Pearl Harbor Day

I’m not much of a housekeeper. I don’t see dirt till it bites my ankles, and then I ignore it until it barks so loud I can’t stand the noise. On that Saturday, December 7, my house was in bad shape—scuzzy dishes piled in the sink and wrinkled clothes strewn wherever I’d pitched them after I undressed. I spent most of the day making my house shine and all of it worrying and wondering what would happen that night.

Seven o’clock finally arrived, and my doorbell rang. I quit stirring the spaghetti sauce I’d let simmer for several hours and took a deep breath. Connie’s black Trans Sport sat parked in my white gravel driveway, but I hadn’t watched her and her girlfriend get out. Shoot. I wanted to at least see what she looked like before I met her. If we clashed, it could be a long, unpleasant evening.

After settling the lid on my heavy aluminum skillet, I hurried to the front door and flipped on the light in the small foyer. Connie held out a long-stemmed yellow rose to me and grasped two record albums in her other hand. But no girlfriend.

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“Where’s—”

“She decided not to come. I told you I’m thinking about moving to Colorado.”

“But—”

“I wasn’t kidding.”

I accepted the rose and the records and laid them on a nearby small table. And then we took the first step of the rest of our life together. Connie reached up and cradled my face between her hands, her steady eyes glowing like a bonfire. Slowly, she pulled me down to her and kissed me like I was the last person she would ever touch. After our days and weeks of staying apart, we melted into each other like two huge chocolate chips in a pan on a stove where the electricity had suddenly been turned on.

When I could finally see again, I noticed her freshly cut brown hair and recognized the clean smell of Dial soap. I let my hand run down the back of her smooth polyester shirt—red, black, and white—tempted to let it continue over the rougher texture of her tight black jeans, but I forced myself to stop.

“Come on in and make yourself at home. Let me go put this rose in water.” I headed to the kitchen to try to recover from our kiss and find a vase. Then I set the rose in the middle of my small dining-room table and clicked off the fire under the spaghetti sauce. We probably wouldn’t be eating for a while.

Connie stood in the living room, inspecting my record collection and stereo. “Love your home.” She pointed at the fireplace that separated the living room from the dining area.

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“And the fire’s a good idea. It’s colder tonight than I’d expected.”

I didn’t feel the cold at all. In fact, I wished I hadn’t built a fire that night; my flowered gauze harem pants and purple, scoop-neck blouse were suffocating me.

“Evidently you like classical music and jazz,” she said, pointing to my small shelf of records. “What about Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand?” She held up the two albums she’d brought into the living room with her.

“Of course. What’s not to like about them? Do you want to put one on right now?”

“Sure. Which—”

The phone rang, shattering the magic between us. It had been strangely silent all week, and I’d practically held my breath, willing it to stay quiet so I could catch up on my sleep. “Let me get that,” I said, wanting to rip the cord out of the wall.

“What are you doing tonight,” the disgustingly familiar male voice asked.

“I have company. Leave me alone—”

Connie slipped the receiver from my hand, her hazel eyes shining like steel. Using a deep, rough voice, she said, “My wife has been complaining about you. I just got back into town, but if you ever call here again, I’m gonna track you down and beat you to a pulp. Understand?”

She hung up the phone, and I slumped onto the couch like she’d just pulled me from a cold, black swamp full of alligators. “Thank you for that.” Her tone had startled me, yet I suspected my Halloween nightmare had just ended.

We sat close together on my flowered sofa—talking, kissing, listening to music, and enjoying the fire. After throwing some more logs onto it, I spread a deep-purple satin comforter on the carpet in front of the fireplace, and we talked less and kissed more.

Then I finally showed her my bedroom. The fire burned itself out, the record player shut off automatically, and my phone didn’t ring again.

The next morning, we ate our spaghetti at last, for breakfast, and I’ve cooked it regularly during the past twenty-six years to remind us how we spent our first Pearl Harbor Day together.

BTW, that purple comforter lasted for years, though it eventually tattered and faded to blue. We cut off a square and preserved it in a Ziploc bag. Connie could still wear those black jeans just a few years ago, though she finally relinquished them and her distinctive black and red shirt to Good Will. We sold my flowered couch to a colleague, who still uses it, and my home to a couple who lost theirs in Hurricane Ike. We still drive by it when we’re in the area and notice how much the citrus trees we planted in the front yard have grown.

Like I said, that night was the beginning of the rest of our life together, and it plays in my memory like the smell of the yellow rose and the records and everything else Connie has brought into my life.

Oh, yeah. She still takes care of all our unpleasant phone calls.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: Here’s one of the many poems I wrote about our courtship.

