The Kiss That Changed My Life by Peter 9 Bowman

High school, senior year. I’m a frog waiting for my princess. Misery, loneliness, isolation – I do no homework, join no clubs, have no social life. At home I nap, play violin, and scribble equations on graph paper – strange equations, hard equations, bend your mind equations. If only I can see the pattern in primes, prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, find an odd perfect number...
The Kiss That Changed My Life
The Kiss That Changed My Life by Peter 9 Bowman
My parents are worried. They’re certainly sympathetic enough – but irrelevant. A teacher tries to help. She can’t. It’s not their approval I’m missing. Life sucks. I take first chair in a Central Jersey violin audition. Concertmaster – nice, but irrelevant. I ace my math boards, get christened a Merit Scholar, win a statewide math contest. Nice, but irrelevant. I’d trade it all for a single smile from a girl – any girl. Can I please her? How about her? I’m unworthy, a virgin’s virgin. I am the defective chicken to be pecked out of the flock – cleft lip, cleft palate, cleft life. Of two-thousand kids in my school, I’m the only one. My real talent: daydreaming. My mother has been saving. She hands me an envelope and watches my face for a reaction. Five crisp fifty-dollar bills. Embarrassed, I thank her. She doesn’t know that won’t even cover textbooks. With doctor bills and mortgage payments, I know how hard it was with my father’s factory wages for her to put that aside. A letter arrives postmarked Pittsburgh. It’s a full scholarship to study physics at Carnegie Tech. My daydreaming shifts into overdrive. I’m headed to utopia. The Greek life. It’s all there in a color brochure. The Greek life. I imagine debating the great issues of the day, partnering with the girl of my dreams and finding a way to make a difference. Hour after hour I lie in bed staring at an aerial photo of the campus, seeing my future. The Greek life – Aristotle, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato are waiting for me on campus. Freshman Orientation – six days of exploration before classes start. I’m ready. My trunk holds everything I need for my new life. I meet some classmates. I’m confused. Where are the Greeks, the philosophers, the deep thinkers? The only thing Greek here are letters on frat houses with beer fueled parties and makeout rooms. I thought I left this behind. Nothing has changed. This isn’t what I thought it would be. I head to the park next to campus – four-hundred wooded acres. Walking through the trails, I whistle a Paganini caprice to let my intended know I’ve arrived. I’m waiting for a goddess to leap out of a bush and claim her prize. No leaping. No goddess. Alone again. Just me and that hollow ache. Classes start. Alice Sucotti is in my freshman English Comp class. She’s a Chem E. major. When she sits, auburn hair falls across the back of her chair nearly touching the floor. I’ve never seen such hair. I’m a salmon to her waterfall. She has the body of a twelve year old boy – skinny, no makeup, a widow’s peak that reminds me of Minnie Mouse. Her spindly arms spring from a torso that almost looks too small to support her head. But the mind inside that head sets me on fire. At last. I’ve found her. Roger Brindly, our instructor, stands before us five periods a week and reads aloud from Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. His cheeks flush as he reads, “…I gave her a pinch – not a hard one. And Sara gave a little jump and a squeak…” The story is obviously as new to Brindly as it is to us. It seems as if he’s getting paid to entertain himself. For me, it feels like kindergarten without the nap rugs. Brindly reads and I sit next to Alice, stealing peeks at her remarkable hair and wondering how I might break the ice. There’s something about her that simply turns me inside out. Of course I’ve fantasized about girls before – smiling, liking me back. But I’ve never been so tempted to actually talk to one. Second semester. Alice is in my English Comp section again. In every class she’s earned a perfect grade point average at a school that doesn’t easily hand out perfect grade point averages. In fact, in the history of the school, she’s the only one. I’ve never seen her hanging around with the popular kids. I’ve never seen her holding another boy’s hand. She seems to be a loner – an outsider just like me. Alice’s remarkable mind draws me out, tempts me to risk humiliation, ridicule, rejection. She tempts me to actually speak to her. But I don’t. I secretly hope that Alice makes the first move – borrows a pen, asks for the time, anything. I need a sign, I need permission. As the days pass I get increasingly angry at my own timidity – but not enough to do anything about it. In my fantasy life I’m a swashbuckling pirate ignoring the rules, defying the power structure, taking on the world armed only with hubris. In real life I’m the invisible man. I see no conceivable reason any girl, no less this goddess, would choose me. The school year ends. It’s time to go home to my summer job at an old roller-bearing factory. The factory roars and stinks. Sharp metal teeth threaten fingers, hydraulic clamps can take whole arms. As harsh as the factory floor is, the special hell is something called the vapor blast room. Boiling vats of acid sit under venting hoods long ago eaten away by the fumes they are supposed to remove. High pressure abrasives clean heat-treated assemblies. That’s where I’m assigned. It’s time to come up with an approach to Alice. I need a plan – a foolproof campaign to win her over. Eisenhower put no more care into planning D-Day than I put into engineering a path to this magnificent creature. A letter. I will woo her with my words. The postman will be my champion. I will craft my sentences with care and send them on their way to my heart’s desire. I will seize my destiny. On the midnight shift, eyes burning from acid fumes, high-pressure nozzles screaming in my ears, I write and rewrite the letter in my mind. I’m looking for a partner, for someone to march off into the sunset with and leave the wars, the greed, the brutality behind. Are you the one? I select each phrase, each word, to enchant this remarkable girl I’d sat next to for two semesters but to whom I had yet to say hello. I mail my letter. The next day I check the mailbox for a reply. Empty. Of course – the mailman probably hasn’t even delivered my note yet. But I check again the next day anyhow. And the next and the next. Opening an empty mailbox is now part of my daily ritual. Disappointment morphs to relief. What would I do if she wrote back? A week passes and then another. Still no reply. Did she get my letter? Did I have the right address? Summer ends. There is no reply. It’s back to campus to start my sophomore year. I’m jogging from my dorm to the Admin building. In the distance I see Alice walking toward me from her trolley stop. She’s wearing her usual powder-blue corduroy coat and carrying a crescent-shaped purse. I panic, quicken my pace to avoid her. Too late. Our paths cross mid-campus at the Senior Fence. She says, “I got your letter.” I don’t know what to say. “Neither rain nor sleet.” Even I’m not sure why that’s supposed to be clever. I’ve never spoken with any girl – not one I liked. This is what that hollow ache is about. Alice is actually speaking to me. Euphoria. She looks upset. “My father saw your letter. He says you’re too – serious.” Serious? Her father doesn’t like me. We’ve never met, but he thinks I’m too serious for Alice. We have a problem. I’m a problem solver. I ask to see Alice’s class schedule. I rearrange my schedule to be in most of her classes. Problem solved. Too serious or not, we’re now together in classes fifteen hours a week. Our sophomore year is filled with notes passed in class, long walks in the park, shared lunches in the cafeteria. Alice brings me to her favorite spots – a forgotten, weed-covered fountain in the park, a magnificent old tree. We sit on a grassy hillside