The gilt-edged frame around Syl's movie poster tricked the eye -- turned it into a marquee when the sun struck at a certain angle, as it did now, adding a dose of reassurance to the otherwise unacceptable. Not only was it improper, it was taboo. Wrong
That was not how either of them saw it, of course. But other people, whoever they were. Well.
It was Sloane’s favorite movie too. And little connections like this, though fleeting, seemed a good omen since there were reasons enough to feel guilty. Neither of them wanted to give whatever this was a name. Both thought it better that way. Especially since the labels that came up sounded like things Sloane might one day need to confess. If not to God, then to some other power that would demand satisfaction before he could pass go.
Fortunately, Sloane was good at shoving things down. It was the way he tidied house before guests arrived. Clothes, shoes, books, unopened mail—all thrust under beds, into cupboards, behind the sofa to be dealt with later. Unwashed dishes pushed into the refrigerator because the dishwasher was already full. But even he could not ignore the ghostlike accusation that stuck out like the fat end of a necktie slammed carelessly behind a closet door. Not even with the sun shining its angled light on that much-loved movie poster for The Summer of ‘42.
His first unforgettable meeting with the man returned to him now as Syl padded barefoot and naked down the hall. In a way, seeing her from head to toe and at some remove like this was almost as good as the sex. Or an extension of it maybe. His eyes admired the river-like fluidity of her spine, flowing between her vertebrae from its source at the nape of her neck to its mouth at the peach-shaped basin she had just given to him. Long legs. A dancer’s body. Ballet classes up through high school she said. Buttressed now by some regimen performed only in the presence of other women her age. Boyish and angular once, her figure had become cello-shaped. She spoke of it as loss, in the same key as when she owned up to coloring her once naturally blonde hair. But Sloane loved the rounded curves, the flesh of her. All woman, he thought, eyeing the view long enough for her retreating image to become permanent.
Syl was short for Sylvia, a name that conjured its derivatives, sylph and sylvan, even here in the so-called Golden Ghetto north of Atlanta where most of the woods had been cleared away long ago for upscale condominiums. It was not until she dropped from sight, took a sharp right, stepping bravely naked into the living room to flip the LPs and grab a bit of wine, did the comedian show up to put truth’s damper on things.
Three years earlier, Sloane had invited the man to Hudson College, the parochial mostly white campus in New York where he’d just been elected president of the student body, the first African-American in the school’s hundred-year history to win the post. Not that many others ever had the chance. Even at this late date, Sloane was counted among a black enrollment that came to less than one percent. Running the speaker’s bureau came with winning the election, and despite a tight budget, he managed to book a number of controversial but bankable figures: LSD advocate Timothy Leary; conservative intellectual William F. Buckley; and now Dick Gregory, famous not only for his edgy stand-up routines but recent authorship of two searing books: From the Back of the Bus and Nigger, his autobiography.
Sloane was sure Gregory was the right choice for this audience of mostly middle-class white Northerners who thought themselves morally superior to undergraduates in the defeated Confederacy. Electing Sloane was proof. Recently, Gregory had added criticism of the Vietnam War to his routines. An issue that was sure to resonate, since nearly everyone in Hudson’s all-male population would be losing their college deferments upon graduation.
On the evening of Gregory’s speech, Sloane dressed for the event in his usual second-hand army jacket and jeans. It was not what his mother would have wanted. If she were still alive, she would not have let him leave the house without donning a jacket and tie to introduce such a celebrity. But he was on his own now. As it happened, the comedian arrived wearing the same thing. No surprise since this was the uniform of that day’s resistance. But both men also wore full beards over their black faces. Which not only established their standing as bona fide opponents of the status quo, but linked them as kindred. From a distance, it would have been difficult to tell them apart. Except of course that Gregory was older.
