Love Stories
LONG LOST LOVE
How did I lose thee? Let me count the ways


[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

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

BY BILL MAXWELL
Times Staff Writer


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.

photo
Love found Bill Maxwell for the first time in 1974, when a woman named Mari happened past the open door of his office at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. When this picture was taken a year later, he says, "I still couldn't get enough of her.''
[Family photo]
"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.

 
How did I lose thee?
Let me count the ways: Part 2
Back to: Love Stories
Back to: St. Petersburg Times

© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.