Romeo and Juliet Go to Winnipeg
[Love is] a madness most discreet, A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1
Friday night January 19, 1968, I’m sitting in the back seat of my father’s Rambler Classic sedan, glued to the passenger door. My cheek is practically frozen to the frosted window, because it is 29-below outside, but I’m sitting as far away as possible from him. He’s the pastor’s son who just moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Burnsville, where my family attends his father’s small Southern Baptist mission. That makes him a preacher’s kid, or P.K., and his name is Bob Wright—as in Mr. Right—as in Mr. Religious Right.
He’s 17, I’m 16; we’re both juniors at Burnsville High School. My parents want me to date him because he’s the only eligible Southern Baptist boy in Burnsville. His parents want him to date me because I’m the only eligible Southern Baptist girl in Burnsville—and he’s sitting as far away as possible from me while our fathers talk to each other in the front seat about ice fishing.
My dad thought it would be inspirational for me and Bob to accompany him and Bob’s dad, Bob Sr., to Winona, where several families want to start a Southern Baptist mission on top of Sugar Loaf Hill, Winona’s scenic overlook of the Mississippi River.
My dad is superintendent of all southern Baptist churches and missions in Minnesota, which makes him the boss of Bob’s dad, and makes me super-preacher’s kid.
Not only am I super P.K. but I’m Miss Christian Summer Bible Camp 1967. Last summer my fellow campers elected me best Christian girl of the week. It was part student council election—vote for me, I’ll win souls for Jesus—and part beauty pageant without the swimsuit competition, but with the social platform of saving people from going to hell.
But I’m not able to reconcile a God of Love with a God who condemns people to eternal damnation, so instead of feeling like Miss Christian Summer Camp 1967 I am Miss Unchristian Agnostic 1968 and the last thing I want to do is start a mission on Sugar Loaf Hill with Mr. Religious Right.
Two hours, 125 miles later on Highway 61, we finally arrive in Winona. Before the evening service, Dad takes us to his favorite restaurant—the Hot Fish Shop—owned by the Bambeneks, a Polish Catholic family. As we enter, the first thing we see on the wall behind the cash register is a large framed color photo of Pope Paul the Sixth, looking over the shoulder of the cashier to make sure she gives exact change.
Friday night 6:00. I’m starved, my stomach rumbles with the odors of frying grease. Along the way to our table, we pass walls of mounted walleye pike, the specialty of the house. Bob and I sit directly across from each other, our fathers at our sides. “If you like fish, try that walleye pike,” Dad says to Bob Senior. “Laura Sue loves it—She could eat it all day.” Anything about my eating is like a discussion of my weight, which is mortifying. I order one piece of fish, rather than the two I really want.
Soon the waitress brings our walleye pike crackling with golden patented batter and with French fries for the guys, baked potato for me. I hope we can say a silent prayer of blessing but Rev. Wright prays in his booming Sunday sermon voice, “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your only begotten son to save us from our sins . . .”
Is everyone looking at us? Are they looking at me? The only one looking at me is Bob. It’s the first time I’ve looked into his hazel green eyes, which he rolls.
After our meal Father drives us up Sugar Loaf Hill, from which, legend goes, Dakota princess Winona leapt to her death when her father Chief Red Wing killed her lover from the Chippewa nation, the historic enemy of the Dakotas. We may soon be joining her as Dad drives on the far right side in the dark—there are no streetlamps. After a wrong turn and mid-course correction, we arrive in a subdivision of small suburban tract houses.
Our young host Bruce anxiously greets us at the side door, “Did you have any problems finding us? I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to follow my directions.”
Walking through the kitchen, we are surrounded by toddlers running away from a babysitter. Bruce leads us into a family room crowded with several families and more toddlers. Bob and I are directed to sit next to each other on a plaid sofa. A tiny girl clambers onto my lap, disheveling my knit skirt and threatening to reveal my pettipants—and garter strap? I tug down my skirt while she shows me an invisible wonder on her finger—she is about the age of my little sister Prisca—18 months old, and they’re both lovable and excruciating.
One time Mother thrust Prisca at me as soon as I got home from school, “Take your sister right now to the basement. She’s been screaming all afternoon, and I have to cook dinner.”
“Can I give her a bottle?”
“No, it’s not time to feed her.”
