Centenary College for Women
Hackettstown, New Jersey
Friday, February 12, 1970
The two of them had been roommates at Franklin and Marshall since sophomore year, much to the surprise of, well everybody. It was a little like watching Jerry Garcia rooming with Bobby Kennedy. James Hatton had a cocky, little-boy way about him and a Kennedy-like shock of wheat-colored hair that fell perfectly with a single swipe of the comb. The only sore point for James was his height, which at five foot six, was not quite tall enough for about two-thirds of the girls on the planet, a fact of which he was keenly aware.
Karl Sheppard, on the other hand, was more or less James’ opposite. His bushy mountain-man hair and salt-and-pepper beard had a propensity for collecting, things: chunks of Oreo cookies that had fallen unnoticed, orange powder from the bottom of the Fritos bag, and occasional wood chips when he was whittling at ye-ole-stump back at the dorm.
In the parking lot behind CentenaryCollege, the two of them climbed out of James’ pristine metallic blue 67 Firebird and glanced at each other across the freshly lemon-Pledged black vinyl roof. Karl stretched and groaned from the two hours of being folded up in the shotgun seat, and then he cleared his throat, his grey-blue eyes twinkling like gemstones. “Hey Rock!” he said in his best Bullwinkle J. Moose impersonation, “this time for sure! Watch me pull a…”
James eyed his bushy-headed roommate. “Karl,” he said with great patience, “quick review,” he said, holding up his index finger for Karl to keep count on. “What’s our primary objective here?”
Karl’s eyes glazed over like a young and frolicsome basset hound. He loved it when James got serious. Serious and pissed. At the same time, was like manna from heaven. “Uhmmm, to pull a rabbit outta the hat?” he answered, still sounding like Bullwinkle.
James sighed in annoyance. Then he did a little nervous bongo on the vinyl top with the palms of his hands. “Uhhh, no, Mr. Moose. Try again,” he said solemnly.
Karl gazed off into nowhere, thinking. “Uhmm.”
“Ahhh, I’m glad to see we’re practicing our mantras. Professor Binkley would be very impressed.”
Karl’s left bushy eyebrow twitched, trying to decide how annoyed it was as two piercing grey eyes stared intensely across the vinyl roof. Then they twinkled again. “Recipe for a douche bag,” he pronounced in his deep philo-seminar voice. “First—take one wealthy prep-school weenie, and then add,”
James groaned. “Not that shit again. The objective here,” he continued in a louder voice, “is to find women. Specifically, it’s to find me a woman.”
Karl looked wide-eyed and Buddha-like around at the Centenary campus. Like most campuses, it had been designed more to impress parents and intimidate prospective students than anything else. The little Firebird sat just inside of two massive twelve-foot wrought-iron gates that looked capable of thwarting a major armored division. “Okay,” he said, returning to Bullwinkledom, “do you want me to wait and hold the sack, and you conk em over the head? Or the other way around?”
James ignored the question and looked at his watch. “I believe the mixer starts at eight. That gives us forty minutes to scrub off, eat, and then change. I assume you’re hungry.”
“Does a member of the family Felis Domestica have a rectal sphincter?” Karl asked.
James was so used to sparring closely, with Karl and everybody else in the philo seminars, that he automatically gave the question an extra heartbeat to decipher. Does a cat have an ass? came up in translation in his mind. “By rectal sphincter, are we talking rectum or anus?”
Karl looked at him for a long moment, his eyes intense and yet distant.
James noted the strange stare. “What?”
“Nothing,” Karl replied. “I was just picturing you as a little kid. I’m surprised your Mummy and your Daddy didn’t take you down to the river and tie rocks to your feet.”
“Oh.” James smiled benevolently. “Actually, they did. See, what you’re addressing right now is a reincarnation.”
