The Writer's Voice
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The summer of thirty-nine! Being twenty-one and a senior, that should have been enough.
But no! I signed on to the committee to impeach Martin Dies. I marched with the Irish Liberation Army in the spring, and I attended meetings in Lennie's basement with the Red Guard every Thursday. Shouldn't that be enough excitement for a young man of twenty-one in the summer of thirty-nine?
No! -- I had to go and fall in love!
I first noticed her in Economics II. Then in European History. At lunch and dinner I'd see her in the cafeteria or walking through the halls surrounded by her friends -- she'd be nestled in the middle of them, like the heart of a flower, shielded from the outside .... from predatory seniors like me. All my political posturing, the clenched fists -- all the issues that meant so much to me were suddenly forgotten -- shoved rudely to the back of the stove. The plight of the proletariat was no longer important to me. I lived only to see her, to watch her in the center of her friends.
I strained to hear her voice, I listened carefully and by using precise tuning, I was able to isolate it from the gaggle of other voices around her. It was a low voice for a woman .... low in volume, low in pitch -- a voice that, like everything else about her, seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her. When she laughed, her friends would laugh too, and by some mysterious transcendental linkage I would find myself laughing. Then I would catch myself and stop -- what would she think of this ragged revolutionary standing alone laughing like an idiot?
She was a small and graceful girl, with short dark hair framing a pale face and very large inquiring eyes. Her complexion was flawless, and it was obvious she needed no make-up, yet her brows looked freshly penciled in, and her mouth, always slightly parted and on the brink of a smile, looked freshly painted.
I lost track of my own identity. To hell with Martin Dies and his un American Activities Committee, the hell with marching for Northern Ireland -- to hell with school! I was head over heels in love! My throat was dry -- I was parched -- I goggled at her, and my mouth hung open as though I was in the presence of a miracle. I stared at her from behind my beard like a homeless person, unaware that I looked like an unmade bed.
Although I had never been closer to her than ten feet, my bloodhound senses had picked up the sight, the sound and the scent of her. Love had lent me a homing device that enabled me to predict where she would be, and I would be there before her, waiting to see, hear, and yes, even smell her. Who was this rare and beautiful creature?
Where, within her, was her soul -- the magic that made her different from any woman I'd ever seen? I had to have her! I had to have her -- to myself. Alone!
As she moved through the halls in the company of her male and female attendants, I began nodding to her -- pretending we had met somewhere before. Ten or more times a day I would be there to nod and smile, hoping she would accept me as someone she knew. She gave me no sign or signal, but that didn't matter. My plan was to familiarize her with the sight of me, someone she might recognize in time. I had adopted the outward appearance of a Parisian poet of the late eighteenth century, (it was a very popular masquerade with serious young men in the summer of thirty-nine).
Later, I stood in front of my dormitory mirror and looked at the wretch I had become. I was filled with doubt. None of her friends looked as disreputable as me. They were clean shaven, wore smarter clothes, and looked, as the saying used to go, "up and coming." There were hollow sockets where my eyes had been, I looked hunted, my clothes hadn't been to the laundry in weeks. I was a poignant, homeless figure -- yet she looked at me without disgust. Perhaps there was hope for me!
Love is a devious mistress. It teaches the lover to be crafty and cunning. With no trouble at all I stole "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" from her open locker as we passed from European History to English Lit. As I held her book in my hand, I thought of her holding it in hers. Both our hands had held this book! -- not at the same time, but almost -- and if I used the scale of time in the book, it was as if we had held it together. I opened it and saw her name, "Property of Jennifer Hubble."
Her name had a sobering effect on me and I felt as though I had bullied my way into the sanctity of her family. The book carried a faint scent -- something similar to rosemary. My book stank of stale cigarettes, like the rest of me. I felt I might contaminate her book if I kept it too long.
She had underlined certain passages with green pencil. Her underlining would venture timidly out into the margin, and once there she would write her notes in a controlled and delicate hand. Little circles above the i's, and j's -- the belly of the loops under her y's and g's were pregnant with significance.
Never had a lover learned so much from a book of history.
