FRESH YARN presents:
A few years ago in San Francisco, I was robbed on the sidewalk and when the police arrived, the officer asked me questions that presumed I had a mind for facts: How tall was the guy? How old? Any distinguishing features? I was fully prepared to describe the emotional turmoil I'd experienced, but the officer didn't seem interested to learn that my first thought had been, "I saw you, thug, lurking in the stairwell, but I was hoping you were an innocent and misunderstood young man." The officer closed his notepad and put it in his back pocket. As a witness, I felt like a failure. Identifying what was right in front of me: this was my weakness.
Like most people, I received my first exposure to criminal behavior at home. Although my parents' house lacked a plain black detective's car out front, The Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau and I wore the same expression: something odd was going on here, something very odd. The Mystery of the Broken Lock Diary remains ongoing, while the Case of the Cat's Premature Death -- Why did Mom take Whiskers to the pound? -- bore my signature investigatory technique, the desire not to know.
"I dropped off Whiskers at the Angel Memorial," my mother said, sponging down the kitchen counter. She said this in a matter-of-fact voice, the way she often said, "Your father's working late tonight."
Executing the cat, having a dad who worked late: these were things that happened. If I'd been the kind of person who wanted to know the truth, I might have asked, "What the hell is going on here?" But that was a sentence I wasn't able to speak.
The Case of the Ex High School Girlfriend, my most difficult probe, began when I was a senior in high school and madly in love with a girl named Nancy. All breakups are mysterious, but the rationale for this one eluded me for thirty-two years, which is perhaps the outer limit for deconstructing a high school romance. And then, last month, I solved it.
We were living in Darien, Connecticut and even without asking, we knew that our parents would be happier to hear we'd joined Hitler Youth than the announcement that we were lesbians. At least Hitler Youth dressed neatly and had goals for the future. The future for lesbians seemed to involve crew cuts, bitter unhappiness, and man-hating. As it happened, my mother was often bitter and not always fond of men, particularly the man she married, but that was different because she wore lipstick and regularly had her hair coiffed.
with each other, Nancy and I cleverly applied to the same rural New England
college, which Nancy had selected because the school color was purple,
her favorite. Whatever she wanted was fine by me, as long as the possibility
existed that the two of us would someday be alone in a dorm room. In December,
we signed our letters of early decision acceptance, vowing that we wouldn't
even think of applying to another college. We planned to join the college
field hockey team together, trading our blue high school hockey kilts
for purple ones.
A week after the vacation, on a Saturday night while we watched TV in her den, Nancy said, "My father says we have to stop."
I looked at her stupidly.
"I think we should stop," she said.
The thing about a secret relationship is that when it ends, no one notices. I spent an afternoon with the French Toast Fling planning committee and even as I listed maple syrup, 1 gal., enough? I thought, You carefree kids have no idea what I'm going through. It occurred to me that I had no idea what they were going through, either, and that for all I knew, they were sniffing glue in their bedrooms or singeing their forearms with cigarette butts. Why don't you people admit who you are? I wanted to say, but instead I mentally scrolled through the boys in my class to see which one I'd force to be my boyfriend.
This was the era of the exploding Ford Pinto and it made sense to me that one minute you were driving a cute little Pinto and the next you were sitting in a death trap. The person Nancy replaced me with wasn't a girl, which was lucky because I would have had to kill her, slowly. My replacement was a grown man named Mr. Ramsey, our high school math teacher and the coach of the girls' basketball team. I hadn't paid attention to a bald, thirty-four-year-old man driving a large green Pontiac and wearing black nerd glasses. He was so old it never occurred to me that he was a living person who might be looking for a date after basketball practice.
"I went to his house," Nancy said as she drove me home one day. I was the only one who knew, a privilege. I scooched my feet up on the dashboard.
"His house?" I asked. "Why would you go to his house?"
"He made dinner for me," she said.
Did her father know about this? At least I was age appropriate.
wants me to give him a full-body massage," Nancy said. I left my
College weekends brought the three of us together again. On Saturdays, Mr. Ramsey and Nancy walked the leafy paths that criss-crossed the campus, looking like a cordial father and adorable daughter, while I watched them from my dorm window like a sniper. When Nancy complained to Mr. Ramsey that I'd called her, crying, he sent me a letter in an envelope sealed with a sticker from the magazine Psychology Today. Meaning what? "Friendships change," he wrote in a neat, prissy script. "To everything there is a season."
She married him. About ten years after high school, my mother spotted the write-up in the Darien News. I felt like one of those women who discover that her husband has three different families around the world. This is not the person I knew. Nancy had been subjected to Mr. Ramsey's green Pontiac and platitudes for so long I didn't rule out Stockholm Syndrome. Eight months later, my mother phoned with another item from the News: Mr. Ramsey was dead from cancer. This I could understand. The guy was a thousand years old. The wedding had been a mercy marriage, a gesture of pity.
It ought to be difficult to get in touch with someone from high school after twenty-nine years. It ought to involve a screening device with a recording that says, Have a piece of chocolate and lie down until the urge passes. I had a lot to ask her. Was she a lesbian? What did her father say that made her break up with me? Did she ever have to drive Mr. Ramsey's green Pontiac?
I was living in California by then and she was a doctor in Massachusetts, but just like that, her voice was in my ear. "Wow," she said. "How are you?" My heart leapt: she still cared.
When I told her I had two kids, she said, "Wow" again, and asked if they played field hockey. We'll always have field hockey, I thought. Maybe we could all get together.
"I'm getting ready for work," she said. At eleven o'clock in the morning? She clanged pots around, making lunch. In a distant part of my brain, I noted that she hadn't asked for details about my kids or my job or my life. I hadn't told her about my girlfriend or the kids' dad or everything I'd been thinking and feeling about her for twenty-nine years. "Let me get your number," she said. "I'll call you back."
"How's your mom?" I asked.
Nancy's mom was a Darien Katherine Hepburn, all cheekbones and brisk heartiness, carrying a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies across the grass to the field hockey game.
"She can't get out of bed," Nancy said. "She can't feed herself. I moved her up from Connecticut and she's living with me."
I loved the sound of her voice.
"That's what I'm doing," she said. The statement didn't invite
Crime solving is a business of hunches. You make one guess and then another, until you have a theory and the mystery unravels. You can't get anywhere unless you pay attention to the clues. As it turns out, it's possible to devote an inordinate amount of brain capacity to ignoring the evidence. The mugger wasn't going to hurt me, my mother wasn't capable of taking the cat -- my cat -- to the pound without talking to me about it, my girlfriend wasn't too scared to tell her father to bug off.
Because they're smarter than Inspector Clouseau, my eight-year-old twins love to watch The Pink Panther. They see trouble coming, the moment when the detective is about to slip off the grass and fall into the lake. I see a detective who's as bad as I am; a fool, stumbling, shambling, toward the truth.
©All material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission