MAXWELL:  How did I lose thee? Let me count the ways

2/7/1999 – Printed in the FLORIDIAN section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Long Lost Love

Part 4 of 7

In love, he was at his best. But his best wasn’t good enough.

I saw her for the first time in the autumn of 1974, on the campus of Kennedy-King College in Chicago. I was at my desk grading essays when she walked past my office. My doorway formed a picture frame in which she briefly appeared, an image of perfect dark beauty I cannot forget, and from which I will never recover.

A glimpse was all I needed. Rising from my desk, I hurried to the door and looked down the hall. There she was, talking with a student in the English 101 class I was about to teach. She was tall and slender, her curly black hair fashioned into a huge Afro. She wore a tight, ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeved jean shirt tied in a loose knot at the waist.

She was beautiful, yes, but she also possessed a regality, a special essence that transcended common beauty. Soon she ended her conversation and was gone.

A week passed before I saw her again. She was in the cafeteria line, talking with a girl I often saw on campus. Most of the students at Kennedy-King were black but she was not; her skin was olive, her Afro more distinctive than the others I saw. After she sat down, I chose a table near hers and sat facing her.

She was more beautiful than I had remembered. Male students glanced at her as they passed. The mere sight of her gave me a feeling I had never experienced before, pleasant yet urgent.

Soon her eyes lifted to meet my gaze. We both stopped eating. I stared. She stared. Then we broke off our visual embrace, both too self-conscious to continue. That evening I drank a bottle of Merlot and tossed and turned all night, thinking of her.

The next morning, she was in the cafeteria reading the newspaper when I stopped there for coffee. She looked up and smiled; I said “good morning” so awkwardly that we both laughed. I could feel nervous sweat gathering on my forehead and in my armpits.

“Sit down, Professor Maxwell,” she said.

My god. She knew my name.

Something was building between us, the gathering wave of love. It had begun purely by chance: I had merely turned my head to see who was walking past my office. That simple act of curiosity, the slightest exercise of a muscle in my neck, led me to the deepest love of my life, but also to heartache and sorrow and want. This is the story of my desolation.

Her name, by the way, was Mari. Rhymes with sorry.

Let us go then, you and I

I sat with Mari as she smoked a cigarette and sipped her tea. She was as pleasant and engaging as she was beautiful. She was 36, a native of Madison, Wis., whose forebears had come from Italy. Newly divorced, she had returned to school to study business administration.

As we talked, I sensed she wanted to know me as much as I did her. I asked her to go with me that evening to see Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the University of Chicago. She said she would love to _ if she could get a babysitter.

“I have two children,” she said, seeing my surprise. One was in fourth grade, the other in sixth.

Later, she used the phone in my office and landed a sitter within a few minutes.

I went home that afternoon feeling almost giddy. I was 34 years old and for the first time in my life, I was in love. I had imagined myself in love before. But the feeling I had for Mari was unlike anything I had ever felt. Instead of thinking of the moment, I was dreaming of the future, of living the rest of my life with her.

The temperature had dropped dramatically and a light snow was falling when I left my place that evening. Mari lived in an apartment building in a mostly black, rough neighborhood on the South Side; she stayed there because her brother, who owned the building, gave her a break on the rent. The sitter was there when I went inside. Mari’s boy and girl, beautiful children with big mops of curly black hair, were watching television and playing with their Labrador retriever. They said hello and returned to their play.

We drove Mari’s Gremlin to Hyde Park because the heater in my VW bug was too weak to keep us warm. We both enjoyed the play, in which two minor characters from Hamlet give their clever, skewed commentary on Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Our shared love of language would be one of the things that bound us together, made us perfect for each other.

Later, as we ate dinner in a popular restaurant, I realized Mari and I were turning heads. I looked around and saw that we were not the only mixed-race couple in the place. Why, then, were people looking at us? Mari’s answer sealed my love for her.

“It’s because we make such a beautiful pair. And we laugh a lot.”

As we walked along Hyde Park Boulevard after dinner, I looked at our reflection in the shop windows. Indeed, we made a handsome couple against the snowy background of the street.

Eventually we sought warmth inside Woodlawn Tap, where I introduced Mari to some of my former classmates and their dates. As it happened, they had also seen Rosencrantz. For the next two hours, we marveled at Stoppard’s artistry, speculated on what Shakespeare would have thought of the play, and drank pitcher after pitcher of ice-cold beer.

