.
Gretchen answers, and hands me the receiver. “It’s for you.”
I hear his voice, his delicious voice, “Hey, I haven’t figured everything out, but I’d like to come back. I miss you.”
I miss you, that’s good. I wait for more.
“Can I stay at your place until I know what I’m doing?”
By supper time the following day, he’s standing at my door with a duffel bag.
Now our relationship is slightly less ambiguous. That’s a good word for it. Ambiguous: inexact because a choice has not been made, without shape or definition. He chose to come back, but I didn’t plan on living with him. That’s where it’s still murky. He just never finds another apartment. I can hear my dad call it shacking up. If he knew. That’s why I’m not gonna tell my parents.
John and I go back to an amended routine. I go to class and work at The Orange. He buys a heavy Salvation Army overcoat, and walks daily, pre-dawn, to the bottom of windy Harrison Street to sweep under the bleachers at the Syracuse War Memorial where people watch hockey games, professional wrestling, and bands like the Grateful Dead.
Then, one night the Hungry Charlie’s short order cook quits, and the manager hires John. Now, after hours, we have the pool table almost to ourselves.
Things run smoothly until my mom decides to visit for a weekend. We hide John’s toothbrush, his duffel, and the maroon bathrobe I made him out of vintage Salvation Army curtains.
She takes us to the deli on E. Adams for lunch. I order a hot pastrami sandwich. John a roast beef with Russian dressing. The restaurant is packed and noisy. It would be easy to avoid conversation in the racket, but words keep coming to the tip of my tongue, words I’d rather not say. Don’t know how to say. I don’t like keeping things from my mom.
It’s almost May, and John and I have almost gotten away with whatever it is we’re doing. Then what? I don’t want to break up with him. I don’t think he wants to break up with me, but he’s never said what’s next. We’re sort of adults, but I don’t feel like one.
In weeks I’ll have an English degree, but I don’t have a clue what to do with it. I transferred out of the school of drama the semester after I transferred into SU. The drama students were too dramatic! I transferred into the school of education, then transferred out again when they wanted to send me back to high school—UGH—for student teaching.
The Dean’s office sent a letter saying I had to declare a major, adding that I’d fulfilled all the requirements for English Composition, so unless otherwise informed, that was my major. The truth? I only took creative writing courses for fun. Does that prove even my academic focus is by default?
I also received a letter inviting me into Phi Beta Kappa. I’m embarrassed to say I would have thrown it out, thinking it another dumb sorority if my mom hadn’t told me it was a national honor society. I guess I’m saying, there’s no straight shot in any direction.
But by cheesecake I can’t help but confess. “Mom, John and I are living together.”
John’s big eyes get even bigger.
My mom puts her elbows on the gray Formica table. Her lips purse. She bows her head for more than a moment. “You realize, I hope, that you are living like a married couple, so if you ever decide to separate, it will hurt like a divorce.”
Decide. Until she uses the word, I never realized decision isn’t part of my vocabulary. And yet that’s what I miss most from John, an emotional decision, a commitment. If she knew how fuzzy our relationship is, maybe she wouldn’t say it’s like being married. I feel anything but married, and yet I want to defend John. Defend myself. Defend us.
I lift my cheesy fork and spear the cherry on top. “We didn’t mean to live together. It just happened.”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “So what are your plans after graduation?”
I didn’t expect her to be so practical. I’d almost prefer the shacking up tirade I imagined from my dad. Moralism I could argue.
Except she sighs. “I don’t want either of you to get hurt. It’s easy to see how much you care for one another.”
That pretty much ends the meal. Ends her visit.
John and I are back in our living room. I’m in the rocker in the corner where no one ever sits. He’s at my feet.
“So what do you want to do?” He initiates the conversation. “After you graduate, we could go on vacation. Maybe Martha’s Vineyard. You said you liked Massachusetts.”
Has he remembered every word I’ve ever spoken? “I’d love that.”
“We could bring our bicycles and go camping.”
I rock forward. “I’d love that.”
“You could come to my house first. We could get a bus to Woods Hole and take the ferry.”
“I’d love that.” In five minutes he’s made more plans than in the last five months.
And so at last we find ourselves in the sun, touring a magical island full of gingerbread houses, merry-go-rounds, and beach plum roses. The surf washes the shore. The sun sets. We close the flap to our pup tent, as if on honeymoon.
As if –but we aren’t. My mom’s warning hangs like a cloud over my bliss.
I admit my heart is aimed at forever love. I can’t help it. All this sliding not deciding has locked out other relationships, and yet I’m totally insecure. Will I be, at best, a default wife?
As a young woman I didn’t know how much I needed to be chosen, how much I needed manifest commitment. I didn’t understand how the slightest fracture in trust between lovers can ultimately break a heart—maybe two. I couldn’t foresee how insecurity plows the ground for infidelity.
With hindsight, I marvel at the Divine geometry that took the mess on my table and sank a miracle.