Easton, Dec. 31, 1976
He reached the crest of College Hill and began a descent into the township, its few subdivision lights scattered below him like sparse constellations.
He had passed from city to country, just like that. That was one of the many quirks of his newly adopted home, Pennsylvania, to which he was adjusting in fits and starts. (Learning to pronounce Lenni Lenape place names like “Poconos” and “Tatamy,” now that was proving a challenge.)
Rod Stewart rasped “Tonight’s the Night” over the AM band of his AMC Gremlin, a squat, rolling box whose nondescript color his buddy Mark relished calling “baby-shit brown.”
A dubious love chariot, perhaps, but still a better choice for the coming jaunt to Philly than her sky-blue VW Bug.
Despite its inescapable dorkiness, the Gremlin at least had a working heater and windshield wipers. In her car, on this frigid night, they would’ve had to reach their hands out as they drove to scrape the frost off the glass.
He turned onto Old Mill Road, past the asphalt expanse of the Food Lane parking lot. From the dashboard, Stewart leered the familiar lyric coaxing Britt Ecklund to “spread her wings.”
For some reason, on this hundredth listen, the hit song’s predatory ickiness hit him full force. “Christ, Rod, what’s happened to you?” he thought.
As he inched along the dark road (No streetlights? Really? Toto, we’re not in Cleveland anymore.), his heart began to flail against his rib cage. Pulling to a stop in front of her parents’ house, he stared at the mustard-colored Plymouth in the driveway, as though its stolid length could calm the adrenalin setting his nerves on fire.
“It’s not a date, dumbass,” he said to the rear-view mirror. He hadn’t been her only invitee to this New Year’s party at her best friend’s apartment in exotic Bryn Mawr. (Can’t they give anything a simple name in this state? What’s wrong with, say, Maple Heights?)
She had also invited their work colleague Jim, who was rapidly becoming both his new best friend and, he feared, his main rival for her attention.
That was not, he thought glumly, a dating game he could possibly win. Jim drove a convertible and looked like a young Tom Selleck. On the other hand, he looked like a Sicilian Woody Allen.
But Jim, bless him, had opted for another bash where, rumor had it, his old college flame would be making a cameo.
So, shortly, if only he could force his shaking legs to cross that lawn and ring that doorbell, it would be just him and her, alone in the Gremlin, on the Northeast Extension. For quite a while.
But, right now, the puckish involuntary systems of his body were telling him just how much that prospect terrified and thrilled.
“Out, dumbass. Do it.”
Her mother answered the doorbell. A Gaelic pixie, mischievous eyes, elfin ears, inches shorter than her.
Her mom beckoned him to the living room; he stood uneasily, hands jammed in parka pockets. He was aware of siblings scurrying to and fro from the ranch house’s kitchen to its bedroom corridor, paying him no mind.
“She’ll be just a minute. Not enough bathrooms in this house and too many people with plans for the night. So you’re Chris. Tell me about yourself.”
You’re Chris. A fleeting positive: He’d been mentioned.
He gave a brief, comical account of himself. Charming mothers was one of his core competencies; it was their daughters who left his tongue clumsy, his throat clotted.
She finally emerged from the hallway, already in coat and scarf, smiled at him. She hugged her mother, accepting with wry indulgence the usual admonishments about safe driving and limited drinking on this dangerous night.
Confounded, afraid to touch her, afraid to seem as awkward as he felt, he finally opted to step to the side, with a gallant sweep of his hand to the door. “Your chariot awaits.” (Really!? Arrghhh. Just shoot yourself now.)
“Wait!” her mother commanded. He complied. She flung her hands up to his cheeks, pulled him forward, planted a smooch on his cheek, then leaned back with a merry smile. “Had to wish you a Happy New Year.”
As his mind tumbled down flights of stairs, his body stumbled across the threshold and down the driveway, following the slim form of his … what? … sidekick for the evening.
Here’s how he’d begun the year that was now ending: Standing in an icy field in St. Etienne, France, staring up at a shrouded moon, as lonely as he’d been in his 22 years.