overlooking the city. She reads, does homework. I drink her in, marveling at every feature on her face, her incredible hair, her smile. Every few days my courage swells and I try to hold her hand, stroke her hair, put my arm around her. Try. Each time I’m rebuffed. She likes my poems, my drawings, my jokes. But our time together is governed by one immutable rule: no touching. None. Alice tells me she has a boyfriend – Richard. He goes to Penn. He’s the reason we cannot touch. What will it take for her to like me back? There is a wall between us I cannot figure out how to scale. What does Richard have that I don’t? Oh. Her. One day we’re in a Chem lecture in Hammerschlag Hall. “A divalent molecular entity has a valence of two and can form two sigma bonds to two different atoms or...” The prof is near retirement. His monotone delivery would make the perfect sleep aid if only it could be bottled. I pass Alice a note. In what kind of tree do storks find all those babies? We’ve swapped a dozen tree riddles over the previous few days. She grins and writes back, Infantry. I try again. In what kind of tree do British witches live? Without hesitating she writes back, Coventry. I write, What kind of tree is used in ritual circumcisions? She thinks for a second and shrugs her shoulders. I write, Juniper. She covers her mouth and her body shakes. I make her laugh – that has to be good, no? All I need do is find the bridge from laughter to holding her hand. I’m confused. Connecting with Alice is so very hard for me. The campus is littered with couples holding hands, lying on the grass, lips glued together. How do they find each other so effortlessly? What skill do I need to practice? How hard do I have to try? Circles in circles in circles. I simply can’t wrap my head around the puzzle called Alice. Wooing her is just too damned complicated for my little mind. Maybe my cleft is not just in my lip and palate. Maybe my cleft runs through the part of my brain that knows how to please a girl. The school year ends and I go home to my summer job making train bearings. It’s a living hell my father has worked in for two decades – but it pays three times as much as wrangling supermarket shopping carts. September comes. I return to campus for my junior year and find Alice in the cafeteria. She has a foil ashtray in front of her and is staring at the ceiling while idly stirring spent butts and ashes with her index finger. She seems drained, exhausted. I ask, “You okay?” She keeps staring at the ceiling but pulls her finger out of the ashtray. “Missing Richard already.” This isn’t exactly the greeting I’m hoping for. I don’t know Richard. I don’t want to know Richard. I’m not really sure there is a Richard. If he does exist, how does he so effortlessly capture her spirit? How much better are his poems than mine? Is it the scar on my lip, my curved nose? I feel her pain, her loneliness, her isolation – her astonishing beauty. Why won’t she let me in? A month later we finish a lab that convinces me all chemistry is a great lie. I might have taken a few shortcuts here and there, skipped a few steps that couldn’t possibly make a difference, failed to really clean my test tubes. But none of the weights check out, none of the reactions produce predicted results. Chemistry is, simply put, a fraud. I’m guessing at some point doctoral candidates are told, “We just made all this stuff up to give undergrads a hard time. Welcome to the inner circle.” When it comes to theory, I’m tops. Algebra, calculus – even computer software. When you add A to A you almost always get 2A. Not 1.96A or 2.01A. But give me a beaker, a mortar and pestle, a pipette – and all bets are off. Pass a current through water and it produces oxygen, hydrogen, and a small unpredicted amount of sulfur. Maybe it was left over from the previous lab. Who knows? Who cares? If I can’t figure out how to connect with Alice my head is going to explode anyhow. Chemistry, physics – anything with a lab coat. I’m now convinced the real world doesn’t play by the simple-minded rules we’re being fed. How large is a cloud? We’re not smart enough to work the ruler. What’s the equation for getting Alice to like me back? Forget it. I imagine some hapless physicist running down a hall at Los Alamos screaming “m-c-cubed!! m-c-cubed!!” just before the solar system turns into a mushroom cloud. Okay, the units are wrong – but you get the idea. After scrubbing our beakers, Alice and I leave the lab and head outside. It’s the last class of the day and I’m walking her to the campus trolley stop that will take her home. I hop up on a two-foot high retaining wall. There’s a fifteen foot drop down to a parking lot on the other side. I tempt fate, risk death just to show the gods they can do their worst and I don’t give a damn. Live, die – it’s all the same to me. Alice says, "Would you believe you're going to fall and your brains are going to spill out of a crack in your head? I’m not cleaning that up." "I don't care. What difference would it make?" I want her to say it would make a difference to her. I wait for the words. She asks, "What's up?" I just look down and keep walking. She persists. "C'mon. What's going on?" “I’ve decided to change my major.” “That’s not it.” I know what she’s asking but I don’t know how to answer. Then I hear myself say, "I'm not human." "Not human?" "I'm some kind of freak, a reject, subhuman." We walk together a few more feet. She says, "Maybe you're human but you're just different." Maybe I'm human? MAYBE I'm human??? That isn’t the response I’m looking for. Richard or no Richard I want her to tell me that she cares, she feels my pain, she knows I’m all too human. My eyes glisten. "I can't do this anymore." "Do what?" "I can't keep seeing you like this." I had thought about this, I had even come up to it and backed away at the last instant. But now I’m actually setting this terrible wheel in motion. My eyes well up and my voice cracks. This is such a gamble, such a desperate last-ditch move. “I just can’t do this.” Alice is silent for a minute. Then she grabs my arm. "If I were going to fall in love with you it would have already happened." Oh my God. I’ve been so patient, so accommodating. For two years we played by her rules. She hasn’t given me a chance, hasn’t given us a chance. Any possibility of a real connection between us has been so bound up in her don’t hold my hand, don’t touch my hair, don’t put your arm around me rules and regulations she has no idea what love we might fall into. “I’m offering you the world, my world, our world – and you won’t even consider the possibility.” She stares blankly at me. Her silence is deafening. I turn and run for my room, for my bed, for my bunker. I need to withdraw, to shut out the whole damned world. The misery in my stomach is overwhelming – burning, tugging, punishing. Several days pass. I skip classes, avoid the cafeteria, stay away from places I know she’ll be. I’m waiting for a letter, a phone call, for her to seek me out. I need some sign that she misses me, that she cares. I’ve exhausted what little was left of my ego. My imagination hangs limp and flaccid. I have no ideas left. It’s her turn to act. No act comes. A couple of weeks after I last see Alice, I run across my friend Steve. He’s a math major and we’re taking Abstract Algebra together. I’m the only junior in a class of fifteen seniors and grad students. He tells me we’re having our mid-term that afternoon. I need to take a shot at the exam even though I missed the previous classes. Skipping the exam means I’m dropping out. I’m not ready to make that decision. That afternoon I find the exam room. Bluebooks are passed out. I read the problems on the blackboard – five tiny questions that seem to require galaxy-sized answers. 