It was still Wednesday December 5 1973 and I was relieved when Ceil Kane answered the phone, knew who I was, and then confirmed that they could put me up for a couple nights. I had never actually met her before. It was nearly four years ago when she and her husband Ilya had answered my mom’s notice in the Oxford newspaper offering the house swap. My mom saw it as her only chance of giving her sons the more gentrified experience of travelling in Europe, an experience she and my dad could never afford under normal circumstances. But just as they had bought and refinished old furniture from garage sales and such to furnish a respectable looking house amongst the academic community of Ann Arbor, my mom had somehow managed to pull off the house swap and manage ten weeks in England for basically only the cost of the plane tickets.
So during the summer of 1970 we lived in Ceil and Ilya’s house in the little village of Horspath, outside Oxford, while they lived in ours in Ann Arbor. For Ilya it had been the opportunity to take several advanced statistics classes offered by the U of M Institute of Social Research.
They had since moved from Horspath to another small village with a more pretentious name, Great Bentley, just outside Colchester, only ten kilometers from where I currently was. My mom had continued to correspond with them and given them a heads up that I was traveling in Europe. They had offered to put me up for a couple nights when I was in the area, and they had recently received a letter from my mom updating them on my travels and my approximate arrival back in England. Now on the other end of the phone, Ceil said she was happy to drive to Manningtree and pick me up, because her husband Ilya was sick with a cold, and she needed an excuse to get out of the house.
So I sat on a bench in front of the little train station and waited. It was getting late, long since gotten dark, and I thought that it was duly chilly for an early December eve in southeast England. (Not that I’d ever been in southeast England before in early December!) I was still fighting a cold of my own I had been wrestling with in Holland, and I felt chilled, even wearing my down jacket. I could feel my body wanting to shut down so it could divert more resources to fighting the bug that was still gripping me. Smoking all that hash the previous day probably hadn’t helped as well. I was sneezing and my nose was running. But it was the excitement, exhilaration even, that I was just that much closer to actually getting on that plane and flying home, that was keeping me afloat, above the drag of the virus on my body.
As I sniffled and sneezed, I wrote in my journal…
Well, I’ve hurtled my second to last major obstacle – the British Channel. Next is the plane flight. Oh it will be great to get on that plane. Just to sit in that seat and have no more hassle with anything except breathing, stuffing food and drink in my face, and watching a movie. Fantastic! Beautiful! Magnificent! Splendid! Superb! Wizzard! Bonito! After taking the first night to recover, I’m going to drop in on Jerry and Avi and get ozoned!!! Ozoned! Nothing less. Just smoke weed until my lips fall off. Oh wait! That’s the Alice Cooper concert night! No matter, I’ll smoke before the concert, go to it and afterwards get ozoned! Sounds great.
I wanted to be back in that intimate circle of my friends, and there seemed no better way to reenter that circle than getting high together to reattain that intimate other place. That day getting stoned with my three comrades in Amsterdam, hard to believe it was just yesterday, had reminded me of the magic of our generation’s recreational intoxicant. Yeah, alcohol was okay as far as it went, helping you overcome your shyness and all, but cannabis connected you to some kind of other plane of consciousness that was, in my thinking, much more compelling.
A small sedan drove up and stopped, the engine still idling, its lights shining in my eyes. A petite woman, who was obviously pregnant, stepped out of what in the States and on the Continent was the passenger side of the car, but not here in England. She waved at me and tentatively called out my name. It was Ceil Kane.
Without greeting me with a handshake or a hug she walked around to the back of her car and opened the trunk, obviously to stash my backpack. As I did so she said she would greet me more properly in the car. She said that her young daughter Rebecca, who was two and a half, had fallen asleep in the back seat and she wanted to get going again before she woke up, since the moving car lulled her to sleep. I got in the front passenger seat, where I would normally sit to drive a car in the States. Rebecca was curled up under a comforter in the back seat, sleeping fitfully. Ceil revved the engine, popped the clutch, and we were off into the English night.
“Welcome to Colchester!” she said as she drove along at a brisk clip, “Your mom’s latest long letter gave me your updated schedule and told me about some of the places you’ve been, and that stretch when you told her you were hitchhiking across the Alps and then the daily postcards stopped coming.”