Prisca was only six months old at the time. It made no difference in how I held her, bounced her, rocked her, she kept crying and crying until I squeezed her hard. Stunned, she stopped, but then wailed and I whispered, “Shut up, Prisca,” and she cried louder. Mother yelled down, “What are you doing to your sister!”
In that moment, I knew I had to love, I had to choose to love my sister. But if loving is a choice, do I also choose to love my mother? Father?
My father’s plan for me is that I am to be the wife of a minister or missionary, bearing little Miss Christians and Mr. Religious Rights on a mission field—such as Winona or Africa’s deepest Congo. At least the Congo would be an escape from my parents, but with brownie points.
But who would want to kiss the lips of Miss Christian Summer Bible Camp 1967, even hold her hand? I squeeze my thighs together, leaning away from Mr. Religious Right, which causes the little girl to tumble off my lap. She lands on her feet, and the babysitter corrals her into Bruce’s basement.
In the car on the way back, Bob and I once more cling to our locked doors as if we are prison cellmates. Our fathers are silent as we ride in the deep winter night northbound on Highway 61. Dad swerves east toward the river, then west to the headlands—several curves move Bob and me fractions of inches closer.
Then father calls out, “If you’re cold, there’s a blanket back there.”
Now Mother would say, “Warren, just turn up the heater,” but Bob reaches the blanket on the back ledge and unfolds it. The ends don’t cover our laps, so we move closer, the pile of our wool overcoats intertwining. Can he feel me through the sleeves of coats, shirt, dress? Then where to put our hands, bare because we’re both too cool to wear gloves, but to put our hands in our pockets is to poke each other’s ribs. So we both tuck them under the blanket.
Then I hear Kristi Wharton saying to me, “Laura, if you want a boy to hold your hand, you have to open it palm side up, slide it to the side . . .”
In the dark, Bob doesn’t see my hand. He makes no move although we’re sitting so close I can smell his soapy smell. I’m sweet sixteen never been kissed or even hand-held (not since the fourth grade, anyway). I go to grasp his hand under the blanket and instead I grab his wrist. Do I just keep it there and try to pretend I meant to take his pulse, or do I inch upwards toward the palm, but if I do, does it make it look like I made a mistake?
But Bob knows what to do. Palm against palm, his fingers encircling the back of my hand, then in Lake City, we interlace our fingers, as if in prayer.
It will be six months before Bob asks me out on our first date. But that January night Bob and I hold hands for a hundred miles on Highway 61, holding that night as a memory we must preserve for the years ahead, a sweetness to surprise us in late middle life, when we have lost our youth, our faith, our way.
6:30 p.m. Saturday night, June 15, 1968. Backyard softball, barely audible while I rinse and stack dishes in the dishwasher. Through tiny squares of screen the sun blazes in the western sky. Father gone. Mother upstairs bathing Prisca.
Will he call me? Why hasn’t he called me? Mark Dotson says Bob will call any day now to ask me out. I’m still sweet sixteen, never been kissed.
Crack! My brother John’s running to first base, a bare spot on the lawn. John’s six, his friend Skippy, the pitcher, is also six and lives next door. My four-year-old brother Stan has just enough skill to scoop the ball he’s dropped into his baseball mitt, a hand-me-down from John who has easily reached first base. Stan, knowing exactly how to piss off his brother, tags him: “You’re out!”
“Stanley, don’t say that to me one more time!”
John shoves Stan to the ground and, Skippy, in disgust at this interruption of his pitching, walks toward the low shrubs separating our lawn from his, but not before the Cook brothers arrive. The last time I babysat them they set fire to the kitchen, before I had even walked in the front door.
“Watch this!” Four-year-old Chrissie drop-kicks a poor frog he captured by the farmer’s pond. Splat! The remains are dispersed in Mother’s rock garden among the few hearty perennials growing between the cracks.
Next door, Skippy’s dad, Don, stops mowing their lawn. After a few moments, we—the whole neighborhood—hear his wife and Skippy’s mother Lois call out, in her two-pack a day smoker voice, “Don, don’t mow down my flowers. You’ve got to get out the clippers and go around the border.”
“Lois, I was going to do that.”
While holding a beer can in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other, Lois walks over, “But, Don, last time you tried to mow around them, you just killed ‘em,” and while Lois is in the backyard, she calls “Skipper—time to take your bath.”