1. Given a surjective homomorphism f:G→H, let K be it’s kernel. Show that the quotient group G/K is isomorphic to H. I can't even figure out what the question means. The professor is a brilliant mathematician, but he seems to not know the difference between its and it’s. If I have any doubt about dropping out, this exam is God speaking to me in clear syllables. Go forth and build thee an ark – or whatever, but thou shalt not dwell in the house of Carnegie lest I smote thee with a plague of surjective homomorphisms. With nothing to lose, I begin scribbling symbols and diagrams in my bluebook. Untroubled by subtleties of the questions, I breeze through to the end fairly certain that I’ve achieved a perfect score – zero. I think about pinning my hopes on pointing out the professor’s incorrect use of it’s in the first problem but decide against it. A week later I see Steve again. He snaps at me, "We got the exams back." He seems agitated. I ask reluctantly, "Any idea how I did?" Sometimes grades are posted on the classroom wall. Maybe he saw mine. "Failed. Zero." "Pisser to lose." I’m expecting that. It actually makes choosing from my set of options a bit easier. It’s time to move on. He throws a bluebook at me. The grade on the cover is 87. He says, "I told the prof I'd give it to you." I’m confused. He says, "Class average was 11. I got a 23. I studied my ass off for that. The second highest grade in the class was a 44." "I got an 87?" "You got away with murder. I’m really pissed at you." I close my eyes. Is this some kind of sign? Why doesn’t God just use his words? A simple stone tablet would do the trick. Hell, just a few words scribbled on the back of a candy wrapper would do. Drop out. Kill yourself. Build an altar and sacrifice a TA. Whatever. What am I supposed to do? The next day I make an appointment with the Dean of Students. I’m not sure what I’m going to tell him but I need to make a decision. I’m no longer going to any classes and the gnawing in my stomach isn’t getting better. The time comes and I’m ushered into the Dean’s office. He greets me with, "Peter. Good to finally meet you. I've been looking at your file and I'm pleased to see you've turned things around. An A in Abstract Algebra – top of your class. That’s the course that separates the math majors from the mathematicians. Good job. We knew you had it in you." I rub my face. His pep talk is all I need to make up my mind. "I'm here to tell you I'm dropping out." That seems to slow him down a bit. I say, "I've been seeing a girl and it hasn't worked out and I can't be here anymore." "Have you considered...?" I cut him off. "I've considered. I have to go. We spent a whole semester last year proving one byzantine theorem in Constructive Logic. It took an entire wall of blackboard just to state the proposition. I don’t care about this stuff. It’s meaningless. I have to get on with my life. This isn’t for me." He seems genuinely troubled. “Are you sure? Would you like a few days to…” “I’ve had two and a half years to. I can’t do this anymore. College and me – one of us isn’t ready for the other.” He thinks for a second and looks at my record again. “You’re giving up a major opportunity, son. Until you sort out whatever is bothering you, you’re going to keep sabotaging yourself. You know that?” He shakes his head. “I see you’ve taken some programming classes. At least you have a trade. Come back when you sort things out.” He offers me his hand. That’s my last official contact with the college. The $20 a month my mother sends me doesn’t go very far. I’m sharing a tiny second floor bedroom with a student from Hong Kong I met at the ping-pong tables. I get by on three cheeseburgers a week. My living expenses are minimal. But I need a job – a way to support myself, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. My only real regret about leaving school is that I’ll no longer have access to computers. I really like programming and it seems to really like me back. I imagine finding a factory job, spending my days in some Pittsburgh vapor blast room. I look in the Help Wanted section of the Post-Gazette and see an ad for a programmer. Programming. Is that really a job? It hadn’t occurred to me people might pay me to create software. I call and the next day take a trolley downtown for an interview. MSA is a tiny consulting firm with a handful of small software projects for large corporate clients. Mark Flanagan, senior partner at MSA, hires me on the spot. I’m now earning twice as much as my father – and all I have to do is program. I’m being paid to breathe. Mark assigns me to a Westinghouse project. They want software to lay out odd shaped pieces on a rectangle. It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Cool. I can do that. The goal is to minimize waste – see how many pieces will fit on one sheet. It turns out the sheet represents an eight-inch thick slab of steel used to make giant generators. The existing process has a foreman place cardboard cutouts on a drafting table. A small savings from my program means a huge savings in scrap metal and labor. I cobble together a program that starts with the largest pieces and works its way down to the smallest – trying tens of thousands of positions. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than a foreman’s eyeball. Mark has some kind of PhD. He’s been trying to solve this puzzle for almost a year using polynomials to describe the shapes of pieces. I use bitmaps. He seems dazzled by what I produce in three days. We show Westinghouse my software and they’re dazzled too. Victory. At last something’s going right. It feels good – really good. I’m useful, needed, valued. And I’m pretty sure my computer never met Richard. If only CPUs had hair – long flowing hair and pretty smiles. These machines and I understand each other. Commuting downtown by trolley is a pain. I need a car – my first car. Mary, one of my co-workers at MSA, has a warm personality and an inviting smile that not many guys notice due to her extraordinarily large, pointy breasts. She also has a husband who happens to be a used car dealer. At her suggestion I pay him a visit. He says he knows just what I need. He pulls around a ‘65 Mustang with a 120 horsepower engine, gets in the passenger seat, and invites me to take a test drive. The car has no oomph. It accelerates like my dad’s Impala. The interior is worn with scratches on the dashboard and stains on the upholstery. It’s a practical car but there’s no drama. The dealer looks at the expression on my face and says, “I’ve got another one to show you I think you might like a little better.” A few minutes later he drives up in a ‘66 Mustang with a 289-cubic-inch 225 horsepower V-8 engine. As he makes the turn I see testosterone dripping freely from the tailpipe. The car has only two-thousand miles on the odometer and the interior is like new. The first owner got an all-expenses paid trip to Vietnam right after he bought it. I drive about fifty feet. It’s a rocket. I say, “I’ll take it.” The dealer grins. “I’ll just need to get your parents’ signature on this loan form and it’s yours.” “Parents?” “Either one.” “I’m earning twice as much as my dad.” “You’re only twenty. I can’t get the loan papers through with just a minor’s signature.” “I’m old enough to kill Viet Cong but I’m not old enough to make car payments? I want to do this on my own.” “I’d love to help but there’s just no way…” “I do the loan myself or there’s no deal.” He thinks for a second. “I’m going out on a limb for you because you work with Mary and she says you’re a good kid. Don’t disappoint us.” He changes the birth date on my application to 1946 and has me sign the document. I have wheels. Next it’s time to get a proper apartment. Sharing a bedroom with a roommate is economical but it doesn’t offer much latitude for entertaining – just in case the opportunity ever presents itself outside my imagination. I enter a model apartment on the fifth floor of a new high-rise. Soft music plays in the background. It’s something classical but I can’t identify it. The living room has white leather furniture arranged in an L around a rosewood coffee table. The master suite has a king-sized bed with a shiny silk comforter, Danish Modern rosewood headboard, and matching night