Yeah that was apparently the story my mom liked telling everyone about me. I’m sure she duly embellished it to make it a harrowing tale for the listener.
We were soon headed down a dark country road with no lights beyond her car’s headlights, which briefly illuminated leafless trees and brick farmhouses off from the two-lane highway. Ceil said her daughter had caught her husband Ilya’s cold, and apologized that she was making me sleep in a “hospital ward”, though she said I’d have their guest room all to myself. When I replied that that was no problem and I really appreciated their hospitality, she detected my own nasalness.
“Not you too!”, she said with concern.
I apologized profusely, feeling bad thinking that someone so obviously pregnant was having to take care of everyone else, including me, rather than be cared for herself. I tried desperately not to sneeze, biting my lip once or twice to head one off.
I figured I should at least be entertaining, and launched into giving her the story of my travels from the beginning in England when Angie decided to go back to the States. It was only a bit more than a ten minute drive to their house, so I was only getting to the part when I left Angie behind in London and headed to the Continent when we pulled into the driveway of a small two-story brick house with a high pitched roof with bits of snow on what presumably was the northern sides of the upstairs dormers.
Ceil led the way inside, with Rebecca and quilt in her arms, the young girl’s head nestled against her mom’s neck and shoulder. Ceil showed me to the small office downstairs with a daybed that doubled as their guestroom. She excused herself to put Rebecca to bed up in her room, saying that Ilya was also asleep up in their room or else he would have been down to greet me. Alone now, I rested my pack against the wall and surveyed my quarters. It had a wooden desk with drawers with mail, bills, and other papers stacked on it, along with a pair of glasses. There was a tiny portable TV on one corner of the desk. Two walls of the room had built in bookcases, floor to ceiling, except where two windows looked out into what appeared in the dark to be a small backyard, including a wood playhouse, surrounded by bare trees.
I surveyed all the book spines for the titles and a holistic sense of their interests, values and politics. Interspersed among Shakespeare, Homer, Tolstoy, and other classic literature, there were a number of books on statistics and political science, which I recalled was Ilya’s field of study and academic work. There were books on sociology, existentialism plus books I recognized on feminism, including The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, The Dialectic of Sex, and The Female Eunuch. I also noted several of the classic erotic novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill, and Tropic of Cancer. I remembered, after reading in a magazine that Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned from many libraries as obscene, furtively scanning through my dad’s copy of the book when no one was around, finding the references to the main character putting his ‘prick’ in a woman’s ‘cunt’, and ‘shooting hot bolts into you’. The descriptions had been both thrilling and troubling at the time.
But still sniffling and sneezing, a great fatigue quickly overcame me and I crawled under the daybed covers and descended quickly into unconsciousness and a long deep sleep.
It was mid morning the next day when I finally emerged from my book studded little room. Ilya was sitting at the small kitchen table in his pajamas drinking coffee and eating scrambled eggs. He was complaining to Ceil about the speed limit on the British motorways being reduced from 70 to 50 miles per hour due to the oil crisis. About how he was getting behind on his research project because of “this crud I got from our little angel”.
Little Rebecca, also in pajamas and looking a lot like a miniature version of her dad, was sitting next to him, on her knees on the chair so she was up high enough to address her bowl, though she was more moving things around in it than eating. Snot was dripping from her nose and she was wiping at it with her hand and her forearm. Ceil was across the kitchen counter with her big belly, washing dishes, looking stressed and a bit worse for wear.
Ilya was exasperated about his daughter’s runny nose. “Can someone get me a tissue to clean this child’s snotty face?” The box of tissues was on the kitchen counter across the table from where Ilya was sitting. Rebecca waved her hand in the air, “Mommy… I need a tissue!” I saw Ceil close her eyes, take in and then exhale a big breath.
I strode into the room and grabbed the tissue box from the kitchen counter and handed it to Ilya. He seemed caught by surprise but quickly composed himself and said, “You must be Cooper! I’m Ilya! I read your mom’s letter about your exploits.” Then in response to the box of tissues, “You’re a good man!”, and he reached out and took the box in his left hand and reached out with his right to shake mine. Then pointing to an empty chair he said, “Sit down, have some toast and scrambled eggs. Lucky for you we are not serving kippers.”
I’m not sure what he meant with the kippers remark. Did he not like them? I had not cared for the cured fish three years ago when we lived in England and had several occasions to try them, but he couldn’t know that. Maybe it was just a thing that most people from the States did not like them. Or was it some sort of dig at Ceil that she could not prepare them properly or bought inferior ones?
I looked around and the remainder of the scrambled eggs were in a frying pan sitting on the kitchen counter, along with a loaf of sourdough bread and a toaster.
Ceil turned and looked at me and said as brightly as she could muster, “Good morning!”, wiping her forehead with a rubber glove covered hand, then trying to decide whether she needed to remove the gloves before putting some toast for me in the toaster.
I took the initiative and said, “I’ll help myself!” and pulled two pieces of the bread out of its bag and into the toaster, took a plate and served myself some scrambled eggs.
As I took a seat at the table across from Rebecca, she gave me a sort of askance look with her big dark eyes like her dad’s and asked, “Who are you?”
I looked at her and laughed. “My name is Cooper. My mom traded houses with your mom and dad three years ago before you were born. I just met your mom and dad right now!” She scrunched up her nose trying to parse and process my words. She had wildly knowing eyes.
It hit me again that I had a very unique relationship with these people. They had never met me and I them, yet I had lived for two and a half months in the house they used to live in outside Oxford, in the village of Horspath, and they had lived during that time in our house in Ann Arbor. Their only knowledge of me was, first of all, what my mom might have said in her letters to them over the years since her first letter prior to and confirming our house swap, particularly the ones she had written more recently, giving them a heads up I was travelling to Europe and when I might be in their area. Then secondly, and maybe more significantly, what their old next door neighbors in Horspath, the Clays, might have said about me and particularly my mom. Madge Clay and my mom had become friends, and likewise, her son Kevin and I, roughly the same age, had also become friends and were often over at each other’s houses playing together, so Madge getting to know me fairly well too.
And my mom of course made a lasting impression on pretty much everyone she met, and generally a positive one. Madge undoubtedly shared that impression with Ceil and Ilya, which I’m sure was amplified by my mom’s letters and phone calls to Ceil, my mom always very well written and well spoken. So here I was, my mom’s ambassador of sorts, a token of her continuing drive for connection with people.
“I’ve read all your mom’s letters and enjoy following her exploits. Her campaigning for local candidates and now moving in a feminist direction!”, Ceil noted, going on about this and that detail my mom had included in her posts.
“She certainly seems like quite the hostess for political soirees and such”, Ilya added. “The way she tailors her guest list so that everyone will have at least one other person that they will enjoy engaging with. Plus that signature crock of bloody marys she always serves.”
As they both continued to highlight bits from her letter, they did seem taken by my mom and her exploits, even though they had never actually met her.
“Madge Clay just went on and on about your mom after we returned home from our summer at your home in Ann Arbor”, Ceil noted at one point, “And your Ann Arbor is quite the vibrant university town!”
“Yes”, Ilya seconded chuckling, “And a delightful neighborhood where you live, with the park and all those Maple trees.”
My own opinion of my mom had evolved significantly since three years ago. Back then, the major league character that she was, seemed more problematic, someone I needed to actively differentiate myself from as sort of damage control. I was realizing now that I was developing more appreciation for her and even taking a lot more pride in her and her exploits.
Since we had broached the subject of my mom, Ilya and Ceil were very interested in hearing more details as to what she was up to now, and how she was doing post divorce. Rebecca obviously not so much, as she fussed with the discomfort of her cold symptoms. I told them my mom was doing a lot better than where she had been in 1970, when she was still recovering from the breakup with my dad. I regaled them on the latest chapters of the Jane Roberts story, particularly more details of her local political work and her getting involved in the Ann Arbor chapter of the National Organization for Women. I shared stories of some of the more notable cocktail parties she’d hosted in our house, always serving the same salad, spaghetti and of course those Bloody Mary’s, and encouraging a robust discussion of politics, philosophy and the status of women and their push for equal rights under the law. Also how my mom’s now closest female friends had also divorced their husbands and gotten involved in the women’s movement as well, and how I referred to them as my “feminist aunts”.
“So how was it for you”, Ilya queried, wielding his fork like a lecturer’s baton, “As a young man growing up in that sort of environment, around all those opinionated women?”, like I was the subject of his academic research study. And the fact that he used ‘opinionated’ instead of say ‘strong willed’, seemed to signal perhaps a negative bias on his part, like my natural masculine characteristics would not be supported and I had to fight to assert them amongst all the bigtime female ‘cooties’.
I should have called him on what he meant exactly by “that sort of environment”, and perhaps force him to admit his bias. But I instead assumed that he meant in a household and circle of strong-minded women without my dad. I struggled at first to come up with an answer, it was what it was, and what could I really compare it to. Ceil cocked her head and opened her mouth like she was about to say something, perhaps intervene on my behalf, but I really wanted to speak for myself here, realizing that my answer was fundamental to who I was as a person. Rebecca pounded her metal spoon on her cereal bowl.
“Candidly?” I said, technically a question but more of a setup for my speech to follow. It was a technique my mom used to get her conversation partner’s attention focused on what she was about to say.
“Of course”, Ilya responded energetically, his eyes twinkling, his tone as if to champion the pursuit of knowledge wherever it took one, and maybe anticipating that I would come forth with some disparaging comments about my mom and a dark matriarchal flip side to our, or maybe just his, patriarchal world.
“My mom’s always been a challenge for me”, I noted, “She’s like this gregarious force of nature that can steal any scene she chooses to, and she seems to often make that choice. And in an argument all her points are well thought and presented, always hard to top.”
I chuckled and continued, “So that’s one thing when she’s taking apart some patronizing academic type at a cocktail party, and yet another when she’s my mom with flawless reasoning for why she’s right and I’m fooling myself.”
Ilya chuckled, like he was getting what he was going for, but I wasn’t anywhere near finished.
“But”, I flung up my index finger theatrically and wagged it as I made my points, “There is no one on this planet who has fought harder for me all my life, given me room to grow, and believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself!” I had thought to throw a ‘fucking’ in there somewhere for emphasis, but it felt impolite in this context, and with Rebecca there, a very young, though very precocious kid.
“And”, I continued, still wielding my index finger, Rebecca now looking at me and scrunching her nose like I was some major disturbance in her world, “She’s continued to do so, kept our household together, while being devastated by the divorce with my dad nine years ago, and spending the years since recovering as best she could. Her whole way of doing things used to bug me to no end, but as she’s shared with me her ongoing struggles, I have developed a begrudging respect for her, seeing her not as some parental figure, but just another flawed human being like me, trying to move forward.”
I finished my rant and was quiet. Ceil and Ilya were quiet too, perhaps a bit taken by my words. Rebecca looked at each of her parents with a scowl and banged her spoon on her bowl again.
“Interesting!”, Ilya responded, in a noncommittal way.
“I got a sense of all that in your mother’s letters”, Ceil chimed in, “And in Madge Clay’s assessment of her.”
Quickly recovering his imperious demeanor, Ilya then went on a different tack and said that he applauded my mom’s activism, but he was concerned that “bourgeois feminism” among the women of the elite was taking the focus away from the “deeper societal issues of race and class”.
I had not heard the word ‘bourgeois’ used to describe any sort of ‘feminism’ before, but I got the gist of his argument, coming at things from what sounded like a Marxist point of view, based on what I’d learned about Marxism from Mr. Peacock’s Modern Russian History class my senior year of high school.
Ceil finally asserted herself at this point, saying that she and her husband went back and forth on this issue of feminism versus the struggle of the working class. As she presented her take I could see him impatiently waiting for her to finish so he could continue to engage with me. More snot flowed from Rebecca’s nose and she thrashed at it with her hands holding up sticky fingers and grimacing. I offered her a tissue and she looked at me, but finally took it and kind of mashed it between her fingers.
Rather than stick with that discussion, Ilya changed the subject.
“So tell us of this grand journey of yours from your ‘new world’ to explore this ‘old world’ of ours”, he said, his eyes twinkling again to telegraph the dash of facetiousness, like I was a cheeky yet favored student in his university seminar being called to stand and comment on the curriculum being discussed. “What has struck you the most from your perspective as a young man growing up across the ‘pond’ in America?”
