At the Pennsylvania Ballet
The performance by the Pennsylvania Ballet that night was, as always, stunning. An interpretation of DeBussy’s sea pieces. Undulating bodies imitating sea life. Bodies as fluid as plants on the ocean floor.
Half of my attention was focused on staring at Colleen the entire performance. She wore a white wool jacket over a blue sweater and white wool slacks. Her face radiated youth, tenderness and kinetic energy.
When we got outside it was snowing and it was a long drive un the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and onto the East River Drive. We pulled of the River Drive at Boat House Row and watched the snow shoot like bullets into the Schuylkill River. She took my hand and the silence told us more than any words could have.
“You’re leaving in a few days aren’t you Brian?
“Yeah. Isn’t separation grand.”
“When do we get together after that?”
“Whenever the Big Blue Machine sees fit. They don’t consider people’s lives when it comes to assignments. How do I know when we’ll see each other again?”
“Can’t you be more specific?”
How can I? You know I’m in the service. I’m lucky I had this break. At least we had a little time to get to know each other. This might have never happened.”
“I’m going to miss you even if you are difficult.”
“Well ... go; any ideas?”
“We’ll write and call each other. That’s all we can do for the present.”
“Brian...what’s going to happen to us?”
“I don’t know. We’ll survive. You always survive no matter what. My father taught me that.”
“Just survive? Is that all you can say? Do you know we haven’t even discussed several things.”
Her eyes shot a spear right through me. They were elusive and luminescent, penetrating and partial. She was onto something big to judge by the intensity of her stare.
“Brian, how do you feel about me.”
“Oh, boy. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that.”
“Why!! Because I’m just another charm for your charm bracelet? Oh, I’m sure you’ve had plenty of women. You’re too good a kisser not to have known your share.”
“Hey ... You’re not so bad with the lip locks yourself.
“Colleen, I care about you. I like you a great deal. I think the world of you ... uh ... I sound like some kind of clinical psych nurse. Next I’ll be telling you how much I “appreciate” you and how “sensitive” I am to your needs. Why is this coming across so poorly?”
I looked over at her and her aura was red hot. She wanted the truth and would settle for nothing less.
“Colleen...enough of the bullshit. Quite honestly, I think you’re a goddamned princess ... ”
Her eyes grew cold. “A knight doesn’t curse, me Lord.”
“I’m sorry. You’re an angel. You’re the closest thing to a perfect woman that can be found in this sadly imperfect world. You’re a white rose that never wilts or dies despite my inconsideration and ...well, if I were to be honest, my brutal honesty that borders on cruelty at times.
“I know that I can use words to love and words to hate and in my most honest moments I know that I use far more hateful words with you thank I use good words. I don’t know what to do right now.”
“Use good words. I guess if I had any balls ... ”
“Brian?!” Her eyes were filling with tears.
“Alright, guess then ... I’m sorry. I grew up on the other side of the tracks with the street gangs and I slip back into the lingo occasionally. Anyway, if I had any guts I’d probably swallow my pride right now and tell you that I love you because its true but it takes me years with a woman before I can get to the point where I can say that. I’m not one of these guys who can blurt it out to every woman he meets.”
“Oh ... Brian...
“She began to cry.
“Colleen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“Oh Brian, you’re wonderful. You didn’t make me cry. I’m just upset right now because I’ve been stupid with you.”
“Listen, no matter how many times you’ve been stupid you can never match the times I’ve been ugly with you.”
I reached my hand over and wiped a few tears from her cheek.”
As I did, she planted a kiss on my hand, held it tenderly to her jaw, and laid her head against my right shoulder. She continued to cry in soft, hard sobs. The silence was unbearable. I thrust my arms about her shoulders, shoulders I always found so slender I was afraid to hold them too hard for fear of breaking them, and slipped a hand onto her neck.
