My friend Kathy wore black on the day after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory in 1980. She told me that she intended to dress like a widow until she no longer felt the need to mourn a political world gone mad.
Kathy was an English major at the University of Dayton. She wrote poetry and frequently used the words “bone” and “ash” in her free verse to give her writing an air of grim melancholy. She lived by herself in an off campus apartment and kept her rooms dim by blocking light from the windows with sheets hung from curtain rods. She cleaned and aired only when the smell of dirty clothes, sour milk and stale cigarette smoke overwhelmed her. It took a lot to overwhelm her.
I had a crush on her, nonetheless. I had spent three years dating Midwestern girls who expected me to conform to their middle class expectations, and Kathy presented a bohemian alternative. But she remained steadfast in her resistance to my overt and covert maneuvers. Instead she favored the company of Sheila, a fellow English major who glared at me with narrowed eyes whenever I spoke to Kathy.
Two days after Reagan’s election I came across Kathy smoking a cigarette as she sat on the steps of the student union by a statue of JFK. She squinted through the smoke and coldly studied me. She knew that I was a Dayton native and once asked me if the world ended for me just beyond the city limits. She believed that the locals suffered from the delusion that nothing worth knowing existed outside of Dayton. She coughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair as she continued to appraise me. She finally said, “You wanna come to a meeting with me?”
“What meeting?” I asked.
“Reps from the Communist Party are giving a talk here at noon.”
“Okay,” I said. I was glad to be given a chance to prove that I wasn’t a rube and to spend time with her.
The commies, a man and two women wearing gray and black coats, set up a card table in the square near the art building. They had stacks of pamphlets and flyers at their elbows and looked as grim and determined as revolutionaries should. The man spoke for twenty minutes and told us that capitalism was doomed and that our lives were exercises in folly until we genuflected before the teachings of Karl Marx. He didn’t offer any evidence for the imminent downfall of the American system and failed to mention Stalin’s legacy of horror. I asked him if Reagan worried him. I knew that the president elect had testified against fellow actors during the McCarthy witch hunt era and had fought against unions in Hollywood. The communist didn’t hesitate to answer and told me that one American president was much like another. Reagan was no different than Carter. I didn’t challenge him. I thought, “Why argue with a fanatic?”
Kathy went to England during Christmas break. I saw her at the beginning of the next semester. She no longer wore black and looked almost cheerful. I invited myself over to her apartment that evening, and we sat in her living room and drank wine. I asked her to tell me all about her trip. She hesitated for a long moment, closed her eyes and said, “I’ll tell you one thing, but I want to keep the rest of my experiences for myself.” It appeared that anything revealed would lose its magic power to inspire her, and she was only willing to give me a scrap.
I no longer remember what she said–maybe she visited Charles Dickens’ home and saw his writing desk. But I do recall that a little door closed in my mind as I listened to the rise and fall of her voice. I made my excuses a few minutes later and left.
During that semester I no longer sought her out. And whenever I ran into her outside a classroom I nodded a hello but said little. I no longer considered her much of a friend or had any desire to pursue a romance.
A few years later I ran into an acquaintance who had known both of us at UD. Pat knew that I had been interested in Kathy and told me that she was still in town. I was surprised as she had vowed that she would never become trapped in Dayton like so many graduates of the University. The town was a narrow minded, cultural wasteland that would do nothing to nourish her poetry. Pat went on to say that Kathy worked at a bar in the Oregon District, a trendy strip of night clubs on the southeast side of downtown Dayton. She dressed in gypsy skirts, wore a head scarf and did Tarot card readings for the well heeled patrons. He waited for me to ask for the name of the bar, but I just started to laugh.