S.W.A.K: Sealed with a kiss
A 24-hour train trip is not what one thinks of when one thinks of romance. That turned out to be correct, but I was fooled for a while. I met a beauty from Brooklyn on an interminable train ride from Miami to New York during spring break. And like many a budding romance story from Brooklyn a grandma was involved (it’s sort of the Brooklyn side of the standard fixin’s of a country and western song.)
We were rumbling along, probably close to the Georgia line. I got up to stretch and walked to the back of the car, pulling open the door to the little walkway to the next car. I stepped out to get a breath of air and noticed that the air had gone from warm and wet to chilly and crisp. The north was in our headlights.
As I returned to the car, a voice called out. “You must be lonesome, riding all my yourself.” The voice and it’s not-too-dulcet intonation had Brooklyn stamped all over it. “Come, be by us.” It was as much of an order as it was an invitation. I looked ahead to see a head peeking over the top of the seat. It was turned towards me. There was another head with it. All I could see was the color and style. I knew immediately this was not another grandmother. I got to their seat to find that grandma’s companion was a pretty, nice-looking grand-daughter at that age where it was hard to tell if she was 13,15, 16. She also looked like she was trying to disappear into the seat as grandma said, “Sit down. This is my grand-daughter Cynthia. You can keep each other company.
As soon as she bade us to communicate, she started peppering me with questions. I got the feeling it was sort of a test. The test had two rationales. One was to see if my answers amounted to a person she’d want dating her granddaughter. The other was the hope that something would flip a switch in Cynthia to get her motor revved and running. “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are you headed? What school do you attend? George Washington University. You don’t say. What are you studying? Do your parents live in Brooklyn? What does your father do? (In those days one was rarely asked what one’s mother did because mothers didn’t do much besides stay home and be mothers.). Had I the opportunity, I would have returned the volley with my own, but between fielding the questions and answering them, it was hard to get my own edgewise. In the brief breaths between questions, there was of course the offer of snacks. What grandma travels without snacks?
Out of that pinata of questions fell only one that Cynthia seemed interested in. That was college. I recalled the many objects of my affection in high school who by their junior and senior years were pinned or lavaliered to “college men” though I never really understood the difference. Stages of going with someone, I guessed. The “man” in “college man” is certainly open to interpretation. It meant “not in high school.” Here was junior in high school Cynthia having her eyes opened to the possibilities now that she saw me as a college man. Came her own torrent of questions. The apple falls not far from the tree, even if the tree is a generation removed.
Twenty-four hours of rumbling and rolling is a long time. Conversation waned. Naps were taken, the dining car was visited. Other than a book, which I didn’t have, a train offered few diversions. No cell phones, no I-Pads, no laptops. ‘hard to imagine. Eventually we were in New Jersey with New York on the horizon. ‘time to gather belongings. For sure, we weren’t going to disembark before grandma produced some paper and a pen for the exchanging of addresses and phone numbers. Off into the crowds and daylight, legs slightly rubbery, we went our separate ways armed however with each other’s contact information.
I passed the remaining days of break with my folks and headed back to school. I had a heavy Monday morning load of classes, barely enough time to wolf down a sandwich, get back to the room for whatever I needed for afternoon lab, and had no time to check the mailbox ‘til mid-afternoon.
Remember how in cartoons or comics the artists displayed scents, good or bad? They were squiggly lines emanating from wherever they came. That’s what I saw when I approached my mailbox. Through the grated pattern on its door came the odor of perfume, a lot of perfume, thick perfume. My dormmates were heavy into razzing me, waiting to see what would escape from the box. It was a letter that had been bathed in a perfume I had never smelled. My mother was a Channel #5 girl. Her perfume scent weighed a lot less than what the envelope was offering. I flipped it over to unsheathe the letter, which I presumed was choking to death inside the envelope. As I flipped it over, I was met with the letters S.W.A.K. (sealed with a kiss) written in lipstick beneath which were her lip prints from her having kissed the envelope. Never had I received a letter like that even though those were the days of letter-writing and I received lots of letters from girls. After the initial rush and the ego-build of razzing back the hooters and hollers with my intimations of lasciviousness, I soon decided I never wanted another one like that either. I couldn’t even take the letter to my room without it shortly making the room smell like a perfume counter in a department store. I yanked open the windows.
The content of the letter was written in large, lettered handwriting. It was newsy and contained the hope that I would write back and that we could get together on my next break.
Hmmmmm. I wrote back.
That spurred a weekly cloud of perfume in my mailbox, all sealed with her kiss. Those lips were not so apparent to me on the train. They began to look nice and full and spur fantasies. I told her when I’d be home and suggested we get together. As I waved away the perfume from her reply, I was told “Grandma would love to see you again. Why don’t you come over to the apartment and we’ll have a pic-nic.
Hmmmm again. But different this time. I was no longer an apartment dweller; I lived in a three-story private house on a dead-end street. She lived in a part of Brooklyn where the landscape was row after row of red-brick apartment houses. Where we would have a pic-nic, I could not fathom.
I took the bus and walked the rest of the way, not because the bus didn’t stop in front of her place, but because I wanted to calm myself down. As I arrived, there was the greeting committee, Cynthia and Grandma. Her lips looked luscious—Cynthia’s that is. The pic-nic? Three folding chairs and a snack table in front of the building with eau de auto exhaust mingling with her perfume. As I mentioned in my book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” (Amazon.com) these were the kinds of apartment buildings where people, mostly old, sat out front on the sidewalk. They were not my mother’s “kind of people.” The conversation we had didn’t rise much further than the content of her letters. She was 16 and not going on 18. There was no there there. It was our last date for 40 years.
Life has some strange twists to it. The new timeline finds me in south Florida. My wife’s girlfriend invited us over for drinks with her and her husband and her husband’s brother, a prominent surgeon. I had this “something” itching at me, and I couldn’t quite find the right place to scratch it. Then from me exploded an OMG!!. “You’re the Cynthia from the train! At first she had no idea what I was talking about. Then she added her own OMG. The light had dawned. We chatted and told our stories. Her husband had no interest, jealous he was. Her lips were still nice. It’s been twenty some more years. I never saw them again.
Gotta love Brooklyn.
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