Susan has blond hair below her shoulders, freckles on her nose and sparkly green eyes. She’s tough as hell, does pretty much what she wants and she’s not shy about being poor. Her mother’s a single social worker; her father’s a remarried preacher in Topeka, with a couple of new, perfect kids. Susan doesn’t see him much. She lives in a bit of a run-down house next to a grocery store parking lot in a dead part of Lawrence, Kansas. She loves me like a brother, and sometimes like a soul mate. More rarely like a lover.
At least that’s how she is in my mind. Up there, in that cerebrum below my gray hair, behind my wrinkled eyes (maybe crinkled, like 1990s Clint Eastwood, would be a better description), Susan lives just as she did in the 1970s, when we were close.
I was a tall, thin kid with shoulder-length chocolate hair. I wore Frye boots, blue jeans and long-sleeved chambray shirts even in the summer. (“Quit wearing long sleeves when it’s 90 degrees out,” my mother ordered me. “People are going to think you’re a heroin addict trying to hide your track marks.” Nuts, truly, I thought. And I kept wearing them. In truth, the heroin didn’t enter my life until I got to college.) Along with my two brothers, I was being raised by my mother. My father lived in another state. Susan and I had a lot in common.
Funny, but even in my 55-year-old mind, I’m still that lanky, good-looking kid. Just as Susan is still that gorgeous light-filled girl — when I think of her, I see the sun, really. I was drawn to her energy. And she’s stayed in my heart all these years, though I really have no reason to continue to think of her.
Susan always thought my family was rich as hell. In Lawrence, we’d lived on the hill, near the university, in a beautiful 1940s house my parents had bought before their marriage flamed out in a spectacularly 1970s conflagration of infidelity and alcoholism. (We’d gather around to watch the Loud family once a week on “An American Family,” for redemption — sometimes they seemed worse than us, and that was a good feeling.) From the outside, our life looked marvelous. But few people saw the police arrive late at night or, after my father left, realized my grandmother paid our mortgage with the earnings from her farm.
My mother was a social worker, just like Susan’s mother. We had many of the same issues. But I learned from Susan that when someone feels deprived in comparison to you, there’s no way to convince them otherwise.
In 1975, Susan came to visit me at Grinnell, the expensive private college I attended on a full scholarship. She arrived wearing a Sergeant Pepper’s band jacket, spouting Marxist get-an-education-on-the-street rhetoric to anyone who would listen. She said she was repelled by the luxuriousness of college life, with its Victorian dining halls, shaded loggias and lawns where students lazed, stoned, in the sun. In retrospect, I wonder if perhaps she was pissed because her parents hadn’t led her to this life, as mine had. In the end, she called me spoiled. I said goodbye. We never spoke again. I missed her from the moment she walked away.
And I’ve missed her all these years. I haven’t heard much about her, other than that she moved to a farm in Humboldt (yes, I suspect it was that kind of farm), a long walk up a dirt road where she took care of a husband and a bunch of kids.
Somehow, I doubt she’s the fresh-faced young woman that lives in my imagination. But it doesn’t matter who, or where she is now — Google and Facebook be damned. I will always have Susan in my memory. The image right now is of Susan in cut off jeans and a shirt tied at the waist, leaning against a fence. I’m lying on the grass in my Frye boots, my jeans and addict’s shirt, eating an apple. We’re happy as hell. And that’s how I’m going to keep us.