Skippy, who was going home before his mother came outside, begs, “One more inning, Ma!” but “Now!” because Lois is not coming out one more time that evening unless Don tries to mow down her garden.
I have heard this spat several times this summer because Don, unlike my father, is always home. Don and Lois are together every evening.
I finish rinsing the last dish, scraping the last pan, and hook up the dishwasher to the faucet. Its sound drowns out Don’s lawn mower.
Just this past week, we conducted the first of a summer of backyard Bible clubs in our backyard. Bob’s mother Kathy has brought a soul-winning campaign from St. Louis to the Twin Cities, including our own neighborhood, which has served as a training ground. Bob and I are both employed as summer missionaries for $30 a week, along with our friend Mark Dotson, who drives the three of us around after Sunday evening services in his family’s second car. Once we three went to Bob’s house, the parsonage. In his bedroom—with the door open—Bob showed us the new guitar he had bought. He is teaching himself classical guitar from Segovia’s playbook.
We’re all just friends, although Mark promises me Bob will ask me out soon, but for now, we’re fellow missionaries who are learning to teach the “Wordless Bible”—five pages in five colors, beginning with Monday’s gold where Kathy explains to John, Stan, Skippy, the Cook brothers, the Damskov girls, and the Sweet boys that God lives in Heaven where the streets are paved in gold.
“Now come back tomorrow and we’ll read the next page of the Wordless Bible. You will learn how to join God in Heaven.”
This summer I am Miss Christian Backyard Bible Club 1968. I am giving Jesus another chance. According to visiting evangelist and soul-winning trainer Rev. Billy Smith, it’s easier to focus on Jesus. Not the Old Testament God who wiped out nations of children, women, and old people and their cattle but God’s son, Jesus, who’ll save us from our sins if we only believe on him.
Tuesday: “Now children, remember yesterday, what was the color of our Wordless Bible? Yes, Gold for Heaven, where God wants everyone to be with him but he can’t let anyone in who has done anything wrong. Even just one little thing, and so today, our second page is black, because you know you’ve all done wrong things, like not obeying your mother. But come back tomorrow, and we’ll learn what Jesus has done so we can go be with him in Heaven.”
Wednesday red, Jesus’ blood washes sins white as snow on Thursday’s white page. “Now, children, I want you to close your eyes, and if you want to ask Jesus into your heart, just raise your hand, and we’ll send someone to you.”
Chrissie waves his arm wildly, hardened sinner that he is. I crawl between the little squirming kids who have collapsed during the prayer to whisper, “Chrissie, you want to ask Jesus into your heart?”
“Gotta pee,” he yells into my ear.
“Can’t you wait?”
He writhes on the grass while Kathy continues, “Tomorrow is Friday, the green page. And it’s our last day, so we’ll have treats.”
“All right, I’ll take you,” but Chrissie refuses to leave, now that the session is over. Next week I’ll be paired with another summer missionary, Cindy Lamb, who has had her eyes on Bob all week. She’s another redhead, like me, but she has lots of freckles like most redheads, while I have an ivory complexion, or close enough. Next week she and I will conduct a backyard Bible club in St. Louis Park. Bob and Mark will be in Plymouth.
6:45 p.m. Why isn’t he calling me? Beyond the fence of our backyard, the farmer’s field of corn stalks shine iridescent green in the evening sun. Skippy goes home, John and Stan run away with the Cooks before I can yell, “Don’t go too far, you’ve got to take a bath in ten minutes.”
Over the sink, our backyard landscape is beautifully framed in oak stained a deep honey gold. I am aware of the wood grain because for a summer chore, I am helping Mother refinish furniture in the garage, scraping off old varnish with a steel wool brush that I fantasize Mother will hit me with. My skin will pop out in droplets of red blood like the red page of the Wordless Bible. Father will have to admit she is becoming crazy. Unknown to me, my mother and Bob’s father now officially loathe each other, while Kathy is speaking in tongues in a Charismatic Renewal community, secretly attending services in St. Paul. Instead of Bob and I becoming a match made in Heaven, we are being recast as Romeo and Juliet, without our knowing. There are no words to signal this transition, certainly not in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. “Romeo and Juliet” is becoming our Wordless Story—that will contain our families’ desires, fears, and rage.
Monday, April 14, 1969. I am dry heaving in the back seat of my father’s Rambler Classic Sedan, drooling clear bile onto the brown floor mat that is overflowing with the stinking glassful of water I’ve just thrown up. Mother and I are alone together in the car while dad stays at home with Prisca and Stan.