It was the perfect first date for Mari and me. My friends liked her; the women commented on her sense of humor and intelligence, the men on her startling beauty.

At 1:30 a.m. we walked outside to find it snowing heavily. The wind from nearby Lake Michigan blew right at us, piercing our jackets. I put my arm around her and pulled her close as we walked to the car, and for the first time felt the warmth of her arm around me. In the parking lot, we stopped beneath a light and kissed. I knew at that moment that this was the woman I always had been searching for. My thoughts were twirling like the snow around us.

We drove back to her apartment, talking and laughing the whole way. I was about to say good night when the babysitter said she was afraid to drive home in the snowstorm. Would it be all right if she stayed at Mari’s? Mari said that would be fine; she and I would go to my apartment in Hyde Park.

Once at my place, we opened a bottle of sauvignon blanc, lit the fireplace, put on some Miles Davis and curled up together on the couch. For the next eight hours, we rarely let go of each other. We talked, laughed, listened to jazz, made love. I found a copy of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and read it aloud:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky . . .

In the morning, we walked to a 57th Street restaurant for breakfast. After that, we walked to Lake Michigan. There, we watched a fisherman haul in a net teeming with smelt. Dozens of sea gulls dived for the net as the man pulled it toward the open door of an old van.

The making of a new man

After that night, we were rarely apart for more than a few days at a time. I was hopelessly in love, so distracted from my usual concerns that I missed the deadlines on two freelance articles that month alone. And yet those small lapses didn’t bother me; nothing did. Before I met Mari I had seen myself as rigid and shy, but now I felt relaxed, flexible, easygoing. Like most people, I was at my best in love.

During our first year together, I introduced Mari to a Chicago she had not experienced _ the Art Institute, the Goodman Theater, Second City, the Chicago Symphony, Regenstein Library, the Chicago Bulls and the Cubs, soul food restaurants on the South Side, blues on the West Side. She turned me on to live jazz, the vibrant night life in the Near North and shopping on Michigan Avenue.

Together we journeyed to my native Florida, where I had the thrill of treating Mari and her children to a day at Disney World, their first ever. We also visited my family in Crescent City and Fort Lauderdale and spent three days in Key West. One day, my mother surprised me by asking me if Mari and I would be getting married anytime soon. I already had thought of that prospect, but hearing the words filled me with fear and delight at the same time.

In 1975, I accepted an offer to teach English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. I was to start work the last of August, just a few weeks away. Mari wanted to go with me, but there were problems: Her children did not want to leave their friends in Chicago, and their father, a jazz pianist, did not want them to live so far away.

Mari decided not to move to DeKalb when I did. Instead, she would wait until the second semester, giving her family a few months to get used to the idea of relocating.

We spent the rest of the summer dreading our impending separation. She cried a lot; I neglected my writing and drank too much bourbon and red wine. Two days before I was to leave for DeKalb, Mari came to my apartment and crawled into bed. I joined her. For five or six hours we lay there caressing, talking and reading poetry. We were committed to each other.

Then I had to go. In DeKalb I occupied a four-bedroom house about four miles from campus. I had chosen it with Mari and the children in mind. It had a big yard, miles of cornfields in every direction, blue skies stretching to forever. The rooms were large, with plenty of space for my ever-expanding library.

And yet I was miserable there, as lonely as Kane in his terrible vast Xanadu. During the first week I missed Mari more than I could have imagined. I could not think of anything but her; I telephoned her at noon, after work, and several times each night. That Friday after my last class, I pointed my VW toward Chicago and drove as fast as I dared.

Mari was waiting for me on the front stoop of her apartment building. The kids were with their father, so we had the place to ourselves. We made up for lost time.

For three months we had a commuter love affair. Finally, at the end of December, Mari and the children left Chicago and joined me in DeKalb. Within a week the kids started school and Mari enrolled full time at the university, where she also found a part-time job in the print shop. She often visited my office and joined me for lunch in one of the campus diners.

Life could not have been better. We bought a small camping trailer and fishing gear and spent weekends exploring the wilderness and state parks of western and northern Illinois. The kids usually joined us, though they fought constantly, as kids that age do.

Mari became a pretty good outdoor cook and fisherman, which endeared her to me even more. Everything she did seemed perfect. More than a year after she first strode past my doorway, I still could not get enough of her. One day, during our second year in DeKalb, I asked her to marry me. She said yes, and we set the date for my 36th birthday, six months away.

