Consideration, like an angel came
And whipp’ed the offending Adam out of him.
—Henry V (I, I, 66-67)
In September of 1970 I was at the University of Iowa, trying to write the Great American Novel, when a letter arrived out of the blue from one of my former high school students, the envelope fragrant with perfume.
The Vietnam War was raging. Local violence in the wake of the Kent State shootings had forced the university to close early the previous spring. Jane Fonda, infamous as “Hanoi Jane,” was due to speak on campus shortly. I’d just been purged of venereal warts with dry ice at the university hospital (there was an epidemic in Iowa City) and suddenly that perfumed letter seemed like a sign.
Angela had been in my senior English class before I took leave from teaching. She was a blue-eyed blonde with a quiet demeanor that radiated purity. Though shy and demure, she’d earned the lead in several school musicals and sang in the school choir. Now she was a sophomore at one of those obscure southern women’s colleges that, at the start of the ’70s, had not yet gone co-ed.
The letter was as innocent as Angela herself—her major, college life, etc.—and as I read it I remembered an essay she’d once written, about pouring her father’s alcohol down the drain. When I admitted to her in conference that I’d often done the same with my grandfather, she’d sobbed quietly. Apparently, she hadn’t forgotten that bit of compassion, although she made no reference to it in her letter. Which closed, Sincerely.
And suddenly I felt an idea creep into my mind that would lead to the most ardent indiscretion of my entire life. It occurred to me that I should marry Angela. She was exactly what I needed to save myself from an endless round of sexual encounters with nothing to recommend them beyond sex itself.
For the next hour I sat at my desk, writing the first of many letters in response to hers, choosing my words carefully. I don’t remember much about those letters, and I’m sure that she later burned them all, but I do recall writing about the Writers’ Workshop, especially about when the words won’t come. To which she replied that she hoped I’d be OK on those days when the words won’t come. I must have told her about Addison Hill in upstate New York—the setting of the family farm in the novel I was writing for my thesis, the place that had turned my grandfather to alcohol, the place he had abandoned to escape the iron fist of his father, the local Baptist minister. Mostly I remember that my letters were insidious, with every phrase a touchstone for further correspondence. Every word hinted at the essential loneliness of life and the necessity for communication, for love. Which is how, three months later, I signed off. Angela responded in kind, saying she hoped to visit in January, so I sent her a photograph of myself, taken by my roommate. I didn’t want my long hair and moustache to startle her.
In January Angela flew out for a weekend, using money her parents had given her for Christmas. I had no idea if they knew where she was going, and I had no idea what they might have thought if they did. Maybe Angela hadn’t even bothered to tell them. But none of this seemed to matter when her plane landed in Cedar Rapids and she entered the small lounge with a handful of other passengers. After a greeting that was tentative if not awkward, we collected her luggage and slipped into a dim snack bar for coffee. And as Angela sat down in the booth across from me, I became convinced that my plan was a brilliant one. For I was instantly in love with her, ex post facto.
In high school Angela had worn contact lenses, abandoning them in college for stylish granny glasses. She wore jeans, an open parka, and a dark turtleneck beneath a ski sweater that swelled with her breasts. In the last two years she’d absorbed a certain collegiate chic that was stunning. Her blond hair, twice as long as I remembered it, was plaited in one thin strand that wrapped around her brow like the crown of a princess. Had it been able to float it would have made a perfect halo.
It was cold, late, and dark when we got to Church Street, where I installed Angela in an empty room at the end of the hall in our basement apartment. One of my roommates hadn’t returned for the second semester, and the landlord upstairs had been unable to rent the space. Our dingy bathroom, entered through swinging saloon doors, sported a rusty toilet without a lid, a sink that hung from the wall, and a shower like a fiberglass telephone booth. In the morning I had to guard those swinging doors against my roommate Rudman, who’d been squinting at Angela through his horn-rimmed glasses. After she showered, I made her a lavish breakfast in our kitchen, while the cockroaches scuttled aside.
“Angel,” I asked, handing her a plate of scrambled eggs, “wadya think of my subterranean garret?”
