Thanks to all my FB friends, especially the
137 I have never met, for all the birthday
greetings. In answer to the question most of
my stranger-friends asked: I do feel older. I wish I could say older and wiser, but I’ve begun to believe that may happen only as an adjunct to dementia. Each new birthday makes me wonder what my life will be like when my memory pool evaporates into the equivalent of a mud-flat. How might I answer the question, “What’s on your mind?” then?
Will I remember my own birthday? Will I remember that Katrina divorced me, I got two DUIs, gained fifteen excess pounds, and suffered my twin sister calling me a shameless adulterer? Or that I have a twin sister? Don’t worry. I’m not getting on my poor-me pity pot. I’m not navel-gazing or getting ready to go off into some kind of New Age exploration into how I got so out of tune with the harmonies of the universe (although that seems to be a favorite pastime on status updates). I’m going to answer some of the questions many of my known friends (especially my twin sister) have posted about what happened between Amelia and me, because that is what is on my mind.
All my friends know I am divorced from Katrina. Do they (you) know that after the divorce, my therapist urged me to avoid getting into a relationship for at least a year. In fact, he wanted me not to date at all. When I groaned a complaint, he said I was too old to be worried about blue balls. (Can I say that here?) He said when or if I dated I had to have rules. He didn’t tell me what they should be. He wanted me to make them up. He did say I should keep them simple.
I made up two rules. One was not to go out with the same person more than two times in a row. I broke that rule late in the first year, went three times in a row with the same woman. The third time created way too much stress, way too many expectations. I made up one other rule: I do not date anyone younger than my children (they are all approaching the front edge of middle-age). Some have said it’s a silly rule; others have called it sensible. If I find a conversation starting to break into the edges of my comfort zone, I remind the other person of the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin in his defense of an older mistress. (The older girls do seem more appreciative.) I have some regrets, gave up some interesting possibilities, but I told myself I was taking the moral high ground. I was being good. Oh, yes, I probably also avoided painful embarrassments (spell that rejections).
My work as a photo-journalist helped me. I decided not to turn down any assignments that required me to travel. That kept me on the road or in the air a lot. I did photo shoots in five different countries on three continents. I experienced a hurricane and the threat of a revolution. I did two society weddings (boring), a county fair (unexpected fun), a South American student uprising (hair-raising), and more local festivals than I can count. I didn’t stay home or anywhere else long enough to do much dating.
All that work and travel kept me out of trouble (a relationhip), but it also became tiring. When Vermilion College last summer offered me the opportunity to teach a night class to adult amateur (beginning) photographers, I accepted. It sounded like a good break from suitcase living and the draconian aggravations of airport security nonsense.
The dean at the college promised a small class. I thought he meant maybe ten or twelve eager photo bugs. Twenty-four people signed up in the first week of registration. At the first class, it took less than five minutes for me to realize that Adult Amateur Photography was an understatement. What most of them really wanted was to learn how to take prize-winning snapshots with their various electronic devices. Nothing wrong with that, but I decided to act the part of a purist. We started with black and white film, preferably loaded in an older camera without all the electronic aids attached. Right away, four or five students left the classroom to go find a different kind of class. At the second meeting the class had dwindled to seventeen. I thought twelve weeks, only twice a week, a piece of cake.
Amelia sat in the back row. Like all but one of the other women in the class, she wore two rings on her left hand. She didn’t try to attract attention. She pretty much stayed hidden behind a man, the largest person in the class. I don’t think she spoke or even raised her hand in the first couple of weeks. She didn’t interrupt my lectures, did her assignments, and came to class on time. If asked, I would have said she seemed a good student. She hadn’t caused any problems. And yes, she was attractive. That was all I could have said about her until the week before midterm, when I wanted to give a demo about how to take better pictures of people.
On that night Amelia came to class twenty minutes late. She walked in as I was about to choose a student to help me demonstrate how to pose a subject. Not my favorite kind of photography, but I imagined the collections of snapshots they all had taken. You know, the kind everyone takes to show to four generations of relatives if you can find the box you stored them in. I thought I could help them get something better, at least a portrait without the subject’s mouth opened wide in a “Say cheese” smile.
The door squeaked when it opened. Everyone turned to see who had come into the room. Embarrassed to the point of blushing, Amelia stood at the edge of the classroom and looked for an empty chair. I saw that she would have to pass in front of me to get to a seat. Her being late and breaking into my focus irritated me, and I decided to make an example of her.
I said, “I was about to ask for a volunteer, but since you’re already standing, why don’t you come up here and be our subject for this evening?”
