“What was your girlfriend’s name?”
Konni had been reading the newspaper when she glanced up slowly and stared at me. I could not read the look on her face.
What an odd question, I thought. Konni knew her name. In the 40-plus years we’ve been married, Konni has heard about Karen countless times. I answered anyway.
Wordlessly, Konni handed me the newspaper’s obituary section.
Karen’s name, the name of the funeral home and a brief “Complete notice later” summarized the end of Karen’s life in three sentences.
There never was a complete notice. The funeral home told me she had been buried in a pauper’s grave, attended only by her young daughter and the daughter’s guardians.
No headstone. No marker. No other survivors. No other friends.
She deserved better.
Her death unleashed a flood of memories, most of which I had buried for decades.
Softly whispering ‘I love you’
Karen and I stood waist-deep in the lake, the only two people swimming that chilly day in early autumn. Now, we were silent, clinging to each other like shipwreck survivors and kissing.
Karen started laughing and I drew back.
“What’s so funny?”
“You smell like a candy bar.”
“It’s cocoa butter. It’s like suntan lotion. It keeps you from getting sunburned,” I told her.
“I kinda doubt that,” she replied.
“Oh, and your mixture of baby oil and iodine works so much better.”
“Tell me, Dennis. Do you see sunburn here?” she asked, slipping out of my arms and flashing her bare back before diving under the water again.
I caught up with her. She spun around, kissed me and whispered “I love you.”
It was 1969, and that was the first time she ever told me that. The moment is frozen in time for me. Lyrics from a 1967 song by David and Jonathan perfectly described the moment, the mood, my time with Karen: “I can feel your warm face ever close to my lips and the scent of you invades the cool evening air, I can close my eyes and you’re there in my arms still… and I hear your voice whispering ‘I love you.’”
To paraphrase a line from Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” Karen loved her grandmother, the Beatles, life in the country, and me. I did not marry her. We did not live happily ever after. But she has had a profound effect on my life, despite the fact that I last saw her more than 40 years ago.
Some memories are faded or lost, since I have to think back to the days when my hair was not gray and most of my life stretched well ahead of me.
I have to think back to a humid summer evening in 1968 at a dimly-lit outdoor dance staged in a parking lot between a high school and a cemetery. I saw the petite blonde with her startling, hypnotic dark eyes almost as soon as I arrived. She stood out as if someone had decided to shine a spotlight on her. She seemed radiant. I thought she was beautiful.
So did my friend, who immediately asked her to dance. An attractive, dark-haired young lady saw me staring toward the pretty blonde and told me, “Her name’s Karen,” then added somewhat ruefully, “all the guys want to dance with her.”
When the song ended and my friend left Karen by herself, I immediately introduced myself and asked her to dance.
I was enchanted. Karen was a high school senior who lived in nearby Bennington. I was a high school graduate ready to attend college in September. Karen and I danced for the rest of the night.
I was smitten by this beautiful creature with those marvelous eyes. She was funny, clever and fond of trying to confuse people with cryptic statements like, “Intelligence is not to be confused with an organized mind.”
“Is that a famous saying?” I asked.
“Yes, and much quoted,” She claimed.
Well, who said it?” I pressed.
She laughed. “I did, just now. Did you forget?”
She gave me her phone number and asked me to call her. I did. We began dating. I would make the trip faithfully, often in 15 or 20 minutes, even though it normally took at least 30 minutes to travel from my home in Omaha to her modest Allen Street house if one were to follow the posted speed limits. I chose to risk a speeding ticket. Who cares about a speed limit when you’re 18 and a beautiful girl is waiting for you?
We went to movies, to dances, to her school’s homecoming, to Friday and Saturday parties. She showed me her favorite retreat, a small, isolated rural family cemetery not far from her home. She said she liked the place because it was out in the country, peaceful and serene.
“I always think of how wonderful the country is,” she confided before adding out of the blue, “When I think of how beautiful nature is, I want you to be with me. You,” she repeated for emphasis, fixing her gaze on me.
No one speaks like this in real life, I thought. How could I not fall in love with her?
A few years ago, I heard an odd and awkward quote: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to realize that this, too, was a gift.”