Completely stalled in traffic on 35W going north, my mother rolls down the window when a state trooper taps his flashlight on the glass. He immediately recoils at the stench, then yells, “You can’t go any further on 35W—it’s under water. You’ll have to take the next exit.”
“But we have an appointment with our doctor in 15 minutes,” Mother says while I heave more bile.
Rather than venting her rage on the trooper, Mother exits 35W a little too fast, especially for my mother, the whitest-knuckled driver in Dakota County. Driving west toward Savage, her stressed-out sweat fills the car with an oniony smell mingling with my regurgitations. Just beyond the town, Mother turns north into a little traveled private road owned by a canning factory. It leads to a one-lane railroad bridge spanning the Minnesota River.
Mother, white-knuckled, confronts the great flood of 1969 while the river is still cresting. Mother, with her forehead’s white streak of hair backcombed into a dyed black beehive, looks like the bride of Frankenstein, rather than the wife of a Southern Baptist Superintendent of Missions, schooled in all social niceties.
Actually, Christians don’t have to be nice—tactful, perhaps—but not nice, especially if you’re telling people the truth about their sinful condition, especially if you’re telling your daughter the truth about her sinful condition last week.
“How could you ride home with him without asking our permission?”
“But, Mother, his dad let him have the car for choir rehearsal. He drove me straight home.”
“You know better than to ride with Bob without our permission.”
“Actually I don’t, Mother. I don’t know better. I didn’t know it was a rule to not accept a ride home from my boyfriend.”
“With that attitude, you’re [She hesitated, because I was too big for a beating] . . . you’re grounded.”
She has grounded me for three weeks, just after Bob and I got back together. I had broken up with him in late March, over Easter break, when his father forced him to date another girl. Rev. Wright, his father, my pastor, had decided that Bob and I were too serious for high school kids. His mother brokered a deal that Bob just had to date another girl once and then he could date me again. But Bob chose the most beautiful girl in our church—Lisa Williams from Lakeville—who has long dark brown hair and a clear complexion since her mother took her to a dermatologist.
The truth is Bob was forced to date Lisa because his father hates my mother and vice versa. They’re both control freaks who can’t control each other and, as Christians, can’t kill each other, so Bob and I are proxies for their little private war, although my mother confided she once dreamed she and Bob’s dad were in a hippie sex therapy encounter session in a swimming pool with naked people. I hope they all drowned—in the dream, that is.
I broke up with Bob shortly after his date with Lisa because he sounded like he enjoyed himself, taking her to a concert at Northrup Auditorium, and why did he take Lisa to Bridgman’s after the concert, why didn’t he drive her straight home?
But a week ago Monday, Bob and I got back together just before sixth period as he walked me to choir—“Laura, can’t we just talk?”
But before we could date even once our choir director Mr. Knight called an extra rehearsal for the next day, Tuesday, to get us ready for our tour to Canada. Bob drove me home and that’s when Mother grounded us, me, us, just after we got back together. If I had only known the night of that rehearsal, I would have asked him to drive me straight to Canada.
Mom and I are waiting on the south bank of the Minnesota River for the southbound cars from Bloomington to pass. The river is flooding its banks—trunks of the still leafless cottonwood trees are partly submerged—like that moment before baptism—Baptist baptism, when you’re waiting for the pastor to grip your wrist with one hand, brace your waist with his other, then tilt you backwards into the baptismal water, burying your old sin self, and resurrecting you out of the water into your new Christian body.
The light turns green, Mother creeps across the one lane at ten miles an hour. At any moment it seems the bridge will be swept downriver, where our bodies will flow into the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. But we cross the river north, then south, on the return. I wake up the next day amazingly rested and go to school to prove I’m well enough to go on tour.
7:20 a.m.: A normal time for members of Burnsville Senior High School choir to be at school. And it’s a school day, Thursday, April 17, 1969. We’ve been waiting on the sidewalk since 7 a.m. The chartered bus is twenty minutes late to pick us up for our annual high school choir tour, for the first time ever, out of the country to Winnipeg, Canada.
Couples with boy- and girlfriends being left behind are saying tearful good-byes in the parking lot, hanging on to each other like slow dancers swaying side to side or rocking back and forth in chest-locked passion. They’re going to be separated for four days and three nights—eternity.
