She told me she thought her parents had been smoking pot when they named her. “Swan” was her given name and there really isn’t a nickname to derive from that one is there? Her middle name was Mary and that wasn’t so bad after all. When she started college that was the name that she took as what people would call her. When we first met we got into a conversation about names and mine has always been a long story. I didn’t realize it at the time and neither did Swan, but as we were sipping wine at the party her husband was having an affair with a friend of hers in the apartment across the hallway. But the discovery of that event was going to take another six months and it was another year before I saw Swan. A year later she was divorced and much different person than the one I had met.
If I could write a letter to my younger self and send it back in time and I had only two words I could write I would send, “Avoid redheads” and hope like hell it took. Most of my adult life has spent pursuing this species and it has always ended poorly for me. I actually married one of them back in the late nineties and then dated one less than a year after the divorce. I think we’re done here.
Swan was a true redhead, one of those who go down the check list of everything that you’ve heard about them that you’ve ever really believed (or hoped and dreamed) could be true. The second time we met was at another party and this time she was embittered and snarky. The divorce had been messy and it had been very painful. Her husband had gotten the other woman pregnant, an event he and Swan had been trying to do but the other woman beat her to it. It’s as if her husband’s need to procreate was so intense that any womb would have done, and Swan felt as if she had been used and discarded. Worse, deep down inside, she felt relieved.
Swan had been one of those straight A students who was a cheerleader and president of half a dozen clubs in High School. She was loved by teachers and ten years after her graduation she still liked to read what they had written in her yearbooks over her yeas in school. I coaxed it out of her once she mentioned it to me, made her drag it out, because it gave her a warm fuzzy feeling to read those things out loud. Her ninth grade English teacher and told her to follow her dreams and signed it with a flourish. More than anything else, she wanted to write something like that to one of her students, one day. That’s one of the reasons she became a teacher. But her marriage and her career had mirrored one another and the students she taught today were not the students of her youth. The ideal of marriage surrendered to the reality of divorce. The reality of students of today destroyed the student she once was. Swan was a woman whose life had cast her adrift.
Of course, when Swan was in school she knew of those students who did not care, would not care, could not care and could not be taught. But there was always a core of bright and energetic young people, and she was one of them, who yearned for knowledge. Her students were a surly mob of distracted lumps and each day drove a nail into the coffin of hope.
“You know what really disappointed me, Mike?” she asked me one night, in the darkness and through a haze of wine and lust, “Sex.”
“Thanks a lot” I replied.
“No, not tonight, I mean to begin with, sex was the first thing that really disappointed me in High School. I mean, you get kicked in the head with all these hormones and you get turned inside out by a flood of emotions and you try like hell to keep your jeans on and it’s like everyone on earth is doing it and loving it but you. Then you finally pull the trigger and it’s painful and over with in less than a minute and you’re stuck with a boyfriend who thinks it was the greatest thing ever and can’t stop asking for it. Then you break up with him because it’s embarrassing as hell just to be around him anymore but your body won’t stop wondering if there is something more out there. You can’t put a muzzle on it. You can’t stop wanting it. And no matter who you are or what you want to be, you’re going to fail at controlling your body” Those may not be her exact words but I remember how she sounded when she spoke them; she sounded like a red head.
She went from a small town to a large University out of state and discovered sex. She got on the Pill, kept her grades up, kept her pants up, and tried like hell not to fall into the trap of casual sex with strangers. She did everything right, met the right guy, she thought, graduated with honors, got a degree, went for her masters, got it, got married, did the Suzie Homemaker thing, and caught her husband banging some woman that was ten years younger than she was. Hell, the girl was barely twenty years old and worked in a doughnut shop. She and Swan were workout buddies at the gym and Swan had introduced them. Swan considered the younger woman to be like a kid sister. Her husband, clearly, had other ideas.
We got drunk one night, really drunk, and we had thrown a small party. Things went really well. Great conversations and great ideas were shared. But we did drink too much. After everyone had left we kissed. And then Swan pushed me away from her and held her arm out. “Do you want me to teach you how to cheat on a woman?” she asked. I thought she was joking but she stood up very straight and said, “When you get caught with your pants down and your wife is screaming at you, look at her and tell her the other woman would do things for you that your wife wouldn’t.” Swan leaned up against the wall and looked down at her shoes. “From that point on it isn’t about what you’ve done to her but about what she didn’t do for you.” That was the first time I saw her cry.