I burst through her phalanx of admirers. "Jenny! You left your book in history class!"
To this day I'm not certain if she believed me, but to her credit she accepted the book and smiled.
"Thank you ...."
"Thank you .... Eliot."
It was a beginning, like the first step in an assault of Mt. Everest. I'm sure there are there better ways to begin, but we cannot create beginnings out of thin air, we are forced to use the materials we have. Romeo found Juliet at a ball -- Tristan and Isolde were enemies until they drank a magic potion.
As the pace of destiny quickened, and as the clouds of war thickened about us, this young man of twenty-one used his meager store of wit and wisdom to gain the attention of Jennifer Hubble. She had, after all, spoken his name! She hadn't shrunk in revulsion at the sight of him. She simply said, "Thank you .... Eliot!"
Long after the encounter, I replayed the sound of my name as it came from her parted lips.
I took it as a signal to proceed. I checked myself in the dormitory mirror again and wondered where to begin. There was serious work to be done. A haircut, a trimming of the beard -- and by all means a general scrubbing down of a body that had been too long in the trenches of left wing commitment -- of sitting in damp basement rallies -- of passing out manifestos on rainy street corners.
After that, a little attention to the ragged clothing. My enthusiasm for the causes of the common man, the marches and ad hoc committees had faded away. I was walking on air with a song in my heart -- I knew at last what made the world go round!
I wrote her a note!!
"Jenny, I must see you. It's very important. At the stone bench, by the lion, after the last lecture. Okay? -- Eliot."
I agonized over that note. I used blank white paper, instead of something torn out of a notebook. I wanted to make it seem imperative, (hence the "must") yet I didn't want to alarm her. Most of all, by the implied 'important' nature of the note, I hoped she would break away from her coterie of attendants and see me alone. I slipped the note through the ventilating slots of her book locker.
I sat there on the hard cold bench wearing Rudy Westerman's forest green cable knit sweater and Charlie Brooke's new brown corduroy pants. That morning I sprung for my first haircut in more than a month, and spent my lunch break trimming my beard.
As I sat on the bench by the stone lion under a threatening summer sky, I was aware of a few admiring glances from co-ed freshmen in their beanies. I had a mental image of myself as Andrea Chenier, in his tumbrel, rattling along the cobbled streets of Paris on his way to the guillotine.
I sat there until dark, out of cigarettes and hungry as hell. I was forced to admit that my preparations had failed. What was of utmost importance to me was obviously of no concern to her. I rose stiffly from the cold stone bench, brushed the ashes from Rudy Westerman's sweater, and reluctantly headed for the school cafeteria. What if she were to suddenly appear after I left -- like the Governor's pardon arriving after the prisoner had been executed?
Wait a minute! Perhaps she had forgotten my name! That was it!! She didn't know who 'Eliot' was. How stupid of me! But then again -- even if she didn't know, wouldn't she be curious enough to want to know .... pass by hurriedly with her ever attendant group to see who was sitting on the stone bench?
I had worked myself into a frenzy of doubt -- madly infatuated -- insanely obsessed with an unresponsive mistress. Yes, mistress! I could only compare myself to a dog who finds his mistress has abandoned him.
I sat alone in the cafeteria. Rudy Westerman came over and wanted his sweater back. After checking it for cigarette burns, he asked me how I made out.
"I didn't borrow it to make out, Rudy."
"Well, why didn't you wear your own then?"
"None of your business."
"Huh! I guess not .... you going to the meeting tonight?"
"The Red Guard, dummy! Lennie's basement. Mantell is speaking tonight, he's just back from Washington."
"I don't think so, Rudy. I've got to write a letter tonight."
"What's the matter with you anyway. You used to be a real torch bearer. Now look at you -- you got a haircut and a brand new pair of pants -- and for a while there, you had a new sweater."
"The pants aren't mine, they're Charlie Brooke's -- have you got any cigarettes?"
Rudy shook his head at me and folded his sweater. He fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out a handful of these things he rolled himself on a machine he had brought from home. God knows what was in them -- he said it was something that grew wild in a field in back of his father's house.
It was pretty obvious to me that I had passed into another dimension. The down-trodden masses would have to find someone else to carry their torch, at least until this situation with Jennifer Hubble was resolved. I was a non-active member of the Red Guard now.
I sat there for a time planning my next, and probably most crucial step. It would have to be a letter. It would have to explain in intimate detail the agony I was going through -- what she had done to me -- what I was prepared to do if she, if she .... well, it would all have to get into the letter somehow.
The threatening summer sky had turned to rain, a very cold rain and I could almost smell the wet raincoats in the basement meeting room under Lennie's bar in Collegetown. I managed to stay relatively dry on my way back to the dorm by ducking in and out of the buildings on campus.
By the time I got back I had worked out the theme of the love letter in my head. I was determined that this as yet unwritten declaration would be a beacon to all those who love in the future.
It went surprisingly well. At 11 p.m. I slipped the six pages into a clean white envelope and sealed it. Almost immediately I slit the envelope open and read it again .... I added a PS. I got another envelope and told myself that this was the last time, it was going to go like this or not at all.
It was nearly midnight. The rain had stopped and I decided to walk the letter over to her dorm. The campus was deserted now, even the security patrol had given up for the night.
In the vestibule of every dorm the school provided a large bulletin board which was used as a makeshift mailbox. It's the first thing the students checked going in and the last thing going out. I tacked it to the very center of the board, making sure there was space all around it -- she couldn't miss it in the morning.
I had written that I would be at Lennie's every evening from nine to eleven at a table in the back of the room. I assured her that she had nothing to fear from me and it would be much better if she came alone.
My anguish throughout the next three days was indescribable. I saw her every day in class -- tried to read her expression -- search her mind. Between classes she remained in the center of her friends, her bodyguards, all of them jockeying for position. Our eyes would catch every so often, but quickly the contact would be broken as though both of us had opened a door to a private room and feared to enter.
I drank everything Lennie had for sale, coffee, coke, beer and even tea. Rudy Westerman, fresh from his Red Guard rallies downstairs, would come up and sit with me.
"We missed you last night, Eliot -- Mantell was on fire. There's gonna be war, you know that don't you?"
"Get away from me, I'm expecting somebody."
"I swear, man, you're goin' down the drain. Don't you care any more? Look at you! The world's comin' apart and you look like you didn't have a date for the prom."
"Got any more of those home made cigarettes, Rudy?"
He gave me another handful and they helped to pass the time, in fact, after two or three you lost track of where you were. Lennie was closing up -- letting down the wooden blinds and staring at me meaningfully.
It looked as though my third night of waiting would be fruitless, but suddenly the door opened and there she was. Alone! She seemed much smaller alone. I stood and we looked at each other across the emptiness of the room.
"You two kids aren't plannin' to settle down here, are'ya? I'm gettin' ready to shut down for the night." Lennie already had the lights down and the cook was taking out the trash.
"No, we're going. That all right with you, Jennifer?" She nodded. I hurried across the room and took her arm, she pulled away -- she wasn't ready for that. How clumsy two people can be when they're in the first stages. We found ourselves out in the street in almost total darkness. The click of the lock and the catch of the bolt behind us meant we were on our own.
We walked together -- back to the campus, an inch or two of emptiness carefully maintained between us. Finally -- at the stone bench by the lion, I stopped.
"You read the letter?"
".... and still you're here."
"I thought, maybe it was a little strong -- that it might scare you. I'm too frank for my own good sometimes."
"It was, and you are -- but still I'm here."
"Would you like to sit here a moment? It's hard to speak to you during the day, you're always .... always."
"I know, I can't help it, I seem to attract people."
I inched closer to her on the bench. "You know, I ask myself every day. 'What is Jennifer?' .... Whatever you are, Jennifer -- I can't live without you."
"You're being silly, I'm nothing. I don't know what you're expecting."
There was so much to say! It was so late! The college was sound asleep, and off to the east Europe was on the brink of war! I wanted to say, "Damn it all to hell, Jennifer -- hold your hands to your ears. Cup them like shells, can't you hear it? It's the drums -- there will be war, Jennifer, WAR! I think I have been born to fight in this war! Let us be together while there's still time." Instead, I made a decision that still mystifies me.