She responded by wrapping her arms about my back and clutching to me like a wave to the shore. When she rubbed her cheek against my face I placed a kiss on her left eyelash. She started to rub my back and I placed another kiss on her long neck, a neck that was a swan’s in human form. She started to speak.
“Brian ... I’m going to miss you. You’re hardheaded and obstinate and difficult but I care for you like I’ve never cared for anyone before. Brian ... I love you.”
She began to cry again.
“If you love me then why the hell are you crying?”
“AUGH...you goof... just hold me and don’t talk.”
I did as she asked. Then I laid a lip lock on her and she parted her lips.
Hesitatingly, she took me into her world, a world of compassion and tenderness of love and giving, of devotion and commitment. I was exhilarated and a little scared, because I knew that with a woman like this once she gave herself to you there was no going back.
She would cling to you through better and worse like a thorn in the thumb that helps the hand hold the sweetest smelling rose.
“You realize you’ve ruined my plan. I always thought Prince Charles was such an excellent example for Western man in that he searched the entire kingdom and found a nineteen year old virgin child that he subsequently married.”
“Brian not all virgins are nineteen.”
“Wait...you mean...you’re twenty-seven?”
“Take it for what you will. That’s all I’m saying.”
She broke the hold as suddenly as it began.
“Well, once again we’ve talked far into the night when the responsible thing would have been to part company hours ago. We’d better get on the road or my father will have my brothers out in a rescue party searching for us.”
“But the fun had just begun.”
“Brian Richard C1uney!! It’s snowing out and dangerous and it’s your responsibility TV get us safe. If you don’t get this car back on the West River Drive and get me back to Ardmore in five minutes I’ll tell the next park policeman who passes by on a horse that you’ve kidnapped me and are holding me against me will until my father can come up with the money."
“You wouldn’t! I’m a butter bar, Colleen. That stuff isn’t funny. If I fart the wrong way they call me in to speak with the commander. Kidnapping would land me in Leavenworth for my entire life.”
“Just try me. I’ll give you five seconds to get the ignition started. With all the heat that’s been generated in this oar in the past hour it shouldn’t be hard to get that engine to roar.”
Just to see if she was bluffing, I thought I’d try one more ploy.
“Hey Colleen. Why don’t you strap your hands across my engine.”
She began to roll down the window and screamed at the top of her lungs “POLICE! POLICE.”
“OK! OK’. We’re on our way. Shooooot, girl, all you white women de same damned way.”
“Brian, you’re so easy to control sometimes. I wouldn’t have kept screaming. I just wanted to see if you’d respond.”
“Wasn’t Humphrey Bogart who said ‘Never met a broad yet who didn’t understand a sIap in the face.’”
“You’re right I wouldn’t. You don’t hit the woman and that you love like I love you.”
“So ... you hit other women then?”
“No. I’ve had to held women’s arms to keep them from slapping the shit out of me but I’ve never hit back. Men are a different story altogether.”
“Who hit you like that? Was it Colleen?”
“No. Some nun I had in sixth grade when I got the entire choir to quit when she kept treating us like slaves. She kept saying if you didn’t like it you could take yourself over to Father O’Rourke and just quit. Well, I took her seriously and I marched the entire choir over and we quit in unison. I always figured if you were going to get in trouble you might as well get in trouble with the entire group.”
“Some example you were.”
“What’s worse is that I was President of the altar boys. So when I went to the sixth grade to deliver the assignments for mass for that week she began to slap the shit out of me. I held her hands and she finally broke loose and reported me to Father O’Rourke. I had to have a session with her and thought. I was going to be kicked out of school but all he did was advise me to be more discreet next time. I always thought he was a pretty cool priest.”
She looked at me inquisitively. “Why because he let you get away with murder?”
“No. Because he was so human. I had a feeling he came from a poor background like mine and identified with my family. You know. So many priests came from wealthy backgrounds in those days because their family’s had to pay for their seminary education which is a pretty expensive proposition.”
“Oh Mother of Mercy! Now you’ll be getting into how you come from dire poverty and I live in Disneyworld in the lap of luxury.”
