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July 9, 2015 Fiction


James English

May photo

My friends told me they’d introduce me to May, but only if I understood that she’d been through a lot and didn’t need any more bad things to happen to her. At the time, I was 27 and May was 32. A drunk driver had killed May’s 11-year-old son on a back road in Weybridge, Vermont the year before and her marriage had fallen apart. I realize now that my friends decided not to tell me about May’s good looks because they wanted to protect her. They just said: “If it’s not going to work, please don’t lead May on.”

I was teaching in Manhattan in those days, but I had my summers off and was working on a master’s degree in Spanish at Middlebury College, in Vermont. Looking back, I believe that the beauty of Vermont, in the summer, softened me and made me a better person, though I may be making excuses for myself. I can say that as soon as I returned to New York, a toughness descended on me that I couldn’t seem to fend off. I was seeing someone in Manhattan, but Diane and I weren’t especially kind to each other, and we knew what the attachment was about.

My friends introduced me to May at Mr. Ups, which was a popular restaurant in Middlebury. We had a table outside, overlooking Otter Creek, and I remember how bright the water sounded as it rushed by the deck. May was extremely attractive, with emerald eyes and wavy chestnut hair, and her smile was full of warmth, with a whisper of sadness. But what struck me, most of all, was that she didn’t seem to be searching for someone as good looking as she was, though I can’t explain how I sensed that. She was hoping to meet someone who was kind and considerate, and I thought: maybe I have a chance. 

After that first night, May and I went out to dinner at Fire & Ice, another Middlebury restaurant, and then the following week we went to the Addison County Fair. Later we went hiking in Lincoln Gap and swimming at Lake Dunmore. Vermont, in the summer, when the light is so soft and seems to rub the hard edges off the landscape, made me feel that the world was a hopeful place and no one needed to be cruel, and that’s how I was with May.  

May caught the eyes of men wherever we went, she never returned their gaze, and she took my hand in hers if a guy couldn’t help himself and started to leer. She didn’t rush me or ask probing questions, and she was thoughtful too: She knew that all Middlebury language students had to take a pledge, promising that they would only speak the target language during their seven week program, and I was breaking the pledge to be with her. She never showed up on campus unannounced or asked me to miss a class or evening lecture. 

We saw each other as much as I could manage that summer, and after my courses were over, I stayed in Vermont an extra week to be with her. I stayed with my friends in Shoreham because May didn’t think her 9-year-old daughter was ready to have another man in the home, but I visited every day. I remember driving to her house from the west, from Middlebury, and seeing the early evening sun turn the hillsides into a yellowy green. I remember the milkweed she and her daughter planted for the monarch butterflies. I remember the white cheesecloth fluttering over her blueberry bushes.

And then, suddenly, it was time for me to go back to New York, and I invited May to visit me after I settled back in. I remember driving down Route 7, getting on the Taconic Parkway, and approaching the city. The traffic became clotted, people honked at the slightest delay, and all around me the buildings looked severe and more angled. Crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge into Manhattan, my tires hammered on the steel grate and the street poles looked like silver truncheons.

Diane wanted to see me as soon as I got back, and she was all hard edges too. I didn’t like that in the beginning, but slowly, she seemed to become of a piece with the city. Her face had the proper coldness for the Lexington Avenue subway. In a dark bar, her leather jacket fit in. Even her name felt hard.

May called shortly after I returned. I told her the school had given me five classes and four preparations, which was more work than I’d expected, and so we made plans for her to visit the first weekend in October. Since she’d never been to New York before, she came with her friend Janet. The first night they arrived, we all met at a restaurant on Second Avenue. Diane was there too, plus some of her friends. To this day, I don’t know how or why I let that happen. Maybe I knew the Vermont part of me couldn’t survive. 

After dinner, when we gathered on the sidewalk, I gave May and Janet the keys to my apartment. “The big key is for the outside door and the little key is for my apartment,” I said.

“Where are you staying?” May said.

“With Diane.”

May didn’t look at me in anger. She looked at me in surprise and sadness. Janet looked at me in anger.

All my life, I’ve felt bad about how I treated May. I don’t dwell on it, since it happened so many years ago and wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done, but sometimes, when I listen to young people talk about the disappointments of dating, or when I hear about a mother or father who’s lost a child and their marriage has fallen apart, I think about May. My wife and I have two children, and I don’t know what I’d do if one of them died, our marriage collapsed, and I was trying, slowly and painfully, to meet a woman. I only need kindness right now, I’d say to my friends. Don’t introduce me to someone who isn’t kind.

image: Ryan MacDonald