Another S

I invited you

for spaghetti and Scrabble.

Love our game change.

You can find this poem and quite a few similar ones in my recently published book of poetry, In and Out of Love, available on Amazon and from me in person if we cross paths.

Thanks for reading about how we got together. It’s been fun to share my memories of those days.

Parking

I woke up sweating, the afternoon sun in my eyes and my head resting on someone’s shoulder. What the—

“Have a good rest?” a familiar voice asked.

“I can’t believe…what time is…what am I doing here?”

“You must have been exhausted. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

It all came back. Connie and I in the park, me baring my soul, her listening…How embarrassing. But I didn’t budge.

“Why the frown?” she asked.

“Don’t you need to be somewhere?”

“Don’t worry. You only slept an hour or so. I watched a freighter with a foreign flag crawl up the river over there, toward the old shipyards and the naval station.”

“Is this still Tuesday?” I swallowed, the taste of wild cherry lingering in my mouth. My sore throat had healed. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle.”

She chuckled. “You don’t look like him.” She shifted her position, and I shot up like a jack-in-the-box.

“Sorry. You okay? I bet your shoulder’s cramped.”

She shook herself. “All my moving parts seem to work. What about your neck?”

I rotated my head. “Same here. You sure I shouldn’t drive you back?”

She looked at her watch. “No rush. I have a question.”

I pushed myself up in my seat, turned, faced her. “What is it?”

She smoothed a wrinkle in her spotless lab coat. “Why did you choose this place? It’s rather unusual.”

I glanced around at the desolate park—old redbrick house; big oaks with broken limbs; unkempt underbrush; dry brown leaves heaped on the ground like unburied corpses. Only the lone camellia bush I’d noticed earlier had withstood the ravages of time and promised a happy future.

 

 

old house

“It suited my mood,” I said. “But now it doesn’t. I can’t believe the sun’s out and it’s warmed up. Not that I’m complaining.”

I decided to ’fess up. “I did something here a long time ago.”

But should I reveal another of my secrets after hitting her earlier with my sad childhood tale? Well, I’d see if we could be friends.

Connie raised both brows. “You killed someone and buried the body on the premises?”

“No, silly. Though it did involve the police.”

She wiped her forehead with a Kleenex. “I do have to go soon, but I have time for that story.”

I breathed deep and wiggled out of my leather jacket. “The first woman I lived with, almost ten years ago, was much younger than me. Half my age. Not quite twenty-one at the time.”

“Robbing the cradle, eh?” She gave a half-smile.

“Don’t worry. She wasn’t jail bait. Her dad introduced us and gave us his blessing.”

Connie grinned. “That’s a relief. I don’t usually associate with criminals.”

“I came close one night,” I said, and she tilted her head.

“Like I said, she was young, and I should have known better. But I was mixed up about who and what I was. She wanted to go parking, and I went along with her suggestion.”

“Trying to act like a teenager again, eh?” She shifted in her seat again, then settled.

“Not exactly. I never went parking back then. I was just friends with all the boys. No. I was finally finding my teenage self.”

“What happened?”

I blew out a long breath. “We were making out like crazy, lost in our world of hormones and fogged-up windshields. All of a sudden, a bright light beamed through the driver’s side window of my car—a late-60s Cougar with a 351 V8 engine.”

1967 Mercury_Cougar

Connie lit up. “Nothing like this little Honda.”

“Yep. I guess I thought I was hot stuff. But you haven’t always driven a van, have you?”

“Touché.” She grinned. “I’ve had my fair share of sports cars and convertibles. But where did the light come from?”

“A policeman, shining his flashlight on us. Thank goodness, she and I had on all our clothes.” I sighed. “I was shaking all over and changed into the good little girl who used to carry her policeman father a cup of coffee every time he demanded one.”

“What did the cop say?” she asked.

“Not much. Asked my name, what we were doing. I could barely squeak out something, and he looked surprised, even embarrassed. ‘Ladies,’ he said, clearing his throat. ‘It’s not safe for two women out here late at night.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘I’ll, uh, wait here till you leave.’”

“And did you? Leave, I mean.”

“We sure did. As fast as I could get away. Now, sometimes I drive back over here during the day to eat a sandwich or enjoy a pretty day. But I haven’t been parking here or anywhere else since then.”

Connie laughed. “That’s a relief. I wouldn’t want to turn on the TV and hear about you being arrested.”

“Yeah. I’ve grown up a little. Speaking of…Since you bought my lunch last week, I’d like to return the favor.”

She nodded. “Sounds good. What do you have in mind?”

“I make a mean spaghetti sauce. Maybe this Saturday night at my house, if you don’t have anything planned. I know it’s the holiday season and—”

“I’m free.”

