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The summer of thirty-nine! Being twenty-one and a senior, that should have
been enough for me.
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
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
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
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 coed 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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
That was three years ago. Three years, going on thirty-three. It's been
almost a year since I've heard from her, and I must admit, almost a year since
I've written to her, or to anyone else for that matter. I've been so long at war
that I've lost contact with home. My only friends, my family you might say, are
the men I've been with from Messina to Anzio. Perhaps I shall write home some
day, but for the moment I have no news to share. This tortured country is my
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
".... 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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