She got even redder in the face and looked around the room like she was hoping for someone to rescue her. I thought she might even bolt. She told me later that she had thought about it. Instead, she worked her way through the other students’ desks to the front of the room and sat on a high wooden stool I had placed there. She wore a green jump suit. The color was perfect for her complexion. The jump suit avoided any modesty problem while she posed on a high stool.
I asked, “May I touch you?”
(The dean had warned me not to touch any of the female students without asking for permission. The college could not afford a suit for harassment.)
I startled her. Her head and shoulders jerked to lean away from me. It was for only a second or two that seemed to be minutes, before she nodded yes and sat up straight. She looked down at her lap.
I lightly lifted her chin with my finger. I brushed her hair back (soft, light as air), and shaped it different ways(behind her ear, over her ear, full bangs, bangs parted) while I talked about the importance of shadows, how they could create an impression of a sensuous woman, or a sinister one. I made sure her hair did not completely hide the dangling silver earrings she wore. I turned her shoulders and leaned her enough to make her sit with a slight tilt forward. She put her hands in her lap and interlaced her fingers together. I imagine her great grandmother must have posed that way. I picked up her left hand and rearranged it so that her wedding ring was in clear view. I asked the class if they had any questions about what I had done so far. No one raised a hand. When I turned back to Amelia, she had moved her hands back to where they were first, with the rings not in sight.
I picked up my camera and started talking to the class about what I might look for in the viewfinder. I moved around, looking at her from different angles. I talked about the differences between profiles and frontal views and about finding the angle that would show her best. I remarked that no matter what the general impression is—uglier than sin, if you want, which she wasn’t—there is always a better angle or view. I said something about the eyes being “the windows of the soul,” just as I aimed the viewfinder and looked directly into her eyes. I felt something like—the only word I could think of—doom.
Something happened. It seemed the light around her brightened, the highlights in her hair glowed. I felt light-headed, as I sometimes do when I get up from kneeling or squatting. It must have been apparent. Other students stirred in their desks. I recovered as well as I could and finished the demonstration without touching Amelia or looking directly into her eyes again.
After that class I began to call on Amelia more often. She asked questions. She stayed after class to ask for help, to talk about pictures she had taken since the previous class. I had made it a habit to go with three or four of the others to the campus coffee shop after class. She decided one night to join us. That made for a pleasant three or four late coffee klatches, until one evening the others chose not to go. They were too busy, had children at home, or a spouse anxious over their absence, they said.
Amelia and I went for coffee, just us. I felt safe because I had learned she was two years younger than my youngest daughter. I was prepared to pat myself on the back for taking the high ground. I was different. I was not a mid-life cliché. Then (I’m unsure of where or when) something happened.
Thinking back on it, I can see a lot had changed. What she wore to class became less casual. No more jumpsuits. Instead, she wore dresses and skirts, lacy blouses, sometimes a silk scarf tied like an ascot against her throat. The visits to the coffee shop lasted longer. Then one night I walked with her to her car in the dark parking lot, and I kissed her. She kissed me. We kissed each other. I felt what I had felt the first time I looked at her through the viewfinder, a sense of doom.
My mind said, “Don’t. This must end badly.”
I did. That’s when I learned what it would mean to perform a mindless act.
We knew we wanted to meet sometime, somewhere beside a dark parking lot behind a Starbuck’s. We knew we couldn’t go public. The back seat of my car in a parking lot was dangerous, not to mention uncomfortable. And immature. We didn’t want a scandal. The college would have fired me, and Amelia, well, I figured Amelia would have hell at home. She had dropped a hint now and then about her husband being a controller. The small apartment I had moved into after the divorce from Katrina was convenient, but we worried that someone would see her coming and going. Of course, my worry focused mainly on Amelia. She was the married one.
Time to meet became a problem, not for me so much as for her. After class meant we had to hurry so she wouldn’t be too late getting home. Her husband, Russell, gave her a pretty free rein, but she didn’t want to test her limits. Daytime was easier. Neither of us had to go to a regular job. I was a temporarily unemployed free-lance photographer, who taught a night class. Her husband went out to work—he was a plumber—while Amelia stayed home. Her children—two girls, ten and twelve I think—were in school. Amelia had to be home by a little after three. It didn’t take long for all the arranging and planning to become stressful. Then we caught what we thought was a lucky break, a sign that the gods of love had smiled on us.