“There it is,” someone has said every three minutes, but now at 7:22, “It’s coming, it’s really coming, it’s turning,” and it is the high-rolling long distance luxury coach turning north from County Road 13 to the acre-long drive entering the school’s denuded suburban grounds. The soon-to-be-separated couples begin serious prolonged kissing while Mr. Knight directs the bus driver and unoccupied tenors and basses to load into the storage compartment the hard-shelled red Tourister suitcases and blue and green Samsonite luggage of 61 choir members. We’re permitted one suitcase each.
This is a huge hardship for a high school girl with an infinite supply of cosmetics and industrial-sized hair rollers—the really wide ones, the size of juice cans—and a hair dryer with a pastel elastic-lined cap connected to a spiral hose hooked up to a machine the size of a suitcase. So the girls’ suitcases are bulging and, around the 61—No— Mr. and Mrs. Knight’s now 63 suitcases, the boys stack boxes of music that we haven’t yet memorized the words for.
Then Mr. Knight and the bus driver spread on top of all the suitcases several deep garment bags, into which are zipped our navy blue blazers that we wear with gray wool skirts for girls and flannel trousers for boys. These are our uniforms while we’re on tour or at our winter pop concert.
Now Gary Hanson and Gary Young angle on top of all that a ten-foot-long vaulting pole completely wrapped in Reynolds aluminum foil. This is my prop, for my solo, “C’est Moi,” that I’m reprising from the winter pop concert, when the choir sang a medley of tunes from the Broadway musical Camelot. I sang a gender-bending interpretation of Sir Lancelot’s solo, invincible, simply the best.
We’re forming a line, seniors to the front, because we’ll be filling up the back seats, privileges of seniority, and if you’re a senior couple, you get the furthest back seats, in the make-out section. Juniors sit in the middle, sophomores in the front, nearest the chaperones, Mr. and Mrs. Knight.
The bus door opens, we climb steep steps corrugated like an immovable escalator. Mrs. Knight sits directly behind the driver seat. She is the only chaperone of the girls—39 of us hormonally precocious females—and she is here under duress, because she is trying to patch up the Knights’ rocky marriage. We know through the grapevine that they separated last summer but Mr. Knight moved back in because they have three children.
Mrs. Knight looks more sullen than a teenager. She’s wearing sunglasses even though it’s an overcast day, and she doesn’t look up once as we file past.
A saga is unfolding in the middle of the bus—two popular senior cheerleaders are sitting together in the junior section. Sandy Sawyer, lyric soprano, Mr. Knight’s favorite, is shielding from view Bonnie Thompson, mezzo soprano, who is audibly sobbing over the idling of the bus’s gigantic engine.
Further back her boyfriend Jeff Harris, make that ex-boyfriend Jeff Harris, is sitting in the make out section with Skeeter, a sophomore version of Bonnie, both of them petite sopranos with long shining brown hair, although I much prefer Bonnie’s soulful eyes—She looks like Natalie Wood.
Now we separate into another kind of we—a couple: Bob and I peel ourselves away from the other seniors. Bob takes charge of finding seats in the far back, as if he’s discussed with the boys where to sit out of sight from Mr. and Mrs. Knight.
Bob sits by the window and, from the aisle, I watch the newly unattached seniors, who have peeled themselves away from their loves on the sidewalk, begin playing gin rummy with other unattached seniors and juniors. They act liberated, flirtatious. Then I hear the rustling of candy wrappers, crackling of cellophane encasing ropes of red licorice, and percussion of cardboard boxes of junior mints—or should I say sophomore mints—because it’s the sophomores who are eating candy at 7:45 a.m. while the bus is still parked.
I’m afraid to look at the long blue-jeaned legs beside me. Looking is complicity in the way his knee, then his left thigh brushes my right thigh. There is nothing to stop us from touching, but there is protocol, to wait until we pull away from the curb, taxi along the long driveway as if it’s an airport runway, turn into County Road 13, and take flight directly west, then circle north onto 35W, above the low-lying lanes that were under water three days ago, Monday, when the Minnesota River flooded its banks while I was puking.
Technically I’m still grounded from going out with Bob, but this is the annual High School Choir tour. I’ve been in choir since ninth grade, which entitles me to the senior make-out seats with Bob.