“And bring your, uh, girlfriend. I’d like to meet her.”

Connie gave me a strange look. “You sure?”

I forced myself not to grab her arm, tell her I wished she didn’t live with anyone. Instead, I put my hands on the steering wheel. “I’m sure.”

I drove her back to campus.

“Don’t work too hard this week,” she said, and opened the door. “See you then. About seven? Leave me your address in my mailbox if we don’t run into each other. Oh, and your phone number.”

I watched her walk away, then shivered. Shit! My house is a wreck.

Cough Drops and Camellias

No odor of chalk dust filled the air. No instructors droned on and on. No chatting students rushed by, rustling papers and books. No laughter brightened the hallway. No wonder they called it Dead Day.

“What’s going on?”

I let my Norton Anthology of World Literature drop onto my wooden desk with a thump and glanced up. Connie stood in my office doorway like a genie escaped from a bottle, wearing her green scrubs and white lab coat.

“Oh.” I rubbed my grainy eyes, the sweet-tart taste of the cherry lozenge I’d been sucking still in my mouth. “Must have dozed off. How are you? Long time, no see.”

“You know how crazy the end of the semester is. Have any free time?”

“Sure.” I sat up straight in my chair and shoved my yellow pad into a desk drawer.  All the time in the world. “Just finished deciding on my last exam question. You?”

Connie nodded and walked in. “I have a couple of hours.”

“Good. How about getting out of here, visiting another of my favorite haunts?”

She grinned. “Just so it doesn’t involve alligators or mosquitoes.”

I hid a yawn and, ignoring my sore throat, struggled out of my chair. My shoulders weighed a ton, and my head ached. Where did my burst of energy go?

I grabbed my old brown leather jacket, and we walked out to the faculty parking area into a cold mist.

“My car or yours?” she asked.

“Mine. I invited you, didn’t I?”

“Fair enough. Let’s go.”

I drove past deserted buildings through what used to be the heart of downtown to a nearby old park, barely managing to keep up my end of our small talk. I wanted to return to where we’d left off last Friday—the warm, carefree afternoon, the flirting.

The leaves of the huge, gangly camellia bush I parked beside shone green and glossy, despite the fog and the clouds. Red blooms would cover it in a few months.

Connie turned and faced me. “You look a little down in the mouth. Want to talk?”

I wanted to keep my words in, but they tumbled out.

“That jerk called again this morning. Three o’clock. Woke me up. Said ugly things. He’s called every night or early morning since Friday. I’ve barely slept for four days.”

“The bastard. Get tougher.”

“I’ve tried, but nothing works.”

“Does he scare you?”

“You damn right he does.”

“What’s he gonna do? Crawl through the phone line and grab you? Men like him are bullies. Call his bluff.”

“I know. I’ve tried. But his roughness reminds me of my dad, and he’s always scared me.”

Daddy in Big Chair

There. I’ve said it. She won’t want to have anything else to do with me. I’m such a loser.

She didn’t even flinch. “That’s a tough one. Why?”

I shivered and wanted to sink into my seat. I hated to dump my problems on her, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“You must think I’m silly. Here I am, fifty years old with my PhD. I’ve traveled all over the world, sometimes alone, been involved in some dangerous situations, etc., etc.” The words kept pouring out. “Not only am I still afraid of my dad. I don’t think I’ll ever not be.”

Connie rested her warm hand on my cold one. “It’s okay. You’re not silly. We’re all afraid of something.”

Her touch calmed me, soothed me. I envisioned red camellias opening on the nearby bush during the coming winter.

red camiellias

“Tell me about him. Maybe that’ll help.”

Her steady tone reassured me.

“I’ve spent the past ten years writing poems about my dad, figuring out what’s wrong between us.”

She took her hand away, and I missed its warmth.

“He worked out of state a lot, mainly in Louisiana.”

She never quit looking at me.

“I understand,” she said. “Mine served overseas for several years. Then one day he just showed up, out of the blue, and I cried. A stranger had come in and monopolized my mother’s time.”

“Yeah. Momma cooked Daddy’s favorite dishes, and they sat for long stretches listening to records. He played with us some, like a kid too. But my little brother and I had a lot more of Momma’s attention after he left on another job.”

“Why were you so afraid of him then–and now?” Connie’s reflective expression reminded me she’d worked as a psych nurse.

“That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”

“And only you have the answer.”

I stared through the mist-covered windshield at the untrimmed bushes growing randomly in what had probably once been a well-kept park.

I dug deep. “One morning, my brother and I went with him to meet his rig-building crew and tell him good-bye. Usually he just left early without us knowing.” I hesitated, fingered a wild-cherry cough drop in my pocket.