The Grill was the unofficial hangout for horny guys within a fifty-mile radius, mostly from Lehigh, Lafayette, and F&M. You could get a half-way decent cheeseburger and fries, but it’s truly redeeming asset was its location. From the burgundy leatherette booths, you could behold a panoramic view of the Centenary quad and simultaneously view the convergence of three different walkways from a panorama of plate glass. In between classes it was a wondrous sea of voluptuously short skirts, mini dresses, and sprayed on hip-huggers, and it seemed as if whoever was running admissions had a propensity for blonde southern belles with wealthy daddies.
James and Karl found a booth next to the first window and ordered the quintessential cheeseburger, fries, and cokes, no onions. (One onion ring was a guarantee for a lonely night.) James went over to the jukebox and fished around in his tight flared pants for a quarter, and thirty seconds later Percy Sledge was confessing to the world what it’s like, When a Man Loves a Woman. Karl looked over at him and shook his head in disappointment. Then he laid his head down right in the middle of the table and hid his face under his arms. One lone accusing eye peered out from behind a black wool fisherman’s sweater and a tangle of hair.
“What?” James shrugged defensively from across the room.
Karl shook his head again. “Oh nothing,” he sighed, “but, so much for subtlety.”
“What?” James argued. “Tell me— how is this not subtle?” Then he began listening to the words. “Okay, cancel that. But how’s anybody gonna know it’s us?”
Karl’s eyes wandered off on their own, panning slowly around the room. “Well, for starters, we’re the only people here. In addition to that…”
“Okay, okay,” James snapped. He looked around on the jukebox for a switch to turn it off, but it wasn’t exactly like hitting the record changer on his Garrard back at the dorm. Instead he reached down and yanked the plug out of the socket. Percy droned down to a merciful if somewhat ignominious silence.
“Kind of extreme, don’tcha think?” Karl observed.
“Extreme times call for extreme measures.”
They spent the next twenty minutes eating fries and staring out the window as groups and gaggles and small flocks of beautiful girls sauntered by. Some waved. One or two flirted. Most glanced over and then made a studied point of ignoring both of them. Karl waved and/or flashed a peace sign at everyone that looked over to no avail.
“I think I’m beginning to see a trend here,” Karl observed, “kind of a tough crowd.”
“Maybe so,” James agreed. “But we’re seniors. That gives us an advantage, however small. Superior intelligence. Add to that, superior experience, plus the inherent coolness of being senior philo majors.”
“Oh sure,” Karl agreed, his eyes huge and watery from chuckling. “That’s extremely cool.” In three years of rooming with James, he knew that this wasn’t exactly true. They had both waded through strings of relationships. Some short…in fact, some really, short, like James’ blind date to the Spring Fling at Goucher with Karen McGuinty. Karen had been all of four feet nine, and when James showed up, all scrubbed and coiffed with flowers in hand, the tiniest twitch of his eyebrow yanked the pin on what was to be an enormous invisible hand grenade inside Karen McGuinty’s brain. It was all over in fifteen seconds—a squished corsage, an effective rabbit punch to James’ solar plexus, complete and utter devastation, and a new record for second floor Atlee.
James took a huge bite of cheeseburger and began chewing methodically. Then his eyes rolled and a second later he fished what could have been a lethal strand of fried onion out of his cheek. “Whew, that was a close one,” he sighed.
“God forbid,” said Karl.
It had started to drizzle gently and James noticed a girl in a black leotard and tights walking quickly from Reeves over toward the dorms. As the drizzle began to turn to rain, she upped her pace, walking, then doing a peculiar little ballet run, then walking again as if she couldn’t quite decide whether it was worth an all out sprint. James watched with growing interest.
“You know the lottery’s next week,” Karl offered in between bites of cheeseburger and gulps of Coke.
James continued to watch out the window. “Hmmm?” he mumbled. “What lottery?”
“The draft lottery,” Karl replied through a mouthful of French fries.
“Yeah,” James said on autopilot. The girl outside was definitely a dancer. That was obvious by what she wore, but more so by the way she walked. It almost seemed as if she was practicing some inner choreography as she walked. The rain was coming down harder now and she made a run for it, across the grass, ignoring the walkways and looking like a young deer in a meadow, bounding and leaping so gracefully, that he wanted to applaud by the time she reached the glass doors.
