Photo Credit: Jen Kim
The morning of the last class of that summer session—the university campus aching to finally empty for the remaining weeks of August, 1970—Professor Cortez presented “an old friend,” introducing him as Charles Culbertson. He told us that his friend, a colleague for many years, would deliver a unique perspective on courtship, marriage, and sexuality among certain traditional Native American cultures. Like our professor, Culbertson was probably 40, and equally tanned. In all other respects, he was the antithesis of Cortez. He wore drab, baggy suit pants, a mismatched, tired sport coat, and a wrinkled shirt that had a faint memory of white. He was no more than five foot six (Professor Cortez was a good six-four). His backpack, open on the floor beside him, contained a liquor store paper bag out of which he sipped, furtively at first, but more openly as his talk progressed. He spoke with an inflection that strayed from Latin American to Eastern European. Neither sounded true. Although he dangled intriguing phrases like “temporary adoration,” “sense penetration,” and “descending into the power,” his talk lacked compass and meandered from one obscure reference to another. Thirty minutes in, as if a timer had sounded, he stopped, giggled, swooped up his belongings, and scurried off the stage, out the side door into the sunlit parking lot. The door slammed behind him.
Cortez walked to the vacated podium and invited response. Little was offered and the desultory discussion faded quickly. Cortez burst into an extravagant smile: “Actually, Charles Culbertson isn’t his real name. That was Carlos Castaneda. It’s been a good summer. Thank you. If you turned in a postcard, you’ll get your grades in about a week.” And he was gone.
We didn’t know if it was true. We didn’t even know where to begin thinking about it. Worse, April had never heard of Castaneda. Since then, I’ve never investigated, never felt any urgency to seek the truth of it, but the incident has never quite faded. Then and now, it seemed an appropriate coda to the course, and to what was to be our last night of the summer. Fall classes were racing in with a vengeance but this year I wasn’t playing. I had a ride-board connection to Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend of a friend would house me for a few days. After that… who knew? It was all waiting for me. For three months. Of course, after the three months, it would be back to school to save my student deferment. In another year, I’d have a degree. Maybe the war would be over.
I had met April in the front row of that Cultural Anthropology course, the day Cortez lectured on something about “titan realms of the mind.” I always sat in front rows figuring if I was going to be there, I might as well be there. If I wanted to sleep, I stayed home. Cortez worked the room, hair hanging to his shoulders, tight black shirt painted on his torso, blue jeans clinging to his long legs. His boots—April and I called them “Spanish rock & roll boots,” punctuated the smooth floor with each observation and challenge. Daily for six weeks, 120 students packed the room. It was the class you’d invite a visiting friend to see. He was also rumored to be rich—we saw him drive a bright red British sports car. He was so fantastic it crossed my mind April might have been looking for him when she searched my face. I couldn’t have blamed her.
Cortez was a scholar of the world. I played the role of a student. I did want to travel some day but Vietnam was not high on my list.
Bob Dylan was a titan, as were Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger. Me? April’s eyes, trained on me the next morning, made me feel that she thought it possible, and it was a good feeling. She sat cross-legged at the foot of my bed; her girlish body covered by one of my earliest Grateful Dead T-shirts. Though the shirt had been designed for someone much bigger, the shirt rode up when she shifted slightly, allowing a glimpse of her still damp pubic hair, and I stirred once more beneath the crumpled sheets.
She was eighteen and I was almost twenty-one. I had logged three-plus years of college; she had just begun in June, one week after graduating from high school. It was a significant gap.
She was the first girl I’d slept with more than twice. And for the last three weeks of summer school, she had been staying with me four nights a week, going home to her parents for the weekend, and then to her dorm for Sunday night. Her parents assumed (we assumed) that she was always at the dorm when she wasn’t with them.
On my bed that last morning she kept looking, as if she might forget everything the instant I crossed into Idaho. Even though I was the one leaving, she was the first out from under the covers. My ride was due. I remembered an earlier summer, still in high school, when I’d taught myself to sleep naked. It seemed odd then, to not wear pajama pants or underwear, but I knew that some day, soon, I hoped, I’d want to be comfortably naked with a girl.
“This is like Romeo and Juliet,” April said, playfully or seriously, I couldn’t tell. I often couldn’t. The movie had been our first date
“Remember,” she said, “he knows it’s time to leave, and he gets up, but she can’t stand it, and convinces him to stay a little longer. Let’s see, what did she do?” To my delight, she remembered.
Jesus, that guy was mad, but then he was laughing, when we staggered out to his car, my shirt in my hand, after ten minutes of honking. He dropped April at her dorm and we were on our way.