“It’s very writerly,” she said. “But why are you calling me Angel? It was Angie in high school.”
“Because Angie has become an angel.”
To which she responded with an incredulous burst of laughter. We were not yet engaged. That would have to wait until evening, when I intended to pop the question with the foregone conclusion. I’m certain she had no idea what was coming. But first we had to go skating.
The Iowa River had long since frozen over, and I’d told Angel to pack her ice skates. I imagined us skating for miles, the wind at our back, and then catching a bus back to town. But the river had frozen into a washboard, and the wind was so brutal that, after a few minutes on the ice, we headed for hot chocolate at the student union, where more than a few of my fellow workshop students noticed Angel, and, like Rudman, paused to check her out. It was all I could do to put her on display without seeming to. I was ecstatic, buoyed by her youthful beauty.
That night, according to plan, I asked Angel to marry me. The day had proved so wonderful that we couldn’t bear to be apart, so we crawled into my bed just for the warmth of it. Then we kissed and I caressed her in all the usual spots, but stopped short of going further. There was no need, and it felt strangely wonderful. I remember thinking this is it—my last chance for a decent life. I would never again find anyone as loving as Angel. I was twenty-seven years old, in an era when thirty loomed as the end of the world, and suddenly I felt old. So I did something totally uncharacteristic of me. I prayed. I said the Lord’s Prayer before proposing. I hadn’t been to church since leaving home for college, but there I was on Church Street in Iowa City, saying the Lord’s Prayer as if it mattered.
“Angel,” I said when I finished, “will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. And that was that. Mission accomplished.
Next morning we bumped into one of the famous writers with whom I was studying and I introduced Angel as my fiancée. He did a double take, as if to say How the hell can this guy, with his lousy novel about the farm, have ever gotten such a beautiful young thing to agree to marry him?
The day passed in a blur, until—right after dinner, having packed her things for the airport—Angel said that she wanted to call her roommate with the news. It seemed strange she didn’t want to call her parents, making me certain they didn’t know she was in Iowa. But her parents would certainly be informed by the time I met them during spring break, driving east with an engagement ring in my pocket on a mission of suicide—one last mission to accomplish—a mission triggered by that bubbly phone call from Angel to her roommate, which spun me into a cycle of guilt and self-recrimination that only suicide could alleviate. And it all began with three little letters as Angie hung up.
“See you tomorrow,” she said to her roommate. “PTL!”
I hesitated—the longest beat of my life. “PTL,” I said. “Please tread lightly?”
“No, silly,” Angel laughed. “Praise the Lord!”
“Ah,” I said. “Praise the Lord.” It was the password by which Jesus freaks identified themselves in those days, much like peaceniks flashed two fingers in a V.
Well, I’d gotten what I’d asked for. I’d said the Lord’s Prayer in hopes that the Lord would let Angel accept my proposal, and He had. And now I was engaged to a Jesus freak, for Chrissakes.
The only bona fide Jesus freak I’d known until getting engaged to Angel was Diane Merriman, a student from the high school where I’d been teaching. She’d graduated with Angel and I’d never had her in class, but she’d befriended me because of my height. Diane was six feet tall and given to slouching since she towered over all the boys. Standing beside me, however, she could stretch to her full height and still come up short.
Diane Merriman was darkly attractive and looked a lot like Cher. Extremely intelligent and possessing a true talent for drama, she was one of the first women students accepted at Princeton, when Princeton went co-ed like all the other famous stone-and-ivy institutions. But as Diane sadly confided to me when she received her acceptance letter, the only reason she was going to Princeton was because she knew there’d be a terrific male-female ratio in favor of the new females. And with all those guys around, the pool of eligible tall men would certainly be greater. The feminist movement was making great strides, but Diane Merriman was no feminist. Yet she did meet her man at Princeton, where she became a Jesus freak, and married a quadriplegic guru in a wheelchair, a guy whose charisma had to be greater than that of Charles Manson to get Diane Merriman to marry a shorter man. And not much of a man, at that.
Such is the power of Jesus.