Negotiations for the speech had been handled by telephone, and it seemed to Sloane that the celebrity didn’t know until they met in person that his host was also black. A certain look passed between them as the comedian took him in, failing to react with shock as others did. It held that eternal reassurance Carraway felt when Gatsby smiled at him, the kind of look you come across maybe four or five times in your life. Sloane felt embraced by the man. A fatherly approval he didn’t know he lacked until that moment released him in some way. This was reinforced when they finished the routinely complex handshake of the day. Gregory took hold of the boy’s arm, slapping it three times with his open palm the way a coach congratulates his players after a hard-won game. Right on, it seemed to say. More power to you. Sloane swallowed hard and nodded. And all the while, Gregory stared unblinking into his eyes. Like almost no one who spoke to him ever did.
“Glad you could make it.”
“Gotta feed my kids, man. Thanks for having me.”
“Need anything before we start?”
“Not right now, but a pitcher of water near the podium would help.”
“Got you covered. Ice?”
“No. Room temperature’s better for your body.”
Gregory’s speech was a financial success before he even arrived. Like others in the series, it not only reimbursed the initial outlay but fattened the student treasury. Predictably, the full-to-capacity audience stomped its feet and cheered when the comedian railed against the war in Vietnam. They hooted and clapped when he told them they could end the war within six months if they stopped smoking cigarettes and boycotted any products that made the war possible.
“You’ve all been hypnotized into wanting these things,” he said. “Snap out of it. Stop giving your money to the military-industrial complex, and you will end this war in a heartbeat.” He snapped his fingers in front of the microphone. Amplified, the gesture felt like a magician breaking a spell—or the beginning of one.
“And while we’re on the subject of hypnosis,” he said, “I want you to know I’m gonna have me a white woman.”
Until that moment, the auditorium had been a speeding, laugh-a-minute car, accelerated by the engine of Gregory’s anti-establishment satire. Now it downshifted with a grating of gears. Stopped abruptly. On a dime.
“Y’all done used that half-naked white woman to sell me everything from Coca-Cola to automobiles. You put her on billboards and magazine covers. Even got her telling you to take it off, take it all off, while they play stripper music during a got-damned shaving commercial. You dangle her ass in front of me every chance you get. Haven’t you psychology majors heard of subliminal advertising? ‘Want this woman? Buy this car.’ ‘Want this woman? Put this deodorant on.’ That’s what American advertising has been saying to me ever since I could open my eyes. You been telling me all this time that I should want the white woman. Well, I got the message. And I want you to know I plan to go ahead and have one. Cause whether you realize it or not—I’m just as American as you are.”
Dead fucking silence.
“That, son, is what they call black comedy,” Gregory told Sloane afterwards when they slid into a booth at the International House of Pancakes.
“Because you brought up race?”
“No. Race has nothing to do with black comedy, though in this case it kinda did. It works like this: once you get ‘em laughing, you can say just about anything you want. And they’ll listen because they’re waiting for the next laugh. What makes it black is when you turn it on ‘em. Hold up a mirror so they can get a good look at themselves. Everybody likes laughing at somebody else. Learning how to laugh at yourself—that’s a whole other ball game.”
“For a moment, I thought they were going to get up and leave.”
“What? And admit they’re all just as racist as those bubba boys down South? I knew what I was doing. Trying to help you out a little.”
“Son, you don’t have to tell me a thing. From the minute I laid eyes on you, I knew what you were up against. You picked yourself a narrow road, and it seems to be working for you right now. But you better be careful.”
“How do you mean?”
“All these white boys love you so much they made you president, huh? I’ll bet you all the food in this restaurant and all the money they’ll collect over the next ten years that not one of ‘em has ever asked you to go on a panty raid up at that white girl’s college down the road. What’s that y’all call ‘em? Mounties or some shit like that?” He paused and shook his head, smiling mostly to himself, then stared into Sloane’s eyes. “Mounties. Think about that. You see, son, they’ll let you be their president as long as you tacitly agree to also be their eunuch. They damn sure don’t want you mounting none of their Mounties. Just try it, and see what happens. They’ll run your ass out of here on a rail.”