“What indeed”, I replied, with my own little touch of cheeky lampoon, using my favorite academicy British word, and even almost falling into a Monty Python British accent, but buying time to compose my thoughts while throwing Ilya’s ego a bone, added, “Good question!”
It struck me in that moment that Rebecca had a look on her face like she was thinking “what the fuck are these adults talking about?” She looked at each of her parents then shook her head and winced like she had just smelled something really disgusting.
Despite Rebecca’s displeasure, I launched into my thoughts on his question, reaching for as much profundity as I could cobble together. I first noted that it was “wild” to see and experience for real all these iconic places and things I had read about and seen pictures of growing up – Stonehenge, the English Channel, the Rhine River, Notre Dame, the Mona Lisa, a bullfight, the Vatican and its Sistine Chapel, Venice and Amsterdam’s canals, and most of all, the Alps. Some, like the Sistine Chapel and the Alps, were way more awesome than their likenesses and words about them, while others, like the Mona Lisa or the bullfight, were underwhelming, the latter pretty disgusting even.
Then I copped a thoughtful face and pose and said that I found it “really interesting” that though I did not speak any of the languages of the countries on the Continent I had traveled through, I found the logistics of traveling without a car way easier in Europe than it would have been for me in the States where I spoke the language. That ease included the extensive rail system, other public transit, available assistance, youth hostels, the lesser distances between destinations, and people being generally more comfortable with and accommodating of foreigners and travelers, more comfortable than my sense of how it would be in the States.
Both Ceil and Ilya seemed taken with and intrigued by my answer, particularly the part about the ease of travel. Ceil said that she had been to Boston and New York when she was a teen, and had found those two cities not unlike a big European city in terms of logistics of getting about, though she had not tried to travel outside the city limits. When they had lived in our house that summer in Ann Arbor, she and Ilya had driven into Detroit to the art museum, gotten lost, and found it very difficult to find their way around.
Ilya chimed in with, “You Yanks with all your big bloody cars and crowded highways.”
While Ceil put Rebecca down for a nap, I continued to share details of my trip highlights with Ilya, including my half hour nearly alone in the Sistine Chapel, the long tunnel under the Alps, and all the wondrous mountain “teeth” of Grindelwald and the excursion not taken on the cog railway up to the “top of the Alps”.
When Ceil returned to the kitchen, he interrupted me and reminded her that his colleague Christopher was picking him up shortly and they would be working on their project at Christopher’s place, but he had invited him back for dinner so could she go to the market and pick up some “chops or something else good” and also some more cold medicine for him when she picked up Rebecca’s prescription at the chemist’s.
Ceil grimaced and asked him that since Rebecca was sick, couldn’t he and Christopher stay here and work so they could keep an eye on their daughter while she did her errands in town. Ilya shook his head and said that Rebecca was a handful when she was healthy, doubly so when she was sick, and he and Christopher had a very full agenda for the afternoon, and this “crud that our sweet little angel has bestowed upon me” made it harder for him to concentrate. While Ceil stewed on how to respond, he looked at me and said that I might find the project he and Christopher were working on interesting, involving a statistical analysis of voting patterns in British elections since the 19th century.
Ceil relented, accommodating her husband, but from my point of view it wasn’t pretty, and I felt bad that I wasn’t comfortable volunteering to babysit Rebecca while Ceil did her shopping. Ilya excused himself to get dressed. Soon there was a honk of a horn outside and he briefly blew through the kitchen saying to her, “Christopher really likes those lean pork chops!”, and to me, “More later young man!” Then he sniffled, sneezed, said “Bollocks”, grabbed a wad of tissues and was out the door.
Ceil asked me if I had had enough to eat and I replied that I had, though under the circumstances I wouldn’t have said otherwise if I hadn’t. I took the initiative to clear the dishes from the table. She asked me if I would like a cup of tea and I nodded. It was Earl Gray tea and I took it with milk and sugar, like she was having hers. She put out a tin of ‘biscuits’ and we sat at the little kitchen table across from each other. I felt bad for her but was glad that we might have some quiet time together while Rebecca napped. I could not recall the last time, if ever, I had had a one on one conversation with a woman who was pregnant. I had somehow missed my Aunt Pat’s three pregnancies, and I was just three when my brother was born.
