I first saw her as I was sitting on the grounds outside Old Main, gazing up at the shadowing limbs of the oak trees that framed the beauty of this 100-year old campus.
My friend Cheryl sat next to me, her hand casually and naturally resting on my leg. I looked toward the waning afternoon sun and saw Loretta heading our way, trailed by a girl I didn’t know. A tall girl with reddish hair and freckles. And green cat eyes.
“Hey Terry, I want you to meet my niece, Lynne. She’s a freshman this year.”
Lynne was wearing jeans tucked into long brown boots. I couldn’t help imagining her legs outside of those jeans.
Cheryl and I had tried being lovers and maybe we still were trying. So after exchanging perfunctory “Hi’s” with this otherwise quiet girl, I only halfway offered Loretta and Lynne a seat on the ground by us. It was the week after orientation and a Sunday afternoon. A band was warming up on the quad, and summer was still holding on in central Alabama even though we were into September now.
“Thanks,” Loretta said, “but we’re moving on. Just wanted to say hello.”
She smiled at me then, this freckle-faced girl, and let that smile linger. I should have known something then.
But after they left, all I thought was “A very pretty freshman girl, like so many others.”
I tutored for Loretta in the college’s newly-launched writing center. I remember the first student I coached through freshman comp: Bernie, short for Bernadette. She was an able writer and just needed some refining. I helped her move from low B’s to A’s, and maybe it was this success that sold me on a career teaching English. I often wonder what would have happened had Bernie been Bobby, the dyslexic guy who came later and whom I tried tutoring that entire year. Bobby was a sweet kid, and goofy. He kept laughing at his mistakes, drooling a little bit too at my attempts to help him spell words like “freshman” and “thought” and “friend.”
And “help.” He kept spelling it h-l-e-p.
I got paid extra for tutoring Bobby, but whereas Bernie passed her classes and knew the foundations of writing an analytical essay within just a few sessions, Bobby, even after months of help, barely wrote three-word sentences, and even then they were chock full of basic errors.
If Bobby had been my first, I might have pursued a journalism career, as my father advised.
Maybe I could have written an expose about him, too, because before I graduated, I learned from a fraternity friend that the previous Saturday night, a bunch of brothers brought a girl over to the house, one who was willing and, alcohol-aided, able to “pull a train.”
The caboose to this freight was Bobby, the sixth car standing in the line.
As my former friend put it, “Well, we had to get Bobby’s cherry popped.”
I had given up tutoring Bobby by then. If he ever was, he was no longer my problem, this goofy guy who drooled on his own essays. Loretta made sure I knew that his problems were beyond the sort of tutoring any of us could give, and in that, she was more right than she ever knew.
A few weeks after she introduced us, Loretta brought Lynne to a party for all the tutors held at my house, hoping to encourage Lynne to become one of us. Lynne was not as shy this day, and over spiked whisky sour punch, we talked a little. This was my senior year, though; I thought I didn’t have time for freshman girls, what with Cheryl and all my other friends. So for most of that party, Lynne was still just a girl, a pleasant chat.
Yet I remember when she left. I walked her to the door. It was a late October afternoon, colors all around. She left with one of her roommates, as if she needed the safety of another girl. I can still see her walking down the cracked, uprooted sidewalk to the left of my house, back toward campus and her room in Old Main. I had almost turned to go back inside when I saw Lynne look back.
“Bye Terry,” she called.
It was the first time she had said my name, but what should have really screamed “this girl wants you” was the way she caught my eye when she called my name. Like she had literally run back to my front stoop, grabbed both my eyes out of my face, and embraced them in her long fingers.
Maybe I had been looked at this way before, and maybe I have been since. But this time I noticed. It was a look that said, “Follow me.”
Yet I didn’t.
For college seniors know so little, really, about signs and suggestions. About who they are or could be.
A week later as I was finishing my slot in the writing center, Loretta walked over:
“Are you going to the Max Apple reading next week?”
“Sure I am,” though I really didn’t know much about this author of The Oranging of America.
“You ought to ask my niece to go with you.”
“Oh Terry, why do you think we walked over to you back at the beginning of the semester? She asked me to introduce you. She does have a boyfriend back home in Georgia, but I think that will pass.”