“Laura, your eye is filled with blood. Just there, when you look out the window.” Bob sounds amazed, as if I have a unique talent. The force of Monday’s vomiting caused the blood vessels of the whites of my eyes to burst this morning. While putting on eye makeup—my best feature—I had turned to grab a tissue and then looking in the mirror the seeping of blood began.
“I know, it really is bloody. Look, the other one is bloody too.”
Bob and I, who speak to each for hours on the phone when our parents are away—hours and hours—now become silent from relief, even disbelief. I can’t believe we’re pulling this off—away from his father, my mother.
Mr. Knight finally sits beside his wife. The bus driver closes the door. Probably right around this time that the bus leaves the school parking lot, and then turns west on County Road 13, Mrs. Knight is thinking that chaperoning 61 teenagers for 491 miles, nine hours, one-way, to a foreign country for four days and three nights might not be the best way to save their strained relationship.
I feel a pulse of guilt. I wonder if we had only been a better choir, if we had only learned our S-A-T-B parts faster, if we didn’t have to stay late for additional choir rehearsals around the time of our concerts and tour, if we had only gotten it right during sixth period Mr. Knight would not be away from home so much and his marriage would not be rocky. For their sakes I want to be good, or at least stay out of sight behind the tall backed seats of the chartered bus.
I lean closer to Bob. He puts his arm around me, we cuddle while I pretend to sleep, counting his breaths through his cotton shirt. North on Highway 35W, we pass the receding banks of the Minnesota River. Twenty miles later Bob and I switch seats so I can see the new blue shimmering IDS tower in downtown Minneapolis before we head northwest on the new Interstate 94 that will take us to Canada. One hundred miles later, past St. Cloud, the vast Minnesota prairie uncoils like an infinite bedroll. I trace the ridge of Bob’s shirt collar, where it touches the back of his neck, then I follow his ear, his jaw, to his chin. Bob strokes my thighs.
Unlike for Mrs. Knight, for us, 491 miles one-way is too short a distance, nine hours is too short a time to be riding in the back of the bus, holding hands, caressing thighs, stealing kisses.
Saturday, April 19, 1969. It’s our last night in Winnipeg—and the last night in the historic Fort Garry Hotel. We—the couples on tour—have explored all corridors, stairwells, on the quest for private make-out chambers. While going up and down elevators with other choir members, we pretend we’re just on our way to the rooms we share with other choir members of the same gender—four girls to a room, four boys—two double beds—we’re still young enough to sleep with our same gender friends.
Yesterday, singing “C’est Moi” to our host high school, I triumphed as Sir Lancelot, especially when I accidentally poked through my cardboard armor, and it fell off, revealing me in my black leotard and tights. The boys whistled and stomped on the floor, the bleachers. I received several curtain calls before I could change back into my blazer and skirt for Schubert’s Mass No. 2.
Later that night, the Winnipeg high school hosted a dance for our choir in that same gymnasium where I was a triumph only hours before. No one acknowledged me as I entered the space with Bob. I expected just a momentary pause, a complimentary, “I enjoyed your performance today.” But I was anonymous.
Mostly girls were dancing, gyrating to the long-haired Canadian boys on stage playing in a hard rock band. Bob and I, as Southern Baptists, are not permitted to dance—and I couldn’t cajole Bob into dancing with me—so we stood beside the boy in the middle of the gym who projected psychedelic images onto the band with an opaque projector. Fascinating, but I wanted to dance, twisting in place beside Bob, who walked away to talk to the other boys in our choir and the host choir, who were standing along the cement block walls. It seemed I was anonymous even with Bob, so I wandered over to the bleachers where my friend Lucinda sat on the bottom row.
After a few minutes of trying to talk to her over the band’s cover of “Hey Joe,” I trounced back to him. “You won’t dance with me, and you won’t even talk to me?”
“I’m just talking to some guys I met. We’ll be together tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah, on the tour bus. I’m looking forward to seeing the Manitoba Parliament with you and 60 other people.”
But tonight, several of us walk to the old marquee movie palace in downtown Winnipeg. Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet is showing, a shocking movie that cast 15-year-old Olivia Hussey and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting to play characters usually played by middle-aged classically trained actors.
