She was my first love.
We went to school dances together, and occasionally grabbed
a bite to eat after her dance classes at the George Francis studio, but our
favorite activity was walking through downtown, where we met up after bus rides
from home. Lovers need no films nor plays nor elegant meals. The best dates are
those where we discover a linked soul. Mary introduced me to the “secret” doll
collection at the library, and I introduced her to the hidden, most unsavory
areas of the Clinton Book Shop, but most of our discoveries were about each
other, and the weight of those revelations was borne not by specific activities,
but by simple conversation, serious and jocular, sacred and profane, I more
profane than she. We talked about the lustful predations of Brother Heathwood
and the one-act plays of Edward Albee, of lawn mowers and men’s hats, of rock ‘n
roll, foreign food, cabbages, kings and Brontes. We disagreed about many matters both light and weighty, but I began to learn from those talks that it
was possible to approach an opposing viewpoint without contempt.
Oh, that the America of 2022 had acquired that learning.
I went off to college in New York City, and our relationship
went the predictable way of romances between adolescents separated by distance.
She ended it. Most of us remember a list of certain precise dates of
significance like November 22nd, 1963, or September 11th,
2001. My list includes December 10th, 1966. That was the day my mailbox at
Fordham University contained a final letter from Mary, the “Dear John” letter
we all dread. I never saw her again, but the ghost of her memory haunted me.
In the late 90s, some thirty years after I last saw Mary, after
I had married and divorced two other women, I became close friends with Dale
Davis, the legendary surfing cinematographer. In 1966 he had been the surfing
consultant for “Never Too Young,” the first attempt by a network to create a
soap opera for the youth market. It was about surfers who hung out at a
surfside bar and listened to live music performed by some popular performers of
the day, including all-time greats like Marvin Gaye. Dale was shocked that I
still knew the tune and all the lyrics from the theme song for that show. “That
show was so obscure that nobody even remembers it at all,” he mused, “so how
could you know so much about it?”
Dale had evoked Mary’s ghost, who duetted with me on that
She and I had often laughed about that show, and sang the
cheesy theme song together. Being snobs, we were not admirers, but loved to
hate it. Now that I consider it, I guess I was just pretending to be a snob to
impress her. I did laugh at the melodramatics and the fact that the main
characters never had to interrupt their hang-out by going to class or work, but
I actually loved the musical performances. C'mon, who doesn't love Marvin Gaye?
How could a famous California surfer dude remind me of high school in upstate New York?
Because there are some ghosts that never stop haunting us.
Mary and I had a place. It was a grim, industrial place in
downtown Rochester, on the shore of the Genesee, near the library. It was a
vacant space between two factories. Effluvium, probably untreated, poured from nearby
drains into the river, and steam emerged from ubiquitous pipes and valves in the area.
A foul place.
From that place could one view Rochester’s history. Beneath it was the river, with its uneven flow, and its polluted palette that sometimes
looked less like the product of nature than of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination. Above
it loomed the Broad Street Bridge, the base of which had once been an aqueduct carrying the
Erie Canal above the Genesee River, and had later carried Rochester’s forgotten subway, which by our high school years had been abandoned.
From our vantage below, we could look through the open arches to see that the
tunnel beneath the road was marred by graffiti, the runes left by its occasional inhabitants, the
desperate and forlorn who take refuge in the shadows and hide in the neglected crevices
of every major city.
Yes, a foul place.
But our place nonetheless.
It was there, in a winter storm, that I first kissed her,
and the surrounding hellscape disappeared. We stood face to face, and as we did,
there was no universe beyond a snowflake melting upon her lips.
It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was the first one that meant
anything. So, yes, I remember Mary. That much you can deduce from my words. You may
think that these memories are so vivid only because I have just heard of her
death. You may wonder whether I have thought of her much between now and when I held her in my arms more than fifty years ago.
No, not much.
Not much at all.
Only about once every fucking day.
Mary and I waded together only briefly along the "bank and shoal of time."
But there are some ghosts that never stop haunting us.