“CaleCaleCale,” Mark Robinson’s smile burst into the room in advance of his physical presence. When I looked up to see his green eyes, I smiled back, then leaning over the table surface I had turned into a cutting board, I snipped off the last piece of interfacing.
“MarkMarkMark, I’m making a bathing suit!” suit I announced. He stood leaning against the door jam, in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, his arms crossed in a relaxed pose, but the excitement in his voice told me something unusual was up.
“So, this is where you are! I tried to call you. Are you ready for a ride?”
“Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes! You got the bike working! Sure! Soon as I put this stuff away.” But I wasn’t really excited at first, considering how long I had been looking forward to this maiden voyage. I almost didn’t want to go, since I was nearly finished with the suit and wanted to see what it looked like on me. But I had been begging him for a ride ever since I heard he was getting a bike, and this was my last free day. Tomorrow was my French final, and then my freshman year at the University of Mass in Amherst was over. “It’ll take me two minutes,” I added.
“Okay!” he said, halfway out the door, he added, “I’ll meet you at my dorm then.” He bounded down the stairs in that way of his, on the balls of his feet, like an Indian in magic moccasins. Part Cherokee, Mark wasn’t that tall, about 5’ 10”, but he was lean and all muscle. I had only recently learned that he was a track star in high school. He was forever surprising me; he didn’t seem like they kind of boy who would ride a motorcycle. But then, I’d never known anyone who had parachuted from airplanes, either. Mark had just finished taking his first dive.
We met my first semester, his third, in an 8 a.m. French class. He would come over evenings to Herman Melville House, my all girl dormitory where I was also working as a lobby security guard. We tutored each other in French and talk about our other classes. I’d been introduced to Aristotle, Socrates and Plato in my Classics 101 course, as well as the Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripedes. Because he was a sophomore, he had taken many of the courses the year before, he talked about them as eagerly as I.
“What did you think of that analogy of the caves thing?” he asked me one night, a frown darkening his face. “Did you get that at all?”
“Oh, yeah! Didn’t you? But I like the tragedies more. What do you think of Oedipus Rex? Wasn’t that the most amazing story? The way he heard in advance that he would kill his father and marry his own mother, so he leaves home so he won’t do those things, and he ends up meeting his real father on the road, killing him and winning the king’s wife as a reward.”
“Yeah, no matter what, the Greeks think your fate is decided before you are born,” he said.
“But the existentialists believe you create your own destiny. Free will, and all that,” I countered.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
“I believe you can be whoever you want to be,” then I hastily added a qualifier. “Of course, your life is somewhat determined by your social class, and to a certain extent, your upbringing –”.
“And your genes, ” he interrupted.
“Yeah – but I still believe we create our own existence.” I ended my definitive statement on Life with an opening to him, “Do you think your fate was decided before you were born?”
He was a serious conversationalist, and as he stopped to think, his face took on a different cast. “I don’t know, actually. Didn’t Oedipus have free will?” His strong, square jaw and high cheekbones became more prominent in this mood. “He’s the one who decided NOT to stay with his family.”
“Yeah, but in trying to avoid his fate, he walked right into it,” I said.
“So, who decided his fate, then?” He gave me an opening, so I prattled on.
“It was the Oracle at Delphi. No. It was the gods who decided his fate, and the oracle just told him. And he thought that knowing it, he could escape it.”
“Yeah. But it was that very thing that caused his fate. So, did he have free will?”
“I see what you mean,” I said, liking him more for the challenge of conversation he always presented, and which I had never experienced in high school.
Other times, Mark and I had great debates over ethics, and which laws were more important, those of the individual, or those of society. I often took the side of society because he was very much an advocate of the individual, but we both flip- flopped from time to time.
In a contemplative literature class I had learned that a Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, believed true dialogue is where we humans experience God, in the honest, give and take of relationship. These true dialogues of ours I related to as my way of being spiritual, but they really were at that point just on an intellectual dialogue level.