When I met Karen, I already had an attractive, intelligent, loving girlfriend. I was in the kind of relationship people usually reference by saying, “They belong together.” I wasn’t looking for someone new. I was at this summer dance because one of my friends was suffering through a breakup. I drove him there so he could meet someone.
He didn’t meet anyone, but I did. Karen was blonde and attractive, disarmingly charming, occasionally philosophical and wickedly funny. She had hazel eyes that seemed to change color depending on the lighting, the color of her clothing, even her eye shadow, and she had impossibly straight hair that smelled of baby powder, Heaven Sent perfume and, occasionally, cigarette smoke. She liked to write, as did I. She spoke a little German, which she had learned from her grandmother, someone she regarded with awe and deep affection. I was to learn over time that she could be both touchingly vulnerable and devastatingly cruel.
But she seemed content, when we were together, to just be together.
When I showed up for her high school commencement and for the party at her house afterwards, she simply said, “Thank you for coming to my graduation and seeing me cry.”
Later, she asked, “What’s wrong with me? I can never seem to say what I want to say to you, or to do the things I want to do with you. For some reason, when I’m with you, nothing I want to say or do seems important. I’m stupid anyway.”
Karen was not stupid. She was imaginative, sometimes argumentative, creative, impulsive, maddening, a curious mixture of bravado, sexuality and self-doubt, but never stupid.
She was an involved student. Her high school yearbook listed activities ranging from mixed chorus, girls’ glee, small groups and music contests to participation in the Merit and
Regents exam. She was an interscholastic test winner. She took independent study. She was involved with the school yearbook.
She occasionally sent me poems as well as letters. One of her poems included the lines,
“My thoughts come tumbling down in tears,
And so it seems through all my years…”
In turn, I sent her a free-verse poem filled with whatever wisdom a 19-year-old could muster.
I can remember only the lines,
“Some people walk white-caned through their lives
Not knowing the difference between
A sunset and
She said she loved it. She said she loved everything I wrote and everything I did and told me, “You should be a writer.” My dismissive answer was, “I have to work for a living.”
She shot me a look with those extraordinarily-expressive eyes that suggested I was a complete idiot and said quietly, “Some people make a living writing, and I believe it’s important for people to do what they love.”
I thought about it. Later, I changed my major from “teaching” to “communications” and decided I would become a writer.
Karen had that effect on some people. I was one of those people.
‘Cupid’s wings are not adapted for long range flights’
Karen didn’t seem to care about material things, and never talked about money. I assumed her family came from modest circumstances. The dress she wore to the homecoming dance had seen better days and had a rip under one sleeve, but she moved in ways that masked the tear and conducted herself in such a way that no one noticed.
She seemed to accept people as they were. I never heard her criticize anyone for the kinds of cars they drove, the jobs they held or whether or not they had money. When I had a few dollars, we would go to a restaurant for a dinner or to a movie theater to see popular films of the day. She was not terribly fond of “Yellow Submarine” but loved “Romeo and Juliet.”
When money was an issue, we would spend an afternoon or evening at her house, retreating to her bedroom to talk, or kiss, or dance. We might lie wordlessly in her bed, arms around each other, listening to “I Will” by The Beatles or to the “Abbey Road” album.
It really didn’t seem to matter what we did or where we went. She seemed happy to be with me.
Over the years, some people suggested she was a coquette, toying with men without real feelings of affection. Maybe that was true. I don’t know and I don’t care. Truth is, I refused to believe it then or now, because this is a young woman with whom I fell deeply and madly in love.
She found it difficult to believe I would be willing to drive to her small town as often as I did, simply to see her. She once assured me I would become bored with her, quoting James Bossard to back her claim: “Cupid may have wings, but apparently they are not adapted for long flights.”
My response was to cut my college classes a few days later to show up at her high school. I told her principal that Karen was a friend of mine, I was planning to become a teacher and Karen had, in the interests of higher education, convinced me to tour the school. He gave me the tour. Karen managed to conceal her surprise when I showed up in her classroom, accompanied by her principal, but later acted as if my visit was not just a masterstroke of brilliance but also the equivalent of an expensive gift. I still have a letter she mailed to me, scripted in her impeccable penmanship:
“Dennis, I was just thinking about you and how much you mean to me. And then I thought of how beautiful you are to me, and I started to cry. And when I cried, I realized that I think I love you. And I wondered why you would ever like something like me. You’re beautiful and I love you. I think of your eyes and your face, and I know this. And I want to know you for a long, long time. Karen.”
‘Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you’
She could be charming and loving, but she also could turn inward, becoming distant and guarded, occasionally offering hints of deep insecurities and a disturbing childhood. She spoke of a mother who died just before giving her life. She once alluded to a father who had never been around, and of whom she would never speak. She told me the people I assumed were her parents were really her aunt and uncle, and that her sister was in reality her cousin. Most of the time, it seemed to me, Karen was alone. Perhaps it was by design, but she always seemed to be alone, and one song she was particularly fond of was “Lady Samantha” by Three Dog Night, with lyrics like “Lady Samantha glides like a tiger over the hills with no one beside her.”
She had mastered the art of hiding her feelings. I introduced her to my visiting grandmother one evening, just before Karen and I went out. Karen was polite, respectful and thrilled to meet my family, but as we left, my grandmother announced loudly, “I liked your other girlfriend better.”
I was mortified, but Karen looked for a split second as if she’d been stabbed. She regained her composure and we went on our way, but it was clear to me she was deeply hurt and felt unfairly judged. It was obvious her pain was deep and abiding.
She never brought it up again. I never forgot it.
To describe our relationship as tumultuous would be kind. It was volatile, volcanic, explosive, with stretches of love, caring and intimacy punctuated regularly by angry outbursts, betrayals and sullen silences.
We broke up once after an afternoon of arguments and recriminations that began at her house, crossed the street to her best friend’s home and ended only after I slammed the door and drove home, leaving her silent and curled in a fetal position on her friend’s couch. As usual, the argument was about love, commitment and sex.
“Get ready, because I’m about to sock it to ya,” she began, using a common phrase of the day. “How do you feel about me?”
“That’s my question,” I countered. “Every time we go out, we’re 10 minutes into our date and you’re telling me about some guy you had sex with. Then you tell me how bad you feel about it.”
“I know you’ve got plenty of girls on your list besides me,” Karen pointed out.
“I know. We’re not exclusive. But my point is, you do whatever the hell you want, just don’t tell me about it every time we go out. I don’t want to know about it. When we’re on a date, it’s my time.”
I was angry. So was she.
“Don’t pretend to care if you don’t, unless you want me for an enemy,” she said.
I was running out of argument, but added for good measure, “And I’m sick of hearing about your old boyfriend Bill.”
“What Bill and I had was only cheap physical stuff, for him and for me. I’ve forgotten about Bill now.”
A few days after the argument, she sent me a conciliatory letter, conceding she had indeed been evasive and insensitive and agreeing that “communication is so important.”
“We’ve got to beat this thing!” she wrote. “Hit me, yell at me or something! That’s what I want ya to do!” She quickly reconsidered, “Oh. Wow. I wouldn’t really want ya to hit me or yell at me.”
We got back together. At first, she announced, “I’ve come to quite a few decisions about guys. I don’t trust any boy anymore.”
Later she told me, cryptically, “I can live again, now.”
“I don’t understand. What’s that mean?” I asked.
Her answer: “I could never be myself with you before because I never wanted you to know me before. I like you and I’m not going to put on any acts with you anymore.”
‘When you’re young and in love’
“How did you do this? Isn’t this a new shirt?” Karen asked, tracing the burn hole on the back of my shirt with her finger as we sat on her bed.
“Yeah, the shirt’s new. So is the burn hole. How it happened is kind of embarrassing,” I replied. On the way to her house to see her on this picture-perfect day, I decided to put the top down on my newly-acquired, fire-engine red, ‘62 Chevrolet convertible. The sun was out, Jimi Hendrix was on the radio singing about a purple haze and I was in love. I absent-mindedly flicked my cigarette. The entire hot ash, carried by the breeze, flew off the cigarette and out of the car, then flew back in, going down my shirt and melting a dime-sized hole in the new polyester pullover before the searing pain got my attention.
“Oh, my poor Dennis,” she said before giggling. “It serves you right. You don’t throw a lit cigarette out of a car.”
“I didn’t…” I began, but she interrupted with, “Here, let me make it better,” lifting my shirt and kissing the minor burn on my back. I stopped talking.
Karen had enrolled at the same university I attended, so we now met almost every day. We knew each other’s schedules, walked with each other between classes, ate Cheese Frenchies after school at a nearby diner.
My school attire usually consisted of jeans, moccasins and tie-dyed shirts. Her outfits included peasant dresses. We were a couple of Woodstock wannabees. She was gorgeous and I was with her.
I joked for years that, when Karen and I walked by, I actually could hear other guys gritting their teeth. I would have wagered they were asking each other, “What does a beautiful girl like that see in a guy like him?”
She brought her quick wit to college, attracting admirers as we sat in the student center, trading opinions and witticisms over coffee and doughnuts with our group of friends. In my more pretentious moments, I fancied our group as a collegiate version of the Algonquin Round Table. I felt confident Karen could easily fit the role of the clever, quick-witted Dorothy Parker, while I would be Robert Benchley.
Karen sat next to me one day, a half-smile playing on her face, as one earnest young man tried to impress everyone with his opinions on life, death and everything in between. I thought he was an ass, and clearly involved in a transparent attempt to impress Karen. He ended his verbal assault with a dramatic flourish, reminding her and everyone within earshot that, “Someday we will all die.”
Her response came quickly: “And on all our other days, we will not.”
Her half-smile remained as he got up and left the table, angry that she drew chuckles from the rest of the group. She turned to me and whispered just loud enough for me to hear, “So there.” I laughed. Now we were both smiling.
As my feelings for Karen grew deeper, she seemed to become more serious and more vulnerable.
“A certain part of me will always be a child,” she admitted once. “I can feel it when I cry, because child-like thoughts enter my mind when I cry.”
“But we’re human. We both protect ourselves and we both keep our feelings hidden,” I told her. Then, she surprised me.
“This is my idea of God. He is so sweet, so eternally wonderful. And this is how you are to me. I love you. I think of your eyes and your face and I know this. I could never fully describe the way I feel about you. It’s too deep.” She paused and added, “Now do you know how I feel about you?”
Her dark eyes smoldered. “Dennis, I mean what I say.”
‘Are we out of the woods yet?’
The hill glistened with several inches of snow, it literally glistened, and Karen smiled.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
We had decided to cut classes to come to this park. We brought a sled and I brought a flask of Phillips Sno Shoe Grog, a concoction of brandy and peppermint schnapps purchased, despite the fact we were both under age, to keep us warm.
“You’re trying to corrupt me. I’m innocent,” she chirped, giving me a smile and a wide-eyed look she liked to use on me to stop my heart. We were both shivering, both chilled to the bone but we were both laughing as we warmed our hands and fingertips on each other’s bodies. We really weren’t interested in sledding, but it gave us a reason to be close to each other, to laugh, to do something childish together.
The sled remained unused as we sat in the car, sipping the alcohol and chatting about nothing. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen her unguarded and happy. I wondered why she liked me so much. I knew I loved her and I knew I could never let her go.
I decided just before Christmas that I would ask her to marry me. I was still seeing the attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend who planned to become a teacher, but I was no longer certain she and I belonged together. Karen had, little by little, changed my viewpoint on everything from politics and religion to sex and life. In short, she had changed everything I felt, everything I thought and everything I believed. I now believed Karen needed me and wanted me. I felt the same way about her. I would defend and protect her with my life.
I decided I would propose to Karen after a Christmas-break party that would close out 1969 and greet the New Year 1970.
Karen was, as usual, stunning. I was cheerful and nervously guarded my secret plan to ask her to marry me. At some point during the party, Karen disappeared. Perplexed, I approached the party’s hostess, a friend who broke into tears and confessed Karen had slipped away from the party with the hostess’ brother.
Where did she go? Why did she go? Why would she do that? I had questions. No one had answers.
Weren’t we together? I asked myself. The only answer seemed to be – I guess not.
Enraged, devastated, confused, I finally realized we had a problem. More specifically, I had a problem. With Karen, there would always be one more betrayal, one more confession, one more argument, one more round of recriminations, one more request for forgiveness. The realization stung, and it cut like a knife. Karen might love me, but she could not help herself.
I made up my mind that evening in the three hours I waited, humiliated and angry, for her return.
“I brought her here and I will take her home,” I told the hostess. “But I will not be played for a fool.”
When Karen and the hostess’ brother returned, I was calm but seething as I dealt with my internal emotional firestorm.
“Man, I’m sorry,” the brother told me. “I didn’t know she was with anyone.”
“I know you didn’t,” I replied. I knew Karen well enough to believe him.
“I’m sorry,” Karen said, beginning her explanation. “He has an apartment. I wanted to see it. Then we started playing pool at his apartment…”
“Save it. I don’t want to hear it,” I interrupted.
We went to the car.
“Here’s what I don’t understand…” I began, and Karen cut me off with, “Save it. I don’t want to hear it.”
We rode in silence. I dropped her off at her house and kissed her goodbye for the last time.
I saw her a few times at school. We would not speak to each other and she would never meet my gaze. She began dating Gary. I began dating Konni. A few months later, Karen lost track of Gary and I lost track of Karen.
But Karen’s influence remained. I broke up with my attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend. She eventually married someone else. Konni and I got married and left town. I became a writer.
Years later, I finally admitted to myself and to everyone else that I never did stop loving Karen. The feelings of betrayal were replaced with a sense of sadness and, surprisingly, gratitude. I decided, “Even though we could not be together in the end, I’m glad you were a part of my life.”
What changed? I did. It took a few years, but it finally occurred to me that Karen and I were very much alike.
Remember the attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend who married someone else, the young woman relegated to a bit part in this little theater of pain? She loved me and was rewarded with a sudden, agonizing and unexpected betrayal – a breakup — by the guy she thought loved her. Really, how is that different from what happened between Karen and me? It isn’t.
I know I never meant to hurt that young girlfriend, but through the deceit, thoughtlessness and evasions of the 20-year-old me, I did. I came to the conclusion that a troubled 19-year-old Karen similarly never intended to be hurtful.
That’s why I reached a point in which I fervently hoped Karen had finally resolved her demons, found the life she was looking for and was living happily ever after.
Will you lay with me in a field of stone?
A few months after my father died, I had a dream in which he approached me with a big grin and announced, “Guess who I ran into?” A youthful, smiling Karen suddenly appeared with him.
“We’re going to a party,” Karen said. I walked with her toward a brightly-lit mansion, making small talk. She was happy to see me, but stopped me at the door, looking genuinely sad.
“You can’t come in,” she said, but added impishly, “Everyone will think you’re my grandfather.”
A few days after the dream, I learned she had died.
I found it devastating to stand at her unmarked grave. No headstone. No apparent survivors other than her daughter. No other friends. As alone in death as she seemed to believe she had been in life.
Karen, I never told you this. I wish I had. Consider this my apology: I actually did care about you. I forgave you over and over again and stuck around when everyone thought I should leave. I loved you even when you gave me every reason not to. I tried to be there for you and when I finally let you go, I let you go with love.
After her death, all I could ever learn was that Karen was married for a short time, but something happened. She had been sick and lost custody of her child. Investigators believed Karen had been dead for a few weeks before anyone noticed.
I found a few of her letters, a few of her poems, her high-school commencement program and a couple of her photos. I gave them to someone who would make sure Karen’s daughter received them. That young girl needed to know that her mother was creative, smart, often sensitive, and — forever in my mind — a wonderful creature.
I met a psychic a few years ago who told me Karen “wants you to know she’s happy now.” The psychic described a radiant young blonde with impossibly straight hair and startling dark eyes who was dancing in the light. I accept that, perhaps because I want to believe it.
Konni and I decided we would get Karen a headstone if no one else would. Eventually, someone did.
It reads, “In loving memory.”
Dennis Friend has been a reporter since 1976. He has been writing poems and short fiction for his own enjoyment since high school. “Smolder” is the first time he has written a true story from his own life.