It only took me five years to finish my Modern Love submission to the NYTimes, and, even though I didn’t think it was the bee’s knees, I submitted it last month. As expected, I received the rejection this week. Still, I will post it for the sake of, of…of something dignified and ego-assuaging. I’ll even, for entertainment’s sake, add a few visuals.
WHEN THE EARTH MOVED
During the drive over to visit my ex-boyfriend Doug, I suddenly decide that I will have an affair with him. Not a full-blown sexual affair, but maybe a steamy make-out session, for old time’s sake. It’s been decades since we’ve seen one another, and while we are both presently in blatantly stable marriages, the blissfully potent year we’d spent together has been a permanent fixture in my memories. The two most thrilling experiences of my sophomore year of college happened while I was with Doug.
We’d met one sunny autumn afternoon as I strolled by the window of his dorm room. I saw the ruggedly handsome, blonde boy inside, his head lowered over a thick textbook, and said hello through the dingy gray screen. He glanced up and smiled.
“Why are you inside on such a beautiful day?” I asked.
“Studying for a poli-sci exam.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, hoping my freshly-washed hair shining in the sunlight, and flowered dress, billowing in the soft breeze, would stir him.
“You’re right,” he said, closing the book. “Let’s bike to the lake.”
We lounged on the grass close to one another watching the ducks swim, and poured out our stories. He wanted to be an architect. I wanted to be a writer. He wanted to live in the country. I wanted to live in the city. With the theme song to “Green Acres” playing in my head, I let him hold my face and kiss me. He smelled sweet, as if he ate nothing but blackberries.
A day later we were a campus item. Doug walked me to class with his arm draped over my shoulders. In the spring he led me on my first back-packing trip through the Yosemite Valley where I had to get used to eating and drinking from the one metal Sierra cup he’d tied to the side of my rented backpack. We hiked in four miles and made camp beyond Nevada Falls. Doug thoughtfully zipped together our sleeping bags, and the sound of the falls’ insistent surge washed over our warm tangled bodies as we slept. When we unzipped the tent the next morning we discovered that a May snow had silently fallen in the night. A few hundred feet below us, the Merced River raged past icy banks. Doug cleared off a flat rock and made love to me, my damp back cool, the front of my body warmed by his heat.
The 6.1 magnitude Mammoth Lakes Earthquake hit the next morning.
I’d been standing by the fire, sipping peppermint tea while Doug cooked oatmeal on the camp stove. The earth shook forcibly enough to send both me and the cup falling to the ground. Doug bolted up. “Aftershocks could send rocks and trees down,” he said scanning the side of the mountain above us. “We have to get out of here right now.”
We quickly packed up and raced back to the car. I couldn’t keep up. I was sweating. Thirsty. I whined that I needed to stop and rest or take a swig of water, but Doug patiently and persistently hurried me on. “We’re not safe here,” he said as he tightened the strap across my chest. “I love you too much to let you die under an avalanche of rocks.”
Now, a lifetime later, stopped at a red light, I wonder if Doug had actually saved my life. I twist the rear-view mirror and study the many lines around my eyes and mouth.
When we got back to the dorms, Doug gently swabbed and bandaged the painful blisters lining my novice heels as we watched the news reports about several hikers in Yosemite who’d been critically injured that day from falling rock. In bed that night, Doug had held me more tightly than ever before, repeating over and over how relieved he was that we’d made it out alive.
I reset the rear-view mirror and find a mint in my purse because I am even more certain, now that I am minutes away from seeing him again, that I will walk up to Doug and kiss him passionately. If he asks a startled why, I will say to thank him for leading me out of danger all those years ago. I will want it to be the same sort of spontaneous, deep, open-mouthed kiss that he surprised me with one night in front of Enrico’s Café in San Francisco. When we both finally, reluctantly, let the kiss die, I’d glanced up, slightly embarrassed by our very public display of affection. Over Doug’s shoulder I could see two men at a table, one of whom stared at us with a grin on his face. I knew the man from somewhere, but couldn’t place him.