Along with the classes I was taking in the Writers’ Workshop I was a Teaching Assistant in Freshman English. Ironically, the week Angel left, I assigned my freshmen a paper requiring them to attend a talk on campus and write a rhetorical analysis of it. I offered suggestions from the campus calendar, including a meeting of the University Christian Society—Jesus freaks, all. To insure the accuracy of their papers, I said I’d attend many of these events myself, if only briefly. Fortunately, none of my students chose the University Christian Society, where I found myself surrounded by bright-eyed undergrads listening to the testimony of other bright-eyed undergrads that had recently “found Christ.” Well, I’d found Him too, although I hadn’t been looking. The question now was, what the hell to do with Him? Without heading to hell myself.
But as words of love spouted from the podium, the image of Angel suddenly appeared in my head, and as the testimony ended, a zealous, young Jesus freak turned to me, beatific eyes ablaze, and asked, “When did you find Christ, my brother?”
To which I was amazed to hear my own voice responding, “Tonight.”
“Oh wow!” he exclaimed. “Listen up, everyone! We have a baby Christian in our midst! PTL!”
Baby Christian. That was the term the Jesus freaks used for converts, for anyone who’d just found Christ. But as I have said, I hadn’t particularly been looking. And now I could begin to smell the stench of my own hypocrisy as a flock of Jesus freaks huddled around me to offer congratulations, shaking my hand, slapping my back, hugging me outright. All because of Angel’s voice: PTL.
Excusing myself politely I slipped from the room, explaining that I had to write a letter. Which I did—I owed Angel a letter—so I hurried back to Church Street through the frozen streets to tell her I’d found the Lord, PTL, etc. Which only deepened my growing depression.
“That Angela sure is a piece of ass,” Rudman said, squinting at me through his horned-rimmed glasses as I entered the apartment. “Some guys have all the luck.”
“Rudman,” I said. “You have no idea.” And I left it at that.
What I couldn’t leave as easily was the fact that I now had a bona fide fiancée who was a bona fide Jesus freak. I was on the horns of a horn-rimmed dilemma. On the one hand there was the novel I was supposed to be writing for my thesis—about my alcoholic grandfather abandoning the family farm to escape the iron fist of his minister father. On the other hand there was Angel’s voice whispering PTL. We’d had no time to touch on the touchy topic of what the Lord might have in store for us before Angel left Iowa City. I’d been too shocked to raise the issue. But the very thought she might be thinking that our engagement had been made in heaven—when I’d manufactured it myself—was a thought that was beginning to drive me mad.
It has been said that the Lord works in strange ways, but I could think of no ways stranger. PTL stuck in my mind like an inkblot, then metastasized, deadening my senses and removing me from the world, something Rudman and my students began to notice. Letters from Angel brought me back from time to time—we were making plans for spring break, when I’d meet her parents and take her to meet mine—then I’d spiral into darkness again. I lived mechanically, driven into consciousness by the alarm clock each morning, when I’d always awakened on my own. My voice became hollow. I could hear the hollowness myself as I listened to myself address my freshmen about their rhetorical analyses. It was easier to get through sessions in the Writers’ Workshop because a chapter of my novel had been discussed earlier in the semester. All I had to do was offer comments once in a while about someone else’s writing, something vaguely positive or negative, which I could do without even having read it. I found myself avoiding people, hiding in my room on Church Street, shopping surreptitiously for the diamond ring that I’d promised Angel.
That engagement ring doubled my sense of hypocrisy—along with my self-recrimination, guilt, and growing self-hatred. I couldn’t bear to look at it, though I wrote to Angel to describe it as winter slogged toward spring break. Then, realizing that I was actually going to meet Angel’s parents, I shaved my mustache and went for a haircut, which left me reeling like Samson after Delilah. The barber, nearly driven out of business by the long hair of the age of Aquarius, seemed to take out his frustrations on me, leaving a pile of hair on the checkered floor from a buzz cut, when all I’d asked for was a trim.
The idea of suicide brings with it a wonderful sense of wellbeing because of the knowledge that all will soon be over. Mine was to appear an accident, a romantic death in the tradition of Anna Karenina. I even imagined my wake, the long line of family and friends mourning the Great American Novel that would never get finished, due to a banal auto accident. There’d be students there, too, trying to console Angel, who’d be inconsolable, of course, because the Lord had just bestowed on her a once-in-a-lifetime love, only to snatch him away in an auto accident. With an eye for detail to rival the great authors, I imagined the tears, the flowers, and the casket, which had to be closed because of my head-on collision, concealing my ridiculous buzz cut for all eternity.
But when the time came to do it, I couldn’t. As I headed east across those great flat stretches of farmland in Illinois and Indiana—I-80 was not yet completed—one lane in either direction divided by a long white line, messages came at me in a succession of billboards at eighty miles an hour: TILL YOUR SOIL! … PLANT YOUR SEED! … HARVEST YOUR CROP! … LOVE OUR GOD!
Well, I’d been planting my seed, all right, and look what it had got me. Venereal warts. Then God. There was the rub, for Chrissakes. He had gotten me into this but He wouldn’t let me out, having, as Hamlet put it, “fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Still, it was tantalizing to swing the car just left of center, as I did time and again, testing just how quickly it could all be over. The problem was, I couldn’t tell if the cars coming at me were a hundred feet away or a hundred miles. So my teasing trials, as I crossed and re-crossed that white line, took on an air of tragi-comedy. I missed death again and again, sometimes by seconds, sometime by eons.
Then a new thought struck me. I’d so distanced myself from the world of the living that I’d become good at watching myself go through the motions of daily life—conferring with my students, for example, while I simultaneously watched myself conferring with my students. The new thought that struck me was simply the idea of how all this might turn out. I became curious. So I put suicide on the backburner, figuring I could always have a tragic banal accident on the way back to Iowa City—it would work just as well and render me just as dead. And this new idea came with a benefit. I wouldn’t have to create a new fantasy, the tears, flowers, and casket having already been lavishly imagined.
So there was nothing to do but get out of the car after the long drive east and give Angel a kiss and a ring, after which we dined with her parents and kid sister, who was all agog.
That night, unable to sleep, I could hear Angel’s father and mother conversing in the kitchen. Her father had excused himself after dinner, just before Angel and I went out, to go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Boy, did I tell ’em,” he kept saying, proud of his performance. And I couldn’t help but think of the Jesus freaks in Iowa City, jubilantly witnessing about how they’d found Christ. Alcoholics could find Christ, too—it was a staple of AA—and maybe that’s what had happened to Angel’s father. Whatever it was, I was glad they weren’t talking about me, wondering how the hell Angel and I ever got together. Like everyone else—except me, of course—they seemed to have accepted our engagement in good faith. But I, for one, had no faith.
In the morning we took a long drive to see my parents, who were always favorably disposed to any woman who might make an honest man of me. This was the first time I’d brought home a girl with a ring on her finger, so there was extra cause for joy. My parents doted on Angel, took photos, and cooed at her ring. My mother even made her famous beef stroganoff, a dish reserved for special occasions. Then Angel and I hit the road again, and I dropped her at a bus station to return to college, after which I started on my long drive back to Iowa City, the last leg of a trip that would determine if I lived or died.
But for the time being, despite its nefarious origins, I suppose I was enjoying my engagement. Angel was darling enough to love me even with a buzz cut, and her ring had made her more than happy. She wore it proudly, which broke my heart all the more. And so, still curious as to how all this might end, I found myself back in Iowa City after a timeless ride, with that chaotic inkblot still in my head, staining my cerebral cortex with a foul black gunk, the psychological stench and pain of which were overwhelming.
Once again daily life became an agony. My goal was to survive the semester, after which I was certain I could cross that line in the center of the highway on my way back east, having already crossed the moral line of no return.
One glorious spring afternoon a few weeks later, so depressed that I had to hide from the weather, I ducked into a dark saloon near Church Street, taking a stool at the end of the bar. Besides the bartender, I was vaguely aware of another guy down at the other end, a slim young man about my own age, who soon slipped from his stool, sauntered over, and sat beside me. Like saying the Lord’s Prayer on Church Street, going into a bar alone in the middle of the day was totally uncharacteristic of me, and so I sat there drinking draft beer after draft beer—watching myself drink draft beer after draft beer—until this slim young man began to talk.