Amelia’s older sister, Margaret, owned a condo in one of those new upscale areas east of the Vermilion River. Margaret had become quite successful as a traveling drug rep. She never married. She often had conferences to attend in New Orleans or Houston. Whenever Margaret knew she would be away for more than a couple of days, she asked Amelia to water her houseplants. She gave Amelia a key to the condo. The few times Margaret told Amelia that she would be gone for a whole week, we thought it a further sign of approval from the love gods.
It was a perfect arrangement. No one would find it strange for Amelia’s car to be parked in her sister’s driveway. I didn’t know anyone in that neighborhood. Of course, the love gods did not give us a free pass without showing us their slightly twisted sense of humor when Margaret returned home two days early from a sales convention.
Ah, it’s like I heard a gasp, a large collective intake of breath from all my friends. Not to worry. Margaret did not actually catch us in a compromising position. In fact, I had left already. Amelia had stayed to tidy up so there would be no signs of a visitor, or of two lovers. Amelia said she thought Margaret hardly had time to put her suitcase down before she started yelling and wanting to know who Amelia had brought there. Amelia didn’t want to give me away, and she told Margaret it was none of her business.
Amelia said Margaret yelled back, “If you’re fucking him in my house, it’s my business.”
I’m really glad I wasn’t there. Margaret yelled and accused Amelia and whatever “scuzz-bag” she had hooked up with of ugly things. The two sisters yelled at each other for a while. When they calmed down, Margaret showed some sympathy for Amelia. I understood Margaret thought Russell was a loser. She allowed Amelia the use of her condo, but with rules. Her room and her bed were off limits. She had a spare room used for storing old furniture and boxes she hadn’t unpacked in the five or six years she had lived there. I helped move the furniture and boxes around so that we could put a twin bed against the wall. Amelia put a white chenille spread on it. My watch band would get snagged on the material. Other than that, it was perfect.
We were lovers, but neither of us said, “I love you.” I can’t give a clear reason why. I think she wanted me to say it first, if it was going to be said. I told her I loved being with her, because I did. I made it extravagantly clear how much I loved all and each part of her body. I said I would “never not love” her. I thought that a clever way of not saying what I wanted to say, yet make it sound like I might be saying what she wanted me to say.
Margaret invited Amelia to go with her to Houston for a four-day long convention. The invitation had not included me, but I decided on a trip to Houston anyway. I knew where they were staying. I showed up on the second day. I spied them walking through the lobby and followed them to the hotel restaurant. Amelia told me she and Margaret had a huge fight late in the night after I showed up at their dinner table. The meeting didn’t work entirely the way I had imagined it might. We had only a couple of hours together the whole weekend, but sometime in those two hours, in bed in my room, I said it.
“I love you.”
Amelia looked at me with her doom-filled eyes. She didn’t say anything.
I felt like she was daring me to say it again.
“Amelia, I love you.”
Amelia got up and as she walked to the bathroom, she said, “Tell me again, when we’re not naked.”
That’s when the inconvenient telephone rang, as if on cue, and Amelia answered it. It was Earline. I got up, dressed, made Amelia move the phone to her other ear so I could kiss her goodbye on the cheek, and left.
I drove the five hours to home that night. The next morning I got offered a couple of assignments that would keep me out of town for a couple of weeks. While I was gone I thought a lot about the way that afternoon had ended. It seemed bizarre. When I was home again, I called her. She couldn’t meet me that day. Not the next day either. Next time I called, I asked her to meet me for coffee in the food court at the mall in Lafayette.
An awkwardness hovered in the air between us as we drank double cappuccinos and avoided looking directly at each other. I felt giddy, like I did when I was sixteen. I had decided this would be the perfect place, a public place, to tell her again how I felt. Still, the strangeness of the way that last afternoon together had ended stirred some doubts. She rested her hand on the table, and I covered her hand with mine. She pulled her hand back. I wanted to chase it. God, I was charged up. I wanted to recite all the silly things I had ever heard about love. I probably remembered every romantic, sentimental phrase I ever heard growing up with the movies in the forties and fifties. It was spring, and I was in an adolescent moon in June mood, ready to play a part in a Technicolor musical.
I said, “I’m fully dressed, in a public place, and I love you.”
At that moment I believed I was part of a beautiful scene and that everyone else would have had to think so, too. I didn’t imagine anyone—as I do now—shaking his head and wanting to laugh at a man moving toward the upper edge of middle-age, with slightly gray hair, a paunch that I tried to hide with a loose fitting shirt, looking like I was about to molest some poor woman I had somehow trapped across the table from me. I did not realize how much I must have looked like I was auditioning for role in a really soapy soap-opera.