“And?”Shelley and Buck Babies

“Sorry. I’m not used to talking about these things.” Will she still want to be friends? Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? Be flirty and fun?

“It’s okay. Just let it out.”

“He and his work buddies started to leave, and the kids of one of them ran to him and put their arms around him.” My throat tightened. “They even kissed him on the cheek, and he kissed them back.” My eyes started to water. I sat up straighter, shook my shoulders.

“Yes.”

“My dad glared at my brother and me, like he blamed us. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you ever do that?’”

“I see.”

“My brother and I stood there like stones. Why didn’t I? Instead, I backed away from him. I should have been sweet like those other kids.”

“What did your dad do?”

“Just stood there looking disappointed. But I couldn’t hug him, much less kiss him. And that made me so ashamed, I just wanted to run away.”

Now my throat ached, and the insides of my eyelids grew wet. But I took a deep breath and stared out at the gray sky that threatened rain. What an idiot Connie must think I am.

I reached for the key to start the car, drive back to my office at school. There I could be in charge, and all these feelings would go away. But she grabbed my arm.

“It’s all right,” she said, then squeezed my thigh.

I popped the sweet-tart lozenge into my mouth. Connie’s three words made me stay right there, beside her.

Across the State Line

“What’s up?” Connie winked. “Taking me across the state line to have your way with me?”

I wish. I kept driving toward the big arched structure looming ahead of us. “You’ll see.”

At the top of the bridge over the Sabine River, we surveyed a small body of water on our right, spreading toward the Gulf of Mexico—miles away in the south—then the muddy river to our left, sprawling north of us.

“I’m serious.” Connie glanced at me. “Where to? The new riverboats in Lake Charles?”

I shook my head. “I’m not much of a gambler. You?”

She shrugged. “Not me. I only bet on a sure thing.”

That leaves me out. Is her girlfriend a “sure thing”?

The paved road I pulled into wound past several red-brick buildings perched on the edge of a bayou.

“The Louisiana Welcome Center? Stopping for brochures? Maybe a trip? New Orleans?”

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My heart rate doubled. I really wish. “Nothing that exciting or glamorous. I bet you’ve driven right by this spot a hundred times.”

I parked my blue Honda just past covered picnic tables. “Come on. I hope you like it here. At least it’s different.”

We strolled onto a gravel path at the back left of the main building.

Connie froze. A sign featured a drawing of an alligator and two words: NO SWIMMING. “Huh. Nobody but an idiot would do that.”

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I laughed. “You’re right. And here we are. One of my favorite places.”

We followed the path back toward the wetland, a medieval forest of cathedral-tall cypresses looming over it.

“We’re going hiking. About half a mile.”

Connie grimaced. “What about the mosquitoes and gnats? I prefer alligators.”

I laughed again. “Yeah. They’ll bite you quicker than a gator would.”

Her pained expression softened.

“But you’re safe from insects this time of year. That recent cold front got rid of them. I’d never even think of bringing you here in hot weather.”

We stepped onto the wooden boardwalk that led into the swamp. Connie grasped the waist-high railing, then smoothed her hand along it as we meandered side by side down the narrow walkway. “Are you sure this thing’s safe?”

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“Yes. I’d bring my grandmother here.”

“Well, I’m not your grandmother.”

I stopped and faced her, close enough to reach out, if I dared. “Obviously. And I’m glad.”

Connie’s shoulders dropped, and we walked farther into the morass. “It’s lovely,” she said.”And so private.”

We stopped, glanced at the thigh-high water. “See the cypress knees?” I pointed. “Years ago, people used them for living-room decorations.”

“I saw them back then, when I first moved to Texas from up North. Beautiful grain and color, all varnished and shiny. They last forever. But what’s their real purpose in the swamp?”

“I’m not sure.” Needing to touch something, I rubbed the scaly, fibrous ridges of bark on a nearby tree. “These old gray things sit out in water all the time. Maybe their knees help them breathe.”

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I understood that need. Being this near Connie, I couldn’t get enough air.

We strolled through the dream-like, alien landscape, engulfed by leafless cypress trees. I craved to take her hand yet forced myself not to touch her.

In my mind, she had a girlfriend, and I’d intruded on too many relationship during almost a decade of single life. I’d rather have her friendship, if that’s all she could offer. Besides, being an out lesbian seemed foreign, overwhelming, almost frightening—like this ancient slough.

All too soon, we reached the mid-point of our hike. Standing on the viewing platform, we stared out at the bayou. A mass of trees marked the distant Texas side.