Karl looked up at him still chewing. “The draft,” he repeated. “You have heard of the draft, haven’t you? You know, that’s where you go, and they shave your head and brainwash you, and send you over to Viet Nam. Six months later you come back in a body bag. It’s a rather clever manner of population control.”
“ Two-S,” James replied automatically, his attention wholly focused now on the young woman in the lobby. She shook herself off and combed the wet hair out of her eyes. For a second she looked around, with the instincts of that same deer, when it feels it’s being watched. She spied James looking at her from the Grill and for less than a microsecond she looked back at him. He wasn’t even sure if she’d actually seen him. The plate glass window was too rain-streaked.
“I don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings,” said Karl, “but I think that the 2-S student deferment runs out when we graduate.”
James’ brain was running completely on autopilot now. “Well, I’m afraid that trudging through swamps and maybe getting my head blown off is not exactly in my top-ten list of neat things to do,” he replied blithely.
“Glad to hear it,” Karl agreed, and it was at this point that he realized that James was focusing heavily on something else. He started to turn around in his seat and James stopped him.
“Don’t move,” James said in deadly earnest. He reached out and grabbed Karl’s arm to drive home the point.
“Ahhh, a young wench?” Karl asked, twiddling his moustache in amusement.
“No. Not a wench,” James corrected, his voice distant as if he were viewing the world through binoculars. “The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
Karl started to turn around anyway and James kicked him hard under the table. “I’m serious, Karl. You scare her off, I’ll never forgive you. Just hold tight, Okay?”
“Fine,” Karl smiled. “But if I can’t turn around, will you at least fill me in on the details?”
“She’s a dancer, ballet dancer, I’d wager, and ooops, she just looked over.” James’ head snapped instantly back to his roommate; his whole face was beginning to redden. He sat there rigidly, staring at Karl without really seeing him. Then two seconds later, “Phew, she turned away.” He looked at his friend’s face, his own eyes bright and glassy. “What do I do?”
“Well, for one thing, I suggest you get hold of yourself,” said Karl in a fatherly manner. “What’s she doing now?”
“She’s at the cashier. She’s getting a Coke. Now she’s Aw shit, she’s heading toward the stairs. Aw fuck.”
“Quick— catch her before she’s gone!”
James’ eyes darted to his roommate’s. “But, what’ll I say? What’ll I…?”
“Quick! You’ll think of something. Go.”
James slipped out of the booth and sprinted toward the door. The girls coming down the walkway caught the movement. Even the frazzled cook behind the counter noticed it. James darted out through the glass doors. The girl had already started up the grey concrete steps toward the dorm. She was on the first balcony by the time he got there.
“Hey!” he yelled up the stairs, “Uhmm. Stop!”
The girl stopped and looked down at him through the metal railing. For a long moment they stared at each other. “Uhhh,” he looked up at her, his mind totally blank. “Here’s where I’m supposed to say something witty,” he said brightly, “And right now I can’t think of a damn thing,” he murmured to himself.
She looked at him. Her eyes blinked at him slowly and then she began up the second flight.
“Uhh, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?” he gasped.
She stopped again and looked down at him. He chuckled nervously. “I, uhh, I saw your leotard and well, I guess you like to dance?”
She looked at him strangely, a look of amusement mixed with annoyance? It was hard to tell. “Yes, I like to dance,” she said patiently.
He was trying to keep contact with her eyes one second at a time. The thread was so thin and gossamer, it threatened to break with a single breath. “Well, then. That’s good,” he said trying to buy some time. “You see I just drove up here two and a half hours from F & M because, well, I really like to dance. There’s a mixer over in Reeves, later on. By any chance, I mean, are you going? ..Maybe?”
The girl’s face softened slightly. “I’m sorry. I’m already dating someone.”