Sloane thought about the pastel panties he’d seen hanging like trophies in some of the dorm rooms during the campaign. Yellows, pale blue, the obligatory pink. Some with ruffles, some with lace. All of them signifying the truth of an ancient Chinese proverb: Confucius say panties not best thing in the world but closest thing to it.
Naturally he’d heard the stories but shoved the images out of his mind. He was good at shoving things. Besides, by all accounts, conducting a panty raid on a Catholic college was a tame affair. The women usually knew about it in advance and threw their unwanted briefs out the window in unison, as if emptying the trash. And all of it happening before curfew. Some panty raid. Still, the comedian had been right. Sloane was never invited.
He wondered how he must look to the man who had just given him this lecture. If he could see his own face, he would already know the answer. Unmasked. As if the militant beard had suddenly been stripped off to reveal the baby-soft surface of naiveté. To cover himself, he considered saying that it was 1969, and times had changed. He had just formed words to that effect when Gregory preempted him. “And don’t tell me it’s almost the 21st century. After they get you off this treadmill you’re on—Homer, Socrates, Plato and all that—you need to sit down and read Invisible Man. You can’t outrun history, son. You can’t outsmart it either. History will follow you everywhere.”
No one had talked to Sloane like this since both his parents drowned in a boating accident a few years earlier. That happened during a church picnic at Lake Lanier, the man-made reservoir just outside Atlanta. His parents had not wanted to go. Neither of them cared about boating but felt it was their duty to participate. Thanks to Civil Rights, people of color had only just gained access to the lake. But Sloane’s dad never liked the idea. It was bordered by a county that had once driven out all black residents and warned any others who happened to find themselves there to be gone by sunset. Shortly after the lake opened in 1957, white families were told outright to “leave the maid behind” when they visited. Sloane worked hard to shove back the tears when he thought of the irony. They’d gone to the lake worried about one kind of trouble and what they got was misfortune of another. A dropped oar, his mother reaching too far to grab it. Falling in. His father drowning trying to save her.
Sloane was still in high school then, already on track to become valedictorian, guided only by prim graying Agatha, his father’s spinster sister, who moved into the family home (paid off by an insurance policy) and looked after him till he left for college. The white teachers and professors had encouraged him. Other black parents, mindful of his loss, admired and also encouraged him. The women of the Altar and Rosary Society secretly took up a collection and paid his tuition for the remainder of high school. Called it a scholarship. But no one had ever sat him down and told him what’s-so the way Dick Gregory was doing now in the too-stark light of a pancake house just off Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx.
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who mistakenly believe they are free.”
That was the subject of Sloane’s call-in radio show the day Syl showed up for the Shirley Chisholm segment. The Goethe quote was printed on a black-and-white poster in the newsroom, and Sloane used it because he could think of nothing else to discuss. He was surprised when he left the studio and found Syl waiting in the lobby. He’d been expecting the head of Shirley Chisholm’s Georgia campaign to be African-American. He recognized the name Sylvia Whitlock from the press releases and hoped he managed to show her the same equanimity Dick Gregory had shown him some years earlier. She was not there to be interviewed by him. That would be handled by the news director. But when Sloane stepped into the lobby on the way to his car, she introduced herself. It was not difficult to identify him. Framed pictures of all the talk-show hosts decorated the lobby walls. Sloane’s face was the only black one. By this time, he’d given up the beard in the interest of professionalism. Looked a shade younger than his twenty-four years. Boyish even.
“I don’t always get to listen to your program,” she said. “But after hearing what you said today about freedom and slavery and how so much of it’s in the mind—I’m going to make a point of it.”