"I'm thinking of quitting school, Jennifer. I want to enlist."
"You're crazy! What for?" The library clock sounded 11:30. "Oh, my God! Look at the time -- I've got to go, Eliot."
"There will be war -- very soon now. It will change everything."
"But graduation is in two months. Don't you want to graduate?" Without waiting for an answer, she ran off down the path to her dormitory.
I had managed somehow to bring out the most important things on my mind, love and war, but they accomplished nothing. She was interested in neither. I thought if I told her I was leaving, it might make a difference. It didn't.
We saw a lot of each other that final summer. Most of our day to day meetings were in the company of her devoted friends. I had little in common with them, and if I had been more honest with myself, I would have to say I had little in common with Jennifer. But I made her larger than life, and she could do no wrong.
We would be alone on weekends. She did not shine as brilliantly on her own, she was a focal point and needed to be in a setting. She made no further attempt to keep me from enlisting -- I hoped she would. I never would have made the commitment if I thought I had to go through with it. We grew no closer, there was an impenetrable barrier in her psyche that prohibited physical intimacy beyond what she considered permissible.
"We're too young -- there's so much ahead of us. Be good Eliot. Can't you be satisfied with what we have?" She would allow me to touch her here and there, but under strict control and a firm resolve not to venture into the fathomless depths into which I was so eager to plunge.
"Do you know what I'm going through, Jenny?"
"I guess so."
Her noncommittal replies were torture. She
wanted to take every step along the way. No short cuts -- every road to be
followed to its destination before another road could be considered.
Czechoslovakia fell, Austria fell, then the march into Poland. The skies
grew darker and the drums grew louder -- she was unaware of them, they were too
far away for her to hear.
Jennifer and I made solemn promises to each other when I left, and I believe we meant to keep them -- but when two people are young, they're not expected to keep promises for long, surely not in the face of war. Each day I find it more difficult to remember her. I can't see her face any more. Her photograph in my wallet is the face of a stranger.
I have been certain for months now that it must be the same for her. I expect she has looked at my picture and wondered who this strange young man was and what has become of him. If we were to meet today on that stone bench by the lion, would we recognize each other?
Sezze is a quiet little Italian town on the coast road to Rome. Two days ago it was a flaming nightmare of tank and artillery fire. I thought there would be nothing left of it, but, glory be ....! The church still stands and Signor Marandella managed to reopen his little taverna in the square this morning. He let down a ragged, shrapnel-shredded awning to filter the warm Italian sun and he's selling the local wine, and an unmarked German beer in brown bottles with porcelain stoppers.
The beer is warm of course, and can be kept no colder than the water in the village pump -- but it is beer. How quickly civilization sets in after the battle clears. A field hospital arrived early this morning along with Patton's senior staff, and the mail from home just came in -- it looks like we're putting down roots.
It was here in Marandella's tavern that a letter came from Jennifer Hubble. Her careful writing in green ink, still with the little circles above the "i's" and "j's" .... and the pregnant bellies of the "y's" and "g's" ....
"Dearest Eliot ...." it began, she never called me that before. ".... I really don't know how to tell you this ...."
If she didn't, she had an excellent teacher. It was skillfully written. My interest should have been been greater than it was, I suppose -- I should have kept reading, but Signor Marandella broke in. He and his wife were overjoyed that the Americans and the British had taken back the town.
"It is sad that so many friends have perished, Signor -- yours and mine you know -- 'Morte' -- but God is always with the victims, si? Those who live must go on, is that not so? I count myself among the most fortunate of men. Today I can offer you the wine of my village -- and the beer of the devil himself, if you prefer. If you will be patient, Signor .... my wife is preparing pasta and calamari."
". . . Peter is expecting his CPA license in December .... the marriage will be January 14th ....the baby is due in early July. I wish it could have been different with you and me, Eliot, but I'm sure you understand."
Of course I do, Jenny -- I didn't then, but I do now.
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