She sipped her tea quietly for a few minutes, eating a biscuit, and I followed suit and remained silent as well, feeling like we were waiting while she put something together in her mind to say.
Finally she spoke. “We are going through a challenging patch right now. We have so many plans in the works. We bought this nice house. We had Rebecca and now”, touching her belly, “A brother or sister.”
She continued, “Ilya is playing the university politics to secure his position on the faculty, and then I want to get my doctorate once the kids are old enough for school.” She shared details about her own studies and research in city planning. She had been part of a committee that had successfully worked with the Great Bentley village council to limit local development to maintain the big village commons across the street. Suddenly I was seeing her as a thoughtful academic and community leader rather than just a wife and mom.
After talking all about her own work, she asked me about my own, what I was going back to. Would I go to college? What were my aspirations if I’d figured that out yet? A bit surprisingly I thought, those questions included whether I had a girlfriend, like she had somehow intuited a thread that I was stewing on.
I told her that I had done a year of college already, studying theater, and I was planning to go back in the fall. I wasn’t really sure where I was going with theater at this point, but I was hoping I could somehow make a career out of it. As to a girlfriend, I told her I didn’t really have one. I did have a fair amount of female friends, several of which I was interested in.
It was running through my mind that I had hoped to have that train ride with Rhonda from Harwich to Colchester with the opportunity to get to know her better. On the boat ride across the North Sea, in response to Lance’s probing about her relationship with her boyfriend, she had basically confessed to us that she was a virgin. Then ironically, at least in my take on events, she had instead gone off with Lance, presumably to lose that virginity. I had been plotting in my own head that if she had been on the train with me I might have had the opportunity to confess my own virginity to her, a secret I had now shared with two other comrades since I’d been in Europe. I was finally getting to the point where the sting of revealing that secret, particularly with someone here in Europe who I would probably never see again, was maybe a little less discomforting than continuing to keep it. I felt somehow that being candid about it, as often as possible, was maybe a necessary precursor to actually being ready at some later date to lose it. It certainly seemed to have worked for Rhonda!
I knew what I wanted to say and rehearsed it in my mind, “Though I have had and continue to have a lot of good female friends, I’ve never really been able to turn one into a romantic relationship!” That did not sound so bad, so difficult to say, but accomplished the task of basically confessing that I had never had sex.
Part of me wanted to just say it, the stakes were low here, but another part of me still resisted, thinking that to confess such a thing revealed a profound timidity. And as a still egoistic alpha person, I could not square that with who I wanted to be. For others consumption, I had pretty much always lived my life as the person I wanted to be, rather than the person I actually was.
Fuck it! The words started to slip out of my mouth.
“Though I have had”, I could still stop but I pushed on with uttering the next clause of the sentence, “And continue to have a lot of good female friends”.
Now thank god I was too deep into the statement to stop, “I’ve never really been able to turn one into a romantic relationship!” Ceil listened and nodded. I had fucking said it! Well, I hadn’t used the ‘V word’, but I had implied it!
She continued to nod and said simply, “You will when you are ready”, and that was that. No judgement. No need to elaborate and defend. Just a statement and we were moving on. Ceil then shared that she lost her virginity in college at age 19, about a year before she met Ilya. Ceil and I had now shared intimate information with each other and it had not been awkward, we were more connected and we were moving on in the context of that greater connection.
She winced and said “wow” and put her hand on her belly. She said the baby had just kicked really hard. She asked me if I’d ever felt a baby in the womb, and if I would like to feel hers. I told her I had been thinking about it earlier and could not recall being with anyone who was pregnant. I was only three when my younger brother was born and I could not remember back that far. She motioned me to sit alongside her and she took my hand and put it below her belly button at the base of her enlarged belly.
I could not recall ever touching that part of a woman’s body, just above her vagina. It was wildly intimate and exciting, but I did my best to appear calm. She put her hand on mine and pressed it against her and we sat in waiting silence. I felt a kick, and then two more. There really was something alive inside her. I tried to imagine what it might feel like to carry a live being, your growing progeny, inside your body, and feeling it moving around in there. It was suddenly visceral and very real, that miraculous process of creation that only female people could make manifest.
My hand still on the bottom of her belly and hers on mine, we looked at each other and all I felt comfortable saying was “wow” as well, while my mind raced with thoughts of the organ just below where Ilya’s penis had impregnated her and from where the baby would emerge.
