They’d come every year. And every year they’d take me back to that summer in the light. This year they didn’t come and I felt as it something had left my life; that she had left life. Her. My first love. The love you never forget the beginning of even when you are glad to erase the ending.
It began, as so many adolescent loves begin, in a car in a cornfield at sunset. It was her car and she had, as a drama major might, a dramatic streak that made her name things with a Shakespearian rag; in this case, her car yclept “Sir Francis Quoint.” I didn’t care about her eccentricities, I was mesmerized by her body and her beauty and her long, long hair hanging down, and her scent, “Shalimar.”
I was just 18 and I was living in a dormitory at UC Davis and ready to work my job at the library through the long summer. She chose me because my roommate was her current love and she loved, more than young men, drama. I’d just left virginity behind me when she had me take a ride with her into the cornfield next to the pasture where they were breeding dwarf cattle. I didn’t care about cows standing three feet high. Knocked off my feet and kidnapped into the alien corn, I didn’t care about anything other than her. You could have cut off my legs and I would still crawl towards her. Young men are foolish in that regard. Always have been.
She was a “Drama Major.” That fact should have told me to “Back away from the vehicle,” but that sort of wisdom was decades away. It may well elude me today. I haven’t checked lately.
All that was 58 years ago and I wasn’t interested in wisdom. I was enthralled by passion and love and a strikingly beautiful young woman who, mysteriously, seemed to love me. At least for the present and the present was more than good enough for me.
Soon after the sunset cornfield we moved into a very small bungalow at the back of a compound of houses taken over by drama students aka “Show People in Training.” We had barbeques and picnics on the shared lawn and then retired to playing musical bedrooms. It was 1964 and this situation shocked and upset my parents since “living together” was “living in sin” and decent people simply did not do such a thing.
Her parents? They simply didn’t give a damn. Her father was divorced and lived in a large San Francisco Victorian. He’d turned over the entire attic of five or six rooms in which his two daughters carried on whatever life they chose while he carried on his life downstairs. I met him once when I stumbled into the kitchen looking for coffee and toast to export to our bedroom in the attic with the small window that looked out on the bay and the fogs during the long night when the foghorn symphonette sounded it seemed for us and us alone.
The father? Oh yes… Distinguished, gruff, and uncaring about me as if he’d seen his daughters’ playthings before and was resigned to seeing them again.
In San Francisco she began, as all women must, to “improve me.” There was a lot of work to be done. During our first “sophisticated” dinner where they served me wine without asking for our IDs, she had to tell me that I was supposed to sip and approve the splash of wine the waiter had put into my glass. It was the beginning of a long process of renovation by women that continues to this day.
Other lessons revealing the customs of the wider world and female mysteries followed. In our bungalow was a small table she covered with a red and white checked tablecloth and one of those raffia-wrapped bottles of Chianti with the candle stuck in the neck and the wax dripping down. It was all very romantic. We’d cook on a gas ring with a cast-iron skillet. We had two wine glasses, two plates, two sets of silverware, and one bed facing a wall to wall window that had a sweeping view of the alley. It was all essentially one room. Poor and very romantic. There were other items of furniture but I don’t remember them. There was a front door and even, I think, a short and white fence (perhaps picket) that led to the shared lawn where the drama students were emoting over their hamburgers while changing partners. It was the sixties and it was all very romantic.
And so that summer unfolded traveling between “playing house” and her father’s house until, at last, she tired of me and her demons took her back to her previous boyfriend leaving me cast out of her love and her house.
And so I left, broken-hearted as all boys must be when their first love leaves.
The next year the Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley. I joined the movement in Davis but by the next September I’d transferred to Berkeley “to be where the action was and she was not”.
And then the years and the decades came and went and I learned how to shut her and that summer away. I went on to other lives and other rooms. I went, I suppose, far away to New York and to Europe. I had, perhaps, more than my share of women, a number of whom I loved. Went on and married. Came back to the US. Had a child. Had a divorce that left life in shambles. I went on and had a second life, a second marriage. For a couple of years at least. In that, I was no different from many other men. It is the way we live now.
Traveling for the magazine I returned to San Francisco more than twenty-five years back and found her working at a bar in North Beach in an alley across from City Lights. There she was still setting them up for the broken-hearted. I ordered a double and we talked for a while, I forget about what. She was or had been married. She’d stayed in the bay area. Her father had passed and she had another place somewhere on the slopes of the hills around North Beach. We went there for, I think, one night. Then I left.
I’ve never seen her again.
More years passed and I was beyond marriage and living in Seattle. She’d found me there and got my address. Then the birthday cards began.
Every year for nearly 20 years I would get a birthday card from her. Always in an envelope addressed in her curving printed letters always using my middle name. And it was always simply a sentiment wishing me well. In time I came to look forward to this last link to my first love; this semaphore sent across the decades from eroding cliffs.
Last December the card did not come. Noting its absence I did not dare to inquire as to why. I left that thought untouched much as we tend not to touch thoughts that we fear will bring pain; that will reveal the rust beneath the painted-over surface of our life.
In my soul I wanted that bungalow to remain alive in another’s memory, to live always in the light. I knew that the bungalow was still where it had been. Checking, I drove past it in the alley about ten years ago. Absent the Tibetan prayer flags around its door I saw it was intact even if the checkered tablecloth was long gone to a landfill, and the drama students’ picnic ground was replaced by a charmless apartment building.
We don’t want our first loves to leave for a second time, but in time they do, as do we all. Still, I did not want to be “resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts into the hard ground,” and put my darker thoughts back into shadow.
And then, this week, in a reprieve an envelope appeared in my Mangrove mailbox with her slightly loopy printing on it.
Inside that envelope was another envelope marked Return to Sender with a Post-It on the outside in her loopy printing reading “3rd time’s the charm?”
Inside that envelope was this card, a postcard:
On the back, in her slightly loopy hand, it said “It’s your birthday and all you got was this Crumbly card.” On the front, she’d taken some whiteout to one of Crumb’s thought bubbles and written, in her slightly loopy hand, above the long-haired hippie, “Gerard Birthday Hmmm…” It was a light pat, a love tap.
All of which brought back the car and the cornfield and the cattle and the sunsets in California where all of the West had at last been won. My personal West at least. For now.
Would we see each other again today? Not I think at this point. Not in this life. The light touch of the birthday card is enough for now. It should, I think, remain what it has become, a signal sent out from another headland about a time when, for that long ago Summer of 64, I lived in the light of first love.