That’s how I started the craziest summer of my life. I worked hard at finding ways to tell Amelia I loved her. I bought bouquets and hid them in large grocery bags and told her to tell anyone who asked about them that she bought them at the flower shop in the mall. I imagine a number of all-night guests at some of the motels we frequented enjoyed the flowers she always had to leave behind. Margaret made disapproving sideways references about us turning her condo into a place for scandalous behavior. I bought Amelia little pieces of jewelry, costume stuff, nothing real expensive that she would have had a hard time explaining. I wrote notes. I started notes that became epistles. I was more miserably happy than I thought anyone could be. I hated clichés, and I became one.
Perhaps a more objective person might have noticed a specific point, an instant, a word said, a glance turned away, a length of a sigh, something that could have been articulated by a clock or a calendar, at which it all started to fall apart, but I missed it. I remember hesitations, changes in plans, meetings that didn’t happen, edginess in public places, and Russell’s name mentioned more often, but I ignored it all. Then it became fall and Margaret was going to New Orleans for another convention. She asked Amelia to go with her on the condition that if I showed up—she said she knew I would—Amelia would see me only when Margaret was busy with some kind of meeting.
Amelia came to my room on the first morning after Margaret went to some kind of meeting. We made love, got dressed again, then walked along the Mississippi River from the hotel to Jackson Square. A bright sun glistened on the river. The air was mild and not too muggy. I walked with the woman I loved and felt as if I couldn’t possibly be over forty, let alone fifty-five. I smiled at strangers. I knew that in New Orleans there was always a chance we would run into someone who knew us, but I didn’t care.
I took her hand in mine as we walked. She pulled her hand away. I grabbed her hand again.
She jerked her hand free and said, “Don’t.”
I asked, “What’s the matter?”
She said, “I’m married, remember?”
There was nobody near us, but still she whispered it. Her worry about being seen had made her super cautious, but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my mood. We walked to Café du Monde for café au lait and beignets. When we got there, I thought again the love gods had shown their approval by giving us a perfect romantic setting. I should have known they would get the last laugh.
A light breeze blew off the river. The area was crowded with people walking around Jackson Square or sitting on the steps of the Moonwalk. A juggler did his thing on the sidewalk, and a mime pressed against and climbed invisible walls. Artists sat with their paintings hung on the iron fence around the square. A black man sat on a wooden folding chair on the curb next to the café. He played an old, badly dinged, dull yellow trumpet. He played bluesy stuff, slow and funky. His horn sounded as weary as he looked. Every now and then someone dropped money in the open horn case between his feet. Our luck got us a table in the front corner close to him.
The waiter brought our beignets and café au lait. I inhaled powdered sugar, sneezed and sprayed both of us with sweet, white dust. We laughed until we cried. In my pure happiness, I stood enough to lean over the small round table, took Amelia’s face in my hands and tried to kiss her. She pushed my hands away and turned her head.
I said, “I love you.”
She said, “Sit down.”
I did. She wouldn’t look at me, but I was not to be deterred. After all, I thought love was in the air. All we needed was music. If the gods had left it up to me to make something happen, so be it. I got up from the table and walked over to the trumpet player.
I asked him, “You know “All the Way?”
He said, “Yeah, I know it. You want just the chorus?
I threw a ten dollar bill in his open horn case.
He said, “For that, you can have all the verses, too, but it looks like your lady is fixing to leave.”
Amelia had stood. I moved quickly, took her arm and urged her to sit again. She sat. I pointed at the trumpet player. He began to play, and I started to sing. “If somebody loves you, it’s no good unless he loves you . . . .” I sang louder than I intended to. Every head under the café canopy turned toward us. Amelia jumped up. Cups fell over, coffee spilled and powdered sugar flew everywhere. Someone near me laughed, then others, then everyone fell silent. The trumpet player stopped playing and watched Amelia run across the street to Jackson Square. Then he turned back to me, shrugged his shoulders and started to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
I ran after her. She was almost through the square before I caught up and put myself in front of her. I’ve thought of it a lot, and I keep thinking we must have looked like bad actors in a bad parody of a Tennessee Williams play. I can’t recall all the exact details of what happened there in bright sunlight in front of several large groups of tourists, but it went something like this:
I grabbed her hands and held them in mine. She tried to shake them loose.
Amelia said, “You’re a damned fool, Emory.”
“But I love you.”
“I’m married. I have two children. Let go of me.”
“And you love me.”