He’d wandered outside to escape the party to which one of his students from the lycee, Phillipe, had invited him. It was a gesture of camaraderie that had curdled as he stood glumly at his usual wallflower post, watching from the sidelines as the impossibly lithe Phillipe and his friends demonstrated what fabulous dancers they were.
Dancing was a thing he could not do; his body was immune to the beat. Iron manacles would grip his legs as he watched others blithely sway, shimmy and bop. All he could think while out on the dance floor was what a sneering version of himself, posted by the keg with the other losers, would say to mock his robotic efforts. He could hear the doppelganger’s gibes in his mind; they froze his limbs, plunged his soul.
So he’d abandoned the party and trudged outside, to tote up just how alone he was.
He was marooned, on this night of alleged merriment, in a foreign land whose language he’d mastered only well enough to do his work, but not well enough to let his personality shine though. At this midnight partway through his 23d year on the planet, his father was dead, his mother still mired in grief. His cheating high school honey was engaged to another guy, and his college love was in Chicago, living with her fiancé. (She’d already been engaged when he’d fallen for her, and she him. Doomed only began to describe that bit of wreckage). His buddies from home and college were tired of the sad-sack moaning of his letters, and would have preferred he not bother them until he straightened up.
“You are so pathetic,” he’d told himself, then gone back inside to watch Phillipe dance some more, literally walking on the walls.
Six months later, just before he headed home to America, a Channel crossing on which nothing happened in a strange way prepared the ground for so much to happen.
His fellowship was done. In a week, he was to fly back from Paris to Ohio. He decided to venture one last trip to his ancestral city, London, where his British mother had dodged the Blitz and his GI father had held her in his arms as Tommy Dorsey played.
During the crossing, in choppy water, he’d walked out on the ferry deck for air. There, he saw a young French woman looking pale and anxious. It was her first crossing, and it wasn’t going well. She felt ill, and having never been to London, was also gripped with fear that she might take the wrong train once there.
London he knew. His French, after a year abroad, was up – barely – to the challenge of advising her suavely about both mal de mer and the mysteries of British rail. She stuck by his side for the rest of the crossing.
She was pretty, very, with the French student’s knack for achieving style on a shoestring, though just the right flaring of a scarf, or something. Big brown eyes, framed by round glasses.
His mind romped, weighing the possibilities upon landfall. He summoned all the charm and wit he could muster in a second language. She laughed when she should. Drunk on that, he careened off a cliff, fixing her with a gaze and saying, “T’as des beaux yeux.” She winced slightly.
Off the ferry and onto the train they’d gone, he solicitous, she now distant. At St. Pancras Station, he’d helped her find the right platform for her next train. When it was time to board, he stood stock still, praying for the phone number, the offer to get together later in the week. She shook his hand, said, “Merci,” and was gone.
Back in America, he’d lived with his brother on Park Slope in Brooklyn for the summer, watching the political conventions and the Jenner-soaked Olympics obsessively, pretending to look for a job.
A few days after the closing ceremony, his brother said to him, “Hey, you’re my brother, but you know I can’t feed you forever, right? When are you going to get a job?”
So he trucked up to New England, to the posh campus where he’d grinded through four years of hard-won A’s and social ineptitude. After a feckless morning of riffing through files in the career counseling office, he shuffled across the quad to the student union’s snack bar, jonesing for one of its estimable cheeseburgers.
A voice called out his name.
It was a woman who’d been in his class, a goddess whose beauty had induced every cocky freshman jock (i.e. not him) to put a hopeful circle around her photo in the facebook for the class of ’75.
“What are you doing here?”
“Back from France, up to see what Career Counseling can do to help me find a job.”
“A job in what?”
To his dying day, he’d never quite be sure what had prompted him to say what he said next, the words that slammed one series of sliding doors shut for all time, yet opened another set, which he would march through, with as much happiness as is ever granted the average mortal, for the rest of his days:
“Oh, I dunno. Newspapers, maybe.”
“Well, Daddy owns a newspaper.”
Which Daddy certainly did. And which paper, just a week later, hired him to be its greenest cub reporter, despite his lack of any discernible qualification other than having been vaguely friendly with the publisher’s daughter in college.
On the day he interviewed for the job, a secretary bade him to plop down in a chair outside the managing editor’s office. He gazed across the newsroom, loving his first taste of its messy clamor. Against the far wall sat a young woman, a reporter apparently, typing furiously on an IBM Selectric, a phone jammed to her ear. She was pretty, very; slim, with astonishing eyes, framed by big glasses, and an unmistakable sense of style.
“Good Lord,” he thought. “It’s the girl from the Channel.”
It wasn’t, of course. The girl from the ferry’s role in this story was done, merely a minor harbinger. But this glance across a newsroom, now that was the advent of something much, much bigger.
In the fortnight between the job interview and his first day of work masquerading as a newspaper reporter, thousands of anxieties and queries swarmed his brain.
But one happy thought recurred: “I wonder what that pretty girl with the great eyes is really like.”
On the day he started, the education beat reporter was out sick. A distracted, irritable metro editor told him to sit at the ill staffer’s desk. (It would be a long time before that editor would reveal to him why he and other bosses had been so hard on him in the early going: The paper had a long, sordid tradition of hiring the boyfriends of the publishers’ daughters – and, by the time he arrived, the editors were beyond done with that shtick.)
So he sat where he was told.
Soon, choirs of angels were praising the Almighty in his head.
A rustling nearby. He looked up. She’d just come back from an assignment, laid her bag on a desk and plopped down. Right next to him. Yes!
For the rest of that first week, whenever his head could come up for air above the flood of tasks, confusion and anxiety that washed over him, he would do quiet reconnaissance on his beguiling neighbor.
She was smart and skilled; he jotted mental notes to emulate her brisk probing of sources. He eavesdropped on how she talked with her younger sister on the phone, such love and fierce loyalty. He swooned over how witty she was with colleagues in the office, with a gift for self-deprecation he adored.
And those eyes. Those eyes.
Nothing about life at college had ever struck him as remotely as raucous, joyous, intense, fulfilling or bonding as life in that newsroom, full of young turks on fire to make a mark.
Thrown together in a small city, mostly far from their homes, they leaned into one another. In a pell-mell frenzy, they worked and worked together, drank and drank together, gobbled all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinners, gathered to watch that new late-night sensation, Saturday Night Live , played seven-card stud until dawn, dragged bleary eyes and weary legs out for games of tennis and softball, kvetched endlessly about editors, fervently debated ethics and anecdotal leads, traded tips on how to work sources and find documents, and rooted for one another.
That was the wonder of it. Ambitious as they all were, they were not crabs in a bucket. They were loyal to one another and to an ideal that, for young reporters in an era awash in the reflected glow of Watergate, transcended mere ink on broadsheet: The Paper.
They wanted their paper to be great, to kick ass and make change in its little world just as the Post and the Times did in the big pond. And they wanted each of their number to be great in his or her own way, nestled beneath their paper’s arching canopy.
She was game for it all, hard-working, hard-drinking, a font of silvery laughter and sly wit. For him, very soon, with a force that worked beyond his will, she was the center of it. She was all of it, the point of it.
Before she even was sure how to pronounce his odd last name, before she could even see beyond his ghastly fashion sense (“God, those circus shirts you wore,” she would tease him later on), he was in love with her.
One night, the gang gathered at the dive bar next to the paper. As often happened, a former district attorney, a paisan with one of the worst comb-overs this side of the Continental Divide, commandeered the jukebox to sing along, full-throated and wildly off key, to Ol’ Blue Eyes belting out “My Way.”
Before the lawyer and his pals had massacred “I faced it all and I stood it all …,” most of the newsroom gang had risen in irritation and announced they were calling it a night. That left him with just her.
She teased him, “I bet you think you’re pretty cool with that bourbon on the rocks thing you do.”
“It’s a good drink. I like it.”
“So do I. And I bet I could drink you under the table.”
She was a hell of a woman and a pretty good drinker, but she was wrong.
An hour or so later, he helped her walk unsteadily back to the paper, into the elevator, and down the hall to the ladies room, which had an anteroom with a couch.