James’ face dropped badly. He couldn’t help it. “Oh, okay. Sure. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I bothered you. But,” he looked back up at her, “since you’re already engaged and everything…” He stopped and took a breath. “Look, I have to apologize. Usually I’ve got at least a little cool. But since you’re already taken, will you please forgive me if I tell you that you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know why, but I had to get that out. I’m sorry.”
She smiled down at him. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice a soft whisper. She started to go up the stairs again.
“Uhmm,” he projected in a voice loud enough for her to hear.
She stopped on the third step.
“Maybe just one dance? Just so I won’t have driven five hours for nothing?
Will you think about it?”
She looked down at him through the grey metal stair railing and smiled. “You know, there are other girls here.”
He held her gaze trying to memorize her eyes. Then he shook his head. “No,” he smiled, “that’s where you’re wrong.”
The next hour was a cruel blur. He was vaguely aware that Karl was saying things to him and that he was saying things back, but his mind was back at the Grill replaying the image of her in his mind. Over and over, walking in the drizzle, then her floating across the ground in wonderfully graceful steps, and then those huge brown eyes staring down at him through the railing. It gave new meaning to the term, exquisite pain.
“Earth to James, come in James,” he heard vaguely in the background. “Earth to…” Then he felt Karl’s hand on his shoulder. “Hey mon ami, you okay? You’re phasing out on me.”
James looked at him. “Remember when I told you about that girl I fell for in high school?”
“The one in the auditorium that you thought was looking at you?”
James nodded and sighed.
“Oh, man. That bad?”
“Worse,” James admitted. “Much much worse.”
Suddenly Karl’s very persona seemed to shift. He was suddenly the older brother James had never had. “Well, we can leave, if you want. We can go out and get drunk, look for some other wenches. Big ones, with big tits, and big asses.”
James looked miserable. His eyes were permanently glassy and he looked as if someone had drained all the blood out of him. He shook his head. “This is weird. I never got hit this hard, this fast. I feel like, like somebody just blind-sided me.”
“Maybe they did,” Karl said softly, “but maybe it’s like the hair of the dog when you get a hangover. The dancing will do you good. And, what the hell, you may find someone in the next five minutes that’ll make her look…” He looked over at his roommate. He wasn’t buying it.
For the next twenty minutes they sat in the dark in the Firebird listening to Simon and Garfunkle and Left Banke. It hadn’t taken Karl very long to crack the code on what music equated to what emotions with James. He played Pretty Ballerina twice in a row before Karl yanked out the tape. “Look, maybe she’s reconsidered. Maybe she’s gonna come down and dance with you. Hell, she might be there already, waiting and wondering where the hell you are.”
James looked at him in the darkness. “Even in the dark, you’re a lousy liar.”
Silence. Then Just Walk Away, Renee, came on. “Ya know, I bet her name’s Renee,” James said woodenly. “That’d be my friggin luck.”
James saw Karl’s shadow bend down in the darkness. Then he heard the car keys jingle. “What are you doing?” Then the door opened and slammed shut as Karl headed off toward Reeves toward Jimi Hendrix belting out Purple Haze at 80,000 decibels. James opened the door. “Hey—what the fuck are you doing?” he yelled. He could see Karl’s beefy outline silhouetted against the glowing panes of Reeves Hall. He saw the silhouette stop and turn. He heard the keys jingle again in the distance.
The two of them barged simultaneously through the double doors to Reeves where the mixer was. In a way, it was a little high-schoolish with curly red-and-black crepe paper strung everywhere and the Greek letters of the sororities scotch taped up on the walls. But, the music was good. Jimi Hendrix was wailing out Foxy Lady now with a mind-numbing back-beat and, wonder of wonders, the strobes and black lights were set up well. When the strobes went on, everything jerked around like an old-fashioned movie. It reminded him of the dorm parties sophomore year.
They stood there for awhile, getting their bearings. And then a short, beautifully stacked blonde came up in a purple vinyl micro-mini and smiled at Karl.
“Lafayette?” she called out over the music.
Karl shook his head. “F &M.”