He gave her the practiced thank you that had become automatic now that his personality had gone public. Gracious, self-effacing, humble. Then added stupidly, “Has anyone ever told you that you bear a strong resemblance to Gloria Steinem?” When he first saw her sitting there, he really did mistake her for the Ms. Magazine co-founder. A similarly shaped face, shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, turtleneck sweater, bell-bottom hip-hugger jeans, and boots.
“Why Darius J. Sloane, is that your way of telling me you think all white people look alike?”
Looking back on it, he could see that their affair actually began on that day, though it would take several weeks to become intimate. Anyone seeing it from the outside would have called it a seduction since she was almost forty-two. Shades of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate and all that. Both would say later this was not only untrue but unfair. In fact, theirs had been a mutual beguiling. A fog-like enchantment that was still in its early stages on this particular afternoon as filtered sunshine streamed into Syl’s bedroom, casting its dreamy light on the gilt-framed poster of her favorite film—and his—the Summer of ‘42.
Syl was iconically blonde. Which was one reason Sloane recalled Dick Gregory as he watched her pad down the hall. Her feminist politics notwithstanding, she was like every white woman he had ever seen on a billboard or stretched out on the hood of an automobile in some TV commercial. On the surface. But there is so much more to her, he responded mentally to the Dick Gregory that had become an inner critic lodged in his mind. She’s moved all the way from Ohio to organize a statewide campaign in Georgia--of all places—for the first black woman to run for president of the United States. She has two kids. Moved them here too. And her day job? Regional manager of a respected international aid program. You can’t tell all that by looking at her or reading her preppy name on a press release. Surely it’s what one does that defines them, Sloane thought. Not color or sex. It was wrong to reduce individuals to icons. Though it sounded more elevated, it was the same as reducing them to stereotypes.
Syl brought the wine back to bed along with a single glass and a book tucked under her arm.
“This, my friend, is a very fine Bordeaux,” she said. “And this book, also French, is one of the most important you’ll ever read. If you are who I think you are, it will absolutely change your life. It certainly changed mine.”
“Simone de Beauvoir? Never heard of her.”
“Read it, Sloane. It will make you a better man.”
“That’s a lot to promise.”
She poured the Bordeaux and held the glass to his lips. “Open it at random. Every page is wisdom. I swear it.”
Sloane thumbed the pages with an audible flourish the way his Dad used to shuffle cards while playing bid whist. Then opened to: One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
“I think I’ve heard that before. Seen it on the pages of Ms. Magazine maybe. Didn’t realize it was written by…”
“Funny you should open to that particular page. It’s the story of my life and so many others like me. I went from daughter to wife and mother without having a chance to grow up first. I feel like I’m only just learning how to be an adult.”
She folded her legs and sat Indian style in front of him. They passed the Bordeaux back and forth like a joint, meandering from one inspired page to the next.
“I like this one,” Sloane said. “About being a freedom. Most people talk about becoming free, but she seems to be saying that each of us is, in fact, a freedom. And somehow there’s transcendence involved in it. Wow.”
“I knew we were connected,” Syl said. “The things that speak to you also speak to me. Take the book with you. I want you to have it.”
“No, Syl. I can buy my own copy. This one is yours.”
“That’s why I want you to have it. Because it is mine. I give it to you out of my freedom to do so.”
The Bordeaux was fruity on the nose, tannic on the tongue and finished long. Her words. At twenty-four, the only wines he knew came in pretty bottles that could be used later as candle holders. She was still holding the glass when he began loving her again. He had not satisfied her the first time and worried about it. She did not. But had sensed his anxiety and gradually brought their musings around to one more thing de Beauvoir had taught her. Men who treat women badly are the ones most anxious about their virility.
“You are enthusiastic about me, aren’t you?” she said after the second time. “It makes me feel…special.”
She curled up beside him, pulled back a strand of hair that veiled her face, and tucked it behind one ear.
“Your future women will be grateful to me.”
“I’m not having any future women.”