Gently, he tried to get her to lie down on it. Instead, she sprawled right onto the dingy carpet and fell asleep. He grabbed a quilt from the couch and laid it, tenderly, across her sleeping form.
Then, not knowing what to do, desperate to help but afraid to do anything untoward, he left her sleeping sweetly and went home.
Along Route 22, on the way through the Valley to the Extension, their talk slowly found its footing. Second by second, he became less intent on the thought My God, I’m alone with her and more able to actually enjoy being in this hurtling, baby-shit brown box with her.
She was so funny, so full of sharp, observant opinions. So rock solid in her sense of herself, yet winsomely self-mocking. And after he spoke, the next thing she said showed she’d been listening.
Somewhere between the Allentown and Quakertown exits, they began comparing notes as fellow English majors.
He decided to go all in, to bring up the sacred text which, read and reread throughout that long, lonely year in France, had kept him sane.
“Did you ever read Howard’s End?”
“Of course. ‘Only connect.’ I love that book.”
His soul was Gene Kelly, dancing along glimmering Paris streets.
Yes, only connect. The novel’s signature phrase was for him the key to a life live well lived, lived morally. Connect the global to the local, and the reverse. Connect the choices you make at the mall with the ripples that reach across oceans. Connect spirit to sinew; connect what you sing in church on Sunday to what you do at the office on Monday. Connect what you fear to how you sin, and what you love to what you choose to do.
Only connect. She’d read it. She’d gotten it. She loved it.
He had to be with her. But first he had to survive this night without screwing up.
It would have been smart to have checked the gas gauge before he’d gone to pick her up.
But the thought of being with her for a whole evening had put him into such an electric fog that he’d forgotten.
So off the Lansdale exit ramp of the Extension he was forced to go, winding his way to the nearest gas station.
He walked to the rear of the car to twist open the funky gas cap with the Gremlin emblem. It was frozen shut. He fumbled in a panic with his bare, freezing hands (gloves would have been a good idea on a sub-zero night, too).
Finally, she got out to see what was the matter. Miserable, he pointed at the ice-caked cap.
“Not sure what to do with this.”
She took out a lighter. “Would this help?”
Some dim part of his besotted brain tried to sound a klaxon: “Gasoline. Flame. Bad.” But he couldn’t make out the warning.
“Sure,” he said.
He waved the flame inches from the cap; droplets of water formed.
Closing the lighter, he yanked on the cap. It turned, opened. He filled the tank, and they resumed the road to Bryn Mawr.
Only years later would it dawn on him how close he’d come to extinguishing his life, and the love of his life, in a blaze of idiocy.
Her best friend lived in an apartment in a modern, two-story complex a bit off of Lancaster Avenue.
By the time they arrived, the party was beginning to stretch its limbs.
In the car, she’d given him a sense of how tight and treasured this friendship was, how Barb had been there for her during every second of a sadness that had haunted her high school years, to which she alluded without explaining.
He advised himself: Try with every fiber of your being to win this Barb over to your cause.
This being a New Year’s party, the plan was to stay over at the friend’s place, with most of the other guests. To that end, they’d brought sleeping bags. He’d spent a year in France crashing on apartments floors with people he’d just met, but this part of the deal still worried him. Where would he sleep? Where would she? What would she expect? How to avoid mistake?
When he looked around the tiny apartment, another fear that had haunted his imaginings of this night dimmed. Not much room for dancing.
The place churned with 20-somethings holding drinks in red plastic cups. “Born to Run” played on a stereo in another room: “Baby, I’m just a scared and lonely rider.” She’d gone to school in Jersey, was proud her gang had been all over the Boss long before he became a cover of Time thing.
She introduced him to Barb, the best friend. Operation Charm launched. When he’d doffed his parka, he’d held onto his long, burnt-orange knitted scarf. He kept it draped around his neck in what felt to him like a dash of Gallic flair. The scarf gave him a bizarre shot of confidence. That, combined with the nimbus of joy that’d hovered over him since the Quakertown exit, enabled him to navigate the spiky terrain of big-party small talk with something resembling skill.