In five days I was in Madison, smoking dope in a brown-shingled house that supposedly once was Fighting Bob La Follette’s. After a few blissful days, I recognized the seduction of simply trading one campus town for another, so I put some effort into the next step. I found a job, and a room, in Janesville, forty miles south (and much farther still, it felt, especially without a car, from the hypnotic pull of student life). I worked, to my thrill, in a real blue-collar job, on an assembly line at Parker Pen. In postcards home I made cryptic references to “developing alliances with the proletariat.”
My room was over a garage on a quiet street midway between downtown and the plant, in walking distance of a sweet little park. I walked along it to get to my bus stop, the playground packed with little kids, mothers, and some fathers, and grandparents. It was a place a grandmother would love, and I readily accepted its comforts.
I was making more money than I knew possible, drinking Point beer, and even playing softball. Parker Pen had four teams in the city league, and I got on a team that played on the increasingly autumnal Wednesday evenings. Kirby’s Bar on Main Street, its walls lined with Green Bay Packer pennants and photos, was our team’s post-game site. If you went out the back way, past the pay phone and the toilets, you could stand, carefully, above the darkness of the Rock River. If you were drunk, you were a fool to get close.
It was from Kirby’s that I usually called April, the time difference working in our favor. I’d grab a bottle and set up camp at the phone with an ashtray filled with change. We talked for as many quarters and dimes as I had, with a little sighing and heavy breathing thrown in. In my time in Janesville, I was just so happy with the whole situation that beyond those calls I had no need for female company.
One Wednesday night, after seven innings of body-numbing softball in rapidly declining temperatures—“how can any third baseman in the world throw a ball with hands this cold?”—we were a particularly loud and raucous group, making the place even more our own than ever.
The “hello” sounded wrong. I thought for a second it was her roommate, even though that unknown entity had not once answered since I’d begun calling from Wisconsin.
“April? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s just that…” I heard nothing more.
“What is it, babe? You don’t sound good. What’s up?”
I can’t speak for a pin or a feather, but you do hear it when a bottle of beer drops. It didn’t break because it had been low in my hand when it fell, but it thundered on the concrete floor, and it was the only sound either of us heard for a long, expensive time. Only the phone company was happy.
“Shit, babe, are you sure? Forget that, that was stupid, of course you are. What, what… how are you?”
“Not so good.”
I’d never heard her cry.
“It’s so scary.”
“What… who… does anyone else know? What are you doing? What are we going to do? What do you want?”
“It’s all set up. It’ll be taken care of next week. Honey,” the crying increased to sobs. “Honey, can you come back?”
“I’ll be there as fast as I can. It might take a couple of days, but I’ll be there, I promise.”
“I love you.”
“I love you. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. We’ll take care of it. I’m with you all the way. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
It took two tries to get the receiver back where it belonged. I picked up the empty bottle and walked out the back door to the river steps. The wind laughed as it whipped through my thin Parker Pen jersey, and I screamed the word “fuck” louder than I’d ever screamed anything before. I made my best throw of the night, heaving the bottle as far south as I could, maybe all the way to Beloit.
I could have made my excuses, hustled back to my rented room, and began the process of getting myself back to Seattle, but I didn’t. Not right away.
I stopped first at the bar for another beer, and more, for commiseration. How could this happen to me? I’d been riding so high. Why hadn’t she taken care of things? Why hadn’t I? I was older, maybe I should have been more responsible, but we both were so careful. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
My teammates were several beers ahead. My face invited questions. Questions led to answers. Answers led to more beer. More beer led to sarcasm, irony, ribaldry, raunchiness, drunken wit. Soon there were toasts to my virility, cheers for the size and skill of my tool, hip-hip-hoorays for April’s fertile delta. Ballplayers competitively imagined, and loudly described, “April-the-Acrobat.” We argued the best ways to tell, just by looking, how juicy a girl was. Then we got to their smells, their flavors, and the curse of pubic hair between the teeth.
Things did not improve—Kirby simply locked the door to prevent newcomers—as we reduced all women to manipulating cunts, as we hilariously topped each other’s suspicions of April’s motives, as Rocky said “that’s another reason to stick with sheep,” and Carl added “damn it, if they can bleed, they can breed,” But when Arthur, our shortstop, team captain, and my forty-five-year-old line supervisor and I chanted, repeatedly: “4-F, 4-F—Find ’em, Feel ’em, Fuck ’em, Forget ’em,” part of me realized that I was behaving worse than I knew possible and that if in that bar, or watching or listening through some unknown window, were any girl or woman who actually knew me, or was related to me, or might ever meet me, I would have thrown myself in the Rock River and prayed never to surface. It was the worst night I’d ever witnessed, and I was right in the middle of it.
