I had been thinking about Sophie Zambarabo all day, as I painted sash in the empty skeleton of a new house, the intermittent roar of the kerosene heater drowning out NPR, like a flare of static or an inspiration.
There was one afternoon in particular, that early autumn walk across the abandoned field, those foreshortened moments in the barn.The incident didn’t mark the beginning or the end of my affair with Sophie, but lifted from the rush of events it seemed to summarize everything that had happened between us. It was the one memory I had never fully shaken, the one I remembered when I woke up suddenly enough to remember my dreams. The field had become a standard landscape there, ten times its actual size, the barn a cathedral. In fact the field was small and stubbly and the barn was derelict, with broken windows and tilted graying plank walls, rusted latches and unused stalls. But the dreams insisted on a grander scale.
It came back to me now, standing in my empty apartment, resonant with the absence of children: an isolated afternoon, like a single roman candle blooming in the night air above Jetties beach, during the pokey one-at-a-time section of the fireworks display the DPW mounted every Fourth of July. It was as if they wanted you to study each trailing fall of sparks, back-lighting its own smoke against the stars. Of course, no one on the beach cared. They were just getting drunk, trying to amuse their cranky children and waiting for the finale.
I preferred not to think about the finale of my time with Sophie. But this one flare had stayed with me.
It was late September, late in the last century. Summer was still lingering in the Pioneer Valley. I was walking the periphery of the Hampshire College campus, past the apple orchards into the fields beyond. The air was damp and breathless under the enamel blue sky. The day was hot and getting hotter.
I heard running footsteps, the slap of sandals against asphalt behind me. Before I could turn I was grabbed from behind.
Her voice in my ear: "Got you."
This was what I had been dreading; but I gave myself up to it. I tried to be analytical. She wasn't actually beautiful. With her heavy eye brows and thick lips she actually had a sort of simian appearance. But it was a sensual face, with deep blue eyes, those lips (they were made for kissing) and a wild mane of brown hair. She was five eight or nine and her movements had an angular grace that made me stupid with desire. Looking at her I felt my IQ evaporating . It was like de-evolution. In ten seconds I’d gone past the Neanderthal stage to the Cro-Magnon: I’d already lost language, and now I was rapidly forgetting everything I’d ever known about tools. Soon I’d be unable to make a fire. In fact, pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to do anything but huddle in my cave and pick lice out of my chest hair.
But it was an illusion. I had left the paralyzed part of me behind and talked to her all night long, just two nights before. And out-of-body-experience? Just the opposite. I had never in my life felt so rooted in my own flesh, a stalk of bone and muscle, irrigated by the blood..
I turned in her arms and she kissed my cheek
"Hello," I said.
She rested her head against mine. "What happened to you? You disappeared,"
The sunlight was dense and warm, but I was shivering. Sophie was tall, so much taller than Lisa; almost as tall as I was. I had slouched to hide my height for years. But I was standing up straight now. Actually I felt even taller than I really was, with Sophie beside me. We would tower over everyone. "The last of a race of giants." Where had I heard that phrase? It didn't matter, it was an absurd conceit. My thoughts were jumbled. I focused on the physical facts as we started walking together: my arm around her waist, her dress — it was flimsy cotton, flower-patterned, buttoned down the front — the red highlights in her hair, the way out footsteps matched. The humid sunshine felt as solid as amber; it held everything in suspension — the season, the school year, the present, the future, the two of us. Lisa was gone – a family crisis had pulled her back to Canada.. I was single again, a free independent citizen, twenty-one years old, in full control of my faculties. I could do whatever I wanted. That’s what I told myself.
I didn't have a watch and I was glad. I didn't want to know what time it was. I could scarcely remember what day it was.
"Tell me," Sophie persisted. "I was worried."
I didn't want to talk about Lisa; but Sophie knew that. "Tell me about the girl you wrote those poems for. She's the reason you ran away, isn't she? What's her name?"
Most of all, I didn't want to say her name. So I did: "Lisa."
"Did you write a lot of poems about Lisa?"
"Tell me another one."
"Most of them aren't very good. . Besides ... "
"It makes you uncomfortable. But you were going to tell me about her, weren't you?"
"Sure. The next time I saw you."
We walked on in silence, We were crossing a wide, brambly field, toward the barn at the far side.
Sophie stopped. She stood on one leg to pull a little spike out of her foot. "There are thorns everywhere," she said, wincing. "Damn it. I really wanted to see that barn. I love old barns. I love the way they smell." We stood indecisively for a moment with the sun heavy on our heads and our shoulders. A car droned by somewhere; it might have been an airplane. Sophie didn't want to go back but she didn't know how to go forward. Everything was a metaphor.
Then I was inspired. I took two steps and scooped Sophie off her feet. She let out a small shriek of surprise that turned into a laugh as I settled her in the traditional over-the-threshold position. She felt impossibly light, as if her bones were hollow, as if gravity had been cancelled. Her skirt had ridden up, her thighs were bare, her legs were beautiful.
I’ll admit it: this was the most erotic moment of my life, more sexually charged than sex itself had ever been. The noon heat seemed to reverberate up from the ground through the soles of my shoes in the huge stillness of the day. There was no one in sight anywhere. Sophie's wrists were resting on my shoulders, her fingers playing with my hair. My nerves were screaming, bright and loud as a schoolyard at recess, dark and violent as a blacked-out city. Contradictions were everywhere. The moment was mundane and mythological: Sophie was herself but she was also Circe calling me, Medusa, turning me to stone. That last image was particularly appropriate -- I was tangled agonizingly in my underwear. Sophie guessed: she must have seen me grimacing, felt me walking stiffly. She reached behind her ribs, twisting a little in my arms, and slipped her hand under my belt, under the elastic band of my briefs. I almost fainted when she touched me. I staggered a few steps.