Then my mind suddenly snapped onto the author photo on the back of Willard And His Bowling Trophies, the book I’d read only a week earlier. There was no mistaking that bushy moustache and long hair: the man who had just eavesdropped on our kiss was Richard Brautigan—my literary hero
I ran to his table, fan-crazy, and in an excited rush of words I told him how much I loved his writing: I’d read everything, everything! he’d ever written. He smiled warmly at me as if I were a toddler showing him a sputtering sparkler I had gripped in my hand. I was beyond star-struck, and when he invited us to share some food with him and his companion I yanked Doug over to the table and pulled up a chair.
Before I could assault him with the thousands of I-want-to-be-a-writer-too questions I had gurgling up inside me—where do you write; how long does it take you to write a book; where do your ideas come from—Richard turned to Doug.
“That’s a cool wool coat, man. Where did you get it?”
He was more interested in Doug’s coat than in discussing the brilliance of Trout Fishing in America. Obviously, he just wanted a young couple in love to join him and his friend for some beef stroganoff.
Richard’s companion sat in a wheelchair, paying no attention to Doug and me. Instead, he sat doodling on a stack of cocktail napkins. When I introduced myself and asked him what he was drawing he looked up and said, “The world, as it passes by.” His name was Ron Kovic, he told me, and when I asked him why he was in a wheelchair he said he’d been paralyzed by a bullet in the Vietnam War. “Maybe you’ve read the book I wrote,” he said. “It’s called Born on the Fourth of July.” Before I could tell him, no, I’ve not read it, but will as soon as I get to the library, he lowered his pen and went back to drawing the world as it passed by.
I turn onto the long private road leading to Doug’s address. The house he built is large and handsome, exactly as I’d expected. At my urging, Doug had applied to architecture school. I’d told him to follow his dream, but never imagined he actually would. A year after our first kiss he transferred to a design school an entire state away. We tried for a time to keep the connection, but, as with many distant romances, the relationship deliquesced into nonexistence.
Doug is walking toward the car and I’m still inside. He is lined and tanned, merely an older version of his old self. I step out, lick my lips and reach out my arms, but just as I am about to pull him into the long-imagined kiss, two tall young people rush out the front door. “These are my kids,” Doug says proudly before we get a chance to so much as hug. “They’ve been hearing me talk about you all these years and they really wanted to meet you.” I should feel flattered that I’ve remained a subject heading in his life history, but I am disappointed that I will not get to taste one of his sweet kisses again.
“Hey, you know, Amy is reading some of Richard Brautigan’s books,” he says while touring me around the large property.
I nod approvingly at the girl, who has inherited her father’s clear blue eyes. I am about to say how tragic it was that Richard Brautigan shot himself in the head not long after Doug and I had dinner with him, but rather than sully the air with sadness, I say, “Did your father tell you how he saved my life?”“Only about a thousand times,” Doug’s son replies with a roll of his eyes, and suddenly they are both gone—off to do whatever teenagers do in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Doug and I stand alone next to an enormous grape arbor.
“I still have that cocktail napkin with the doodle that guy Ron did of you.”
“Did you ever see the movie they made about him?”
“Yeah. Tom Cruise looked nothing like him.” I look around and wonder if the coast is clear enough for a kiss. “Hey. I want to you thank you for a great time,” I say referring not to the present moment, but to our short time together.
“You’re welcome. That was the best year of my life you know.”
“You’re lying. You’ve had a great life.” If he is telling the truth then I want him to add that he’s not in love with his wife and that we should give it another try. Sure, I love my husband, but a do-over with Doug?
As desperately as I want to be, I know I’m no longer that twenty-year-old in his arms who wanted to inhabit the promise of the long road ahead of me, never thinking that one day I’d look back from another life at what we’d been. There are still dangers for me in love, and I want him to take my hand and lead me away from the inexorable surety of love’s death.
But there is no do-over.
Instead, Doug yanks a huge black grape from the arbor and slides it slowly, sentimentally, into my mouth. It’s as close to a fruit-scented kiss as I’m going to get. And for that I am, mostly, grateful.