Second semester I began to work lobby security in another dorm, a 20-story high-rise building in the same part of campus where Mark and I lived, known as Southwest. This side of campus was a kind of city in miniature — five high-rise dormitories and a half dozen or so three-stories on a section of campus paved with cement and accented with more glass than grass. At the beginning of that second semester Mark would stop by to visit with me, and then walk me home. I’m sure I was just the last on a long list of people he checked in on in the evenings; he was a sociable and popular person. And we no longer shared the French class, so we were done tutoring.
When we walked across the square, I’d saunter slowly, tired from work, and he would dance around me to slow himself down. Often we’d stop outside his dorm, named after John F. Kennedy, and sit on the hot-air vents, having discussions that grew from intellectual to eventually, more personal.
“When school is over I’m going to Lake Placid – in the Adirondacks, you know? – and get a job as a waitress for the summer,” I told him as we both leaned our backs against the brick building.
“That’s in upstate New York?” he asked. “Why there?” He stretched his legs out in front of him.
“Oh, I used to live in Saranac Lake when I was 16, and I have friends there still. I’m applying at the Whiteface Inn.”
“Waitressing, huh? Have you ever done that work before?”
“No. Are you kidding? I’ve only had one other real job besides baby-sitting and cleaning people’s houses, and one year I ironed for $1/hour. But how hard can it be to take orders and pick up plates?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged and looked over at me. “What was your real job?”
“I was a money-checker girl at Skill-Right.
He narrowed his eyes. “What’s a skill right?”
“A bingo joint on Revere Beach.”
He laughed and raised his knees into a rest for his arms. “I thought Bingo was illegal.”
“Don’t laugh,” I elbowed him in the ribs. “It’s serious business. Those old folks who play Skill-Right pay some big money, like fifty dollars a day. And it’s not all old folks, either. There are some serious players.”
“But I thought only churches and clubs could play Bingo games?” He picked up a piece of gravel and tossed it toward the trees in front of us that made a hedge around the building.
I mimicked his movement, picking up the gravel like I used to pick among the beans at Skill-Right. “You got to hand it to them. They figured out a way to make it legal.”
“How’d they do that?”
“Oh, they give out cards and beans just like in Bingo, but they don’t pull numbers out of a hat or anything. The numbers supposedly come from skill because people have to throw darts at a board. Five darts. If they can match up any of their five darts with something on their cards they win a certain cash amount. Guess what the letters are instead of B-I-N-G-O?
“Hah! That wouldn’t work because you’ve got two L’s. It’s R-I-G-H-T.”
“That makes sense,” he said thoughtfully. “So it’s not luck, and it can’t be fixed because these people create their own matches.”
I laughed. “Well, supposedly. But – it’s mostly old ladies who play – nobody plays it that way to match their cards with the dartboard. Most of them don’t even reach the dartboard. They throw all the darts at once, and some of them land on the floor before they even get to the dart board.” I laughed just remembering the difference between the few skilled dart aimers and the tossers.
“So, how do they get the numbers for “right?” he asked.
“The way they get the numbers is a “caller” goes around from the first aisle to the last. A certain color dart is lit up on the board behind the announcer, and the caller reads out that number on each board until someone gets a RIGHT.”
“What a trip! So you did this in high school?” He smiled at me. His smile was warm and blinding; it filled his whole face with an uncommon openness.
“Yep. It was my first job where they took out taxes. It bought me clothes, and movies, and every Wednesday night on pay day, we went to the China Roma and had Chinese food.”
“I always thought Revere Beach was a weird place, but an Italian Chinese Restaurant,” he mused, and then looked to make sure another elbow wasn’t coming his way.