Her parents were fairly old when they got into the baby making business. Her father was nearly fifty when she was born and her mother was forty-three. She was five when her brother was born so they grew up with parents who were old enough to be grandparents. Her brother, Ray, was her first student and she could tell from the beginning Ray wasn’t going to love education as she had. He didn’t learn to read until he was seven and she had learned at four. He was a miserable student at school and more than once she thanked God she was long gone from High School before he arrived. Ray seemed to revel in the red neck culture as much as Swan did the intellectual one.
Before I met Ray, Swan warned me never to loan him money and not to tell him where I lived. Ray liked to drop in on people and stay until they ate then invited himself over for dinner. He would usually leave his wife and two kids at home when he did this but it was never a given. Swan also told me never to tell Ray where we were planning to eat if we went out because he had been known to show up at the restaurant and invite himself out to eat with her and whoever she was with. Ray was unemployed, had spent too much time in jail to think about the military, and was belligerently insistent that his point of view on every subject was the only one to be considered. As profane as he was ignorant, Ray put a lot of effort into being as antisocial as he possible could, yet depended on Swan and her aging parents for everything. His big thing was to “borra” something, anything, whatever he could put his hands on he said, “Ima gonna borra this” and whoever owned it would never see it again. He dropped by on date nights to “borra” money because he knew we would pay him to leave. He had borra-ed things from stores and from other people’s houses and that was called theft and burglary. When asked about the charges Ray would claim, “I done got sat up” and tell us that the cops were just out to get him. His wife, Brenda, who was actually married to someone else, was always pulled along by Ray and she rarely spoke. She looked battered and bruised, emotionally and physically. Brenda and the kids learned early that Ray wasn’t as likely to hit someone who didn’t speak. I don’t think I ever heard her say three words in front of him.
He came by one night and I promptly told him we were going to Red Lobster on Friday night. Swan was in the other room so Ray suspected as long as Swan didn’t know that he knew, a free meal was in order. I knew as long as she didn’t know he knew, I could steer her away from the place and Friday night I abruptly changed our plans.
Friday night, Ray took Brenda and their two kids, who were someone else’s kids, to Red Lobster and proceeded to feast. After waiting for us to show up and pay the bill he started calling Swan’s phone but I had already turned it off. Another hour passed by and management let him know he had to pay up and leave. By that time Ray had swilled down more than a few drinks. He tried to get Brenda and kids to leave with him as quickly as possible and they made it out of the door. But he pulled out into traffic and hit another car. Ray picked up a DUI, a theft charge, a no proof of insurance charge, having kids out of their car seats charge, and a charge of reckless driving. The other driver claimed injury so the charge was upped to a felony.
Meanwhile, as the night had progressed with Swan and myself, I had totally forgotten about Ray. After dinner we went to my place and drank wine. We watched some movie on a DHS tape and when it was over she checked her phone as the tape rewound. There were a dozen messages from Ray, each one more excitable and more intensely angry than the next. At first there were, “Where are you?” messages, followed by, “get your ass down here now” messages to “ima in jail come get me” messages but there was only two of those.
Swan told me the first time she lied to the police for Ray had been when he was still in grade school. After that, he expected it. Most of the crimes he committed were minor, petty, just irritating crimes, but the DUI’s were expensive. We had both been drinking and I told her flat out I wasn’t about to drive to go get a drunk out of jail. Swan took a deep breath and told me she wasn’t either and we went to bed on that note. It was the first time she had left Ray in jail in his entire life. The next morning I got to Swan’s phone before she got up and they had evidently let Ray have access to a phone. He left a profanity laced message damning Swan for letting him “rot in jail” and promised to kill her when he got out. I deleted the message and when I turned around Swan was standing behind me. She had heard enough of the message to have gotten the gist of it. I don’t know if I ever left a look like that on a red head’s face but I assume because I am still alive…
Most people never think about having to walk from somewhere to somewhere else because there just isn’t anyone to give them a ride or any way to get a ride, and honestly, neither Swan nor myself thought about what had happened to Brenda and the kids that night. We didn’t know Brenda and the kids were with him. We had no idea the car had been disabled entirely and we had no idea that the cops, having found some pot on Ray, raided their trailer and found a Charlie Brown Christmas looking pot plant, but a pot plant nevertheless. Brenda and the kids had to walk back to that trailer and once they got there found it had been raided. The cops also found some of the “borra-ed” items and they had probable cause to issue another search warrant. Brenda and the kids walked to a friend’s trailer on the other side of town. The next morning they walked to Swan’s apartment and asked for a ride to Albany Georgia, where her parents lived. Brenda was bailing on Ray and Swan couldn’t blame her.