“I’m a gigolo,” he said finally.
“What’s a jiggle-o,” I replied, totally snockered.
“Women pay me for sex.”
“Doesn’t pay,” I said. “Sex—doesn’t pay.”
“I’m a switch hitter, too. If you know what I mean.”
For Chrissakes, I was thinking, drunk as I was, this guy is hitting on me! “Know what you mean,” I said rather forcefully. “But sex doesn’t pay. Any kind—sex.”
“I’ll probably be dead before I’m thirty,” the guy said.
Me, too! I was thinking. Then my curiosity got the better of me. I’d never known a jiggle-o before. “Why’s that?” I said. “Why—dead before thirty?”
“Occupational hazard,” he said. “Jealousy.”
“Who gets jealous?”
“My boyfriend, for one. Husbands of women I service. Other gigolos. Life’s short. Enjoy it.”
“’Xactly what I’m doin’,” I said, “on this fine spring day. Now if you’ll ’xcuse me, I gotta run home and take a piss.”
“There’s a men’s room in the rear, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant, all right, but I was already weaving my way toward the bright spring day beyond. Which nailed me like an ice pick as I staggered back to Church Street, where Angel’s latest letter awaited, a letter filled with wedding plans. We had to pick a china pattern. Soon. She favored Danish simplicity. I favored drunken duplicity, the condition that would mark the inexorable march of time to the end of the semester, a day that materialized with a sense of impending doom. Then I found myself once again in the car headed east, once again unable to cross that line on the highway.
“We have to talk,” I said to Angel the moment I arrived. There was no hug or kiss, just that diamond ring on her finger. “Let’s go for a ride. We have to talk.”
And on a scenic overlook nearby, with the whole grand green world falling away beneath us, I spilled my guts about that inkblot on my brain.
She must have known that some such talk was coming, because she just sat there quietly, as composed and beautiful as always. “I agreed to marry you,” she said finally, “as if you’d asked me to the movies.”
It was a line for the ages. And right on target.
“I’m so ashamed,” I said. “And under the circumstances—”
“—we shouldn’t get married?”
“Yes.” I decided to keep Christ out of it, and Angel didn’t once say PTL, although she may certainly have been thinking it. We were even on that score, at least. I couldn’t tell if I’d shaken her faith or strengthened it.
“I agree,” Angel said. “I think it’s best I go back to school in the fall. And you can work on your problems.”
Problems? I was thinking. What problems? I’d never thought of myself as having problems. I was simply addicted to any attractive girl that came along—addicted to beauty and innocence and the mystery of sex. All of which had come to seem, in my twenty-seven years of life, totally incompatible.
“Are there any over-riding reasons?” Angel’s father asked later, before I took off. He meant over-riding reasons for ending the engagement. Angel was keeping her ring, nor had I asked for it, unaware of the protocol in such messy matters. She’d certainly earned it, while I had just one thought on my mind—to get on the road. I was going home for the summer. As Robert Frost once wrote, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I’d nothing to show for my time in Iowa City besides the scars of venereal warts. But with my course work behind me, I intended to complete my thesis in familiar territory, now that the poisoned words were out of my system.
“We don’t know each other,” I said. And according to Angel, I didn’t even know myself.
Incredibly, I would see Angel once more before the end of that summer, on the very day I returned to my high school teaching job, when I drove to the local mall for some pots and pans for my new apartment. She had not yet returned to college, and in the very first store I entered I saw her coming up the aisle with her mother. Fortunately, neither of them saw me, and I was able make a hasty exit. Angel looked wonderful, if a bit sadder and wiser, which only served to deepen her quiet beauty. She was totally absorbed in her shopping, a healthy sign.
But the image that would remain with me for years to come, returning in dreams that I experienced as both sad and delightful, was the image of Angel sitting across from me at the airport in Iowa—her blond hair, twice as long as it had been in high school, plaited in one thin strand and wrapped around her brow like the crown of a princess.
Had it been able to float, it would have made a perfect halo.