We sit in a row in the middle of the movie theater, six of us: Gary Hanson at the aisle, Pat, Sandy, Bonnie, and I, next to Bob. At the Capulets’ ball in the second act Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight. The next night Friar Lawrence secretly marries them. In the third act, after their bridal night, Juliet bares her boobs, Romeo his butt.
But in Act 5 I cannot bear to watch: Romeo is galloping back to be with Juliet because he thinks she has poisoned herself so she won’t have to marry Paris, her parents’ choice for a husband. But Friar Lawrence had sent a messenger to Romeo to explain that the Friar had drugged Juliet so she only appeared to be dead. But the messenger doesn’t reach Romeo in time. If only they had telephones or fast cars in the 16th century.
In the burial vault where Juliet is lying, Romeo drinks poison and dies. Juliet regains consciousness, sees him dead beside her, kisses his lips: Thy lips are still warm!
Oh, still warm, if only she had awoken moments before. It’s a matter of bad timing, not their parents’ stupid feud.
But, instead of Olivia Hussey reciting Shakespeare’s words when she grabs Romeo’s dagger, O happy dagger, this is thy sheath, Olivia says, “Love give me strength!” her words encased in a cartoon bubble it seems, and her eyes leaking white torrents of thick creamy tears.
It’s so campy that I laugh out loud while people in the row in front of us are sniffling, Bonnie sobs, and Bob’s swallowing his Adam’s apple.
“Don’t you think that was funny?”
No, it wasn’t funny for Romeo and Juliet, and it hasn’t been funny for Bob and me while our parents have tried to break us up. But we’re not going to kill ourselves, are we? We’re not Romeo and Juliet? We’re going to graduate from high school and go to the University of Minnesota together, not to Southern Baptist colleges where our parents want us to go.
Back at Fort Garry Hotel, Bob and I find a darkened, abandoned hallway on the eighth floor, in a wing of the hotel that is being remodeled. Ten minutes from bed check by the Knights, there is no time to work up to the next phase of physical intimacy that I want now. I guide, no, I clutch Bob’s hand, and press it to my clothed breast. This is my desire, my body, and as Nina Simone sings, my booby, and I want to be touched. Bob is surprised, but recovers quickly.
The next day on the bus, on our way back to Burnsville, he jokes, “You seemed in a hurry last night.”
“Do you think that was funny?”
“You didn’t act like that last night.”
“No, of course not, it wasn’t funny,” he laughs but puts his arm around me, where it stays, pretty much, the rest of the journey home.
A year later, April 1970: Bob unexpectedly drops by Abilene, just after my Easter break at Hardin Simmons University, a Southern Baptist college in West Texas that I attend as a second semester freshman. Not only have I broken up with Bob, but also his replacement.
Bob’s thick brown hair has been buzz cut during a time that young men grow their hair long like Old Testament prophets. Bob is newly shorn, broken, as boot camp is intended for. He’s in the Navy.
Bob takes me out for supper at a truck stop, where he buys me a pack of filtered Marlboros from the cigarette machine beside the juke box that is playing Hank Williams. He teaches me how to light the end of the cigarette, how to hold it between my fingers like a girl (this is how guys do it), how to inhale without coughing, how to exhale. After several attempts, I smoke my first cigarette, a communion cigarette, which I will do in remembrance of Bob for 22 years, until I finally quit smoking.
That night we part as friends, in the front seat of his secondhand VW bug parked by my dorm. I have 8:00 curfew, and just as I’m ready to leave, he cries. I hold his hand for the last time, not under that winter blanket of 1968, but over that stickshift in spring 1970. All around us the sun is setting above the vast flatness of the West Texas Panhandle.
Wasn’t that poetic, but he doesn’t remember it at all, none of it.
Fast Forward 40 years, September 14, 2009: Hi Laura: Bob Wright added you as a Friend on Facebook. We need to confirm that you know Bob in order for you to be friends on Facebook. Click: “40 years. Well, I thought I’d get in touch before my fingers couldn’t type on the keyboard.”
We exchanged several emails, then I asked if he remembered that last visit to Abilene when he taught me how to smoke:
“Possibly I’ve been abducted by aliens at some point, and had neural pathways eradicated during the brain probe. I do not remember coming to Hardin Simmons after boot camp.I’m talking complete blank. When I got out of boot, I remember going back to Oklahoma on the Greyhound with a Sak and Fox Indian kid. He took me to a pow-wow where we drank beer and ate peyote buttons for several days. The next thing I can squeeze from the brain cells is being in Memphis. I remember coming to see you while I was still at OBU with very clear detail. Your dorm lobby, the woodwork in the old hotel, the look on the clerk’s face when we got a room, and without going into romantic detail, exactly how you looked.”
