Last July I posted an essay here in which I reminisced about an unheralded visit that two friends and I paid, late one summer evening during our teen years, to a goddess. She was everything that a teenaged boy could want. She was lovely beyond describing, superbly well-bred, gracious and graceful, cheerful and a cheerleader. And her family had money!
I shared my account of the visit because it had a farcical conclusion that I thought might amuse my readers. One of my friends, having indulged too much in the soft drinks that the goddess’s mother was kind enough to pour for us, suddenly was overcome with a compelling urge to urinate. But he was too shy to ask permission to use the restroom, so he stood up and demanded that my other friend and I leave the house with him, and pronto. His explanation: “It’s stuffy in here.”
The goddess and her mother seemed baffled. The windows were open and a gentle breeze was stirring the curtains. It wasn’t the least bit stuffy in there. But we left, and when my other friend and I learned the true reason for our abrupt departure from a scene of utter bliss, it was all we could do to refrain from murdering our comrade. Fortunately, neither of us was armed, so instead we laughed hysterically -- in the fullest sense of the word.
I believe that all three of us had entered that house more than willing to marry the goddess, should she be willing to have us. But after that debacle, none of us again considered ourselves plausible contenders for her hand. I only saw her one time after that, in a chance encounter on a city bus. She was pleasant and friendly, of course, but I could read her body language well enough to discern that she wouldn’t be receptive to even the mildest advances. Not even “How about a cup of coffee?“ So that was that.
(Here is the link to the earlier story: http://open.salon.com/blog/artlouis/2011/07/04/visit_to_a_goddess)
At age twenty-two the goddess married a young businessman, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had already moved out of town -- the town was Rochester, New York -- and never lived there again. I heard nothing more about her.
One of my two friends -- the one with the more capacious bladder -- remained my best friend, and he and I continued to get together from time to time, over a period of five decades. Whenever we did, we invariably would recall that “stuffy” summer evening in Rochester, and enjoy a hearty laugh. As the years wore on, I realized more and more that the visit to the goddess had been a pivotal event in my life. Don’t laugh. Like anyone, I had missed a lot of chances for happiness, and this loss seemed the most regrettable. How much better life would have been if I had dated and married that young woman!
During 2004 and 2005 I was working with some high school classmates on the preparations for our 50th anniversary reunion. My task was to locate the 250 members of our class. The task wasn’t all that difficult, because by then there were scads of people-search sites on the Internet.
The goddess had been in the class after mine, so I had no obligation to find her, but as long as I was in the groove, I figured I would look her up as well.
It was a strange experience. Most people leave some trace of themselves on the Internet, but she hadn’t. Nothing. No mention of any work experiences she might have had. Not even a mention in a church bulletin about the pastries she had baked for the annual spring sale. She seemingly had vanished, and yet there was no indication that she had died.
Eventually, perusing some databases that require you to pay for the privilege, I started dredging up some truly strange clues. On sites where I was able to view her past addresses, I kept finding references to mental institutions and centers for the treatment of substance abuse. I mentioned this to my best friend, but he insisted that these must be places where she had worked, perhaps as a live-in nurse or staffer. But there was no evidence to support this theory. If she had ever worked anywhere, there was no mention of the fact on the Internet.
I had figured out how to get in touch with members of her family, but I didn’t want to approach them, because I couldn’t think of a legitimate explanation for my curiosity.
I talked to an old high school friend who had dated the goddess, and he related an incident that occurred when he visited her before she was married. She was living for a while in New York City, apparently pursuing a career in the arts. I don't know what kind of career, but she had been a devoted member of the school chorus, so perhaps she was trying to make it on Broadway. When he saw her in New York, my friend said, she seemed to be “a disturbed person.“ She went on at length about how her parents had favored her two older brothers. She had been born nine years after the younger brother, evidently an accident; an accident that her parents seemed eager to put behind them.
From another source I heard that while engaged and not yet married, the goddess had made an embarrassing commotion on a public street in Rochester. She was with her fiance, and they ran into a woman who had gone to grammar school and high school with her. She loudly and angrily upbraided this woman for breaking her own engagement to a man the goddess knew and liked.
A couple of years went by, and I was still curious, so I got in touch with a former friend who still lived in Rochester, who had known the goddess, had been in her high school class, and had kept in touch with many of his classmates.
He wrote back that the goddess had taken a terrible turn. She became addicted to alcohol and perhaps drugs, her marriage had broken up after she had given birth to a child, and the child’s father got full custody. She married again, and that marriage also broke up, after the birth of two more children.
She had become a street person for a while, and had been seen around town begging for beer money. She may have become involved in prostitution. Once, when one of her uncles died, all the other nieces and nephews were mentioned in his death notice, but the family pointedly excluded her.
The buzz around town was that she had been molested as a girl by her father. Her father was a prominent professional man, but was also said to be a notorious philanderer. He was known to be intensely jealous of the boys who dated, or tried to date, the goddess. He was said to be a “strange” man. I concluded that if it was common gossip that he had molested his daughter, then she must have been the source of that information. She must have told someone at some point.
Now I felt that I had a good enough excuse to get in touch with her family. One of her brothers was still alive, so I wrote him saying that I had known his sister in high school, that I had heard that she was having some problems, and that I would like to help her if I could. He wrote back that the goddess was living in a Rochester nursing home, and he gave me the name and address.
I wrote her a long letter, trying to jog her memory about my visit to her home a half-century ago, and enclosed a check. I didn’t hear back from her, but she did cash the check. The endorsement was in a spidery hand, which wandered all over the back of the check. Later that year, at Christmas-time, I sent her a box of cookies from a mail-order company. There was no response.
I also relayed the goddess’s address to the friend in Rochester who had told me that she was down and out, and he visited her at the nursing home. He said that her mind seemed clear, but that when she mentioned her three children, she broke into hysterics and couldn’t go on with the conversation. He passed along word of her whereabouts to a Rochester woman who had been the goddess’s friend dating back to grammar school. That friend visited the goddess, who spent most of the time begging her visitor for money to buy cigarettes. The goddess had never smoked in high school. The friend came away proclaiming, “She isn’t there anymore.”
I tried to visit her myself, while in Rochester to see some relatives. I thought it might seem impolite if I just dropped in after fifty-odd years, so I called ahead to make arrangements with the nursing-home staff. A staffer went and consulted her, and came back with the news that she wasn’t up to having visitors that day. The staffer said I should come the next day, and not bother to call ahead.
I did that, and the goddess rejected my visit. I found her in a hallway, confined to a wheelchair, looking many years older than her age and, frankly, just awful. A hideous apparition with no resemblance to the young goddess I had known. Unlike Dorian Gray, she had no hidden portrait on which to slough off her transfiguration.
She told me, in a grating, gravelly smoker's voice, that she had “appointments all day,” and that if I ever wanted to visit her I should call first. I gave her a little box of candy that I had brought for her, and she grabbed it, said “You’re a dear,” and swiftly wheeled herself away, out of my life.