In the midst of it, they did take a collection and I was able to leave for Seattle the next afternoon. In the morning I quit my room, quit my job, signed over my last check to pay the guys back, and threw up. Repeatedly. I was nauseous on the bus to Chicago, and the flight, through delays and bad weather, simply duplicated the morning’s agony. I spent most of the red-eye hanging over the cramped toilet.
We spent Friday together. She had indeed set everything up and the abortion was going to be first thing Tuesday. She’d been resourceful, gotten herself on benefits so it would be almost free, and most importantly, her parents wouldn’t know. We didn’t talk a whole lot, just walked around campus holding hands. Her body didn’t look any different but her face was a mess. She said she felt like shit. I was pretty weak myself, but I was smart enough to shut up about that, and she didn’t have much energy for me anyway. Because it was a Friday, she was, as she had in the summer, going home for the weekend. We would see each other on Monday, and then drive together to the clinic on Tuesday. She had arranged to borrow a friend’s car that I could drive.
Although there were plenty of floors and couches that I could sleep on, I didn’t much want to be in Seattle and I especially didn’t want to tell anyone why I was back. Maybe I feared a repeat of Kirby’s. It happened that my mother’s birthday was that Sunday, so I decided to hop a bus down to Portland to surprise her. For all she knew, her baby boy was still in Wisconsin. The idea of another bus ride made me cringe, but the thought of making someone happy, especially my mother, really appealed to me. I could get back on Monday, and nobody, especially mom, needed to know the real reason I was in town.
She said she was the happiest mom in Oregon when she saw me, and she may have been right. I stuffed myself with lasagna and because I can be as stupid as the next guy if I give myself half a chance, I drank red wine. With wine I usually just drink a glass, maybe two, but my aunts were pouring and my uncles were singing, and I had a bunch of stuff to not think about. Around midnight, the party broke up, and I was in my old room. A few minutes later, I was back in the TWA bathroom. All the lasagna, all the wine, everything. My misery was so loud my poor mother woke up, and she stayed with me for a few minutes before I could convince her to go back to her room.
I tried to get some sleep in the morning but my body swung from feverish to freezing to feverish, always one or the other. My mom twice made me get up so she could give me new sheets. The afternoon was worse, which I wouldn’t have guessed possible: delirium, shivers, sweat, and more vomiting.
“Mom, I’m a wreck, but I’ve got to get back to Seattle.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” She pressed a warm washcloth on to my forehead. “I’ve already cleared tomorrow so I can stay home with you.”
“No, mom, it’s important, I’ve got to go.”
“Honey, just think if it had happened in Wisconsin! Don’t worry, I’m here.”
She said I wasn’t going anywhere because I wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere. And nothing, she said, was more important than my health. Whatever I thought was so important would just have to wait.
I called April at three o’clock that Monday, my eyes burning as I held the phone, the receiver slippery in my feeble grip. I told her the truth: I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life, that I’d been bedridden and throwing up for twelve straight hours, that it showed no signs of getting better, that every medication I’d taken, over-the-counter and prescription, hadn’t done a thing. There was diarrhea, too. Endless. Everything endless. I told her I was sorry, I was so sorry, but I wasn’t going to be able to be there with her. Maybe her roommate, or the friend with the car, could go with her. I apologized again and again until she finally said “okay, okay, I understand, I really do” and “I’ll see you when you’re better” and then she hung up. I continued sick for two more days. I had never been, nor have been since, so physically ill.
Thursday morning, I was on the nine o’clock to Seattle. I caught a local from the station and went right to the dorm, but her roommate said she had gone home, was staying home for a few days. I called her, but she didn’t want to talk much. She said she felt dead. She said her parents didn’t know and it was hard not telling them. She said all she did was hurt. She said I shouldn’t call her there, and that we should talk next week.
Next week arrived, and we spent another miserable day walking those same campus paths, hand in hand. She said she forgave me. If she did, she’s the only one.
Tony Press lives near San Francisco. He strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses; Boston Literary; Doorknobs & BodyPaint; 5×5; Foundling Review; Grey Sparrow Journal; Halfway Down the Stairs; JMWW; Linnet’s Wings; MacGuffin; Menda City Review; Qarrtsiluni; Rio Grande Review; Riverbabble; SFWP Journal; Shine Journal; Switchback; Toasted Cheese; Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel; Contemporary Verse 2; Inkwell; Naugatuck River Review; Postcard Press; Right Hand Pointing; Spitball; Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature; Quay; Toasted Cheese. tonypress108[at]gmail.com