“Is this salty?” Connieboardwalk2 glanced toward the south, where the bayou stretched on and on, no bank controlling it.

“A little. If you dare taste it.” I gestured at the brownish-green shallows under and around the boardwalk. “The river meets the sea right about here and forms a brackish mixture.”

The salt Connie already provided in my life had begun to mingle with the bland river water I’d always accepted as normal.

She propped herself against the well-worn railing, gazed out over the scene around us. I stayed behind her and gazed too—at the back of her smooth neck, so like a magnolia bloom. Something splashed nearby. “Look at that duck.”

“Where?” She moved sideways, her breasts outlined under her red sweater.

I walked up beside her. “There.”

But I ventured too close. She turned back toward the bayou, and my hip grazed her waist. Even with two layers of clothes between us, an electric rush jolted me. Our gaze fused, lengthened, but I moved away and focused on the blue sky, fluffy white clouds.

We lingered there, the early December sun beating down on us, then headed back. Stopping, I picked up a bit of gray Spanish moss, fallen from an overhanging limb. I handed over the soft, spongy fragment. Connie examined it and returned it to me, two of her fingers glancing off my wrist. My skin sizzled.

A few bubbles broke through the swamp’s surface. All those decaying leaves and twigs in this sulfur-smelling stew must have pushed them upward. They struggled toward the air, like the urges simmering inside me did.

Back in the car, I found an orange left from my earlier lunch. “Want some?”

She nodded, silent. Had our bayou visit taken her somewhere else too? I peeled the skin from the orange, its sharp tang perfuming the car. After breaking it into two pieces, I eased one small segment from my half, held it out to her. She opened her mouth, bit the fruit.

My groin tightened. I stared at her lips, her teeth, her tongue.

She turned toward me, but I started my car, lurched onto the interstate, and sped back over the bridge—toward Texas, toward school, toward Connie’s girlfriend.

After Lunch with Connie Ward

eToothpick House!

I gripped the table leg, hard. Would it splinter? One thought kept exploding. Wow. I bet Connie’s gay. Like me.

We didn’t mention the word lesbian during lunch. But those seven letters pounded through me like a drum beat.

We sat there, whispering, in a practically deserted restaurant, no one nearby. Yet Connie and I never uttered that seven-syllable word.

She paid the check at the cash register, then turned to me. “How’d you like to see my Trans Sport? It still smells new.”

“Sure. But I need a restroom break first.”

I thought I’d never stop peeing. I’d chugged down five or six glasses of iced tea.

Connie stood out in the parking lot, wearing her crisp white lab coat, and motioned toward a shiny black van.

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I mainly noticed her short brown-gray hair gleaming in the sunlight that late-November afternoon. She pointed out the van’s huge windows and showed me how easily the one large back door slid open and closed. I watched her reflection in all those windows and doors, her precise gait. She finally opened the front passenger-side door and gestured inside. I climbed right in.

Beaming, she strode around the front of the van and stepped inside and behind the wheel.

I snuggled into the leather seat’s embrace, rubbed the smooth armrest. The clean interior sparkled like Connie’s teeth. I took a deep breath. “Yes. Smells kind of like a brand-new shower curtain.” But not half as enticing as the whiff of Dial soap I caught from her.

She interrupted my musing. “You’re a lesbian?”

There. Connie had finally said the word we’d skated around for the past couple of hours.

“Uh. Yeah. I think so.”

“Come on. Make up your mind. I’ve known about myself forever.” She gripped the leather-covered steering wheel.

I stroked the soft, gray armrest. “Well, I’ve married two men.”

“Huh. I wondered. All those skirts and dresses you wear on campus. And that guy stalking you–he must think you’re straight.”

“Yeah. But wearing those overalls is what got me into trouble with him.”

She chuckled. “I wish I’d seen your Halloween costume.”

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I curled my left hand into a gentle fist, then turned in the seat and faced her. “Do failed marriages and frilly dresses disqualify me from your lifestyle?”

I’d visited my first lesbian bar in Austin several years earlier, wearing a dress. I’d attended a women’s studies’ conference in Atlanta about that time, too. Most all the lesbians there, especially those from up East, made themselves so unattractive.

I locked eyes with Connie, and the quirk of her narrow lips helped me blurt out the truth. “I’ve slept with quite a few women.”

I’d met a Palestinian woman from Utah at that conference in Atlanta, though, spent a week with her in the Yucatan, exploring ancient Mayan ruins–and each other. I let my fist uncurl.

Connie grinned full-out and loosened her grip on the steering wheel. “All right. I get it. So, you involved with anyone now?”