I knew that this was one of “those” chances. I knew, too, that whatever I felt about Cheryl wasn’t enough. And I knew that in my stomach I felt the way I did back when my father agreed to stop at my favorite newsstand for comic books.
The colors behind the cover.
Though Lynne and I attended Max Apple’s reading, I don’t remember what he read, whether I even liked it.
Certainly not how or why America had Oranged.
We both wore faded Levi’s jean-jackets and held hands during the reading. And that night we kissed under the dome light in front of Old Main.
I don’t know why people fall in love with one person over another. Cheryl and I were far more compatible than Lynne and I would prove to be, and I had known Cheryl far longer than Lynne. Cheryl was comfortable, familiar, and many guys envied her long exotic body and how close she and I were.
Yet I chose Lynne over Cheryl.
I loved Lynne in that way my therapist now says is the love to beware of. The love that screams danger like a speeding Amtrak whistle.
Over the next two years, Lynne broke up with me several times, the most excruciating being on the evening after she took me to a rural Alabama farm to meet her grandmother.
“Me-Maw really liked you,” she told me as we left her grandmother’s farm that Sunday afternoon.
Which is why I came undone later that night when she called and asked me to meet her in the quad, at a bench just yards away from where we first met.
“It’s Carlos,” she said. “I can’t leave him.”
“But I’m here. And you like me, right?”
She paused and looked at me. It was the kind of look you never want to get from a girl you love. A look that says, “You understand, don’t you? Aren’t you the kind that understands?”
And even though on this late autumn night under the trees I also thought I loved, I pretended to be that kind of guy for Lynne, I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. For she had just looked me in the eye and told me that she preferred him to me. So no, I didn’t understand.
Later she told me that she watched me weave my way back to my house from her hall window. She didn’t know I was crying, or maybe she did. She might have learned later that I called Loretta some time after 11, not caring if I woke her up.
“Your niece just broke up with me,” I said, sitting in the lighted staircase of my house.
“Oh, Terry. She took you to meet Me-Maw for God’s sakes. You know she likes you. She’s confused. Just give her time.”
But seniors have only so much time.
I left campus early that week, the week of Thanksgiving, intentionally cutting Loretta’s husband Bill’s Southern Lit course. For what could Flannery O’Connor possibly tell me about love?
The day I left, I had already run into Lynne at the cafeteria. Her look of concern and pity was too much. And later, as I was waiting for my brother Mike to drive from our parents’ home to get me, Cheryl dropped by.
“You’re actually leaving? Because of Lynne? Why don’t you stay? We’ll find something to do. My friend Claire is coming tonight and we’ll go out.”
That she almost convinced me was another sign that I willfully blew past.
“I have to. I keep seeing her, and it’s driving me crazy.”
Just at that moment my phone rang.
“Hi Terry. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”
It was anything but comforting to hear these words from the girl who had broken up with me the night before.
I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t much. When I stepped back outside and told Cheryl, she looked at me hard:
“You’re right. You do need to get away.”
Cheryl waited with me until Mike arrived, and as we drove away, she was still standing there, on the walk outside my house. I wonder now if I ever thanked her for seeing about me. If I ever really appreciated what she was offering.
Before I returned to campus the next Sunday, I called another girl I knew. Big wheels keep on turning. We made a date for the campus basketball game on Tuesday night, where, sitting directly across the court from us was Lynne and her roommate. I didn’t know she’d be there, and seeing her wasn’t my purpose at all.
It just made everything that much better, at least for a time.
After the game, we all ran into each other at the student center, and there were Lynne’s eyes locked into mine again.
After we passed, I looked back and saw Lynne kind of stagger against her roommate. My date didn’t notice much, or if she did, she never talked about it.
But then, we were never a couple. Not really.
The following Sunday, my phone rang.
“Hey Terry. My mother is here and she wants to meet you. Can we come by?”
I tell my students today, when we’re studying contemporary fiction—like The Perks of Being a Wallflower—that guys truly have no clue what’s going on in a girl’s mind.
This is the experience I’m remembering when I tell them, but I try not to mention Lynne or how she hurt me. It would be distracting and, finally, there is just too much tot tell.
Late that night, Lynne, her roommate Bebe, and my friend Billy all drove 15 miles to the Saw Mill, a 24-hour breakfast place stuck between Montevallo and Tuscaloosa on some strange county highway. As we huddled together in Billy’s back seat, she confessed that “When I saw you with that girl, I was so jealous.”
