In the Gardens at the Louvre

There we were.  We sat on an ornate bench in the gardens outside the Louvre.  Next to us was a statue of a Greek goddess–maybe Aphrodite, maybe Artemis, I could never tell them apart.  Ruth laid her head on my shoulder.  “This is wonderful, Rob.” We were young and in love; I knew I was, anyway.  And it was time.

I fell in love the Spring before, on our tiny Indiana campus.  I lived on the first floor of Hoerner Hall (we called it “Horney and Ornery”) with Crazy Jack the Quarterback; he got his name because every Friday during the season, he wore his helmet to classes all day.

My friend, Joe, had a skinny single room above ours.  We were both from small towns in Indiana, and he had a poster of a beaten down covered bridge on his wall.  We both read a lot and were fairly serious.  He sat at his desk and I on the bed, debating the existence of God.  Joe said he felt pretty firm in his faith; I leaned my back against the wall: “I don’t think anyone can know for sure.”  We talked about girls, of course, and we both bemoaned our frustrating love lives.

“I’m too nice,” I said.

Joe, who was very smart, was in Pre-Law and German.  I was Undecided, then Decided, Undecided, Decided again, and so on.  I sat at my wrinkly wooden desk a lot and tossed darts over my shoulder into the dingy gray trash can.   Finally, I had to stick to something if I wanted to graduate, so I picked French, which I spoke fairly well.  I figured I’d be a teacher in my old school and thought I’d be good at it.

Joe was too small– only 165 pounds–to make the football team, but you should have seen him ordering guys around in our intramural games.  “Come on! Come on!” he would shout, and everybody did what he said.  He and Jack were friends, I didn’t understand why, and every so often they would hustle off together to the tennis courts.

Joe had a black, bulbous ’49 Chevy, the year of our births, that tended to break down at inopportune moments.  I was a pretty good mechanic, and he let me drive it every so often if I filled the gas tank.  In those days, gas cost seventeen cents a gallon.

We were both part of an amorphously shaped gang of twenty-five or thirty kids, sophomores and juniors, who sat together every meal in the corner of the dining room, a few feet from the limestone fireplace.  Deeply chiseled was “No Man Is an Island.”  We teased, talked very openly about our philosophies, and listened to one another.

We were all politically liberal, which meant whether or not we knew where Vietnam was, we opposed the War.  The guys showed the depth of our rebellion by our long hair–it had to cover the ears completely to qualify; the girls all parted their long hair in the middle, bound by paisley or leather headbands, and dressed in pale blue or off-white peasant blouses.  All the girls were feminists, all the boys sympathetic.

Socially, we were conservative: None of us had smoked much, if any, pot; and none of us–I think–had ever had sex, which was, of course, what we were most interested in.  From time to time, a couple of us would start hanging out together, and we would see them walking together to the stand of elm trees back of the football field for what we called a “gridiron grab.”  It was all pretty tepid, though.  We weren’t pure as the driven snow, but we didn’t have much slush in our boots, either.

All in all, we were impressed by our non-conformity and our wisdom.  We liked each other and we had great fun.  Sometimes we had food fights at dinner.

That winter, Joe and Ruth paired off, and everyone approved.  She was smart as he was, but quiet, with an edge. They walked hand in hand to Carpenter Hall, to the library, to the cafeteria, every day. Occasionally, they were seen stepping out of the trees and running across the football field.  Sometimes we saw Crazy Jack with one of his girlfriends.

As I said, I never had much luck with girls; I was a good listener and I could be funny, but–pretending I was thoughtful and sensitive–I fell into the unenviable category of “good friend.”  Every morning, I crawled out of bed and thought, “Maybe today I’ll find a girlfriend.”

When Richard Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, and, when, two days later, National Guardsmen shot students at Kent State, our entire student body gathered in the grassy Circle in front of the library.  Many of us determined, at the urging of President Harney and Professor Johnston, to go to Washington and lobby our Senators.  So, led by the President, about a hundred of us, Joe included, climbed on the gray Greyhound for the twelve-hour ride to D. C.  A few even got haircuts. I say “us,” but I stayed on campus.

We went to classes, quietly; otherwise, there wasn’t much to do.  We had our choice of table in the library and never had to wait to read the paper.