stands. It also has a huge walk-in closet, a master bath with faux-marble Jacuzzi, and little decorator soaps in ceramic shells on a mirrored, two-sink vanity. The room smells of lavender. This is an apartment straight out of Hugh Hefner’s best fantasies. The only thing missing is the beautiful girl ready to surrender herself to me and a life of Danish Modern luxury. An attractive saleswoman in a red jacket and heels approaches. “What do you think?” She asks the question as if a positive response will win me an immediate demo of the carnal advantages of a king-sized bed. I say, “I’ll take it.” “Don’t you want to know how much it is?” I’ll pay whatever they’re asking. This is the perfect antidote to the feeling of worthlessness and rejection Alice has inspired. I say, “I can give you a check right now.” The sales gal fawns over my not bothering about price. “I have a unit with this layout available on the top floor for occupancy in two months.” “Where do I get furniture like this?” My parents bought furniture at Sears on credit and the stuff I’m seeing in this model apartment looks to me as if it’s been flown in from another planet. The agent gives me business cards for some shops in town and produces a lease. I sign, write a check for two months’ rent, and the deal is done. I go straight from there to a furniture importer the agent suggested to see about ordering a rosewood headboard and matching night stands. The importer has a warehouse filled with oiled rosewood and teak furniture. It smells rich and wonderful. This is what success must be like. It’s a new world – like nothing I’ve ever seen before. For the first time in my life I’m in control, master of my destiny. It feels heady, it feels great. Even the aroma of my new life is top drawer. No kids pointing and laughing and making fun of me. Cleft palate my ass. The car dealer, the apartment agent, none of the clients I’m making software for even notice my cleft. I’ve passed from ugly chrysalis to beautiful butterfly because the rules have changed. I drive back to campus. I see Alice entering the cafeteria. I follow her in. It’s a new me, a successful me. I have a rosewood headboard on order. She sits at a table next to a classmate. I feel my stomach knot up. Apparently rosewood headboards are trumped by lost love. He’s joking with her. She’s laughing, being playful. He touches her arm, she touches him back. It’s as if I never existed. I can't take it. I run to my bed, to my cocoon. I write a letter – a nasty letter. I need her to know my hurt. My job, the car, the apartment – none of that matters. I can’t be here anymore. A week later I load up my car and say good bye to a half dozen friends. I pull on to Forbes Avenue to begin the eight-hour drive home. A block later I approach the campus trolley stop. The traffic light turns red and I slow down. A girl stands on the trolley island. She wears a powder-blue corduroy coat, carries a crescent shaped purse, and holds an armful of books. Jesus Christ – it’s Alice. I brake short to avoid stopping just inches across from her as she stands on the island. It takes her a few seconds to recognize me through my windshield. She turns her back to me. I’m not any happier about this than she is. I hold my breath and wait for the light. And wait and wait. It must be broken. It’ll never turn green. Time is frozen. Alice and I have been sentenced to spend eternity two feet apart by some sadistic deity. The light finally turns. I slam my foot down on the accelerator. 225 horses under my hood shout a throaty F**K YOU! to Alice while my rear wheels add the smell of burnt rubber to the departure. My pulse races, my fingers turn white gripping the steering wheel. In seconds I’m over the hill, she’s out of sight. I arrive home. My parents are glad to see me. Maybe relieved is a better word. It feels as if I’ve travelled back in a time machine. I step into the house and I’m a high school senior again – small and helpless with no prospects, no plans, no life. Lying down in my tiny bedroom, I feel the world closing in on me. It knows I’m a fraud, a failure, a loser. I’m being punished for defying the gods. I need a job and I need it now. It’s not money. It’s dignity, ego, feeling as if I matter. I scan the Sunday Times. Programmer Wanted. I call and, after asking a few questions about my background, a recruiter sets up an interview for the next day. He gives me an address: 63 Wall Street, 31st floor. Monday morning. I’ve never been to the Manhattan financial district before. I take two trains into the city from my parents’ house and walk the last mile to the office building where my interview is waiting. Wall Street. The buildings are huge, the people on the street hustle this way and that. They look angry. Suits, leather cases, and sour expressions are the uniform of the day. I find the elevators. An old black man in a braid-trimmed jacket has one hand on a brass wheel and the other on the brim of a red cap which he nods to me as I enter the elevator. He averts his eyes as if it would be improper to look at me directly. “Good morning sir. Floor?” “Thirty-one.” Two stunning girls about my age dash on to the elevator as the doors are closing. They giggle. The operator tips his hat to them and says good morning. He seems to know what floor they need. On the way up, one of the girls whispers to the other about the previous evening. Apparently the second girl is a pole dancer at an after-hours go-go bar mid-town and a bouncer had to escort an over-enthusiastic patron out in the middle of her set. The operator glances at me and we exchange subtle head nods. He brings the elevator to a halt with a practiced turn of the brass wheel. The doors open and I see that he has come within a quarter inch of perfectly aligning the elevator with the 31st floor. Remarkable. I step out into a small lobby. There is only a single actual door to enter, but in my mind I see two: one labelled White, Weld, & Co. and the other Vapor Blast Room. I hesitate, realizing what is at stake for me in the next hour or two. I push through the White, Weld & Co. door and find a slender blonde receptionist sitting at a desk. She could easily be a runway model. Her hair, her makeup, her clothes, are all right out of a glossy magazine. She’s putting finishing touches on her fingernails. I wait for her to look up. She glances at my shoes and continues to ignore me. Is it on purpose? My shoes are a little scuffed. Does that really make a difference? I clear my throat to get her attention. Nothing. She is making me wait for her to finish applying nail polish to her index finger. “Excuse me. I’m here to see Mr. Worthington.” “Do you have an appointment?” “Yes. 11:00.” The receptionist hands me off to a second secretary who leads me down a short hall to a corner office nearly the size of my parents’ house. A clean shaven, fortyish man in a blue pin-striped suit and heavily starched collar sits behind a huge wooden desk shuffling folders. He parts his hair the middle creating the impression of a water buffalo. Without looking up he says, “Have a seat. I’ll be right with you.” Two walls are lined with windows looking down on the Brooklyn Bridge. Ships, barges, and yachts ply the East River. The interior walls of the office are mahogany panels. A huge blackboard fills one entire wall. I sit. Worthington scans a piece of paper. “Carnegie Mellon?” “Math major. I transferred from physics when my meter stick wouldn’t stop spinning.” No smile. “Why not computer science?” “Carnegie doesn’t have a computer science major.” “Mark Flanagan has nothing but good to say about you – except for something about an ulcer?” Apparently the recruiter had been busy. I wondered what else Worthington knew about my departure from Pittsburgh. I had told Mark I needed to move back home for surgery on an ulcer. I didn’t want to get into my Alice problems with him. “That’s all taken care of.” “Tell me about your most challenging software project.” I could play it safe and talk about my Westinghouse program or go out on a