Mark was from a town about 40 miles north of me up the coast, called Danvers. It had beautiful beaches, not tacky like Revere, the place where I grew up as a kid. A city of 40,000 in the 1970’s, Revere had been the first public beach in the U. S., but had been corrupted by Mafia influences over the past several decades. Most of the beautiful old amusement halls had burned down, the brass on the bandstand had gone green, the sea wall had crumbled, and the pavilions along the shore had fallen into disrepair.
“Skill right, huh? Did it pay OK?” he asked.
“Not as much as waitressing. Trust me,” I laughed. We were both quiet then.
“So, you’re going to New York before you even know if you’ve got a job.” He laughed at me, and then spoke not shyly. “I was going to ask if you wanted to come with me sometime this summer to Plum Island.”
I was silent. Plum Island. I’d heard about this nature preserve on the Atlantic coast, but the one time I’d set out with girlfriends to see it, we ended up on the coast of New Hampshire instead.
“How would we get there?” I asked. “Hitchhike?
“On my motorcycle. I told you I’m getting a bike, didn’t I?”
“A motorcycle?” I raised my voice a couple of octaves with excitement. “I love motorcycles! I’m going to buy a small red Honda motorbike this summer.” I then chattered on about the romance of the road and my attraction to motorcycles. I told him how on the amusement park part of Revere Beach I developed a strong fascination with Harleys and the men and women who rode them. He told me how he didn’t have a Harley, but a small road bike he had been fixing up so he could get it running before the end of the semester. That conversation was in March.
I didn’t see Mark for several months Spring semester, and when we finally caught up, much had happened with us both. His hair had grown longer, and he looked like Prince Valiant. Sitting on the vents, the steam floating up from below and enveloping us lightly, keeping us warm, we at first talked about school, and then our talk turned reflective.
Mark told me about an uncomfortable situation developing among his circle of friends. A woman in the group developed an attraction to him that he evidently didn’t share. She must have been very attractive, since his friends thought he was crazy – literally – not to return her feelings and had hinted maybe he should see one of the counselors on campus about his lack of response to her. I was very sympathetic. I also had problems with people who were attracted to me. As friendly and open as I was to people generally, I feared intimacy greatly. A non-threatening relationship like the one I had with him, where he never expressed any need or desire, felt safe.
I told him about my friend Phil, whom I had only got to know a few weeks into the second semester. Phil had seemed to have a crush on me, but then it turned out to be an obsession, which wasn’t even personal. It was a religious obsession where, after doing too much LSD, he began to relate to me as Mary Magdalene. When it came out that he saw himself as a Christ figure, I had to bring him to a drug drop-in center, from where he was later transferred to a state hospital. On his way to another facility, his parents had brought him back to get his things and say goodbye to his friends. Phil had ended up being the biggest influence in my college life. I was still recovering. Mark had heard about the infamous tragedy that had befallen this young man, though he hadn’t known I was involved.
“I’ve got to take you to meet my sister Wendy before the year is over. I think I might move into her dorm next semester, or move off campus, I’m not sure yet.”
“I’d like to meet her,” I nodded my head as well. Then I raised my shoulders, stretched my fingers down to my feet and sloughed off the somber feelings from talking about Phil. I looked back at him again. “I can’t believe the year is over. Is your sophomore year as good as your freshman year?” I asked him. I wanted to hear that it was better.
“You can’t compare them,” he said as serious as the voice of wisdom. “But then 1969 was a year that can’t compare with any other year because of the protests.”
The previous year, the whole campus went on strike against the Vietnam War and boycotted college and classes. According to Mark, he had the one and only UMASS professor who required attendance. “I got a “D” in chemistry, the lowest grade on campus that spring,” he told me and smiled broadly. Obviously, he wasn’t embarrassed in the least; he was proud of this distinction.
This conversation was a watershed for us. During the last few weeks of school, we gravitated strongly to each other, and when he knew he was getting his motorcycle ready for the road, he let me know I was one of the first he’d take out.
Now, finally, I would get my wish.
Look for Chapter Three coming soon.