I’m telling you a
story to let myself
think about it. All
day I’ve been
here, and yesterday.
The months, years,
enclose me as
this thing with arms
and legs. And if
it is time
to talk about it
who knows better
Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1984, called for a celebration.
My grades were coming back with marked improvement. So I stopped over at MacLean Hall where roommate Bud Morris kept his teaching assistant office, just to see if he wanted to raise a glass of cheer.
He told me he’d meet me at The Nest.
Throughout the journal that fall I faithfully recorded the days, sensing I was in the middle of something important in my life—something I knew I’d want to remember.
I even had fun doodling in the margins and writing cryptic “sidebars”—single-line commentaries on the day’s entry.
That Tuesday night’s party entry is a great example (sidebars included):
“I sat there [at The Crow’s Nest] awhile, reading over my [Rhetoric] paper and sipping down two stouts when Sue walks in—
Sidebar: I love…
—[wearing] a herringbone coat and jeans, and it looked as though she wouldn’t be working. She flittered between the front and back. A girl, brunette, worked the front bar. Bud called me (I had to receive the call at the bar) and he said he couldn’t make it. So I scampered up to a seat at the bar. It was about this time that I mentioned I so happened to have with me a Van Morrison tape I thought they’d appreciate. [They] played it—all night.
Sidebar: The tape is now secure in the bowels of the Crow’s Nest. Talked to Tom [the manager] and introduced myself to him.
Well, an effeminate, nice, erudite old man [sat next to me] as a Tony Franciosa-Raquel Welch movie called Fathom came on. We cheerfully discussed old movies—his favorite actress was Angela Lansbury; mine, a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. He had a bourbon & water; I was drinking Exports. Sue occasionally shot in to glance at, and shake her head at, the TV. My old friend left, at the consternation of his wife he said, at 11:30 or so. Van Morrison, second side, was still playing. While the band was on break, Sue approached the bar and sat in a seat just down from my right.
We started talking about the Raquel Welch movie … She asked the bartender why she had such nice, mellow music on [the girl pointed to me] and Sue seemed to approve.
Sidebar: We shook hands. An asshole spells his name. I’m caught!
We sat at the bar and talked somewhat interpersonally about—shit, I was dying with questions—I introduced myself—and she introduced herself—she said she had noticed me reading the paper I had mentioned to her about [she knew about writing papers] and when I told her that—‘yes, you’re a psychology major, aren’t you?’ She said, ‘How could you remember my major and not my name?’ I blushed, turned back to the TV, and remember being totally upset as to how to proceed with this wonderful conversation. She revealed that she’s in her final weeks [days, hours, minutes, she calculated: when would she leave Iowa City? She couldn’t wait!] She’s a senior. She said something about her father wanting [to my question, ‘had she seen the four years out consecutively?’] her to finish her schooling. … She also said something about Chicago [?]. Sue is beautiful. I sat there shy to look at her, I was taken with her so. She confidently assured ‘the audience’ she’d soon be ‘quitting’ Iowa City. It was getting too suffocating for her, I think she said, too small. Our conversation, sweet as it was, was too brief. I think she suspected—I’m almost sure she suspected—my interest in her, but it’s odd that she came to me—she sat at the bar up front, whereas I had thought I might go to the back and try to talk to her. It’s late. She’ll be leaving at the end of this semester I imagine. Nothing can form. Nothing can happen.”
Please note that decisive sense of doubt. It’s crucial to what follows.
The next evening brought the first snowfall to Iowa City.
But three days later the journal states it was “very warm and sunny. It must be near 50.” I’d been fighting a head cold from the previous weekend. Rick lured me out to mingle with all “the warm weather Christmas shoppers.”
I needed a ride back up to Minnesota for the upcoming holidays. That came in the form of my Geology Lab partner, a St. Paul native named Chris Hampl.
Chris had a car and was happy I’d be riding shotgun. We talked about The Crow’s Nest. When I mentioned eavesdropping on the Nov. 28 conversation between the bartender Jenny and some guy who dated Sue, Chris “filled in the gaps for me.” Apparently he knew Sue well.
He told me that “Sue, yes, is thinking of moving to Chicago or L.A., but she’s originally from one of the Quad Cities on the Iowa side, I forget which one. Yes, she’d gone out with this John guy, but he’d probably treated her like shit, Chris had said. ‘Why? Are you going out with her now?’ he sincerely asked. ‘No,’ I said, but I would, had I the time to get to know her, I’d give it a try.”