limb and describe one of my pet projects. Beasties – I had created a virtual world with digital characters hunting for food and a mate. I go to his blackboard and sketch out a grid with a couple of Beasties. I can’t tell if he is impressed or thinks I’m a raving lunatic. “I have six programmers developing an investment analysis tool running on an SDS-940 timesharing system. The central core of the code is called the Evaluator. We’re using QED and TAP assembly language. The fellow working on the Evaluator is leaving and I need someone to step in and finish his code up. He tells me it’s almost done. Do you think you could handle that?” “Of course.” No sweat. I’ve never seen a timesharing system before, have no idea what QED or TAP refer to, have written most of my code in Algol, know nothing about financial analysis, and never programmed in a group – but I need a job. “I’m seeing another candidate later today. We’ll be in touch.” He holds his hand out. I interpret it as Shake and leave. I make my way home the way I had come. Job, no job? I really have no idea. After dinner we gather around the television. My father asks if he should see about getting me back into the factory. I hate to admit it, but the vapor blast room is looking better and better. Just then the doorbell rings. It’s a courier with a package. Inside are an SDS-940 manual, photo copies of QED and TAP user guides, and a letter offering me employment at 50% more than I was earning at MSA. I tell my father I’ll pass on the factory job. I’m now earning three times as much as he is. I read the manuals cover to cover and show up for work two days later. The consultant who was supposed to deliver the working Evaluator is scheduled to leave in three days. He gives me his logon information and we sit in a conference room with a huge paper listing of his code. It’s full of red marks and apparent corrections. We meet in his office a couple of hours later. “Any questions?” I have nothing but questions. I only vaguely understood what the Evaluator is supposed to do, am not really comfortable with machine language, and can’t even get a clean compile from the source files he’s given me. I ask what a small section of code does and from the technobabble he spews it seems as if he doesn’t know either. Convinced that my own unfamiliarity with the system is the source of the problem, I try over and over to make sense of what the consultant has produced. I can’t. Maybe I’m not smart enough. This is the big league and faking it here is a whole lot harder than impressing Westinghouse. On the consultant’s final day he stops in my office, says good luck, and departs. I suspect he knows what he’s dumping on me. Now what? I ask one of the other programmers to take a look at the code. We try to compile it. After a few tries he says, “This is crap. There’s nothing here. It’s gibberish.” Armed with a second opinion, I show Worthington what we have discovered. He explodes, “God damn it! I was afraid of that.” He storms out of my office slamming the door and returns ten minutes later. “Can you fix it?” Forcing random code to do something as complex as intersecting multi-layer list structures was like trying to make a baby out of wheelbarrow parts. “It would be easier to start over from scratch.” Worthington looks worried. No Evaluator and no project. No project and Worthington’s reputation is on the line. He’s personally responsible for the project and the money that the firm has invested in it over the last year. He doesn’t know me or how important this job is to me. He leaves my office muttering something I can’t quite hear and don’t have the guts to ask him to repeat. Development has been underway for twelve months before I showed up. Most of the other modules were at least partially functional when I started. I’m a year behind everyone else. I begin putting in fourteen hour days – seven days a week. I come in as everyone else is leaving, work through the night, and leave as people are showing up the next morning. Wrapping my mind around the algorithms needed to manage the lists, expand the expressions, get the code to work should have left stretch marks on my scalp. I’ve never written recursive code. I’ve never seen reentrant code. To make it work I have to become the machine, invent techniques, restructure my mind to see the world the way the Evaluator might if it had eyeballs. Two months after I begin, I start a trace going. It’s 2:00 in the morning. Twenty minutes later I look at the yellow paper rolling out of my Teletype and realize something remarkable is happening. It works!!! Worthington offers me a three-year employment agreement. I’ve just turned twenty-one – barely old enough to sign the contract. Within six months of leaving Alice I’m earning seven times as much as my father. I’m giving lectures at MIT and NYU. The agreement is twenty pages long with a dozen requirements I don’t really understand. But all I see is my salary and severance provision. I sign. That afternoon Worthington announces that we’re all moving to Boston to merge with another startup. Worthington’s a Harvard man – and he tricked me into signing a contract that says he can specify where I work. I’m livid. I tell him I don’t care what the contract says, I’m not moving. I rock him back on his heels. It’s Friday. He asks me to wait until Monday before doing anything. Monday morning Worthington calls me into his office. Before the contract I was just a college dropout who could make computers dance. Now I’m the highest paid employee in the group. Worthington offers to let the development group stay where it is and make me manager. He sweeps his arm across the magnificent view and tells me I can have his office. He’s moving to Boston. I’m managing a group of high-powered software developers on Wall Street. I’m renting an entire floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn Heights and feathering my nest with imported Danish Modern furniture, a professional quality sound system, my own ping-pong room, a fifty-gallon saltwater fish tank with seahorses and live coral, and plush hand-knotted shag rugs. I owe it all to Alice. Not bad for a defective chicken. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of beautiful, intelligent, eligible women every day, the only creature of the female persuasion to see my well-feathered palace is my mother. On the subway, on the street, on the elevator riding up to my corner mahogany-paneled throne room I fail to manage a single hello. Every woman I pass between the ages of sixteen and forty makes me think She could have me. She could have me. She could have me. Despite the window dressing, I am unworthy. I know it, they know it, the whole world knows it. The wound called Alice is still hemorrhaging ego. I give my Mustang to my sister and buy a Corvette. I drive it with Norm, one of my programmers, to a meeting in Boston. Actually, I don’t drive it as much as wear it. It’s a prosthetic body, muscles bulging, throaty engine growling. We check into our hotel rooms and Norm calls a girl he knows from college. Gail invites us to her Cambridge apartment for dinner. We arrive and discover she has a roommate – Becky Horn. Becky is a Harvard grad student. Norm introduces me. These are two smart, gorgeous girls. I try to hide my terror. We sit down for a casual meal. Becky lights some candles and Gail turns the lights out. I don’t know if it’s the candlelight, my glasses are smudged, or I’m witnessing a miracle but Becky seems to glow. An aura? She’s stunningly beautiful with features that involuntarily draw my eyes to hers. Her nose, lips, waist, chest – every part is there and every part is perfect. We chat. I talk about Manhattan, the exorbitant consulting fee General Motors is paying my employer for me to design a data system for them. We talk about the street people in the East Village. I tell them about the Disciple-At-Large ad I ran in the Village Voice asking if anyone needed my help – money, love, hate. And Becky listens and nods and smiles and ever so quietly asks for more. She wraps her mind around me, keeps me talking for an hour about where I’m headed and what I want next. I mention my violin playing, my fish tank, my software, and my Sunday bicycle trips to Central Park to take photos. Photography. She says she’s always wanted to learn how to make prints but doesn’t have access to a darkroom. I’m mesmerized. It isn’t just her perfect body or her perfect face or her perfect hair. It’s her perfect mind, curiosity, shyness, her spirit – and her apparent interest in whatever nonsense comes out of my mouth. At last I understand why the gods kept me from Alice. Becky strikes a chord in me that trumps my insecurity. Norm and I head back to our rooms that night and my mind races. I have mountains to move. A darkroom. In my mind I hear a voice say, If you build it she will come. The next morning at my meeting with my boss I announce it’s time for me to move from Manhattan to the home office. He’s been trying to get me to do this for a year. He agrees. The next weekend I drive from New York back up to Cambridge to look for an apartment. I bring along Zane, a fellow Carnegie dropout and one of my programmers with a social life no more successful than mine. I begin searching near Becky’s apartment for a place to rent. We stop for a red light at Harvard Square. A gaggle of Radcliffe coeds crosses the street. As the magnificent herd passes, Zane and I imagine ourselves on the Serengeti lying in wait at a river’s edge for a straggler or two to fall behind so we might propose marriage – or at least a date. This is truly the promised land. I will find an apartment within two hundred feet of this traffic light or just park here and live in my ‘Vette. The light changes and a block later we pass an eight story building with a FOR RENT sign. An hour later I give the manager a deposit on a two bedroom, two bath unit on the top floor. It’s twice the rent and only half the size of my Brooklyn Heights palace. My private ping-pong room will have to go. I take Zane to company headquarters. We look around for a couple of hours and then decide to grab some lunch. On our way to the parking lot we see a girl in a short one-piece knit outfit leaning against the wall. She’s slim and sexy in an understated way and looking at some computer printout. Zane whispers to me as if commenting on a juicy steak, “You could do worse than marry her.” She notices us staring. I say, “Hi. This is Zane and I’m Peter.” She says, “I know. I’m Felice Baudot. I’m a coop student and I’ll be working for you this summer.” She smiles. This truly is the land of milk and honey. After lunch I return to my apartment and prepare for the dozens of packing cartons the movers will deliver. The next day the movers deliver my furniture. My plush Rya rug is laid in the living room, the rosewood wall system is set up, and the master bedroom holds my queen-sized bed with rosewood headboard and matching night stands on a three-inch thick hand-knotted wool rug from Portugal. It’s a fresh start – everything smells new and full of promise. My next challenge is the darkroom. I’ve never printed a photo, don’t know processing chemicals from chicken soup, and have no idea what an enlarger does. Luckily, one of my programmers has a room full of professional photography equipment he’s looking to sell. I buy it all. I read up on how prints are made, how film is developed, what is needed for a proper darkroom. I can use the bathtub for rinsing prints, build a table top over it, use the sink for mixing chemicals, and mount an enlarger on the toilet. It takes four weeks to get everything just right. The nest is ready. I call Becky. She answers, “Hullo?” There’s something fearful about the way she says hello – as though she’s expecting bad news. I tell her that it just so happens we’re now neighbors and it also just so happens I have a fully equipped darkroom I would be happy to put at her disposal. “I’m sorry. Remind me again who you are?” Oh Jesus. “Two months ago, dinner with Norm, the guy with the beard and glasses, the computer guy?” “Oh. That Peter. Yes. I remember you. Well, thank you for your offer and I’ll certainly keep it in mind. I have to run.” Have to run? I just moved myself and three of my programmers two hundred and fifty miles and spent a fortune on darkroom equipment. And you don’t remember which Peter it is? It doesn’t look good. I wait a few days for Becky to call back. No call comes. I call again. “Hullo?” It’s the same rescue me sound in her voice. It makes me want to say it’s okay – I’ll protect you, I’ll make everything all right. Instead I say, “Becky. I was wondering if I might drag you over here to take a look at the darkroom.” “It’s Peter, right?” At least I don’t have to remind her who I am this time. “Right. I’d love to show you what I have here. I think you’ll like it.” “I’m awfully busy right now.” “Dinner, lunch? You have to eat. I could pick you up and drop you back off wherever you’d like.” “Okay. How about,” she pauses a few seconds as if looking at a calendar, “two weeks from Thursday. You can pick me up from work for lunch but I only have an hour.” “Great.” I get her work address. “Twelve o’clock sharp and I’ll have you back by one. I drive a yellow Corvette.” “I know. See you then.” Thursday finally rolls around. I stay home from work and put finishing touches on the apartment. At 11:00 I leave for Becky’s office. At 11:15 I arrive. There’s nowhere to park. I begin circling the block – and circling and circling. Forty-five minutes and twenty laps later Becky shows up on the sidewalk and waves to me. She gets in. I say, “I was a little early. I’ve been circling your block.” “I know. Everyone in the office was wondering why a yellow Corvette kept passing the window every few minutes.” We drive to my apartment and enter. Becky says, “Wow. This is nice.” She makes a quick tour of the living room and looks out the window. “I always wondered what this building was like on the inside.” She says it as if it might be the last building in the neighborhood she hadn’t yet visited. “There’s more.” I show her the guestroom. It has half a ping-pong table set up with a thirty inch architectural model of a house I built out of foam board just for fun. All the rooms are intersecting cubes. She looks at the four story model with its multi-level spaces and huge expanses of glass. “I can’t imagine living in a place like that. It would be incredible.” It occurs to me that maybe she thinks I’m actually planning on building that house. It would cost millions. It will only ever exist in my imagination, but if it pleases her to think I’m going to build it, there doesn’t seem to be any need to correct the impression. “And in here is my bedroom.” I lead her into the room and watch as she runs her fingers across my rosewood headboard and night stands. In over two years she’s the first female other than my mother to see them. “But this is the reason I wanted to drag you here.” I lead her to the darkroom. She looks at the enlarger, the chemicals, the wash trays and red light over the door. “You built all this?” “Yes.” “This is too much.” “It’s no big deal. It’s a tax write-off.” I say it as if I know what a tax write-off is. It’s obvious that she doesn’t know what a tax write-off is either. I don’t want to let on exactly how much effort I put into inserting myself in her life. “And you’ll let me use this?” “Whenever you’d like. Just give me a call.” “Wow. This is too much.” I drive Becky back to her office, return to my apartment, lie in bed, and wait for the phone to ring. And wait and wait. I go to work, I hold meetings, I fly to Detroit for my GM consulting gig – and I wait for the phone to ring. Three weeks later on a Saturday afternoon Becky calls and asks if she might come develop some film. “Absolutely.” My pulse pounds in my ears. I race around picking up dirty underwear and milk-ringed glasses. Ten minutes later my intercom wails. I buzz Becky in. I see her pink lips and beckoning eyes, take her coat, and ask if I can get her anything – a soda, a snack, an engagement ring? She says she’s fine and goes straight to the darkroom. Two hours later she emerges. “Look. I got it.” She holds a small black and white print. “Very good. Would you like some orange juice? I just squeezed a batch.” “Sure.” We sit at my drafting table and consume a quart of the stuff. She says, “You know, when you first called I really didn’t want to see you. I’m so busy, so much to do and so many guys calling all the time. I don’t have ten minutes to myself. Sometimes I just wish the phone would stop ringing and I could get a little time alone – just to read or lie on a beach or do nothing. But I’m glad I came.” “I’m glad you came too. Can I interest you in dinner tonight? Maybe a movie or something?” She smiles. “I can’t. I have a date.” She looks at her watch. “Oh. I have to get back. I’m late.” And she leaves. I don’t hear from Becky again for another three weeks. This time as she enters my darkroom I say, “Mind if I join you?” She doesn’t mind. We switch off the overhead light and stand in pitch blackness. I hear her extracting exposed film from its little metal can. I stand motionless listening to her breathe. She switches on the safe light and we’re bathed in an eerie red glow. She dries the developed film and mounts a frame in the enlarger. I take a sheet of print material out of its light-proof box and position it on the enlarger. She sets a timer, exposes the print, slides it into the developer tray, the fixer, and then the wash water in the bathtub. We go to the living room and flop on my sofa. I fish a key chain out of my pocket and give it to her. “A present.” “What is it?” “It’s a key to my apartment. Come over any time you want to use the darkroom.” Becky takes the key. She says, “There was this boy I knew in school. I wanted to have his baby so badly.” She gives me a look as if the implication of that statement was a bit more than she intended to share. “He didn’t seem to mind.” She giggles. “But nothing happened. He told me about his ideal girl. He said she would have jet black hair and bright red lipstick. I knew who he was talking about. I was so jealous.” I sit and listen and try to reconcile my image of a beautiful, innocent goddess with what she’s telling me. She wanted his baby. Why is she telling me this? What planet is she from? What planet am I from? “You know, I have physical relationships with all the guys I know. My department head took me on a business trip to Manhattan a couple of weeks ago. We had dinner at this really fancy restaurant, went back to his room and got high. I really liked it and – you know.” She’s confiding in me about something important to her but I have no idea what it is. Why, why, WHY IS SHE TELLING ME THIS? It’s as if she has a list of things she can’t admit to anyone else but have taken my paralyzed silence as a sign that I’m unaffected by it. I’m her personal confessor. “I went to a club party last month at Harvard. A half dozen guys took me into a private room where they keep their best booze. They each had me sample whatever they were drinking and I got so wasted I couldn’t stand up. Then we went to a sofa and one guy at a time – you know.” What do I say to her? How do I stop this? “My roommate was travelling last weekend and a boy I know came over. We got high and started making it – on the bed, on the floor, on the steps. I couldn’t walk the next day. A few nights ago I was with another boy I know. He started feeling me up, but I just wasn’t in the mood.” She smiles at me. “So it’s really nice having someone I can just talk to.” Someone she can just talk to. Who is that lucky guy? OH MY GOD! She means me. I’m the designated driver, the guy she can just talk to. She asks, “Is something wrong?” “No. Not at all.” It’s not that having sex with her is so important to me. It’s that her having sex with all these other guys is so unimportant to her. “Are you sure?” “I was just thinking that you live in a very different world from the one I know. I don’t have a hundred girls fighting to get my attention. My phone doesn’t ring. No one has ever built a darkroom for me.” She shakes her head. “I never asked you to – ” “I know. I was happy to do it. I’m just saying that you have all these guys chasing you, trying to impress you.” “It comes with a price.” She looks away. “I don’t know what it means, but I know I’m having fun for the first time in my life. I had a very strict childhood. My parents are Unitarian ministers.” I don’t know what to say. “Can I get you anything?” She looks at her watch. “I’m late for a date.” She leaves. I’m numb. A couple of weeks later I’m sitting alone and there’s a knock on my door. I open it and find Becky. She says, “Busy?” “Not at all. I was just sitting here hoping a radiant goddess would show up – and here you are.” “I brought some music.” She hands me an album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. “Can you put it on? The third track – I love the third track.” “Sure.” I cue the tone arm and lower it. It opens with Ce-ci-lia, You're breaking my heart... Becky walks over to my wall system and slides between me and the turntable. She’s swaying, her shoulders moving back and forth to the beat, her breasts are dancing. I can see through her blouse that she’s braless. I suppress a gasp. Making love in the af-ter-noon with Ce-ci-lia, Up in my bed-room. I get up to wash my face, When I come back to bed, Some-one's tak-en my place. She says, “I just came from a date with a guy – what a jerk. We’re in bed and he stops. He says he’s looking for a serious relationship.” I try to remember where I am, what my name is. All I can do is watch her moving in front of me. She says, “He told me to have a good life. What a jerk.” Finally I shake my head. She says, “What?” I take a deep breath. “I’m—” She completes my sentence, “— looking for a serious relationship?” I nod. “Jesus.” She stops dancing. “I have to go. Can I have my record back?” My stomach is on fire. “You have no idea what I’m feeling right now.” I think I’m going to throw up. “It doesn’t matter.” She’s putting on her coat. I don’t want her to leave. I can’t have her leave. I need to stop this. “I have to go to Detroit tomorrow. Maybe when I get back we can —” “No. It isn’t going to work. I’ll go away and when I come back you’ll be waiting for me, hanging around my house like a lost puppy. You’ll always be hanging around, waiting. I’ve seen it, it doesn’t work.” I hand her the album. “It’s raining. Let me drive you home.” “I’ll walk.” And she leaves. Becky leaves – walks out the door, walks out of my life, walks out with my life. The burning in my stomach is unbearable. I need it to stop – not in a month or a day, but right now, right here, this evening. This isn’t a test some sadistic god is putting me to. It’s downright perverse, mean spirited. For just a moment the thought of driving into a concrete overpass crosses my mind. My car redlines at 140. It would be clean, quick. I grab my keys. Then another thought comes. Felice. From work. I try to remember her last name. She hasn’t officially transferred to my group yet and we’ve barely exchanged a dozen words. It’s a longshot but just maybe… I dial information and ask for a listing for Baudow. I don’t know her address. The operator says she has a Baudot. “32 Center Street, Waltham?” “Yes, that’s the one.” I actually have no idea where she lives. “I can connect your call…” “Good.” The phone rings. A girl answers. “Hello?” “Is Felice there?” “Who?” I obviously have the wrong Baudot but I ask again anyhow. “Felice.” “Hold on.” A minute passes. I hear voices in the background – a lot of voices. It must be a party. Finally someone says, “Hello?” “Felice?” The terror of having actually called a girl temporarily overshadows Becky’s departure. The girl on the other end of the line asks, “Who is this?” “Peter – from work? Is this Felice?” “Peter – yes. What’s up?” “I was wondering if I might talk you into seeing my darkroom, maybe print a couple of photos.” She hesitates. “When?” “Tonight. I could pick you up in about half an hour.” There’s another moment of silence followed by, “Okay.” Felice. I haven’t fantasized about her, haven’t really given her much thought at all since the time Zane and I saw her on our first day at the office. But all I want right now is someone to distract me from my self-inflicted misery. I head to Waltham still in shock over Becky. I pull up in front of Felice’s house and she comes running down the porch steps. She says, “Nice car.” I notice four little girls’ faces staring at us out the front window of her house. “Your fan club?” “Right. I have five sisters and three brothers. My oldest sister’s married or you’d probably see her there too.” “When I phoned it sounded like a party.” “That’s called dinner. There are eight of us still living at home.” “Catholic?” “Very. My middle brother’s a Jesuit priest.” We go back to my place, I unlock my door and usher her in. She’s silent. I say, “Why don’t we start with the nickel tour?” I show her the spare room with my model mansion, the view from my living room window, and my bedroom. She says, “You have two bathrooms?” “I converted one into a darkroom.” “Two bathrooms. How many of you live here?” “Just me.” “Eight of us fight for one bathroom every morning.” “If you’re ever in the neighborhood and have to go really bad, feel free to stop in.” This seems to be working. I don’t feel so vulnerable, so exposed, so much like I’m at an audition competing with the graduating class of Harvard. The conversation is coming naturally because I don’t have so much at stake. “Ever printed a photo?” “No.” “Why don’t we see what we can do?” I lead her into the darkroom, put a negative in the enlarger, close the door, and print an eight by ten photo. She watches and then prints a second copy of the same negative. She needs no help. Watching me do it once is enough for her to pick it up. Her print is better than mine. We have some orange juice and I drive her home. I’ve just spent a pleasant evening with a smart, attractive girl and enjoyed myself. There isn’t the panic, the intensity, the feeling that I’m on stage and every move I make is being judged. I’m having fun. This is different, something I’d never imagined. In the days that follow I spend more time with Felice. There’s no romance, no tension, no fantasy. It’s just simple fun – just getting to know each other. Several weeks pass and I ask Felice if I can take her to dinner. She says yes. We chat casually, easily. I learn that her father lost his sight in his thirties and that he hasn’t been able to support her family for years – but the babies kept coming, nine of them. In between trips to the delivery room, her mother waitressed but still couldn’t make ends meet. Since she was twelve, Felice babysat and worked at the local movie theater to buy fabric for her clothes. She sews on an old Singer foot-treadle machine. She’s the first in her family to go to college – Northeastern as a coop student. She’s lived a life of not enough – not enough privacy, not enough clothes, not enough attention from her parents in a house of nine children. It’s been everyone for themselves as long as she can remember. One day at work I find Felice in her office. I ask, “Doing anything this Saturday?” She shakes her head. “I don’t think so.” “Up for a little adventure?” “What?” “It’ll be a surprise. I’ll pick you up at 7:00 in the morning.” “What are we going to do?” “You’ll see.” “What should I wear?” “Something warm.” Three days pass and Felice is waiting for me on her front steps. I wave to the faces in the window and they all disappear. I hear giggling. Felice gets in my car. “Where are we going?” “You’ll see.” I head east on Route 2. She asks, “Boston?” “A little further south.” “Where?” I’m enjoying the tease. I take the Sumner tunnel. She says, “Logan Airport? Where are you taking us?” “You’ll see.” “I hope you don’t think you’re getting me on an airplane.” “Why not?” She’s nervous, fidgety. “I don’t have the right clothes.” “They let you fly inside, you know that, right? You don’t have to flap your arms or anything.” “I’ve never flown.” “Good. You’ll have fun.” We park at the shuttle terminal and board the next plane for LaGuardia. We land and take a cab to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. I show her the stone work, the bronze sculptures, the passageways that cut under the roads. As we walk I remember my Sundays just a year before taking candid photos of pretty girls. And now I am with one. We walk to Central Park South and 7th Avenue. There’s an apartment building with a curved façade that rises high in the air over the park. I think someday it would be nice to live there. We catch a cab and I say, “Rainbow Room please.” It’s a short ride to Rockefeller Center. We board an elevator for the restaurant sixty-five stories over the city. Even the place-settings are extravagant – enough forks, spoons, and knives in front of each of us for four people. A server pours water, another gives us butter, a third rolls, the sommelier stands ready to recommend a wine pairing and a fifth fellow hands us menus and announces the day’s specials. The components of each dish are described in sumptuous detail – tamari honey caramelized cipollini, bourguignon sauce, wild ginger confit. It’s exactly the extravaganza I have in mind. Our waiter brings our strawberry soup with a dollop of crème fraîche starter. Felice says, “This is nice. I’ve always wondered what a real restaurant would be like.” That lets a little air out of my extravaganza. I take her to one of the most exclusive places in the city and she assumes every restaurant has five wait staff fussing over your table. But it’s okay. We’re having fun. We finish our late lunch and I try to sort out who and how much to tip. We spend a few minutes looking at the city below and then take a subway down to Wall Street. I show Felice my old neighborhood. I feel in control – I’m introducing her to a world she’s never seen before. It’s a world of surprises. And I’m the one making it possible, I’m the guide. I want to please her. I want to open doors for her she didn’t know were there. Surprising her gives me more satisfaction than all the rosewood headboards in the world. We walk from Wall Street up Pearl past Fulton where the fish market is closed this time of evening. It still reeks of seafood scraps; it always reeks of seafood scraps. We climb the stairs to the wooden Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and begin crossing the East River. It’s about forty degrees with a gentle wind blowing. The air is clear and crisp. On our right the whole lower Manhattan financial district is laid out before us – skyscrapers rise like a fantastic crystal garden. Office lights shimmer, reflected in the water. Cars and trucks slightly below us on the bridge whiz by continuously, but the walkway itself is deserted, just ours. We get about halfway across the bridge and approach a bench. Felice asks, “Would you like to sit?” We’ve been walking for hours and I assume she just isn’t used to it. I say, “Sure,” and take a seat on the bench. Without warning she sits on my lap, puts her arms around me – and kisses me. Kisses me. Kisses ME! OH MY GOD! The sensation of her lips on mine explodes like a hand grenade in my skull. It overwhelms me. My entire mind travels to the nerve endings in my lips. I am my lips. Five minutes, five hours, five days – I have no idea how long our lips touch, fingers caress necks, tongues explore each other. Our senses merge. It’s a feeling my most ambitious fantasies could not have begun to dream up. Magic, delight, amazement. Two become one. On our way home I remember the little voice in my head that said about my darkroom, If you build it she will come. It was just a different she than I expected. For Felice I represent a life of plenty, security, opportunity, comfort. For me she is affirmation, purpose, a chance to matter. Four months after that kiss on the bridge we marry. But that’s a whole other story…

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