“Listen toots. Ardmore isn’t exactly the hoi poli.”
I knew I shouldn’t have said it.
“Brian ... does it bother you that my father’s a doctor? You know not all doctors are rich.”
“I’m sorry. Colleen. One of the things that came between Rita and I was that her family had money. Not big money they were basically upper middle class. But she was very materialistic. It interfered with the relationship and sometimes I’m afraid that same thing will come between us that’s all.”
“First of all, Brian I’m not Kathy. I was raised in a household where materialistic things were never a very big concern. My father could have made a ton of money by “proving” people were healthy for insurance companies if he’d wanted to, but he was too honest for that. We were raised to give to people more than we took, which is why my brother Paul is making all of $6 000 a year teaching fourth grade at St. Theresa’s. He could have made three times that if he’d taken that bank offer he had.”
“It’s partially that you come from Ardmore. The Main Line isn’t exactly known for its poverty.”
She looked petulant.
“There’s the Main Line and then there’s the Main Line. If you knew anything, you’d know that Ardmore isn’t exactly the Upper Main Line. Don’t forget that my father had to put nine children through college without the benefit of scholarships because doctor’s can rarely get scholarships for their children because everyone assumes they have money.”
“I guess you’re right. Well...here’s your Lower Main Line bungalow. I’m going to have my mother take me to the Philadelphia airport tomorrow. I can’t stand scenes at the airport.”
“Brian...you promised me I could take you to the airport and see you off. Why the sudden change?”
I’d forgotten I’d promised her that at one point.
“I don’t like scenes at airports. I already told you.”
“Fine with me. You’re hard to figure out sometimes.”
Her face reflected hurt and pain.
“Don’t even try, if you were smart. You’d find another guy. Somebody who deserves you. I’m too wild a card to get attached to.”
“I know what you’re doing Brian, and you can stop. Just because you showed a little tenderness and expressed something to me tonight don’t overreact now and try to drive me away. You’re just afraid of intimacy because you’ve been hurt before. You’re gun shy.”
My body shook with an emotion that I tried to disguise.
“Gun shy? What the hell is gun shy?”
“Get someone to explain it to you sometime. My parents are at the door. I can already see my father pacing the living room. He probably thinks you slid into a snow embankment on the Wissahickon. Promise me you’ll write.”
“Promises are useless. Didn’t I just promise I’d let you see me off at the airport and then break that promise. Why you’re not miffed I don’t know. No more promises unless I can keep them. I’ll try to write, that’s all I’ll say.”
She stared at my with her chin up and her eyes ablaze.
“You’ll also call, won’t you?”
She was looking at me tenderly. I got out opened her door walked her to her front door and she turned and put a finger to my lips to indicate silence. Then she held me tightly and I squeezed her harder than I ever had before.
How I was going to leave her to return to an Air Force base to begin my training for AWAC’s I didn’t know. What awaited me there was uncertainty, struggle and hard work.
What I held in my arms was certainty and strength. She kept pressing herself into me more tightly and I began to feel her form through the bulk blue wool of her winter overcoat. She pressed her lips to mine and parted them. I took her face in my hands and gently stroked her neck with my thumbs. There was a cracking noise as the door opened and the six foot five frame of her father stood outlined a few feet away.
We quickly disembarked, looked at the ground embarrassedly blew steamy wintry smoke at each other and she turned and walked toward the door. Just how much struggle and hard work awaited me in the Air Force I could not know at that time. Just how much she would come to mean to me I could only guess. But both were soon to change me beyond anything the Church Glorious and Victorious ever could.
“Make us proud, Lieutenant! Philadelphia asks no less of its sons. God bless you, Brian.” She kissed her father.
“Good luck to you, son.”
Her father waved from the doorway and closed the door.
I turned into the wintry Philadelphia night and pulled my collar up to protect my neck from the damp. Oh how much Philadelphia demands of her sons.