The following Friday, Dec. 14, Bud pulled himself away from finals to catch live music with me at The Crow’s Nest. The journal reports:
“Bud and I headed uptown around 8:00, stopped in at B.J. Records, then went down to the Crow’s Nest to see The Shy (with Letters From The Circus). [We] had a few stouts at the front bar and went back a little after 9:00—and Sue’s working…I said ‘hi’ when I saw her as I came in; she said ‘hi.’—that was the extent of any discourse between us all night—it was like a nightmare, in fact, I had one this morning like that—
Sidebar: A nightmare of rejection
—rows of chairs, an audience of people our age—Iowa City incarnate—in a place with the feel of the back bar of the Nest, yet it was outdoors. Sue was sitting among these people, talking with them…there was a large spinning bowl; a guy at the back told me you could throw lemons into it and they’d pop back out at you. I tried it. This railed the crowd against me. At the end of the dream, Sue walked away and I stalked after her, frantically going over in my head what I could possibly say to her. She walked ahead of me quickly and just as I got alongside of her, another girl comes up and Sue says to her, ‘Please, cover me…’ and with great haste the two veered off away from me. I was crushed and felt like the biggest fool…
It was a dream of rejection—right down to the lemons.
At the Crow’s Nest, I’ll admit to being a bit bored watching the bands, though The Shy are good, I kept looking back for Sue. She finished working back bar, it seemed, sometime around 10:30-11:00; strange, I thought, [as] she sat near the pool tables and shared a pitcher of beer with two other guys. They watched the band and talked. Bud went to the front bar one time for a stout and came back to our table and said, ‘What’s Sue wearing tonight?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, not seeing her anywhere. ‘She’s left.’
‘I don’t think so,’ he reported. ‘She’s up at the front bar.’
I moseyed up there.
Well, as I got there, she was on her way to the back bar. Jeez, I thought, this whole evening’s been silly. I got a Stroh’s and talked to the chick behind the bar (she’s in my Geology lecture) for a bit. Well, there’s not much more to say about the night. Bud and I waited for The Shy’s second set, he developed a headache and, close to midnight, I noticed Sue wasn’t around. Bud wanted to get back to Mayflower so I finished my beer and we left sometime after midnight, 12:30 or so. Just as we were leaving, I heard playing on the stereo at the front bar, ‘Sheeeeeee’s as sweet, as Tupelo Honey…just like honey, straight from the bee…’ Van Morrison. But Sue was nowhere in sight, and Bud and I trudged home.”
It was the last week before winter break. The clock was running out.
I hit the usual haunts: the 5th floor of the main library, the microfilm room, where I popped in a VHS tape of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries on Saturday, Dec. 15.
The following Saturday, at 9:30 a.m., Chris and I would be packing up his car to head north.
Wednesday afternoon I stopped in at Jeff Gardiner’s office in the English-Philosophy Building to pick up my Rhetoric class portfolio. “I’m getting a B in the class,” the journal reveals, “and I got an A+ on my final reading quiz. ‘You’re one of the best writers I’ve had,’ Jeff admitted, but noted my need for organization and thoroughness. ‘You’ve no problem with verbal stuff.’”
Thursday seemed uneventful—however, the journal tells a different story:
“After my Geology final this morning at 7:30, I went to the Union and then the library, and at around 10:30 I went up to B.J. Records to pick up Procol’s Shine On Brightly, which I had ordered months ago. It’s odd, because on the day I ordered it, I ran into Sue at the Deadwood…sometimes there’s—as Bergman put it in Wild Strawberries—‘a remarkable causality in…unexpected, entangled events.’ Well, I rode the Interdorm [bus] and after we pulled away from the Pentacrest stop sometime around 11:00 a.m., I looked to my left out the window and who did I see passing Gilmore Hall heading east down Jefferson St.—Sue! All semester I never see her around campus and a casual look out a bus window on the second day before the end of the bloody semester—and there she is.
Sidebar: She looked lovely. The last I shall see of her…?
She was wearing a dark blue overcoat, under which I could see she had on a long skirt and boots, and she had her backpack slung over her shoulder. A thought flashed through my mind: Was this her saying goodbye to the University on such a cold sunny day; a last look round, and a time to think of all she’d done, or failed to do? And what am I to do? Sit on the bus all the way back to Mayflower and that’d be it? No. I had to find out where she was going and it wasn’t until I’d charged off the bus at Currier and jogged back to Jefferson that I realized how silly and theatrical was this ‘chase scene.’ I caught sight of her in the distance, down near the stoplight at the road that passes by John’s Grocery (Gilbert?). I kept a distance from her wondering what I should say if she saw and recognized me. Eventually, after pacing behind her, my head humming, I saw that she crossed over to an apt. complex at the intersection of Jefferson and Governor, the Governor Apts. She went in. I waited outside a bit, then went in and scanned the mailboxes…a few ‘S’ names, but one Sue, Sue Rolfe, Number 9. Her roommate’s name is Elaine. I stood around wondering what to do. I regretted not making a fool of myself by talking to her on the street, by catching up with her and saying something. The gig’d be up. The cat out of the proverbial bag. But I turned back and caught a bus back to Mayflower. I told Bud when I got in the door. In the phone book was her name: Susan Elizabeth Rolfe. Though it said ‘liberal arts, third year,’ it couldn’t be right as she’s apparently graduating Sat. She’s from Bettendorf, Iowa.”