That Saturday, I decided to drive to the art museum in Indianapolis to see the traveling Van Gogh exhibit.  I planned to stop at the antique mall in Danville on the way back.  I didn’t plan to tell anybody about that, however: A guy at an antique mall? At breakfast, I decided I’d like company.  Ruth sat at the table next to me, next to the fireplace, eating an orange and licking her fingers.  She laughed and her face turned slightly red. “Do you want to ride to Indianapolis?” “Sure.”  An hour later, as we climbed onto the cracked vinyl seats of the Chevy, she smiled: “I know this old  rattletrap.  Shall we call ahead for a tow?”  We laughed, crossed our fingers, and drove off.  We rolled down the windows and watched our sleeves billow in the wind.

You think you know what happened, and you’re right.  We laughed and talked, boisterously and quietly, all the way to the museum and back.  There were only a couple of Van Goghs, but we loved both of them; she complained that having only two was a rip-off.  We found out we both liked baseball, and I told her about my dad’s old brown catcher’s mitt I kept on my desk; “It’s my paperweight.”  She thought that was pretty funny.  She was a little mad at the basketball coach for playing favorites, she said, but was glad she hadn’t made the team: “Too much competition makes me throw up.”  We talked about our families: her preacher father’s loud and arrogant orations, in church and at table; my parents’ divorce.  I told her that, even though my sister and I didn’t get along, I loved seeing her walk down the aisle last Summer with our dad.  Mother and Dad sat together, I said, and even seemed to enjoy each other.  “I’d love to have a sister,” Ruth said.

We stopped for ice cream.  “Don’t be embarrassed you like antiques, Rob. I love the teapot you got for your mom.”  “Thanks,” I said, but I asked her not to tell anybody, anyway.  It was a little cool going home, and we rolled the windows most of the way up.

“See you tomorrow,” I said as she climbed out.  “See you tomorrow.”

Just like that, we were together, constantly, all week– at every meal and in the library.  She liked to read, too, and she was a good listener.  We talked about our philosophies:  “I should probably be more religious, being the preacher’s kid,” she said, “But I just don’t know.  I wish I could talk to Daddy about it, but I don’t think he would listen.  The truth is, I’m afraid of him.”

I never felt as much like myself, and I told her so.  Ruth seemed to be as comfortable as I.

I can’t quite describe her as pretty; I thought her gray eyes and dark hair, even her slightly crooked nose, were more attractive than pretty, but I’m not sure what I mean by that.  I was shy: I didn’t take her hand and I certainly didn’t kiss her, but I brushed my arm against hers as we walked.  She was shy, too, and besides, Joe was coming back in a few days.

She told me Joe was hesitant to commit.  “Wonderful!” I thought.

Well, Joe got back, disappointed that his haircut hadn’t been worth it.  Ruth and I hung out for a couple of more days, until one of our friends asked Joe, “What’s with Rob and Ruth?”  At breakfast the next day, Joe strode across the cafeteria and declared himself ready for deeper commitment.

Now, I feel sorry for Ruth.  The rest of the Spring, she careened back and forth between Joe and me.  One night, she burst out, “Leave me alone!” and spit actually flew from her mouth. She apologized and started crying.

At times, I was euphoric, but often frustrated, jealous, and angry: One Saturday night, I smacked my desk and complained to Crazy Jack, “That girl switches boyfriends as often as I switch majors.”  “Don’t sweat it, man.  There’s a whole flock of chickies in the barnyard.”

Then he brushed his red hair out of his eyes –he had grown it kind of long by now–and walked out the door.  “I hope you’ll still be friends with Joe.  He’s a good guy.”

None of us knew what would come next.  During the quickly approaching Summer, Ruth and Joe were going with a group to study German in Austria; then, come Fall, history in Berlin.  I was to work on the paint crew on campus during the Summer and fly to Paris in September.   We would be back at the college our last semester.

The last week of the semester, things were going very nicely between Ruth and me, and I asked her to come home with me Wednesday night after finals.  I would drive her home to Dayton, in my mother’s car, the next day.  She said she’d sleep on it, and the next morning, she said, “I’d like to go.”

The day after our final final, Mother came and drove us home in her Buick; it was a relief after Joe’s old Chevy.  I sat in the back seat, less worn than the front, so she and Ruth could get to know each other.  They took to each other right away, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.  About half-way home, I had almost fallen asleep when I heard them whispering to each other.  We pulled into the driveway. “This is home.” “I can see why.”

Our green stucco cottage lay on a half-acre, in a stand of elm trees.  Down a slope behind the house ran a narrow strand of the Wabash River, drifting slow and brown.  It crept through the Ouabache State Park just to our west.

The three of us ate hamburgers and talked politics.  Mother surprised us with an abrupt, “Did you hear Bill Dawson was killed in Vietnam? Richard Nixon should be run out of office!” I hadn’t heard about Bill, and I nearly cried.  He and I had gone to ball games together the Summer before.

Shortly, Mother changed the subject: Time for dessert.  Lo and behold, she set an orange cake, my favorite, in front of me; it had candles, and she and Ruth started singing Happy Birthday.  No kidding, I forgot my own birthday.  Mother gave me fifty dollars for my trip. Ruth gave me a small square box, heavy for its size.  It was a brand spanking new Raleigh baseball.  “For your paperweight.”

After supper and a game of Clue, Mother left us alone.  We wandered in the park, making a game of trying to identify trails under the matted leaves.  A mile-and-a-half in stood the remnants of a single-span covered bridge, safe enough to walk over.  My grandfather, I told her, helped his father build the bridge, hauling gravel on skids behind the horses, when he was eleven.  We watched the river, fifteen feet below, from the bridge; minnows flicked in jagged darts just under the surface, and spiders spread in all directions.  Just to be funny, we gave them names, and each had to start with R, like Rob or Ruth: “There’s Rex.”  “No, he’s Reginald.”  “This one’s Roy Rogers.”  “Here comes Roberta.” “There’s Regina.”

We sat on the sloping river bank, and I told her about Bill, who once had a crush on my sister. We talked some more about our families.  Her mother had almost left her father, but she was a coward, Ruth said.  “My dad sits in the garage in his green Chevy  and drinks,” I told her.  I said Mother was the person I most loved in the world.  “You’re very lucky.”  We talked cautiously about our futures.  “I haven’t told you, but I want to be a writer,” she said.  “I don’t really want to be a high school French teacher.  I’d like to be a history professor–elbow patches and all, just like Professor Johnston–but I don’t think I’m smart enough.”  “Don’t be silly, Rob.  You just have to stick with it.”

We walked a little farther into the woods as dusk turned dark, and we went on talking and laughing. She loved the white Queen Anne’s Lace.  We held hands and walked on, watching out for poison ivy. We walked along the river for some time.  We were smiling quietly now and we
kept walking.  Then we stopped.  I kissed her, and she kissed me back.  We belonged right there, right then.

The next day, we drove to Dayton.  Her green suburban ranch house was considerably larger than ours, the lawn a full acre, well groomed.  I did my best not to offend, and seemed to pass the test; Ruth’s mother and father laughed, apparently sincerely, at my nervous jokes.  Her father wore a red mustache, which surprised me.  His prayer before dinner was quieter than I expected.  I tried hard not to spill food on my shirt, always a danger.  After dinner, he and I sat at the table and talked baseball for half-an-hour.  He was a Reds fan and also liked the Dragons, their local farm team.  When he asked me my personal philosophy, I looked down, swallowed, and looked up: “Well, sir, I believe no man is an island; I mean, I think we should  love our neighbor, but, well,  I don’t believe in God.”  His stare frightened me; I was scared his face would turn as red as his mustache.  Then he smiled and said, slowly, almost in a drawl, “You’re a good boy, Robert.”  Ruth’s mother had already gone to bed.

Ruth and I spent the rest of the evening alone in the basement family room.  I was no longer shy, nor was she.  After a little while, we were both breathing fast, very fast.  Her wine-colored blouse bunched under her breast.  We both stopped and got our breaths: “Let’s not go too fast,” I said.  She smoothed her blouse.  At 2:30, she went to her room; I lay on the green couch and quickly went to sleep.  The next morning I drove the six hours home.

I flew to Paris on September 16th, Mother’s forty-ninth birthday.  It was only the second time I had been on a plane.  I went through customs, said my first, “Bonjour,” and there was Ruth, waving.  She was wearing orange sunglasses.  We planned on five days together.

We walked and gawked: sidewalk cafes, book stalls, the old men in ties and sweaters, smoking and bowling in the parks.  I wanted to rent a red scooter, but Ruth wouldn’t ride with me.  We went to a movie in a run-down theater, its seats far too small even for skinny me. I think it was “Mash,” and it was in English with French subtitles.  I laughed every minute, but Ruth whispered she thought it was stupid.  We spent our nights–after very long evenings –in a youth hostel.  It was a drab green building, sort of a combination warehouse and gym, I thought, and it had army cots for the boys in one room and the girls in the other.  It was comfortable enough, and it only cost a few francs a night.

I wasn’t afraid to speak French and I loved it.  I struck up conversations in the coffee shops and the markets, and people told me that, for an American, my accent was good.  Ruth’s German was good, but she tended to put her hand over her mouth when she spoke.  She turned red when I teased her and even pouted.

For some reason, I was reserved and so was Ruth.  I didn’t kiss her, other than to peck her on the cheek each night.  We walked, cool hand in cool hand, to the foot of the Eiffel Tower, climbed to the first level, and took the elevator the rest of the way up.

Late the third afternoon we went to the Louvre.  The funny thing was when we got there, we didn’t want to go in.  Ruth had her fill of museums in Vienna, she said, and I didn’t care because, come semester when I moved into my flat, I could take the ten minute Metro ride to the Museum whenever I wanted.  If I could stand the smell of urine, that is.  “I don’t want to just walk past Mona Lisa and wave.” We walked in the gardens, sixty-nine acres of elegance that we could never see all of.  Tree-lined walks, sculpture, fountains.  We walked into the small Impressionist Museum–I didn’t know it was there–and saw galleries of Van Goghs, whose promise had sent us to Indianapolis those months ago.  I had my arm tight around her, and she walked close, leaning into my side.  The day was cool.  I loved the blue turtle-neck sweater that she bought me, very French, I thought.

And there we were, on the iron bench in the Gardens; I didn’t know when it dated from, and neither did Ruth.  I sat very close, and her head lay on my shoulder.  “This is wonderful,” she said.  “Yes, it’s lovely,” and then I blushed because I thought lovely wasn’t a word guys should use. A young couple, both in black, walked toward us, and the boy asked me the time.  I looked at my watch and told him, in French, it was 5:15; they strolled on, arm in arm.  I like to believe they thought I was a Frenchman.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“Well, you know, I’m off to Berlin day after next.”

And she smiled: “Did you know the Germans laugh at you if you ask for ice water?”

And then, “Tell me more about paint crew.  Did you really have to paint the library pillars?”

I just sat and waited.

“Did you see your dad this summer?”

I didn’t answer.  Then I asked again, quietly: “What’s next?”

She didn’t say anything.  She sat close.  She was wearing the blue sweater I had bought for her.

I turned my head and looked toward the Museum.  “Did you know it was  originally a fortress?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Did you know it has 35,000 pieces of art?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Then I said it: “Do you know I love you?”

“Yes, I do, Rob.”

“And you?”

I waited. I was scared.  I was a little boy digging his toe in the dirt.

“I have to tell you, I’m in love with Joe.  I’m so sorry I led you on this week.”  Then she said, “I wanted to love you best, but I guess I need somebody to take care of me.”

I closed my eyes and opened them, and I looked at the statue next to us.

“I guess I’d better go tomorrow,” she said.

“Yes, I guess so.”

We sat close and she put her head on my shoulder, again.

I felt like a rainbow that’s lost its colors.

We saw each other at the fortieth reunion, two wars later, and spent a long evening in a slightly torn vinyl booth in the student union–the Harney Center, after our President.  I spilled macaroni on my shirt.  “Not again!”  “At least it’s a yellow shirt,” she laughed.  We didn’t talk about our time together, but about the years after.

“Joe died four years ago.”

I heard.  I’m very sorry.”

We talked about our kids and grandkids and our work.  She wrote film reviews online for the Rapid City News, but just lost her job.  I told her about my teaching and research at the little Illinois college and how awful it was that my ex-wife had an office three doors from mine.  I said I started drinking, but stopped.  I said I wanted to retire, but had no idea what to do outside a library.  “Sometimes I’m like a little boy in a river, and I don’t know where to swim.”

“I’m sorry about your divorce.  Mama stayed with Daddy until he died; she’s still very unhappy.”

“Mother’s got dementia of some sort.”

“That’s so said.  I liked her a lot.”  This was the closest we came to talking about our past.

I looked at her eyes and her slightly crooked nose.  Somehow, she was more attractive than pretty; I can’t explain it.

“Would you believe Jack and I keep in touch? He runs baseball and basketball camps for little kids.”  She laughed: “That’s pretty funny.”

“Where are you, philosophically, these days?” she asked. “Do you believe in God?”

“Well, I still believe no man–or woman–is an island, but you know me. I change my mind about God every two weeks.”

“I haven’t figured it out, either.”

At 1:30, we walked past the library and Carpenter Hall to the parking lot.

I took her hand; I wanted to kiss her, but only pecked her cheek.  I didn’t notice until then that she had more wrinkles than I.

“It’s wonderful to see you, Rob.”

“Yes, it’s been lovely.”

She pulled my face down, kissed me on the cheek, and stepped into her blue Honda.  She waved as she drove off.

I didn’t know if I’d see her again or not.