The hot sun beat down on my right arm. I shifted away from the window, closer to her. “I’m on sabbatical from intimate relationships. Wouldn’t mind finding someone a little more suitable than the women I’ve met so far, though. Besides, my VP stint wore me out.”

The laugh lines in her cheeks, at the corner of her eyes, grew more obvious. Her eyes caught the light and sparkled.

 

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“I imagine it did. I’ve done administrative and consultant work most of my nursing career. Teaching’s a real relief.”

We chatted about work and campus gossip, but the sun kept heating that black vehicle, and I started sweating. All that time, a question kept pounding in my brain. Connie’s definitely a lesbian. But does she have a girlfriend? I finally worked up some courage and asked her.

She frowned, let go of the steering wheel, and squirmed in her cushiony leather seat. Then she started the engine and turned on the air conditioner. “Actually, no. I don’t have a girlfriend. Not technically, anyway.”

Where had her directness gone? “What do you mean, ‘not technically’?”

“I live with my mother—”

Hooray, I thought. No problem.

“And a younger woman.”

Whoa. Big problem.  I didn’t say a word.

She took a deep breath. “We’re not together-together anymore. I’m considering moving. Probably Colorado. I just don’t know about my mom.”

A gust of cold air smacked me in the face.

She turned the air conditioner down a notch, then stared at me, a well-groomed brow rising slightly. “Say. Do you know any of the lesbians in the area?”

“What lesbians? I don’t know anyone but straight women in this town.”

She grinned again. “I asked you about the area. We’re everywhere. Some of the women throw Christmas parties. We’ll invite you, introduce you around. You never know what might happen.”

We’ll“? Does that mean she and her girlfriend will invite me? I forced my lips into a smile. “Great. Sounds like fun.”

Chilly now, I opened the door of her Trans Sport and climbed back down to earth. The warm sun felt good after that blast of cold air.

At least maybe Connie would open another kind of door for me.

We stood face-to-face in front of her van, and I made my voice carefree.

pontiac-trans-sport-front

“Thanks for lunch. I really enjoyed it. Especially our conversation about Toothpick House.”

She opened her mouth but closed it and said only, “Me too. Have a good weekend.”

Then she swung back up into her vehicle and backed out of the parking lot. I fired up my mud-streaked little blue Honda and slowly drove home.

I sure hoped that guy wouldn’t call again, and I sure hoped Connie Ward would.

But I knew she shouldn’t.

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First Lunch with Connie Ward

Halloween 1991, the day Connie Ward left two chocolate cupcakes in my faculty mailbox, I wore a costume to school for our annual faculty competition, as we did each year.

My dad was a rig builder when I was a child, and for some reason, I decided to imitate his oilfield outfit. Maybe I was still scarred from being interim vice president and wanted to state that I could be a good old boy even if the boys wouldn’t accept me in their exclusive club. But that Halloween I went all out, borrowing the type of overalls and hardhat my dad wore when he left to build derricks. I even drew whiskers on my chin with an eyeliner pencil.

I paraded through the hallways carrying a huge wrench, and some of the faculty didn’t recognize me. The local newspaper sent a photographer, who snapped a shot of me, and it appeared on the front page that afternoon.

But my prank turned into a nightmare. That weekend the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.

“I liked your picture in the paper Thursday.”

“Who is this?” I’d never heard the harsh male voice before.

“An admirer.”

“Do I know you?”

“Nope. But you’re going to.”

I hung up.

I’d lived alone for the past eight years, except for two times when a girlfriend lived with me for a while. My house, located several miles north of town in a nice subdivision, was set way back from the street on a half-acre of land, and dense woods flanked it. I’d always considered myself safe there and enjoyed the privacy, but suddenly I felt vulnerable.

The calls continued. The guy kept asking me out and then cursing me for dressing like a man. I considered changing my phone number and called the police, who advised me to threaten to get a restraining order and hang up on him. (That wasn’t much help since he knew I had no idea who he was or where he lived.) He started calling at odd hours, interrupting my sleep, and as I soon as I thought he’d stopped, he began again. Threats didn’t help. Nothing did.

During this ordeal, Connie Ward asked me to meet her for lunch at our favorite Tex-Mex place. I dressed carefully in a brown Ultrasuede skirt and vest, complete with knee-high brown boots. Waiting in the parking lot, I watched her pull in next to me and emerge from her black Pontiac Transport. She was wearing green scrubs, topped by her white lab coat. She’d just finished supervising a clinical in a nearby town, which had begun early that morning.

The lunch crowd had dwindled to a few stragglers, so we had the place practically to ourselves. We sat at a small table for two, and I almost immediately blurted out what was going on with the phone calls.

Her eyes flashed. “That bastard. I’d like to get ahold of him. What a coward.”