One the way to Albany Brenda and the two kids were deadly silent. I could hear them breathe over the road noise. No one spoke, no one tried to engage in small talk and it was one of the longest two hours drives of my life. Everything they were taking with them was stuffed in three brown paper bags. Brenda’s parents lived in a vast sprawling trailer park where one tiny trailer was parked within spitting distance of the next which was jammed up against its neighbor. This was the middle of Summer and no one was outside. The heat coming off the beaten ground was enough to cook feet or flesh. It was as if this was a slum outside of Hell itself and the residents were those with reservations.
Brenda’s parents were less than enthused when we arrived. They hadn’t known she was coming and her father flatly refused to open the door. She and the two kids stood on the tiny porch which was made of dying plywood and Brenda begged to be taken in. The kids, their broken spirits accustomed to rejection and deprivation, sat down on the porch and waited to see if they would live with someone who didn’t want them or live somewhere they didn’t not want to be, or both.
Swan sat in the passenger seat and didn’t speak, didn’t look at the unfolding scene and she didn’t look at me. The drama on the porch went on and on and finally the door opened and the three went inside so Swan told me, “Okay, let’s go” and so I backed the car up and we left. Neither of us looked back and I fought against the urge to check the rear view mirror as we tried to find an exit in the maze of trailers. There were trailer cul de sacs and trailer dead ends. There were cars blocking the already narrow lanes and no signs or indications of direction. We finally followed a car that seemed to be driving fast enough to be heading towards an exit and we escaped.
We didn’t speak on the way back either. Swan didn’t tell me to or tell me not to, but we pulled into a liquor store and I bought a bottle of tequila. We went back to my place and she went into the bedroom, locked the door behind her, and I didn’t see her again for an hour or so.
“Judge refused to grant bail,” she said when she came out, “Ray took the money I gave him last time and blew it other than paying his fine. They revoked his probation six months ago.”
“Wow,” I said and what else was there to say?
Swan took a shot glass out of the cabinet and fished a lime out of the refrigerator. This was my kind of drinking but it wasn’t her kind of drinking. She wasn’t the type to do shots at all and I decided after the fourth or fifth one, I would try to lead her into the bedroom before she wound up in the bathroom. It finally worked after the sixth shot and amazingly, Swan was still coherent, kinda.
There isn’t a human emotion that can’t be used to ignite passion. Grief, sadness, and even pure anger can transmogrified into great sex, or at least sex better than whatever it is that is being felt before sex. Swan’s current state was a very potent mixture of guilt, fury, powerlessness, helplessness, and somewhere in all if it, a sense of relief. She wanted release, distraction, but most of all to lose herself in a moment that could, and would, consume her in a fire she demanded burn in total everything that was trapped inside her mind and body. The alcohol released her from her inhibitions and everything that had happened in the last two days flayed her forward, onward, and she used every ounce of her being to goad me into being the vessel that would transport her to another state of mind. There wasn’t anything faked or forced about what she was feeling at all, no, in point of fact, she had surrendered completely to it.
In the very small hours of the morning Swan lay underneath me and I could feel her pulse pounding inside of her body. Her heartbeat hammered away in her veins and we both could all but hear it. The night had come and gone and dawn was closer to us than midnight, but she would not, or could not, sleep. We had talked, not talked, played passionately, and been very serious during the time we were normally asleep. But somehow I knew that the end of the night was drawing very near.
“That’s what I wouldn’t do with him,” Swan said suddenly, “what we just did. I wouldn’t do that with him.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Wait, that’s the first time you’ve done that?”
“Yeah, it is.” She sat up. “He was always pushing me to do something different, always wanting more than I wanted to give right then. I felt like every night was a different conquest and it wasn’t about doing it with me it was about talking me into it. I hated that about him. I hated that about us. I hated me for not being able to enjoy anything with him.” She sat up and hugged her knees close to her, “Men would get a lot more by asking a lot less, you know.”
She got up and went into the bathroom and I heard the shower running. I tried to stay awake but it was very hard to concentrate. It had been a long day and a long night. We hadn’t eaten since noon yesterday. The fog in my mind rolled in and when I woke up, Swan was already gone.
There was a bond between that woman and I. She had cast off a husband, a brother, his extended and weird family, and all there was left was me. But one day she got an email asking her to interview for a job in Virginia, a good school, a private school, and she called them to ask when. We both knew if she was hired I couldn’t go with her. Whatever else we were, we weren’t close enough to one another to live together. She got out of bed one morning and Swan flew away forever.
I saw her ex, of all people, a few days ago and for some reason he remembered me. I asked him how she was doing and apparently she found love and happiness and a couple of kids. I wanted to know more, to ask more, but a very young woman came and tugged on his arm, and I assumed it was his daughter, that daughter, yes, or perhaps, another conquest.
I’ll always wonder if Swan got to write her yearbook note and I hope it was as beautiful as she had dreamed.