“I’m not leaving Russell, or my children. Let go.”
“We can be happy together.”
“No. We can’t.”
“Why can’t we?”
“Because it’s over. Over, Emory. Let go!”
I don’t know if I let go, or if she twisted loose. She walked past me and on toward the other side of the square. Her high heels clicked on the concrete.
I said, “But we haven’t had lunch yet.”
(Yes, I said that. I’m glad I can’t hear everybody laughing.)
Amelia turned her head side to side and kept on walking out of the square. She turned left and walked past the front of St. Louis Cathedral. She pushed her way through a crowd watching a group of young black men break dancing on a sheet of plywood. She walked past the fortune tellers with their tarot cards spread on portable card tables. She almost broke into a run along the side of the square, past the artists with their work hanging on the iron fence, and on to Decatur Street. I followed her past the old Jax Brewery and along the river all the way to the hotel. I swear it had to have been a mandatory weekend for lovers in New Orleans. Everywhere, couples walked holding hands or sat on benches and made out unaware of anything around them.
At the hotel, Amelia hurried through the lobby and I barely caught up in time to get on the same elevator. We had rooms on separate floors. We stood in separate corners of the elevator and didn’t speak. She got off the elevator on seven. I had to go to ten. When the elevator doors opened onto her floor, she ran out into the hall. I held the elevator door open for a moment. I don’t know, but I probably thought there might have been a chance she would come back and go with me to my room. We could get undressed and spend the rest of the afternoon doing what we had learned to do together so well.
I said, “Get some rest and call me. I’ll be in my room. Think about where you want to go to dinner.”
She walked away toward her room.
I decided I would go on to my room, relax, indulge in a short nap, and let her think about whatever she had to think about before she called me. I was taking the high ground again, giving her the time and space she needed. I felt sure she would appreciate such a generous gift. Well past the time we would usually go for dinner, I grew impatient. I decided to take the first step to set things right. She didn’t answer when I called her room. I called the front desk of the hotel. The clerk told me that Margaret and Amelia had checked out.
The clerk said, “They seemed to be in an awful hurry. I thought they must have some kind of emergency.”
I went out and walked up and down the River Walk. I tried looking in all the high-end shops. I even described Amelia to a couple of store clerks in hopes they had seen her. I mentioned she might have been with her sister. She and Margaret did look somewhat alike. The feeling that I had just missed her nagged me, and I walked all the way back to the French Quarter.
She could have taken any of a dozen different routes from the hotel to the Quarter. I stayed on the path closest to the river, the same path we had walked on earlier. Of course I didn’t see her. I decided to go back to the hotel, check out and drive home. On the long bridge across the Atchafalaya swamp, I convinced myself she would call me. We would both apologize, and we’d once again be living in our wonderful world, loving “all the way.”
She didn’t call. I called her, but I didn’t dare to leave a message on her machine at her house. I called Margaret once. The coldness in her voice seemed to chill the air over the phone. I knew not to do that again. Near the end of the week, the editor of a travel magazine I’ve worked with before called. He had a project for me on the east coast. He wanted pictures of some festival around Savannah. I like Savannah, and I agreed to go. While I was gone, I worried about what Amelia would think when she couldn’t get in touch with me. When I returned three weeks later, Amelia had not left a message on my answering machine. I didn’t hear from Amelia or see her again for nearly three months, until one Saturday I ran into her and Margaret in the mall in Lafayette.
Clumsy is the best word I have for what I felt. I cajoled them into sitting down and having a cup of coffee with me in the food court. I told Amelia I had been traveling, actually to Central America once, and she asked about how the weather was down there. We never talked about weather. Margaret glared at me the whole time, even over the rim of her cup as she drank her coffee. She was in a hurry to get Amelia away from there, away from me.
Finally after an awkward pause in the conversation, Margaret pushed her cup to the center of the table and said, “We have to go, Amelia.”
Then they went.
I haven’t seen Amelia again.
She hasn’t called.
I went about with my life taking pictures. Six or seven months later I spotted Margaret at an oyster bar in New Orleans. I spoke to her. She turned her back to me and talked only with the person on the stool next to her. So,….
My future plans include a lot of traveling. I’m going next month to photograph some of the smaller villages on the Tour de France in the Pyrenees. Afterwards, I’ll go to Saint Jean Pied de Porte and commit gluttony tasting Basque food. Then I think I’ll spend Christmas in Paris. Maybe I’ll meet someone over there. I’ve been practicing my French. My twin sister said she hopes I can avoid being a sentimental fool in another language.