“Nonsense. You’ll get tired of me eventually. It’s only natural. After all, I’m old enough to be your—”
He put his finger across her lips to shush her. Squeezed her arm. Felt her soft, still youthful flesh close to his own. He didn’t want to talk about age or race or anything else that threatened to drive a wedge.
They lay together quietly for a while, and he stared at the movie poster on the wall. Why had that film been so beguiling? A coming of age story about a boy barely sixteen and an older woman in the throes of grief. Wish-fulfilling fluff, which struck a cultural nerve that cut across generations and became a box-office smash. Bedded now, he and Syl found themselves embedded in the same story. A fact not lost on either of them. That’s the trouble with education, he thought. It teaches you to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind simultaneously. Good for keeping intolerance at bay. But not much help when you find yourself in conflict with yourself.
“Have you ever noticed that your poster looks lit from within at a certain time of day?”
“Yes. I can’t figure out why. Some kind of optical illusion, I guess.”
“It happened just now while you were up.”
“I don’t know why I love that movie so much. It makes me sad. And because…but then you already know why.”
It was the sadness of that movie and the mawkish longing of its music, which moved them to a different plane. They had just left a play, an evening out together, which had nothing to do with business or politics. Their first. Syl turned on the car radio. They’d been talking about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, other versions they’d seen, how the two Jews had been left out of Olivier’s Hamlet. Whether it was intentionally anti-Semitic. And how great it was of Stoppard to give the play back to them. The typical post-theater post mortem couched in the language of sophistication. Which then shifted unexpectedly into uncharted waters.
The summer knows, the summer’s wise, and unashamed she sheds her clothes.
It was the saccharin Johnny Mathis version, new to the airwaves, but it pulled Syl off her moorings, sent her eddying outward, adrift as an untethered dinghy. She pulled over. Switched off the engine to get control of herself.
“What’s wrong?” Sloane asked, taking her hand. A small infinity asserted itself before she answered. Her chest heaved. Headlights from the oncoming traffic glinted in the corners of her eyes.
“I don’t know why I’m being so silly.” She wanted the words to come out smooth, to be able to resume the mask of cultural erudition, but they erupted from her in small earthquakes. Anger and pain seethed beneath the surface. A hidden hurt boiled over.
“What is it?” Sloane said, squeezing her hand. Then, more quietly, “You can tell me, Syl.”
“It was his father that told him to do it. And I swear to God, I’ll never be able to forgive that man as long as I live.” She didn’t look at Sloane but out the window. “The boy had only just turned eighteen. There was no reason for him to go traipsing off to Vietnam. He could have had a deferment like yours. His grades were good, but thanks to his father, he got it into his head that it was best to get it over with, not have it hanging over his head. Do the two years, then cash in on the GI Bill.” She shook her head. Tried to shut off the tears. Failed.
“I’ve always thought he encouraged it to keep from paying Brad’s tuition. Manhood. Independence. All that shit was meant to cover his real motives, the stingy bastard. Of course, the marriage was over long before that. I should have divorced him after the first infidelity. Instead, I stayed with him. For the kids. Now I have two daughters, whom I dearly love, but no son. Only a flag and a medal. And a…”
“And this music reminds you of him?”
“In the strangest, saddest way, yes. I cried nonstop when the movie ended. Sat through a second showing because I couldn’t get out of my seat. The movie was about losing a husband. Maybe it’s crazy, but when I saw it, all I could think about was poor Brad, who didn’t have to die. Not that way. Not this early. It was just too soon. I hate this damn war. I hate Nixon and…and…”
Sloane pulled her across the seat and held her in his arms. Could feel her body convulse against his, the tears wetting his shirt. The carapace of sophistication dissolving to reveal a girl, injured and vulnerable, beneath it.
“Would you like me to drive?”
She handed him the keys and gave him directions to her home.