Finally. All the details. But still, I was wavering. Vacillating. Afraid. It’s all there in black and white, on the journal page:
“Sidebar: I want to leave. Tonight.”
We had a final dinner at Currier Hall late Friday afternoon, Dec. 21.
Rick and I joined his friend Dick Bray and a guy named Jim at their table. They jeered at me, urging me to “call Sue up, since I now know her last name and number, and kidded me into thinking that I had nothing to lose.”
I got back to my dorm room around 6:30 and—nervous beyond belief—“called her number [twice], no one answered. I was a bit relieved. I [wondered] if she wanted to see It’s a Wonderful Life up at the Bijou with me.”
Well, I went to the movie alone. After it let out at 10:30, I shuffled up to The Nest one last time. I was glad I did.
The journal lays it out (sidebars included):
“…most of the employees of the Nest were in front of the Front bar giving Sue an impromptu farewell party. I sat at the end of the bar closest to the door; some guy sat to the left of me and got into talking about dogs, especially his Doberman Pinschers, and I was centering in on the conversation the Crow’s Nest gang were having. …After about my fourth Export I got the idea to buy Sue a beer as a congratulatory gesture, as her Miller Lite looked empty.
Sidebar: Love is rioting inward.
She peered down the bar as John handed it to her and thanked me. The music at the front was changed at one point to some loud, obnoxious stuff and Sue charged toward the back and abruptly changed it. She put on the soundtrack to The Big Chill and she stopped by on her way out of the back to thank me again for buying the beer.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘You’re finally graduating, aren’t you? Quitting Iowa City?’
‘Yeah,’ she smiled. ‘Saturday.”
Congratulations. She went back to her friends and sat down; everyone watched TV commercials and listened to Smokey Robinson. Finally, as I knew it would, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ came on. It had spooked me, Procol Harum all day. Are some moments in life pure prophecy? Maybe, sometimes, it seems.
Sidebar: ‘Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well…’ —Jackson Browne
Later in the night I called Sue over and asked her if she knew Chris. She couldn’t remember; I tried to describe him to her. When I think about this episode now, I think I was just trying to make conversation, something, anything.
‘I see so many people come in and out of here,’ she said.
‘Mind like a sieve, eh?’ I chuckled.
‘…Like Tom’s,’ she laughed. She said something and lightly hit me on the shoulder. It was sweet. One sweet, clever face quitting here. I left silently around 12:30 or 1:00.
It was the saddest walk I can remember. Some drunk girls on the mall said some slurred stupid thing to me as they passed me and I told them to go fuck themselves.
Tomorrow morning I’m going home.”
I never saw Susan again. It’s been over 30 years.
Why write about this now? For the sheer thrill of regret? Heck, there are so many ways this could’ve played out:
—Maybe you and Sue dated once or twice, like with Yolanda. But it didn’t work out.
—Or became friends, like you and Rick, but drifted apart over the years.
—Maybe you became great friends (like you and Bud), and stood up in her wedding, or she in yours.
—Perhaps even lifelong friends, like when you met Thérèse at the University of Minnesota.
—Or you married each other, had kids, maybe a couple of daughters. You supported them and watched as they grew into strong, bright young women. Then, 25 years later, you and Sue divorced. Hey, life happens.
You met at exactly the right time.
You realized you belonged to each other.
You grew old together.
It was kismet.
BUT. But it wasn’t.
“If you’re talking about love, you’re probably talking about something else.” My mother and father didn’t talk about love, they lived it, day-to-day. It wasn’t always easy, but they saw it through.
In my final dream of The Nest, everyone shows up at the front bar. We buy some drinks or smoke a cigarette. We know we belong.
We love by showing up for each other; we fight if it’s about things we believe in.
We pony up a couple bucks for the band and get our hand stamped. As the music starts to play, we gaze out at that empty dance floor.
Then we grab each other’s hand … and go for a dance.