Nonfiction: I Love Lucy

Read More: A brief Q&A with Stephen Akey

I’m always mystified that people quote La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, “True love is like a ghost, which everybody talks about but few have seen,” as if it wittily encapsulated some worldly, unillusioned wisdom. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Almost everybody falls in love. It doesn’t have to last forever or be glamorous or lofty or transcendent to be “true.” True love, the kind that for a greater or lesser period brings together two people and bestows on them the greatest happiness they will ever know, is as common as mud. From the Goddess Aphrodite to a love-sick schoolboy, romantic love rolls over most of humanity like so many bowling pins. This greatest of all experiences, this biggest of all events, this only rival (and ultimate loser) to death, requires no money, no credentials, no status, no prerequisites, no previous experience. Some people, it’s true, by reason of social injustice or quirks of fate or sheer bad luck, never really get to enter the fray, and no reasonable person would thereby claim that a life untouched by Eros lacks purpose or fulfillment. It may be that a life devoted primarily or exclusively to altruistic service or the pursuit of knowledge or the rearing of children provides comparable spiritual satisfactions without all the heartbreak and aggravation of romantic love. Most of us, however, will take the heartbreak and aggravation. It’s the nearest we’ll ever get to the Gods.

I met Lucy Ha Kung at the sundial in front of Low Library on the campus of Columbia University in the spring of 1980. I still can’t pass that sundial without a pang. Such are the ravages of nostalgia. She was a child and I was a child, / In that kingdom by the sea – except that we were both in our mid-twenties (I twenty-four, she twenty-five) and really should have been far more experienced than we were. But part of the charm of our love story was its comparative innocence. We were late bloomers, so that many years later, when we were breaking up, Lucy could say with a simplicity that still breaks my heart, “Stephen, we grew up together.”

I would like to say that we met as students, which is the fiction that we gave out to various acquaintances, but in fact our tenure at Columbia didn’t overlap. I had collected my master’s degree in librarianship the year before, and Lucy had begun her study towards a master’s in urban planning two months after I graduated. In reality, we met through the auspices of what was the local precursor to today’s online dating sites: a personal ad in the Village Voice. It’s hard to imagine now just how ubiquitous the Village Voice was in the lives of several generations of left-leaning, intellectually inclined, vaguely bohemian New Yorkers. I read it mainly for the rock criticism and movie reviews, but I couldn’t help peeking at the personal ads. Some were witty, touching, romantic, and sincere; others, shall we say, put their cards on the table. If you wanted to know what it was like to watch your wife have sex with another man (or woman), the Voice was the place to go.

This wasn’t my first go-around with the Village Voice classified section. A year earlier I had placed a personal ad there that got me what I had been pining for since I was thirteen: a girlfriend. If it seems odd that a slender, gainfully employed, fairly good-looking, otherwise agreeable young man on the loose in New York City should resort to personal ads for female companionship, you don’t know what shyness can do to a person – namely, harden into pathology, which is what was happening to me. I’m not going to tell that story here; I’ve told it elsewhere. But I am eternally grateful to the Village Voice and to my own uncharacteristic intrepidity for rescuing me from the male spinsterhood and gathering eccentricity that could easily have been my lot. Of course, I owe my deepest gratitude to the girlfriend who bore with me for about four months before mutual incomprehension and rooted incompatibility broke us up. I wish I had treated her better. I wish she had read the New York Review of Books rather than Cosmopolitan. I’m not going to tell that story either. But at least we opened each other up a little bit, discovered some pathos and tenderness, had some laughs and some tears. When it ended, Katie went back to her mother’s apartment in Co-Op City in the Bronx and I went back to my one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope to brood on the Meaning of Love and revert to the isolation that had already damaged me quite sufficiently. So the question isn’t what the hell was I doing placing another personal ad in the Village Voice a year later. The question is what the hell was Lucy doing answering it.

I still have the ad, “yellowing with antiquity,” as Blanche DuBois says, preserved in one of the nine volumes of diaries I kept in my nearly illegible handwriting during those years. It says:

Shy handsome WN, 24, into lit and film, sks very attractive F, 20’s w/
similar interests. Must believe in love.

How typical. Here I was, a pathologically shy nobody making less than $14,000 a year in an entry-level job as a librarian yet insisting that my nonexistent girlfriend be “very attractive.” Note also the bland assurance of my “handsomeness” – well, I was sort of handsome, if skinny, pale, poète maudit types are your dish. It turned out that my imagined dishiness did not at all correspond to the ideal held by the “very attractive” – indeed, quite beautiful – “F w/ similar interests” that I was soon to meet. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Anyway, the bit about “must believe in love” was corny but true.