We were planning the wedding when our lives took a new direction. A former Kennedy-King colleague, now at the University of Wisconsin, telephoned to let me know the school was offering a master’s degree program in African language and literature. He remembered that I had always dreamed of traveling to Africa and thought the program might interest me.

Indeed it did. I asked Mari if she would like to visit Africa and she was enthusiastic. Like me, she had wanderlust and saw travel abroad as an adventure and a challenge.

We moved to Madison, where we rented a three-bedroom place a few blocks from the house where Mari was born. She took a full-time job with the utility company and renewed many old friendships. The children adjusted quickly because they had lots of cousins in the city. We were happy.

Then, for the first time, Mari and I began to have problems our relationship. The children’s father, who often played in Madison’s night spots, stopped by often to see them. I didn’t like it. They were his children and he had every right to come by, but his visits left me feeling diminished, displaced. Their obvious affection for him only deepened those feelings.

Slowly, I realized I had always resented Mari for having borne another man’s children. It was absurd and unfair: She and the children’s father had loved each other years before she and I met. And yet I couldn’t put aside my feelings of jealousy and betrayal. Although I had no evidence, I became convinced the kids and their father were trying to drive a wedge between Mari and me. Mari and I began to argue over little things, things we once would have dismissed as part of the price lovers pay to be together. We stopped talking about marriage.

The sad truth _ one that I had a hard time accepting _ was that I was too immature to accept another man’s children. Mari couldn’t take any more of my immaturity; no one could. In love I was at my best, but my best wasn’t good enough.

The voice in the background

I was grilling northern pike in the back yard one Saturday afternoon when I turned and saw Mari looking at me in a way she had never done before. The love had gone from her eyes; the ready smile did not appear; her expression was cold and hard. That night, we did not make love. Instead, we simultaneously turned our backs to each other after I turned off the light. Neither of us even said good night.

For more than a month we went through the motions of our relationship. We may have made love twice. One morning I knew instinctively that Mari needed time to think. I drove to Chicago and holed up for two days with a former roommate.

When I returned, Mari and the children were gone. They had taken all of their possessions with them. She did not leave a note. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and cried, for how long I cannot recall.

I could not imagine living without Mari. We fill our days with small comforts, little rituals that sustain us in love _ the inside joke, the reassuring smile, the familiar touch. All my comforts were gone. No more would we read Prufrock and listen to Miles Davis. No more would she read the rough drafts of my articles and fuss at me for dressing too casually. After three years, it was over. We had opened our last bottle of wine, had our final toast.

A few weeks later, I withdrew from the university and made plans to go to Nigeria, where I would spend a year recording the oral legends of the Hausa people. I did not want to leave the country without seeing Mari, but didn’t dare seek her out for fear I would be rejected. Twice I called her office, but hung up when I heard her voice. I left for Africa without seeing or speaking to her.

In Nigeria I threw myself into my research, exploring countless towns and villages with my fellow Americans. The year passed quickly but the pain of losing Mari did not. I returned to Madison but not to the university. I wanted to see her but, again, because I was afraid of rejection, I did not.

Seeking an escape, I lined up a teaching position at the University of Illinois, and eventually the almost unbearable sickness in my gut changed to a persistent dull ache, one that never subsides.

Some years later I married a beautiful woman in Key West, and we have a wonderful daughter, who is now 16. In too many ways, though, we were incompatible. I am the loner, the writer, the vagabond; she, the home body who likes to throw a party. We divorced in 1989 and I have not married again. And yet I have created a new life, with new interests and new attachments.

A few weeks ago, I mustered the courage to call Mari, to whom I had spoken only once since we parted. For a fleeting moment, I wanted to turn back time, to bring back that tender feeling. Maybe for a few minutes I could make her mine again. The voice I heard when she answered the phone was the one of old _ soft, intelligent, friendly. There was a long silence when she realized who was calling.

“Is that really you, Max?”

“Yes, this is Max. How are you?”

She started to answer, then paused. In the background I heard a man’s voice asking whom she was talking to.

The man was her husband. “I can’t talk now,” she said.

I told her I understood. Mari has moved on; she takes comfort in someone else now. Whatever we had together was over years ago, and there is no going back _ not for old times’ sake, not for anything. Mari will remain my persistent ache, the love I lost because of my own immaturity and excessive pride, the one who got away.

“I’m living in St. Petersburg, Florida,” I told her, although I knew it was no use. “My number is listed if you ever want to call.”