The girl smiled and nodded and gestured toward the dance floor. Karl looked at James questioningly.
“You go ahead,” James smiled.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he lied. “Besides, I gotta see a man about a horse.”
Out on the dance floor, Karl looked strange in his fisherman’s sweater and corduroy pants, but his moves on the floor were smooth and liquid. That was where being a senior helped a little. Every few minutes or so, he’d wave at James and then gesture around at all the girls who were standing around waiting to dance. And James would wave back and sigh and look toward the double glass doors hoping to see the girl from the courtyard. He tried to will it all to happen with all his might, to make her appear out of thin air, but to no avail. Each time he looked to the doors, his throat tightened a little more and his spirits ratcheted down another notch.
Light My Fire (the long version) came on a little later in the evening and by that time everybody who was going to dance was dancing. James sat at a makeshift soda bar and watched the swirling and gyrating. Karl was in the exact epicenter of the action, his arms waving as if they had been de-boned. He had given up trying to get James out on the floor and when he’d see him, he’d shrug and wave, always smiling, always cheerful.
At 9:45 James checked his watch for the fourteenth time. Nothing. It was excruciating just standing there. Then he happened to look up again, and she was standing there, just inside the glass doors looking out over at the dance floor. She was dressed in a lethally glorious black maxi skirt and black boots, cashmere pullover and a grey mohair shawl that made her look exotic and at the same time, vulnerable. She didn’t see him at first and for a long agonizing moment James tried to decipher everything at the same time. Was she there to see him? Or was she there to meet her boyfriend? But when she saw him, she didn’t wave and she didn’t smile. She just looked at him strangely.
He made his way around the perimeter of the dance floor as quickly as he could. He could feel her eyes watching him as he moved and he prayed he wouldn’t do something stupid, like trip and fall on the way. As he made his way up to her, he was stunned that she was still there. “Uh, hi,” he said brightly.
“Hello,” she replied in a soft European voice.
“You’re here,” he said stupidly. “Sorry. Would you like to dance?”
She looked at him and nodded. “If you can remember that I’m dating somebody, and it’s just a dance then, yes, I would like to dance.”
He took her hand and led her out to the dance floor, through the throngs of warm writhing bodies. She felt utterly weightless in his hand, as if she were made of something gossamer. He resisted the temptation to squeeze her hand and then he released her reluctantly in the middle of the dance floor. They stopped and faced each other. She waited a moment for him to begin and then she precisely matched his style of dancing.
He kept catching her eyes as they danced. They were huge and brown and liquid and her hair, which was parted in the middle and flowed down her back, looked like it was moving in slow motion as she moved. And, she was smiling just slightly. When the music stopped, he was half expecting her to vanish into the crowd. But she didn’t, and the music thank God, segued directly from Light My Fire to Janis Joplin. The girl listened for a moment and then transformed as if by magic to match the new beat. James tried his best to keep up. And it was strange because even with the gyrating and the pulsing of the music, it seemed like everything was slowing down and he couldn’t keep himself from staring into her eyes. She knew it and every so often she allowed herself a faint smile, though she seemed to be avoiding his eyes now. Eventually the music stopped though the sound level out on the floor was too loud to do anything but yell. He looked at her. His face was sweaty and hot. He could feel the perspiration running down his cheeks. “Some fresh air?” he called over the din of other voices. She nodded shyly and smiled.
Out on the patio the rain had stopped and when they stepped out into the mist he thought that he must be steaming from all the wild gyrating. She walked out to the edge of the patio and looked up into the sky.
“So,” James said cheerfully, but sadly, “tell me about your boyfriend.” He had no idea why he had said that. Instantly he knew it was the last thing he wanted to hear about.
She glanced back at him and held his eyes oddly in hers. “Why would you want to know about my boyfriend?”
He sighed. “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t really. I don’t even know why I asked. I just know that this is all going to be over in a handful of minutes, and I figured maybe I could make it last a couple minutes longer if I got you on a topic you really like.” He was looking at her when he said it and he noticed that she wrinkled her nose ever-so-slightly at the last sentence. “Or maybe there’s another topic, other than your boyfriend, that you’d like to talk about. And, oh, by the way, just for the record, my name is James. James Hatton.”