As we discussed the situation, for the first time since the stranger began to call, I took a deep breath and my stomach began to unclench. Somehow, she convinced me that I could deal with this jerk.

While I ate my favorite dish, a salad deluxe, she enjoyed a plate of cheese enchiladas. We discussed her morning at clinicals, my classes, movies, music, and so on. When we reached one of my favorite subjects, books, she asked me what I was reading. I’d been stocking up on novels at BookWoman every time I went to a conference in Austin and ordering them from Naiad Press in Florida when I ran out.

Toothpick House. By Lee Lynch. I’m reading it right now.”

Connie’s eyes sparkled into high alert. “Toothpick House!? What do you think of it?” She grabbed a chip from the basket that sat between us and bit into it, squirming in her chair.

Aha. My heartrate accelerated. “I love it. I really identify with Victoria.”

Connie dipped another chip into the red picante sauce we were sharing. “You’re a feminist?” She took a small bite of her loaded chip.

“Yes. Definitely. In 1985, I went to a feminist workshop near Ithaca, New York. Nancy Bereano, the owner of Firebrand Books, came over to the workshop looking for novels she might be interested in publishing, and Judy Grahn was there—”

“You’re a writer?” Connie took a drink of her iced tea.

“I’d like to be. My great-uncle was poet laureate of Texas in the late 1930s, and I want to follow that part of my family tradition.”

“What do you write?”

Connie indulged me as I described my poetry, how I’d had some of it published in small magazines and would love to write a novel. After I finally wound down, I asked her, “What do you think of Toothpick House?”

“It’s a great book. Annie Heapy is my favorite character. She’s so real.”

I almost swallowed my bite of beef taco whole. Annie personified the type of woman I’d never met in this area, and she was certainly the type I’d never been. Annie was down-to-earth, direct, and no-nonsense. Like Connie Ward. I took a drink of water to wash my taco down.

This woman who had been dropping by my faculty office for months, who had brightened my lonely birthday and just helped me realize I could deal with the stranger who’d been terrorizing me lately—this woman with mischievous hazel eyes that pulled me toward her—she was exactly who I’d been looking for during my eight-year spell of loneliness.

I had to find out more about Connie Ward.

BTW, here’s what we looked like at that time, though the shot of Connie is really fuzzy.

connie-in-red-fuzzyshelley-1991-blog

Meeting Connie Ward

“Excuse me, Dr. Thrasher.”

Frowning, I glanced up from the jumble of papers and books cluttering my executive desk, where I was busily jotting down some last-minute agenda items for my upcoming meeting with the five administrators I supervised.

“Hi, Janet. What’s up?” I tapped my pen on the sheet of paper in front of me. Hopefully, Janet, our inexperienced director of nursing, would take a hint for a change and be brief instead of monopolizing my time and creating yet another headache.

Beside her stood a short woman I’d never seen before. The newcomer’s large, round, beige-framed glasses emphasized her steady gaze, and her thin lips turned up at each corner in what seemed to be a sympathetic expression. The pens in the pocket of her white coat made her appear ready to get to work and somehow suggested that she understood the type of pressure gripping me.

Suddenly, I felt more grounded, less harried. How had this stranger made my hectic world slow down and smooth out for a precious moment? I took a deep breath and let my tight shoulders drop a fraction.

“I just wanted to introduce our latest addition to the staff. This is Connie Ward. Connie, meet Dr. Shelley Thrasher, our interim vice president for academic affairs.”

I stood and rounded my desk, smiling and holding out my hand. “Welcome. I hope you enjoy teaching here.”

After a firm handshake and a few no-nonsense remarks, the new member of the large nursing faculty at our small community college left my office. Here’s what she looked like back then.

connie-in-1991

Mired in office politics and working for a president I neither respected nor admired, I didn’t run into Connie Ward often during that spring of 1991. A permanent vice president replaced me in June, so I left town and enjoyed part of my summer break in Colorado studying writing at a small Buddhist university. Then I toured Southeast Asia with my cousin for a couple of weeks.

That fall, I returned to my former roles as chair of the liberal-arts division and professor of composition and literature. The nursing department on the second floor of our main building was worlds away from my liberal-arts stronghold downstairs. However, my faculty office was located just three doors away from the only women’s restroom on the first floor.

Connie Ward stopped by my office from time to time, always smiling in a way that made me notice her high cheekbones and rounded cheeks. I’ve always been a sucker for the type of apple cheeks she has. She wore her spotless white lab coat, its pocket still filled with a fistful of pens, and never lingered. She would simply say hello, ask how I was, and wish me well.

