For two summers when I was working on my dissertation, I rode my bike from my house to the History Department building at UMKC. I took up at a desk in the graduate student lounge at 9 or 10 in the morning. I worked through the day, sometimes getting a lot done, sometimes nothing. At 5 or so, I got back on the bike and took off down Rockhill.
Once or twice a week on my ride home, I stopped off at the Department of Conservation’s Discovery Center. I’d walk my bike down behind the building onto the nature trail winds through what used to be a neighborhood but is now forest and glade. There’s no trace of the neighborhood anymore except for the guardrails that indicate where the streets used to let out on 47th Street. I’d take a side trail what whorls off the main one and dives into a copse of oak trees, where benches rough-hewn from whole logs sit around in a clearing.
Even when rush-hour traffic was heaviest on Troost, 47th Street, and Volker Boulevard, the clearing stayed comfortably quiet. The neighborhood had always been that way. You could hear the life of the city but it seemed far away. I liked sitting in the clearing. It used to be the front yard of 4825 Charlotte, the house where I first fell in love thirty years before.
Her name was Kaye and whenever I think of her, one night comes to mind. Everything was right in the world. I had achieved, probably for the first time in my adult life, happiness.
That night, when we stepped into the house off the porch, Kaye didn’t turn on the lights like I thought she would. She moved the couch, armchair, and coffee table out of the middle of the room. She kicked off her shoes. The night was quiet, hot and humid. A small fan the corner of the room stirred the air.
She put a cassette in the stereo and turned it down so we could talk in quiet voices. Soothing strains of island music filled the room. She took me in her arms and we swayed on the rug in the middle of the floor. The streetlight out front threw beams through the frowzy curtains on the front window and filled the room with diffuse, soft light.
Her hair smelled like peaches and lavender. At first, I felt a little self-conscious. I didn’t dance well. I moved in jerky, stiff movements. Her body was soft against mine. I felt her breasts against my chest. My heart raced and I was short of breath. She moved me slightly, taking charge of the dance. Soon, the awkwardness left me. It was the first time I felt wrapped up with someone as one.
I lost myself. Worries over school, busted car, and lack of money eased. I was happy and contented, an uncommon feeling. My heart slowed and I breathed easily. The dance came without effort. Nothing else existed in the universe but us, together in a house in the middle of the city.
A friend of ours, her roommate Suzi, had introduced us at a party. It may have been the drink, but the moment I met Kaye, she intrigued me. She was quiet but had a powerful presence. She was enrolled in the studio art program at the university, and artists fascinated me. Her conversation was amazing. She was funny, and that got me the most.
There must have been something about me, too. Though I was 20, much younger than her, she agreed to go out with me—a movie and a trip to Loose Park to feed the ducks. I spent an anxious week, waiting for the time I was to pick her up.
We went to the movies in the afternoon. After, we stopped for drinks at the bar down the street from her before driving up to the park. The ducks followed us around the pond while we talked. We drank wine and watched the sun set. We went back to her house. She had to check to see if her roommate was home. For some reason, she didn’t want anyone to know about us.
She came back out to the street and waved me in. We hid out in her room, which was in the basement. The night struck me as magical. For days, warmth had flowed through me when I thought of her. I found myself smiling all the time. Down in her room, she painted a watercolor for her class. Music filled the background. We drank beer and I watched her work.
We were both drunk after the drinks, wine, and beer we drank while she was painting. Inhibitions abated, we made love. Suzi came home later and we dashed for our clothes. I tried to act as if nothing was going on. Suzi knew, of course, on but kept it to herself. We all drank together. I imbibed more than either of them. I can’t remember driving home that night.
The next couple of months kept me busy. I worked my summer job at a gas station. Evenings, I spent a lot of time with my drinking friends. Meeting Kaye energized me. When we weren’t together, I drank harder than before. I told my friends all about her, how wonderful she was, and how strongly I felt about her. They were bored and sick of me. But drink has a way of washing away a lot of sin, and they tolerated me. I went out with Kaye whenever she had time. It wasn’t enough for me, but I was up for anything. As long as she kept going out with me, I was willing to go along.
Somewhere in there, my car had broken down. Kaye picked me up the night we danced in the living room. It was about the perfect night. When she dropped me off at home later, I stayed up drinking from a pint she bought me at a liquor store on the way home.
I thought our time together was never going to end. We weren’t together all the time, but enough to keep me hopeful.
One night, we decided to meet at her at the apartment of some friends of hers. I was housesitting about a mile or so away. I walked up Troost to the corner of 55th, where her friends lived above some storefronts there. We had a good time. I drank plenty. After a few hours, she said it was time she took me home.
On the way down the stairs, she said she needed to talk seriously with me. We sat out on the front steps to her friends’ house. We lit cigarettes and looked out over the traffic at the corner. It was a hot night. This wasn’t going to work, she said. A bolt of disappointment and disbelief shot through me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
She said she had planned to marry her childhood beau before she met me. They had sent the invites. Everything was in place. Our relationship confirmed the doubts she had about pinning herself down for a lifetime. She had called the wedding off. She thanked me for helping her make what she thought was the right decision. But now that she cancelled the marriage, she needed time to herself.
I took the bus home. I tried to keep myself under control for the trip up Troost. When I got out at 42nd Street, I started to cry deep heaving sobs. I stumbled my way up 42nd Street and across Gillham Park. I laid down a while in the grass at the center of the park and stared up into the sky through the tears. When I got home, I downed another pint to soothe the ache. It didn’t work. But at some point I passed out. I woke up the next night, hurt and hungover.
I’m not sure I ever got over that relationship. It was my first love, and I’ve been lucky to have fallen in love a couple of times. Sitting in the clearing among those trees that used to be in Kaye’s front yard, I remember that time. I see a young, hopeful man, immature and unready for the blows that would come. I think about our dance and the nights we stretched out next to each other. Her body was soft next to mine and moved with a fluidity that I have never quite achieved for myself.
And I think about seeing her years later at an AA meeting. She was still lovely to me. She gave me a loving, deep hug and said she was sorry to have left me so suddenly years before.
But old sober drunks know the past as irretrievable. Good times lead to darker, more hurtful and lonely times, until you just can’t take it anymore. Then, if they’re lucky, they get some perspective. Everything that we’d ever done, drunk or sober, led us to that hug at the AA meeting.
I wished her well and hoped that her new life was working out for her. There was nothing to forgive, I said. Those were days whose painful sweetness can never be erased.