Her eyes flashed with acknowledgement of my spoken word, though not my unspoken thoughts, and I got just the briefest glimpse into the deepness of her soul. The angst, the acceptance, the determination, the thoughtfulness, the fatigue, the wisdom. I was silently in awe of this consciousness that inhabited this pregnant human female body next to me. I had that glimpse for just a second and then it was opaque again. She looked away and took her hand off of mine, my cue I presumed to take mine off of her.
Rebecca woke up and Ceil was back into mom and wife mode, getting her daughter dressed and stocking the ‘diaper bag’, telling me that Rebecca was in the midst of being toilet trained and it would be so much easier once she fully was. I went with them to the grocery store in Colchester to look for lean pork chops and other food for dinner, and then the pharmacy to get more of the cold medicines for Rebecca and Ilya. I continued to talk about my travels and she seemed to enjoy listening as she rode herd on Rebecca’s occasional flare ups, snotty sneezes, and did her otherwise humdrum chores. Our time at the grocery store included a long sojourn by Ceil and Rebecca in the restroom while I watched their grocery cart. Rebecca emerged mostly unscathed saying she did “poo poo in the potty”, but Ceil looked a little worse for wear adding, “mostly in the potty”, and leaving it at that without more details.
Finally back at the house I volunteered to hang out with Rebecca while Ceil made dinner. The young girl took me by the hand to her room and proceeded to pull out and show me all her toys, some of which she called out the name of and others she asked me to name for her. I wasn’t quite sure if she didn’t know the name or she was just quizzing me to see if I did. I sat in the middle of her floor and played with the dolls, cars, farm animals and plastic Duplo blocks. I was particularly interested in a big roll up mat she had with a layout of streets and green patches in between defining blocks, along with a box full of painted wood blocks shaped like houses, schools, churches, stores, etc. With a few words and a lot of gesturing, she instructed me how to lay out the mat and set up the houses and other buildings along the streets.
She would watch me make my choices about where to put a given structure, sometimes shaking her head and saying “no” and then indicating a different location. I would usually comply with her suggestions, including moving the school from the small block where I had placed it to a bigger one that had the features of a playground. A couple times I pushed back on her recommendations and she would look at me incredulously, shake her head and then turn away, sort of shunning me for a moment or two.
I played with Rebecca for some time before I heard Ilya return with his colleague Christopher, and an exchange with Ceil about the pork chops, including Ceil trying to convince him they were “the best they had”. Soon he and Christopher were at the door of Rebecca’s room surveying me sitting in the middle of the room surrounded by virtually all of her toys, like Rebecca and I were in the midst of some chaotic inventory.
Ilya looked at me and spoke.
“I see our little angel has you on a short leash!” I looked up at him not quite sure how to react to his apparent reinforcement of the stereotype that women learned to manipulate men with their looks and ‘feminine wiles’, even at the youngest age. His colleague Christopher dutifully laughed, but it seemed all so disrespectful to me.
Rebecca, wickedly precocious as she apparently was, put her hands emphatically on her hips, scowled, and said, “Daddy, I do not!” I continued not to react or respond. Sensing the awkward situation, Ilya changed the subject and announced that it was dinnertime.
Ceil had set up the dining room table for dinner, with a tablecloth, cloth napkins, water and wine glasses, the good silverware and dishes. In the center of the table a platter of cooked pork chops, another of potatoes, and a third of cooked carrots and asparagus, plus various condiments. Ceil guided Rebecca to her seat on the side of the table by the end where Ceil would be sitting, indicating I should sit next to her. Christopher took the cue that he should sit across from me. Ilya went to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple bottles of white wine, apparently opening them was his one ritual dinner task as the male of the household. He looked at me and said that he assumed I would be having wine with the rest of the adults, and I responded in the affirmative, while Rebecca looked at me skeptically, as if to say, “So you think you are some sort of adult do you?”
At Ilya’s urging I recounted some of the highlights of my travels, singing for my supper as it were. I repeated some of the things I had already told either him or Ceil, museums, paintings, historical landmarks, but shared some other stories as well. As I did more than my fair share of drinking the second bottle of wine, my guard went down and I started to put on more of a show with my narrative, waxing on about the Swiss police stopping us in Chur, speaking in German, and giving me the breathalyzer test as I pleaded “ein bier”.