"Don't fall now,” she smiled. "It could be disastrous."
She pulled me free of the fabric, eased her hand out of my pants, just in time.
"Is that better?"
"Much," I gasped.
"Take me to the barn," she commanded airily, enjoying the game of making me her slave. I obeyed and she rested her head on my shoulders as we crossed the last fifty yards.
We walked through an empty world. A breeze rustled distant leaves through the heat haze. The only other sounds were our breathing and the delicate crackle of brambles underfoot.
The moment was perfect and I realized with a curious jolt that I was happy and that I'd never been happy before. This feeling put everything into perspective, changed everything, diminished everything. There was nothing mild or sentimental about it. Just the opposite: it was cruel and ruthless. It was as harsh as grief. It was a high note I couldn't sustain. I was going to falter or fall. The rest of my life was swaying far below me, tiny and mediocre. People griped that love became affection, that happiness turned into contentment, that the feelings didn't last. But how could they? No one could live at this pitch for very long. You’d overdose on your own adrenaline.
I reached the barn and kicked the door open. Inside the heat was combustible. Shafts of sunlight through the boards cut the darkness. There was a fluttering of wings from the hay loft above us as I set Sophie down. It was just some birds, nesting under the eaves, but it startled us both. We jumped — city kids, spooked by any evidence of the natural world.
We laughed and she put her arms around my neck. "Kiss me," she said.
I felt the full weight of our solitude. It was a slick surface; I was skidding. "I can't," I whispered. "I will fall in love with you if I do that."
"But I — "
It didn't matter, she was kissing me already, those thick lips finally opened wide, kissing my whole body through my mouth.
I was on my back in the hay. Sophie was straddling me in a shaft of dusty light, unbuttoning her dress, slipping one hard little plastic circle at a time through its cotton slit. I could see her collar bones and the growing line of shadow. She wasn't wearing a bra. She shrugged the shift off her shoulders and the strange secret light caught the muscles of her stomach and the shadow of her belly button, the fullness of her naked breasts, drooping just a little as she leaned down to take off my shirt. I reached up and took their weight, letting them fill my hands, nipples stiff against my palms. She lowered herself on to me and we were kissing again in the sweet electric thrill of flesh on flesh.After a while she pulled her mouth from mine and kissed down my neck and chest and stomach. She loosened my belt, unzipped my pants and I lifted myself a little as she yanked them down.
At that moment, we heard the voices outside.
"Are you sure this -- ”
"Hey, don't worry -- come on -- ”
"But I mean -- aren’t we trespassing?"
"Yeah. We’re also cutting class and fornicating. Why split hairs?"
"Billy -- ”
Sophie lunged up my body and held me tight. "What do we do?"
She was so aghast I started laughing. She clamped a hand over my mouth, and then she started laughing, too.
"Hide," I grunted through her fingers. I pushed her aside, pulled up my pants and wormed my way into one of the livestock stalls on my stomach. Sophie slithered after me just as the barn doors opened. We waited, breathing shallowly. It was like eavesdropping on ourselves: the murmur of hay and clothes, the panting and the moans.
When the intensity of the noise guaranteed the other couple's complete obliviousness, we scrambled to our feet and dodged outside. We were awkward with each other, in the bright sunlight; maybe a little embarrassed. We walked the long way back to school, keeping to the paved roads and avoiding the brambles. We didn’t say much. The mood was broken and I didn’t want to kick at the pieces. What had passed between us in the barn seemed remote and historical; at the same time it was still happening. I could still taste her kiss. With the slightest gesture I could be kissing her again and I wanted that and she knew it.
But I was in love with someone else. That had to mean something. If that didn't mean anything, then this didn't either. Nothing meant anything if passion was so flimsy and expendable, if you could just discard it, trade it in, walk away, find yourself kissing someone else so easily.
Twenty years later the day was even more potent in my memory. But if it was Heaven, it was Heaven as Satan might recall it, long-banished for the sin of pride. I had certainly felt noble to myself at the time, stronger than my own desire; stronger and better. I had used the accident of that other couple as a rescue, a brace to my resolve. Looking back on it, my judgment was unforgiving. I had abdicated, I had walked away from the most extraordinary moment of my life: I lacked the nerve and the courage to take what Sophie offered. Instead, I tried to do the right thing and duly felt all the proper anguishes. The poetry I wrote in those days was tinged with bombastic self-seriousness. I recalled a key line from one of the most ambitious ones: It was called Crimes of Passion, and it brought those days back vividly: “No one can explain/how while we watch this black destiny/our silly lives destroy/it should feel like April/and we should feel such joy.”
At least I got the silly part right.
Black destiny? Destroying our lives? Come on.. That was as false as placing the word 'destroy' at the end of the line, for the sake of scansion and a rhyme. Some foolish choices had spoiled a love affair --that was all. At this moment in Baghdad and Mogadishu, real lives were actually being destroyed. My own difficulties looked absurdly frivolous by comparison. And yet, there was something bogus in that comparison, too. Though my troubles were not political ones, though they weren't issues of life and death, they were still important. If they weren't, what was the point of politics, anyway? Generations of soldiers had considered the pursuit of happiness worth dying for, trivial as it might seem on Memorial Day.
There had been something left between us when I took Sophie out to dinner on that remote winter night, when we walked together through the empty streets in the snow. We had both felt an ember glowing. Only circumstances had kept us from building a fire together. And the ember was still alive, however improbably after all this time, however studiously I had ignored it. She obviously felt the same way.
Maybe she was right: not all mistakes were final, after all.
I picked up the phone and dialed her number.
It rang three times, then again; then I heard her voice, vibrant and unmistakable, a little of out breath.