Trying to recapture an almost-last kiss
Published February 14, 2007
The Valentine's Day gift he wanted to give her was of a photograph published in one of the papers years ago of an unidentified young couple on the grass in Grant Park, enjoying a long kiss.
The photographer who took the picture couldn't possibly know from a distance what was going on. But that young couple wasn't happy.
They were breaking up. It was their last kiss.
They'd met in one of those summer college classes, the kind of elective you take just for the credits and the easy A. The young guy was a butcher, fooling himself into thinking he was a writer. The young woman was a modern dance student, dreaming of New York.
The class was called "The Psychology of Consciousness," but it could have been called "Meditation Lite." On the first day, the instructor told the students to close their eyes and meditate.
But the young guy couldn't meditate, because a Sicilian girl with long black hair and dark brown eyes walked in and sat down at a desk across the room. She caught him staring at her, made a face, shut her eyes tight. He meditated, helplessly, foolishly, eyes wide open.
Fifteen minutes passed, and the instructor asked for comments. One student said he felt a oneness with every being in the room. Another said she felt all their consciousness mingling. It went on like that, the nonsense piling higher and higher, the students giddy. Finally, it was the black-haired girl's turn to speak.
"I keep hearing about how close we're supposed to feel, but the truth is, I don't know any of you," said the black-haired girl. "So how are we supposed to feel close? Are we close because some of us closed our eyes? I don't think so."
She looked hard at the young guy who didn't close his eyes. He felt his heart flopping. Later, he asked if she'd like to go for coffee. No, she said. She didn't like being stared at. He apologized. No, she said. Please, he said. No, she said. Please?
He followed her to the L, paid a fare just so he could apologize again. "Oh, OK," she said, relenting. "Just coffee, next week, before class."
That's how they started. He'd pick her up from rehearsals, and they'd drive the lakefront late at night listening to blues in his car. The deejay on the radio called himself Big Bill on the Orange Crate in the Basement.
The young guy didn't have much money--he worked cutting chickens and boning out chucks at his father's butcher shop--but they did go out for some late gourmet dinners. Once, about 2 a.m., they stopped at a Polish sausage shack on Maxwell Street. A single light bulb over the shack carved out a cone in the dark. Like Edward Hopper, she said.
Yet fool that he was, a few days later, he made a terrible mistake. He told her that they'd marry, they'd have a life, and that she'd give him sons. He blurted it and she was silent and asked him to take her home.
She phoned the next day, about meeting in Grant Park. She had something to tell him.
It was a warm autumn afternoon. The leaves had turned red in the trees. They sat on the grass, and she told him they wouldn't see each other again. She wasn't ready, and neither was he, for such crazy talk of kids and a life when they hardly knew each other. It scared her, and it should scare him, she said.
They did have that one kiss, though, a long kiss in the red leaves on the grass. And then she walked. What killed him the next morning was a photo in one of the newspapers, either the Tribune or the Sun-Times, of a young couple on the leaves in the park. The caption had the words "young lovers" or something like that. A reader couldn't identify the pair, but he thought he knew who they were and tossed the paper in the trash.
He found himself making long drives, from the South Side to the North Side, driving through her neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, nothing more. These days, they call it stalking.
One afternoon, he thought he saw her walking to the L. He turned the car and drove back south and stopped driving up north.
By accident, they met again months later, shared an awkward, cold hello and went their ways. That cold hello was a horse from hell that he rode through winter, into the spring and the summer.
Just as he gave up, they met again, but there was no cold hello. They had coffee. They saw each other the next day too, and the next, and the next. They still talk about that cold hello, how frightened of it they'd been.
They made a life together, a family, with sons. Like many married couples, they've had their troubles, and good times. He's gray and fat but she remembers him skinny and crazy. She cut her hair, but her eyes and smile haven't changed.
Yet I never could find that newspaper photo--it ran either in the Tribune or the Sun-Times--of that almost-last kiss, more than 25 years ago. I've asked around and photo people at both papers tried to help, but they couldn't find it either.
I wanted to give it to her this Valentine's Day. But it's probably lost. So I wrote this, instead.