Then somebody brought up the Mummers, wondering whether the record cold snap that was pummeling Philly might affect plans for the next morning.
His internal alert system dulled by a couple of Buds, he blurted, “What are Mummers?”
This then joined “Puh-KO-nose,” “What’s a cheese-steak?” and “You’re kidding, nobody really goes to New Jersey to see the ocean, do they?” on his growing list of Philly-ignorant, Buckeye boy faux pas.
“What are the Mummers!? You’re serious? Jack, show him!”
At this, her friend Jack, an Irish Philly cop to whom he’d taken an instant liking, jumped up and, to the accompaniment of a half dozen mouth kazoos playing “’Dem Golden Slippers,” began doing the Mummers’ strut around and around the crowded living room. Others joined in, an impromptu, ragged comic brigade.
Then, settling into a corner with a fresh beer, Jack gave him a crash course in Two Street, string bands, and the multiple glories of South Philly.
A half-hour later, they were still talking – as Jack told tales of his tour in Vietnam.
“How ‘bout you? Did you serve?”
“Nah, lottery, year 3. Number 176. High enough to stay out of it, as it turned out.”
“Good for you, man. Wouldn’t wish that shit on anyone.”
He stole a glance across the room to where she stood, leaning against a wall, cup in hand, chatting with an old college friend.
She was so pretty, but it was more than that. He had the sensation that her sweet face was a map only he could read, detecting all the goodness and wit, the loyalty, sorrow and pain that lived within. The way she looked, no, not just that, the way she was in the world – it seemed to reach into him at a molecular level.
She caught his eye, came over: “Having an OK time with all my crazy friends.?”
“Good to see you and Jack getting along. He’s one of my closest friends.”
Hmm. How close?
“It was nice getting to talk on the way down.”
“Yes, it was.”
“What time do you have to leave tomorrow? Do you have to be anywhere?”
“I might drive to my brother’s for the weekend, but no rush.”
“You remember I’m staying here with Barb for the holiday, right? But I hope you can stay through breakfast.”
When they turned on the TV to watch the ball fall in Times Square, he tensed. At midnight, how to handle the protocol for hugs and kisses? Everyone might be flinging themselves at everyone, which was fine, but he had to calibrate his encounter with her precisely. Just a hug, a cheek peck, a real kiss?
He might be convinced she was the missing piece of his soul, but he had absolutely no clue, none, what she might want in this moment.
Dick Clark counted down, midnight came, Times Square went bonkers, and Barb’s other friend Barb threw her arms around him. He disentangled in a panic, then found her. She reached out to clasp him lightly by the forearms – and pecked his cheek.
It was not much of a kiss. Hardly qualified for the description.
It buckled his knees.
An hour later, she stood in the apartment bathroom in her pajamas, side by side with her best friend. They got ready to brush their teeth.
“That guy you brought, I like him,” Barb said.
“He isn’t a date. But, yeah, he’s nice.”
“No, I really like him.”
“OK … What?”
“You’re going to marry him, you know.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, I mean it. He’s the one. You’re going to marry him.”
“You are such a nut.”
The Gremlin flew across the Atlantic Highlands, towards his brother’s and sister-in-law’s place in Brooklyn.
Elton John sang “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with someone named Kiki Dee.
When he got to Steve and Jane’s, the mood there was a well-toked mellow.
But he was stoked, bouncing around like a meth head.
To his brother’s surprise, he (who’d stubbornly refused to use marijuana all through college, just to make some obscure point that by the end of four years he could barely remember) took a few drags on the communal joint, just to settle down.
During his first, intense months at the paper, his visits to his brother had been pretty much the only days he didn’t work 12 hours. While in Brooklyn, he was often both keyed up and crankily exhausted. Kind of a pain to be around, frankly.
This day, his mood was purest silver.
“Hey, what’s up?” Steve said. “You’re grinning like an ape. I haven’t seen you like this in … forever. I mean, it’s good dope, but …”
I’ve found her, he thought to himself. I’ve found HER.
To them, though, he said nothing. Just smiled like a man with a secret.