This is a true story I find hard to believe. What's odd about that is it happened to me, I was the witness...one of the players in the drama..... and I still don't buy it.
In 1984, I spent a week in Saratoga Springs. It was spring break, but Spring was still Winter in upstate NY that year. The town was buried in snow, the temperature hovered in the twenties. It was glorious.
My closest friend, the Neil Cassidy in my life, the Gatsby to my Nic, the Fin to my Gene, the Hall to my Oates, had lived there on and mostly off for most of his 18 years, back and forth between his father teaching at Skidmore and his mother searching for its HS equivalent from Texas to Pittsburgh.
He was not a Steel town boy not by a long shot and he relished the difference. Artist, dancer, bon vivant, and boy about town, he was as close to fabulous as we were ever gonna get in Western PA. He was a piece of downtown NYC or what we'd later learn was happening in the Manchester club scene delivered to us by divorce. Mom got custody, dad got visits. We got Lowell.
Anyhow he was divine - not a breath of fresh air but a window broken open for us self conscious snivelers from Scots Irish Pittsburgh to jump thru. He made us dance when dancing was standing by the stage and nodding to Skynyrd. He made us dress when boys got beaten for anything more than a tour shirt and jeans. He smoked cloves and spat out Reagan's name. When he walked down the street grown women followed him. When we talked about the Steelers he laughed. He hated lying.
He was my idol in all things. I must have been unbearable.
Junior year he asked me to visit him at his father's place. The deal was we could stay out as late as we wanted, we could drink as long as we didn't drive, and we had the run of the college his father had tenure in. All this as long as when we got home...whenever that was, staggering at 3 am... before we went to bed we wrote out the story of what we had done that night. His dad had a tax. You're free, I trust you...but you've got to tell the tale.
And I can still see Lowell, hunched over a notepad in his father's kitchen scoring out the night's adventure.
He showed me where Legs Diamond's famed casino had been. He showed me the track where the millionaires would be that summer, as every summer. He showed me where the stars of the NY ballet liked to stay and smoke when they were in town, summer as well, but I didn't care, I had Lowell what did I need with fantasy.
We danced, we got thrown out of clubs, we walked home shirtless in the frozen daylight on a dare, we affected, we posed. We were kids waiting for someone to invite us home.
And then I met Debbie, a friend from his childhood. As if he'd had one, as if he ever could have been little. His dad liked to remark that they'd taken baths together as children, Lowell joked it should happen again. She was beautiful as a clear day. She was dark and light and perfect and my heart cracked the second I saw her. Lowell saw and laughed. Two wholesome american kids he said deserve each other.
I was a swimmer so she said let's go swimming sometime and we did, in Skidmore's pool, her in the lane to my right and drifting out of my turns I'd watch her body glide by turning to the surface wrapped in the medium, a perfect selky of a girl, unfathomable, simple, there. When we were done she rose up out the pool, shoulders shifting, water falling from her like a sheath of grace. What do they say? Beware the books you read at an impressionable age for they'll mold your mind for life? It's a legitimate question. What do I remember better; Charles on the stairs of Brideshead telling Julia, "I hope your heart will break, but I understand" or Debbie Butler rising from the sea of my imagination in Saratoga?
I think we sat somewhere and talked. I remember that she didn't blink much or have a problem holding my gaze. We talked preciously about what we liked to study, where we wanted to travel, and cold war kids that we were we both said Eastern Europe, and of course college. Sometime later all three of us went out for ice cream at this new place, Ben and Jerry's, of which there were probably three at the time in the entire country, this in an old gas station and we thought, smart business. We walked. Lowell invented something he had to do and I actually asked her if I could kiss her goodbye and we did. Her lips strong on mine. Her eyes like dark precious stones, worlds hovering so close I couldn't bring them into focus.
And then I went back to Pittsburgh and I never saw her again.
The next year, Spring break of my senior year I was in Leningrad. I'd never left the country before. I'd never been on a plane. And then I was in Soviet Russia. At some point we'd broken away from our tour group and wandered over to the frozen gardens behind Peter's statue, the famous Bronze Horseman of Pushkin's story, that the Soviets protected during the War as if it were alive. Kids were building snowmen and throwing snowballs along a park walkway, tiny railings not two feet high covered in rime. We joined in, things escalated and a little girl's snowman got wounded by a cocky little Russian. I walked over knowing full well I was now the heroic foreigner, the good boy, and gathered some snow to heal the wound. I patted it better, she looked at me with that look men work their whole lives to find in a woman's eyes and in that high pitched sing song voice some Russian females have said "Spa see ba".
"That was kind." English. He was my age, maybe a little older. His eyes were blue like people's are when they're hurt. They were so blue they looked like they hurt him. He had on the big fur hat and a long military overcoat. A student at the Admiralty, he said. A naval cadet. Would we like to come back to his apt for some tea and listen to music.
Every time I read a Russian novel set in St Petersburg or Leningrad, every time they talk about the housing stock of the city, like that of Venice, left to rot and decay, battered and polluted by 70 years of war, famine, poverty, and indifference, in the 30 years since I entered this boy's flat I see it come back to life on every page. His 18th century rooms, cut from a stately home, they must have been the morning room or the one just off the foyer where you could leave your card from 2-4, the paint mottled like dying skin barely adhered to the walls, the lights run at illegible wattage, his bed a cot, and on his walls drawings tacked and unframed, pastels of some Blakean demon run riot thru the Russian psyche and I thought, we are not from the same place, he and I, we are not.
But he was gracious and he certainly had guts- a military student inviting a trio of foreigners into his home during the Cold War. The tea he made had a jam in it I haven't tasted since. He brought the pot to a boil on a hot plate the size of a coaster. We looked at a map of the United States he had on his wall. Pins in it. Tiny pins. They were every American he'd met, they were their homes. One was stuck directly into the small city of Saratoga Springs NY.
I was just there last year.
Oh I met the most beautiful girl....she was on a school trip like yourselves...
What was her name?
Oh she had dark hair and such eyes.....
Do you remember her name?
Of course, are you mad, look here she wrote it down....
And in some corner of Leningrad not far from the Hermitage, in March of 1985, 3 days before Gorbachev was installed as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, setting in motion the beginning of the collapse of what we called the twentieth century, I met a guy who'd kissed the same girl, right on the same mouth, both of us lost beside those same eyes, in two cities 3000 miles apart.
And then I left for Moscow by the night train and I never saw him again.
I don't remember his name.
Maybe there was more than one Debbie, in Saratoga Springs in the 80's.
I don't know about you but I don't believe it.