I thought we were back together then, and maybe we were. Then.
But not for long, or rather, only intermittently, and to this day, I’ve never understood completely why.
Was it Carlos? The fact that I was leaving in a few months? That I loved her too fast?
Despite the periods where we didn’t see each other, where I found others to love, or she did, Lynne always wound her way back, calling me at the most random moments, travelling alone to see me when I moved off to graduate school in Tennessee.
It was only during these visits, however, after we had been so far away from each other, that we became lovers. Loretta had advised me back at Montevallo just to “take” Lynne, but I couldn’t.
I’ve never wanted that kind of love.
I understand, and I think I always have, that when you are in love, you’re quite able to hurt the one you love even at the best of times, but especially when you’re confused. When you don’t know how to disentangle yourself from friends and former lovers.
Having sex with Lynne seemed dangerous and wrong to me back then, when whatever we had was so unstable, when we were still undergraduate students looking for majors and other forms of purpose.
Maybe you understand what I mean.
Even though I was older than her, I was the more vulnerable one, the sort of guy who would get hurt even before our two bodies embraced.
Now as a worldly graduate student whose former love had ridden a bus for six hours to be with him, a guy she couldn’t bring herself to leave, I thought I could handle the intimacy. And maybe I did, by continuing to date the other woman I had been seeing in Tennessee after Lynne returned to Alabama. I suppose you could say that our timing was never right. Or that whatever love we had couldn’t hold us still, couldn’t make our pasts all right.
Lynne and I made love three times, twice on a single bed in my studio apartment in an old Victorian house in Knoxville, and one time, the last time, in her dorm back at Montevallo, at the college where we met. I spent the night with her there, against dorm rules. As we lay in her double bed, looking up at her Tom Selleck poster, I realized that I didn’t love her anymore. Maybe it was Tom Selleck bare-chested and buff, or maybe I realized what she had figured out a long time ago: That one day I would take her away from home and her old life, from the world she knew: a more rural world. A world back in Austell, Georgia, where her Daddy preached against fornication and other sins of the highly-educated liberal life.
For in that way she had of looking so deep within me, she realized that she was truly the mature one. The one able to see what exactly she could do, and what she couldn’t.
It was not long after that last time—the time in her dorm when I got up at 5:30 in the morning and snuck out while it was still dark and drove the 25 miles back to my parents’ house and ran into my Dad as he was leaving for work—that Lynne called me. We had let things drop, and while I hadn’t forgotten her, I had almost quit thinking of her. But she wasn’t announcing a visit or break-up this time:
“Uh Terry, I hate to tell you this, but I went to the doctor yesterday, and he said I needed to tell you.”
Of course, I knew what she was about to say. Of course I didn’t know what we would do. Of course, as usual, I was wrong.
“My doctor says I have venereal warts, and that I probably infected you. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m so embarrassed.”
I assumed that she had never broken up with her old boyfriend. But then I wondered if she was seeing a different guy. We had never promised each other fidelity. We were always so free.
So I accepted her news. I told her I appreciated her telling me and that I hoped she was OK.
“I am. Believe me, Terry, I’m so sorry. I’m so stupid.”
I can’t remember what else I said though it was surely something lame, something less than genuinely comforting.
“I’ll talk to you later.”
Maybe she said that or maybe we both did. In any case, that was the last time I ever spoke to her.
I remembered these scenes again when I began reading Loretta’s husband Bill’s memoir, Captain Billy’s Troopers. At one point in his narrative, Bill recounts the day he and Loretta got married in Birmingham, a gathering where Loretta’s sister Annette and her three children accompanied them. I thought about that passage: those three children.
But here’s what you never knew Lynne. You weren’t to blame. It wasn’t you who gave those warts to me, but I to you. There was a girl I met at a bar. At, oddly enough, a gay bar in Knoxville. We slept together a couple of times, and it was after that that I noticed my warts. I know we had been together somewhere during this time, too, Lynne, but in my heart, I never believed it was you. I’m sorry and I always have been. I should have said something, and if I could look into your eyes right now, I would.
Terry Barr has an essay collection coming out this winter: Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, drawn from his life in Bessemer, Alabama. It will be published by Red Dirt Press.