I was egged on by my willing audience enjoying my somewhat overwrought tales of the young traveler, having been embellished many times in the telling. The long day crossing Luxembourg and Belgium questing fruitlessly for an open youth hostel to lay my weary head. The “amazing” Miranda (I called her “amazing” now instead of “crazy” as my own thinking on her had evolved) and her recounting of her lone journey from New Zealand across Australia, Indonesia, Burma, China and the Soviet Union (but not the part about hitting on me). The Spanish customs police spending hours tearing the VW van apart at the border. The inability for guys to hitchhike in Spain, and subsequently spending the night sleeping out in a grove of trees only to be awoken in the middle of the night by a train that passed within what I said was ten feet (actually more like twenty) of where we were sleeping. Being picked up hitchhiking by Walter, wined and dined, sharing the hotel room, and then his pro Hitler rant in the morning. The long Vasari Corridor in Florence. Foggy, dreamy, waterlogged Venice. Entering the long black tunnel under the Alps on a sunny afternoon and emerging on the other side in a whiteout blizzard. Gorgeous Grindelwald with its amazing Alpine peaks, and my drunken cohort of backpackers singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ at my lead as our response to the song by the drunken old locals at the village pub.
Though I had as much as confessed my virginity earlier to Ceil, I was neither drunk nor bold enough to share the tale of almost letting my travelmate Steve get naked with me under the covers. Nor go on about all the amazing women I had encountered. The proud Canadian Zo, with the shock of red hair, who I slept next to in the VW van. The demurely handsome Laurence. Thoroughly foxy but fascist Jeanette. The diminutive but alien-among-us Trix with her otherworldly green eyes and asymmetric array of pigtails. Bigger than life Jen and her suave handler Sarah and their passionate kiss. Sex goddess Monika and her older quasi-sister croupier Ragna. The determined lesbian Beth. Christian Youth Hostel hippy sex, drugs and rock and roll hostess Greta. Artistic stoner Gwendolyn. The not so straightlaced anymore Rhonda. Those tales would have needed a third or even fourth bottle of wine, at the least!
As I continued my one-person show, Ceil excused herself and took now passed out Rebecca to bed. As my narrative finally started to run out of steam, Christopher and Ilya shared some of their own travel experiences. They were perhaps a decade older than me but under the influence of the alcohol and trying to match the fervor of my tales channelling their own youthful wildness. Finally returning from putting her daughter to bed, Ceil in some ways seemed like the only real adult at the table. We went on pretty late until Christopher finally announced that he had to head home, and Ilya and I were both starting to do more sneezing than talking. I took a big spoonful of his cold medicine and retreated to my guest room full of books. Before the medicine managed to knock me into unconsciousness, I sat at the desk and scribbled in my journal…
Ilya doesn’t seem to be my idea of a loving, responsible husband. He acts like a big baby sometimes, complains about things and dumps things on Ceil when he finds he doesn’t want to handle them. Rebecca is beautiful! She has huge dark blue eyes in a slender face. Ceil is all smiles and apologies. It’s a strange household, but they’ve been very nice to me.
I thought of my dad as perhaps a similar academic to Ilya, grad student turned husband and father, friction between him and his wife and mother of his children. Now having experienced Ilya, perhaps not at his best because of his cold, but still with no excuse in my mind for his behavior, I acknowledged all my dad had done to at least try to do his best in that role. I felt sad for my dad that the relationship with my mom had not worked out. Even though in many ways it was his failings that led to their breakup, in other ways he had never been the right partner for her.
My thoughts turned to Ceil, and my mind’s jukebox dialed up the Beatles, ‘Lady Madonna’…
Friday night arrives without a suitcase
Sunday morning creeping like a nun
Monday’s child has learned to tie her bootlace
See how they run
Lady Madonna lying on the bed
Listen to the music playing in your head
Tuesday afternoon is never ending
Wednesday morning papers didn’t come
Thursday night your stockings needed mending
See how they run
Lady Madonna, children at your feet
Wonder how you manage to make ends meet
And as I listened to the music playing in my own head, I slid into unconsciousness.