Saturday, February 5, 2011

Comparative Notes

     I heard him before I saw him, a  sing-song-laughter stopping me mid-sentence at that Santa Monica lunch place.  I looked at the man and felt as if I should have known him,  the tilt of the head, the Bruno Magli loafers, and that laughter. He was a ghost from the past I couldn't name, a feeling of youth and desire lost in the sink holes of Florida, so many years before.
After I left the restaurant, it came all back to me in a flash.
Drew and I were graduate students at Florida State University,  in the early seventies,  in professor Rieber’s Comparative Literature Class. 
Back then, we gravitated to the same  coffee shop after class talking about  Billy Bud, choosing the same coffee: two shots of espresso, with a tablespoon of foam, two sugars.   There were no Starbucks then, and our order was unusual.   
"I am sick of the psycho- babble  in this class!" I had declared before I knew much about either the professor or Drew.  He asked me about my other classes.  "Just this one.  I am still nursing,"  I confessed. He looked shocked, didn't know married students attended classes too.  I told him I had three children and this was my last one, for sure.
I found out he was Prof. Rieber's assistant, and I quickly apologized about my previous statements. 
"Forget about it!" he said, " You should blame me for that assignment."  
"You? You believe in  Freudian analysis? " I asked.  
"I am more of a Jungian." He said.   
“A psychology major!"
"Not really." 
I didn't spend much time at the coffee shop after class, just ten, twenty minutes at a time, not enough to find out everything about Drew. I was nursing, and there is a biological alarm that goes off reminding the mother it's time to feed the baby.  My class was in the late afternoon, and after three hours in a lecture, I needed my baby to relieve my breasts. I wore an extra cotton sweater, just in case I needed to cover the evidence.
At Alumni Village, the student housing for married students, my next door neighbor Kristin was curious about my running off in the afternoons.  I told her about my new class, about this guy,  Drew I had met.  
"I know him!" she declared,  "he comes from Italy." 
  "No," she added, " he grew up in Hungary and escaped to Italy after the revolution.  He went to school all over.  He is your age, I think. He's highly educated, was already a doctor of some sorts..."  
Kristin was easy to talk to. We exchanged recipes and complaints about  husbands and kids.    I was older, but our husbands  were the same age, both veterans  on the G. I bill, in graduate school , both pre-med,  hardly ever at home except to eat and sleep, and sex when we were not too tired or the baby was not colicky.
 Kristin had dropped out of school when she found herself pregnant, and confessed she had never felt this  lonely and bored. 
Drew was serious and polite,  not at all like  the Italian boys I had known. 
I casually mentioned Kristin.   
 “Does she speak  about me?  I lost track of her.” His voice softened.
When I told Kristin about this conversation, she became nervous:   “I hope you did not give him my number,” she said, adding,  “ He kept harassing me and forcing himself.  I did not want a serious relationship.What did you tell him, anything?” 
I couldn’t help feeling a bit used by both of them when he wanted to hear about her; and she pretended not to care, but kept inquiring about him.
A few weeks later , Kristin dropped in in the middle of the morning while I was bathing the baby, all excited: "This is your lucky day.  I have picked-up pizza for all of us so we can go over to the lake  before you have to get to class."
" Thanks for the offer," I shouted above the baby’s wailing,  "but I plan on  putting the baby down for a nap and work on my paper."  Kristin  kept insisting.  I knew that feeling.  We wanted to feel attractive and active but we were stuck home with the babies.  At the lake we would be around people like us, adults who wanted to have fun.
It seemed that the prettiest girls in the state of Florida attended Florida State in Tallahassee.  We felt inadequate in their presence, and covered up our bodies the best we could and hoped the glare would hide our stretch marks  We looked so much older than those twenty year old- bikini -clad coeds. 
Kristin had been both popular and physically fit before the baby came along, and she talked almost exclusively about her cheer leading days, the tons of parties she had attended, and all the beaus that buzzed around her sorority just to get a look at her.
At the lake, we positioned the babies under a shady oak, careful to avoid  the hanging moss that attracted insects and ants, and we took turns taking dips. 
 Kristin  hung around the lifeguard station where she dove gracefully and swam across with strength and grace.  I did not mind watching the babies longer than she watched.  Until, I saw her strike a conversation and linger at the far side of the lake.  Poor thing, I thought, I would do the same.  When does she have time to talk to her peers without the babies?   At least I had the one class that offered me escape and a chance to meet interesting people.    
Before long, Kristin swam back with someone. 
It was Drew.  He walked over to our oak tree, said hi to me and after hugging Kristin , he left.  On the drive home I was dying to get the scoop. 
"Kristin, did you know Drew was going to be at the lake?"
"No, not really.  I was hoping , though,since he only works three days a week.  Did you know that we were really close before I dropped out?   Yes, we were serious.  Well, he was serious.   But I was engaged already, and Drew  was   planning a divorce but had to wait a while, something about getting his papers first.  Did you know?"
What a mess, I thought.     
" Isabelle, "she said, "you really don’t understand what’s going on and I must explain this to you. "
No, Kristin. It is your life.  Just don’t include me in your tryst."
"  Isabelle"" Kristin’s voice was forceful. " I did this for you!
"What?  What does it mean, you did this for me?" I was getting angry and embarrassed.  Was I acting like someone looking for an affair?  What messages did she see?  Did Drew act strange toward me?  Have I sent messages to him? 
"Kristin,"    mumbled,  "I am confused here.  Drew and I  are just classmates.  I am a happy married woman.  I wouldn’t do a thing to jeopardize my marriage."
"No, silly, nothing like that.  Gee, Now I am confused.  Did you think that I set up the meeting between you and Drew?  I did not even know that you liked him.  You do like him don’t you?  I saw how you blushed when he came over."
"Kristin, we're married, remember?"
"Isabelle, we are not dead.  We can be attracted to men and they can be attracted to us.  What is wrong with it?  We are not doing anything wrong."
"If we let our imagination wonder...  We took a vow, remember?"
"I talk about this with Charlie all the time.  He tells me there are all these girls and they are so hot.  There is no harm!"

Drew and I never became good friends or bad lovers.  Kristin and I grew apart after I enrolled full time in graduate school.   She and her husband were streakers, people who dashed  in the dark, after hours, without clothes, all around the neighborhood.  
Drew’s divorce became final and he transferred at the end of that quarter.     
We would not have much to share. 

(C) rosaria williams 


  1. The elements from my own life:
    1. I was a graduate student at FSU
    2. I lived in Alumni Village
    3. People began to 'streak' at that time.
    4. Women were questioning marriage,free love, sexual mores.
    5. I actually had a Comparative Lit. class where we studied Billy Budd and the Prof. insisted on a Freudian Analysis.
    6. There is a Lake Bradford where we spent many hours swimming.
    7. I had many, many friends there, all bright and deep.

  2. Wonderful. I laugh. Full and exciting lives. And I wanted more, Rosaria. There characters can be such a launch pad for an even larger story. I see so much room for a growing plot, with Isabelle's narration at the core.

    What an exciting place this is. I can't wait to see where you take us.


  3. I trust your feedback here, and I welcome it!

  4. the mood reminds me of revolutionary road. . .