The girl thought for a moment. Then she held her hand out. “Nice to meet you, James Hatton,” she said. Then, “It’s not that he’s my boyfriend.”
“It’s my parents. They are very formal,” she said endowing the very with ominous finality, “and my father is a doctor, and he is an intern under my father. It’s a difficult situation. I don’t think you’d understand.”
James saw a faint glimmering of hope. “Maybe not, but, I’m a pretty good listener. And I’m desperately trying to steal one more minute with you. How long have you been dating?”
In the darkness her face reflected the lights from Reeves and made her face appear to glow. She studied his face. “Four months.”
“I see,” he chuckled nervously. “Four months, hmmmm. That’s a long time.”
He could feel the inertial wheel slowing irrevocably with each prolonged silence. “You know, here we are, talking about your boyfriend and I don’t even know your name.”
She looked at him levelly. “Louisa Louisa Nevelskaya.”
“Oh,” he smiled ingratiatingly, “that’s beautiful. It’s…”
“Yes. That’s what I was about to say and your boyfriend, I mean, this guy, whoever he is, he’s…”
“He is Russian as well.”
“I see. So the whole thing is kind of all wrapped up.”
“Yes. All wrapped up. That describes it quite accurately.”
“But” and he took a quick breath, “I’m just guessing here, but, you don’t sound all that you know, goo-goo, gah-gah, over this guy.”
She turned from him and looked out into the darkness. The wind had risen slightly and the bare limbs of the trees were swaying in the darkness, releasing small droplets with each change of direction. “No, I’m not gah-gah over this guy, as you say. But that doesn’t make any difference at all. You don’t understand. You don’t know my parents. They are from the old school. And, I’m afraid that in matters like this, it’s best not to get one’s hopes up.”
James took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Uhmmm. I understand. I really do. And I really appreciate your coming over.”
“It was enjoyable,” she said with a small sad smile. “However, I must return to my books and my dancing. My professional dancing that is.”
“Ballet,” James said. He looked at her. There was a forthrightness about her that he was unaccustomed to. Most of the girls he had dated were gigglers and it seemed like they were always excusing themselves to go to the bathroom to check their make-up. Louisa stood straight and she stared unblinking into his eyes.
“Yes,” she answered and she allowed herself a very small smile. “You are observant. At least compared to…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
“I saw the Kirov in New York,” he blurted. “Uhmm… when I was younger. High school.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
He looked at her wistfully. “Yeah. As a matter of fact I did. I was taken by the sugar plum fairy. I even remember her name from the playbill. It was Anna Zubkovskaya. I’ll never forget it. I waited outside the doors when it was over and she came out in a dark trench coat, and she was just a little thing. She looked tiny.”
“Did you talk to her?” Louisa asked.
Something had seemed to deflate inside him. He looked down at the ground and chuckled. “Oh, no. The best I could manage was to smile at her. But,” and then he caught her eyes again and looked away. “I’ll never forget her the same way I’ll never forget this night.”
“You have a lot of melancholy inside you. You’d make a good Russian.”
“Is that a compliment?”
She waggled her hand slowly. Then she laughed. “Maybe a little. It is, as you say, a two-edged sword.”
He could feel his time running out as surely as if they were grains of sand trickling out the last seconds in an hourglass. He could feel her collecting herself to leave. “Listen, uhmm. I don’t mean to be forward but, would you mind very much if say when I got back to F&M, I wrote you a letter or something? I mean, it would be just a friendly letter.”
She stood there saying nothing.
“I mean, that’s not against the law, is it? Your folks aren’t going to shoot you for getting a letter, are they?”
“No,” she agreed. “They won’t shoot me for receiving a letter. But, they might shoot me for answering. I’m afraid it would be inappropriate for me to answer you.”
“I see,” said James.