An Excerpt From Chapter 2
I loved that smile, his nervous smile.
He smiled like that when he came to fetch me, the small-town girl living in Saint Marys, PA, the girl who would go off to Cleveland with him. The town had a sign at its entrance back then. Saint Marys, The Carbon Center of the World. Carbon factories made bearings, seal rings, bushings. Carbon smoke rose up and over everything.
A washing hung on the line in the morning was coated with soot by afternoon. Women learned to look toward the smokestacks and gauge the amount of time their washing could be left outside. I didn’t want to do washing underneath smokestacks. I wanted to leave the town and its factories, and I was leaving. Ken had come to marry me. He had reservations for Honeymoon Haven and a ring in a black velvet box.
He showed me brochures of the place where he proposed to spend our honeymoon: a small-time resort in the Pocono Mountains. Wherever he wanted to go was fine with me. I read the brochures and licked my lips at pictures of piled-high shrimp, baskets of strawberries, a bathtub shaped like a heart. I had never eaten shrimp, was more than ready to lower myself into a red porcelain heart.
I was travelling with nuns when I met him. I was fifteen years old, a reluctant student in a Catholic high school, a dreamer who lived in the town library and wrote for the school paper. There was a conference for high school journalists, at Saint Bonaventure University near Olean, New York. Not an important conference for sure, but Sister Anita was eager and she was mentor to the paper. Off we went: we writers, Sister Anita, and her companion, Sister Imelda. Travelling a whole three hours away. I’d never been that far from home. My family made do. We did not travel.
I lay awake the night before we left, wild with excitement. I wore a green dress with a flared skirt, which I hoped would be adequate for the occasion. I went to the morning sessions and took careful notes. Lunch was in the dining hall. Six of us writers sat at a long table eating chicken and rice. The nuns dined separately.
And that’s when I met Ken. He smiled at me.
Maybe, he noticed my green dress, my blue eyes. He was a boy still, although I didn’t see that. What I saw was somebody who seemed assured, grown up. Somebody wearing a navy-blue suit. Back home guys wore suits for weddings, proms and graduations, and funerals. Some older men wore suits to church Sundays. Ken looked: not handsome, but arresting, like a young Daniel Day- Lewis. I listened to him laughing with his friends, talking about the conference, and, just that quick, I decided that he was somebody I wanted. Mine.
I saw this guy who said he was from Cleveland, seventeen, a senior in high school. He’d driven to Olean, New York, for the conference, he and his friends from high school. That impressed me. I had been only to places within range of Saint Marys: Toby Valley, Clear Fork, Dubois. And the woods; I’d been in the woods because Saint Marys is at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest. If Ken had needed me to identify a rattlesnake, I could have done that. If he had wanted me to talk about the Brontë sisters or Nathaniel Hawthorne I could have done that too.
But I didn’t know much else. Not everyone growing up there was so insular, so ignorant of the larger world, so—there is no other word—naive. I was. I lived in the books I read and ignored almost everything else.
Ken didn’t need me to identify a rattlesnake, but he didn’t seem shocked by my lack of sophistication either. He pulled a map from his pocket and showed me the route from Cleveland to Olean. I studied it earnestly. He talked about the college he planned to attend, easily, casually:, Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland.
“He’s a nerd,” said one of the guys, nodding at Ken. “He’s got a full ride to college, and he’s majoring in physics.” College? No one in my family talked about college. Physics? I failed algebra my freshman year. Ken smiled and waved the comment aside. “What are you interested in?” He was asking me and he seemed to want to know. Well. I read and I memorized words, collected them. “I like words,” I said. “I like to have more than one word at hand.” He nodded as if he understood. Then he finished his chicken and polished off a plate of Neapolitan ice cream.
I watched him eat his ice cream and considered my options.
I knew something about hunting. I’d listened to my father talk about tracking deer, bear, turkey; a person had to be both steady and quick to come home with game. I thought for the smallest minute, and as soon as Ken was done with his ice cream, I offered him mine. Then, when he took it, I smiled and called him greedy, my voice low and as sexy as I could make it. He laughed.
He knew I had him in my sight line and he seemed fine with that. The truth is, no matter that it seems unbelievable, maybe appalling, I think I’d have gone with him right then, if he had asked me. Driven off with him that day, wearing my green dress, leaving Saint Marys and its hills behind. Abandoning my family, the place I lived in just like that, no note, not even a backward glance.
I was eager for living and had no idea what it costs to leave people and a place behind. I had only an obscure vision of what life might be. That’s what I was like back then. “A hick,” I tell my friends and Ken’s amused family. I was an ignorant hick. Completely naive. My friends protest, disbelieving, say I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.
Ken had sense. He did not suggest that we take off together, no matter that he liked my green dress and blue eyes. “Let’s be patient, get to know each other,” he said.
He was headed back to Cleveland. He leaned close and gave me a little half hug, not even a kiss, nothing rushed about the guy. He sniffed at the smell of my Avon Skin So Soft. “Nice,” he said. He drove off in his blue suit, back to his city and his high school. I went back to Saint Marys with the nuns. I returned to my mostly bad grades. I rarely did my schoolwork. It didn’t compel me the way the Brontë sisters did; school did not allow me to escape. I wanted a world that held possibility and I couldn’t find it in school. I brooded all the way home, convinced I would never see Ken again. Why would he, a city guy, a brainy guy, head into the wilds of Pennsylvania to see me?
But he did. He drove into those woods and he found me there.
He kept making those trips to see me while he went on to college and I finished high school. After that, I spent two years working in a lamp factory, testing light bulbs. A continuous row of bulbs went by on a conveyer belt. My job was to check every one for broken filaments or an incomplete solder. I was waiting for Ken to finish his undergrad degree. The attic of our house holds five full cartons of letters we wrote in those years. The letters are full of plans for our life, the progress of Ken’s studies, the books I read when I got off work. It was nothing for us to write nine- and ten-page letters, using both sides of the paper. The letters, plus some phone calls and occasional visits, carried us through those years. When I read those letters now, it’s clear how naive we were, but it’s also clear how we managed to figure out who we were. One of the letters I wrote to Ken describes my dislike of the job I had. “No one is mean to me,” I said. “It’s not even that the work is hard, but it’s boring. I want to go to school and learn to do something interesting.” He had no problem with that. It would require strict budgeting, but Ken had been a saver from the time he got his first paper route, and a community college, the only place that would accept me with the grades I had, would not be expensive. I could probably manage a work-study program.
As soon as Ken graduated from college, we married.
We held hands walking back down the aisle to the foyer of the church and we called out to everyone there, “We did it!” Our parents exchanged commiserating looks with each other: too young, too young. But we paid them no mind. We had waited it out and had married each other—we could do anything at all. I married Ken, and then, about a year after we were married, with his encouragement, I enrolled in college.
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