“I don’t know why I behaved so foolishly. It’s just. I don’t know, there’s something about you that makes me feel safe in a strange way. Not like I want you to protect me but like it’s safe to tell you things. Like you’ll understand or at least hear things others are not able to.”
This was not the first time he’d been accused of this. In college, his room became a kind of confessional for dorm dwellers worried about an unplanned pregnancy, trouble at home, and whether you could get syphilis from digital intercourse. Sometimes he wondered if he should have entered seminary instead of attending Hudson. Like maybe the priesthood was his true calling, and everyone could see it except him. But Aunt Agnes was adamant. Told him to wait. Said the world already had enough Jesuits.
“It takes a long time to get over loss,” he told Syl. The trembling in her hand had subsided. He held onto it, rubbed his thumb over her palm as he drove. “I’m still not sure I’ve gotten over…“
He had started to tell her about his parents but decided against it. She didn’t need to hear about his losses, he thought. Not now when she was falling apart. What she needed was for him to be a man and take care of her. Become her rock. Keep her from drowning.
“Some other time,” he said. “Geez. Your house is mighty dark.”
“The girls are with their Dad. I can’t keep them from him. It wouldn’t be right. Besides, he’s got the money. That’s what kills me. He’s already spent a fortune flying them back and forth between Atlanta and Cincinnati, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay tuition for his only son.”
Sloane locked the car and walked with her to the door. The landscaped grounds reminded him of a golf course he’d visited once on a promotional tour for the radio station. He guided her onto a slatted wooden bridge, one of several arched over a brook separating the parking lot from the green-lawned townhomes. Gently placed his palm in the small of her back. Gas lanterns flickered above the flagstone pathway. Invisible frogs chanted an obscure message in the quiet night. People in the city called this place the Golden Ghetto because you had to have money to live here.
“I don’t want to be alone just yet. Do you mind coming in for a minute?”
She flipped the light switch and kicked off her heels. Several dozen copies of Shirley Chisholm’s memoir, Unbought and Unbossed, were stacked like pancakes in the alcove. On a credenza in the living room, a framed color photograph of a handsome young man in uniform.
“Let me make you a cup of coffee before you head home.”
He didn’t have the coffee till the following morning. He knew, even as it was happening, that there would be no way to describe the interval. Or even to remember it well. Without comprehending its root: that all intimacy is an expression of trust.
Perhaps that was why in the sober light of day, after she regained composure, he told her what he had thought unwise to share the night before. The thing he’d always shoved way down, out of sight, because it hurt too much to talk about it. How it felt to see the two of them going under as he watched helpless from the shore. In this way, Darius Sloane and Sylvia Whitlock gave each other losses they’d been unable to share in quite so fully with anyone else. This was how their dance began, shifting between container and contained. You hold my pain for a while, then I’ll hold yours. This was how the bond was established that pushed their affair beyond the single-afternoon’s encounter depicted in The Summer of ’42.
For the rest of that year, they lived within this intimacy as if lit from within by some unseen power, its own purpose to achieve. As if they were mere actors in a play they had not written, on a stage they did not design. Which, having used them, contrived also to make them whole.
Years later, returning home from a book tour, Sloane decanted a Prieure-Lichine Bordeaux, and his eyes scanned the bookcase instinctively for the tattered copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece. He knew by this time that the movie they inhabited had been an anodyne for invisible wounds that cut too deep to be calculated. He had words now to describe what happened. The kind found in psychology books. But he never used them. Not about her. He was getting better too about quieting the critics in his mind. And almost never shoved things into closets or behind the sofa anymore. She had taken those things from him that first morning and refused to give them back when she vanished sylph-like into the forest of her own destiny.
Sometimes the wrong thing turns out to be the right thing. You fly blind through the summer of your life, hoping to retain some measure of illumination when it’s time to dress for fall.
Life is a dance of optics and illusions, he thought, sunlight filtered through an open window on the past.
Copyright © 2017 Andrew Hill, All Rights Reserved
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