I was apprehensive enough to be inordinately disconcerted by the tiny typo that the Voice typesetters had let slip: “Shy handsome WN” instead of “Shy handsome WM.” Would my “very attractive” potential girlfriends mistakenly write me off as a shy handsome white neurotic or shy handsome white nihilist or shy handsome white nut job? I had a lot riding on the accuracy of the transcription, and the fee – thirty-eight dollars for a two-week run – was a lot of money for me in those days. However, the matronly doyenne who oversaw the Voice personals operation from an office on University Place and who acted as something of a den mother to all the lonely singles and horny sadomasochists who anxiously queued up to deliver their hand-written love letters to the world, had gently reassured me when my turn had come a few weeks earlier.

“Sly, handsome white male, 24, into lit and film,” she read much too loudly as I stood at the counter before her. “Is that right so far, dear?”

“No, no,” I replied. “it’s shy, not sly. Wait a minute. Do you think sly would work better?”

She gave me a grandmotherly laugh and said, “Nah, you don’t look sly to me. Girls like shy guys.”

Though I can’t say the replies poured in, I eventually got a few intriguing responses: someone who called herself a “total woman” and hinted at a sexual willingness that sounded like the fulfillment of my most jejune fantasies; someone who was writing a musical adaptation of Sheridan’s comedy of manners The Rivals and was looking for a “special” collaborator; someone, incredibly, who had the courage to admit she was “lonely”; and an Asian (in those days “Oriental”) graduate student who said almost nothing about herself but left a coy little message on a blue index card, something like, “Does one minus one equal downhill?”

I met a few of those women and it was the usual pile-up of unexpressed disappointments so familiar to anyone conversant with and its congeners: she’s chubbier than I expected, she talks too much, she doesn’t talk enough, oh my God she likes Billie Joel. And the converse just as surely obtained: this guy is way too nervous, he looks like a wimp, oh my God he wears sneakers. So I was especially keen to meet the “Oriental” graduate student whose note had seemed so fetchingly understated and who had sounded, in the few brief times we spoke on the phone, poised and intelligent. I can’t recall that first telephone conversation. How was I to know it would change my life forever?

But it wasn’t all fetching understatement and poised intelligence. In that same note, the mysterious grad student had one apparently urgent question that she delivered with point blank directness: “Are you tall?” Well, I was five feet ten, a perfect averageness that, until then, I had never thought to be disqualifying. In her heart of hearts, I suspect that Lucy (five feet four) always regretted that I wasn’t a few inches taller. Other than that they’re great and that I love them, I have learned over the course of a long life and various romantic involvements never to make any generalizations about women. There are almost none that can’t be contradicted and even the “positive” ones can be turned inside out by people (that is, men) of ill will. So here goes the only one I’m willing to venture: women like tall men.

Nor did I find it especially fetching when I asked her in our second or third telephone conversation why she had answered my personal ad and she replied that she had always wondered about the sort of people who wrote them. She had chosen me partly to satisfy her curiosity. I would have been more insulted if I really believed her. By then we had got to know each other a bit. (Talking on the phone was easy; it’s when I met the person that I tended to screw things up.) She said that she had seen my personal ad while idly leafing through the Voice in the course of her part-time job in the sundries store or “bazaar” of International House in Morningside Heights. Although I worried about jumbling up her story with those of the other women I was meeting at the same time, I managed to get a few things straight: that she was studying in the Department of Urban Planning at Columbia; that she had grown up in the Philippines but was of Chinese ethnicity; that she had worked briefly as an architect in Manila after graduating from college there; that she had studied for a year in Toronto before coming to New York; and that she had a big family back home.

I would spend the next twenty-three years learning the details of this sketchy story. For now, I was intrigued enough to forgive her the minor insult to my pride that she had committed with the remark about her idle “curiosity.” Hey, I was nervous too. If she wanted to pretend that I hadn’t written “Must believe in love,” I readily assented; it took the pressure off. Naïve as I was, I knew that she wouldn’t have asked about my height if she were merely looking for a friend.

It pleased me that she turned out to be studying at Columbia, not because I had any love lost for that university but because it gave me a conversational opening. As I told her in our first or second phone call, “I hate that fucking place.” I didn’t, really. It’s just that my studies in the School of Library Service had been so incredibly boring that I had to blame somebody, and I preferred to blame Columbia rather than my chosen profession – or me. Also, raving about the intellectual shortcomings of Columbia University afforded me the opportunity of being impressively cynical. Such was my idea of courtship. But my theatrical contempt, which Lucy seemed to find amusing, masked something deeper. For me, coming from an extremely modest social and intellectual background (the University of Connecticut by way of Glassboro State College), getting into Columbia had been a big deal. I had put my faith in an institution, as I saw it, and the institution had failed me. Actually, Columbia taught me something that would sustain me for the rest of my life: institutions don’t matter; love does.

Although I still wasn’t clear about the languages she spoke, or why she had left the Philippines in the first place, or even if “Lucy” was her given name (it wasn’t), I knew that I had to reciprocate with a story of my own. The trouble was that, even over the telephone, her story seemed so much more interesting than mine. How could my banal suburban upbringing compare with her internationalism, her worldliness, her independence? More to the point, how could I hide the shameful, inescapable fact that I hadn’t had a girlfriend in college? So I revealed just enough to convince her that I was real, without getting into the embarrassing details: that I had grown up the son of a teacher in a divorced, middle-class family in Westport, Connecticut; that I had gone to a couple of state colleges where I had studied literature; that, not knowing what else to do with all my useless humanities classes, I had decided to become a librarian; that I had earned my MLS degree from Columbia the year before and was now working as a cataloging librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library and living in a one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope.

As it turned out, none of the things I worried about concerned Lucy in the least. She didn’t give a damn where I went to college or how much money I made or whether my profession was sufficiently elevated. Was I interesting? Was I intelligent? Was I a kind and thoughtful person?  Those were the only questions that mattered to her, in the beginning as at the end. When I look back on it, I’m amazed at how little either of us ever thought about money or clothes or real estate or the other accoutrements of success associated with the educated, urban middle class to which we belonged more or less by default. Years later, after we broke up, I was to discover to my cost that people do indeed care very much about such things.

I hadn’t met her and I was already in awe. That turned out to be a life-long pattern. Almost everyone who knew her was at least a little in awe of Lucy, partly because her breathtaking creativity was conjoined to an unaffected modesty and simplicity of manner. But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was that the other women from the Village Voice hadn’t met my expectations (nor I, it goes without saying, theirs), and that the “Oriental” graduate student, whom I was eager to meet, kept putting me off. That was understandable. She was busy with papers to write, faculty advisors to meet, presentations to prepare. I was lucky that she had agreed to a meeting at all. But she wasn’t exactly shoring up my already shaky self-confidence.

It almost ended before it began. When she finally agreed to meet me at the sundial, ground zero of the Columbia campus and the traditional rendezvous of young people with a lot more confidence than I had (or maybe just better at faking it), she probably didn’t anticipate that she would walk past me with barely a glance. Anyone with any experience of online dating will understand. You’ve been through all the motions, you’ve said and done all the right things, and at the final moment you think – Eh, do I really wanna go through with this? There will be others in the pipeline, and if he asks what happened, I can honestly say, I was there, where were you? So it was that on that sunny April Saturday at one PM in 1980, Lucy Ha Kung hurried by the sundial on the middle of the campus of Columbia University, slowed down just enough to steal a glance at me and the handful of others milling around, and prepared to move on. But I knew.

“Lucy?” I asked.

Yes, it was Lucy.

I like to think that our first meeting recalls in certain ways the one described so movingly in “At Castle Boterel,” Thomas Hardy’s lyrical commemoration of his first “date,” so to speak, with Emma Lavinia Gifford, the wife he loved so dearly in the springtime of their lives until “autumn wrought division.” That too sounds familiar:

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led –
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead
And feeling fled.

There is this difference, however, between Thomas Hardy and me: at his first meeting with the woman he was to marry, he and she climbed (up a slope in Cornwall beside a pony pulling a wagonette), whereas Lucy and I descended; that is, we walked past the main gates of the campus on 116th Street and Broadway and over to Riverside Park, which slopes down to the Hudson River, or would if the damn Henry Hudson Parkway didn’t cut it off. It’s true that “what we talked of / Matters not much” – the usual conversational filler of two people getting to know each other. What mattered was the feeling, which was one of increasing ease and naturalness as the minutes wore one. Golly, this “date” (if you could call it that) seemed to be going surprisingly well.

I do, however, remember one very specific topic we discussed once we reached the park and sat down on a grassy hill: the film Lancelot of the Lake by Robert Bresson. Was this grim exercise (not even one of Bresson’s best) in stultifying social codes and numbing violence really what Lucy wanted to hear about on a lovely spring day with the maple trees starting to bud and an acrobatic roller skater (as I remember) doing pirouettes below us on the paved walkway? If I wearied Lucy with my mansplaining – a word not yet coined but all too fitting for the occasion – she was too polite to say so. Anyway, my guileless enthusiasm for a director of genius I had just discovered was genuine and must have charmed her at least slightly. That’s what I was like in those days: burning for Art and Meaning. Lucy would gradually wean me from the pernicious habit of mansplaining. How could it be otherwise? She was smarter than I was.

Since I was keen to demonstrate that I could listen as well as pontificate, it gratified me that Lucy had a few things to say as well. Mostly she talked about her vexed relationship with a classmate of hers from northern Italy named Paola, whose aggressive Roman Catholic orthodoxy was starting to rub Lucy the wrong way – altogether a more promising topic than Lancelot of the Lake. Rather than nattering on about Existentialism in French Cinema, Lucy chose to talk about something at once intimate (the decline of a formerly close friendship) and substantive (the place of faith in an individual’s scale of values). I should have felt out of my depth, but somehow she made me feel smarter. Good God – could it be she might actually, you know, like me?

I certainly liked her. The ride back home to Brooklyn on the unairconditioned, graffiti-scarred 2 train, normally such an ordeal, passed in a flash. We spoke on the phone the next night and agreed to meet again on campus when I got off work on Thursday. Could I help it if my good looks were that irresistible? The incredible thing is that, initially, Lucy didn’t strike me as especially attractive. Here some serious contextualizing is in order.

New York City in 1980 was far removed from the world in which I had come of age. That’s why I liked it. Even as a child in white, upper class Westport in the 1960s, I used to look at the photos on the front page of the New York Times and occasionally wonder, Why is it always white men? Being highly unadventurous by nature, I stayed in my suburban comfort zone until bad grades and low S.A.T. scores brought me to the unassuming but racially mixed Glassboro State College in southwest New Jersey, where I learned this valuable lesson: black people exist. Also, being seventeen years old, this lesson: black women are beautiful. Well, that was progress of a sort.

Nevertheless, my roots in homogeneity went deep. I remember as a teenager my eldest brother telling stories of the single Japanese exchange student at his college in Pennsylvania. On one occasion the student had given my brother the gift of some exquisite rice paper. We thought that was hilarious. So yeah, I had come a long way and greatly appreciated it that here in New York, after all these years, I was finally mixing it up with people who didn’t all look or talk or think like me. But I hadn’t as yet met many Asians. All of which is to say, to my shame, that when I laid eyes on Lucy, she seemed a little too Asian. She didn’t look much like the Aryan “playmates” and “pets” (yes, that’s what they were called) I had spent way too much time ogling in Playboy and Penthouse. Far be it from me to objectify any woman sexually; but I was a little disappointed not to be able to objectify her sexually. The world, as Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing, must be peopled.

It didn’t take long for my concupiscence to rise, as it were, to the occasion. Our subsequent meeting on Thursday went swimmingly and I went home thinking, Jesus, I’ve hit the jackpot – she’s a knockout! Everything that had seemed too “foreign” to me at our first meeting – her dainty nose, full lips, plump cheeks, and dark skin – now seemed, as indeed they were, ravishing. Also, at that first meeting she had pulled her hair back into a ponytail, which brought out the sculpted planes of her broad face but made her look slightly severe. Now, for our second meeting, she had let loose her glorious silky fall – so glorious that, a few years later, when she went to a hair salon in Park Slope to have most of it cut off, she came back home looking exactly the same. They had refused to cut her hair on the grounds that it was too beautiful to touch.

On that Thursday I took her to a Greek restaurant on 113th Street, where she spoke some more about her exasperating friend Paola and I reasoned of God and Providence. Earth to Stephen: Get real – there’s a beautiful woman sharing an intimate meal with you; this is not the moment to expound on David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. And yet, as absurd as it seems, my high-minded table talk did establish certain useful commonalities. For better or worse, I was the kind of guy who did talk about David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; if she could get past that, she could get past anything. More importantly, Lucy’s talk about her friend’s grating religious and political orthodoxy and my corresponding tirades against superstition and reaction were oddly compatible. We didn’t know we were going to spend the next twenty-three years together. We did know that if we disagreed fundamentally on certain core beliefs in politics and religion and ethics, we wouldn’t have got through the next twenty-three minutes. It’s the greatest balancing act of them all – how to allow for differences of belief that foster rather than undermine a loving relationship. Occasionally you hear of church-going, free market conservatives happily married to secular, welfare state liberals. Congratulations. I don’t know how they do it.

So there we were, a couple of classically left-liberal, New York atheists. Nice to get that known. Maybe now we could go up to Lucy’s room for a cup of tea? It was she who extended the invitation. This will be hard to believe, but I had to fight the temptation to decline. The evening had gone so well; why give me a chance to ruin it? And it wasn’t just a question of my shyness. I had grown so accustomed to negation in my Bartleby-like existence that my default response to almost any invitation was a mumbled and apologetic “no thanks.” To give myself some credit, I was not unaware of this deplorable tendency. So I looked into Lucy’s lovely brown eyes, strained to catch the imprint of a nipple, and said, “Sure, I’d love a cup of tea.”

We were to have a good laugh about that later on; I can’t abide tea and hardly ever drank it again. Lucy drank all sorts of imported teas – the real stuff, from China and India. I can’t say I loved her for the tea she drank, but even that was thrillingly romantic for me. In the white-bread suburbs where I grew up, tea meant Lipton’s and you bought it at the supermarket. If falling in love was, as my readings in existentialism were then teaching me, an encounter with the Other, this was about as Other as it got: a woman from the other side of the globe, who grew up drinking real tea, worshipping ancestors at shrines, and speaking languages I couldn’t get my tongue around. And yet even I, up there in Lucy’s sixth floor dorm room in International House, had things on my mind other than existentialist concepts of the self. What, to be blunt, happened?

Nothing happened. We talked. We drank tea. We looked out her window onto leafy Claremont Avenue and the adjacent greensward. Yes, I might have let slip a golden opportunity; most men would probably think so. Why then did I feel so incredibly happy in that little dorm room with the marvelous girl perched inches away on her bed? There would be time, I fervently hoped, for the other stuff. For now, it was more than enough – it was downright intoxicating – to share an hour or two with the loveliest, the sweetest, the smartest, and by far the most interesting person I had ever met.

During the rest of the term I came up to Morningside Heights about twice a week. More tea, more walks in Riverside Park, more conversations about politics, friends, family, and the Meaning of It All. Lucy wasn’t much better at conversational superficialities than I was; within a few days we were talking about some of our most intimate hopes and fears. In fact, what we often talked about was the horror of life. It seems unfathomable that two young people, with so many advantages and so lucky to be where they were, could also be so grimly pessimistic. Partly, it was playacting. We were intellectuals – or thought we were – easily seduced by the glamor of alienation and tragedy. But a lot of it was a cover for anxiety and depression. God knows I had reason to be depressed; I was twenty-four-years old and this was the first time I had ever been taken seriously by an attractive, intellectual, and sensual woman. And Lucy had anxiety to spare: Would she stay? Would she return home? What would her parents think if she got involved with a non-Chinese man? When would she see her siblings again? Even into our mid-twenties, we’re still learning how to be adults; sometimes it feels scary out there. Hence all that mumbo jumbo Lucy and I talked about fear and trembling and the sickness unto death. Beneath it all, we were simply comforting and reassuring each other.

So serious! That’s why I called Lucy’s residence “International House of Pancakes.” I needed to prove, however feebly, that I had a sense of humor. And I needed to prove it to myself as much as to her. She had it over me in so many ways that I clung to the one small area in which she didn’t surpass me. In addition to speaking four languages (Fukienese, Mandarin, Tagalog, and English) to my one and a half (I knew a bit of Spanish), she was smarter, better educated, better looking, more sociable, more talented, worldlier. But I could make her laugh. We never competed with each other, then or later; she outclassed me so thoroughly that it wasn’t an issue. Still, somebody had to be funnier, and it was me.

Well, if a young man and woman start seeing a lot of each other over the course of a warm springtime and begin sharing certain intimacies, something pretty obvious is bound to happen: they will fall in love. And so we did, but there were obstacles to overcome, most having to do with my haplessness. I lived for those trips to Morningside Heights, for our strolls in Riverside Park, for our meals in funky diners on Broadway, for our conversations about architecture and scholarship and the presidential primaries. But I was starting to go nuts. So one evening when we were saying goodbye on Claremont Avenue, I decided to boldly risk it all.

“Lucy,” I said as we stood under the street lights and the London plane trees in the enveloping warmth of May, “can I have a kiss?”

She smiled, gave me a peck on the lips, and returned to her dorm room, apparently thinking I was the most adorable little boy she’d ever met. Not quite what I had in mind.

Coupled with my ineptitude was my sincere desire not to seem like just another creepy guy pressuring a woman into a half coerced, half consensual sexual situation she might not really want. Later, Lucy would tell me a bleak story about being on the other end of exactly that sort of situation. I would have died before exploiting a woman in that way. Very admirable, but gentlemanliness can be taken too far, and I practically drove mine off a cliff. So while I waited for an engraved invitation from Lucy reading, “Stephen: Please fuck me,” I tried to interest her in my mind. It worked all too well. She thought I had a fine if somewhat unnuanced mind, but the body attached to it seemed not to arouse her in the least.

So I tried another tack. I would be her guide to New York. After all, I had lived here a whole year longer than she; my ignorance of my adopted city was surpassed only by my passion for it. I thought she might be making the same mistake I had made when I had first moved to Morningside Heights two years earlier, namely, confusing the side show (Columbia University) with the main event (New York City). Like a lot of Columbia people, she tended to stay fairly local. What – she hadn’t been to Brooklyn Heights? Or Bleecker Street Cinema? Or the Bronx Botanic Garden? I would be her cicerone, more enthusiastic than knowledgeable, and together we would explore this crime-ridden paradise on its broken-down subway system. But first I had to ask her. I managed to screw that up too.

“Um, Lucy, you know, it’s just, well, there’s so much going on out there, and I thought maybe, you know, if you wanted I could show you some great places if you, I mean, if you . . . “

“If I wanted to see some more of the city with you? Sure, Stephen, I’d love to.”

She told me afterwards that she thought the way I had posed the question was “cute.” Yeah, that was me: cute, adorable, boyish, and wanting to get in her pants so badly I thought I would die. Fortunately, this comedy of miscommunication – entirely of my own making – would come to an end a few days later. The conversations in her dorm room had been getting, let’s say, warmer – literally so, because it had been an unusually warm spring and Lucy had switched from her standard student wardrobe of jeans and buttoned up blouses to gauzy summer frocks. The marvelous girl was wearing just such a frock one May evening when, rather than perching on her bed, she lay back on it and spoke of her dreams: that she hoped to pursue a career, perhaps in academia, perhaps in architecture, as a free and independent woman with a partner or partners who would respect that independence and at the same time provide the sort of intellectual and sexual fulfillment that made for a rounded life. If this was the engraved invitation I had been waiting for, I knew what to do with it: nothing. This time it really was shyness. I desperately hoped that Lucy might misinterpret my paralysis – my sweating palms, my tongue-tied monosyllables, my extremely uncomfortable erection that I was trying my best to conceal – as solidarity with her feminist self-determination. More likely, I had blown it all to hell. It felt like a very long ride home on the number 2 train that night.

So I was surprised when, the next night on the telephone, she immediately accepted my offer to show her around the Bronx Botanic Garden the following Monday, Memorial Day. I half expected a terminal refusal, but no, she was her usual accommodating self. Jesus, if she still liked me after that miserable non-performance the night before, I was either incredibly lucky or maybe – maybe – not such a goddamn fool after all. It’s hard to hate yourself when you’re falling in love.

We met, as usual, on campus, took the 1 train down to Fifty-ninth Street and the D train up to Bedford Park Boulevard. Hard to believe, but in those days the Bronx Botanic Garden was free and never crowded. Also, the hemlocks in the Hemlock Forest hadn’t yet succumbed to the blight of woolly adelgid. If they had, I probably would have mansplained about that too. Instead, we just walked through that lovely woodland and the native plant garden and the rock garden and the allée of tulip trees. We had reached the point where we didn’t need to talk all the time, and I remember standing on a stone bridge with Lucy at my side, looking down at the Bronx River (there is such a thing and it’s not as laughable as it sounds) and feeling a closeness and tenderness that needed no words.

We did, however, talk. A lot. That day Lucy told me that she sometimes had to struggle against despair and I said something about the necessity and dignity of the struggle. Yes, but she had to worry about things beyond my ken: Where was her homeland? What place, if any, could she find as an Asian woman in the West? How would her parents deal with the “betrayal,” as they would surely see it, if she got seriously involved with a non-Chinese man?

“You know,” I ventured, “we may get seriously involved ourselves.” […]

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Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs (College, 1996, and Library, 2002) and a collection of essays (Culture Fever, 2018), all published by Orchises Press. His essays have appeared in The New Republic, The New England Review, The Millions, and other publications.

Read More: A brief Q&A with Stephen Akey