She wore her brown hair, flecked with gray, in a short, neat style. Mine, once brown too, was showing more gray than hers—probably the result of my tenure as vice president. Our similar hair color formed a link between us, though hers usually looked a lot less messy than mine. I did wonder why she used the first-floor restroom instead of the one closer to where she taught, but other than that, I thought of her as simply a nice person.

Here’s how I looked back then, sitting in my office and chatting with her.

photos-of-shelley-1980s-001-2

If I had known Connie better at the time, I would have realized that she was working hard to adjust to her new position, just as I was struggling to cope with my change of status. I learned later that she’d spent most of her career as a high-level nurse consultant and administrator in Austin, Beaumont, Houston, and Terre Haute, Indiana, near the small town where she was born, so she was accustomed to being the boss.

Janet, her new supervisor on our campus, had much less professional experience than Connie did, as did I, and later I realized how patient Connie had been with both of us. Working for volatile, hard-headed Janet maddened her at times, but her students benefitted from her expertise, and I had a chance to meet her.

As the first and only woman to serve as a top-level administrator in our three-campus system, I’d often felt overwhelmed, lost, and isolated. Gradually, I began to enjoy the camaraderie of working with the other faculty members throughout the college again rather than supervising them. Connie helped me make that transition because she seemed to understand both worlds. So as the fall semester progressed, I began to relax and focus on my personal life for a change.

I started looking forward to Connie’s brief appearances in my office doorway on her way either to or from the restroom. But why did she keep showing up? Finally, I decided that maybe she preferred to walk around the building and get a little exercise rather than stay on the second floor. Or perhaps she enjoyed visiting a wide range of people. That was it. She probably wandered around campus and dropped by to see everyone for a minute. She couldn’t possibly be singling me out. Most likely, she had a husband, kids, and grandkids, like my women friends in town that I played tennis and bridge and shopped with.

One day she skimmed my bookcases and told me how much she liked to read. “I wish I could have majored in English or been a veterinarian,” she said, “but my mother wanted me to be a nurse because that’s what she always wanted to be.” Another time she asked about the little statue of the Buddha sitting on a shelf in my bookcase, and I opened up to her about how I’d learned to write poetry from a hip group of Buddhists in Boulder.

“Allen Ginsberg? Wow,” she said. “Even I know who he is.” She frowned. “I like poetry too, but Rod McKuen is more my style.”

“That’s neat,” I said. “McKuen used to read his poems alongside Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco clubs.” Connie must be a romantic, I thought. Mmm.

One autumn day, we ran into each other in the faculty break room, as we did from time to time. The room featured a coffee machine and a round table, as well as a copy machine where we teachers could make our own handouts for class. Cabinets full of office supplies—pens, pencils, gradebooks, paperclips, staplers, etc.—stretched along one wall, while another one was lined with open stacks of wooden boxes where each of us received our mail and memos. It always smelled like coffee, ink, and chalk in there.

I was standing in front of my box pulling notices and envelopes from it when Connie walked in, wearing her white lab coat and laughing with one of the other nursing instructors. We said hello, as always, but when she strolled over to her mailbox and looked at me, something strange happened with her eyes. Behind her large, beige frames, they twinkled and pulled me into their depths almost as if she’d reached out and grabbed my shoulders. They were so full of mischief and wisdom that suddenly I knew that’s where I wanted to swim. We talked for a while, but I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation because I couldn’t think about anything but her eyes. They were hazel, a combination of brown and green that suggested both autumn and spring to me, a season for budding and growing and a season for ripening and appreciating life’s harvest.

That Halloween, she left two iced chocolate cupcakes in my mailbox, which surprised yet warmed me. A few weeks later, when I turned fifty, I spent the night of my birthday at a faculty party. I looked around for Connie all evening, interested to see who her date to the party would be, again wondering if she had a husband and what he looked like, but she never showed up. I’d gone alone, and our president asked me to dance. Being in the arms of a man you despise isn’t the best way to spend your birthday, especially one as important as your fiftieth, I told myself.

A few days later, I found a mug in my faculty mailbox that read, 50 is five perfect 10’s. With it was a card.

Sorry I missed your birthday, Shelley. I’ve been sick, but I thought about you and hope your day was special.

Connie

cup-from-connie

Looking back, I realize how typical of Connie those chocolate cupcakes and the mug were. She definitely has a sweet tooth, our mug collection already fills a large cupboard and is still growing, and she considers birthdays one of the most important events of the year, right up there with Christmas.

But at the time I didn’t realize how much Connie’s gifts had just told me about her. I knew only that she made me feel special and that I wanted to learn more about her. So our leisurely courtship continued, Connie adding more and more color to my monochromic existence.

Stay tuned.