In the fall of 1969, Bob attended Oklahoma Baptist University, OBU, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, while I was in Abilene, Texas, 322 miles away. Hardin Simmons (Hardened Sinners) was a horrible Southern Baptist school except for the Music Department, where I was a music major.
Bob visited over an exceptionally beautiful October weekend in 1969. The sheets were white and threadbare on that double bed in that seedy old hotel room. We floated in a vast ocean of desire, not quite sexually consummated, but spiritually committed. We said, “I love you, I love you,” and planned to be together over Thanksgiving, when I was turning 18.
Bob stood me up that holiday. He never phoned.
When I finally reached him the next week, he told me he had been expelled from OBU for drinking, which his father had turned him in for. Bob lost his deferment during a year that he had a high lottery number for the draft. Joining the Navy might keep him out of Vietnam, and away from his family. I only learned in that phone call that his parents had left Burnsville to start a Charismatic church in a little Oklahoma town near Bob. Bob didn’t seem sorry for standing me up, or for not discussing his decision to join the Navy or anything about his life with me.
Three years later, 1972, Bob was dishonorably discharged from the Navy. He stopped by Burnsville while hitchhiking to Alaska but I was a student in London. He wrote me twice there, but never wrote when I returned to the States and never sent condolences after my father died in 1973. The next year, 1974, he married a 15-year-old, the age of Olivia Hussey when she played Juliet. It was my age when we first met. Our Friar Mark Dotson spoke to him a few times. Bob said we were welcome to visit him in Alaska.
After eight years of teaching preschool in Michigan, I returned to Minnesota in 1981, where I began to write and teach writing. During that time I fantasized him coming through town as a classical guitarist playing in small clubs. He would be divorced, of course, and after a few glasses of wine, I would ask why he never wrote back after Dad died. I would then ask why he cheated on me in the summer of 1969, that Mark Dotson eventually told me about when I sounded a little too wistful about finding Bob. I also ran into Lisa Williams, who said he had called her once to say he had never truly loved me, but had loved her all along.
How do you reconcile a man who said he loved you with the man who abandoned you, cheated on you, betrayed you? That wasn’t love. Perhaps it was mere impulse, the best he knew to give at the time. After all, we’ll never know how Romeo and Juliet’s marriage might have turned out if they had survived. Could they have sustained that level of passion? Probably not, after all, love should mature as we hopefully mature.
In my 40s and 50s that romantic fantasy of Bob changed to nighttime dreams—Bob would appear at the beginning then disappear without saying good-bye. In one dream, a nightmare, we were both condemned prisoners on death row, in the same prison cell. We would be killed soon. But the prison door was open. Without a word, Bob walked out. I followed him to a city park, where we went our separate ways. Instead of the Wordless Bible, it was the Wordless Dream—no one told us we were condemned, no one told us we were saved.
Oh, we survived, but separately. He has taught me the gift of leaving, over and over.
I’m single. Bob is now married to his second wife and lives in Arkansas near his parents. Bob Senior remembers me as “the sweetest thing.”
Bob and I have returned to our first love: music. I’m studying jazz voice, and he is playing guitar again. We’re both agnostics. If there is a god, I would not presume to know the infinite, the fathomless.
Like I don’t know why my heart still seizes when Bob sends the occasional Facebook comment or tag. I should say to him over the phone, “I break up with you,” but I don’t want to hear him say the same thing to me. He’s never broken up with me. Through his two marriages, he has “always been in love with the 18-year-old girl he remembers in that seedy old hotel in Abilene,” he wrote before I insisted we use the email address he shares with his wife.
But I’m no longer that redheaded 18-year-old girl asking him to smoke his Camel straight cigarette because it looks sexy and I like the taste of fresh tobacco in his mouth. The ceiling fan rotating above us in that seedy old hotel room only becomes a film noir image many years later, when we say words like film noir and surreal, to other people.
• • •
Laura Littleford is an award-wining writer with numerous publications in literary journals. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, she also writes and performs one-woman shows. Currently she is writing Princes Gate Chronicles, a novel based on her experiences as a 19-year-old student living in London in 1971.